I just got back from a Spring Break cruise with my family, on the Norwegian Star, sailing from Tampa to the Western Caribbean ports of Roatan (Honduras), Belize City, Costa Maya (Mexico) and Cozumel. This was our first time in a suite, my first time taking advantage of NCL’s popular “Feel Free” promotion, and my first visit to Honduras/Belize, so I’m eager to share some impressions.
We all flew into Tampa separately on Saturday, as the kids were coming from their college campuses in Virginia and Vermont. I had arranged that we’d all meet up at the Tampa Airport Marriott for a one-night pre-cruise stay, and that worked out perfectly! The airport itself is big, modern, and easy to navigate, and the hotel is connected to the main terminal (a five-minute walk from baggage claim). The room was spacious — two queen beds and a rollaway and plenty of room to walk around. We had dinner at Friday’s (right in the airport) and breakfast at the hotel the next morning before we headed out. We strolled out of the airport at about noon on Sunday and just grabbed a cab ($25) to the pier. Would definitely stay there again!
The Suite Life
Lines were minimal at noon and, as suite guests, we got the VIP treatment. We waited for about five minutes in a dedicated check in line and then they walked us over to a VIP area, where a butler gave us all our paperwork, offered us some cool drinks, walked us onboard, and escorted us to a special lunch at Cagneys (the steakhouse). Quite the first impression!
After lunch, we went to check out our Two Bedroom Family Suite, and found champagne and canapés waiting for us 🙂 Our butler stopped by to introduce herself and to let us know how to contact her if we needed anything. She showed us how to work the nespresso machine and gave us a list of DVDs we could request (the suite had three separate TVs with DVD players).
The suite itself was gorgeous. Lots of teak and mirrors, and very “yachty” feeling. There was an entry hall with a door to the kids’ bedroom (sleeps up to three people, in one full bottom bunk and one twin upper) and their bathroom (with a nice big shower). Beyond that was a large living/dining room with pullout couch, TV, dining table, fridge, coffee maker and sliding door to a balcony with two padded loungers. From the living room, pocket doors led into a large, private master suite with king bedroom, plenty of storage, and a huge bathroom with closets, a sit-down makeup table/vanity, double sinks, a separate WC, a huge walk-in shower with multiple heads and an ocean view, and a jacuzzi tub with TV and windows to the ocean and the balcony (shades can be drawn for privacy). Bedroom area was very dark at night — like an inside cabin – perfect for sleeping.
As far as the “suite perks”, they were fabulous. We had access to a special sit-down breakfast and lunch every day in one of the specialty restaurants, priority tender ticket in the ports, priority embarkation and disembarkation, invitations to the Captain’s cocktail party, and special treats would appear in our suite every afternoon…chocolate-covered strawberries, fruit and cheese platters, sandwiches, cookies, etc.
The Star is one of Norwegian’s older ships, though it’s been renovated recently, and I do have to admit that I like the newer ships better. Having recently sailed on the Getaway and the Escape, I found myself missing some of the things that I really liked on the bigger ships — like the gelato shop, Carlo’s Bakery, and the way the specialty restaurants open out onto the promenade deck, with outdoor seating. The entertainment was a little bit lacking (no Broadway-style shows like on the other ships), and I think the kids’ pool area on the Star needs to be re-vamped. It’s small and there’s no seating for parents who are there supervising their children. All of that being said, however, we did not choose this cruise based on the ship itself, and it was MORE than fine for our purposes.
The one thing I didn’t fully think through was the fact that this was a Spring Break sailing. Obviously, I knew my own kids were on break that week, but I didn’t realize that it was the University of Tampa’s Spring Break (as well as many other nearby schools, apparently) and that the ship would be FULL of college kids. For the most part, that was fine. I was not out late at night in the bars/lounges where the kids would congregate, but they did take over the pool area during the day. All available seats, and every square inch of the (small) swimming pool was filled with spring breakers, so we did not use the pool at all.
As part of NCL’s “Feel Free” promotion, we received free Ultimate Dining and free Ultimate Beverage packages – which meant we could eat in all the specialty restaurants without paying any surcharges, and we enjoyed alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages without any bar tab 🙂 I have to say, this was a key factor in our enjoyment of the cruise. We did eat in the main dining room one night, just to see what it was like, and the food/service were definitely not of the same caliber as we found in the specialty restaurants. Our favorites were Cagneys (steaks) and La Cucina (Italian), but we also enjoyed Moderno (the Brazilian restaurant) and Ginza (where we ate at the Teppanyaki table one evening). We had lunch one day at O’Sheehan’s, which I always find to have really slow service, across all of NCL’s ships (can’t figure out why), and we tried room service for breakfast one morning (which came right on time, piping hot, but with a couple of items missing). The only dining outlet we really disliked was the buffet.
Most of the passengers on this Spring Break cruise seemed to have selected the free Ultimate Beverage package as their perk (only suite guests get ALL of the perks), and I was afraid there would be long lines and watered-down drinks, given the fact that everyone was drinking for “free”. Fortunately, this was not the case. There were occasional waits at the pool bar (totally understandable) and we did not see servers roaming the pool area taking drink orders (even more understandable, since they were not getting any gratuities), but our drinks were good, and we really enjoyed being able to have that extra glass of wine, or an after-dinner drink, without thinking about whether we really needed it. One thing I really liked on this ship was the open-air Biergarten up above the pool. It was a great (less-congested) place to grab a cold drink during the day, and we sat up there one evening after dinner enjoying a cocktail under the stars.
The weather was sunny and windy all week, and the seas were rough enough that we had to skip one port entirely (Costa Maya) because the ship could not safely dock. We enjoyed the other ports tremendously, and we were very lucky that we did not have to skip Belize, because the Carnival ship that was in port with us that day decided it was unsafe to send their (smaller) tenders in to shore. In Roatan my family did a SNUBA adventure that I skipped (you will not find me breathing from a tank…I can barely handle snorkeling), but they absolutely loved. They came back sunburned and exhausted.
In Belize we visited the Lamanai Mayan ruins. It was a long day — with a bus ride from Belize City, a boat ride up a river, hiking around the ruins, and then boat ride, lunch, and bus ride back – but it was very interesting, and I actually enjoyed the exhilarating boat ride the most! Costa Maya turned into an extra sea day, given the rough seas, and we docked in Cozumel that evening (instead of the next morning) which meant all the college kids could spend the night drinking at Senor Frogs!
Our Cozumel tour was a snorkeling excursion that visited two reefs and then included lunch, open bar, and some free time at the Playa Mia beach club. It was the perfect combination of relaxation and adventure.
Overall, this was a very relaxing, enjoyable week with my family. The ports were fun, we liked the ship, and we loved the suite. Because we had the extra space, we spent a lot of time hanging out in the cabin – lounging on the balcony, watching movies in the living room, etc. I think it was especially nice to have the private space since the pool area was so crowded and busy on this sailing. The “Feel Free” perks were amazing – when you add up the value of the specialty dining, free drinks, shore excursion credits and prepaid gratuities, along with all the perks that came with the suite, the cruise was an incredible value, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.