Mexican Riviera Cruise
Norwegian Star
December, 2017 - January, 2018

By Jack Welsch

The last time we were on NCL was in 1993 for our 25th anniversary.  We were not delighted with NCL and agreed never to use them again. However, we’d booked a couple of delightful trips with Alan Schiller ( and were overwhelmingly satisfied. Unfortunately, he had written in a recent newsletter that NCL had greatly improved so we gave it a try. Not sure how or why but he was wrong about this one. Whether he let us down or NCL let him down, booking this trip was a big mistake; more on that later. However, I still recommend Alan and we will continue to watch for his trips.

Not only had we vowed never to use NCL, we also said we’d never again take a one-week cruise and never return to Mexico.   So, when we got an e-mail from Alan with a chance to celebrate the New Year on a one-week cruise to the Mexican Riviera on NCL at a ridiculously low price, of course we grabbed it. Idiots!

This cruise was a short one; one week from LA to the Mexican Riviera.  Most attractive to us was the low price and the fact that we could easily drive from our home in Arizona to the port.  The itinerary was a good one but, as I’ve said, the cruise line was not.

First, some ranting about NCL...

I have concluded that NCL is worse than ever.

The biggest issue for us was their much touted “Freestyle Dining”, which NCL alleges takes the stress out of dining.  Nothing could be farther from the truth!  With traditional dining, you have a set table at a set time every night; you’re always guaranteed a place to eat with the same waiter and assistant who quickly learn your preferences and serve you accordingly.  Most (maybe all) ships also have specialty dining rooms where you can make a reservation for something different if you wish. 

With this freestyle dining nonsense, you get to stress every day about where you might find a place to eat that evening! At least in our case, the complimentary dining rooms could not be reserved except by large groups. Most premium dining rooms were fully booked for the week on the first day of the cruise!  Our tour package included dinner at 3 premium restaurants so we tried to make dinner reservations for the week shortly after we boarded.  We had to do a lot of juggling to book the three slots.  We heard later that we were lucky to have done it so early; others failed to get their three at all! On the nights not in a premium restaurant, we had to show up at a restaurant, get a pager, and hang out somewhere until paged.  I won’t do that at home; why would I expect to do it on a cruise??

Gatsby’s Lounge is located just outside of Le Bistro, one of the premium restaurants, and Le Bistro has a few tables outside of the restaurant proper; sort of a sidewalk café, so to speak.  Immediately adjacent to that is the stage for the musicians in the Gatsby’s.  That would be great if they played nice dinner music but is not so nice given the blaring music they offered!  To compound the problem, Ginza, the Asian restaurant, overlooks Gatsby’s so people dining there are subject to the same noise.

While some wait staff were good, others demonstrated a dreadful lack of training.  For example, except when it is impossible to do otherwise, what competent waiter would reach in front of a guest’s face to serve another guest?  On this ship it happened regularly!

On most evenings, very nice dance music was played in the Atrium.  Unfortunately, it was very difficult to dance.  While there is a decent floor near the guest services desk, it was almost invariably crowded by the ship’s photographers.  At best, a few people at a time could cautiously dance.

On three separate mornings we were awakened in the wee hours by announcements in the cabin that should have been restricted to the public areas.

There's much, much more but need I go on?

OK, with that off my chest...

"Complimentary" Dining

The two "main" dining rooms are"Versailles" and "Aqua". Versailles is large and opulent, some might say overly so. Aqua is a bit smaller and, IMHO, more tastefully decorated. I suspect both were used as "traditional" venues once upon a time.

On a balcony in the atrium is O'Sheehan's. It has an Irish Pub theme. Overlooking Gatsby's Martini Bar is the Asian-themed Ginza.

On the pool deck and also complimentary are the "Market Café Buffet" and poolside grill.

There is also an ice cream bar near the kids' area aft.

"Premium" Dining

The ship has six premium dining rooms for which a charge applies. In our case, our package included dinner at three of them. Actually USING the privileges of that package was an issue as explained earlier. Anyway...

Le Bistro is, as the name implies, a French restaurant. We felt that the food was very good and service excellent. Most of the restaurant is enclosed and very nicely decorated. A few tables are on the outside and exposed to the loud music from Gatsby's. If you book Le Bistro, I strongly suggest that you insist that you don't want to sit there!

Moderno is a Brazilian Steak House. That means that they bring you a parade of various meats on long swards and you can eat as much as you want. There is also a "salad" bar for salads and other accompanyments. The restaurant overlooks the pool. We found abiance, food and service to all be excellent.

La Cucina is an Italian restaurant. We felt it was good but not excellent.

Though only three premium restaurants were in our package, we were able to squeeze in for lunch in Teppanyaki which is, of course, a Japanese teppanyaki (some call it hibachi) where they cook your meal on the table in front of you. They have a single table that is double-wide with two cooks. The cooks were great entertainers and we had a magnificent time. The food was good but certainly far from the best teppanyaki I've had.

Other premium restaurants were the Sushi Bar and Cagney's, a steak house. I cannoty offer comment on either except to repeat that the Sushi Bar is open to the same noise from Gatsby's.

Other Features

As you'd expect, there's a huge, multi-tier theater forward for the nightly shows. We heard a lot of raves about the shows but they are not our thing so we didn't attend.

Aft on the same deck is a large show lounge with a moderately sized dance floor. We were able to dance there on a few occasions.

Between the two is the "Grand Atrium", three decks high. At the bottom is the guest services and other such desks, a coffee bar (where drinks are not included in the "Ultimate Beverage" package) and a lounge with two small stages, one at about the same level and one opposite it mid-way between the bottom deck and the next higher. Incomprehensibly, there is neither a bar nor bar service at the lounge; if you want a drink other than coffee, you must get it elsewhere yourself! The nearest bar is on the second level. Also on the second level, as stated elsewhere, is O'Sheehan's and on the third the Internet lounge.

The main pool is similar to most. There is little to say except that it has two water slides and, IMHO, its overall appearance is pretty tacky. Once nice feature is that forward of it is a tiered area with lots of lounges for sunning.

Aft on the same deck is the kid's pool and I must say it looked delightful. There are two slides, one of them a very small one for toddlers. The kids we watched were having a ball.

There are two hot tubs near the main pool, two by the kids' pool and one for adults only forward.

Of course, there are the obligatory casino, spa, shops, countless bars and other such.


Here are some comparisons to some other ships we've been on:


We spent little time in any of the ports so my comments here must be limited...

Puerta Vallarta

On this one I can say almost nothing as we didn't leave the dock area, preferring to enjoy the ship while the throngs were away. Near where the ship docks, we could see a mall, a movie theater and a WalMart. Also nearby was a bull ring but nothing was going on there and we'd have skipped it anyway. Going elsewhere would have requirde transportation or a long walk and we were interested in neither.


Though the dock area is disappointing in that is a commercial one, Mazatlán was a pleasant surprise. I'm sure it's for safety at this busy container port that it's necessary to take a shuttle to the terminal but there were many so there was no big delay, at least after the initial rush. The terminal itself is nice in a third-world way and the many people competing for our business were friendly and polite. It may have been foolish but we had a good feeling about the cab drivers and were comfortable getting into a tiny open cab with Luis. We saw quite a bit of Mazatlán and found it to be quite charming, though, as might be expected, some areas were quite run down. Others, however, were very nice. Predictably, traffic in the historic downtown area was horrific. The cathedral is well worth a visit; its interior is amazingly ornate. The nearby market was a huge, a crowded combination super market and junk shop. I suppose one could spend a lot of time looking around but a short visit did the trick for us. I am glad we had a look around but would not want to live there or even come for an extended stay.

Cabo San Lucas

From what we could see from the ship and our short walk around the harbor, Cabo appears to be a lot more upscale than the other two ports. Some REALLY nice homes up on the hills that, I'm sure, are way out of my price range. We had to take a tender from the ship but that meant we arrived in the thick of things. The harbor was chock full of magnificent craft and surrounded by nice shops and restaurants. As expected, we were approached a zillion times but people were polite and readily backed off. Cabo was most certainly the nicest port on this itinerary.

Thursday, Dec. 28th – Home to San Pedro, CA

Lin and I left home at 8:30, picked up Sue & Hank and got on the road. The drive across I-10 was beautiful if you like desert, which we do. We stopped at the Station Tap House in Banning, CA for lunch. Food was really good but service was slow; we lost about an hour.
As we neared metropolitan LA, traffic was backed up on C91 but, with the hour time change we still got to the Crown Plaza in San Pedro at about 2:45. The hotel is pretty beat; it has most definitely seen better days. We were also beset by a number of aggravations.  The first issue was that one key card didn't work. A trip to the desk got that corrected.  Then, when we turned on the AC in our room, the air mover screeched horribly so it was back to the desk to get the room changed. The desk clerk was very nice and gave me a key to another room on the same (top) floor so I could check it out.  After moving the bags, I returned to the desk to confirm the move and get a second key card.  When I tried to use the elevator, THAT key card didn’t work! Back at the desk once again, I told the desk clerk, Veronica, that, while I knew it was not her fault, I believed that the hotel should be torn down. She was very apologetic and asked what she could do to make it right.  In the end, thought we’d planned on parking at the Port, she comped the week’s parking at the hotel and issued 4 shuttle passes to and from the ship.

For dinner we walked a block to the Green Onion, a Mexican place.  It was great.

Friday. Dec. 29th - San Pedro - Embarkation

We put in a wakeup for 7:30 but we're up before that. The included breakfast buffet at the hotel was lousy. The bacon was like old saddle leather. After breakfast, we met Hank & Sue at 10:40 and got on the shuttle immediately.  Check-in for the ship was pretty easy and were in our cabin by noon. Cabin 9018 is on the starboard bow; not bad but tiny compared to the HUGE suite we had on the last cruise. I will say that the bathroom in this cabin was larger and nicer than any we’ve had in any shipboard cabin smaller than a mini-suite.

Somehow, Sue lost her key card between check-in and security so they were delayed. Our cabin was ready when we got to it but theirs was not so they came to ours to drop their carry-ons. We explored the ship together for a while, stopping at the Versailles dinning room to try to get reservation for dinner but they were booked.  This was to be the first in a long string of frustrations over dinner.

Our tour package included dinner at 3 premium restaurants so, once back in room, we tried to make dinner reservations for the week.  What a challenge that was!  Sue was able to use an online app but we were unable to book anything for New Year’s Eve and had to do a lot of juggling to book three slots.  We heard later that we were lucky to have done it so early; others failed to get their three at all! I suspect that those who waited longer booked none at all.  This is stress-free cruising?  Really??

Emergency drills are always a pain but I know they are required by law.  This one was a joke. The good news was that we didn’t have to tote the life vests and we didn’t have to go on deck where someone had to use a loudhailer. We were in the theater with a gazillion of our closest friends and it took WAY longer to get people seated than to do the drill.

The folks seated next to us, Peggy and Rocco, were with Alan and live in Seattle. Rocco is originally from Scranton and they have that cabin next to us.  During the very long time that people were filing in, however, some yo-yo who apparently felt very important, kept demanding that all electronic devices be turned of and that there be no talking.

We met Hank & Sue coming out, walked around a bit and had drinks in the “5 O’clock Somewhere” bar.  We took the 2nd round to the pool for French fries, etc.  

Back in the room we unpacked, then Lin slept while I read & wrote, then laid down for a while. We searched a bit for a nice bar with nice music and, eventually, a nice dance band, the Melodic Trio from Philippines, started in the Spinnaker Lounge.  Sadly, they only played for a half hour!  At least we got to dance a little!

Wandering some more, we stopped at the Aqua dinning room to see about New Year's Eve reservations and learned that they were fully booked for both them and Versailles. Ugh.  

After meeting Hank & Sue, Hank and I went to Ginza to ask about reservations. We learned that Ginza doesn’t take reservations and the Teppanyaki, a premium restaurant, is booked all week!!!!  After I bitched a bit, they said that’d be open for lunch the next day and I was able to book a reservation for 4.

A bit of good news; dinner at le Bistro was quite good. We all had filet.

The clocks were set ahead an hour before we went to bed.

Saturday, Dec. 30th – At Sea

We were abruptly awakened in the wee hours by a very loud announcement in the cabin asking for a particular person to report to the desk services desk. Apparently, he had been reported missing. (Days later we were to hear that he’d been found, passed out, in one of the bars.)

We woke again at 9:20, dressed and ordered room service.  They apply a $7.95 service charge on all room service orders.  That’s not a big deal but I don’t remember that on any other ship.  It would really suck if you just wanted coffee!

Lunch was at Teppanyaki. Hank & Sue decided against going but Lin and I enjoyed it.  They have an interesting setup.  Essentially, there are two adjacent grills, each with its own chef.  The two chefs work together so the group is integrated.  Pretty nifty, actually.  The food wasn’t the best I’ve had for teppanyaki but the overall experience was a good one.

We danced to Melodic Trio in the Spinnaker before dinner at Versailles. However, we'd had to get a buzzer and wait about 35 minutes in “5 O’clock Somewhere”. The table we were assigned was next to a kitchen door.  Apparently, it was cold in there because every time someone came through the door, Hank & I damned near froze.

Sunday, Dec. 31st – At Sea

Yet again we were awakened in the wee hours, this time with a loud announcement in our cabin for the “stretcher team on duty” to go to a particular cabin.  Now WHY would they think that team would be in a cabin unless that’d already sent it there??  That announcement should probably have been directed to crew quarters or, at most, to the public areas.

We slept until after 9:00 and had breakfast at Versailles. Lunch was at O'Sheehan's.  Lin liked the fish ‘n’ chips. I had a Coney Island hot dog that was just OK.

We danced to the Melodic Trio in the Atrium before dinner at Versailles.

Monday, Jan. 1st – Puerto Vallarta

We slept ‘til 9:20 again and had breakfast at the buffet. My omelet was pretty good.

Since I’d not brought my laptop, I had not signed up for Wi-Fi and planned to simply check e-mail with my smart phone while in port.  I could not get a signal even though we were at the dock in Puerto Vallarta and thought that perhaps the ship was blocking the signal.  So, we got off the ship to seek cell service but still nada.  We were not inclined to wander off so just stayed at the dock.

Lunch was at the pool.

The Melodic Trio was at the Atrium before dinner.  Unfortunately, the only dance floor there is in by the guest services desk and that was largely taken up every night by photographers so dancing was difficult but at least possible for a few couples at a time.

Dinner was at Moderno, a Brazilian steak house and one of the premium restaurants.   It was pretty good.  The restaurant overlooks the pool and the lighting was interesting so we walked past the pool before heading to bed.

Tuesday, Jan. 2nd - Mazatlán

I awoke at 7:30 as we were docking. Breakfast was in Versailles.

The ship was docked at a container port so, for safety reasons I’m sure, it was necessary to take a shuttle to the terminal area.  They had lots of shuttles and we avoided the initial rush so we had no problems.  In the terminal, we were approached by a very nice guy who tried to entice us to take a free tour as long as we’d listen to a 90-minute pitch on a timeshare.  Of course, we passed on that but, encouraged by the folks we met we settled on a tour of about 90 minutes with Luis.  While it is certainly third world, Mazatlán is quite nice and the cathedral is absolutely stunning.  Having said all that, I’d not like to live there or even stay for a vacation.

After lunch, we sat on the balcony, then by the pool.

Dinner was at La Cucina, another of the premium restaurants.  Not excellent but not bad.

Wednesday, Jan. 3rd – Cabo San Lucas

AGAIN, we were awakened by announcements in the cabin, this time to advise that tender tickets were available.  The first was at 6:00 AM and there were two more before 6:30.  So much for sleeping in!  Again, those announcements should be in the public areas only. We had been advised the day before that tender tickets would be available at 6:00 so I’d have thought that anyone gung-ho enough to want on would have been up and in a public area.  So much for sleeping in!

We got our breakfast from the buffet and ate by the pool. Once the lines died down, we took a tender to port and walked around the harbor for an hour or so. It was quite nice but we bought nothing.

I THINK lunch was at O’Sheehan’s but I didn’t make a note and can’t be sure (not that it matters!)

Hank & Sue wanted to see the show, “Paradis” so we decided to eat early.  We met in the Atrium and parked the girls while Hank and I went to Ginza to see about seating.  Since it was still early, we got right in.  As usual, there was a duo in Gatsby’s Martini Bar which is visible on the deck below.  Since the music was loud, I asked for a table as far away as possible.  Hank went to the table while I went for the girls.  The meal was OK but the music overwhelming so the overall experience was not a good one.  Added to that, Hank’s Pinot Noir was most definitely not Pinot Noir but the waiter wanted to argue about it!

The others liked the show but, except for a few acts, I did not.  I will say that the acrobatic ballet was outstanding, however. My main problem was that it was so loud that I had a splitting headache.

We thought the Melodic Trio was playing in the Spinnaker but it turned out that there was a “Perfect Couple Game Show” just starting.  It was really loud so I bailed and the others did so soon afterwards.  A jazz band was playing in the Atrium so we sat there a while.  When Hank & Sue headed for bad, Lin and I went to the Spinnaker to hear the Melodic Trio but my head was still pounding so we headed up as well.

Thursday, Jan. 4th – At Sea

We ate breakfast in Versailles and spent much of the morning on deck. It was very windy and, of course, the pool area was jammed so we sat in the bow where we talked to a nice couple for quite a while.  Lin eventually went to the room but I stayed on and read.

After lunch in Versailles, we packed the bags, then I alternated between deck and balcony while Linda took a nap.

Before dinner we listened to the jazz group in the atrium.  For dinner, we ate for the first time in Aqua.  It’s actually quite a pleasant room. After dinner, it was back to the atrium and the Melodic Trio, then off to bed.

Friday, Jan. 5th – San Pedro to home

We’d been told O’Sheehan’s would be open for breakfast so agreed we’d meet Hank & Sue there at 7:15. Our info, however, was incorrect; they were closed.  Big surprise! Hank & Sue ate in Versailles and we in the buffet.

Hank & Sue had staked out a spot in the Atrium so we picked up our bags and joined them.  As always, getting off the ship was a bit of a hassle but, all in all, not horrible.  The hotel shuttle picked us up, we grabbed the car and were off.

We stopped only twice, once for gas and once in Indio for a "gourmet" lunch at Burger King.  Traffic was not at all that bad, even in LA, but it’s surprising how much traffic crosses the desert on I-10.  Having said that, I guess when you consider that all the freight from LA to the southern states goes that way, it’s understandable.

Hank & Sue just wanted to go home so we dropped them off, stopped briefly at the house and had dinner at P. F. Chang’s in Peoria.

Given the challenges on the ship, this time we were REALLY happy to be home.

This is neither an advertisement nor an endorsement but I do want to share something that may be of help…

Alan SchillerDuring a Caribbean cruise in 2011, we found that a large percentage of the passengers were from the Pacific Northwest. When we inquired about the anomaly we were told, "We're travelling with Alan." We, of course, said, "Who the hell is Alan?".  That's when we heard about Alan Schiller and the incredible deals he has on cruises.  While some of his deals are simply very good, some are unbelievable.  This was our third trip with Alan; the first having been the Caribbean and Panama Canal over New Years 2012-'13 and the second a wonderful cruise of Northern Europe in the summer of 2014.  On both previous occasions, Alan went with us.  On the one to Northern Europe, he offered optional shore excursions in each of the ports.  He runs a tight ship, if you'll excuse the expression, but things move exceedingly smoothly. 

Truth be told, Alan's website, is not a terribly good one.  In fact, as I write this in January of '18, the latest post on the "Where's Alan" page is from August 28, 2017! Don't worry about that, though; the best way to get the latest news and notices of up-coming deals is to sign up for Alan's weekly newsletter. Trust me; you need to do this!

Though we very much enjoyed our time with Hank & Sue, this was far from our most enjoyable trip. Now that we've seen a bit of the Mexican Riviera, we see ni compelling reason to return. More importantly, IMHO (and Linda's, too) NCL absolutely SUCKS. We'd not go with them again if the trip was free.