Shining Bright

Freestyle fiesta on board the Norwegian Star

By: Ana Figueroa

"Freestyle Cruising” began as Norwegian Cruise Line’s “dine when you want with whomever you choose” concept, and has expanded to cover nearly every aspect of the NCL cruise experience, from dress code to debarkation. I experienced it for myself on an eight-day Norwegian Star cruise in March. Our destination the Mexican Riviera has been a cruise industry mainstay for decades. But, this season was NCL’s first foray into the popular run. My roundtrip cruise from Los Angeles called at Acapulco, Zihuatanejo, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas. It also included three full sea days, which translates into lots of free time for freestyling.

Fortunately, the Star rose to the occasion, in a number of ways. Our sailing, in early March, was full. Yet, I never once encountered a traffic jam, or found myself gripped with claustrophobia in public spaces, as I often have on other ships. There’s a seemingly endless array of places to hang out on the Star, each offering a change of pace and decor that made boredom unthinkable. If I were a drinker, I’m sure I would have joined the happy folks at the Red Lion Pub, Gatsby’s Champagne Bar or the Pearl Martini Lounge. But, my primary vice is caffeine, so the Java Cafe in the middle of the Grand Atrium on Deck 7 was my preferred spot for enjoying espresso drinks. And, the people-watching was great there too.

My fellow passengers included multi-generational family groups and more couples in their twenties and thirties than I would have expected. Most surprising of all was the number of Europeans onboard. The weak dollar, it seems, has made North American cruise lines a relative bargain. I also encountered many faithful NCL devotees eager to try an alternative to the Caribbean.

“We’ve never done Mexico before, because NCL didn’t go there,” noted one young couple from Colorado.

Brand loyalty, I’ve noticed, is particularly strong when it comes to NCL.

Loyalty is something the line tries hard to maintain. On the Mexican Riviera itinerary, they’ve gone out of their way to provide unique options, especially when it comes to shore excursions. Steve Robin, the shore excursion manager, prides himself on the exclusive offerings he’s arranged for guests, such as the chance to drive a Baja 1000 racecar, a visit to a cooking school in Puerto Vallarta, or to a sea turtle rescue center near Acapulco.

My favorite excursion was called “Panoramic Views and Ancient Petroglyphs,” which involved a steep climb up an Acapulco mountainside, to a site laden with mysterious, 2,000-year-old carvings on rocks and inside caves. Archaeologists believe the Yope Indians left behind the petroglyphs. I, on the other hand, imagined that they were messages left by time travelers or alien life forms. But, then, there’s been a void in my life since “The X-Files” went off the air.

The Star remained overnight in Acapulco, the only cruise ship to do so. That left enough time to catch an evening performance at Fort San Diego, first used by the Spaniards as a trading post in the New World. Back onboard, a Mariachi trio entertained guests enjoying a Mexican buffet under the stars.

Dining is where the freestyle cruising concept really shines. The Star has 10 restaurants, and it’s hard to frequent all of them. Most of the time, guests find a favorite early on, and decide to forego the others for another cruise. The Star has two dining rooms: the sleek Aqua, and the elegant Versailles. I didn’t frequent them much, because I, too, quickly found other favorites. Sushi plucked from a conveyer belt at the specialty restaurant, Ginza, was at the top of my list, as was the aged Angus beef filets at Cagney’s Steakhouse. Le Bistro, the line’s signature restaurant, is a “must-do” for fancy French classics. The Soho Room, an Asian fusion restaurant, is the only restaurant at sea with a live lobster tank. It’s known for a special desert, called “East meets West,” which is a tempura-battered and deep-fried chocolate cake. With so many dining choices, it seemed amazing that anyone could be hungry between meals. But the ocean air worked its magic, so that the Blue Lagoon, the ship’s 24-hour “diner at sea,” was never empty.

Thankfully, the ship’s Barong Fitness Center Gym was enormous, nicely equipped and open around the clock. But I also enjoyed some outdoor exercise, on the Star’s promenade, one of the most user-friendly at sea. Like its sister ship, the Norwegian Dawn, the deck is decorated with a colorful mural. Every time I walked around, I tried to discover another detail. A ballerina here. A circus performer there. Before I knew it, I’d logged a few miles.

When our sea days grew a bit chilly, I was happy to check out one of the ship’s onboard lectures. A multi-part digital camera seminar by Sarah and Bradley Weber was highly attended, and extremely informative. The Carousel Bar on Deck 7, with its vivid blue, red and green carousel-shaped bar and animal prints on the chairs, made the nicest classroom I’ve ever been in.

The Star’s large boardroom and complex of meeting rooms also makes it a great place for business groups. Early on in the cruise, I started using the conference rooms as my private office. The ship’s wireless Internet service worked there, so I spent time reading my e-mails, and catching up on my writing. Outside, the breathtaking Los Arcos rock formations of Cabo San Lucas marked the point where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez. Small fishing boats and pleasure craft bobbed in the waters around Zihuatanejo. And, the double bays of Acapulco beckoned. I’d be out enjoying them soon enough. But, first, I had work to be done and there was no “office” on land that could compare to this.

It was freestyle cruising, my way.


Company: Norwegian Cruise Line

Ship: Norwegian Star

Size: 91,740 tons

Capacity: 2,240 double occupancy

Year Built: 2001

Plugging In: Staterooms have 110 volt outlets, so you don’t need to bring an adapter. There’s an Internet cafe, as well as wireless Internet access in various “hot spots” throughout the ship.

Itinerary: The Norwegian Star resumes its eight-day Mexican Riviera runs on Sept. 30, after spending the summer in Alaska.

Cost: Starting at $1,741.16 for an inside cabin, per person, double occupancy.

Commission: Varies, depending on productivity.

Hits: Rooftop garden villas feature living room, dining room, three bedrooms, each with separate bath, private “garden” with hot tub.

Concierge service in categories from “Mini Suite” and above. Butler and Concierge service in categories Penthouse and above.

Chocoholic Buffet is worth breaking your diet for.

Misses: Mid-afternoon art auction announcements are “jump out of your chair” loud.

Internet cafe above the atrium is blasted with distracting canned music.