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Karen Knowlton

Age: 50s

Occupation:travel professional

Number of Cruises: 10

Cruise Line: Norwegian

Ship: Norwegian Star

Sailing Date: May 4th, 2006

Itinerary: LA to Vancouver

Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Star Cruise Review
3-day repositioning. Los Angeles to Vancouver

Karen Knowlton

My husband and I booked a 3-day repositioning cruise on Norwegian Star, sailing 4 May 2006 one way from Los Angeles to Vancouver, moving the ship from her winter Mexican Riviera itineraries to her summer Alaska cruise schedule. It was our vacation, and I also wanted to sample Freestyle cruising, which NCL initiated after my last cruise with this line. The idea of a repositioning cruise was also appealing, just because it’s different from the usual cruise itineraries.

We really enjoyed the Freestyle dining concept, allowing us to choose when and where to have our meals, and allowing us to dress casually – neither of us particularly enjoys formal nights. My husband also agreed with me that NCL’s entertainment troupe, the Jean Ann Ryan Co., does a superb job. The weather was less than ideal - cloudy and rainy and only in the 50s for much of the cruise – but we had just about enough warm clothes with us, and we enjoyed the opportunity to relax during the 1 ½ days at sea. The layout of the ship took us the entire 3 days to learn, which is not unusual for us, and we liked the various small venues in the ship – the small bars, especially the out-of-the-way ones, and all the alternate restaurants. Décor is brighter and more whimsical than I expected – very different from my previous NCL experience on the old Norwegian Sea – and it’s a bit much for my taste, though not as in-your-face as one other cruise line that comes to mind.

The ship traveled very fast on this trip, about 23 ½ knots, close to its designed maximum speed. We had expected rough seas, but despite the rainy weather, it was not stormy, and we experienced only a gentle rocking most of the way. Noticed very little vibration from the propulsion system too, even in the dining room and gift shop at the stern.

We ate in a main dining room one night and in alternate restaurants the other two nights, and found quite a difference in the food and the service. Breakfast and dinner were in the Market Café (buffet) or Blue Lagoon casual restaurant, and were decent enough (Blue Lagoon was quite enjoyable, but hard to find a seat during regular meal hours.)

Service onboard was good, though not exceptional in most cases. Most of the crew we saw were either from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, or from eastern Europe. Officers were largely a mix of Norwegian and British. The captain appeared personable; we didn’t take the opportunity to meet him on formal night, but observed his interaction with a few other passengers.

The passenger mix was, by our guess, about 60% Canadian (mostly from B.C.) and nearly 40% U.S., with a small contingent of Australians. Most of the Americans were from the west coast; we definitely stood out as an oddity, and people reacted with surprise to hear we are from Illinois. There was some good-natured ribbing going on, sometimes prodded a little by the cruise staff, between Canadians and Americans (and also between Vancouverites and Torontoans, who apparently have a big rivalry going). There was also a surprising number of families onboard, considering school is not yet out for the summer in most places; I later heard there were 400 children onboard. I didn’t notice any real behavior problems, and saw a group of kids enjoying what looked like a fun activity with the kids’ program, interviewing a chef and learning to make pizza at one end of the buffet area.

Adding a night before and two nights after the cruise on land made it a full week of vacation, and we capped the trip off with a visit with friends before returning home to the Midwest.

Day-to-Day
Wed., 3 May 2006: We flew from Chicago to Los Angeles this afternoon on American Airlines, having booked the flight separately from the cruise line. The nonstop flight was uneventful and arrived on time. After collecting our bags, we went outside to the outer curb and took a PrimeTime shuttle van to the L.A. harbor in San Pedro, about a 20-minute drive. Cost was reasonable, $16 per person (plus tip for the driver). Weather was cloudy, and much cooler than the national weather report had led us to expect – only in the low 60s!

We had chosen the San Pedro Holiday Inn for our pre-cruise stay, again booked separately from NCL, and found it to be an interesting hotel. There isn’t much to choose from in San Pedro, and the HI was about as good as some of the other choices, and relatively convenient. It’s an older hotel, and in need of some TLC, but the antique furnishings, light fixtures, wallpaper etc., plus some of the architectural features like high ceilings, made me feel it’s a gem in the rough. Our room was very large. The bed was quite comfortable, and linens were clean, but the carpet was stained and the walls really need a fresh coat of paint. The exact same picture was hung over both sides of the bed, which we found amusing.

We decided to eat an inexpensive meal, and walked the ½ block to Burger King for an early dinner (by Pacific time standards). There are also several pizza places nearby, apparently some of which deliver, and a few Asian restaurants of uncertain quality. If the front desk clerk who checked us in had been more helpful, we might have asked them for a recommendation. The street where the HI is located is busy, with all sorts of small businesses.

Thursday, 4 May: We got up at our leisure, having gone to bed early (body clocks still 2 hours later than the local time) and had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Service was ok, if a bit slow, but only 2 workers were on duty in the dining room. It seemed the hostess and waiter did each other’s jobs interchangeably. There were perhaps 7 or 8 other guests eating there. It made me feel a little sad that this potential gem of a hotel is so obviously barely hanging on financially. I hope their weekend business is much better! The breakfast menu offered quite a few choices and wasn’t unreasonably priced. We had a big breakfast, not knowing how early we’d be able to board the ship.

We took the hotel shuttle to the pier, which we had to reserve the night before. We had chosen the noon shuttle, which actually arrived about 12:20, but no harm done, and we were soon at the cruise terminal. Outside the terminal building, we were first directed to the porters to check our bigger bags. We presented them our cruise documents and they tagged our luggage and took it in on carts. That accomplished, we entered the building, having to show our documents and photo ID at the door. Up the escalator to the main check-in area, we were directed to one of two long snaking lines (a la Disney), and noticed as we stood in it that it led to stations labeled “Latitudes,” “non-US & Canadian citizens” and for suites guests. We were none of the above, but many others in our line weren’t either, as conversation disclosed. We decided that this line had been too short, and they were evening them out by sending us here, and so it proved to be. We waited in line perhaps 20-30 minutes before checking in, which was a relatively painless process. Our picture was taken for encoding on our sail cards right at the booth, saving a step, and the whole process was seamless, if not exactly a well-oiled machine. Outside by the ship’s hull, I stopped to take a picture of it, and a guard rushed up and forbade me, for security reasons. Oh well, I can get one during our port call in a couple days. The usual ship’s photographer spot for the “before” picture was set up right before the gangway to the ship, and we obliged them.


Our Cabin #9120

We were able to go right to our cabin, #9120, a balcony cabin midships on deck 9. The hallways on the cabin decks are brightly colored, with teal blue cabin doors and red and blue carpeting. Our cabin also is bright and cheery (a little brighter than I like), with bright green & yellow bedspread, bright blue and red carpet, walls of either light finish or an attractive cherry-finish woodwork. There are a desk and chair, a small TV, a very firm couch (probably a pullout bed), a makeup table with stool, closet, 3 deep drawers, a cabin safe, several open shelves in the closet, a coffeemaker (!), and a stocked minibar (that’s an extra charge, of course). The balcony is good-sized, enough for a lounge chair (not fully extended), sitting chair and small table. Clear plexiglas below the railing allows a good view, and the footing has the appearance, if not the texture, of cork. The queen-size bed is firm, but we found it comfortable. Clothes storage was barely adequate for us – perhaps we bring too much – but I could have used a couple more drawers. The closet, however, was of good size, with just enough hangers.


The Bathroom

The bathroom we found impressively large. One enters right to the sink, which is flanked by the toilet room on one side and the shower stall on the other. Both side “rooms” have sliding glass (plexi?) doors. The sink has the usual mirror, with an attached magnifying makeup mirror on one side, and the standard shelves above and below the sink. The sink area and toilet room are of the same woodwork as some of the cabin. The shower is huge for a cruise ship – plenty of room for even large people, and the door is so much more pleasant than those clingy shower curtains. Controls are European-style, which took a little time to figure out, but are really fairly simple. (Just set them to where the buttons are and you’ll be fine.) The showerhead had seen a little use and wear, but still performed well, with good water pressure.


The Norwegian Star's Interior

After getting acquainted with our cabin, and watching some of the embarkation action from our balcony, we went up to deck 12 to the Market Café buffet for a late lunch. Lots of choices, from salads and sandwiches to pizza and some hot food. I thought of eating light, but my husband wanted something more substantial, so after wandering for a bit, we got burgers at the poolside grill, which turned out to be thick, juicy and delicious. We found a table by the pool and ordered a drink from the first waiter to come by, who turned out to be the worst one of our cruise; we finished our burgers and would have just left, except that he had taken my sail card (which doubles as a room key)!! Finally, after perhaps ½ hour, he brought our drinks. Other servers in the area, we noticed, brought orders much faster. Maybe he took a lunch break in between??

After lunch, we toured the ship, enjoying some warmish sunshine on the pool deck. When we returned to our cabin at 3:30, our bags were already there! Unpacked and relaxed in our cabin, watching the goings-on from the balcony, until the safety drill at 5:30, slightly delayed by a few latecomers. Our lifejackets were stored on an open shelf in our cabin, easy to grab, and our muster station was right below our cabin, two decks down, on the promenade underneath the hanging lifeboats. The drill procedure went fairly quickly, all things considered, and by 6 PM was concluded. The crowds on the elevators and in the stairwells afterward led one lady to observe, “this is the one time the ship feels crowded.”

We watched sailaway from our balcony. About halfway down the channel from the pier to the breakfront, a loudspeaker onshore suddenly blared the Norwegian national anthem, which I recognized from watching the Lillehammer Olympics years ago, and later a male voice with strong accent (probably Norwegian) addressed the ship and wished us a safe journey. As this was Norwegian Star’s farewell to San Pedro for about 6 months, I thought it was a nice sendoff.


Versailles Restaurant

We followed a freighter out past the breakwater, and eventually started our turn toward the west and then north. At that point, as it was near sunset (and very cloudy again), and dinnertime, we changed from jeans into slacks and went to dinner. We had decided to eat in one of the main restaurants, and opted for Aqua, located amidship on deck 6. It was already quite busy, and we were told there were no tables for 2 available – were we willing to share? We said yes, and were led to a large round table in the somewhat crowded, modern-design restaurant. We were soon joined by 3 other couples, all from Vancouver but originally from Portugal. Two of the couples weren’t very communicative, but the ones who sat next to me were companionable. The restaurant was noisy, however, and it was difficult to maintain a conversation, especially needing to concentrate due to accent differences. The food was pretty good, though my husband’s prime rib was more done than he wanted, and my salmon wasn’t as fresh as I had hoped; still, their preparation made them taste good, and they were quite edible. Desserts were a hit – even the vanilla ice cream was especially good! Service was a bit slow, and our assistant server, a young lady from Bali, was really into the freshly ground pepper role, which we found amusing. (We even wondered if she’d offer it with dessert, but she drew the line there.)

We excused ourselves about 8:40 and went to the Galleria, the large “emporium” that serves as the ship’s gift shops, to try to buy a windbreaker. I have used up the one I bought on a previous cruise, and hoped to find one, but was very disappointed in the logo wear selection. On a ship headed for Alaska, no long-sleeved t-shirts (at least none that I liked, and very few of them), and absolutely no windbreakers! I did buy a few toiletries we had forgotten to bring along, and we headed back to the cabin. We were both too tired to stay up for a show, and opted to skip the comedian scheduled for tonight.

Friday, 5 May: This was a full day at sea, and those planning on some pool and suntan time were seriously disappointed, as the entire day was cloudy, cold and rainy – high temperatures in the low 50s, with an 18-knot wind. We had a few disappointments in our cabin this morning, mostly due to electrical malfunction. The plug in the bathroom, of uncertain voltage, never seemed to work at all. And the coffeemaker had a strange plug which seemed like it should fit in the 220v outlet right beside it, but it didn’t want to go in. Of course we didn’t discover that until my husband had already filled it up with water! We slept well and late, ending up in rush hour at the Market Café at 8:30 AM; difficult to find a table, and ended up sharing one with a large and boisterous young family.

My husband enjoys reading, and was amply supplied with books we had brought, although he did check out the library, and relaxed for a time in the reading room, until a lecture held there intervened. I joined a group of 20 or so for the trivia game in the Red Lion Pub mid-morning, and my team came in 2nd. I intended to participate again, but other events intervened – more on that later. After trivia, I made dinner reservations for tonight and tomorrow night in two of the alternate restaurants at the desk next to the purser’s. It was quite easy, especially with all the choices available (I had picked 3 possible, and could be a bit flexible with exact days and times.) As we prefer to eat early, it was quite easy and I got both first choices. Other activities for us today were shopping in the Galleria and spending some time on the internet.

Lunch was in the Blue Lagoon. Food there is good, a combination of down-home cooking (like soup and burgers) and international, with things like miso-type soups and fish & chips on the menu. Unfortunately the restaurant straddles a high-traffic area, and resembles a cafeteria but is actually waiter-serviced. With limited seating, it’s always busy and usually full during mealtimes. Otherwise, we liked this little eating establishment quite a bit.

The internet café turned out to be located only a few doors down from our cabin, reached by a “secret door” through the wall into the top of the atrium. It’s spacious and airy, and NCL was offering some decent (for cruise line) rates for the short cruise, amounting to about 40 cents an hour. Connection and use speed was quite fast, and my 60 minutes of use turned out to be just the right amount to keep in touch with a few family and friends, and check the weather report for our port call in Astoria, Oregon and for Vancouver. One more thing to do today was to sign up for “freestyle disembarkation,” which entails our taking our own luggage off the ship in Vancouver, rather than leaving it out in the hall by 3 AM for the crew to handle. We decided the tradeoff was worth it, and that we should try it, but passengers are asked to sign up ahead of time to participate.

The weather having forced everyone but a handful of very hardy souls inside, my husband commented that the ship seemed really crowded, and I had to agree. I never had realized how many passengers spend much of the time up on deck! By late afternoon there were some peeks of sun through the clouds, and some peeks at the mountainous coastline of northern California in the distance, which was enjoyable. In the captain’s afternoon announcement, he said we were between 16 and 24 miles offshore.

Dinner that night was in Ginza, the Asian alternate restaurant. We had a table for two, and ate from the menu, not being into sushi. Teppanyaki is also available, but seating is limited. The wait staff all wear kimonos or other Asian costume, and for a restaurant open to passersby, the atmosphere was pleasant enough – perhaps a bit too light and not intimate enough. Background music is disappointingly lounge-type music; Asian music would have been nice. Not possible, though, given the location of this restaurant, next to (and open to) Gatsby’s champagne bar with a live pianist. (Very good, by the way.) We both ordered a Thai soup, which was delicious, but a warning – if you see something in it that resembles a tiny, thin piece of asparagus, do not eat it!! It’s extremely hot! My mouth was on fire, and the waiter had to go find a glass of milk to quench it with. My husband had an entrée of pork, prepared in 3 ways, and I had the tempura shrimp. Both were delicious, and presented beautifully on Japanese “boxes” (I’m not sure of the correct term.) My dessert, a wonderful passion fruit cheesecake, was just gorgeous – but I ate it anyway, and it tasted as good as it looked. Service was good, better than it had been in Aqua the night before.

This was “optional formal night,” and there was quite a mix of dress. More passengers than I expected were very dressed up – especially fun were the children, many of whom were in pretty dresses and patent-leather shoes, or shirts and little ties. About half were dressed in “resort casual” slacks outfits, and a few were in jeans and t-shirts. The best part was the feeling that all was ok. No one seemed to be upset or annoyed at others being dressed differently than they were.

We had a bit of a comedy of errors trying to get some way for our coffeemaker to work (my husband does like his own coffee in the morning). After a few misunderstandings at the purser’s desk, they sent a maintenance man, who understood when we showed him the problem, and returned with a little plastic plug-like thing that he apparently had appropriated from some crewman’s electric adaptor kit! He installed it in the 220v outlet, but had to push really hard to get the plug to go in, making quite a noise! Apparently this coffeemaker had never been plugged in, and the outlet itself may have never been used!

Saturday, 6 May: Yet another cloudy, damp, cool morning. I was awakened really early by a real sense of movement, over and above the gentle rocking we had had all of yesterday. Looking out, we could see lights onshore, indicating we were closer to it than we had been previously. Our coffeemaker worked this morning – evidently nothing broke when the maintenance guy plugged it in – and the hair dryer in our cabin was really powerful, a real change from most cruiseline-provided hair dryers! We went to breakfast in the Market Café about 7:15 this morning and it was much less crowded! One aspect of it we especially enjoyed is the kids’ buffet area at one end, with low tables, cartoon-like characters, and a little low buffet table just for them; at breakfast it has eggs, bacon, sweet rolls, muffins and cold cereal, and at lunch it has burgers, hot dogs, French fries and pizza. Cute.

After breakfast we passed by a fleet of little fishing boats, not too far away. The mountains in the mist in the background made it a pretty picture, if in shades of gray. I had intended to go to the trivia contest again at 9:30, but before that, the captain announced that the Columbia River pilot would be arriving by helicopter at 9:30, and those who wished to watch should be up on deck by that time. He said that this is one of only two places in the world – the other being Bordeaux, France – where the pilots come out to the cruise ships by helicopter, as the ride in their small pilot boats is so hazardous. (The Columbia River “bar” is notorious for its ferocity, and even several pilots, not to mention many other people, have been lost in this area.)

We decided this was a special enough occasion to watch the procedure, and headed for the stern on deck 12, where the helipad is located. Of course due to safety concerns, we couldn’t get close, and the crew members there directed us to deck 13 or 14 “mid” as the best place to watch from. We found a place by the rail, and after a while, we could hear the chopper in the distance. We couldn’t see the actual landing, but it was interesting to watch the crewmen in fire gear on the deck behind us, crouching to avoid the blades as the helicopter landed long enough to unload the pilot.

After that excitement, we spent most of the rest of the morning on our balcony, watching as we drew closer to the shoreline and entered the mouth of the Columbia River, huge and wide, threading through green forested hills and rock jetties. (We learned that the Columbia is the second-largest river in North America, in terms of volume.) We passed several barges being towed by tugboats, and a sunken freighter – a sobering reminder of why we need pilots! The current is so strong that it took us about 45 minutes to turn and sidle up to the dock in Astoria, bow and stern thrusters working hard the whole time. This town of 10,000 turned out in droves to greet us, one of 35 cruise calls they receive in a year, and I was touched at their warm welcome. Volunteers in blazers, bus shuttle drivers, school buses, craftsmen and artisans, etc. provided transportation, information, souvenirs and sightseeing for all who chose – which was most of us. We arrived about 12:30 PM and the line – or rather, mob – to get off stretched up two decks worth of stairwells! My husband and I decided to wait to disembark, and went up to the Market Café for a light lunch first. From there we could look over the dock area, and monitor how the disembarkation was going. By the time we finished lunch, the crowds had dissipated somewhat and the shore excursion buses had left, so we then headed down to the lower deck and walked off the ship.

We had visited Astoria briefly before, on a driving trip, so we had decided to forego the shore excursions offered and just explore on our own. Volunteers gave us stickers to wear, labeled “special visitor,” passed out maps of the town, and sold tickets for shuttle buses (some folks chose to walk the 2 miles into town). Due to time constraints, we opted for the bus, and went to visit the Columbia Maritime Museum. We were quite impressed; a modern facility with a sweeping roofline and huge picture windows overlooking the river, it holds exhibits about the heroic rescues (and the losses) of the famous “bar,” the fishing industry, duck hunting, and some general ecological and historical information about the area. In conjunction with the museum, one can tour a “lightship,” essentially a floating lighthouse, which is now retired from service. We happily spent a couple hours there, then made our way back to the ship. Other passengers shopped in town; we did a little shopping in the booths set up on the dock by local artisans. As the afternoon wore on, the clouds parted, then dissipated, and we ended up with a beautiful sunny day – still cool (in the low 60s) but very pleasant indeed.

All too soon, we were re-embarking the last passengers and removing the lines that tied the ship to the Astoria dock. Getting away from the dock was a lot easier than arriving, as we were going with the current, and we crossed the bar without incident as well. My husband and I watched the proceedings from our balcony, meanwhile starting to pack and changing for dinner, as we had reservations at 6:00 at Cagney’s steakhouse, another of the alternate restaurants.

Cagney’s is located on deck 13, and with the reentry into the Pacific, the ship’s movement was somewhat apparent up there. We were seated at a table for two in a back corner, but it felt airless and uncomfortable; coupled with the enhanced rocking of the ship, I was very concerned that this would not be an enjoyable dinner, so I asked our waitress if we could change tables. She didn’t seem too sure, saying they were booked up for the evening, but shortly the maitre d’ arrived and led us to a different table in a completely different area of the restaurant, overlooking the pool. Much better, especially with improved air circulation, and we settled in to enjoy a really delicious steak dinner. The steak was among the best I have ever had, and the triple chocolate dessert was truly to die for. Our servers, both young ladies from the Philippines, did an excellent job, polite and friendly, timely but not hovering.


The Norwegian Star's Theater

After dinner, we took in the production show featuring the Jean Ann Ryan song & dance troupe in the main theater at the bow. We didn’t arrive until a few minutes before it started, but we found seats at the back, with good sight lines. The quality of the performers is first-rate, although this particular show, which is a tribute to Bob Fosse, I found less enjoyable than the usual shortened-Broadway-show fare that this company does on NCL ships. For the most part, the show was family-friendly, and there were a couple of salsa dancers who were just dynamite! A bit more last-minute shopping in the Galleria, and more packing, and it was past time for bed. Three-day cruises are too short; even my husband agrees with that!

Sunday, 7 May: We awoke quite early (about 5 AM) to a cloudy, gloomy day, with occasional rain showers. Being in the Pacific Northwest, we expected this, and dressed accordingly. It was really nice having our luggage with us in the cabin, and being able to wait in the cabin until our group was called for disembarkation too!

Although we were now traveling through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and through the San Juan islands, we were in a wide shipping channel and were still going nearly full speed. We had breakfast in the Versailles dining room at the stern – our other choice being the Market Café, which we knew would be jammed. We arrived just before the restaurant opened, at 6:30 AM, and waited in a short line for only a brief time before being seated at a table for 2 right by the window; that was great, as we could still watch the islands and the freight traffic (more barges), and our progress toward Vancouver, while eating. Breakfast was good, and we ate a hearty one, knowing lunchtime was uncertain. Assistant servers brought around coffee, juice and sweet rolls, offered in addition to the menu items.


Vancouver Hiding Behind Stanley Park

By 7:45 we were entering Vancouver harbor under the Lions Gate bridge. The city was shrouded in mist, clouds obscuring the top floors of the tallest buildings. It’s an attractive skyline even in these conditions, especially with Canada Place, the main cruise terminal, positioned front and center.


Canada Place Cruise Teerminal

Two other ships were already docked there. As we got closer, the clouds began to lighten and lift, and within half an hour the city came fully into view. Norwegian Wind and Ryndam were the other ships in port that day, both docked on the western side of Canada Place; we pulled around to the eastern side of it and docked nose in, which meant we had front-row seats (as it were) for all the action while watching from our balcony. We actually arrived a bit late – not sure of the reason – and the dock workers seemed to take quite a while to get organized, getting gangways and luggage conveyors in place. (My theory about the extra time it took was that Vancouver is just coming off winter hiatus, and everyone’s skills might be just a bit rusty.)


Moving the Gangways to the Ship

My husband enjoyed watching the mobile gangways, which reminded him of transformer toys in their ability to change shape, go up and down, turn, etc.

We waited about an hour before our group (Freestyle, deck 9) was called to disembark, at which point we left our cabin, dragging our rolling suitcases behind us. Of course we had to use the elevator, and there was a huge crowd trying to do the same. With a little patience, we got about the fourth or fifth elevator going up, and then down, and were directed along the length of deck 7 toward the bow, where we waited in a long line on the Promenade to be checked off (i.e. our sail cards unvalidated). After that, we were on the gangway and off the ship, only to wait in another long line inside the terminal, prior to clearing Canadian customs and immigration. All of that took at least an hour. I’m not sure how they could improve the system, but it did seem like they could somehow lessen the chances of standing in line forever.

We were frustrated to find that, after finally clearing customs, we had yet another very long line to wait in for a taxi to our hotel! Since the rain had stopped and the weather seemed to be less threatening, we decided to hoof it, so off we went, up the ramp to street level, found Howe St. (which ends right at the terminal entrance), and headed south, still going uphill, dragging our suitcases. It was 11 blocks to our hotel, the Holiday Inn downtown, and we were quite tired and sweaty by the time we arrived; we still think it beat waiting in another long line, though. Fortunately, although it was still morning, we were allowed to check into our room. We were in #607, on the 6th floor right above the entrance and across the hall from the elevators; as a result, it was a bit noisy at night, but not too bad. This room was smaller than the one in San Pedro, but was in a bit better shape – still had a stained carpet though. The bed was quite comfortable. Other furnishings included the standards we like: hair dryer, coffeemaker, iron & ironing board, TV, desk & chair – plus there was a couch and coffee table.

After recovering from our walk, we decided to head out for some sightseeing, as this was our first visit to Vancouver. We purchased tickets for one of the hop on-hop off trolley/doubledecker bus tours from the Gray Line tour desk in the hotel lobby. Both tours pick up close to the hotel – ours on the side street beside the entrance, and the other across the street at the city bus stop. Tours run from about 9 AM until about 4 PM, with the last dropoff occurring sometime after that. The drivers (we had 4) are all funny and entertaining, as they regale their passengers with narrative about what we are seeing, while they drive a large loop around the main part of the city, including into Stanley Park. They were all kind, too – offering rides to a few tourists who seemed lost or stranded. The narrative is not memorized or “canned,” but varies with each driver.


Totem Poles

The weather cleared beautifully by about 1:00, becoming sunny, with just a few puffy clouds. Still cool, but in the sun it was very pleasant. We spent some time in beautiful woodsy Stanley Park, along with many other people – despite the beautiful weekend day and all the use the park gets, it only seemed crowded in a couple spots. It’s huge – larger than Central Park in NYC, we were told.


Looking Across the Channel From Stanley Park

After finishing the trolley tour – we got the last run of the day – we returned to our hotel, tired but pleased with Vancouver. It’s a beautiful city; we’ll definitely return someday! Despite the city’s gastronomic reputation, we decided we were just too tired to change from our jeans and go out somewhere for dinner, so we ate in the hotel restaurant, Medley’s, which we found surprisingly good. The atmosphere isn’t anything special, but the food – comfort food prepared with a few surprising twists, such as herb-crusted meat loaf – was delicious and portions generous. Our waitress was a very cheerful sort; even a very cranky fellow customer failed to wipe the smile from her face.

Monday, 8 May: For the first time since we left home last Wednesday, we awoke to a gorgeous sunny day! Looking out our window, we noticed we could see the mountains that dominate Vancouver’s northern view, in between two tall buildings across the street to our northwest. On a balcony of one of them, a man sat, wearing his winter coat, but clearly soaking in the rays. It was a chilly morning (about 40 overnight) but promised to be fine. After a hearty breakfast in Medley’s, we checked out about 9:00, and the front desk called us a cab, which was right there as soon as we walked out the front door!

We rented a car at the Hertz desk in the Renaissance Hotel along the waterfront, near Canada Place, and it was a real adventure spiraling our way out of the parking garage under the hotel, then finding our way through Vancouver to Rte 99, which turns into a 4-lane freeway heading east and south to the U.S. border. Beautiful scenery as we left the suburbs and drove by flat farm fields (lots of potatoes growing in that area), with the snow-capped mountains rising high in the distance to the north.

As expected, there was a long line waiting to cross the U.S. border, and it took us almost an hour before we passed muster and found ourselves on I-5 heading south through northwest Washington. In order to enjoy some of the scenery, we bought a sandwich and drinks at Subway in Bellingham and headed for Larrabee State Park on Rte. 11, which conveniently has two intersections with I-5 about 20 miles apart, so we didn’t have to backtrack. Beautiful park, and a lovely drive along the way too, with great views of Samish Bay and the offshore islands. Returning to the interstate, we made good use of the diamond (commuter) lanes through Seattle and arrived at the Comfort Inn & Suites by SeaTac Airport in the late afternoon. After a change of clothes, we met with some good friends from the area for dinner at Cactus, a Southwest-style restaurant near Lake Washington, and had a wonderful evening with them.

Tuesday, 9 May: As our flight left at 11:45, we were able to get up and ready at a fairly leisurely pace. Our room at this Comfort Inn was basic and reasonably comfortable, though the bed was harder than the ones at the Holiday Inns. The same amenities were available, and the “water-pik” style showerhead was new. The window opened, too. Their complimentary continental breakfast was exceptional, offering both fresh and canned fruit, juices (including guava-passion fruit!), cereal, sweet rolls, muffins, bagels, English muffins (with toasters available), hard-boiled eggs, sausage, biscuits and gravy, and waffles, which guests make themselves on practically fail-safe machines. Again, we ate heartily, knowing what awaited us on the airplane. Checked out about 9:15, got gas, and dropped the car off in the airport parking garage at the Hertz section. Because it had been a cross-border rental, we had to go inside to their counter to be checked out, but that took only a few extra minutes.


Mt. Rainier

Our flight was on time, and the airport not unpleasant to wait in. Being another beautiful day, we had a good view of Mt. Rainier after takeoff, and enjoyed the scenery over the rest of the state, and over the mountains of northern Idaho and western Montana, before cloudiness took over for the rest of the flight home.

Summary: We had chosen NCL for the Freestyle dining, and were not disappointed, although we found the alternative restaurants preferable to the regular ones, and worth the extra charge. Freestyle disembarkation’s good point is being able to wait in your own cabin to disembark – much better than in a public lounge with hundreds of other people. However, I don’t think it would be nearly as pleasant in an inside cabin! And the long, long lines in Vancouver were frustrating and annoying; I hope they were mostly due to the ground crew being somewhat rusty after the long winter off-season, and not typical of either NCL or Vancouver. Another good aspect of Freestyle is the generally nonjudgmental feeling on formal nights. Unlike on other cruises, those who chose not to dress up that night were not made to feel out of place, and as one of the casual crowd, I found it enjoyable to watch others’ fun as they partied in their finest.

We had no issues with food or service onboard, other than one waiter the first day, and cleanliness standards were fine. Our cabin was kept very clean, stewards and maintenance were responsive when we needed anything extra, and it was nice to see so many passengers using the many hand sanitation stations without even being asked. (It was also nice not to be harassed by the crew into using them either.)

Our cabin was smaller than similar ones we have had on other cruise lines, but still comfortable for two; by contrast, the bathroom was much larger.


The Pool Area

Décor on the ship was too lively and colorful for me; I prefer more muted tones and soft colors, and though the artwork on the hull and outside along the Promenade was fun, I thought it was a bit kitschy.


Different Colors Everywhere

All in all, we found this cruise relaxing and enjoyable. The itinerary, with a relatively long time at sea, enabled us to become somewhat familiar with the ship, and gave us plenty of time for rest, reading and other low-key things we enjoy doing, and having the balcony cabin is a must for us, especially with so much shoreline to see. The atmosphere onboard, though crowded (due mostly to the weather) and sometimes hectic (especially at disembarkation and during the safety drill), was otherwise relaxed and fun.

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