First, I would like to explain the background to my review aboard the Spirit. I pride myself in being comprehensive, colorful, and as descriptive (longgggg?) as possible. We have been on many cruises with other lines as evidenced below; therefore, it is only natural that our family automatically compares this experience with others past. We will offer suggestions and "bewares" rather than criticism- but more importantly, truly highlight every and all positive experiences- which on a cruise- BY FAR- outweigh any challenges!
EMBARKATION- We drove from Orlando and arrived shortly after 11am. We were checked in immediately and very efficiently, were instructed to sit in order of arrival to begin the boarding process. It was very painless, and very few people tried and managed to skip the line.
OVERALL IMPRESSION- It was definitely Spring Break. This we had anticipated and were looking forward to it. There were close to 700 children (or just over including toddlers and older teens) aboard this sailing. According to staff, the largest children group thus far on this ship; which presented some unexpected challenges for them. It never bothered our family- nor did we have negative experiences because of this. We felt many were very well behaved and under parent's control. Very few exceptions to this. The SPIRIT is a beautiful ship. The dEcor is (if in Oriental taste liking) very tastefully presented. Compared to other ships, however, we felt the public areas were not open enough- or too cut up and closed in. Not a major issue- since we had so much port time available, but may have been a challenge for us had there been more days at sea. We really enjoy the largeness of the "Voyager" type ships or the openness (or bring outside in) of the "Radiance" class.
PUBLIC AREAS- I will name a few impressive ones! This ship has its own separate Art Gallery with an ornate brass Victorian like staircase at entry. We had only experienced art auctions in other lounges as supplemented areas. We thought it to be quite neat. Blue Lagoon (more about it on restaurant sub header). The Kids Pool area was the best we had ever seen. It was a simile of a mini water park with slides, water chutes, in pirate type dEcor- interactive and with a wonderful view! Aft on deck 10. Moreover, a neat SECRET alcove- off the Galaxy Lounge there is a spiral staircase that leads you to a room below that overlooks the bridge. This room also has memorabilia from the ships prior sailings as "Super Star Leo" and a bit of interesting history. You must go down there and take a look. SHOPS- very small, just enough variety and most sales are out of sidewalk merchandise. This ship was not designed for much shopping, I guess, but they sure make up for it with the daily "specials" of different merchandise. But don't worry- if you miss a "daily special" (inch of gold, pearls, watches, etc.) they do bring it all back on the last day at sea for last minute shopping.
FOOD- Having more than a couple options for dining, sure was neat. Our favorites- Shogun and Blue Lagoon. We did not eat at Maxim's (steak house) or at the Bistro (French/ Med cuisine), nor at the Trattoria. Which by the way, it is just a portion of the buffet area (Raffles) closed off and converted with Italian dEcor and ambiance. Somehow, we were under impression that it was a separate venue. It is not on this ship. Shogun had two types of arrangements. Either ordering traditionally from a menu or Teppanyaki (Benihana Style). When making a reservation make sure you know the difference, as they really do not ask which you prefer. There is limited Teppanyaki seating- therefore, fills up quicker. $12.50 per person here, and every BIT worth it.
The presentation of food is fabulous and the bananas flambE dessert was incredible! TAKE Pictures... Blue Lagoon we loved for the availability 24 hrs and excellent menu. We went around lunch time both times and had the biggest burger served (and very huge & delicious) and you must try the Cantonese noodles? It is a medium size bowl of noodles stir fried with veggies, nuts, and special sauce. Sooooo delicious- trust me on this one- you will not regret it. Observation- FuNnY- we were being served oriental cuisine by a German girl and cooked by a comical Indian gentleman. My husband also had the chili here, which got a "10" from him for being very tasteful and hearty. Great for in between snacks! It also has promenade tables if you want to sit outside and enjoy the ocean breeze.
We learned that on the Tuesday of our sailing, the Spirit was fitted with a new "computerized" table assignment and reservations systems for dining- which became very evident instantaneously. Our sailing was the "guinea pigs" for the new program which includes flat screens throughout the ship that indicate availability as "good, fair, filling up, etc." for all restaurants on a one screen grid. If you decide to still venture into a dining room with "fair or less" availability, your party is given a pager (much like land based restaurants) which allow you to venture within 2 decks from the restaurant chosen and enjoy champagne or a well drink on the house until your table is ready. Excellent idea, in our opinion, except, the training of staff and testing phase on this sailing, allowed for seating delays and many back ups, and some pagers- according to some- never worked. Please remember that this was the FIRST week of this new procedure- and I am sure it will have kinks worked out after a couple sailings experiences. All in all- no complains- as we waited no more than 25 minutes for a table. (Just got used to just walking in and getting a seat immediately first 4 nights?)
Observations- Raffles is full of nothing but large top tables. Apparently, the Asian market must be more impromptu about sharing tables with others, where on this sailing, we witnessed "6 tops" with only two people in them- and we did nothing but watch people parade with their tray tables around waiting for an empty table instead of joining unknown parties. What are we afraid of? We never minded sitting at the first empty seat, but wished there were more of "2 or 4 tops" tables- much like the other lines. Because of this, Raffles seemed to have back ups even in off times. It also seemed pretty crowded. ALSO- if you drink coffee- can't explain why they have regular and decaf on separate makers. If you are on one side of the room, and need the other type, you must walk clear across the room through the crowd, to get to the other coffee. Specially a problem when they close part of Raffles for Trattoria, as believe it or not, if you sit on say "starboard", then you must go over to the "port" side to get your coffee, if the wrong one is on your side. Weird- you'll see what I mean if this doesn't make sense.
NOTE about breakfast- in Windows- they have a different gourmet breakfast menu every day- such as "Apple Crunch pancakes", "Tex-Mex Omelet", "Crepes", etc. Unfortunately, we did not learn of this until the last two days, as we would have preferred this to the pretty much same buffet. Buffet was okay- with quite a bit of variety including a waffle and made to order omelet station. Just a bit crowded in mornings.
ENTERTAINMENT- I was blessed to have enjoyed the private company of the featured comedian- Dave Heenan. We spent a couple long eves in the Galaxy talking life and laughs…He is fabulous and will be on the Spirit only until September. Just know this- you can't miss the tales of an Irish, divorced, overweight (and a bad leg) gem from Hell's Kitchen, NY! Get the picture?? He has stories you just will not believe and you will laugh so hard- it will hurt.
Hate to report Steve Washington's last sailing was ours. He is a fabulous sultry and romantically talented artist with tributes to Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel and more…You could not help but feel embellished in romance as tears filled the eyes…His talent is superb, memorable, and with amazing voice adaptation to music of the legends above mentioned. Much luck to Steve, as he also spent an eve in my presence as we chatted and laughed along Dave Heenan. I feel privileged to have had those special moments. Cruise Director- Ricky was his name, who is from Jamaica. I felt he was young and just now learning the gusto of his trade. He was somewhat funny and personable; however, we have seen many "bests" of the industry, such as John healed with Carnival. Ricky did his job well, not overly done which also means not as memorable as others. Magic Show- Taylor Knight and his wife Misty. Not sure how long they are contracted for- but I highly recommend each show. They are really good at what they do- and they did leave me wondering a few times. The ambiance created sure felt like "Magic".
Production shows- Don't really know where to go here. Don't know if the theater is not equipped with the sound technology, or the dancers and singers are new hires. Just did not get that feeling of ooohhhh, aaaahhhh as we are used to. Sometimes, we are so out of breath and the show is felt in every rib of our body, that our hairs stand on end and we still reminisce about what was just seen over dinner and on days to follow…Never felt that on the Spirit. No power voices to be heard. Just an average "Simon Cowell" rendition of outstanding theater. It was just that- good…however, with well designed costuming.
Observation- Unlike other ships we have been on, you enter the theater from the back of the stage. If late comers were still entering the show, you felt interrupted as they left these doors open on main level. Either that- or people just crowded at each end of the stage. SUGGESTION to NCL- After show starts; they should close these main level entries and instruct folks to got to top level where they can then step down into the main theater from the back. No distractions or people walking across stage if they were to do this. Just my opinion.
BARBADOS- I had prearranged for a private tour with Cameron Reid of "Scenic Barbados" (email@example.com). He was there right on time- just as promised with a sign bearing our name at the terminal. He was very professional, knew his history and told it with grace, and chauffeured us with pride in his new late model Toyota Camry all over his island. He takes his job very seriously and involves himself in travel/transport trade shows in the Caribbean, and runs a smooth and reputable operation with several drivers and vans. We paid for his services cash ($100 up to 4 people) which included scenic areas, photo ops, history and his shopping expertise. We paid for our own at Harrison's Caves ($16pp) and the Wildlife Reserve ($12pp). He was adamant about making the most of our time by avoiding the lines and crowds at both spots, allowing for a local supermarket visit and shopping at pier area. We always felt safety and comfort to be his priority for us, as well as show us a good time. I CAN NOT RECOMMEND HIM ENOUGH! We had to book him as early as January 17th to assure the availability. He does book fast! Cameron also has a website at www.scenicbarbados.com
GRENADA- We opted to simply go to "Grand Anse Beach". Luckily we met up with a driver right at pier (not pre-arranged) who is trying to get noticed as a good one- and only charged us $2pp to take us to beach. (others were charging $4-5pp) He said- "all about trust"- "as I want you to call me again for the return trip". He gave us his business card and goes by "Gunshot" as his nickname for quick wit- as we walked away and said "sure". He asked how long we planned to be at beach, we told him until about 2pm. We quickly forgot about him, and once we were ready to leave (just before 2pm) we were followed by others wanting to take us back and would budge at no less than $4pp. Lord and behold, "Gunshot" shows up and rescues us simply by saying- "Here I am, these are my people" and we were in shock to hear him call us by names and tell us he was there for our return trip. We had wished we had listened to him and trusted to let him take us on the island and to a more secluded beach.
Magically, we felt we trusted him, and surely would look him up next time there. I think he is in the right mind set to be recommended and be a "Cruise Critic Favorite". He does not have an email, but does have local numbers that you may call once there. 435-2256 or cel. 407-5795. His van was air conditioned. NOTE- There are various water activities on this beach. I wished I had asked about Jet Skies fees as we were only charged $5 for a power ride on a tube of about 10-12 minutes around the bay, with exciting twists and turns. Banana boat rides were also only $5. First time doing this and enjoyed it very much.
ST. LUCIA- WOW!! Can this get better?? We had again pre-arranged a private tour with a local. His name is Frank (firstname.lastname@example.org) Again; he runs a multi driver and bus operation. Now this guy has personality and not afraid to show it. He was a hoot and included all you could drink rum punch, local beer, bottled water and sodas. Frank would counsel you before a pit stop about how much one should pay for items offered by local merchants. He schooled us on how much to bargain items for. We respected him for this. After all, we were his clients- but these were his people. Truly a business man and counts his blessings for being trusted and recommended by CC members.
Frank also takes his job very seriously. He told us something that warmed our hearts instantly- he said his job was to make this tour as memorable for us as it needed to be for Nicholas- our 6 yr. old. “After all”, he said, “this guy is our future”. You understand why, as he speaks with much love and pride of his wife Caroline and his children. We loved him for this personal touch and for entrusting us with these precious thoughts. He has St. Lucian and political passion and knows the history with candor. We could feel as part of this as he would stop at any side of the road to show us locals as they made fresh Cassava bread with bare hands and could smell the supplemental ingredients for an exotic treat off the fire pit. Coconut and banana comes back to mind. We experienced the Pitons, Sofriere, picturesque Marigot Bay, a waterfall, the burning sulfuric lava- all paid and included in Frank’s price. Our total was $150 for the entire day. He surprised us with a token of his appreciation- which he begged me not to share. I will keep my promise- so I won’t. Frank discussed visiting the states soon- and we hope to have him as a guest, if he does come to Florida.
ANTIGUA- Alright, paradise has come to earth…THIS WAS OUR FAVORITE ISLAND OF ALL. I had prearranged (since July ’04) the infamous Eli’s Eco Tour with “Antigua Adventures”. Eli is a hardcore native who grew up exploring every inch of sea and bay that surrounds this beautiful Island. He is the prime of a legacy started by his grandfather- tourism at its best in Antigua. He knows what is like for his island to be at its best as virgin (his childhood past) and even better now as a postcard perfect tourist Mecca for the rich and famous (and not so famous?). Somehow, his tales and his new yacht/catamaran made us feel like celebrities. We relaxed on deck and sailed under the most ideal azure blue sky and turquoise oceans as Eli exuded nothing but glory about the history, ecology and people of his island. Our tour included “Hell’s gate” (only reachable by boat), snorkeling, hiking, and a BBQ luncheon.
The banana bread was made by a neighbor of his just fresh that morning. Can’t put words to how incredible that bread was- it would just melt in your mouth. Eli and his crew mate Epe are 2 young good looking guys with a love for the water and sailing, and great hosts gracing all of us with tropical juices of tamarind and passion fruit through the day. The best part- even as large as his boat is (including snorkeling equip. and all) they commit to taking no more than about 25 people, so that we have ample room and plenty of comfort. His boat has an actual potty room and storage cabin and all of it is “whistle clean”. His website is www.adventureantigua.com where price lists and info are detailed.
TORTOLA- We opted for the ship’s tour “Virgin Gorda Highlights”. It left early in the morning 7:30-7:45 on a large ferry boat for a 30 minute sail to Virgin Gorda. Once there, we boarded open cabin trams through town and up to “The Baths” Park area. This place is unreal and must be a wonder of the world. You follow trails, climb, and go through huge boulders- over and under- until you get to a private bay of clear blue / green water, reefs, and superb snorkeling. White sandy Bermuda like beach is the backdrop of some of our greatest pictures for this trip. The water is so tranquil; you would think you were in a pond.
OBSERVATION- We somehow thought that snorkeling equipment was included on this excursion. It is not. We found out a little too late that if we wanted to secure equipment, it had to be done in advance and on the ship before departure. Then again, we also heard it was quite costly. I just hated to miss out on the snorkeling- especially after all the ones snorkeling described it to be impressive as they approached shore. We still enjoyed it for the newness of it all, and for the boulders experience we had never imagined. Cost- $147 for 2 adults/ 1 child.
COMMENDATION- Credit where credit due. We had seen an NCL backpack on a glass case by the shore excursion desk that we truly thought to be a bargain. I returned to purchase and wanted the same display color (khaki with black and blue lettering). I was told that it was sold out, and only had royal blue (which was not as impressive). Saddened, I decided against buying the bag. I truly was very disappointed, as the one on display I was shown to be damaged. One of the photographers heard my disappointment. He followed me through the hall, and asked why I was so sad- “you must really want the bag”.
I said yes- we had set our heart on it, and it was too bad they were sold out. He asked me to wait there, ran to his cabin, and returned with the bag I wanted- still new and wrapped in plastic. He explained he had won it at bingo weeks before and he would rather see me happy than for him to have that particular one. So that he would not get in trouble (as some stories we hear), with disbelief and unexplainable joy to what was happening, I offered to buy the blue one and then we would simply trade. He agreed. His unselfishness and true hearted sentiment towards me is what I call going above AND BEYOND. I will be FOREVER thankful, and will never forget the smiling photographer that made a memory out of a moment. To Danny Santos- THANK YOU!! If you see him- please let him know you read this here…
HAPPY SAILINGS TO ALL… I will gladly answer any specific questions.