We are a family of 7 and we cruise often. Our kids are ages 11-18. This was our 4th time on the Spirit and our best cruise on this ship out of the four. There is something different about this ship compared to other NCL ships. The staff is very friendly and outgoing. The service was excellent. They also do something else I haven't seen other ships do. As you are coming back onboard, they meet you with a tray of wet wash clothes and offer you a cup of water.
The shows were good, Elements was excellent. We didn't go to all of them because this was a very port intensive trip. The food was average, about what we have had on all cruises in the past. We have sailed several other lines. I like the free-style dining for a port intensive trip so you can choose anytime you would like to eat. We did eat in the buffet and the food is average but the buffet restaurant is larger than most ships so we never had to wait for a table.
The cabins are small. We had a balcony for the first time and this was great for the kids to have a bit more room. We enjoyed the night we passed Sicily. You could see it well.
Before writing about our ports, I wanted to mention a few thoughts about our tours and guides. I did a ton of research for all ports here on Cruise Critic and it really paid off. Without the planning, we would have wasted time and money. I would do extensive planning again but one BIG thing I learned was that it is not the tour company you choose as much as it is the actual guide you get. Also, I realized how important it is to have a guide for most ports, at least for us. The stories and interaction with the guides we had absolutely made the trip for us and made everything we were seeing come to life. We would not have had nearly the same experience without our guides. We read from a Rick Steves book for one port and it was very boring and our kids did not pay attention. Also, most of the guides we hadwere freelanced and worked for many different companies so in the end, it really is about the guide you get. You can get the same guide regardless of which company you use in some situations. I am sure some companies have a closer connection to some guides vs. others. Also, if the company can't guarantee a guide until closer to your date, just stress how important it is to have a certain kind of guide (give details about your group and if you have kids). Next cruise, I will focus more on reading reviews about specific guides. We mostly had excellent guides but two were not that great.
Another huge benefit to having a private tour guide is their "lining skipping" privileges in all of the countries we visited. This in and of itself was worth it because we were able to see and do more with our limited time. Also, with kids, this was invaluable.
About Money - I was concerned about this so we brought all options. I ordered all money I knew for sure we would need for the tours, tickets and transportation and put it in envelopes labeled for each port. My husband carried a Pac Safe Money belt and we only brought the money for that day and left the rest in the safe. We also used the Capital One credit when possible and had debit cards but we didn't have to use the ATM at all.
Venice- We bought tickets for the ATVO bus at the airport in the machines in baggage claim. Had it not been for reading about these machines here, we would have stood in a very long to buy these same tickets. People didn't seem to notice the ticket machines. The bus was very easy. Once we got to the Piazzale Roma, we bought the 72 water pass at HelloVenice. This is the farthest you can get into Venice by car. They have a booth there. We stayed at Hotel Arlecchino because of the short walk from Piazza Roma to the hotel. It was the perfect location for cruisers. We only had to walk over one bridge with luggage. Very easy. The hotel was nice, had excellent WIFI and decent breakfast. We would stay there again. The service and staff were great. We arrived early, about 9 AM and the rooms were not ready but they quickly cleaned two rooms for us and we had our rooms within an hour. While we waited, we ate at the little cafe next to the hotel. The first day, we took a ride on the water taxi to St. Mark's Square. I didn't have anything planned because I knew we would tired.
The next day we did a tour with Context Travel, the Cannaregio neighborhood walk. The guide was great. Her name was Louisa. She was excellent with kids as well as adults. This was a wonderful neighborhood off the tourist path. The next day we did "Daily Life in Venice" with Context Travel. The guide wasn't very good and didn't really follow the theme of the tour. I was very disappointed in Context Travel tours. I guess my expectations were high since they claim to be "different" and have "family docents". They were not different from other tours we had and two of their guides (we did 4 tours with them total) were the worse guides we had on the trip. It is not worth the extra money unless you know for sure the guide you will have (Louisa was great, Susan was not) and talk to Context in advance. Overall, we all loved Venice! We did get advance tickets for one euro for St. Mark's square. This paid off. The line was very long. We also climbed the bell tower but did this in the evening after the crowds died down on the 2nd day. For a cheap meal, grab a pizza slice in one of the neighborhood areas.
Athens - We did a Context Tour and the guide was not what we expected. Again, one of the worse guides in regards to relating to people. She had the knowledge but couldn't not read our family or notice when she was giving way too much information. She didn't interact or ask questions. Instead, she rattled off a ton of information and after 3 hours, I had to stop her and tell her we needed lunch. We did very much enjoy the day though. Our kids loving seeing the Parthenon, New Acropolis Museum and walking about the Plaka. It is very helpful when you kids have already learned about the places you are visiting beforehand either in school or by reading before the trip. This makes them excited to see what they have read about. We had perfect weather, much cooler than I expected but a good sun hat and sun umbrella (Coolibar is where I bought mind) is very helpful. I can see how it could get very hot in the summer (We were early June). Note about WIFI at the port in Athens- don't count on using it. Too many people are trying to use it at one time and you cannot get a strong signal. The people at the port in Athens were not friendly and were basically sitting around talking to each other. Don't bother asking questions or asking for help at this port.
Mykonos - Again, great weather. The whole trip was much cooler than I thought but I was told it is normally hotter in the beginning of June. This is a beautiful island but there really wasn't enough to do here on our own, at least with active kids. We walked around in the old town, went to the windmills and Little Venice and shopped a bit but the water was too cold to swim. Also, finding the bus station and figuring out the bus schedule to get to the main beaches mentioned here was not easy. We tried but the bus schedule didn't work out to make it worth the ride to get there and back. We hung out at the nice cafe area right where the ship tender lets you off (we were supposed to be docked at Tourlos but that changed last minute) after our walk around and we had dinner. Also, for those wanting to use their Iphone with free WIFI, make sure the wifi works before ordering food or drinks. For some reason, not all places that state they have WIFI actually work. There was no rhyme or reason to the WIFI situation. Sometimes it worked on our IPhones and sometimes it didn't. Sometimes others were using the same WIFI for for Iphone users it didn't work. If too many people were trying to use it at one time, it didn't work. This was the same situation for all ports in the Med.
Izmir - We went to Ephesus with a private tour with Ephesus Shuttle. I had asked for a guide that would be great for families. We had Mr. Bob (Babar). He was excellent!! You could tell he does this because he loves sharing the information and has a passion for his country. We had to squeeze in the Terrace Houses since we were only in port 7 - 1 but I am so glad we did because my kids loved them. He zigzagged us through the crowds of large tour groups. He also talked to us the whole way there and back about his country, people and anything we wanted to know.
Istanbul - We all loved it! We did a Context Tour and this time, the guide was excellent. She met us at the ship and we took the tram into Old Town. I am glad we had her because it was not as straight forward finding the tram from the ship. It wasn't difficult but we would have wasted time without her getting us there. We did have Lira with us that we ordered from our local bank. So glad we did this. We need it for the tram and all entrances, but the Turkish Bath House took or credit card. Here, we did Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Underground Cistern, lunch at an art school/handicraft center called Caferaga Medresesi (great!), Grand Bazaar and my girls and I did a bath at the oldest Turkish Bath House called Cemberlitas Hamami, built in the 1500's. You can get the shortest option, which takes about 1 1/2 hours but you need to tell them you are on a cruise and have limited time. This was an experience we will always remember. It was recommended to us in a "port talk" that was given before each port of call on the Spirit.
Naples - We used All Around Italy and had the owner Fabrizio, as our driver. He was absolutely amazing. He was funny from the start and immediately connected to all of us. My kids will always remember him. He probably knew as much as a licensed tour guide but he did hire a licensed tour guide for us for Pompeii, and this was necessary in my opinion. We went to Positano first and stopped along the way for pictures on the Amalfi Coast. We had about 2 hours in Positano then lunch at a restaurant he suggested with the most beautiful view. Then we went to Pompeii for 2:30 and by then, the crowds were very thin. This was a great day! If the weather is good and sunny, I recommend Positano because you get to see the Amalfi coast but you are not driving as far to get all the way to the town of Amalfi. It was a good compromise and not as long in the car. They also have a beach in Positano, which is a great break for kids.
Rome - Again, we used Fabrizio for an all day tour to Rome. He again was amazing, getting us to where we needed to be, driving us right up to the places we visited and getting us into Coliseum with no lines. We did St. Peter's first and did climb the dome because the line was short. We did not go into the Vatican Museum because we knew it was too much with our kids. They enjoyed St. Peter's and having a guide inside this church was great. It gave us structure and made my kids pay attention to what we were seeing. We went to the Coliseum next with the same guide then for the rest of the day, we had Fabrizio only. We had lunch at a Pizza cafe, and then went to the Pantheon, church with the skulls of the monks, Trevi Fountain, a special secret spot that Fabrizio wanted to show us, and then had gelato. He knew the best order of things to visit, how to get to them with the least amount of traffic and was able to drive right up (something big buses can't do). He is a great guy and we would use him again for sure. We would also use his other drivers if he was booked because he spoke highly of them and he is a smart business man, knowing how important good guides and drivers are for his reputation (He and my husband talked a bit of business since we own our own business).
Livorno- We decided we would need a lighter day so we woke up late and started the day at 11:00. We used a driver from Unforgettable Tuscany and he took us first to Pisa to climb the tower then to Lucca. I bought our tickets online beforehand for the 12:20 time slot. Our kids loved the tower. It was very impressive to see in person. Also, actually "doing something" helped our kids remember the trip and made for a fun day. Later, we went to Lucca and had a local guide I had booked separated. She was Antonella at email@example.com We did a walking tour around Lucca for 2 hours. It was a nice day with great weather again. Lucca was enjoyable but not a place I would go again. We did climb the tower with the trees on top of it, which our kids enjoyed. It is a perfect option if you need a lighter day after Naples and Rome.
Toulon, France - We had planned to go to Cassis but changed that plan. We needed a very low key day after our port intensive days in Italy. The kids were tired of driving so we stayed in Toulon and took a local bus to the local beach. It was a much nicer beach area than I expected with nice cafes and great chairs and umbrellas for rent. The people at the Tourism Information center in Toulon are very helpful and friendly. They will explain all options, how to use the buses and give you all options for the area. You can really go here without a plan and then decide what to do, especially if this is a port later in your cruise. You will be tired! Again, the weather was perfect so it made for a nice day at the beach.
Barcelona - We had a private transfer to the airport with Juan at Auto Vilar, www.autosvilar.com. We got up early, did the self disembark, and went to the Sagrada Familia church first. We did a tour of the outside with Runner Bean for one hour then went inside when it opened at 9:00 for 45 minutes. I am glad we made this effort. My teens thought it was the coolest church they have ever seen.
Overall, a Western Mediterrean cruise is perfect for a family. Cruise Critic was invaluable to our planning.