We had an amazing cruise on the Spirit's 12 night Grand Mediterranean sailing from Venice to Barcelona. The short takeaway from this review is: book this trip now! Not only would I highly recommend both this ship and this itinerary, I've concluded that it's far better to see the ports in this order. Seeing the ruins in Athens are much more impressive if seen first, rather than last, since the other ports are more impressive. Also, the first half of this trip has a nice mix of half or full sea days to recover from jet lag, and rest after busy port days, in preparation for the very busy week along the Italian coast. I normally hate sea days, but on this trip they were very well balanced. If you do the Barcelona to Venice sailing, the first week is going to be brutal. When even the cruise ship employees say they feel bad for the guests on that sailing, you know it's not recommended. Venice to Barcelona, however, is perfect!
I've broken up this review between each area of the ship, ending with the best part: the ports!
The Norwegian Spirit
The ship itself is a great one, if you've never been on an NCL cruise you're going to be pleasantly surprised. I've concluded that NCL is my favorite cruise line, hands down. The ship has the usual amenities, nice pool, attractive design - but our favorite non-food features were the views. From the forward lounge on the top floor to the Windows dining room in the Aft (if you're lucky enough to sit near the window), there's always a great view to be had. Most importantly to me was the ability to walk around the top deck and look out from any direction, and the ability to walk around the promenade deck as well, with the view only obstructed in the forward section. This may seem like an odd thing to point out, but my last cruise had no promenade deck and very limited views from the top deck, so this ship made us quite happy in that regard.
Food on the Spirit
Following in the NCL tradition of amazing food, the Spirit doesn't disappoint. The buffet was the best I've had at sea, the main dining rooms were slightly better than other cruise line offerings. The specialty dining is worth the money, our favorites were the three offerings at Shogun, the asian restaurant. Their teppanyaki grill is a must-do, their sushi is outstanding (huge portions for a low price, about $4.50 for what would normally sell for $12), but the main Shogun restaurant was easily my favorite food on the ship. What I wouldn't give for their shredded pork hot & sour soup again. We also really enjoyed snacking on the fresh pretzel rolls found poolside and in the buffet, as well as the popcorn and excellent fish and chips in Henry's Pub. Since they are free, I'd recommend everybody try the fish and chips at least once.
I hate cruise ship entertainment. In my experience, it has virtually never been good, so we usually just don't bother trying anymore. On this ship that trend seemed to continue, as the first few nights had the typical song & dance shows that I wanted nothing to do with. But to their credit, they do try to mix things up on this ship, there's enough variety to where there's something for everybody. That said, the magic show was terrible, the gymnast /aerialists were ho-hum, and while their finale show tries to be like Cirque du Soleil, it's just ok. The comic / juggler was a nice distraction, neither great nor a waste of time. What shocked me was, of all things, the string quartet. I had no interest in seeing them, but we could hear them as we walked by the theater and thought "wow that actually sounds good", so we checked it out. It turns out that was the most popular show of the entire cruise. They're really entertaining guys, so if nothing else I can at least say there was one really good show on the ship.
Mentioning how good communication is aboard a ship seems strange, until you had a bad experience (hey there, Carnival) and you realize that good communication on key things ranging from the muster drill to disembarkation is fairly important. NCL excels at this, from the contents of the Freestyle Daily (where the ratio of information to advertisement is high) to the frequent PA announcements by the cruise director and the captain. Due to unrest in Athens, we almost skipped the port and would have gone to Crete. They explained this multiple times on embarkation day and kept us updated on the two sea days leading up to Athens, including letting us know precisely when they were sure they were still going to Athens. I can only imagine a lesser cruise line just showing up in Crete and saying "oh by the way, this isn't Athens". There was only one exception to this level of communication...
Embarkation was a cakewalk... sortof. We had no interest in boarding, we just wanted to check in at noon, leave our bags, and visit Venice for the rest of the day, because the ship did not leave until 1am. When we arrived we started asking if we had to board first or could we just take our cruise cards and leave. While very friendly and well-meaning, the port employees (which are NOT NCL employees) were all completely ignorant of when all-aboard was. We asked four people, and got four responses, ranging from "you have to board now" to "oh you can wait until 1am" with several random times suggested in between. It took until the 4th person before we were handed a Freestyle Daily which clearly said all-aboard was 12:30am -- and that very person said 4:30pm. Eventually we did come back and board the ship for the first time around 5pm, hopped off again and returned at 11pm. So embarking was super easy, but really annoying.
It is just not possible to have a disembarkation process better than this. If you leave your luggage outside your door the night before, you don't have to do so until midnight. You don't have to be off the ship until 9:30, you don't have to leave your room until 8:30, and best of all you can walk off at any time with your luggage. Some cruise lines don't let you do this. But NCL takes it to the next level. They have color coded disembarkation tiers every 15 minutes from 5:30 -- 9:30am. Every other tier is for a specific group -- excursions, a given time block of airline departures, etc. But every tier in between is an open group: they leave the luggage tags out in the atrium for you to pick any debarkation time you want. On some other cruise lines if you aren't going to the airport or on an excursion, you're forced to disembark last. Here you can leave any time you want AND have them take your luggage off for you. Beat that! Still, we opted for getting off ourselves whenever we woke up and finished breakfast, and it was the smoothest experience we've had to date.
Ports - The whole reason you're doing this cruise!
Venice was a beautiful town, easily walkable. You don't need to take a gondola and honestly you don't need the water taxi either. I wrote up how we stayed in Mestre and easily embarked on the ship after taking the train in, full details are here:
We did Athens on our own, and are very glad we did. It's a short walk to the metro, a short ride into town, and you can see all the ancient ruins with the Acropolis pass. Full details on what we did and how we did it are in this post:
But the best part in my eyes was the food near Monastiraki -- best souvlaki ever!
We only had a half day here, so we took the NCL Simply Ephesus tour, which spends more time exploring Ephesus and skips the terrace houses. Other buses went to a leather store afterwards but our tour spent the entire time at Ephesus and we were some of the last people back on the ship -- so we loved it!
There is absolutely no need to take a tour here. It's a short walk into old town, we were able to do every major attraction, spend a lot of time at the markets, and still be back on the ship almost two hours early. Full details, again, are in this post:
Mykonos is a fun little island, the beaches were nice though the water was pretty cold. We rented a car in town for 30 Euro for the day, and went to Panormos beach, Kapari, and Paradise, spenting about 90 minutes at each place before going back to Old Town for a little while before taking the tender back to the ship. The island is very small so if you rent a car you can easily go to any beach you want, even if you wanted to go to the east side.
In Naples the first thing you want to do is... get out of Naples. With the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii to the south, you probably wanted to do that anyways. Supposedly it's pretty easy to go to Pompeii and Sorrento by train, but we opted for the NCL trip that did the same. We took the Flavors Of Sorrento & Pompeii tour. It gave us about 90 minutes in Sorrento, then a great lunch at a farm, and then on to Pompeii -- which is a must see!
We did Rome on our own, taking the train into town and seeing pretty much every major attraction from the Colosseum to inside St. Peter's, all except the Sistine Chapel. Again, full details are in this post:
For Florence we went with Rome In Limo, which gave us much more time than the NCL tour would have. We first went to Pisa, and I'm very glad we did because the leaning tower is really amazing to see in person. Then on to Florence, where we had maybe 4 or 5 hours to walk around and have lunch, see the Duomo, etc. We also saw the David, which you absolutely must get tickets in advance for. There was a 3.5 hour wait for non-ticket-holders. We had a timed ticket for noon, got there at 12:30, had maybe a 20 minute wait. Others in our group had the same time but went at about 3:30 and walked right in. Your timed ticket is good for any time during the day after that time, so you can just wait a little later and cruise right in at your leisure. Still, even at 12:30 the wait wasn't that bad.
We took the NCL tour of Marseille & Aix-en-Provence. It was just ok, really. There's not a whole lot to do in Provence that compares to the remainder of the trip, so it's unfair to hold it against the region. We did have a nice day though - Aix was a cool town, and while we were only briefly in Marseille it seemed nice, and we had stunning views from the Notre Dame cathedral.
Easily and without question, the best city of this entire trip was Barcelona! From the food, to the magical Gaudi world of Parc Guell, Sagrada Familia, and Casa Batllo, to Placa Espanya and the Magic Fountain... everything in Barcelona was just amazing. We spent two days and nights here before flying home, and just fell in love with the place. We told people after this cruise that our favorite cities were Barcelona and Istanbul, but it's telling that we always say Barcelona first.