My wife and two children just returned from the 8/19/06 sailing of the Norwegian Spirit to St. Thomas, Tortola, and Bermuda.
We arrived at the port terminal in NY City and were on the ship in exactly one hour. We had filled out the registration forms online prior to boarding. This helped tremendously. Embarkation was crowded but organized.
The ship was spotless at all times. No need to say any more on that.
We were in our stateroom by about 2:00PM for a 4:00PM sailing. Our room was an interior cabin and was quite small - 8 x 10 at best. A neighbor across the hall who had a balcony cabin asked us to help with their luggage. The balcony cabin was no bigger in terms of footprint but did have a wall of glass looking to the outside so it felt larger. There were four of us crammed into our interior cabin but it actually was doable. The major downsides were that there was no chest of drawers to put your clothing and it was quite difficult to get a suitcase into the closet so your luggage was fighting for the same square footage as you were. The bathroom was a good size. The bathroom was equipped with a hair dryer (don't bring your own - the only 110V outlets are in the main part of the cabin and they don't support the kind of wattage that a hair dryer pulls). It also had shampoo and soap dispensers in the shower.
Our luggage didn't arrive at our cabins until about 5PM and one bag didn't arrive until 7 PM.
Our cabin stewards were excellent. Each morning and just before dinner our cabin looked like a disaster area. Each time when we returned it was immaculate - no exceptions. We found towels in the shape of animals only twice during our cruise but that didn't bother us.
The major potential negative of sailing on the Spirit was the freestyle dining logistics. After boarding the ship we went directly to the Reception desk in the main atrium to make our reservations only to be told that the only remaining reservations were 5:30PM and 9:00PM. We quickly learned of a workaround for that which I will go into later in this review. The freestyle dining concept may work well on other Norwegian ships but not so well on the Spirit due to its origins. The Spirit was originally built to serve an Asian gambling cruise market where passengers typically eat quick meals in the Lido restaurant and then go back to gambling. It was refitted for the U.S. cruise market so the Spirit's total restaurant capacity is insufficient to support a flexible dining format.
The main restaurant on the Spirit is called Windows. It is quite grand and is reminiscent of the large, elaborate dining rooms on luxury liners of years past. The decor had a very luxurious look and feel to it.
The second restaurant is called the Garden and is a much smaller facility. Stick to Windows for the ambience.
Attire in the dining rooms is casual (no shorts, etc. after 5PM).
The menu in both Windows and Garden is identical. We found the food to be tasty but the portions were small. A couple of nights I asked for a second dinner and received it cheerfully so anyone worrying about getting enough to eat don't worry about it at all.
We found the service on the Spirit to be good but not excellent. With the freestyle dining concept you get a different waiter every meal so I can understand how the wait staff doesn't have an incentive to go the extra mile. But the freestyle dining concept aside, all in all the dining experience on the Spirit was good. But I should recognize the service we received from Vinod and Thomas (who waited on us several times). Their service was excellent and we rewarded them with an on-the-spot gratuity for their efforts.
The Spirit also offers pay-as-you-go restaurants where you can pay an additional $15-25 per person and get a "premium" meal. My wife and I tried the Le Bistro restaurant and were pleased with the filet mignon; however, the rave reviews as to the chocolate fruit fondue dessert alone being worth the extra cost are grossly overrated.
Perhaps the most positive aspect of the cruise was the kids club and facilities. The kids camp is open roughly 9am-12noon, 2PM-5PM, and then 7PM-10PM. Group sitting is also available from 10PM-1AM for $5/hr - very reasonable - but you must sign up for the group sitting each day by 8PM. The counselors at the kid camp were very enthusiastic and engaged the children in a wide range of activities and games. We did the 7PM-10PM slot most of the nights and my kids came out quite excited about returning the next day.
And that is where the freestyle dining workaround lies. If you feed your kids at 6PM in the Lido deck restaurant ("Raffles") and then drop them off at the kid camp at 7PM you can then go to Windows as a walk-in and get a table for two immediately - and the tables for two that we got were almost entirely window tables having a breathtaking view of the water. The nights that we ate with the children we simply went to Windows when it opened at 5:30pm and were seated immediately.
Another major plus of the Spirit was the children's pool. It is located on the stern of the ship and offers grand views of the ship's wake. The main pool was undersized and overcrowded so I would recommend to anyone who is not traveling with children to hang out at the kid pool area anyway - it is that good. In addition to the water slides and water cannons, the children's pool area offers a stadium style, tiered architecture which incorporates eating areas with tables, a dedicated bar, and a great combination of both sun and shade areas. It is also away from the music that is forever blaring at the main pool. We typically arrived early in the morning, staked out a table and stayed all day due to the easy access to the Raffles restaurant for lunch and snacks.
Drink prices on board were outrageous ($4-5 for beer, $6-9 for wine, $6-10 for mixed drinks). But that may not be any different than any other cruise ship.
The casino was quite large and ornate. The dealers were very helpful and the protocol was fairly relaxed. So both experienced and novice gamblers should quite enjoy it.
Shopping on board was fairly limited due to space restrictions. There was a jewelry shop although the prices at Omni Jewelers in St. Thomas were much better. My wife and I have purchased several pieces there over the years and have been informed by our local jeweler here in the U.S. that we did very well pricewise. There is also a duty free shop for liquor and cigarettes.
The shows in the theater were fairly mediocre. I heard this opinion from many other passengers as well; however, there was a Filipino quartet in Champagne Charlie's (bar in the atrium area) each night which were quite enjoyable.
Disembarkation was a breeze. Norwegian offers express disembarkation which simply means that if you are willing to carry your own luggage you walk off the boat before the other passengers are called to disembark. This was especially appealing to us as you don't have to wait around the terminal to locate your luggage and you get to hang on to your bags until you leave the ship (those who choose to use the traditional disembarkation have their luggage collected the night before docking).
All in all we felt that we had a great cruise. If you really want the traditional dining format of having a set time for dinner and the same waiter each meal then Norwegian is not for you. But my wife and I were of that very mindset before this cruise and we found that we were able to work with the freestyle dining concept. And given the caliber of the children's program and kid pool we felt the tradeoff was well worth it.
Finally, I feel that I should mention that I read many reviews on the web prior to sailing that really trashed Norwegian and that made me a little nervous. My message to you is don't be. The individuals who wrote those reviews either have unreasonable expectations or simply wouldn't have a good time regardless of their actual vacation experience.