There comes a time, I suppose, in everyone’s life when they think about going on a cruise.
In many ways, it’s an easy option. You don’t need to worry about what the weather will do (unless it’s unspeakably stormy). Once you’ve booked, all the food you can possibly eat, and more, is thrown at you, and the staff to passenger/guest ratio is huge, by the standards of most hotels.
So with 10 days’ holiday or so to take before the end of the year, my wife and I signed up for our first ever cruise: a November Med voyage aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines’ (NCL)Norwegian Spirit.
To cut to the chase, would I do it again? Answer: yes. Aboard the Spirit? Answer: no.
At 75,000 tonnes, give or take a few hundredweight, this is apparently a ‘small’ cruise ship, carrying only about 2,000 passengers. To my untutored eye, it was massive. God alone knows what the new generation of 150,000-tonners is like.
The crew are all charming to a fault. There’s a wide choice of bars and restaurants, including a clutch for which there’s an extra cover charge: a Teppenyaki, an Italian, a French, bistro, a Japanese sushi, an Asian ‘fusion’ and a US-style steak house.
If you sail on her, you may be frequenting them despite your budget and judgment, because I think the biggest problem with the Spirit is its food service.
Bluntly, the restaurants seem linked to the kitchens by the longest corridors on any ship. Or maybe the meals are cooked in another ship and winched aboard in a bosun’s chair. I don’t know. But I got terribly, terribly tired of, and irritated at, being served food that was at best warm and at worst cold, with sauce congealing round the edges.
The crew is obviously aware of the problem, because all the meals come plated from the kitchens with plastic hoods on, to keep in the heat.
I was told the reason why my rare steak was stone cold in the middle was because that’s how rare should be – uncooked in the middle. Yeah, right. I sent it back, and sent back another meal, and in the end, gave up and started frequenting the extra-charge places in a desperate search to find hot food. For the record, the Italian trattoria isn’t bad and the Chinese restaurant passable.
At breakfast time, things seemed to get worse in the main Garden Room and Windows restaurants. Anything named after a less-than-perfect computer operating system is suspect, in my view. And yes, cooked breakfasts arrived tepid with soggy toast, as this too was trapped under the plastic hoods.
On Deck 12, there’s the Raffles self-service restaurant. This is far and away the best place to eat breakfast, because you get the food immediately and you can have omelettes and other dishes cooked in front of you, so they have no time to reach thermal equilibrium with the chilled fruit.
Many four and five star hotels offer self-service breakfasts. They work. The trouble with the Raffles is that seating is the very worst type of Plastic Burger Bar Brutal. Listen, NCL: forget waiter service at breakfast in the comfy restaurants. Go all self-service. You’ll have a better product.
Bars? Lots of. The Champagne Bar was our favourite, because it seemed to have the best staff and also had a superb pianist/singer whose repertoire was vast. Excellent.
Cabin? Big enough, little balcony, impeccably served by a steward, comfy, great.
Library? The worst collection of books you would never foist on your worst enemy as a cheapo Christmas present. Great Baseball Writing, two copies of? Argh.
Entertainment? Lots of. That’s fine, but sometimes you want some peace and quiet and it’s terribly, terribly difficult to find a quiet spot. If I had to use one word to sum up NCL’s Norwegian Spirit, ‘noisy’ would be it.
For the rest, I understand the need to part the happy passenger with as much money as possible while aboard. That’s business. But it’s all a bit relentless. And demanding $100 (yes a hundred US dollars) for four hours’ wifi access is utter highway robbery.
I also object, when coming aboard from a shore trip, to having my luggage searched for illicit bottles of alcohol and having the same confiscated for the duration of the voyage. That sucks, utterly. If I want to have a snifter in my own cabin, surely that’s my business? Hotels don’t seize bottles from their guests because they trust them not to drink them in the hotel bars and restaurants, but in the privacy of their own rooms. So should cruise lines. Anyway, NCL failed to find the bottle of malt I brought on when we first boarded, so yah, boo, sucks. We must celebrate our small victories when we can.
We enjoyed ourselves, but I think this was despite the hustle (in every sense of the word) and bustle. It really was a bit Butlins-sur-Mer. The enjoyable bits were simply sitting on deck, relaxing, in the bars sipping well-prepared drinks, or watching the sunrise over Funchal as our ship edged into dock.
In summary, my impression of the Spirit was lots of show and not enough go. There’s a sort of superficial gold leaf over everything. It’s all so much presentation, and when you actually take a long hard look at what you’re getting underneath the glitz, it isn’t as good as it appears.
So, next time, I think I’d be happy to pay more, and relish the traditional attractions of cruising – the fresh air, the changing scenery, the sheer joy of being isolated from the rest of the world, in short, the whole ‘shippy thing’, and hopefully also benefit from a higher standard of board and lodging.