It was with some sadness that we departed the Norwegian Spirit after 9 days out of Barcelona having visited Casablanca on to the Canaries and back, stopping at Malaga. Despite one rather rough day at sea, the trip was comfortable enough, a good variety of food was well presented and of excellent quality, service in bars and restaurants was good and we were well looked after in our balcony cabin. This review however is not uncritical. I found the entertainment weak by comparison with other NCL cruises we have undertaken, and the whole trip far too geared towards getting passengers to part with as much money as possible.
Let's start with the shows. One show early in the trip entitled 'Broadway' did not go down too well, consisting mostly of excepts from many, many shows the largely European audience had never heard of. It did end with Mamma Mia which warmed things up - but too late it then stopped. Other nights seemed so unattractive I didn't go (an hour of two acrobats one night and someone playing his guitar whose claim to fame was that he came third in a TV voting programme on another: does this excite you?). The one exception to this drab diet was a Rock & Roll show which was very good. Elsewhere in the ship there was indeed music but not of the stunning quality we got last time out in the Western Caribbean with New Orleans Jazz bands and a singer piano player who could easily become the next Ray Charles. There was no comedy nor improv to mix up the entertainment.
There was a daily programme of events many of which were free, table tennis tournaments every day, walk-a-mile invitations, and you could use the gym, the pools, and walk/run around the decks as you'd like. But adverts on the tv, announcements over the PA system, listings in the daily newsletter, and notices everywhere were for Bingo, the Casino, dance and keep-fit classes, art auctions, jewellery sales (every day all day in the atrium) - indeed there seemed to be no aspect of human activity that hadn't been identified as a source of income and charged for and plugged incessantly. Even while we were having breakfast in the restaurant someone came round to the tables to try to persuade us to have brunch the next day in the Jazz restaurant (at $15pp).
The Garden and Widows restaurants are 'complementary' (meaning you have already paid for them). If you wish to dine there between about 19:30 'till 20:30 you will have to wait around 20 minutes for a table but both have a good atmosphere, service is good and a varied and with an interesting international menu. There is also a buffet on the 12th floor open all day which seemed to us to be something of a bun-fight, but was perfectly acceptable for many guests.
Heavily advertised in all quarters however were the 'speciality restaurants' where for a cover charge of between $20 to $30 pp you get a wider choice and personal service. For example in Le Bistro I had 2 starters Moules and Escargot and a rather lovely duo of duck (meat cooked in two different ways).
So the constantly advertised activities and restaurant are two ways NCL try to tempt you to part with your money but very high charges for drinks and 'Tips' are others.
Your bags are scanned for alcohol on arrival and at every port, in case you bring anything to drink on board ($15 corkage per bottle for wine for example). Drinks, including bottled water ($4.75 per litre) are exorbitantly priced (sauvignon blanc $9.75 per 125ml glass) and so there is a huge staff effort, ever present to try to sell them. Ever present means every time you sit anywhere, sunbathing on the terrace; watching a show; listening to a piano player etc, along of course, with meals.
But even such prices are not the end of the story. Every purchase invokes a 15% compulsory gratuity, (and indeed vat at 10% in some circumstances) and then there is a space for an (expected) additional tip to the server/waiter. On top of all this $12 per person per day is added to your account described as a 'service charge'.
NCL have got wise to the exasperation of British customers at what they see as a rip-off attempt by NCL to get guests to pay twice for the same thing. It used to be the case that this was termed 'gratuity' and customers at the start of each cruise could say that they wished to withdraw from the arrangement and would make their own arrangements. Now you can only ask for the charge to be removed on the last day (leading to an enormous queue across the atrium), there is an article in the daily newsletter about how this cash is for 'those you do not meet' and NCL also now require you to write a reason for not paying - no doubt so that they can re-shape the message each trip.
I said that it was a matter of principle. Gratuities in my opinion should be for additional service not for doing what you've already paid for. Thus a helpful waiter who described elements of the menu, bar staff who go out of their way to mix you a drink, is one thing - but steering the ship the right way/ cleaning the deck / preparing 250 rounds of toast for the buffet doesn't seem to me to be additional but just routine. The truth I believe is that NCL creams off $12 x 2000 customers per night (about £140k per cruise) plus the 15% added to any purchases, to make up the pay of their staff -it's not a 'tip' as we Brits would see it.
Despite what seems a rather critical report we did enjoy the cruise very much. It's quite a privilege to be on a multi-million pound ship sailing the major seas and visiting exotic ports. Give it a try but be aware - they are after your money!