Overall we had a great time, and felt this cruise was an excellent value. The Spirit may not be a newer mega-ship but is well-run and fairly well-maintained. We were dubious about the "Freestyle" concept, but now we are believers; it really is a nice (slightly more relaxing) way to cruise. The food, service, and cabins were good. And a fun Western Caribbean itinerary with 4 nice stops. One area needing improvement was the entertainment; we rate it as weak and feel it did not compare well with the other cruise lines.
Background: my wife and I are in our early 50's and this was our 22nd cruise. We have cruised with HAL, RCCL, Celebrity, Carnival and NCL. We arrange our own port activities; we like beach days and we are scuba divers.
The Freestyle concept: there's not really a whole lot of difference. Most ships are very similar; same embarkation, same ports of call, similar cabins, similar services and activities, similar approach to breakfast and lunch. The real difference is the dinner and the dress code; "Freestyle" is a bit more relaxed and has a few more dinner options.
- Roatan, Honduras. We were disappointed that the time was cut short (engine problems). Had to cancel our dives. But we managed a decent beach trip to West Bay (right next to Tabayana Beach); a nice clean beach that had no entrance fee. The cab ride was $20 each for the round trip; the driver was very nice and waited there for us. Nice place to sun and swim and snorkel for four hours. Bar with snacks and drinks. Clean bathrooms. Just get off the ship and grab a cab. Not crowded.
-Santo Thomas, Guatemala. We hung out near the dock/pier. I used the local internet provider to get caught up on work while my wife shopped. (Much cheaper internet than the ship) Enjoyed listening to the local musicians and drinking the Guatemalan beer; not bad!
-Belize. We arranged our own cave tubing excursion on-line with "Extreme Cave Tubing". This was a great time and we enjoyed the river and the jungle vistas tremendously. A good excursion company; well worth the $60 (which included a nice free t-shirt. After the excursion hung out at the harbor/pier watching the boats come and go and drinking the local beer…Belikan Dark…excellent. As good as many German dark beers.
-Cozumel. Did a 2-tank boat dive with "Dive with Martin". As usual the diving was absolutely spectacular and the folks at the dive shop were great……safe, fun, and inexpensive. IMHO best dive shop in Cozumel. We dove the Santa Rosa Wall and Paradise reef; both were wonderful. Glad to see the island (the people and the marine life) are recovering well from Hurricane Wilma.
2. Crew/service. Overall, good. The whole crew was professional. Our cabin service was outstanding. Our table service in the dining room was OK; but they were stretched a little thin with too many tables and customers. Most people will feel pampered.
3. Food. Overall, pretty good. Dining Room is not as good as most other cruise lines but good options are always available if you know where to look. The "Freestyle" concept does have a few more dining options than most other cruise lines.
- Buffet (Raffles): Breakfast and lunch buffets were OK. Be sure to try the waffles for breakfast. We thought the dinner buffet was excellent; lots of options and unique extras. Be sure to try the pasta bar and have a crepe for dessert. We ended up eating most of our dinners in Raffles. Hard ice cream is always available for lunch and dinner.
-Free Dining rooms (Gardens and Windows) these were OK; decent food but often the food was not hot and the service was good but very slow. Be sure to eat here for the lobster night (Monday). Plan to spend at least an hour if you eat in the dining rooms. The NCL Freestyle concept falls a little short here; the dining rooms on this ship do not meet the standard of the other cruise lines.
- La Trattoria ( a free specialty restaurant): enjoyed an excellent authentic Italian meal here. I don't recommend their wine: overpriced and mediocre. Schedule at least a day in advance or it might be full.
-Room service; food was so-so and took a long time to arrive.
-Pay-as-you-go specialty restaurants (Cagney's, Shoguns, Le Bistro). Heard good reviews but we did not use them. No need to spend the money as there are lots of good food alternatives available at no cost.
-Bier Garden: open from around 12 - 5pm daily; good brats and sauerkraut.
-Blue Lagoon: open 24 hours; food was pretty good especially the shepherd's pie and the Texas fries with all the toppings.
4. Dress Code: For those folks like us who don't really want to dress up….this is a great (informal) cruise. You never have to wear more than a shirt and pants even in the dining rooms in the evenings. Some folks did dress up for the "dressy nights" but it's totally optional. Spent most of the cruise in shorts and T-shirts.
5. Entertainment. My wife is a musician and I depend on her for this evaluation. This ship's entertainment was not that great. The guest performers were so-so and the production singers/dancers/sets/ costumes were not up to the standards of the other cruise lines. This is NOT a cruise to take if you really want good entertainment.
6. Cabins. Ours was a standard inside cabin. It was a little small but it was clean and well-maintained. Enjoyed the shower with sliding door. Our cabin stewards were excellent; as good as any cruise we have taken.
7. Embarkation/Debarkation: Embarkation was fairly well organized. If you drive to the pier I recommend you don't arrive before 11 a.m. We arrived by car at the pier just before noon and there was a modest line of cars and a wait inside the terminal of about 30 minutes. Next time I would wait until 2 p.m. Debarkation was also fairly smooth and almost everyone was off the ship by 1030 a.m. Had to wait in some short lines while getting off, but comparable to most other ports and cruise lines.
8. The Ship. Well maintained, clean and in decent repair. Good gym, with a fair amount of equipment. 4 nice hot-tubs/whirlpool, etc. Public areas were kept clean. If you like nautical stuff be sure to see the "Galaxy of the Stars" room; lots of great ship models and other stuff for Mariners. Enjoyed the Casino; glad to see the standard Vegas-style blackjack tables where dealer stands on all 17's (unlike other cruise ships where dealer can hit on soft 17).
9. Passengers. A good mix of ages and people from all over. We were glad to see very few of the "chronic complainers" that we often see on HAL and Celebrity ships.
10. NOLA. You just can't beat NOLA as a departure port. Enjoyed two days enjoying the French Quarter, riding the streetcars, enjoying street performers, and of course eating shrimp Po-boys, Mufaletta sandwiches, gumbo, and beignets.
We do not hesitate to recommend this cruise to anyone: either newcomers or "old hands" like us. We would take this cruise again and we are already planning a Fall 08 cruise on this ship out of New Orleans.
Feel free to email questions to Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org