Hotel Information ~ We flew into NO on March 6th from Oakland, California on Southwest Airlines, arriving about 5:30pm. After claiming our luggage, we took a taxi to our hotel in the French Quarter, which cost us $40.00 flat rate. It was about 20 miles from the airport to our hotel, and we arrived at the Aston Crown Plaza Hotel shortly after 6:30. The Aston is located right on the corner of Bourbon and canal. Excellent location! I got a fantastic rate of $80.00 per night on Bookit.com...which was amazing. The room was roomy and nice - on par with Holiday Inn. After checking into the hotel and bringing our bags to our room, we headed off to famous Bourbon Street to find a place to have dinner. We walked up and down the street looking at menus and trying to make a choice. We finally opted for a place called "Le Creole". They had the BEST chicken gumbo there...just amazing! My hubby stated feeling a cold coming on so we made it a short night and headed back to the hotel. By the next morning he was SICK and spent the entire day in the hotel room. I did a bit of walking around during the day myself, checking out the little shops and stuff, and we had dinner sent up from room service, which was really pretty horrible. By the next afternoon, (my birthday) my DH was doing much better, and we explored the French Quarter and then took a really nice tour that we booked thru the hotel. It was $45.00 per person, lasted over 2 hours and really showed us all over New Orleans. We saw the Garden Dist, the aftermath of Katrina, the cemeteries, etc. etc. I highly recommend this tour! After the tour we walked the few blocks down to Harrahs and played the slots for a couple hours. I won $100! On the way back we walked past a charming little bistro called the Palace Cafe - right there on canal street. We stopped in and made a 7:00 reservation for my birthday dinner and headed back to the hotel to freshen up. We were surprised to see that my daughter had sent me a bouquet of chocolate dipped strawberries, and they were waiting for us in the room. Dinner at the Palace Cafe was delicious and the service was wonderful. We each had a cocktail and including tip it was about $85.00. After dinner, we headed back to Bourbon Street and got caught up in the Italian-American parade. What fun! We bought a few souvenirs, enjoyed a couple of Hurricanes and was back in our hotel room by about 10:30. Check out was at 11:00, but I called down to the lobby and asked if we could extend our checkout until noon. No problem! I have to say, the Aston Crown Plaza was a sheer delight! The service was wonderful (except that horrible room service meal), they went out of their way over and over. I'd stay there again in a minute.
Embarkation Day ~ The next morning we slept in, and was out of our room by about 11:45. We planned to get a taxi to take us to the port. No need! A very large group called CSK were staying at the Aston and had a chartered bus in front of the hotel when we stepped out the door. They said they had plenty of room, and invited us to take the bus with them to the port - for free. Cool! The port was really VERY close anyway, and within minutes we were there. It was quite windy and very chilly and we all claimed our luggage from the bus. Normally, at this point several Porters show up to get your luggage and whisk them away. Not this time! We all had to get into a LONG line with our luggage and 2-3 Porters were collecting the luggage from the line. All-in-all, it was a very stressful way to do things. Once the luggage was collected however, and we were able to into the building, things happened QUICK! The actual embarkation was taken care of so quick I couldn't believe it - and were were walking onto the ship within 10 minutes after our luggage was taken. We were told right away that our staterooms would not be ready until 2:00, so we made our way up to the 12th floor to have lunch at Raffles Cafe. We had lunch, roamed around the ship a little, and promptly at 2:00 we were able to get into our room. I've got lots to say about our stateroom, but I'll hold off for now. I was delighted in how quick and easy the boat drill was this time. Generally, I loathe that part. It took awhile to get our luggage this time - they arrived just minutes before we headed for dinner around 7:00.
The Ship ~ I really was pretty impressed with the beauty of this ship. I had read a number of reviews that described the ship as being old, worn, stained..whatever. I actually looked for this, and didn't find this to be true. I found the ship to be in amazingly good shape for it's age. The was a minimal of fraying in the carpet in spots near the elevators, but that's about it. I would describe the Spirit's decor as Art Decco with Asian influences. Very elegant and stylish. Both DH and I agreed that the Spirit is one of the most beautiful ships we've cruised on.
Activities ~ This is where I have the most complaints. First of all, we really loved The Cruise Director, Ray. He was funny and VERY entertaining. We agreed that he reminded us of Jon Lovett (from Saturday Night Live), even his voice is similar. Having said that, their activity schedule was really lacking a lot of the stuff we enjoy - games! Trivia was only offered as the "Progressive Trivia" and generally held in the morning. There was no music or sports trivia. No "Name that Tune". Also, there were very few games except those that are more of a show such as The Newlywed Game, or Liar's Club. We especially missed these on out-to-sea days, when the day just dragged! On those days about all they offered were Martini/Margarita or Wine Tastings, Bingo, Casino and Art Auctions (hmmm....all things that cost money!) Even the TV stations were so incredibly limited! At least half were ship oriented.
This might be a nice time to mention that the guests on this cruise consisted of a group of over 900 from the afore mentioned CSK group. CSK is a mechanic and automotive parts association of some sort, and this was some sort of incentive for them. Most of the people that we met were very blue collar types and this was their very first cruise. Needless to say, many of them felt no need to dress up EVER...even on the formal night. The other large group was the Spring Break college students. I heard the estimate put at about 500 of these Spring Breakers. While the basic goal for all of them seemed to be "getting as drunk as possible every single day" I was really surprised that they all behaved themselves pretty good. They were polite and really very sweet. No fights or throwing up or anything rowdy. I did see several of the drunken girls drunk to the point of sloppy and couldn't find their way to their room however, and that was kind of scarry.
Service ~ I think the service on the Spirit was really quite excellent. From the cabin stewards to the wait staff, everyone was top notch and very friendly. I have no complaints here at all. I never waited for a cocktail waiter in the casino or any of the bars - really well staffed.
Staterooms ~ We were in stateroom 6003 - Inside Cabin. I had booked "Inside Guarantee" which had always been lucky for me. But, this time instead of a free upgrade, we got probably the worse location possible. Our stateroom was located at the very front of the ship just outside the door to some of the Crew Quarters. We heard a lot of loud music and talking coming from there late at night...but the biggest problem was just above us. We were directly below the casino and the nightclub. There was LOUD stomping, walking, jumping, etc. until nearly 4am every single night. And, we discovered that we were also right next to the anchor - as the morning we tendered in we were startled by the LOUD noise of the anchor at 5:00am! The cabin itself was fine. Small, but plenty roomy enough with lots of room for all our stuff. There was also a bunk if we had a third person. No fridge, a very tiny TV, and a pretty roomy shower with great pressure. There was a hairdryer in the bathroom, but the power was pretty weak.
Dining ~ Since we got up so late every day, we never had breakfast on the ship. We had lunch at Raffles every day except one, when we tried Windows. I'd rate the buffet at about C-. Pretty crummy, but better than the last NCL buffet we were on. We cruised the NCL Star for the New Years cruise, and their buffet was FAR worse. The worse part about the Spirit's buffet was their pizza. YUCK! They only offered pizza at the buffet and room service. I didn't see what room service offered, because everytime we tried to order it, we were told it would be 2-3 hours, and just said "forget it". The pizza in Raffles was made on a large jelly roll pan, and cut into squares about 3"x3". They always looked dried out and gross. My husband tried a slice and after one bite, wouldn't touch it. We only ate there at lunchtime, because it was quick and convenient. We ate dinner most nights at Windows except two. Once at Cagney's and once at the Garden Restaurant. The food at Windows I would rate at about B-, some things were excellent...others were awful. My personal complaint with Windows or Garden is the selection. Other cruiselines offer sever standard items that you can always get (grilled steak, chicken or fish) NCL doesn't do this. They offer about 6 items...two selections of salads, soups and appetizers. Also, their wine list is pretty comprehensive, but pricey. To save money, I ordered a bottle, and they label it with your information, and hold it for you - until the next night or whatever. Still - the least expensive bottle of wine is $28.00....for the really cruddy stuff. I found out later that they will allow you to bring your own on-board, and pay a $15.00 surcharge. When you think of it, that's really the best way to go. You can get a darn nice bottle of wine for less than $13.00 and really come out ahead.
We ate at Cagney's just once - for our anniversary. In all the cruising that we've done, we had actually never been to a "specialty" restaurant before, so we didn't really know what to expect. I ordered Filet Mignon and my DH ordered Prime Rib. First of all, the service was amazing! While the food was really good...it really didn't live up to its "oh my god" reputation. I actually had to send my steak back - I ordered it Medium, and it was really well done (no pink at all). The cheesecake for dessert was excellent. Overall, I'd grade it A+ for service and B+ for food.
Shore Excursions ~ We didn't book any of our Shore Excursions through NCL. We just felt they were all over-priced and we'd just find something on our own. This worked out pretty well in most ports.
Roatan, Honduras ~ We arrived at this port a little after 2:00, and the folks with NCL booked shore excursions were able to get off first, so we didn't get off the ship until nearly 3:00. The ship stayed at this port until about 8:00pm, but since this was our anniversary and we had reservations at Cagney's we decided to do something simple and return to the ship fairly early. As soon as we got off the ship we were approached by a number of taxi drivers offering to give us a tour. We arranged for a 2 hour tour of Roatan with a guide for $20 per person. The driver drove us part way around the island to a very scenic area pointing out very obvious things along the way "school" "police" "park"..his knowledge of the English language was a joke. He stopped at the scenic area for 15 minutes while we quickly shopped, and he drove us back to the port. All-totalled, we were gone 1 hour. When we mentioned that we expected more, he pulled up to some guy who spoke better English, and the guy said that for an extra $30. per person he could take us to the "Island". We said "forget it" and paid the guy. From what we saw, Roatan is really quite beautiful. We spent the next hour at the small flea market near the port, and bought a beautiful wooden bowl for $20.
Santo Tomas DeCastilla, Guatemala ~ We slept in EVERY single day til nearly noon since we were up until about 3am...and this was no exception. After getting some lunch at the buffet, we stepped onto the pier around 1:00. Inside the port area there were a number of established tour groups offering tour packages you could purchase. We chose the 4-hour Waterfall/City tour for $40.00 per person. I was able to pay for it with my Visa. We were assigned a van and our tour guide Estella was just wonderful. She spoke excellent English, and the driver took us to the Waterfall area. Getting to the waterfalls required walking about a mile up a fairly steep pathway. Being about 50 lbs overweight, I was huffing a puffing from the incline, but it wasn't too bad. The natural waterfalls were beautiful ending at a natural swimming hole. At the waterfalls we witnessed about 20 or more of the drunken Spring Breaker kids (swilling out of a large whiskey bottle) climbing all over the high rocks and risking severe injury or death. It really scared the heck out of me...I kept expecting to see someone falling to their death.
Belize City ~ While the ship arrived at about 8:00, we weren't up and ready to explore until about 1:00. We tendered at this port, so we took the tender boat into Belize and were instantly greeted by an very enthusiastic 60ish black male taxi driver offering a tour. He showed us his tour license and we settled on a 2 hour tour for $20.00 each. His name was Maurice Barnard. He spoke impeccable English - almost that of a college professor. His tour was VERY comprehensive and informative - pointing out foliage, birds and small animals here and there, while giving us a interesting history lesson of Belize. After about an hour he stopped at a small market, and went in to get us a bottles of water and freshly squeezed orange juice. "His treat" he kept insisting. Toward the end of the tour, he asked if we were interested in any shopping and he stopped at a small gift shop for about 15 minutes. I bought a lovely mahogany bowl there for $15.....its really stunning. He also gave us several pieces of Belizian currency. We returned to the ship and tipped him well. What a find!
Cozumel, Mexico ~ We've been to Cozumel many times, and had planned on renting a jeep to drive around the area. But, by the time we got up and to the pier, we decided it just wasn't worth it for the few hours we had left, so we just shopped there at the wonderful mall they've recently built there. We got a lot of really nice things to bring home, including some stunning earrings for me at Diamonds International! Oh yeah!
Entertainment ~ The entertainment was a mixed bag. As I mentioned before, the Cruise Director was very funny and entertaining. They had a team from Second City that was good...but not fantastic and a Magician/Comedian guy that was pretty good. Most impressive was a 20 year old guy named Chantz Powell that plays the trumpet, sings and dances that will knock your socks off! We only attended one big show performance. It was brand new, and I think they need to work out the kinks a bit. They didn't have a Guest Talent Show - but they had a Crew Talent show that I heard was pretty good (we didn't go).
Karaoke ~ I LOVE karaoke, and really look forward to it on every cruise. I didn't enjoy it much on this cruise however. The venue is horrible - the singer is basically standing in the middle of the room surrounded by a few tables and lots of people just standing (lack of chairs). The song selection is horrible, and the books are printed in really tiny print, so it's really hard to even see what they have. One piece of advice for all you karaoke singers though - you can bring your own karaoke CDs if you'd like. They have the equipment that will handle VCDs or CD&G.
Debarkation ~ Our flight didn't leave until 3:30 in the afternoon, so we had plenty of time. No need to get up at the crack of dawn either! We set our alarm for 9:30 and went upstairs to have a bit of breakfast. They called our RED luggage tag color while we were in the buffet line. By 10:30 we had our luggage, and were getting into the taxi. Easy as pie.
Odds and Ends ~ I really got frustrated with the inaccurate Freestyle Daily. They'd show an activity on the front page in a little box with one time/place that didn't match with the overall timeline listing. It's hard to describe, but let's just say that it was hard to know when/where something was taking place because the Freestyle Daily was inaccurate.
Lastly, the strangest thing happened during Quest. We really love this game and have played it on other cruises as well. It's kind of a adult version of a scavenger hunt. Anyway, I had kicked off my brand new black leather flip-flops next to my chair when things got really lively during the game. After the game, and I started gathering my things to leave I couldn't find my flip-flops. We never did find them, and I had to return to my stateroom barefoot. I checked with lost and found several times and they were never turned in. Weird!
We did have a nice time, and would love to return to the Spirit again in the future.