Background This is my 16th cruise, with a variety of cruise lines. I haven't found a cruise that I didn't like yet. There are always items that I think can be done better on every cruise line. I am 41 years old and often cruise with my family (currently my daughter is 16 and son is 14).
Pre-Cruise We arrived in New Orleans and stayed at the Maison St. Charles under the Bon Voyage program. This allowed us to leave our car parked at the hotel for the week of the cruise at no cost. The room was $108 plus one nights parking. The hotel is on the St. Charles street car line, but for the most part requires a drive to the French quarter. However, it worked well for us.
Embarkation I dropped off the family and luggage at the pier. This was a very quick and painless process. I then drove the car back to the hotel and took a taxi back to the pier (cost of taxi was $7). We then entered the terminal. We had about a 5 minute wait to get through security. Once through security we were taken straight to a check-in agent. After getting our room keys, we headed for the line to get our pictures, we saw the Kids Club table and stopped and registered both of our teenagers for the teen activities. We were on the ship less than 15 minutes after entering the terminal. This was approximately 1:00.
Passenger Make-Up Being that this was a prime Spring Break/Good Friday cruise, it was announced that there over 500 people onboard that were 18 and under. It was reported that there were another few hundred that were between 18 and 25 years old. The ship at double occupancy is just over 1,900 passengers; we had right at 2,500 passengers onboard for this week of the cruise. This is not a typical mix of passengers. It was very young. However, for the most part the College Spring Breakers (and there were many) did not bother us. But, we weren't trying to get around the main pool or use the hot tubs. So, I think our paths just didn't cross, which was good.
Ship Appearance/layout/overall thoughts The ship is 10 years old. I have heard much about the ship looking tired, dated and in need of a serious make over. I did not find this to be the case. The ship was originally built and deployed as the Super Star Leo in the Asian market. The ship has an overall Asian theme from the carpets, artwork and decorations. I found the ship to have an elegant ambiance. The only items that I noticed that were not in good shape were: the carpet in some of the elevator lobbies was pulling apart at the seams, minor detail. Several of the windows in the Galaxy of the Stars had a film/fogged look between the panes of glass that made it very difficult to enjoy a view. But, you could move and find a clear window. The buffet area (Raffles) is scheduled for a make over to the Action Stations as seen on the newer NCL ships, but I found the buffet area setup to be very good with at least 6 or so different distinct food areas. The lounge chairs on deck 13 near the basketball courts and golf driving nets were nice newer chairs. However, in other areas such as the kid's pool area and the amphitheater the lounge chairs were the older plastic strap chairs and were in need of replacement. I am assuming that they are in the process of replacing the chairs to match those on deck 13.
Cabin We were in an interior cabin on deck 9. The bathroom layout was very nice, as many have noted, the glass doors is a great improvement over the shower curtain. The bathroom was typical of a cruise ship bathroom. As has been noted in many reviews, the bedding needs an overhaul. The mattresses were fine, not luxurious, but they did not sag and they were not hard as a board. A pillow top mattress would be nice though. The bedspreads were the bold stripes, but our colors a green and yellow were not that bad. We had 4 people, with only one bunk, the other bed was trundle which when out, made the cabin all beds and difficult to move around. I would have preferred to have a second bunk as opposed to the trundle, but we made it fine. It would have been nice to have a little more counter space in the cabin, since the coffee maker uses up a good portion of the counter space. The desk is relatively small. My son trying to watch the NCAA tournaments on the TV in the cabin, complained about the size, it was small. I most likely wouldn't have noticed, except his pointing out how hard it was to watch basketball on the TV. I will note that the air conditioning worked very well and I really like the quick cool button, that allowed us to get a burst of cool air without turning the temperature up and down. The service was good from the cabin steward. I think he was a little rushed, there were minor things that would be missed each evening, but then again, our cabin was a bit of chaos with the things that the kids always left laying around and with 4 people in the room there was stuff everywhere. We did get towel animals almost every evening, so that was good.
Food I found the food to be overall good. As on any cruise I found the "fanciness" of the food to be a little more than I like. We ate in Windows, the Garden and La Trattoria. So, we did not try any fee dining. The small portions were not a problem; I ordered two entrees and two desserts at each evening meal. I really didn't find anything that was just inedible. Some items were better than others. All dishes that should have been chilled were chilled and things that should have been warm were warm. I would say that the food was average to good, which is what I would expect when serving over 2000 people a night. We never waited over 10 minutes to be seated and we generally went during very busy times. The service was not as personal as when you have the same servers for each meal, but that is a nice trade to be able to go to dinner when you are ready instead of a set time. I ate breakfast in Raffles which had both Waffles and Omelet Stations. I never had a wait at any time. For lunch and dinner there was made to order stir fry, meat carving stations, fresh pasta and etc. The food was typical buffet food which I generally try to avoid except for breakfast. I ate at Blue Lagoon or on deck for the other lunches. I really like the hand dipped ice cream. However, the desserts as on most cruises were just not that good in the buffet area. I just don't understand why a pastry chef can't take some American dessert recipes and make them on a ship. Surely a good Chocolate cake, a real cheesecake, brownies with icing isn't that hard to make. The dessert selection was usually a jello, some type of chocolate that was so bitter as not to be good, and bland tasting desserts. Again, this is not alone on the Spirit, I find the desserts lacking on almost every cruise, except when I went on the American Queen where true Southern Desserts were served. I was also disappointed that there was only, tea, coffee and water for lunch and dinner in the Raffles. I would like to have had lemonade, fruit punch, juices and etc. available in the buffet. But, we fixed that in Roatan, by stopping at a grocery and loading up on Gatorade, soft drinks and some local drinks like coconut soft drink, strawberry banana soft drink and etc. So, we made that work.
Entertainment We had Chanz Powell, Second City, Root Berry (jugglers/comedians) and the production shows for the evening entertainment. All were good. I still miss the Jean Ann Ryan Company on NCL, but the production shows were a close second. The rest of the activities were typical cruise fare. On sea days, I am all about getting a good book, reading and relaxing, so the other activities were of limited interest. I did find it hard in the evenings to find a place to just sit and enjoy music. The Piano player talked too much, the band was good, but there were only a couple of times where our schedule and theirs matched up. I thought there should be a more just sitting listening to music options, but the lounges were in use, there just aren't as many as other ships I have been on. I wish movies would have been shown in the main theater on the afternoons of the sea days, but they weren't. They did show some movies in the conference room, but I prefer a cushioned seat and a big screen. They were showing some good movies in the conference room though.
Teen Program My teens were disappointed in the teen program activities. Partly because there were so many kids and many of them were traveling with friends or family, so there was less bonding. With over 500 18 years old and less, it was difficult to get to know many others and bond with the counselors like the kids have on other cruises. Of course, my kids are now getting in the teen age years, so that has something to do with it as well. But, the kids were not impressed with the two counselors. They had a good time, but that is because they eventually met up with a group of others and basically did there on things, just doing the evening teen activities, which was basically sitting around talking to the new friends. I wish NCL could have beefed up the counselors and activities selections for this week, but I realize it is impossible to hire counselors for just a couple of weeks.
Ports This is the highlight of the cruise. I love all the port of calls on this route. Roatan is one of my favorites, this was my first time at Santo Tomas and I also really like both Belize and Cozumel. Roatan - We arrived about 3:00 but didn't start getting off the ship to around 3:30. The captain agreed to let us stay on the island an extra 30 minutes, which was a nice gesture, especially since we used that extra 30 minutes, this was the closest I have ever been on getting back onboard. We used Victor Bodden and we had a great driver, who took us Zip lining, to see the monkeys and several sites on the island. He took us to a grocery so we could stock up on soft drinks and my son wanted Gatorade since they were playing so much basketball. All in all a very good day in Roatan. Santo Tomas - Well, overwhelmed with people is my description. There were 3 ships in port, the Spirit, a Fred Olsen ship (was previously an NCL ship) and a Regent ship. According to our guide, this was the first time the port had 3 ships and it was obvious based on all the chaos. We used Turix and took the Green Bay resort and Waterfall package. It was $40 a person, we took a water taxi to Green Bay resort which was just so nice. From there we took a van to the Waterfalls and enjoyed the waterfalls. This was a very good day. I highly recommend Green Bay resort and the waterfall tour. The thing I like about the resort is that is beautiful, but in a natural way, not a manicured way as most resorts are. The pool areas were great for the kids. On leaving the port we missed the local send off, since we were so far down the dock. I could see the lights and cars down by the Regent ship, but they weren't allowed down to our area. I wouldn't have even noticed them if I hadn't been looking. So, I hate we missed the send off. Belize - I have been to Belize previously and have cave tubed, but my family has not been. I wanted the kids to enjoy cave tubing. We had arranged our trip with Major Tom. However, it was raining as we left the ship on the tender and arriving at the port, Major Tom let us know he was to nervous about the rain (it had rained all night) and the water levels and recommended not going to be on the safe side. So, we booked a city tour for $25 a person with a guy at the dock, which was horrible. I should have had a back up plan, but didn't. Maybe another guide would have provided a better city tour, but both my 16 and 14 year old went to sleep. My wife and I were hoping that it would end soon. When we made the arrangement at the dock, we were told it was a 3 hour tour. Thank Goodness it only lasted about an hour, 2 more hours of riding around in downtown Belize City, would have sent us over the edge. In retrospect, I wished we had found an ATV tour or something other than the city tour since the cave tubing was off. I do know that some of the groups that left earlier did the cave tubing, but they said the hike was muddy and slippery and made it much less enjoyable. My daughter who is adventurous, stayed with me while my wife and son returned to the ship. We ate at the Wet Lizard had some great Belizian Meat Pies, Nachos (which tasted like Frito's) and watermelon and lime juice. It was a nice day to sit up there eat and look out over the water and the tenders going back and forth between the 3 cruise ships. Cozumel - we booked a day at Playa UVAS and I must say it couldn't have been better (well except for the group of Spring Breakers that got way to wasted and noisy). We had a great time snorkeling, kayaking and enjoying the beach. My wife got a 30 minute beach massage and thoroughly enjoyed it. The kids enjoyed the fajitas. They were not happy when I told them it was time to go back to the ship. This was a great day and they even surprised me with a Birthday cake, it was my actual Birthday on the day we were there. It was wonderful.
General Port Disembarkation Comment I really dislike tendering. Always have. We tendered in Belize (every ship does) but we also had to tender in Cozumel (they are alternating, one week at a pier, the next a tender due to the number of ships - I believe there were 6 ships in port in Cozumel with us). The tendering is closer in Cozumel, but it was still not enjoyable. Fortunately we had been marked as a VIP and got special tender passes, so we did not have to go get tickets and wait for the number to be called, so we really had it much better than others, but I prefer a dock!!
Sailing We had high winds leaving New Orleans, the trip between New Orleans was rocky, 8 ft waves and the high winds, the ship moved a bit and our cabin creaked and groaned. But, we have had creaking cabins on a HAL inaugural cruise and on the Glory which was just about a year old. The trip back was nice and smooth, little movement.
Highlights The ship was much nicer than I was expecting. The food was good. The entertainment was good. The ports couldn't be better (for the Caribbean, as I like off the beaten path ports). Jacky the Concierge was wonderful!! I love the promenade (deck 7) with the wooden cushioned chairs, great place to get in the shade and read a book. The service was fine. Most all the crew was friendly and spoke when passing.
Improvements I would like for the new 2.0 bedding to be installed, replace some of those old strap lounge chairs, and replace the filmed/fogged windows in the Galaxy of the Stars. But, all in all the ship was comfortable. Try to get a dock in Cozumel to avoid tendering. It seemed that our cabin steward had too many cabins to be very thorough, but we did get our towel animals each night which was nice.
Final Thoughts I would highly recommend the ship. Just set your expectations going in and know that you aren't going to have an ice skating rink, rock climbing wall, putt putt course and etc. But the ship is comfortable, it is aging nicely (partly due to the good dEcor), the layout is manageable. Hopefully after the November 08 dry dock, maybe there will be even better improvements to make the ship even better.