We are a family of 4 with a 3yr old and 5yr old boys. We were traveling with 20 others (12 adults and 12 kids, all from Long Island). This is our 3rd cruise, first with kids. Both previous cruises were with RCI. We live locally, so there was no pre cruise travel info of any value. Our cruise was 8 days out of NYC on 4/19/08
On to the review- Boarding was a nightmare. Spirit was late and we stood on line for almost 4 hours. A plus was that NCL brought out cookies and juice during the wait. A minus, the cookies were tasteless and stale, a theme that would repeat throughout the cruise. After finally getting on board (it would not be hard to improve that system) we tried to go to Windows for lunch, but it was already closed. We were much closer to the first on board than the last, apparently only a few people were lucky enough to avoid the first buffet. We went to the buffet instead and it was awful. The main item was pork patties, think Jimmy Dean sausage patties with less flavor. The standout was the stir-fry, even if it had no pork or chicken as advertised. The stir-fry proved to be the most dependable item on the buffet throughout our cruise. We were able to get to our small but usable cabin. We brought a cooler with us, so we call room services for more ice. We were told @7:00 that our room attendant would be around soon and would replenish the ice. That turned out to be 9:30 and then only after begging because our 3yr old was melting down. Standing for 4 hours in a warehouse had taken it's toll. On our previous cruises our room attendant would introduce him/herself, not so here. The only way we met him was to search the hall for him. The next day our room was not turned till 1:45. This was the trend for the trip. Each time we asked to have the room set up early, we were politely told OK and the room schedule remained. We were greeted with towel animals every night, as long as we waited till 10:00 to go to sleep. Our beds also remained unmade till late afternoon. We became well versed in putting away the slide out, folding up the bunk bed ourselves.
Cabin- We had an inside cabin on deck 5. We would have loved a larger cabin with a view, but we have 2 young children. On Spirit, the only cabins that sleep 4 are the smallest on board (exception to a few handicap accessible cabins which book way early). The cabin was the smallest we've ever had, mainly due to the larger bathroom. The shower was outstanding. Our cabin did have a few issues. One of the drawer faces would pull off, the phone stopped working after the second day of the trip and the shower drain was very slow. None of these issues were terrible, all were reported, and none were addressed during our cruise. I didn't make a big stink about then, but I shouldn't have needed to.
Ship- For a 10 yr old ship, Spirit is in fine shape appearance wise. There are a few worn carpets and more than a few cloudy windows that will be addressed at the next dry dock. Mechanically, there's a broken engine which caused an itinerary change and someone said a broken stabilizer. I'm not too sure about the stabilizer, but the ship does roll more in calm seas than my previous cruises. The layout of the ship was fine, but some spaces were tight. The popular Seaview Cafe is in a hall way.
San Juan- We walked off the ship past the $20 tour guys, and got a tour for $10 each (kids free). We went all over town, spent an hour at San Cristobal and were left in the center of the old town. It was a deal and we enjoyed it more than our friends who booked much more expensive ship excursions.
Tortola- Again, no excursion. We found a tour off the ship ($20 each kids free). We went around the island, saw the full moon party bar (no kids please!!!), spent an hour at Cane Garden Bay and went the second highest peak on the island.
Samana- We followed the advise here (book an excursion or stay on the boat) and went on the Cayo Levantado beach experience. Essentially, we paid 33 a head to be taken to a private beach (included on many cruises) and given a cup of watered down punch. We had a blast. The beach is beautiful (if a bit crowded), the water crystal clear. The kids were in beach heaven. A perfect way to end our cruise.
Good- The shower. Service in the Garden room once we found a good wait team (Sheila and Aliton).. The dinner in Trattoria, I wasn't expecting much and it was a decent meal. Our Shogun meal was excellent in both food and service. The chili and wings at. Seaview though getting a seat was tough. Our kids loved the camp though our friends' older kids (6-9) complained of boredom. The kids really loved the back pool. We found many hard working good people crewing the ship. Disembarkation, though in comparison to the embarkation, a ball peen hammer to the forehead might seem refreshing. The fruit smoothies…err I mean chilled fruit soups. The strawberry soup with balsamic reduction served the second to the last day might be the best thing I've ever tasted. Jamba Juice has nothing over these guys.
Bad- Embarkation (worst ever), it took a full sea day to get over that disaster. Lines!!! We waited on line for breakfast at Windows though the room was less than a third full. Lines for Widows for lunch. Lines at Windows for dinner. Lines to get the kids into camp. Lines to get them out. Lines for ice cream, omelets, stir-fry, waffles, and many more I'm forgetting. We joked that it was Norwegian cruise LINE, emphasis on line. The kids center was inundated with the most kids ever on the boat. NCL knew this pre cruise but did nothing to increase the staff. The pizza party on the last day was a disorganized mess that culminated in yet another long line. The food at the buffet was to low side of what would be considered acceptable. My biggest gripe was the fresh fruit selection, which was meager in selection, poorly presented and rarely ripe. We took bananas back to the room to ripen. It took 2 days to have a ripe banana. The meal at Le Bistro while not entirely bad was disappointing. The service was fine but the food was bland and unexciting. They even managed to make the worst crème brulee I've ever tasted. I've never not finished a crème brulee before. Cagney's was just plain BAD. The steak was of high quality but the preparation was lacking (steak should be seasoned when cooked). Worst of all was the service. We had a party of 13 and everyone's meal had at least one mistake. After one of the incorrect entrees was replaced with a filet that looked like a charred hockey puck, it was the last straw. We ended the meal and refused to pay the service charge. Special note to NCL- fix the ventilation in the casino, you're killing the crew that work in there! I'm not overly sensitive to smoke, but found my eyes tearing on a couple of occasions from the heavy smoke when entering the casino.
What the heck are they thinking?- Moving the comic to Galaxy of the Stars so that 8 people could play Wii on the big screen. The Galaxy was packed and many (probably hundreds including us) walked away when they couldn't even find standing room. Tablecloths at the buffet for diner. Either replace the cloth after every diner, or end this practice. As it stands, it's disgusting! The deserts at Raffles were bad, but anything described as a mousse took bad to a new level. We amused ourselves by dissecting many of the different "mousse" which come in a variety of pleasant shapes. I'm guessing that to the pastry chef at Raffles, a mousse is an item with a 1/16" to ¼" rubbery skin enclosing a gelatinous filling not unlike spray foam insulation. A Raffles mousse might be effective for protection of fragile items in luggage or perhaps you could pack them in your car bumper to increase protection, but you can't eat it. I know it's just a buffet, but someone should taste this stuff once in a while before it goes out!
Entertainment- We didn't see too many shows. What we saw of the Second City Improve was pretty bad. We did see Chantz's show and it was sad that someone so talented has to play cruise ships. It was doubly sad that he played after a hot shore day to a crowd of less than 200. He deserves better. What we heard of the onboard musicians was fine, but nobody stood out. As many complain, the TV selection bites but we hardly watched it anyway. RCI tapes more of the shows to replay on a TV channel, NCL should copy this. As it stands, all we ever saw was continuous repeats of the Newlywed Game.
Freestyle- I'm not a convert. I did appreciate the variable scheduling, especially with kids. I feel the costs out weight the benefit. We had generally poor service in the main dining rooms. It was only late in the cruise that we found a service team that compared to what we experienced all the time on previous cruises. We waited on line at almost every meal, breakfast at windows being the most frustrating. Service was often slow and food would arrive cold. I don't recall waiting on line once on previous cruises. If my expectations are too high, blame Royal Caribbean for setting them.
Conclusion- We had a great time, even with the negatives. We couldn't have bought better weather. That said, this will probably be our first and last NCL cruise. I wouldn't completely rule out another NCL cruise, provided it was the deal of the century or the other cruise companies all folded up. From what I overheard and from my own conversations with fellow passengers, I was very far from alone. I constantly heard comments about Princess and/or Royal Caribbean being so much better. It does make me want to try Princess! I never heard anyone saying that NCL was so much better when on RCI. Several NCL loyalists said it was this ship and that the Gem, Dawn, etc. are so much better. Frankly that's crap! The ship may change, but the product should remain consistent. NCL had a opportunity to wow me and they failed. I don't see why I should consider giving them another chance. Almost every onboard cost is higher on NCL(drinks, Photo's, Bingo, etc) while the service is not superior. I get the feeling that there were corners cut with staffing too. The room attendants didn't seem to have time for any personal touches, the kids center was very understaffed and breakfast and lunch at windows didn't seem to have enough servers (lines to get in even though 2/3 of the restaurant was empty). At the end of the day, my previous RCI cruises offered a better value. I certainly will never sail out of NYC again. Though not entirely NCL's fault, this was our second time leaving from NYC and embarkation just went from bad to worse. This review might make it seem that Spirit is just short of a garbage scow, it's not! It's a beautiful ship with some fine (and not so fine) crew. Unfortunately, it appears that NCL's more profitable competitors may have a small advantage that allows them to present a better product for the same or lower cost.