My husband and I have previously cruised on Holland America's Noordam, the Coral Princess, and Viking River Cruises' Viking Europe recently, and, years ago when our daughters were small, on Commodore's Enchanted Seas and Cunard's Crown Jewel. We were a little wary of booking NCL after some of the reviews we'd read on these boards, but the Spirit was within driving distance and had an interesting itinerary, so we booked Cabin 11052, (BA) on the 12/7 -12/14 Western Caribbean cruise.
We were quickly relieved of our bags at the Erato Street Terminal ($98 for the week, payable in advance by cash or credit card.) After parking, we took the elevator to the second floor check-in area. It became immediately apparent that just about every other passenger had arrived at the same time, and that this was not going to be a quick boarding process. We stood in line for security, which took about 15 minutes - not too bad. We were then handed a number (25) and told to wait at the far end of the room until the group was called. I had a momentary and unpleasant flashback to the last time I had to renew a car tag in person and was handed a ridiculously high number. We took our seats and waited; the very strong 3G wireless signal there meant we could pass the time using our laptops, which made the wait a little less boring. After about 45 minutes, our group was told to get in the line for check-in; I've seen shorter lines at Space Mountain in peak season. Latitudes members had a separate line, but it didn't look a whole lot shorter. After another 45 minutes to an hour we finally reached the agents, and the actual process was quick. (We were told that there were fewer immigration /customs agents than usual, which had slowed things down getting people off the ship from the previous cruise.)
We were utterly astonished to be told that we were VIP guests (!!!) and to gather in the VIP lounge. A very charming concierge offered us refreshments, gave us information about the Captain's cocktail party we were invited to attend on Monday, and told us that we were welcome to enjoy breakfast and lunch in Cagney's each day. We can only figure that an emailed question to someone at NCL, inquiring about exactly what changes were made during the recent refurbishment, tipped them off that my husband works in local TV. Perhaps they were hoping for a little good PR. Whatever the reason, we were delighted.
After being escorted on board by a member of the concierge's staff, we were excited to see our cabin. The bed looked spacious and inviting, and proved very comfortable, the bathroom was adequate (the separate "toilet room" has a sliding door made of that frosted glass) and much larger than the one on the Coral Princess. There was a nice bottle of merlot waiting for us. We were able to slide both - large - suitcases under the bed. The closet was of decent size, with several shelves, a small safe, and a couple of comfy cotton robes. There were several drawers, big enough for stashing undies, socks, and smaller items. There was also a small desk and chair, and a very petite love seat - for about a person and a half, or two young children. The balcony was small, with two chairs and a little table. We spent a fair amount of time out there.
After getting settled, we headed off to Raffles, the buffet. I was intrigued by the very mixed reviews (mostly not so good) that I had read and wanted to see for myself just what the reality was. We were both very pleasantly surprised, as we were each time we ate there - most days for breakfast and several days for lunch. Breakfast selections were seemingly unending - fresh waffles, pancakes, omelets, hot and cold cereals, fresh fruit, simply DIVINE breads of all descriptions, breakfast potatoes, some slightly more "interesting" foods (herring, etc.) that catered to more international tastes. Everything we had was hot, fresh and delicious. Breakfast at home will seem quite dull in comparison. Lunch at Raffles provided quite an interesting variety; we noticed that, in addition to the usual salads, great fresh-made sandwiches, hot pastas, meats, veggies, salads, etc., there was a significant Asian flair to a number of the offerings, some of which I'd never encountered before (I wondered if some of the foods offered might have been crew favorites, actually!) My husband liked the soft serve ice cream, and we both became addicted to the terrific cookies available daily.
We had breakfast at Cagney's the first sea day; they offered attentive service, beautiful surroundings, and both a (limited) menu and a small buffet. Very enjoyable. However, we opted, every day but one, for breakfast in Raffles for the previously mentioned reasons. We ate lunch there twice and enjoyed the great service and original menu choices.
We love the Freestyle concept, and it worked very well for us. We tend to eat a little early, and usually had dinner about 5:30-5:45 so as to free up the evening. Again, I had been expecting only average food, at best; we could not have been more mistaken. I opted for several of the Cooking Light items during the week, and they were uniformly outstanding. My husband had the lobster entrees when offered and had no complaints. My favorite meal was the last evening - several generous, perfectly cooked slices of sirloin, with a huge serving of traditional Yorkshire pudding, roast potatoes, peas and carrots. Divine! I also had rack of lamb one evening (I am very fussy about my lamb) and it did not disappoint. The soups were always a treat (Country French Vegetable - yum!) and the chilled soups particularly delicious. NCL definitely gets the bread right; it is a weakness of mine and I will indeed miss the variety and quality. Just as well, though! We ate several times each at Windows and the Garden Room; they are beautiful venues in which to enjoy a meal. Service was generally quite good and everything was always piping hot. The only critique we might make is that the servings could sometimes be a little more generous, particularly with regard to the vegetable accompaniments.
Japanese food is a favorite of ours, so we made reservations for the Teppanyaki Restaurant for Wednesday at 8 pm (allowed time for an extra afternoon snack at the Bier Garten!) The chef was delightful and skilled; though we've "been there, done that" many times with regard to Teppanyaki tables, it is still fun. My husband chose the lobster, scallops and calamari combo and I had the filet and shrimp. My mouth still waters at the thought.
We tried the Bier Garten once - tasty brats and burgers. We never did actually eat in the Blue Lagoon; what we saw on guests' plates didn't really hold any particular appeal for us, and it was always crowded.
We do love to dance, and got to do a little of that in Galaxy of the Stars. We also heard some good dance music at various times during the day, but were usually on our way to do other things. The library was a quiet, cozy place with a decent selection of books (I made it through two during the week) and usually had coffee and tea available - nice touch. We would sometimes bring our laptop there; the service was expensive and most often slow, but served its purpose.
When we cruise, we do so for the complete relaxation (my husband would never even leave the ship, if given his choice!) We only rarely do an excursion, preferring to wander around ourselves. We loved Guatemala with the jungle seeming to rise right out of the sea, and enjoyed our Nature and Culture Cruise (our only organized excursion) with a very knowledgeable guide. The handicrafts available were attractive and very well priced. Cozumel was fun and colorful and we had a great time, spending much of the day on shore. Costa Maya is attractive, though there is very little outside the tourist area unless you book an excursion. We felt uncomfortable in Belize City outside of the tourist village; while some folks love to dive and snorkel there, we have no reason to ever return. The locals were pushy and we couldn't get back to the ship quick enough.
There has been much discussion of the slow cabin service of late. We did notice that it often took longer than usual for our cabin to be cleaned in the morning. However, it was always spotless, and it is clear that the stewards and stewardesses have a seemingly endless number of cabins to care for; we have no real complaints and actually wondered if they ever had time off!
Two negatives come to mind: we loathe cigarette smoke and there was way too much of it evident on this cruise. We couldn't walk by the casino entrance without a very strong odor and therefore never set foot in the casino (not a favorite thing of ours, anyway.) There was also a strong smell of smoking when walking down corridors, as it is allowed in the staterooms. Our room smelled fine, but we had several smokers in close proximity and could usually smell cigarettes when on the balcony or on deck. It seemed to us that NCL must attract smokers due to their seemingly liberal smoking policy. It is a real negative for us.
The other unpleasant aspect is the constant hard sell...everywhere, always, from bottled water in the dining rooms, to art auctions (who the heck buys that stuff???) to jewelry, to magic kits, to CDs, in addition to pushing the vendors in port with whom there is an alliance. (Diamonds International and Tanzanite International are inescapable!) We are very good at ignoring it, but wish we didn't have to.
I had forgotten how rough the Gulf can be. We were, thank God, well supplied with less-drowsy Dramamine, and never felt ill. However, the movement was quite evident (try swing dancing with the ship tilting from side to side!)
All in all, we enjoyed ourselves and came back relaxed and refreshed, which, after all, is the whole point. The ship is simply gorgeous and the three weeks spent in dry dock was time well spent.