• Pre-cruise - we stayed at Le Dauphine in the French Quarter. What a great find! It is a quirky layout over three buildings, with two little hidden pools and several beautiful courtyards. Despite being one block off Bourbon Street, the hotel was quiet. The hotel staff were all friendly and helpful. It was only $99 a night with our CAA/AAA card for our sons' room, and $116 for our boutique style room in the building across the street.
• Embarkation- we left our luggage at the hotel after checkout and had one more lunch in the French Quarter. We then had the bellman call a cab to take us to the ship. We got there around 2, and basically walked right on, with about a 5 minute line to check in via the Latitudes section. We picked up the soda cards in the port building, and went to our cabins, which were ready. We went to the main desk to sign the consent to allow our 20 year old to drink wine and beer, plus to re-align the boys into the same room. We also booked our specialty restaurants for the first two nights.
• First impressions - the recent drydock was very evident. The carpet was new, everything was clean and sparkling, and we saw very few areas that showed wear.
• Our cabins were 11538 and 11536. They were adjoining, but we never had the door between the two unlocked. We were on the 11th deck, upgraded from 8 on the NCL summer sale. They had full showers with doors rather than curtains, lots of storage, and new beds with real mattresses and boutique hotel bedding. The only thing that didn't look new was the sofa and chair upholstery. Everything was spotlessly clean and our stewards, Juan and Julia, did a good job of keeping it that way and keeping amenities stocked. We had a greater variety of towel animals on this ship than on other cruises. Our only complaint was that we were right under the workout facility. We didn't think this would bother us, but it did. You know those signs at fitness centers that ask people not to crash the weights? Imagine being one floor down from weights being dropped on the floor. We weren't in the cabin a lot, but there were a few times that we were bothered by people working out at 2 am or 5 am. I am surprised that they don't restrict the fitness center hours when there are cabins directly below.
• The Ship - as mentioned, everything was bright and shiny after the Spirit's recent drydock. It is a great smaller ship - easy to get around, but with everything needed for a comfortable vacation at sea. The only awkward spot we found was around the main reception desk, where traffic from reception, restaurant reservations, and the excursions desk often caused crowds. The library/internet space was very nice and I noticed that many people have started to use the library as an informal book exchange. There were many paperbacks on the shelves that hadn't been stamped as being owned by the ship, and I think people just dropped off books of their own when finished and chose new ones. With all the packing restrictions, this is an idea that works really well. We also used the ship's laundry service for the half-price pressing on the first sea day and they did a great job. I also had occasion to visit the medical center and although this is a place most people don't want to visit on vacation, I can tell you that it was professionally managed, very much like a walk-in clinic in Canada. The nurses were compassionate and very helpful.
• Restaurants - we ate in all of the specialty restaurants except Teppanyaki, and loved all of them. We had no problems getting reservations. The only problem we had was on Christmas Eve, when we wanted something more traditional and decided to eat at Windows. We waited in line, but when we got to the front, they told us they were closing early to get ready for the chocolate buffet. There were three people working at the door, and nobody bothered to come back in line to tell us the restaurant was closing early and we would likely not be seated. Miffed, we ate at Trattoria that night and had a great dinner, but while at the desk the next day on another issue, my husband mentioned that the Freestyle Daily and the restaurant availability TVs didn't note the early closing, and without any complaint, our Trattoria charges were dropped from the bill. Best dessert by far is in Shogun - a wonderful pancake/caramel sauce/banana concoction. We had fabulous service in all of the specialty restaurants and a good meal with great service in Windows on our last night.
• Entertainment - I hate to pan young entertainers who are working hard, but we thought the ship's production company was at a high school level at most. It was very disappointing. Second City was great, and we saw both their shows. The duo at Champagne Charlie's (sorry, can't remember their name) was really good and you could see people gravitating to Champagne Charlie's whenever they were performing.
• Ports of Call - this was the big positive surprise. I always research and book excursions well in advance. On this itinerary, nothing really stood out and we thought we'd play it by ear. The ports of call were far beyond our expectations: o Costa Maya - the area around the port has been set up to be similar to the beach/pool area at an all-inclusive, with lots of lounge chairs, several restaurants and many shops. The beach isn't great, but the pool was fun and we had no problem grabbing a chair. This is a great alternative to paying for a beach excursion. Oh, and the bathrooms were fabulous, much better than anything similar in parks in Canada. o Guatemala - Santa Tomas de Castillo - at the last minute we booked a ship's excursion and took the boat tour of the bay around the ship and the port area. The tour guide was great. I really like it when you get a guide who is proud of his or her country and eager to share. The water in the bay was a clear deep green and we saw a lot of wildlife. The only negative was that after the guide told us about the Christmas celebrations (celebrated on Dec 24th in Latin America) and suggested we go into town, several families from his tour decided to grab a cab and check out the city. We got a van to share with another family. The driver wanted $30 EACH for a 10km trip - $210 total. We negotiated it down to $20 each, but finally just walked away. We met several families who were also disgusted by the greedy cab drivers right in the port area. My husband and sons then walked out of the port area and found a driver who drove them into town and stayed with them for three hours. Including lunch (they bought for him) they spent $75. They ate at Safari, the restaurant suggested by our tour guide, and said the food was very good. They saw very few people from the ship in town. What a shame. More realistic cab drivers or even a shuttle service would encourage more tourists to go into town and spend money. o Belize City - Once again, last minute we went to the excursion desk and booked the Belize City tour and airboat ride at the nature preserve. This was done by a company called Bak-a-Bush tours and was hands down, the BEST excursion on any cruise we've taken. We can't say enough about how well run this excursion was. The city part of the tour is basically done on the way to the airboat ride. The guide gave us lots of information on Belize and my husband said he's surprised she isn't working on radio or TV. She had perfect enunciation. The airboat ride literally blew us out of the water. One of my sons has taken eco tourism courses at university and he said the company would rank near the top in measures taken to protect the environment on their tour. We went right into the swamp and I added about 15 birds that I'd never seen before to my birdwatching list. The people on our tour ranged from kids aged 7-8 to seniors and everyone was ecstatic over how much fun we had. The "first mates" who maintained safety standards, pointed out birds, and gave us information on the lagoon were so cute and so much fun. o Cozumel - We've been to Cozumel several times and wanted to just walk around on our own. We had lunch at a spot called "Mr Chiles" and the food was good and a lot cheaper than the chain restaurants closer to the pier. After my husband and I went back to the ship, my sons walked away from the touristy part of the city and sat down at a bar. To their surprise, the owner's wife had just brought him lunch and offered them some of her home cooking. Despite two years of high school Spanish, they can't speak Spanish, and the owner's wife spoke little English, but they all sat in the shade and had lunch together. At the end, they offered to pay, but she made it clear that they were her guests and sent them on their way.
• Disembarkation - we packed light so we knew we'd be fine carrying our own bags off the ship. We closed our cabin doors at 8:25 and at 9:00 we were at the New Orleans airport. That's right. We walked out the door, off the ship, through customs, shared a van with another family ($12 each) with a driver who also gave a commentary along the way, and in 35 minutes we were at the airport. We saw more NCL and customs staff in the terminal than passengers!
Overall, this cruise surpassed our expectations by a huge margin. The ship, service, and food were wonderful, and the ports were a very pleasant surprise.