Hotel Pre-Cruise: We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott on Julia Street. We chose this hotel solely because it was cheap :) When we arrived at 11am there were no rooms available, but the staff was happy to hold our bags until later that afternoon so that we could go explore. The hotel was nicely decorated, clean, and had great service. The room itself was larger than expected with two queen size beds a mini-refrigerator and microwave. It was quiet during our stay. We had no complaints about the hotel. It was conveniently located near the Riverwalk Mall.
Embarkation: From our hotel, it was an easy 5-minute walk through the mall to the port. The only downside was we couldn't find an escalator/elevator to the port from the upstairs of the Riverwalk, so we had to carry our luggage downstairs. Since we packed lightly, this was not a huge inconvenience. We didn't see any porters anywhere, so we just rolled our suitcases along with us as we checked in. The process was quick and streamlined, and we were on the ship within about 20 minutes.
The Ship: Our first impression was that the Spirit was absolutely gorgeous! We really loved the Asian themes. The décor was beautifully done and we felt it was well-kept. We had read reviews that it looked worn, but I didn't see any evidence of that anywhere. We also had read that they decorate for Christmas, but there were very few decorations until our last night onboard (December 20). There were a few areas that were difficult to find at first, but within a few hours we knew where everything was and had no problems getting around.
Freestyle: We had chosen NCL originally because of its "freestyle" type of cruising. While we had an absolutely wonderful time and will likely sail on NCL again, I think we would also enjoy more traditional cruising. We enjoyed meeting all the people on the ship and think that an assigned larger table at dinner would be a lot of fun. I think Freestyle's major advantage is being able to pick your dining time so that you can make it to any evening activities/shows you're interested in. We also appreciated being able to dress more casually in the dining room - otherwise we probably would not have been able to travel with only one carry-on suitcase each.
Motion Sickness: My sister is prone to motion sickness so we were a bit worried that she might get sick on the cruise. We brought along Bonine, pressure wristbands, and ginger. The trip was rough the first night, waking us up at 2am and continuing to rock until just after lunch on our first sea day. It was also rough around dinner time for an hour or two on our Belize day. However, neither of us were that uncomfortable and we never needed any of our seasickness remedies so we brought them home unused. The motion didn't affect our cruising at all and for the most part, it was a smooth ride.
The Staff: Everyone was absolutely wonderful. Crew members were incredibly friendly and very enthusiastic. It was hard to pass by anyone without getting a smile and a hello. The crew members, in general, were willing to go out of their way to make sure you had a special trip. Many of them knew us by name (and we knew theirs!). It was a treat to stop and talk to them about their home countries and get to know them.
Food: We ate in the main dining rooms (Windows or Garden Room) every night for dinner. Both served the same menu every night, so we tended to choose whichever had the shortest line. We both preferred Windows for its ambiance, but there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Garden Room. The food was quite delicious and we enjoyed all our meals thoroughly. I have one minor complaint, and that is that the food was never served fully hot, usually just warm. It didn't affect the meal so we never felt the need to make a fuss over it. The portions are small, but you could order as many dishes as you liked. My sister took full advantage of trying the different desserts. We ate in Windows once for lunch (embarkation day), tried Blue Lagoon for lunch once (lightning fast service but small portions so order two!), and Raffles for lunch once (we weren't impressed). The other days we ate lunch in port and just grabbed a snack at the Bier Garten grill when we returned to the ship. We ate two of our breakfasts at Windows, but found Raffles much more convenient on port days since the main dining room didn't open until 7:30am. Both had the same assortment of foods, and both were very good. I also have a piece of advice for anyone with allergies: speak to the maitre'd when you arrive and he will be happy to spend a few minutes going over the menus for the week and suggesting which dishes you can eat based on your diet restrictions. The waiters were very inconsistent in their knowledge of the ingredients in dishes, and also inconsistent with bringing special orders as specified. The maitre'd checked in with us every meal to ensure that we were enjoying our meal and that we had found appropriate dishes. We ate around 6:00 most nights and were usually seated immediately, but once we had about a 5-minute wait.
Activities: Frankly, I was worried about the sea days on this cruise. I am a "go-go-go" person for the most part and not knowing what would be offered seemed a little intimidating. On the other hand, my sister loves to sit and read and relax, so she was really looking forward to some free time. We did like the idea that we could easily split up on the sea days and do our own thing. We found that there were a lot of things listed in the dailies, but many were repeated frequently. For example, trivia was offered three times daily. Just by coincidence, it seemed like whenever there was something we were interested in, there were 2 or 3 other things offered at the same time that also sounded fun so we had trouble deciding, but at other times there would be nothing that appealed to us (this is when we would read by the pool, nap, or spend ridiculous amounts of time in the hot tub). My favorite activities were the game shows, but we also had fun at a bunch of other things. The Cruise Critic Meet & Greet was great - after "talking" to all these people online it was great to put faces and names together and it was also nice to be able to recognize them later on throughout the cruise and check in to see how everything was going for them. Some other things we participated in were Bingo (one free game; we were too broke to pay to play the other games), Quest (a LOT of fun!!), an art auction (just to watch), and line dancing.
Entertainment: Overall, the shows were great and of a wide variety. My preference was for the Second City comedy group - I ended up seeing three of their shows. They also had a magician who was very good, and some other entertainers. Additionally, the production staff performed twice, although I only saw them at their first show (On Broadway). The crew talent show was also a lot of fun. It was great to see all the staff supporting each other by coming to the show and the theatre was packed!! There were a lot of great acts and I'm glad we didn't miss it. Some shows had two seatings (7 & 9), but on other nights they would have just one seating or sometimes two shows, each offered once. I really enjoyed being able to go to the shows after dinner. There always seemed to be enough seating. Furthermore, there was live music of some sort around the vessel for most of the day. I loved having live music at the pool on sea days & sailaway.
Spa: My sister and I had some onboard credit we received from our travel agent that we needed to use so we decided to use it at the spa. We both got the hand ritual (aka the deluxe manicure). Unfortunately we couldn't get it done at the same time. The nail technician did a great job shaping my nails, but the soak and massage (the parts that made it "deluxe") were very short and not really worth the money over the basic manicure in my opinion. Now here is one of my few complaints about the cruise: I was rushed out of there before my nails were fully dry despite mentioning that I'd rather wait for them to continue drying. As a result, I had some noticeable smudges right afterwards. This is the only instance where I felt the full auto-tip was not deserved and wished that NCL did not put an auto-tip on everything (though admittedly auto-tipping was very convenient for the rest of the cruise). The spa facilities were very nice, and I enjoyed being able to use the sauna/steam room free of charge. The gym was also nicely laid out and had enough equipment for casual use. I found the aqua swim pretty weak and ended up running into the wall while trying to swim "laps", so I decided just to keep taking the stairs to work off my meals!
Disembarkation: We thought disembarkation was easy; we used the self-disembark and left the ship around 8:05 and made it through customs in about 15 minutes. We sent our bags to the airport through a service available at the port. It was a little pricey, but well worth it since we had a lot of time before our flight that evening and we didn't want to drag our bags around.
Conclusion: Overall, we loved the cruise and our time in New Orleans. In fact, we are already planning on taking another cruise next year, making it an annual girls' getaway. Now we just have to pick one :)