After 10 cruises on (in order of preference) Disney, Princess, Celebrity, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Lines, this trip disappointed us most. Our NCL Hawaiian experience was less then stellar, but we thought we would give NCL one more try as we wanted to split our vacation between a cruise and a trip to New Orleans, and our choice from N.O. was NCL or Carnival. I doubt we will ever choose NCL again. It was not a bad trip, just poorly managed, which can make you cranky and even angry if you let it. Other cruise lines - yes, including Carnival - in our opinion (and that of our frequent-cruising companions) offer a better cruising experience then NCL. That said, as long as you manage your expectations you can have a good time. Also, the ship is attractive, clean, and fairly well maintained. Just remember, you are not booked on the SS Ritz Carlton, but the SS Motel Six. Be prepared to be nickeled and dimed, and don't expect NCL to be prepared for eventualities. It seemed as if they are unfamiliar with the concept of "contingency planning."
"Free style" cruising, i.e. dining when you want and dressing up or down as you choose, means a very casual approach. If you are looking for glamour on the high seas, from the passengers or the crew, this is not the cruise line for you. Few passengers dressed up on formal night. There is no self-service laundry on board and the laundry service, which is very expensive, was not returned in the time promised - plan accordingly. As a November 2009 column by Spud Hilton in the San Francisco Chronicle noted, the vacations we talk about most and remember best are the ones that were most problematical. We'll be talking about this one for quite a while.
Here are some quick tips. 1. Arrive at and leave the ship late to avoid waiting in lines. 2. Manage expectations (see above). This is not the Ritz. While well meaning, the officers and crew seem not trained nor empowered to solve most customer service issues nor implement contingency plans. 3. Either bring enough clothes to last the cruise or wash them out yourself. 4. Drinks are not cheap, and bringing booze aboard is prohibited. Keep track of your charges daily to avoid surprises on the last day. 5. Eat less by avoiding the buffet. It even saves time to go to the main dining rooms for lunch. You also can choose a couple of the appetizers (they're small) instead of an entrEe. 6. Expect adequate but not fine dining (see tip #2). 7. Your room steward can do many things for you, but can't guess what you want - ask. 8. Arrive early in order to get a seat at shows and lounges. 9. Spend several hours on line a month or so before the cruise to read reviews, and to plan and book excursions. 10. If you need a fridge, your travel agent must arrange for one. 11. CDC and our medical doctor advised us to be sure our vaccinations were up-to-date, get hepetitis and typhoid vaccinations. Malaria pills not needed but suggested we wear long pants and sleeves, hats and socks and shoes (not sandals) and apply deet bug repellent if going on rain forest excursions. 12. New Orleans is cool in November and ports of call warm, windy, and wet.
We did not arrive at the pier until 2:30, as recommended by another Cruise Critic. There were no lines to check in or board. Our stateroom was ready when we got there. Notes: While it appears you can touch the ship from the taxi drop-off point, the distance you have to zigzag, often up steep ramps, before you check in and actually get to our cabin is a long, long way. That's New Orleans' fault, not NCL's. Let a porter take all but your carry-on and don't try to drag a lot of luggage on.
PROBLEM RESOLUTION THROUGH AVOIDANCE The C in NCL certainly does not stand for contingency planning. Nobody and no activity seem prepared to deal with the unplanned or unexpected. Crowd management and contingency planning don't exist. The staff, while well meaning, is not skilled on managing the public. They handle conflict and failures by avoidance. When reporting a problem, big or small, expect to be told to see someone else.
When we arrived at our cabin it contained documents concerning our excursions and shipboard credits, we needed to take care of in the main lobby. When we got there, we found half the ship there too. Yet, not all desk stations were manned, disagreement between crew on how to fill out forms, and lines clash with each other. What a stupid mess. There's no reason to have people log in for the shipboard credits unless NCL is hoping you'll forget to claim them. Passengers and staff ignore ship rules such as adult-only areas. We have been on four Disney cruises and never had a problem with unsupervised children (obviously, we don't mind kids or we wouldn't have been on a Disney cruise). On this cruise: kids seemed to run wild, pushing, fighting, screaming everywhere. When reporting that I was unable to make a ship-to-shore call after trying for 30 minutes, I was put on hold by crew for 20 minutes only to be told, "I can't connect either, maybe you should try tomorrow." That was on Thanksgiving. And the crew didn't know comms were down? When a hand-written note addressed to us was delivered, asking that we call the front desk concerning an unidentified problem, I called and was immediately told she didn't know what the note was about and asked if I had any problems. When I said no, I was told to just ignore the note.
PORTS OF CALL COSTA MAYA is reportedly built as a cruise-ship destination, some distance from a hurricane-flattened village the ships don't want you to see. Debarkation forces you to trek past Diamonds International and dozens of shops, many just like the next, and their barkers, in a shopping and pool/bar village restricted to cruisers. We self-toured to a small hotel-restaurant with a few casitas, Maya Luna, operated by a Dutch expatriate, Carolien. They have a private beach and welcome a limited number of day visitors. Contact Carolien@hotelmayaluna.com for more information. She was attentive and friendly, and prepared an excellent, huge lunch of pineapple halves stuffed with a kind of shrimp-chicken curried jambalaya. Zow! Two big lunches, a couple of beers, a margarita, and a heaping plate of just-made guacamole was less than $40. We came for the snorkeling, but the weather let us down. It's a good spot, if somewhat distant from the port - casitas had groups of scuba divers checked in, and we could have waded out to the reef.
BELIZE has a harbor so shallow that ships must anchor miles from the dock. Private tenders, faster than the ships', carry you ashore to another mini-mall centered on a Diamonds International store. Ours was one of four white-sided boxes moored out. We chose the Lamania and New River Safari, a bus-boat tour to a Mayan ruin. The seven-hour excursion provided about two hours at the ruins, including time for a tasty, locally prepared buffet lunch. We spotted howler monkeys, skeeters, and on the speedboat run back, several orchids in the jungle along the river. Due to unpaved and very muddy paths, suggest hard-soled shoes (not sandals). Boat is fast moving and windy on the river, but dry.
GUATEMALA had us docked at a container pier, with a warehouse nearby set up for vendors. Routine souvenirs - post cards, magnets, pseudo-local wares and a few real ones - were much more expensive than in Mexico. As we walked past one booth, the vendor saw me point at a carved-stone necklace. "One dollar," he exclaimed. As we wheeled about for a closer look, he claimed he told us $21. He kept dropping his price, finally to $10, as we turned our backs on him. My husband found a hand-decorated pen covered with colorful cloth and iron-burned bark for $2, and at the same stall, I spotted a wooden fan for $4. My husband offered $5 for both and was denied. I put the fan back. The vendor got $2 for the pen and we got back to the ship. Friends on a tour and shopping excursion saw their bus was being tailed by a pair of motorcycle police. They officers asked where the excursion was headed, and said they'd escort it out and back to the ship. They were not allowed off the bus - no shopping. I guess Guatemala doesn't want any cruisers murdered, as happened to a passenger off our ship the month before. After sunset, a handful of dancers and musicians lined the docks to see us off, and a couple dozen longshoremen sat on truck bumpers to watch. Nice touch - the dancers, that is.
AT COZUMEL, all beach and dive excursions were canceled by operators due to wind. But we had to walk half a mile down the dock, and through a maze of ill-labeled staging points, to learn the bad news. When we asked NCL representatives about rescheduling us on a land excursion they were no help. Hard to believe NCL was not aware of weather cancellations before allowing debarking. Why in the world NCL didn't try to post someone on the gangway to tell us we can't imagine. We had to trek back with our duffels full of snorkel gear and wetsuits. We asked when we boarded about reimbursement, were told to ask at the excursion desk. Guess what desk was unmanned? Once again avoiding any unhappy guests. Coz has two ship docks, one for several in a downtown, and ours, which held only us. I can't imagine how crazy that other pier would have been. Then again, maybe those cruise lines are organized.
LIFEBOAT DRILL Let my husband describe it: "I'm a retired Coast Guardsman, and I was appalled at the sloppy and offhand way the crew handled the drill. The labeling in the cabins doesn't explain that, although there are five lettered lifeboat stations on each side of the Promenade deck, each of those is divided numerically four or five times. So how do you know which to approach? Check the letter and number on the vest. Then search for a clipboard-size sign stuck on a pipe over the rail (not always facing so it can be seen) whose code matches your vest. "Irresponsible crew - The crew do not have bright, easily seen identification as on, say, Disney or Carnival ships. Crew in the halls and at the stairwells should be pointing people in the right direction and checking their vests to ensure they're headed there, but those I passed were mostly standing around. One was leaning against a stair rail where he couldn't watch people on the other side of the double stair. The crew on the lifeboat - or Promenade - deck where we were sorted for mustering were no better. Half were yakking with each other. No, that's not accurate: more than half. "The vests, the boat deck - You are asked to carry your vest to your station. That might make passing through the ship marginally easier for the drill than if you donned the vest. In an emergency though, with listing, confusion, possible flooding or smoke, and darkness, I think it's safer to wear the thing from the cabin. Other cruse lines require it. Maybe they want you to watch the crewmembers demonstrate donning the vest. At my station, a 6-4 crewmember told his under-five-foot associate to demonstrate. Nobody could see her! No roll call was taken. Passengers were not lined up or moved back from the rail to allow passage for people trying to reach their stations. We were not called to silence while instructions echoed down the main deck unintelligibly. "If a Coast Guard inspector had been aboard, he would have had the authority and duty to cancel the cruise unless the crew could do their jobs right. And you as passengers have a right to expect proper instruction and an efficient operation that demonstrates that, when an emergency occurs, the crew can actually function. This one could not."
CABIN Our balcony cabin was adequate. While smaller then other balcony cabins we have had, with only a chair and hide-a-twin sub-loveseat to relax on, there was room under the bed for our suitcases. Since picking up a nasty intestinal bug, Campylobacter, on our last NCL cruise we always wipe down our rooms with Clorox disinfecting wipes when we first get in. Don't forget the remote and telephone. I also bring dish soap to wash the room glasses. (I know it sounds silly but read how many reviews tell of intestinal issues ruining their cruise.) The cabin appeared cleaner then some we have been in. The bathroom was a good configuration, and with the exception of the shower floor tiles, clean and attractive. The shower had a glass door rather then the "stick to our backside" shower curtain that most have. Another glass slider made the toilet private. The shower temp was "set and forget," and pressure was great. The balcony was very small and the large amount of paint chips covering the deck remained there the entire trip (I must admit, I never asked they be cleaned off). Problems with the bathroom were our major cabin issue. The shower drain clogged. The toilet would not flush, and even after repair had delays of up to two minutes after pressing the flush button. Water in sink ran brown while brushing teeth one day (a medical officer assured me "it won't hurt you"). The room and hallways smelled bad the entire trip. The sink also drained slowly until my husband pulled out the plug and adjusted a nut and screw. Minor cabin problems included: the telephone, which needed replacing. Its keys stuck and no instruction cover or key identification was on phone. Safe buttons were worn down and illegible, requiring a visit by a ship's officer to ID keys noted on instructions. Our TV's cable had a ruined connector that kept falling out, and it displayed interference from a battery-operated fan. We needed a foam bed pad for the very hard bed; the stewards got us one overnight. A steward left wet towels on bed, leaving a soggy mess. In the head, soap and shampoo dispensers were left empty on the same day; As with any ship, you should ask your steward early for what you want - extra blanket, pillows (soft, or firm?), towels, mattress padding. They try when you ask for help, and usually deserve at least the recommended tip. The sitting area between the bed and the balcony had an upholstered upright (dinner table) chair, a wobbly coffee table, and a settee that opens to a third twin (our "queen" was two singles shoved together, a very common practice). A desk with one shallow drawer sat under a large mirror with sidelights adequate for makeup. The balconies are small, but had two comfortable mesh chairs and a floor-tile size table. The teak rail (in need of sanding and a fresh coat of polyurethane) mounts at a comfortable height above a thick glass safety plate instead of metal rails or wires. The overhead of the balcony needed rust relief and some paint of its own.
PUBLIC AREAS Public areas seem sized for smaller people than most Americans. Perhaps the spaces were designed for the crowded conditions Asians abide (the ship was built for the Asian market before being transferred to NCL.) For example, the waiting areas for the main restaurants crowd into the elevator and stairway lobbies, which makes for a lot of elbow banging and 'scuse me's, and trying to maneuver around people who should know better than to sit or sprawl all over the stairs. And in the casino, one ceiling was so low my husband had one-inch clearance between his scalp and the spy-camera bubbles. The atrium is nicely decorated, and planted with a variety of silk and plastic flora. A large space in the center holds different shopping specials every evening - gold or silver chains by the inch, faux jewelry, designer watches, logo clothing. Elevators are a bit small, as are their lobbies (see dining). Stairs have nice carpeting and sturdy handrails, with Asian art mounted in niches on landings.
DINING Based on the fact we had been disappointrf in the numerous premium restaurants we ate in on our past NCL cruise, and the reviews I had read concerning the Spirit's, we only ate in the free dining rooms. We found both Windows and Garden restaurants' food was adequate but below the quality of other cruise ship dining. We ate at all different times, early and late; except for three dinners, we didn't have to wait for a table. The most we ever waited was 30 minutes. As this is something we expect when we go to a restaurant at home in San Francisco, we were not upset by the wait, just the lack of crowd management. Although pagers were given, they didn't work if you moved beyond a minimal distance from the restaurants, which are located at the bottoms of stairways at elevator doors. Staff is at a loss as how to deal with problems. Notes: 1. Main dining rooms were all but empty at lunchtime, making them a good alternative to the buffet. 2. Room service was fast but selection very limited. You'll be called a few minutes before breakfast deliveries. We were glad for that, because on three mornings, they were 15-30 minutes early, and we had to scramble to be presentable. 3. Raffles buffet is fine for hot breakfast and lunch. 4. Chocolate buffet was beautiful but nothing tasted good. No crowd management. 5. Poolside food horrible - go into Raffles unless you're shirtless. 6. Poolside drinks much more expensive then other cruise lines. To avoid constant harassment from drink servers, keep a filled glass beside you when sitting by the pool. We were told that all the food (with the exception of the food cooked in front of you) is cooked in the same kitchen on deck six. The exception was the desserts, which were made to look good and stand the test of time but lacked intensity, texture and, often, sugar. One dinner in the Garden dining room took 62 minutes from seating to delivery of the entrees. That's absurd and unacceptable. In the offensive and intolerable category: Two nights we had plugged up saltshakers. When I told the waiter, he picked it up, shook it over his wrist, and said it was "just slow." On a properly trained staff, the waiter promptly answers, "Yes, sir," and gets a replacement without question. Do they also put their thumbs in the soup if you say it's not hot enough?
ENTERTAINMENT The Spirit is a smaller boat with limited space for the number of people on board. The live shows are held in the theater, which fills early. The lounges are few, small, and multi-functional. The only lounge with a dance floor is used as the bingo hall much of the time. We didn't see a crew show, but saw a very good Cajun performer with his band in the showroom. The magician did big illusions as well as sleight of hand. But a huge tween boy in front of us kept bouncing around so we couldn't see what was going on. We asked him to sit still, and briefly said why, but he (and his father) ignored us. We left early. Second City performed a full showroom review, which we enjoyed, and a lounge "teaching show," which our friends said was OK but not as good. Dominating the lounges: Arvin and Emily, a Filipino couple with a keyboard and outstanding voices that are nearly pitch-perfect, could do any song and make it sound like the original. I also liked the Caribbean band at the pool. A guitarist and pianist who both sang (separately) were also good. Actually, they all did tunes mostly from '65-'85. We caught one film; it was on six or eight wide-screen TV monitors in the comfortable Maharini Lounge (multi-use again). The picture quality was merely fair, and varied from stretched too wide on some screens to cropped top and bottom on others. How about setting up all the monitors to the same standard, and maybe checking the cable connections here, too? Friends aboard with us like seeing films during the day, but, with no theater, they were disappointed. There are far fewer on-board activities then other cruises. Other then shopping information, there were no presentations on the areas we would be visiting.
Disembarking Because we did not have a flight that day, we choose the last disembarking time, 10:15. We went to breakfast and returned to our cabin until 10:15, even though the last group had been called for disembarking at 9:45. The stewards were eager to move us out. We were among the last to leave, walking off with no wait, had no problem finding a porter, and cleared right through customs in minutes. We had no problem getting a taxi to our hotel.