This was our first cruise, so we did a lot of research before and after booking (we booked in March), however, we booked based on departure city (New Orleans is an hour's flight from Dallas), rather than ports of call. We will change the emphasis next time. My original goal was to sail from Galveston, which would have been a half-day's drive, but if we have to fly to a port from Dallas, it doesn't really matter which US port it is.
We chose this cruise because after we decided to look into cruising, I signed up with all the major cruise lines for information. Within about ten minutes, an NCL representative called us to discuss our options. That was the beginning of their treating us as special customers, which I appreciated. Since they don't sail from Galveston, she mentioned New Orleans, and that's how we picked the cruise.
The Spirit is the oldest ship in NCL's fleet, but it doesn't seem old. I was surprised at how small it seemed on-board (walking from one end to the other was not that difficult) and how large it seemed from the dock in port. "Small" is not a good word, but it didn't seem overwhelming.
We had a balcony stateroom on the ninth deck with a queen-sized bed. It actually was roomier than I expected - to the point that you could just stay in the room for a while and not get claustrophobic. My wife and I are a wee bit larger than average, but didn't have major problems moving about. Also, it was quieter than hoped - the floor doesn't have major activities below or above.
One minor nit - if you want to hear the announcements from the crew, you have to be in a public area or have your room TV on the NCL internal channel. I loved the channel because it was the rolling GPS map of our location with speed and weather information, but the soundtrack was Christmas carols. While this makes sense on a Christmas cruise, they were some pretty dreary carols. The one solution was to turn the sound down, but then you missed the announcements. I would have preferred having a speaker in the room for crew announcements, especially since we were awake all the times they were made.
That was an interesting phenomenon - I suppose it was arriving in port and the noises around the arrival, but we woke up early each day. We would ask for a wake-up call, but rarely needed it. It's a good thing to be up early if you have port excursions, but we found ourselves going to bed much earlier than on dry land and waking up much earlier than we usually would on vacation.
We tried three of the "extra fee" specialty dining rooms - Le Bistro, Cagney's Steakhouse and La Trattoria. They were all good. I had duck at Le Bistro and there was duck in the main buffet the next day, but it was still worth the extra price. For the money, I think La Trattoria was the best value. The osso bucco was excellent.
Our fellow passengers seemed mostly friendly - without assigned seating, it is pretty easy to keep to yourselves all day if you prefer, but even with over twenty-five hundred on-board, we tended to see the same people consistently. I think those with similar tastes in excursions will tend to meet up regularly, since their schedules mesh.
We also had our share of clueless parents, but there is not much the ship's crew can do about them. Seriously, if there is a show in the Galaxy of the Stars, could you take your crying baby and loud discussions somewhere else?
My major complaint about the Galaxy of the Stars is that it is trying to be too many things - it's a bar, an observation deck and a small showroom. There were any number of people there because it was the "observation deck" who were drowning out the show with conversation. If you are going to have shows, they need to be in enclosed, dedicated spaces (like the Stardust Theater) and if you are going to present 18+ material, you need to keep the kids out. I didn't see the age limits enforced, even when the shows were marked "18+ only."
Port excursions were fair to excellent, and reviewed below.
Disembarkation was painful because even though NCL paces your exit from the ship (and lets you choose the time), US Customs at the port of New Orleans doesn't seem to realize that 2500 passengers made need more than seven or eight lines to exit in a timely manner. It took a while to get to the point where we could collect our luggage and pass customs. Unlike an airport, you pass customs and immigration simultaneously. I was used to going through immigration, then picking up my bags and going through customs. In New Orleans, we got our luggage first and only made one stop. It just took a long time to get to that point.
All in all, this was a very good experience - the crew was friendly to very friendly, our cabin steward was invisible but dedicated (rooms are made up twice a day with fresh towels), the food was good (and plentiful) and you could do as much or as little as you would like. We looked in some of the other room options as we walked the ship the last day as those rooms were being cleaned, and I'm not sure I would want to be in a smaller room than we had. However, I was very happy with our stateroom.
We'll be cruising again, probably even before next Christmas, although next time, we'll choose based on destinations and not on origination port. I'm pretty sure we'll stay with NCL - we were very happy with all the aspects of our cruise, before and after getting on the ship.
The second port was Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala. We had originally decided to take this day off and stay on the ship to explore, and in retrospect, that would have been a better way to spend our time (and money.)
We took the Amatique Beach Resort excursion, and I suppose if you are going to a beach resort that touts it's pool, you should be suspicious.
There is a boat ride to the resort, and the boat's crew was very uncommunicative with the passengers, which I thought was a bit strange.
The resort does have an amazing pool, including a swim-up bar. The drinks were not included on this tour, so we were lucky we had cash. (Here, as in all the stops, prices were in American dollars.)
The lunch was very good, and people around us went back for seconds, so I suppose it was all-you-can-eat although it was not advertised as such.
On the boat ride back, the engine sputtered out a couple of times. One of our fellow passengers said we coasted in on fumes - we were actually running out of gas. Again, the crew did not say anything to the passengers.
This trip was not worth the money, especially when compared to the previous port's beach break.
The Altun Ha portion of the tour followed lunch at a restaurant on the river and a bus ride to the site. During the bus ride, our guide gave a very good overview of the history of Belize, which was funny, personal and informative.
This was a very good tour.
It was also a very good port - I would return to Belize City just to explore more of it.
There was a similar "beach break" at almost every port, and they all seemed pretty similar. This was the one beach break with open bar.
We were supposed to have beach time afterward, but the beach was stuffed full of people and the water sports were still canceled. We walked out of the pier, and then headed back into town.
I had been to Cozumel before and it was the one port I considered just walking around. My wife had never been and now wants to go back.