First of all, I thought this was a great week to cruise. The ship was completely sold out, but mostly to families celebrating the holiday. We met dozens of people who were part of large family groups of 10 or more. I think that set a nice atmosphere on this cruise with most people kind and friendly, especially to the large number of children on board.
EMBARKATION: We went a day early (can't be too careful when flying out of Chicago in the winter!) and had a wonderful afternoon and evening in New Orleans. We used points to stay at the Hampton Inn near the French Quarter: a great hotel when you have a family of five. The room was large and clean and it was just a couple of blocks to the Quarter. Grabbed a cab around noon on Sunday for the Pier, checked in our luggage and then wandered over to the waterfront mall for beignets and coffee and a bit more shopping. Went to the Latitudes line to check in to find out I'd been flagged as a VIP. That was a bit of a surprise! We were escorted to the VIP lounge where Bruce, the concierge, met us and warmly welcomed our family to the Spirit. He escorted us to the boarding area and was quite charming. Once aboard, we wandered the ship a bit to get our bearings and had a nice lunch up in Raffles. It was a bit chilly in New Orleans, so we didn't stay outside long. Instead, we scoped out the kids' area and signed our 9-yo daughter up for the kids club. We also meandered over to the spa (and made appointments) and checked out the library and Galaxy of the Stars. Then to our cabins!
CABINS: We had a balcony cabin (9693) on the portside towards the back of the ship. Our kids had the inside cabin directly across the hall. Our balcony cabin was completely fine. We had no issues at all. The bathroom was roomy and we liked the separated toilet and shower areas. Plenty of space, storage for luggage under the beds. We came prepared with a power strip, our own toiletries (bar soap & shampoo) and -- thanks CC! -- I brought a dual-voltage hair dryer with UK converter plug. Worked perfectly for me! Our kids' cabin was tighter, but they were able to spread out and our little one adores the top bunk! We met our steward Fatima almost immediately. She was wonderful and friendly. Our luggage was in our rooms by the time we returned from the safety drill.
SHIP: I booked a couples massage for my 17yo daughter and myself. It was her first massage and she was nervous. But the massage team was great and we both left there relaxed and happy. We also booked for the "ladies night" specials (massage, scalp massage, facial, exfoliation, reflexology) on the last night at sea -- that one completely wiped us out! Marvelous, marvelous. I had indicated on the registration that I did not need any products and nobody worked us for a sale at all. The fitness center was well-equipped, but a bit crowded. You definitely had to pick the right time to be able to get in your workout. I cannot say enough about the kids' center. Our 9yo loved it and we had a difficult time pulling her out of there to eat lunch and dinner! They had an excellent schedule of activities, the counselors were wonderful, and even the free time was awesome with the kids' climbing area. We didn't use the kids' pool area much because of our shore excursions and some chillier temps, but I loved the setup and when she was there, our girl had a great time. We loved the layout of the Spirit and the tucked away corners and public spaces. Our favorite place was without a doubt, the Galaxy of the Stars lounge. The kids loved going down to watch the bridge and it was our favorite spot (aside from our balcony) to curl up with a book or a drink and people-watch.
ENTERTAINMENT: Paul Scally, your cruise director, never failed to make us laugh ... not sure if that was AT him or WITH him, but whatever. We're fans. The shows were mostly so-so. Nothing I would rave about or could hardly wait to see again, though we really enjoyed The Second City. Elements was cancelled on this cruise, which was disappointing for sure. We played Bingo for no good reason at all ... but won both times, so we broke even. It's outrageously expensive and I'm sure that's why more people didn't enjoy. But the Bingo staff was great and made for a nice break on a sea day. We also caught a couple of trivia games and shipwide games; those were great fun. The best thing we did on ship was the CC meet and greet that NCL had set up for us the morning of the first day. Though we had over 100 people signed up, about 35 showed. The Spirit really pulled out the stops for us: coffee and pastries and ALL of the ship officers, including the captain and Paul Scally came to say hello and chat with us. They were wonderful and friendly and I really felt they went above and beyond. If you are on a CC roll call, it's really worth the extra effort of making the meet & greet. We really enjoyed chatting with each other and we made some great friends. It was so much fun to take excursions with the roll call folks and even just to say hello when we ran into each other around the ship. We did spend New Year's Eve on the Spirit and I thought they threw a great party. A huge 2009 ice sculpture was at poolside and when the captain counted down to midnight, Paul Scally knocked the 9 into the pool (and several partiers joined it!) and they put up the 10. Lots of streamers, noise makers, hats and free champagne. I think just about everybody was on the top deck (though 20 minutes later, most everyone had left!). The kids' area also had a New Year's Eve party so our little one got a chance to celebrate with her friends, too. FOOD: We had breakfast every morning at Raffles and it was fine (our personal favorite was the lady mixing yogurt/fruit/granola to order). Nothing spectacular and usually, not too crowded. I don't like buffets, so we avoided Raffles at lunch and dinner. We wanted to try some of the specialty restaurants and I was very interested in some of the specialty dinners (Enchanted Dinner, Murder-Mystery) but just never got around to it. There were so many big groups on board, that I got the sense things were pretty booked up. For our family, Windows and the Garden Room were perfectly fine. It gave my kids chances to try different things and, if they didn't like anything, they could have all the burgers they wanted elsewhere later. I thought the New Year's Eve dinner at Windows was a very nice meal. My family probably preferred the coziness of the Garden Room (which also seemed a bit faster). We also ate at Blue Lagoon a couple of times. We don't cruise for the food, so it wasn't a big deal for us. I would say, however, that it wasn't outstanding.
PORTS: As always, I relied on Cruise Critic and booked all independent excursions. We were really excited about this itinerary for the chance to go places we've never seen and have such a wide variety of fun, educational, and cultural experiences. It was a little tricky to find things that appealed to all of us, but we did it!
COSTA MAYA: We pre-booked here with The Native Choice to tour the Chaccoben ruins and then visit Lagoon Azul. Because the ship now docks in Costa Maya at 10 (and there was another ship there at 7), things were a little chaotic. Plus, the pickup point for The Native Choice is a bit hard to find. Someone was supposed to be in the debarkation area to point us the right way, but no one was there. Regardless, we asked and found our way fairly easily. There was some confusion about vans and who was taking what tour and we got a bit of a pressure sale to visit the jewelry shop, but all was well and within about 45 minutes we were in a van with five other people and on our way. Kathryn rode with us and gave us a nice description of the area and what we were seeing. About halfway there, the van pulled over and she left us to ride the rest of the way with the van behind us. There was a scary moment when we went through a military checkpoint and they told us all to get out of the van. Thankfully, my husband is a native Spanish speaker and knew what was going on. Eventually, we got back in the van and made our way to the ruins where we were met by Ivan. I felt so grateful to get our tour from him. Ivan was born on the site and loves it as a living, breathing symbol of his Mayan culture. This was such a wonderful experience, I can't really describe it. Please make the effort to ask him questions. It's not often someone from this type of background becomes so well-educated and then goes back to help his people/culture. All respect to Ivan for his hard work and dedication. When we finished with the tour, we got back in the van with Kathryn and headed to Lagoon Azul. I had booked this so my kids would still have a "beach day." They had a great time kayaking around the lagoon but truthfully, I would have rather headed back to port and done a little shopping. The Lagoon is beautiful and the lunch was OK. But it was a little chilly and we were nervous about getting back on time. As it was, we raced back and did not have time to shop at all (which maybe was a good thing! ;) We left around 4 and were back about 5 -- and still needed to make our way through the port to the ship. Ivan was one of those people who change your life. We will stay in touch with him and would definitely book with him again, no question.
GUATEMALA: Here we had reservations for the humanitarian tour with Go With Gus. Incredible experience! Once we got to the port, Gus met us and greeted us with hugs, hand-woven bracelets and little carved bird pins for each of us. We were one of the first off the ship, so we had time to do a little shopping in the market they have set up inside the pier building. Much of the crafts were the usual, though my daughter found a beautiful doll for her collection and we stumbled upon a craftsman who traveled from 120 miles away to sell his stunning hand-carved/painted Mayan masks. We'd never seen anything like them and (since my husband speaks Spanish) he was able to tell us the legends depicted in the masks and his process of creating them. We also met a woman at the official jade booth who taught my kids about the Mayan horoscope and sold us a little jade medallion for each of them. The humanitarian tour was more than we expected. Gus, who owns a hotel in Livingston and is the chief of the environmental police in the area, is an amazing tour guide. He obviously has a deep love for his country and his people and we had lengthy conversations with him about some of the struggles in Guatemala. During his tour, he frequently hailed down local fisherman and interviewed them for us about their catch or their boats. We stopped at his hotel and, even though the school were out for the holidays, a group of kids had gathered to present a bell choir concert for us. Gus had already suggested we should bring candy for the kids (since it was a holiday) so we came prepared with candy canes and small toys from Oriental Trading. It was so much fun for our kids to meet these little ones as they passed out the things we'd brought. My favorite moment was my husband explaining to a little boy about a Pez dispenser. The astonished look on that boy's face when my husband said it was a pistola that shot sweets was so hilarious! Gus then took us on a deeper tour into the jungle, telling us stories and pointing out the local sights. We really got a great feel for the area. We stopped at the hot springs where the boys climbed into the cave (too scary for me) and the girls visited the hot springs pool. Afterwards, we went back to Gus's hotel for a delicious lunch of fresh caught shrimp, crab and fried fish. We toured a bit around Livingston before heading back to the Spirit. It was truly an amazing experience.
BELIZE: I was most excited about cave tubing here. We were on one of the first tenders off the ship and once we hit the chaotic port and we found the tour guide, he informed us that cave tubing had been cancelled because the river was too high. Though he still promised to take us on the ATV. Everything happened so quickly that before I knew it, we were on the bus and heading to the ATV site. In hindsight, I really wished I had considered that cave tubing might be cancelled and made back-up plans. I probably would have rather visited Caye Caulker, but I just didn't have the time to think it all through. At any rate, my teens were delighted to go on the ATV. The site was about an hour away and our guides Myles and Jimmy kept us entertained with a mini-tour and stories of living in Belize. When our bus broke down halfway there, another one turned up within 20 minutes and Myles made it up to us by introducing us to cashew wine. The ATV site was jam-packed since they were bringing all of the cave-tubers there. But we had a nice lunch and waited our turn. I thought it was great fun and my teens were thrilled. My husband, unfortunately, ran off the course at one point and into a thorny vine, but the staff was quick to tend to his wounds and peroxided him up pretty well. We rinsed off and then headed back to the city. As others have noted, the port is crazy! We would have liked to meander through the local flea market, but the peddlers were so aggressive, my kids were a bit intimidated. We wandered a bit through the "official" shops, but other than picking up some rum and a beautiful bag from The Loom, we didn't see much that we hadn't seen everywhere else. So we headed back a bit early to the ship.
COZUMEL: After New Year's Eve, we weren't sure if we'd be up to another excursion, so I didn't plan anything official here. That made me a little nervous since there were five other ships in port that day and I knew everything would be crowded. We left the ship around 11 a.m. and found a taxi. We were told we could have the taxi for the day for $90, which sounded fair to me. Unfortunately, the driver said his understanding was it was $90 for two hours. But he and my husband got along and they came to an agreement. I had done some prior research and thought Playa Palancar would be good for our family (we were hoping to do some reef snorkeling). The driver tried to talk us out of it and took us to another spot on our way to Palancar, but agreed that was the best spot. It was a little crowded when we got there, though we found some chairs, and quickly made a reservation at the dive shop for the next boat out ($30 cash each). This was an amazing trip. We are novice snorkelers at best, but I felt completely safe and at ease with the dive staff that took us out. We went to two different reefs and they were constantly keeping an eye on everyone, pointing out different fish and turtles and even deep diving to roust some of the bottom dwellers. It was the fastest two hours of our lives! The next day was a sea day and it was a relaxing one for us. Temps were cool and windy, so we didn't get to do the sunbathing we were hoping to torment our Chicago friends with, drat. But I always like sea days for the "forced" relaxation so no complaints on my end.
DEBARKING: We were back in port by about 7 a.m. We had left our bags out the night before and had VIP tags, so we could have left whenever. We ended up with a VIP group heading off around 8:30. Our flight was scheduled for 2:30, which gave us not really enough time to do anything. I thought much of the French Quarter probably wouldn't be open on a Sunday morning, so we opted to head to the airport via the shuttle bus. We were checked in and through security by about 11. All in all, this was a wonderful, wonderful cruise for our family. So much so, that we bought a couple of cruise certificates for a future trip. We like the freestyle cruising and were delighted with the Spirit and her staff. We'd definitely cruise her again. Happy to answer any questions!