Embarkation: We arrived in New Orleans on New Year's day literally as the Sugar Bowl was being played. Note to future travelers- hotels are REALLY expensive during the Sugar bowl! We stayed at the JW Marriott on Canal Street which was very convenient to the French Quarter and the Port, but not nice enough to warrant how expensive it was to stay there. We spent a day and a half in N.O. and really enjoyed our visit- even though it was very, very cold and I had neglected to bring enough warm clothing. After buying the kids some NO sweatshirts we had fun riding the streetcar to Audubon Park, exploring the French Quarter, and visiting the St. Louis Cemetery. Parents beware, the French Quarter shops have tons of racy stuff, like t-shirts bragging about sexual exploits, etc. My kids were old enough to read, but not really old enough to get it. The fun we had far outweighed this minor grossness. We went to the port at 11:15 and were onboard within 15 minutes. The process was fast, and everyone was very nice. The only complaint I have is that they hand you your child-sized life vests as you get onto the ship, then won't let you into your cabin for two more hours, so we had to drag these bulky jackets around with us all over the ship. On our other cruise, RCL left them for us in our stateroom which was a much more thoughtful way to do it.
The Ship: I had read reviews that made me worried that the Spirit was a dumpy, tiny boat, but it was lovely. The ship is not huge, but it is nicely appointed and easy to move around on. My kids loved the Galaxy of the Stars the best, and we all were fascinated with being able to watch the captain through the Captain's Bridge which you can access through the Galaxy. There was also a monitor where you could see the ship's radar, which was very cool as we went down the Mississippi, the radar would show a boat, and you could look out the window and see it there. Everything else was good, in the Buffet there were a few double paned windows that had failed and were too foggy to see out of. One even had at least 2 inches of water in it, and was leaking into the window sill, this made me feel a little worried, like if NCL is not fixing this what else are they letting slide? I do understand how tight the turn around is however, and I think Spirit is getting a mini dry dock very soon.
Entertainment: I missed a lot of it- I saw Duo Acrobatique which my 5 year old adored and I found compelling but not the best show I had ever seen, it was kind of disjointed. I also went to On Broadway, which was entertaining, and my 7 year old loved it. I didn't feel the need to go to any other shows. I played trivia one day, but didn't understand the progressive part of it- so I was out of the loop for prizes, but Jeremy was a fun and entertaining host. I also played Bingo which was ridiculously expensive- but very lively. Paul Scalley is upbeat and funny, and I actually saw him all over the ship all the time. I went to Ian's shopping reviews just to get the free stuff, and I felt like he was nice, but that he was pushing crappy jewelry as an "investment." It is his job however, and he gave me some good tips like visiting Los Cinco Soles in Cozumel where we had a great lunch and got cool souvenirs.
Children's Club: My 5 year old loved it, and especially loved Eggnog. He wanted to go all the time. Never a wait to pick them up or drop them off, and appropriate activities. I wish they would have told us where the Pirate Parade was going, we asked and no one could tell us specifically, and my husband wanted to film it. Also the age groups were a little weird, my 5 year old was put in with 2 year olds, and that is a huge developmental difference. He was really sad that he was not allowed to do the Pirate Parade (though it was on his age group's activity calendar), and that he was not allowed to play wii with the other kids. Overall, the program was good and we had no compunction about leaving our kids here. The Kid's pool closes at 6 every night, so we never once got to use it, since by the time we got back from excursions it was closed. Also kids are not allowed in any of the adult jacuzzi's yet adults grab beers and sneak out the the kids jacuzzi and so the kids were left without a place to go if they wanted to swim (too cold to go in the pool.) We finally just ignored the signs and went into the adult only hot tubs- sorry other adults.
Stateroom: Our stateroom was on level 4 and we had a porthole- which I liked. The bed situation for 4 people is obnoxious- but we knew that in advance. There was one bunk bed, two twins that can not be slid together, and a fold out couch bed. The bunk bed really annoyed me- NCL provides NO railing for the bed, and cops out with a sticker that says "Don't put your kid in this bed, it is not safe." COME ON! Who wants to sleep in a bunk bed when you are 40? My kids slept on RCL at the age of 3 and 5 with no problem because there was a bed rail. On the Spirit there are no rails. I put the 5 year old up there one night- and when the ship made a big turn, sure enough, he flew right out of bed and hit the floor, scaring me to death. So for the rest of the trip he got the comfy bed and I had the hard, cramped bunk bed. NCL- the lack of a $50 bed rail has cost you my business in the future, it was that annoying. Our room had no heat- but the maintenance team came and fixed for us promptly. Our bathroom was huge, and nice, but the water pooled in such a way that the door frame had a hole rusted in it large enough to stick a tennis ball in. Again, if you are ignoring this- what else did you miss?
Food: We never went to the Garden Room as it always was too full on the Freestyle crowding board they post. We enjoyed Windows, though the other reviewers are correct, the appetizers are not very good. Entrees are great though. We ate at Raffles a lot- as the kids preferred it. I loved it- found plenty to eat and lots of good touches- a crepe bar, pine nuts for the salad, and the BEST Indian food I have ever eaten. I thought overall the food on NCL was great, better in fact than I would have guessed in advance. The Blue Lagoon was another great place, and we also got popcorn at Henry's several times.
Staff: Visible, cordial, and always busy. Our room stewards introduced themselves, and I have not stopped thinking about Sory all week since he was from Haiti, and the earthquake hit right as we came home. The staff was not overly chatty, but they were all very busy, and looked exhausted. I also think Freestyle means they don't have to be as friendly- they get their service charge regardless. Other than this- I love the freestyle concept, especially with kids.
Disembarkation: Fast. I read reviews that made me terrified of the Port of New Orleans. Don't worry - they were fast, and we were off the ship and through customs in less than 15 minutes. We did the advance luggage drop off at the port and they were great- they took our bags for us, and also arranged a shuttle ride to the airport for us several hours later. We walked to the Quarter, bought souvenirs, and met the shuttle guy right in front of the Cafe Du Monde. A great service!
Santo Thomas De Casillas, Guatemala
I worried more about this port than any other, and it turned out to be my absolute favorite. The port is very secure, and the shopping area in the warehouse was full of fun, inexpensive items. We went on the Humanitarian Tour with Go With Gus. I almost did not do it because the price was higher than his competitors, but I am so glad we went with Gus- it was amazing. First Gus and his family greet you, hug you, and give you little parrot pins and Guatemalan bracelets. Grandma hugged my 5 year old so much he wanted to get out of there- but if that is the worst of your problems... Gus's crew all speak excellent English and are very patient and informative. We went across the bay to Livingston (passing the home of Guatemala's former largest drug dealer, which Gerry told us all about- fascinating) - to Gus's hotel. Gus's hotel is awesome, clean, pleasant, and a nice stopping point. We tried different fruit, went to the bathroom, and listened to some children play a song for us. Then we headed up the river. The River Dulce is GORGEOUS- we saw monkeys, tons of birds, and even a huge iguana in a tree. Gus makes sure you see everything- he stops the kids in the fishing boats and has them show you their catch, he points out all kinds of scenery,and is a passionate tour guide. We visited a school (heartbreaking)- and gave the kids much needed supplies. We went to a traditional home and got to walk around and explore it while the mom of the house made us tortillas. Little kids in canoes came up and showed us their pets (parrots, turtles, crabs) and were adorable. Finally we went to the hot springs (HOT!), passed by some elaborate American vacation homes, and back to Gus's place where you get a full-on seafood lunch included in your tour. SO yummy! We then did a Garifuna dance, and walked around Livingston. People on our tour ranged from their 70's to a baby less than 2 years old, and even though it was a long day, everyone had a fantastic time. Don't stay on the ship afraid of Guatemala- it is an amazing country and I feel very lucky that I got to see it, it would be a huge loss to go to just another port full of Diamonds International stores and t-shirt shops instead of this real and beautiful country.