The great "last-minute prices" attracted a work friend and I to the NCL Spirit cruise out of New Orleans. This was my 8th cruise (2 NCL, 2 Disney, 2 HAL, 1 Carnival), but her first. We both had a wonderful time!
Embarkation: Embarkation was a breeze. We arrived at the cruise terminal at about 11:30 am and were boarding by 11:45. We opted for lunch in Windows dining room. I think many people went to the buffet instead, so there were very few people in the restaurant - it was very relaxing and a nice start to the day. We wandered around, exploring the ship, until our cabin was ready at 2:00 pm.
Cabin: We were in an inside cabin on deck 6 forward. The cabin was small, as expected, but had plenty of storage space for the two of us. There was a small desk with one drawer, a corner unit beside that with four drawers, and five "cubby-hole type" shelves in the closet. In the bathroom, there was a shelf under the sink area where you could store toiletries, as well as two small glass shelves on each side of the sink. We were very pleased with the condition of the cabin - in fact, with the whole ship - we didn't see the "signs of aging" that a number of others have mentioned in their reviews (other than having a miniature, non-flat screen TV in the cabin - but who wants to watch TV on a cruise, anyway?) We had booked an inside guarantee, and were somewhat concerned about possible noise when our cabin was assigned and we saw that it was under the casino, but it turned out to be no problem at all.
Crew: Our room steward was very friendly - he never failed to greet us (usually in both the morning and evening) and ask about our day. We found all crew members we encountered to be very friendly - nearly everyone would smile and greet us as we walked by.
Dining/Food: We were very happy with the food/dining. We ate most nights in Windows - one night at Raffles buffet and one night in the Garden dining room (smaller than Windows - not as spacious a feeling). We liked the food in the main dining rooms so well that we didn't feel a need to pay extra to try one of the specialty restaurants. We enjoyed the freestyle dining and ate at different times throughout the week - from 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm - and never had to wait long for a table. Four nights there was no wait at all and two nights we were given a buzzer, only to have a table open up in less than five minutes each time. One night service was a bit slow and we had to track down our server and then wolf down dessert in order to make it to a show, but otherwise service was very prompt - most nights it was only an hour from the time we sat down to the time we finished our dessert. Raffles wasn't my favorite for dinner, but they had good choices at breakfast and lunch (hot choices, salad, deli station, plus a vegetarian Indian section). We also had lunch a couple of times at the Biergarten when we came back late from excursions and most other venues were closed (hamburgers, sausages, fries). Our favorite treat there was the great pretzel bread!
Ports/Excursions: We were very fortunate to have great weather once we got out of what turned out to be a very cold and windy New Orleans!
Costa Maya: We had pre-booked The Mayan Experience Tour with Native Choice. This was probably my favorite excursion in the eight cruises I've been on so far. We started with a tour of the Chacchoben Mayan ruins. There were 18 of us in two vans. Our guide was Ivan Cohuo, whose father rediscovered the ruins and who grew up in the area. He was a very engaging tour guide - informative as well as warm and friendly. As interesting as the ruins were, the highlight of the tour was going to Chacchoben village afterwards for a lunch with a Mayan family. Three women hosted us in their garden/home, where we ate under a thatched roof, open-air structure. First, we got to shape our own tortillas, which were then cooked over a fire. Next, our guide/interpreter explained and showed us the various spices used in Mayan cooking. The lunch was wonderful, including tamales, a tender chicken dish that had been stewed with onions and spices, red beans, a medley of squash and other vegetables, and flan for dessert.
Santo Tomas: We decided to opt for an NCL tour after reading about various safety concerns in Guatemala. Overall, we were very pleased with the NCL Discover Rio Dulce tour. Be prepared for a very bumpy boat ride to start off, however! The boats hold about 20 people - they have a roof over the top for shade, but open sides, and bench type seats seating four across. It took about 30 minutes to get from where the ship is docked to the mouth of the Rio Dulce and that 30 minutes consisted of a fast, rough, bone-jarring ride. After that, we slowed down and were able to enjoy the ride and scenery. Our favorite spot was a water lily garden, where young children (about 4-8 years old) came up in canoes to try to sell us trinkets or have their pictures taken - they were so cute, we were more than happy to oblige (be sure to bring some $1 bills). We stopped at a dock/home nearby and got out for a few minutes to use the rustic facilities and get a drink and/or snack (including tortillas made over the fire). We then had a stop in Livingston for a little over an hour before heading back on the bumpy ride to the ship. You were free to wander as you wished - we followed the tour guide around, visiting a church and then going to a local hotel where a group of young people performed dances at noon. After returning from the tour, we went to the enclosed market area at the cruise ship dock - we were very pleasantly surprised by the large number of booths of people selling crafts and other items. There was also a stage inside where there was a band playing - it looked as though there were probably performances throughout the day.
Belize City: We had pre-booked the Snorkeling, Bannister Island Beach Break, and Manatee Watch Tour with Coral Breeze. This was the only one of our ports that required tendering - and tendering was a problem that day because of wind/rough seas. The Freestyle Daily said that tender tickets for those not on NCL excursions would be given out starting at 8:30 am in Champagne Charlie's. We got there at 8:00 am (as did quite a few others) and got a ticket for Tender 1, which they thought would be called for boarding at about 8:45 or 9:00 am. We had all of our gear with us and began waiting on the promenade deck for our tender to be called. And we waited and waited, becoming more anxious all the while that we would miss our tour, which was scheduled to leave from Belize City at 10:00 am. Finally, our tender was called at about 10:00 am. By the time we made it down the packed stairway and onto a boat it was nearly 10:15 am. Once we got to Belize City we rushed to our tour meeting place and were glad to find that they had not yet left without us (but were in the process of boarding the boat, so we just made it!) We had fun on the tour (there were about 10-12 people in all), although the water was rather choppy, which made for not the clearest snorkeling. Bannister Island was very pretty, with plenty of shady spots, chairs and hammocks (as well as facilities and a snack bar/grill). We had about an hour and a half there after snorkeling. Next, we went to a marine sanctuary area to look for manatees. One person on our boat spotted one, but none of the rest of us did - still it was a nice day to be out on the water.
Cozumel: We took a taxi from the shopping mall by the dock to Chankanaab Park ($10 each way). I'd been there a number of years ago, and liked it then, but it had been vastly improved since that last visit. The entrance fee was $19 (with a $2 off coupon available on the park's website). The Park has nice facilities, including bathrooms, lockers, showers to enable you to rinse off, snorkel rental, a restaurant, and nice wooden chairs under palm thatched umbrellas (palapas). There is a calm swimming area for children with a nice-looking wooden play structure, and, of course, the Dolphin Discovery area for those wanting to book programs to swim with dolphins and/or manatees. The snorkeling area is very easy to access, with steps leading down from the beach - the water was clear and we saw lots of fish. In addition to beach activities, the Park also houses an archeological trail - a very pleasant, shaded trail on which you can see reproductions of various Mayan statues and a replica of a Mayan house (where a woman was cooking tortillas over the fire). They had just started a dance program the week before and we were fortunate to get to see two fascinating dances at different locations in that area (a "human sacrifice" at the opening archway and a fire dance at another spot that has a replica of a small temple) - as well as a "deer dance" on the beach. (The dance programs were at noon and 1:30). We also had fun watching several large iguanas in the lagoon area/botanical garden.
Entertainment: We thought the entertainment on the ship was great - especially the Second City shows, the Duo Acrobatique, and the last show, Elements, which was amazing! The NCL production shows were also surprisingly good. The only one that was something of a "miss" for us was the R&B duo, which was just so so. The only negative for me in terms of entertainment/activities is that little is offered during the days at sea that does not involve an additional charge - although I also enjoy just reading and relaxing, I'd like to see some enrichment/cultural type programs, free cooking classes, etc. Even the ship tour, which I've enjoyed on other cruise lines, cost $55!
Disembarkation: Like embarkation - disembarkation was a breeze. We carried off our own luggage, so were free to leave when we wanted (although they request that you be out of your cabin by 9:00 am). We had a leisurely breakfast at Windows, collected our luggage from our cabin, got off the ship around 9:00 am and were through customs and getting a taxi to the airport within 15 minutes.