If you're looking for the quick summary, here it is: The ship is showing its age a bit, but it's still beautiful and one of our favorites to date; the food was great; the ports were amazing; and overall, it was a wonderful vacation.
But I tend to prattle on in great detail, and those are the kind of reviews I enjoy reading, so if you're the same way, read on. ?
I'd also like to say upfront that some of the things I say may be taken as complaining. I want to emphasize that this is probably the best cruise we've ever been on, so any negative comments are merely things that could, in my opinion, be improved upon, and didn't significantly detract from our experience.
BACKGROUND I'm a 28-year-old newspaper reporter from Michigan. This was the sixth cruise for my husband and me, our second on NCL We've also been on Princess, Royal Caribbean and Carnival (twice) in the past. I would have to say my favorite previous cruise overall was on Carnival Miracle but my favorite ship was the NCL Gem. We weren't sure we would like NCL's Freestyle approach, but found on the Gem last year that though there are some drawbacks, we generally liked it. More on that later.
Since I don't like to fly, we drove down — 12 hours to Memphis one day (stayed at the Hilton, definitely recommend it), six hours to New Orleans the next. It was pretty manageable. We spent time with friends for a few days beforehand and boarded the ship on Super Bowl Sunday. Everyone in New Orleans was revved up for the Saints' first SB appearance; everywhere we went, people were yelling "Who dat?" and wearing black and gold. A very festive atmosphere! Unfortunately, it was quite cold, which is what we were trying to escape in dreary Michigan!
EMBARKATION We'd read good things about embarkation at the Port of New Orleans, and we weren't disappointed. We pulled into the parking garage and were greeted by a friendly clerk who directed us to the machine to pay our weekly fee — I think it was around $112. Porters were immediately available and they, too, were extremely friendly. We were checked in and waiting for our boarding number to be called within a few minutes. We arrived at the terminal around 11 and were on the ship by 11:45. By far the smoothest embarkation ever compared to our other experiences (Bayonne, NYC, Port Canaveral, Galveston).
SHIP I was a little apprehensive about the ship, seeing as we'd been on the biggest and best of NCL's fleet by way of the Gem last year and knew that would be a lot for the Spirit to live up to. Spirit definitely is smaller and less flashy, and showing its age in spots, but it has an ambience all its own, and we loved it.
We were in 5002, a porthole oceanview room almost all the way forward. We got a killer deal; the price of an oceanview dipped briefly below the price of an interior a few months ago and we pounced. I have to admit, it took me a few minutes to digest the outdated seashell motif in the hall, the lemon-yellow tiles in the stateroom bathroom and the pink floral-print curtains against the busy red carpet. And the room was showing age in spots, especially in the bathroom. But by the time we were unpacked, it felt like home.
FYI: This room was quite loud at times due to some kind of noisy inner workings of the ship. It never bothered us — in fact, it lulled us to sleep — but if you're sensitive to noise, beware.
Another note: NCL is THE BEST for stateroom bathroom design. Sounds stupid, I know, but you wouldn't laugh if you've ever watched water shoot everywhere out of a thinly curtained shower in a cramped Carnival bathroom. Like on the Gem, the Spirit's stateroom bathrooms were divided by sliding doors into shower (biggest we've had yet), toilet and central sink/vanity area. Two thumbs up.
The ship is nicely designed, with an easy-to-learn layout and plenty of attractive public spaces. It was originally constructed for the Asian market, and the vestiges of those days still remain. Many of the instructional and emergency placards are written in both English and ... Japanese? Chinese? There's a definite Asian flair in the dEcor, with Far East-inspired statues and artifacts lining the hallways and stairwells.
The atrium is gorgeous, with a stained glass-esque ceiling, grand staircases and fountains. There's plenty of seating there, on Deck 7, as well as on Deck 8 along the railings, so you could sip drinks and people-watch. There was frequently live music at Champagne Charlie's, the champagne bar that overlooked the atrium from Deck 8.
The hallway leading from the atrium forward on the starboard side doubled as Blue Lagoon, the 24-hour comfort food joint, where you could get wings, chips and dip, panini sandwiches, cheeseburgers, etc. Milkshakes also were available for a fee. Blue Lagoon led straight into Shanghai Bar, which had a very cool feel of its own and constantly had sports showing on multiple TVs. Unlike on some of the other ships we've been on, it was a good mix instead of non-stop soccer.
I didn't spend much time in Henry's Pub, but it had a pleasant ambience of a neighborhood bar, all green-painted wood and comfy seats. There was a separate art gallery where the Park-West auctions were held, which was very neat. Galaxy of the Stars, the secondary show lounge, was pretty cool, a giant room lined with windows at the bow.
One of our favorite places to hang out was the Bier Garten on Deck 13, where they sometimes had karaoke. It was outdoors, but covered with a tent, so it was a nice place to get fresh air without being exposed to the wind.
The gym was a little bit of a disappointment for a workout junkie like me. I was spoiled by the vastness of the Gem's gym. Spirit's had a few ellipticals, a few crossramps, some treadmills, weights, a handful of bikes and some other accessories. They also had two Aquaswim miniature pools. But it seemed like at least two or three machines were out of order daily, and it took awhile for some to get fixed (Aquaswim was down for an entire day). And though I thought I saw on NCL's site that gyms are open 24 hours fleet-wide, Spirit's was only open 6 a.m.-11 p.m. Not a big deal, but still. The first day, I arrived at 7 a.m. and had to wait for a machine. After that, I got up at 6 a.m. to go work out to guarantee a spot. I had to work off all the food! ;) It's nice though that the machines all have TV monitors mounted to the front, just like on the Gem. There also were walking and jogging tracks on two different decks, which I didn't try, and yoga and pilates classes for a fee ($12).
I went to the spa once, got a pedicure. It was nice, but like all cruise ship spas, overpriced for what you got.
The pool deck was gorgeous and we found our favorite place to grab a lounge chair was a deck above, on Deck 13, where you could look down at the pool without the hustle and bustle. We never had a problem finding a chair where we wanted it, a nice change over some other ships. Who wants to fight for a chair when you want to relax?
Our least favorite public space was the Stardust Theater. It was poorly designed so that if you entered from Deck 7, you walked in front of the stage with the entire audience looking at you. It felt like walking into a packed college lecture hall. We discovered quickly that if we entered from Deck 8, we could access the balconies and comfier, more secluded chairs. But we didn't spend much time in Stardust; we're not big on production shows, and I had the bad tendency to fall asleep with the lights out there!
ENTERTAINMENT As I said, we don't do production shows much, so can't comment on those. We attended the Second City shows; the funniest was the adults' only one; the others dragged a bit but were OK. We enjoyed watching the Newlywed/Not So Newlywed Show (a cruise ship staple that can be hilarious or dull, depending on the contestants) and playing Quest, an adult scavenger hunt-esque game. The acrobats were pretty amazing once they got going. The crew talent show was very good. The White Hot Party was OK. I'm not big on dancing so it doesn't do much for me. We adored the karaoke sessions; everyone was friendly and supportive, even though I'm a horrid singer. What blew my mind was an event called Ship-n-Males, which entailed male crew members stripping down to their underwear. I'm no prude, but even I was blushing as the throngs of cougars hooted and hollered at the guys. I only stuck around for the first few minutes, but it seemed pretty racy for a cruise ship! ?
DINING The food on this ship was divine. I'm pretty strict about eating the rest of the year, so I have to admit, I kind of go off the rails when I get on a cruise. ?
Like on the Gem, the buffet — called Raffles — was a winner, with tons of stations and a well-organized layout. There was a wide variety of fruit, cereals and pastries in the morning. There were several made-to-order egg stations and even a made-to-order yogurt mixing station, with fruit, granola, etc. Plus the usual pancakes, potatoes and very doughy, delicious French toast. It was nice that milk, both regular and skim, was available all the time alongside the coffee and juice machines; that seemed to be rare on other ships. There were made-to-order pasta and sandwich stations at lunchtime, a great salad bar and yummy pizza. Soft-serve and hand-dipped ice cream was available, as were a smattering of sugar-free options. In the afternoons, they had AMAZING chocolate cookies and oatmeal raisin cookies.
It was never difficult to find a table at Raffles, which was nice. On Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas, we often spent the better part of 15 minutes circling, trying to find a seat, and the buffet itself was horrid — cold and bland. NCL is definitely doing something right in this area.
At the Bier Garten, hot dogs, sausages, pretzels, fries, etc. were available in the afternoon. Henry's Pub also served pretzels and popcorn.
There are two main dining rooms, Windows and The Garden Room. The Garden Room seemed to be popular among the older set and often had a line. We ate at Windows for the first few days before trying The Garden Room, and decided we liked the ambience better in The Garden Room, though Windows is pretty, with giant (you guessed it) windows lining the back wall, at the stern. Here comes my biggest complaint on this cruise: Dinner service is SO INCREDIBLY SLOW. Maybe there's just something messed up in the process, because it was consistently and needlessly dragged out. And though Freestyle is, for the most part, worth it due to the flexibility and the ability to avoid being stuck dining with sometimes peculiar tablemates, I think this is where its biggest shortcoming becomes evident: I just don't get the impression the waitstaff cares as much as those on other ships, where you have the same waiter for the entire cruise. We had a few standouts (Horace from Jamaica!) but most of the waiters seemed either harried or apathetic.
There was only ONE thing I ate in the main dining room the whole week that I disliked: some kind of chocolate flan-type thing. The rest was awesome. The highlight, I think, was the apple strudel pie. YUM. Other notable items included the tomato and vegetable rigatoni, beef stroganoff, caprese salad, sage-potato gnocchi with pumpkin cream, cappuccino mousse, mocha Bavarian cream...OK, I'll shut up now. ?
There were several specialty restaurants: Cagney's Steakhouse, La Trattoria, Teppanyaki, a sushi bar, etc. We only went to the French restaurant, Le Bistro. The service was great and the food was delicious. The duck cassoulet was awesome, and we agreed that the crème brulee was the best we've ever had.
PORTS Costa Maya: We'd gotten the impression online that this was a "throwaway port." We'd expected to take a bus to a beach and hang out there. But it turned out, we didn't need to. Right at the pier, there are the obligatory shops (what would we do without Diamonds International and vendors peddling overpriced bracelets, handbags, crafts and T-shirts?) but also a few restaurants; a stretch of sand with thatched umbrellas, lounge chairs and hammocks; and a massive pool. The shoreline was rocky, so it wasn't a good place to swim, but we just wanted to soak up the sun, so after shopping and eating tacos at one of the restaurants, we grabbed two hammocks and relaxed with drinks, all in view of the Spirit docked nearby.
Santo Tomas de Castilla: Ian, the shopping consultant, mentioned at one of his talks that unless we were on an organized excursion, we shouldn't wander off the beaten path in Guatemala. Wow, that's encouraging. Luckily, we had scheduled an excursion: We did the Las Escobas waterfall tour, and it was pretty cool. Fernando, our guide, was engaging and friendly, and talked about the country's history as we drove to the falls, which took us through a rundown part of town. At the waterfalls, Guatemalan women were hand-making tortillas with guacamole and selling three for $1. They were delicious. After a short hike through the forest, we got to the waterfalls, which were gorgeous; you could swim or wade in their pools, though the water was cold. We also saw a guatusa, this big rodent-like animal that decided to take a dip with us. ? The only obnoxious part of this tour was how long we had to wait for the bus to get back. At the pier, there was an airplane hangar-like building with vendors and also Guatemalan dancers and performers. As the ship pulled away, the performers and tour guides lined up and danced, cheered, sang and honked their horns, yelling, "Thank you!" and "Happy Valentine's Day!" We'd been told by Fernando that this is the custom, so we made sure to get near the railing as we set sail.
Belize: We loved Belize! We'd done a lot of reading on the Internet, and though we were a little nervous about booking a non-NCL excursion (you always worry you'll be late and the ship will leave without you), we ended up scheduling a cave tubing tour through Yhony at Cave-tubing.com because we read nothing but glowing reviews. His price was $45 per person to NCL's $100. It was SO WORTH IT. A word of warning: Belize City is a tender port, and NCL stalls on letting you off the ship unless you're on an NCL excursion and need to get off early. We begged and pleaded several times to get off with the first few groups because we were hoping to catch the 9:15 a.m. Cave-tubing.com session as opposed to the 10 a.m. My husband finally sweet-talked an NCL staffer into giving us a VIP tender pass, but otherwise, we would not have made it. We might not have even made the 10 a.m., since it's first come, first served tender passes and everyone congregates at Champagne Charlie's to get them. I understand NCL tour participants have priority, but it's a little ridiculous the lengths they'll go to discourage you from any outside excursions.
The tender ride seemed long but not unpleasantly so. The Cave-tubing.com bus had just left for the 9:15 when we finally got off, but Yhony, the owner, was at the pier and he cheerfully loaded us and another couple into his Land Rover and got us caught up. Dennis, our guide, was jovial and funny, and he and the crew gave us samples of Belizean cashew wine and told us about the country as we drove about 45 minutes to the cave site. The excursion itself was awesome; the caves were truly breathtaking, and well worth the trip. We had several guides who led us in small groups, and we felt safe and secure the entire time. We basically just floated blissfully through the water, as opposed to some of the people with the cruise groups who seemed to be flailing all over, trying to steer themselves. We would absolutely recommend Cave-tubing.com to anyone. We never feared we wouldn't make it back in time and we didn't even have to pay until the end.
Cozumel: Based on recommendations online, we paid $60 apiece to go to Nachi Cocum, a private beach club that only allows 100 visitors a day. We booked online in advance. It was about a 15-minute ride ($16 each way) to get there, but it was definitely worth it. The price included a guaranteed spot beneath a thatched umbrella (right on the shoreline), food (entrEe, appetizer and dessert) and all drinks (even alcoholic). I think I gained 10 lbs just there, scarfing down delicious enchiladas and nachos. You could eat in a restaurant area or get waited on right on the beach. They had a pool available for free, and water sports and massages for a fee. The beach was postcard perfect, with white, sugary sand and crystal clear water. Amazing.
DISEMBARKATION: Like embarkation, getting off the ship was easy, the smoothest disembarkation we've ever had. We long ago learned that we bring too much junk to carry all of our own stuff and do the express checkout, and that we'd rather just be the very last people off the ship. So Friday, when colored tags became available to signify what time we wanted to leave, we took the last set, for 10:30 a.m. The last morning, I worked out and we ate breakfast and hung out in the stateroom before heading to Champagne Charlie's to wait for our color to be called. A guitarist serenaded the remaining passengers, and it was all very calm and orderly and pleasant. When our color was called, we were off the ship and being assisted by a Saints gear-wearing porter within 20 minutes. It was a breeze.
The worst part of the trip was driving home; we hit crazy snow in Kentucky, which tacked an extra six hours onto our return trip!
Overall, the Spirit was fantastic, the ports were great, the food and entertainment were excellent, and we wouldn't hesitate to cruise NCL again!
Feel free to email me with any questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. I also have 1,000 pics, so if you want to see any specific aspect of the ship, let me know!