This was our 12th cruise overall, third with NCL. The others have been with Princess and Carnival. We are from Missouri and are in our early 40's with no children.
TRAVEL TO PORT OF EMBARKATION:
Due to our last minute booking (one week prior), we could not find air reasonable from either Kansas City or St. Louis to New Orleans, so we drove to the port of New Orleans from Mid-Missouri. We spent one night in a hotel (about 2/3 of the way) on our way down and drove straight back home after the cruise (approx. 12 hours). It's not a bad drive since we just take I-70 to 40, then 270 to 55, and on to New Orleans. It's mostly straight highway, four lanes. Not bad at all. We did drive across Lake Ponchartrain for something different. This was our fifth time to New Orleans and we had never done that before. It was very neat. We did have to pay a $5 toll to drive across the 24 mile bridge, but it came right out at our hotel in Metairie.
As we mentioned, we spent one night on the way down (Fri. night) since we had a free night with our Hilton Honors points at the Hampton Inn in Batesville, MS. It was a decent hotel right off of I-55. We spent the night before the cruise (Sat.) at the Hampton Inn in Metairie, LA. Both hotels were as good as expected, nice beds and a decent complimentary breakfast. We always do research on Tripadvisor.com prior to staying at any property. We stayed at the Metairie hotel for a couple of reasons. We normally stay at the Hampton Inn Convention Center in New Orleans and park our vehicle there for the cruise using their complimentary shuttle, but it was booked up due to the NCAA tournament in town. It seemed we picked a bad time to cruise with the tournament and spring breakers. However, the Hampton Inn in Metairie had a park and cruise special for $99.00 plus tax, $111.62, which was actually .38 cheaper than parking at the pier plus we had free breakfast. They have a complimentary shuttle to/from the port and covered parking, with hotel security. There are a few drawbacks to staying there. They have one shuttle van, so if you are not on the list early, you will need to wait to get a ride to the port. The shuttle was packed on the way to the port (mostly due to all of the luggage), but on the way back, we called when we got to the curb and they were there in 30 minutes. Not bad considering the hotel is 20 minutes away. The driver wanted to wait for another group but we explained we had a very long drive, so he agreed to take us to the hotel to get our vehicle and then go back and pick them up. The shuttle driver had to go to the airport immediately after dropping us off, so it's a good thing we asked him if he would take us to the hotel so we could get on the road. We were already running very late due to the Embarkation fiasco (more about that later). STATEROOM:
Cabin 6011, Cat. KK, Because we booked only a week prior to the cruise from a internet agency we always do business with, we took a Inside Guarantee cabin. We had very good luck doing this on our last cruise on the NCL Pearl in October, 2009. We paid for the lowest category and got a outside cabin, which was a wonderful surprise, since you never know what you will end up with. This time we were upgraded to the 6th Deck and went from a Cat. N to a Cat. KK, but still inside forward. We initially thought this was a great deck to be on since both dining rooms are located there, but neither can be accessed from this deck. You must either go up or down to walk to either mid-ship for the Garden or aft for the Windows dining rooms. Very inconvenient.
As far as the stateroom was concerned, it was smaller than Carnival and Princess, but we expected that since it was our third cruise with NCL. The bed was the biggest disappointment. We both love a firm bed, but our bed was extremely hard! We thought we could just get used to it, but after the second night, neither of us could hardly walk and were extremely sleep deprived from tossing and turning both nights. We asked our cabin steward if he would be able to locate a egg crate pad for us and he said they were out, but he would check the other decks to see if he could locate one. Sure enough, that night when we laid down to go to sleep, we noticed a huge improvement in the comfort level of our bed. The egg crate pad made such a difference! The electric outlet didn't work in our cabin, so that was a little bit of a inconvenience, even though we brought a power strip. It didn't work in the bathroom and there were no other outlets. There was a older, very strange type of foreign hair dryer in the bathroom that we used throughout the week. It was not what I was used to and I was not able to curl my hair, but that was not a big deal. You just go with the flow.
We had a issue with our safe on the first day so we called the information desk and someone was there within a half hour to fix it.
We did notice some areas of the cabin missed when cleaning (the back of a ear ring and a paper airplane someone made were laying on the floor). However, the cabin stewards kept everything very clean throughout the week. We always had ice in the morning and evening (no refrigerator). We also had a very strong sewage odor in our cabin on Friday of the cruise (day 5). We thought we could just get by, but that night it was unbearable, so we called the information desk to let them know. Just a few minutes later, a supervisor was there letting us know our cabin steward would be coming to put some chemical down the toilet and spray some deoderizer around the room. I'm not sure which was worse smelling! The supervisor called several times the next day to check on the smell. Apparently, this is a big concern on the ship.
One other thing about cabin 6011, you will notice a VERY loud rumbling when the ship is lowering or raising the anchors. This happened the morning we arrived in Belize since we tendered to shore. We were still sleeping so it was not a fun way to wake up. I guess one can expect these types of issues when choosing a guarantee cabin. After all, they are available for a reason!
A couple of things we did like about the cabin. The shower is very nice (roomy) with a sliding glass door, high ceiling (since we're tall), adjustable shower hose and a shower soap/shampoo dispenser. There's also a bottle opener affixed on the bathroom wall. My DH especially liked this.
As mentioned above, there are several inconveniences (mainly accessing the dining rooms) when navigating the ship. Thankfully, my DH is very good about learning his way around the ship immediately, so that was helpful. The ship is smaller than the Pearl, so that was also nice in a way. The ship was refurbished in Nov. 2008, but is already showing a noticeable amount of wear and tear. This was especially apparent on the walls, cabin floors and elevators. The dining rooms are nice and we really liked the Windows restaurant when we got a seat next to the windows. We noticed most of the tables next to the windows in both dining rooms were for two people. Another thing we noticed was there's a teen club on the ship, but there's a sunbathing area right outside of it where the teens can look out the windows and watch the sunbathers. Several didn't have any tops on in this area, which we thought was very ironic! This club was VERY popular, as you might imagine.
As we stated above, this was our third NCL cruise, and possibly our last! Our first cruise was on the NCL Pride of America in Hawaii, May '08. The food and service on that ship was extremely bad. We ate in all of the free and a couple surcharge restaurants, and we decided at that time we would never cruise again with NCL.
However, in Oct., we found a unbelievable deal on the Pearl Eastern Caribbean cruise out of Miami, so we decided to give NCL another chance. We had a very enjoyable experience on the Pearl. We loved the diner, $10 and $15 surcharge Mexican/Italian restaurants and buffet on that ship. We also love the Freestyle Dining concept, even though some of the service and dining room choices were below par. Overall, we had such a great time on that cruise (mainly due to the itinerary and Freestyle Cruising concept), we paid a $250 deposit for a future cruise (plus you get a $100 shipboard credit). We used that deposit on this cruise.
However, we decided not to purchase another deposit on the Spirit since we may not be cruising with NCL again. The main reason is the dining experience. Let me start with the Raffles Court Buffet. Breakfast is definitely the best part of this dining establishment. The bacon, omelets, waffles, fruit and pastries are very good. It was better than the dining room breakfast, in our opinion. After breakfast, it all goes down hill. The lunch buffets were disgusting. The choices are strange and nothing seems to go together. We ate in the Garden Main Dining Room only once for lunch since their hours are so short (only open 1 1/2 hours, or Noon to 1:30). The other dining room is not open for lunch. We tried the Blue Lagoon Cafe a couple of times and ordered the chicken strips, chicken wings, hamburgers/fries, spinach dip and cheesecake. The chicken strips were tiny overcooked pieces of chicken. They were inedible. The fries are good if they are fresh. We had cold fries the first time. The chicken wings are also pretty good. The burgers were good (if they are fresh) as was the cheesecake. It was the best cheesecake we have had on a cruise ship. It comes with blueberry sauce and whipped cream. Don't miss this! Also, the Blue Lagoon offers coffee, fruit and danishes in the morning, so this was the first stop for my DH every morning on his way back from the gym.
We did not eat in any of the specialty surcharge restaurants. It seemed to us, and others we spoke to, NCL is making the few included dining choices so unattractive they are forcing you to choose a surcharge restaurant. The menus each night were really disappointing. We are not going to pay $50 for the two of us to eat dinner one night when we should have a nice dinner included in the price. This cruise was not cheap due to the ship being sold out (there was a high roller Harrah's Casino group on the ship) and lots of spring breakers, so we felt we had already paid for our meals. Princess and Carnival also offer a surcharge restaurant or two, but also offer nice size shrimp for appetizers on their menu, not baby shrimp. They also offer better quality dining choices for dinner. My DH is a big seafood eater and was extremely disappointed in the choices on this cruise. If you want lobster, you will need to pay a $25 surcharge, and then another surcharge on top of that one! No thanks! We did enjoy a couple of dinners in the main dining room, but all fell short of other cruise lines we have been on.
Bottom line: The NCL dining experience is just not up to par with other cruise lines. It's really sad to us since this is the only reason we are considering not going back to NCL again. They need to revamp their entire dining menu and buffet, including desserts. They also need to remember on the Spirit cruise ship, the majority of passengers are from the mid-west. Most of us are meat and potato eaters. We do not necessarily enjoy Indian curry dishes, lamb, etc., or other strange items for lunch. We also like a meal to go together. Princess does an exceptional job with their menus. NCL, if you are reading this, you should go on a Princess cruise. Also, you need to offer more choices when your customers are returning from the ports.
We spent some time in the Casino, which is very nice. It was very busy most of the time since the Harrah's group was on the ship. Apparently, their high roller customers received a free cruise, so they were spending big! We think NCL did O.K. last week!
Most of the service was better than the NCL Pearl ship, and 110% better than the NCL Pride of America in Hawaii. The only area we experienced really bad service was in the Blue Lagoon. There were a few workers (or non-workers, I should say) that apparently hated their jobs.
We attended two shows throughout the week; the Comedy-Magic of Fred Becker, which was surprisingly very good. We also enjoyed the Duo Acrobatique.
PORT & SHORE EXCURSIONS:
Costa Maya, Mexico: We caught a bus for $3 per person and went to the Majahual beach/shopping area. It's very close and you can see the ship from the beach. It was a lot of fun, and a very inexpensive day. We would highly recommend this!! There are free beach chairs, umbrellas, a nice beach, massages, shopping (locals selling their wares), jet ski rentals and lots of small places to get wonderful seafood and local favorites, including excellent frozen drinks and local beers. We ate on the beach at our new friend's, Mica and Douglas' (looks like Crocodile Dundee) bar/restaurant, La Mica Loca. Just ask for Douglas and Mica if you can't find it. Mica is the owner and she's from Italy, so you can get authentic Italian dishes. Try the fresh seafood. It's excellent. Also, try the Leon beer. It is very, very good and only $1.50 a bottle, cheapest on the strip. In the afternoon, we went back to the port for a bit, where their's a free swimming pool with a swim up bar and some local shopping. This is a very nice port and definitely one we want to return to.
Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala: We bought the "Discover Rio Dulce River" excursion through the ship. This was our first trip to Guatemala, and read some scary stuff about this port on the State Dept.'s website and other reviews. We thought this would be a good port to book an excursion through the ship since we would not want to get left there. It was $54, per person. The ship uses Gray Line tours. Our tour leader was Marisol. She was THE BEST! If you go with this tour, make sure you ask to be in her group. She is so knowledgeable and cares about each and every person on the tour. She wants you to have a great time. She gave us a personal tour of Livingston, which was wonderful! She took us all the way to a church in town, but it was closed for the day. We can't say enough about Marisol and this tour.
We met a family from MO on the ship and they also decided to go on the tour, but booked it outside the ship and only paid $35 a person so, you'll save some money by doing this if you don't have a fear of the ship leaving you. Again, we highly recommend this excursion. Make sure you bring some one dollar bills along with you, as well as some small children's clothing if you have any to donate. You can give items to the local children who come out in their canoes to sell you their items up in the river. There's a large building at the port that is very safe. You will find lots of local items for sale there including coffee grown in the mountains of Guatemala. There's also water and soft drinks very reasonably priced inside, and food, if you would like to try local cuisine. I hear the coconut rolls are very good.
Belize: We originally were going on a snorkeling tour here, but were not able to due to a health condition so we decided to spend the day around the port, shopping and trying the local beers. It was a fun day, with the exception of riding in the tenders. NCL hires the local company to transport their guests a very long way to the port. They insist on getting 75 passengers on each tender, so the ride is very uncomfortable. Make sure you wear your deodorant on this day!
Cozumel: We had been to this port three other times, so we just decided to spend the day shopping and relaxing around the port area. There are tons of local stores, as well as the chain stores such as Diamonds International, Del Sol, etc.. The ship is docked right in the heart of down town, so there's lots to do and see right there. It was raining when we arrived, so we caught a ride with a local rickshaw. They pick you up right at the ship with a covered seat and take you to the street area for a donation. We are big people and I have to say, the guy definitely earned the five bucks we gave him, and built up some muscle mass in the process! I thought he might suffer a heart attack before we reached the street. The pier is a long way! It's well worth it if it's raining or you have a health condition. We ate lunch at Torro's Place, which is upstairs on the main street there. They have EXCELLENT shrimp tacos. You will have a great view of the cruise ship from the restaurant and the prices are very reasonable. So, make sure you go there for lunch. Because this was spring break for a lot of cruisers, and Carlos n' Charlie's is right across the street, there were LOTS of very inebriated people attempting to make their way back to the ship with only minutes to spare. It was quite comical! We saw a girl throwing up in the gangway as we boarded the ship. That was not a pleasant sight. So keep this in mind for next March. If you're not into the spring break scene, you might just wait 'til April to cruise. Needless to say, the ship was very quiet that night! DISEMBARKATION:
This was a total fiasco! NCL introduced the concept of carrying your own bags off. Well, everyone on the ship decided to take advantage of this program. I think NCL is a victim of it's own success, or we were! They announced prior to debarkation day and notified everyone to please wait until they are called to make their way to the lobby to be let off of the ship. Those who were carrying off their own bags were allowed to start disembarking at 8:00 AM. At 6:40 AM, people were already in line to get off the ship. Therefore, for those of us who follow directions, we were in for a very long wait. We started at the front of the ship, then were instructed to walk with our rolling bags through lots of people and their rolling bags (doesn't work well) to the back of the ship and wait in a VERY long line of people. We waited, and waited, and waited some more. Eventually, we were told the reason for the delay was the Customs agents were having to check everyone's passports and declaration forms???? That's something NEW?? What were they doing before? Finally two hours later, we were let off of the ship. We had hoped to be somewhere in Mississippi by then. Thankfully, we didn't have a early flight. I think NCL is going to have to revamp this program. It was extremely frustrating as people were cutting in line and getting into very heated arguments on the ship.
Any cruise is better than no cruise, in our opinion. However, when you are spending your hard-earned money and precious time, you want to make sure you feel like you are getting your money's worth. With this cruise, we just didn't feel that way, mainly because of our dining experiences. If NCL will completely change their buffet offerings and dinner menus as well as hire a good pastry/dessert chef, we will consider going back. At this time, there are too many other choices out there to settle for mediocrity. We hope this review helps you in some way! Thanks for taking the time to read it.