Cruise Critic Review
A little bit about the reviewer. This is the reviewer's 10th "mainstream" cruise, 5th on NCL, and first time on the Spirit. We have also cruised Celebrity, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean. While this review will be written as objectively as possible, the experiences and interactions of the reviewer will play into the observations of the reviewer. In general, we are very positive about our cruise experiences, and "look" for the good times, and try to not let any negatives impact our overall experience. We are in our late 30's, and were cruising with the wife's parents (50's & 60's), and two other couples (one of whom we have cruised with twice before - all in their mid 30's.
Pre-Cruise and Embarkation
We drove from Memphis, while our traveling partners flew from Wisconsin and Minnesota. As this cruise left out of New Orleans on the first official weekend of Mardi Gras, the trip would have been incomplete without a pre-cruise stay. The Holiday Inn French Quarter, while dated and a bit on the "needs a good cleaning" side, was a good value, and offered a stay & cruise parking package that reduced the total price of having to park at the pier. The location of the hotel was one block off Bourbon Street, so it provided a slightly quieter haven late at night from the constant noise one block over.
Sunday was embarkation day, so we had scheduled to get to the port by 11am and get on the ship. Didn't happen. No problem. The operation is so efficient that we arrived about 12:15pm, dropped off the bags with the porters, went into the building, and.....no lines. Right to the front, hand over credit card, take picture, and onto the ship. Maybe 15 minutes from arrival to deck 7 Atrium. Nice.
First Impressions and Lunch
Embarkation from the Port of New Orleans puts you in the Atrium on deck 7. This was nice as it was centrally located and about 4 stories tall. We were not interested in clawing our way through the crowds in the buffet, so opted for the sit-down lunch in Windows located aft on deck 6 (accessed from the aft stairwell on deck 7). This dining room is open and airy, with windows all around. Views were good from any seat in the house. We were seated at a table for 6 and were quickly served. Food was tasty, and after lunch we were ready to explore.
This ship is considerably smaller than other ships, although it does not feel cramped. The public spaces are nicely designed, and even the smaller venues (Henry's Pub) are well thought out and never felt over-crowded. Champaign Charley's has a nice view overlooking the Atrium, and was a nightly stop for 2-for-1 martinis. The theatre is at the aft end of this ship, and is much smaller than the Pearl or Star, and is unusually accessed through the aft entrances, which means that anyone coming in late walks in at the front of the theater for everyone to see.
Other public spaces were nice. The pool deck seems crowded; however there always seemed to be places for people to find a chair in our out of the sun. The Bier Garten, which was one deck above the pool forward, had great views down onto the pool deck and always had a good number of people hanging out there. It had its own small buffet with burgers, dogs, brauts, sauerkraut, fries, potatoes, etc. All the way forward on deck 7 was the casino, the Maharini's bar, and the nightclub. For probably the first time we've been on a cruise, this area was always hopping after midnight. Perhaps there's a lesson here - if you put the late night venue next to the casino, people will use it more often. Nevertheless, our group (minus the parents), always found our way here after the late shows and events were over.
The Galaxy of the Stars lounge is forward on deck 12, and is the equivalent of the Spinnaker on other NCL ships. This is where most of the evening activities occurred. Good sightlines all around, however with a full ship, many of the events here were standing room only. Arrive early (sometimes hours early) if you want front row seats to the good stuff. All in all, this ship is well laid out and in good condition. At no time did we feel were on a "small" ship, although there was certainly more motion than other larger vessels.
We had a midship, portside balcony on deck 11, directly under the pool deck. YES, there was a little noise from above early in the morning when chairs were being moved around. Didn't bother us a bit. The cabin was a bit smaller than we had seen on other NCL ships, however we are used to mini-suites, so this may have a bit to do with it. It was well laid out and with plenty of storage, and the bathroom had plenty of room for us. The shower has a sliding door and plenty of room to turn around. Yes, it's on the old side, and yes the tile was worn and showed signs of its age - so what? The bed was one of the most comfortable we have slept on. The cabin stewards were efficient, and kept our room spotless, even though we made it very difficult for them at times. We had a connecting room with one of our traveling companions, and while the balconies cannot be opened on the Spirit like other classes of ships, the connecting doors can be unlocked. Note: Once they are unlocked by the steward, you cannot manually lock them. Knock before opening!
Preface: We eat out a lot. From high-end seafood to Ruth's Chris to the Mexican place down the street. I'm also a self-professed amateur chef and enjoy making gourmet meals from scratch at home for family and friends. We have high-end tastes, but just as easily like a nice burger.
We had main dining room food 4 nights, buffet 1 night, and specialty 2 nights. The main dining room food was pretty good. At no time did we need to send food back or request something different. Was it 5 star or even 4 star? Probably not, but it was what we paid for and was not worth complaining about in any way. The buffet was another story. While the Pearl has one of the best buffets we've ever seen, the Spirit was sub-par. The selection didn't seem to vary from one day to another, and the quality of the food was typical cafeteria food. I expect more.
We had dinner at the Italian specialty restaurant one night ($10 per person), and while we had a fantastic time at dinner, the food was not worth the $10. I can make better chicken parm at home. The service however, was impeccable. Our dinner guest for the evening (Kevin Fratkin of the Cruise Director's Staff) had arranged for one of our party to celebrate a birthday at dinner. This was done with gusto by the dining room staff, and birthday cakes were produced for our table to share. Well done.
The other specialty venue we sampled was our old favorite, Le Bistro ($20 per person). Many people profess that Cagney's is the best venue on the ship - I argue that Le Bistro is the best value onboard. Start off with a nice smoked salmon spread and crispy toast, and move on to escargot or any of your other favorite French appetizers. Main courses ranged from the swordfish (delicious but slightly overcooked) to the salmon (very nice) to the duck (simply amazing, and one of the top-5 meals I've ever had). The wait staff was very attentive, the ambiance was impeccable, and the meal was delicious. Fantastic time.
Cruise Director's Staff & Entertainment
The Cruise Director was Julie Valeriote. Julie was fairly visible throughout the ship and at the various venues, however her staff ran most of the shows, except for the headline shows in the theater. Julie was very personable, and seemed to enjoy her job. Her staff was outstanding. In particular, Kevin Fratkin, whom we have had the pleasure of sailing with before on the Star, was a delight. The events he hosted were by far the most engaging, fun, and entertaining of all the events shipwide. Our group likes to participate in lots of events. We did karaoke multiple times (Sweet Caroline anyone?), Newlywed not-so-Newlywed gameshow, 55 to Stay Alive, 80's night, White Hot Party, Dancing with the Spirit Stars, and the Quest (yes, winners - now 3 for 3!). The main shows were sparsely attended by our group, and were hit or miss. The crew talent show on the last sea day is not to be missed, especially if you have not ever witnessed the finale - Fountains. "Rehearsed for more than 1,342 hours, this show has to be seen to be believed", according to Julie. Don't miss it. Trust me.
As stated earlier, the late nights were great on this ship. The nightclub was always busy (except for the first two nights - I guess after that everyone figured out where it was and from then on it was crowded. Even on the last night of the cruise there was a fair crowd. On more than one night the lights came on and last call arrived with a full house. Two thumbs up.
One last call out. The "band" entertainment on this cruise was Ocean's Vibe. They're a group of 20-something's from the UK with a great sound, and even greater personalities. Once we met them, we became fast friends and really enjoyed their company when they were not on stage. Specifically, Ciaran, Dave, and Jimmy - if you read this, you guys were great and we hope our paths cross again. You guys can play anything and do it well.
There were 4 port days on this cruise. The first was Costa Maya. We had booked privately with Maya Chan Beach Resort. This turned out to be the best excursion of the trip, and possibly one of the best finds in the Caribbean. A funky little beach hangout with private thatched-roof cabanas for each group, with chairs, lounges, and hammocks. Salsa and guacamole were provided on arrival and kept fresh throughout the day. Drink service was immediate and continuous, and grilled chicken, steak, and fish fajitas for lunch were scrumptious. Did I mention it was all you can eat and drink? Check them out - they do fill up so reserve your spot.
In Belize, we were scheduled to go cave tubing, but a couple members of our party were feeling a bit under the weather (perhaps too many drinks?) and so we decided to just spend a little time in port and then enjoy the ship. Roatan, Honduras was a nice relaxing day at the beach. Got off the ship, went to Victor Bodden's hut in the port and got a van to take 6 of us to a little beach hangout on the West End. Good food, nice water, and cheap drinks. Neat little place.
In Cozumel, we spent the day hanging out with our new friends from the ship, namely the gents from Ocean's Vibe and our ever present cruise staff buddy, Kevin. Margaritaville isn't cheap, but the guacamole (handmade in front of you) and the water play area with huge inflatable rafts, climbing things (iceberg, top, etc) made a bunch of kids out of 30 and 40-somethings all day long. A little shopping before heading back onboard and then ready for another great night.
Disembarkation and Final Observations
Disembarkation from the Spirit was not nearly as painless as embarkation. This is not the fault of NCL, rather this is clearly a problem of traffic flow in customs at New Orleans. While it was not an issue with us as we were driving, I can certainly see how it would be frustrating for those with tight connections.
Overall the Spirit is in great condition for her age. I'm not going to complain about a few areas of worn carpet or old tile grout. If I wanted immaculate, I'd sail a 5-star ship. We sail the ships that look like they will provide the greatest value for the money, with the greatest entertainment value. We're a fun group, and we make our own fun when we need to, and don't depend on the cruise staff to do it for us. Would we sail this ship again? In a heartbeat. Some of our group would prefer a larger ship because the motion of this size ship was a little uncomfortable. The service on this ship was by far the best we have had in all but one of our previous cruises, and we had as much if not more fun on this cruise than we have ever had on a ship. A cruise is what you make of it. If you're out to find the negative things, you will and you will not have a good time. We look for the good and there was plenty to be found. To sum it up, the Spirit, and especially her staff, gets 5 stars from us!