About us: My wife and I are in our mid-30s. We received this cruise "free" through Casinos at Sea from the Hollywood Casino in Grantville, PA. We paid port fees and taxes of about $190 per person, plus $250 per person to upgrade to a balcony room.
Embarkation: We took a cab for the short hop from our hotel (Marriott) to the port. Porters were available to assist with unloading our bags (which was particularly helpful as I'd tweaked my back while washing my hands (don't ask) at the Harrah's casino and was pretty sore for the first half of our cruise. We breezed through priority check-in for CAS passengers and immediately went into the boarding line. It turns out the line had been opened a little early by mistake, so after getting our embarkation photos taken, it took about 5 more minutes waiting in line to board. All told, boarding was painless and we were on before noon. We were in our room right at 2:00 pm and our bags were delivered before dinner.
Dining: We went to the Windows dining room and had lunch after boarding. Our first experience with NCL food was positive -- the Cobb salad and shrimp Caesar salads both were decent. My wife's soup was overly salty, but not terrible. For dessert, we had the first of what was to be many disappointing sweet experiences on board. The blueberry cheesecake came with a mixed berry sauce that betrayed what was to be a flaw throughout the cruise--overuse of cinnamon. I have never experienced so much cinnamon in so many dishes. The main dining room meals looked great on paper, but usually disappointed. Soups were generally overly salted. Fish was often somewhat rubbery (as was the turkey). Beef was generally overcooked and lacked flavor. Salads seemed to generally be a strong point with a citrus salad being particularly good. Menu descriptions could be a little more accurate as at times, the ingredients in the dish didn't match what was on the menu. By far the most disappointing dish was the petite shrimp cocktail in the dining room. It was barely edible and consisted of salad shrimp tossed in an attempt at cocktail sauce and topped with wilted dill.
In general, service in the Windows and Garden dining rooms were adequate. Meals were leisurely and not rushed, but didn't feel overly long. The service was less particularized than on other lines where we had set seating times. In the end, I think we missed the connection we made with our waiter and assistant waiter with traditional dining. The flexibility of dining when we chose to was nice, but ultimately, didn't seem to be that big of a deal.
We didn't try the specialty restaurants because of my wife's dietary restrictions, but we did very much enjoy the Taste of India. The Executive Chef and Executive Sous Chef are both Indian and it is an area where the kitchen excelled. The food was as good as in many of our local Indian restaurants, though the shrimp curry missed a bit in our opinion. I'd highly recommend this to future Spirit cruisers. One note was that we were seated family style for this meal. This was never explained to us and we were surprises to be seated with two other couples. The other couples were significantly older than us and it made for some awkward conversations particularly at the beginning of the meal. Combined with the family style courses, this seemed like an odd choice.
The buffet was similarly disappointing. The fresh fruit was generally a strong point, but other than that it showed the same problems we found in other dining venues... beef was overcooked and lacked flavor, potatoes were undercooked, squash and other vegetables were overcooked, soups were too salty, etc. Scrambled eggs were pretty bland and tasted as though they had been watered down. "Plain" pancakes were often rubbery and contained strangely large quantities of cinnamon. The yogurt bar was good, but twice the mixed berries that I had mixed in were still frozen. Desserts continued the weak trend of other venues. They never seemed to have chocolate chip cookies; sprinkles for ice cream were often stale; cheesecakes had odd texture and often lacked flavor (perhaps because they were often sugar free); pies often had sauces topping them, etc. A strong point for dessert was when I found key lime pie, which other than the rice pudding with the Taste of India, was hands-down the best dessert on the cruise.
We stopped in at the Blue Lagoon a few times and found it to consistently have the best food on the ship. The veggie burgers were much better there than in the dining rooms. The beef burger itself was similar to the burger in buffet, but was actually served hot. (Most of the dished in the buffet seemed to be lukewarm.) The hot wings were as good as promised on CC and I enjoyed them several times. The fish and chips were good with a crispy breading on the fish (though the fish itself was a bit chewy). However, the fries could generally have been a little hotter and the spinach and artichoke dip was extremely garlic heavy. We found the service in the Blue Lagoon to be okay, but that may have more to do with us going there at off-times. I actually was surprised at what a tiny area this was given how much it is talked about on CC. It also seemed like it might work better if you placed your order at the counter, were given a number and then called to pick it up. The waitstaff doesn't seem necessary given what a small space it is.
Casino: We booked with the casino group, so we spent a fair amount of time in the casino. Sadly, it was not kind to us, but the staff was. The dealers were, for the most part, fantastic. A few didn't have much personality but the majority were outgoing, friendly, and fun. We had free drink cards (which we used mostly for sodas and cranberry juice) through CAS, but I saw many other players at the $25 level (and some below) being bought drinks by the casino.
I was surprised to find a real poker table in the casino. The table is long and narrow, which makes it hard to deal for some of the shorter dealers. The poker tournament offered on each sea day was a joke. It is a $100 buy-in with unlimited re-buys and add-ons during the first hour. You receive 2,000 chips with blinds starting at 100/200 and going up each 30 minutes. (To compare, the place I play locally for $65 gives you 7,500 chips and the blinds start at 25/50). This made it a real crap shoot as you had to have good cards early to have any chance. That said, the cash game that started up most evenings was fun and generally friendly. I made up many of my blackjack losses at the table. The rake on the cash game is very high though. It's 10% up to $25 with a $1 minimum. On some nights, I'm pretty sure all of the players left down on the evening while the casino raked in the profits.
There is a 3% convenience fee for receiving casino funds on your ship account. The ATM fee is $5.50, so if you're taking more than $200, the ATM will be cheaper. I thought I had read that funds could be taken without a fee at the slot machines, but this was not the case on the Spirit. The only way to take funds was at the cashier's cage with the fee or at the tables with the same fee.
Entertainment: This is one area where the Spirit excelled and surpassed our other cruise experiences. We greatly enjoyed the Elements show and the Duo Acrobatique. Second City was fantastic and we made time to see all three of their shows. They were definitely a highlight of the cruise. We enjoyed On Broadway and felt the male singers were surprisingly strong. The female leads were good, but not any better than what we've found to be typical among cruise shows. Jorges (the magician) was entertaining, but his solo show started off with a lame bit involving a screen. Give him a chance as the later part of his show and his part in Elements are surprisingly good.
Bingo: The games are exceptionally expensive for the most part. We played one time and it was $79 for 9 cards for four games, plus some instant win rip-offs. Despite a turnout of what I'd estimate to be around 200 people and a minimum per person cost of $49 (for 3 cards and no rip-offs), the prizes were small -- $150-200 for each of the four games.
Ship: The ship is in good shape. It shows some minor signs of wear, but was clean and well maintained. The decoration is nice and looks good. We found the ship easy to navigate and get around. It's not too large nor too small. The Galaxy of the Stars is not a great venue for the comedy events though. The sight-lines from many parts of the room are poor and the room was often packed to standing room only more than 15 minutes before a show starts. We found out the hard way when we tried to attend the first comedy show and gave up and left. For Second City, we made sure to arrive plenty early to get a seat.
Room: The room was small, but functional with enough space to be comfortable. It appears that they are replacing the small sofas in the balcony cabins. While we were eating on embarkation day we saw stacks of them being loaded onto the ship. Our balcony had one of the small vinyl/pleather sofas. It appears they are replacing plaid fabric sofas that matched the chair at the desk. We saw some of the older sofas in storage areas on the ship as we disembarked in the ports.
The bed was comfortable (somewhat firm), but lacked the strip that goes over the place where the two twins meet to form a queen. We've had that on our other cruises and it does make a bit of a difference. Our comforter had a faint yellow stain on it. We preferred not to wonder what it was and took comfort in the fact that it looked as though it had been washed several times since it was stained.
The balcony on our room was small, but we enjoyed it. It had a small table and two chairs, which was perfect for our needs.
The bathroom was small but well laid out. The toilet was in its own compartment opposite the shower with the sink in between. We had an intermittent problem with the toilet flushing continuously, but it seemed to right itself after about 15 minutes (and before anyone came to fix it). There was a little dust on the tile in the toilet area, but the toilet and floor all seemed clean. We didn't have any of the mildew that others have complained about in the shower, though the grout could probably use bleaching. We liked the removable massaging shower head with adjustable height. That made it easy for a tall person (like me) to wash their hair.
The room had a couple of downsides. The TV is old and small. I'm hoping they'll replace them when the Spirit goes into dry dock. The remote is also very frustrating as sometimes it would not turn the TV on, but would then change the channels. That said, we don't cruise for the TV and it didn't affect our vacation much, but it is worth noting. Second, there is a lack of usable outlets. We had one 110-volt standard outlet. There were three 220-volt outlets. This made charging our various devices challenging, especially since I sleep with a CPAP machine that used the one plug every night. I'd recommend those with devices to charge consider bringing a power strip or a converter to make the other outlets usable.
Service: The service on board was good. Our steward never introduced herself, but seemed to know us as she greeted us by name in the hall many times. She was exceptionally friendly as were all of the dining room, buffet, and other staff we met on board. Kyle (the cruise director) seemed to be present at all of the places you would expect to find him. We borrowed an extension cord from the front desk (on other lines, the steward could provide one), and the staff was helpful and efficient. We also had an emergency that necessitated us moving up our departure flight from New Orleans from Monday to Sunday and the front desk staff helped make sure we could get off the ship quickly to make our early flight out.
Ports: My wife had been to Cozumel before, but other than that all of the ports were new for us. We did no organized excursions. We went to the Maya Chan Beach Resort in Costa Maya, which we loved. We had a private palapa with shade, a lounger, two chairs, a table, and a hammock. There was a lot of sea grass, but we didn't let it bother us at all. The food (fish, beef, and chicken tacos) was unlimited and better than almost everything we ate on the ship. The open bar was great, though we partook mostly in the drinks without alcohol. The virgin pina colada was fantastic. The bartender also whipped up a concoction with muddled kiwi and pineapple and sprite for my wife. The staff was fantastic and it was a wonderful relaxing afternoon. In Roatan, we explored the port area and bough some beautiful mahogany goods from the craft market. We also enjoyed an excellent pistachio gelato and mango sorbet from the gelato stand there. In Cozumel, we wandered through the shopping area and took a horse-drawn carriage ride through the island. It was a nice (shaded) way to see the area. We ate lunch at Palmeras, where the food was okay, but not great.
Disembarkation: As I mentioned, we had an emergency that turned our plans to disembark leisurely and then spend the day into New Orleans into a mad rush off the ship. We finished packing in the morning as we were pulling into New Orleans, and then went upstairs to the buffet around 6:45 for breakfast. We grabbed our luggage and returned the extension cord to the front desk about 7:15. We were cleared to disembark while in line at the front desk. We were off the ship by 7:30 and in a cab by 7:40. At the time we got off the ship, no announcements had yet been made about getting off the ship.
That pretty much sums up our time on board the NCL Spirit. I'm happy to answer any questions. Recognize, of course, that these are my opinions (and to some extent, those of my wife). Your experience on a different NCL vessel, a different Spirit sailing, or even this sailing may vary. Taste is subjective and you may feel differently. In total, we very much enjoyed our cruise (at least the first five days of which we weren't distracted). We would consider NCL again, but didn't enjoy it as much as some of our other cruise experiences.