Just returned from the 17 April 2011 sailing of the Spirit, which departed New Orleans. This was a family vacation, over Spring Break, with our 11-year-old daughter. First time for my wife on Norwegian; my daughter and I "did" the Epic last summer. With only these two Norwegian experiences to compare, I have to give the overall advantage to Spirit. This may surprise some, but hopefully my review will help explain this.
We booked this particular cruise because of the price - fantastic deal - and the itinerary. In fact, the itinerary is the best part about this particular sailing, and I'm very glad to see that Norwegian is keeping Spirit in New Orleans through the year with this sailing, as it is great. New Orleans proved to be a very convenient port, and having four consecutive port days, sandwiched in between sea days at the beginning and end, proved to be a perfect set-up. I will write reviews of the ports separately, but I'll preface by saying each one has its own unique merits - pro and con - but the mix is such that there is literally something for everyone.
We flew into NOLA on Saturday, to at least see a little of the city, and take our time with boarding on Sunday. I have to say that I did not care for NOLA, but I'm told it is an acquired taste, and our decision to stay in the French Quarter - at the Astor Crowne Plaza at Bourbon & Canal - was a mistake for a family. The area is definitely not kid friendly. That said, cab fare from the airport is fixed -- $14 per person (good value) - and the fare from our hotel to the port on Sunday was also fixed -- $7pp (not bad, and very convenient). With only one ship in port, and given Spirit's relatively small size, the scene was very calm and orderly. Many porters waiting to meet cabs, and a very easy-to-navigate terminal. The check-in line was long, and it took about 30 minutes to clear, but it was no big deal.
Upon entering the ship, I was very pleasantly surprised by the huge atrium - much better initial impression than the Epic. Some very pretty ladies were waiting to greet us, and I thought they were handing out ship guides and Freestyle Dailies (which they'd not given us at check-in), but alas, they were handing out flyers for the Spa. Yes, the sail blitz had begun! It's just part of the sailing experience, and it doesn't bother me too much.
I will not go through every day - I'll spare everyone - but will hit upon some highlights and impressions. After exploring the ship, we had lunch at Windows, which was nice - nothing eye-popping, but nice and the service was very, very good. It is a beautiful dining room - very much like the Manhattan Room on the Epic, minus the dance floor. We signed our daughter up for the Kids' Program - the area is nice, and the pool looks great - but as it turned out, she never attended a program. With only two sea days, we had other activities to do, so she just never found time - literally - to go.
I have to say that I REALLY like the layout of the ship, and think it is a perfect size. I had strong reactions to the Epic's size and IMHO poor layout, but I fell in love with the Spirit's layout and dEcor. The Asian elements throughout the ship - from its previous life as the Star Leo - are quite beautiful, and she had a very elegant feel about her. As stated, too, the atrium area is beautiful - too bad they fill it up most afternoons and evenings with tables of "special sale" items; a little tacky. I have a recommendation for that below. Galaxy of the Stars is a great venue, and I LOVE being able to look out the front of the ship. This is a feature I love on the HAL ships, but missed on other ships, particularly Epic, where all this space is utilized for premium cabins. We attended Easter morning sunrise services in Galaxy, as we docked in New Orleans, and I will never forget it.
Our cabin was available right on time, and I LOVED the location. We were in a category BA cabin, mid-ship on deck 10. I can think of no better deck on which to be located, and I am VERY grateful to the NCL cruise consultant who recommended this particular cabin to us. We were equidistant from the mid and forward elevator banks, and if we chose not to wait for the elevator, it was a very easy two-flight walk up to the pool or Raffles Buffet, or equally easy walk down two or three flights to the theater and restaurants on decks 7 and 8. We also had no noise from any of the public areas, and being between the two elevators, hallway traffic was at a minimum. Plus, if we walked all the way aft, there are outside stairs cascading on both sides, linking decks 7 all the way up to 13. The cabin itself was no surprise, as I knew it would be small and dated. The beds were a pleasant surprise. I know they were just two beds pushed together, but I could not feel a seam between them and they are definitely larger than a queen - maybe even king size. Our daughter had a fold-out sofa on which to sleep. It was not comfortable when I tried it, but she never complained. That said, when the bed is open, there is no room to maneuver, and forget getting onto the balcony without folding it up part way. The desk is chintzy and our chair was falling apart, but that is just nit-picking. There was not a lot of storage, but we made due. I never asked, but if we'd asked the steward to remove the coffee maker - which we never used - that would have freed up a lot of space. The TV is - as others have noted - a joke; an old 13-inch model, with very limited channels. I know only Epic has it now, but the ability to check your bill and book excursions and restaurants on your TV would be a great addition to the Spirit. The best part about the cabin was the bathroom. Whomever designed Epic's bathroom layout need only look to the Spirit for inspiration. You have a central area with sink and hairdryer, with a separate bathroom on the left and HUGE (by cruise ship standards) shower on the right. It was a perfect layout. All it needed was a separate light in the shower.
On the downside, the ship - in many areas, not just our cabin - is definitely showing its age. I was surprised to read that Spirit was in drydock for upgrades only last year, and it looked to me as if many things had never been updated or replaced. Our shower door was on bent hinges and didn't close properly. Our sliding glass door was the same; hanging crooked and unable to close properly. Even latched, you would hear the wind whistling through the door at night. I was able to figure out a way to place a towel inside the lower jam and close and latch the door over it; that eliminated the sound, but it shouldn't be that way. The balcony is small - no surprise to anyone who reads this site - but it was adequate for our needs. Yes, there is rust to be seen, and yes, the handrails do not match between cabins. No big deal. With the cabin's snug size, having the outside space was much appreciated. There were some red (?blood) stains on our curtain, and the cabin was showing wear in many places. The air diffuser on the ceiling (for the A/C) literally fell off and onto my wife during one of our first nights. It hit her legs; more startling than injurious, but if the layout had been different, it could have really hurt someone. I called the Front Desk first thing in the morning, and the head of ship's maintenance himself came to the cabin in about 15 minutes. He was very apologetic and it was fixed by the time we returned that night.
On the topic of cabins, I have to note that I was very surprised to see that there are NO four-occupancy outside or balcony cabins on Sprit, and all the third-person beds in these cabins are sofabeds - no ceiling or wall drop-down beds. If we'd been a family of four, we would have had to go for a suite or inside. This would seem to put Spirit at a serious disadvantage when competing with other ships, even those within the NCL fleet. Perhaps this is something that can be "fixed" when/if she goes into drydock before repositioning to Europe next year.
I noted about the rear staircases on the Spirit, which we loved. In addition, this means that there is usable deck space on all of those upper floors. On most other ships, all this "real estate" is eaten up by high-price aft-facing balconies. I loved the fact that we could get breakfast at Raffles, and then go outside and sit at one of the many (and always available) tables that overlooked the wake. Wonderful! We also very much enjoyed the promenade deck on 7. We walked every morning, and it was so nice to have this feature back. The Epic has no promenade deck, which I hated. Plus, Spirit has a separate jogging track on 13, so the promenade was almost exclusively used by walkers.
Food: Our expectations here were set; don't expect anything extraordinary, and you won't be disappointed. I have only sailed on HAL, Princess, and NCL, and I'm sorry to say that NCL is at the bottom of that list. The food is not bad; just not up to the other lines' standards - you get what you pay for. We ate every breakfast at the Raffles Buffet. The layout is very good, if not a little small. The only time we saw it super-congested was our morning in Belize, when MANY people were trying to catch early tenders into town. The food is good and plentiful. HAL has all the other lines beat in terms of their buffet layout and quality, but NCL (Epic and Spirit) put Princess to shame with their poor layout. We never ate dinner or lunch at Raffles, but we were there most afternoons and evenings for ice cream, so I always checked out the selections. I must admit that nothing ever looked appetizing, and I found convenient excuses every time my daughter wanted us to have dinner at Raffles. On the ice cream front, we were surprised, but on Spirit, someone has to work the soft-serve machine for you - no do-it-yourself, which was a disappointment. On every other ship on which I've sailed, we could enjoy creating our own ice cream cones. On the plus side - PRETZEL BREAD! Always available and - inexplicably - consistently fresher than what we had on Epic. Also, we fell in love with the "washy, washy" and "wakey, wakey" people at Raffles. You'll have to sail on her to know exactly about what I'm speaking. That said, I know some people were turned off, but we found it very much a signature Spirit item, and looked forward to our daily "washy, washy" and "wakey, wakey" calls in the morning.
We ate four of our dinners in Windows, one in the Garden Room (same menu as Windows), one at Le Bistro, and one at Shogun. It was very hit or miss. As I said, we really enjoyed Windows. The layout is great, it never felt crowded, and the service ranged from good to excellent. We never had to wait in line and it was always pleasant. We tried the Garden Room one night - trying to adhere to the ship's dress code (see comments below) - and we did not like it. The room seems small, was very crowded and loud, and that particular night the food was disappointing. No big deal; we just elected to return to Windows, which didn't let us down. We did try Le Bistro - had a lengthy debate in the Boards section to decide between Cagney's and Le Bistro. It was a big letdown. The food was okay, but nothing spectacular, and the service was no better than in Windows (that's not a put down, but as their premiere restaurant, our expectations were higher). The meal was tainted by the arrival and behavior of a large family party; they completely ignored the dress code (shorts, swim trunks, and flip flops) and were loud and obnoxious - ruining the atmosphere. It was not a bad meal, but a disappointment. On the reverse, however, our final meal was at Shogun for Sushi and it was FANTASTIC. We absolutely loved every minute of it! Shogun offers a Sushi and Asian Fusion menu - you can't mix or match between the two (with the exception of dessert), but you can sit on either side of the restaurant. The service was stellar and food superb. All three of us wished we could somehow find a way to eat more! I highly recommend the Godzilla rolls. Of note, too, were two meals in particular - both at Windows. The prime rib and lamb chops were top-notch and also highly recommended.
Entertainment: NCL clearly stands out here, across the board. Epic has set a bar for entertainment that I doubt another ship can surpass, but Spirit came in second. Sure, some of the shows come off as "standard cruise ship fare"...I often heard Simon Cowell in my head while listening to some of the singers. That said, we attended almost every show and enjoyed them all. I think the only one we missed was the Second City 2nd show, which was all improvisation. We wanted to attend, but its start clashed with the chocoholic buffet - poor planning - so we had to choose...and chocolate will ALWAYS win. It was also disappointing that Yorgos the Magician's main show was scheduled for 2:00pm on the first sea day. We wanted to attend, but couldn't. Still, his "behind the magic" show on Saturday was great fun, particularly for our daughter, and he was also in the farewell show. We loved the comedian, but were very disappointed that his main show was limited to 30 minutes, and was held in Galaxy of the Stars vice the main theater. Many people could not find seats and left, and the show was simply too short. He was great, and we were glad to see him again on the final night in the compilation show, but his stand-alone act should be extended. The acrobat duo's show was - sorry to keep using the word - also amazing. As noted, we enjoyed each and every show. I also should note that we attended the Murder Mystery Lunch on the final sea day, which is put on by Second City. Even though it was the same "script" for the one we attended on Epic, it is literally different each time, and as the audience participates, it always changes. It was great fun, and the service that day was phenomenal.
Odds/Ends: We very much enjoyed the pool and spa area. Again...memo to Epic designers....visit the Spirit. The pool is at least as large - if not larger - than both Epic pools combined, and there are six hot tubs on board - always room available. The pool was always clean and never overly crowded. I have yet to figure out why Epic's pools were always cloudy. The main pool is - honest admission - labeled as "adults only," but it was never enforced. If we had any inclination that this was being enforced, we would have had our daughter use the kids' pool (which is really only for young kids), but there were always kids in the water and I did not hear one person complain. The deck was also not scorching (no Epic foot burns on this ship) and we were usually able to find deck chairs without too much trouble. If we didn't want to be within view of the pool, it would have never been a problem to find lounge chairs.
There are deck maps readily available, but they are only cross-section maps. I'd suggest NCL print up maps which offer birds-eye views of each deck. This seems like a "quick win," and it would make navigating the ship even easier.
We did not use the spa or gym on this cruise, but we did visit them on embarkation day. They both seemed small, but I never saw them crowded (you can look into the gym from the pool area) and I never heard anyone complain, so I'm sure they are right-sized for the ship.
Dress Code: As I admit below, I'm now a firm convert to Freestyle cruising. I have no love lost for formal nights, etc., and love being able to dress as you wish and eat in a venue to match. The Freestyle Daily clearly states dress code for the various restaurants. For Windows and fancier specialty restaurants, no shorts after 5:30pm. That seems more than reasonable, and we dressed and planned our evenings to match that code. That said, we must have been the only people adhering to that. From Le Bistro to Windows and beyond, flip flops and shorts were the clothes of choice for many. As there appeared no intent to enforce the standards, I might suggest NCL relax it across the board - maybe just bar swim trunks and bare feet (yes, I saw some)...and then ENFORCE it.
Shopping area: I'm honestly mixed on this one. The stores are small, but easy to navigate. We were disappointed by the main ship store (non-duty-free), as there was next to no Spirit apparel available. We were looking to drop money on sweatshirts or T-shirts, but aside from some unattractive port-specific T-shirts that were put out on one of the ubiquitous sale tables in the lobby toward the end of week, there were none for sale in the shop. For the first time ever, we bought nothing in any of the ship stores. As we were willing to buy, this looks like something NCL may want to address. Along these lines, I might suggest they expand or make different use of the conference rooms which are located on deck 8, right behind the main ship's store and photo area. While I'm sure they must have been used by someone, I never saw anyone in there, and don't remember seeing anything in the Freestyle Daily advertising activities in there. This is "valuable real estate" that NCL could convert into something - expanded shopping, another specialty restaurant, bowling alleys, etc. Just a thought.
As for the photo area mentioned above, we were pleased by the availability of photo opportunities. I still don't enjoy the roaming photographers in the restaurants, but I DO like having the multiple photo stations set up at night for elective photos. Well done. I'll use this opportunity to solicit NCL to expand Epic's facial-recognition photo system fleetwide. We did love this aboard the Epic - being able to enter your room key into a kiosk, and every photo of you is then available to preview on a screen. This saves SO MANY pictures from being printed by the photo studio, only to be thrown away if no one buys them. On an interesting note, however, was our discovery that the Spirit shop could print additional copies of pictures in 5x7. On the Epic, even though nothing was printed until you ordered it, you couldn't get smaller sizes. ?!
Henry's Pub: We really like this place. We started going there for daily trivia games, and kept going back because we liked it. Loved the attentive staff, as well as the hot pretzels and fresh popcorn. Great location, too.
Cruise Critic Meet-n-Greet: We were really lucky on this cruise in that one of our members went WAY above and beyond in arranging our meet-n-greet. He really spoiled us. I was VERY impressed by the ship crews' interest in our opinions and comments. The new hotel manager on board - John O'Hara - is fantastic. I never quite understood all the history, but it appears he is a recent transfer to the Spirit. Most of the senior staff showed up to the initial Meet-n-Greet, and they called a special session on our last night, which was attended by John, the head of Food and Beverage, and Kyle the Cruise Director. I cannot say enough nice things about John. Without going into detail, we had a minor "incident" after one of our meals. He has as "Dear John" box in the lobby, in which he solicits written comments - positive and negative. I wrote of our experience and he and his staff went WAY above and beyond in acknowledging and more than compensating for what was admittedly a minor incident. Spirit is very fortunate to have someone of his standards and experience leading their team.
Staff: Spirit has going for her many things - great layout, fantastic itinerary, and a top-notch staff. For ALL of my cruises, the senior staff of the Spirit was the most visible I have ever seen. From the Meet-n-Greet to the Latitudes reception, to various shows and even just around the ship, you could always see members of the senior staff. It has a real family feel to it. I have to give props to the cruise director, Kyle. He, too, was the most visible CD I'd ever seen, and that was much appreciated. Rather than being just a voice on the PA announcing events, he would attend every show and he was easily accessible. The remainder of the staff was also - with very few exceptions - wonderful. On the whole, I am a converted fan of Freestyle cruising. I do, however, miss the familiarity of a regular wait staff at dinner - who get to know your likes and dislikes - but other than that, I am sold on Freestyle, and the staff went above and beyond on many occasions.
Disembarkation: We had booked a 10:30am flight out of NOLA on the morning of our return to Port. After getting some good feedback on this site, I was quite worried that we would not have enough time. My worries were completely unfounded. We docked at around 0630am. We'd attended Easter service that morning at 0600am, and then went to breakfast. Raffles was busy, but far from crazy or even crowded. We got our last "wakey, wakey" call of the cruise, and return to our cabin to put away our last things. We elected for the self-disembarkation, meaning you take your own bags and leave as soon as the ship is cleared. We took an elevator down around 0715 (no announcements, yet). There was a short (20 people) line of people on the Promenade, waiting to disembark. The line was orderly and calm. At around 0720 the line started to move. We never did hear an announcement that the ship was cleared to disembark. Anyway, we were through Customs and Immigration by 0730 and at the airport check-in counter by 0755. Where I'd been worried about not having enough time, we ended up with more than two hours to kill. It was, without doubt, the easiest disembark I've ever had, and dealing with the bags was no issue at all. Well done, NCL.
I apologize that this is so long. I do plan on writing up our port experiences, for those who are interested. Overall, I'd sum up by saying we had a fantastic cruise. The ship is old, showing her age, in need of some repairs and upgrades, and the food is average BUT you will be on a beautifully designed ship, staffed by top-notch people, with an itinerary that is literally hard to beat, all at NCL's very competitive prices. If you get the chance to sail her, I'd jump on it!