I am a 60 year old Registered Nurse who normally works 11 hour graveyard shifts at a large local medical center while my Other Half drives an 18 wheeler delivering all your favorite Boomer goodies to a very popular warehouse shopping giant. We were seriously in need of a major vacation with lots of pampering needed for middle-aged, middle class service employees...could NCL meet our needs?
We've previosly sailed a 4 day sampler on Carnival, out of Los Angeles, with DH more of an avowed landlubber and the ports less than inspired. When he backed out of our next cruise, a 7 day Seattle RT Inside Passage (Alaska) adventure on HAL, I was forced to go it alone...not a very comfortable option.
It was an experience, to say the least, but now he was actually asking about a Western Caribbean cruise possibility, so I researched and booked it in one short week's time.
Pre-Cruise and Embarkation/First Impressions:
NCL's free style cruising seemed the best fit for a couple who don't like to dress up, and would rather play it by ear in terms of when and where to eat.
New Orleans is an attractive port-a new destination for me, and the 4 ports and 2 sea days seemed a good mix. We flew out of Sacramento and spent 40 hours in NOLA prior to embarkation. The Hampton Inn Downtown/French Quarter was less than 2 blocks from Canal/Bourbon Street action, with full breakfast and right on the St. Charles street car line for convenient, low cost sightseeing.
Our cruise was booked right in the middle of Jazz Fest, so room rates were higher than usual, but this time frame worked well for a childless couple who enjoy traveling in the shoulder months, avoiding Spring Break, et al. While the airport was crowded, the taxi down to Erato Street Cruise Terminal was easily obtained, a set rate per person from our centralized lodging. And as a mobility challenged cruiser, I was very glad to see we were dropped almost at the terminal doorstep.
We dropped our bags with the porter at 11 a.m. and proceeded through the security screening. An elevator made this much easier as I was informed wheelchairs would not be available for 30 minutes. I'd contacted NCL Accessibility folk in advance, since short distances with a tripod cane are do-able but for embark and debark a WC assist was required.
It took maybe 15 minutes to reach the point our cruise documents and credit card would gain us that magic room key, and when VIP/Penthouse status was mentioned, we were politely ushered into a separate waiting room for the first meeting with our concierge, Belle. Light refreshments were provided, but we were both too excited to partake.
A wheel chair soon appeared and Belle led our smallish first group onto the ship at 11:30 a.m. We were greeted by cheering staff members, wide smiles intact, our first experience with the Happy Happy and Washy Washy folk, whose enthusiasm proved to be contagious. Allowed to drop off our carry ons, we then procceded to Cagney's Steakhouse, a suite/VIP passenger perk that would prove to be wonderful.
Elsa attended us in a smallish, cool and attractive room. The huncheon menu wasn't large, but did give us a chance to try a (giant prawn) Shrimp Cocktail, Proscuitto and Asparagus, Strip Steak and Fettucini Alfredo along with Expresso Brownies and Macadamia Nut Ice Cream and an excellent Mixed Berry parfait. Service was instinctive and unobtrusive with smiles throughout.
We spend an hour digesting our food and digesting the lovely Asian decor of the Spirit, a medium sized vessel with about 2,000 pax, double occupancy. The Grand Centrum is an airy gathering point, with Shorex, Customer Service, shops and bars closeby.
Our penthouse suite was ready in the early afternoon, and 10 Forward would be our home away from home for the following week. 3 elevators forward, 3 midship and 3 aft did a credible job in whisking pax to their various destinations. I noticed the carpets were different colors in the 3 areas, to better help orient us about.
Carpets, bright work, fixtures and railing all appeared to be in good order. As an RN, I was especially impressed by the immaculate condition of the ship, with Cruise Critic and other research providing information on CDC's 100 rating and NCL's determination to eliminate or at least severly curtail any contagion on board.
Our penthouse suite was actually 2 regular balcony cabins combined, with one balcony being sacrificed for a whirlpool tub and large glass shower overlooking the sea. Looking at the upper decks from the piers, these areas appear darkened, supposedly one way glass but we opted to do just about all of our bathing at sea!
The Aries Suite had red and gold carpeting, a small double sleeper sofa, 2 small cloth club chairs, 3 vinyl chairs with a card table sized dining table, an expresso maker, small refrigerator, 32" flat screen TV, king sized bed in its own curtained alcove, double marble topped sinks and separate enclosed toilet area with privacy glass. Double closet with 1 side full length, the other half length to accomodate 2 self-keyed room safes, a small CRT TV in the alcove and 5 drawers completed our suite.
Our room steward, Benjamin, quickly introduced himself and never failed to say hello, offer up a smile, provide ice, fresh towels or tidy up at various times during each day. A few times DH was napping, and was later amazed to find all but the bed freshened up around him, with great care and consideration...do not wake the sleeping bear!
We next met our butler,Maurice, who would prove to be invaluable, especially helpful furnishing MDR menus for our use in determining which nights we'd either eat in the MDR (we picked the Garden Room, being smaller and midship compared to the more formalized and lovely Windows, aft), or have meals delivered to our room. A copy of the specialty (supplemental/pay) restaurant menus were already in our cabin.
Beginning May 1, the first day of our cruise, Spirit is trying a new, more streamlined/modern menu throughout, as well as lowering prices by $5 in all supplemental eateries, except the extremely popular Teppanyaki (Benihana type), which remains $25. We appreciated the electronic restaurant update boards, both in public areas and on cabin TV...very simple at at glance to determine the most popular venues and availabilites.
Snagging our first Daily during embarkation, we brought highlighters to mark our favorite activites. Subsequent Dailies were delivered during evening turn down by Benjamin, but we were very pleased to see NCL has been listening to Cruice Critic comments/suggestions and has now also added a supplemental sheet with at-a-glance listing for entertainment, dining opportunities and activites.
This is extremely convenient, and points up the importance NCL accords us, in helping to overall better the cruise experience.
Our Meet & Greet took place in Henry's Pub, a good centralized location at deck 7 midship. About 2 dozen of the 3 dozen roll callers attended as did John O'Hara, the Hotel Director, Kyle CD and Food & Beverage Director, et al. Many had to return to their busy jobs but the first 3 remained for a good portion of the get together, introducing themselves and their backkgrounds and then a Q&A. Pastries, juice,coffee, et al were served, and a plan was set up for a brief recap meeting the last sea day of the cruise.
We introduced ourselves, online handles and first names, putting faces to names via name tags and small Cruise Critic butons featuring our beautiful ship were passed out to all participants. I thought it was interesting that John requests one 'for training purposes', again reminded that NCL values our input, especially input that can be given via 'Dear John' letters, while on the cruise/ship, so that any problems or concerns can be rectified.
Services and Activites:
The first day at sea was leisrely, a trip to Maharajah's Casino for slot club signup and some donations were made. A decent selection of slots, video poker and blackjack/craps games were noted, though we only played the former. From my experiences in Las Vegas, the slots were 95-97% payout the first couple of days, then after that...
Other than free rum punch during initial slot club sign up frenzy, no drinks were gratis without a hefty CAS level (around 2,500 points), something very surprising to me. As a diabetic, tolling 2 to 4 hours per session, I believe at least bottled water would be a worthwhile concession to consider in future, in terms of improved customer service.
From morning till 'whenever' there were games, clubs, dancing, singing, bar hops and pub crawls plus daily specials on drinks and sometimes photography.
We only made it to one show, Elements, but that was justly popular and we did rue the fact we'd missed the Russian acrobats individual show, the majority of the Second City venues and the crew show in particular.
Luckily, there were rebroadcast of some of the sillier/funnier events such sock hop, White Party, Not So Newlywed/Newlywed Game (Kyle very hilarious as MC here), Western Dance party etc. And speaking of TV, we enjoyed a couple first run recent releases, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part I, as well as Cher and Christina Aquilera in Burlesque, in our down time kicking back and relaxing in our cabin.
Suite Perks And Food, Glorious Food:
Suite perks continued all week with complimentary snacks from HD, Captain, Master,Concierge: chocolate covered strawberries, delicious variety of fresh baked cookies, very tasty chocolate assortment, the usual assortment of canapes, and daily bowl of fresh fruit. Maurice, learning that we were on the hunt for the Raffles (buffet) only pretzel rolls, made it a point to deliver some one afternoon, otherwise learned our preferences for seedless grapes, strawberries and bananas and didn't need to be reminded.
We chose to either eat breakfast in Cagney's, or on early port days, our butler delivered full breakfasts with bacon, sausage, ham, scrambled eggs, oatmeal, cold cereals, rolls, pastries, chocolate croissants (!), hot coffee, hot chocolate, sliced melon, juice (blend but pretty good), et al by 6:45 a.m.
We also used our bublter services for 2 MDR meals, (prime rib and English strip loin nights), served in suite, when the stomach was willing but the middle aged bodies weren't. We did enjoy 2 special meals, the sumptuous 20 course/2 hour Taste of India and the hilarious but tasty Presumed Murdered Mystry luncheon served in Garden restaurant with comedy served up by ravo Second City troupe.
Since we are both major Foodies, and i've spent so much time researching and planning...so many venues, so little tummy space...a rundown of the specialty restaurants is in order. We tried Cagney's Steakhouse, DH loving it so much we ate there twice for dinner. I do have some special dietary needs, and am happy to report the staff was most accomodating with these requests.
There are always low calorie/low sugar options as well as the chance to have mains served without sauces or with them on the side. You may order more than one appetizer, soup or salad or desert, but in the specialty restaurants, a second entree will cost 1/2 the restaurant fee, which seems fair considering how much food you receive.
We tried prime rib, ribeye, New York strip and Tbone steaks, as well as crab cakes, lobster bisque, French onion soup, clam chowder, chopped salad, Caesar salad, various rice and potato sides, vegetables and desserts including a very tasty apple crisp with Vanilla Bean ice cream (a la mode).
The offering ranged from good to excellent...nothing mediocre or poor. The service was top notch, with Joseph and Hugo standing out as especially attentive. We liked the respect paid to the veggies, though some might find al dente a little too crisp for their liking!
Le Bistro, the French restuarant was our first specialty restaurant, and the food is very rich, with lots of sauces, cream and butter as you might expect. Both the Onion and Mushroom soups were outstanding. Rare to medium rare lamb was not to be found, but the taste of my chops and presentation were very good. DH's pork loin with apples in Calvados sauce proved likewise tasty but the Big Guy gobbled it down in less than 2 minutes.
We both adored the Chef's amuse-bouche, in this case a silken salmon pate served with crisp French bread rounds. Would love to see this as a regular ap, it was so wonderful. About this point, John O'Hara made his ongoing rounds to see if everything was to our liking. His solicuitous inquiry and warmth were genuine, and I also observed how much the staff welcmed his rounds.
We also tried La Trattoria, a section of Raffles that is partioned off with curtains during the evening. Besides the lighting being extremely dim, (the term stygian comes immediately to mind), the service was again on par with what we had come to expect in the specialty restaurants. Joann made sure all was to our liking. The spaghetti carbonara was swoon-worthy and buttery, loaded with ham/pancetta, Romano cheese, egg yolks and cream.
DH liked his pasta and Casaer salad while I devored a light and airly Tiramusu after having some room by sharing my rich entree and fresh mozzarella and tomato with basil and carpaccio apps. For $5 supplement, this was a very good value with an Olive Garden vibe, (if only the chain restaurants were half as attentive)!
Our last specialty resturant, Shogun's was a bit of a gamble for the 6th night at sea, since I was planning to order sushi while Richard tried the Asian offerings. Exquisite, geisha-like service from Jasmine, set the tone. It was a leisurely meal with some wait for the 3 sushi rolls I'd ordered, but the flavor, appearance and overall vibe were excellent.
Besides the ubiquitous California roll, a Godzilla roll, with cashews, mango, avocado and crab, was a standout. The Tempura roll with shrimp was fine, but I had no clue how huge each one of these rolls would be, and I was on sticky sushi rice overload halfway through! The yellow tail and ahi sashimi were very fresh and delicate...how do they do that this far into the cruise?
DH enjoyed his noodle and rice dishes and also ordered some delicate potstickers, but not the steamed barbecued pork buns I'd wanted to try. A bottle of Beringer white zinfandel was a tasty addition to our repast and somehow there was room for these amazing banana caramel pancakes with coconut ice cream for dessert.
We waddled and swayed around the Promenade deck, great to see a real teak wraparound promenade, and I could do a few hundred feet now and then. Other times wheelchair assist was a mere phone call away. The service is free of course, but the attendants were both gentle and kind, warranting tips for extra special service.
Ports and Excursions:
We only booked one shore excursion through NCL, for the Mexican cusine cooking class in Playa Mia near Cozumel. The start time was almost 2 hours after docking, and I'd love to see that moved up an hour so we'd have more shopping time at the end. Scary fast taxi ride to the beach resort, then open bar with free flowing beer, wine and mixed drinks. Our chef, Luis, was both funny and so helpful. We were actually able to eat the 3 course meal we created, though opted out of the 1 hour 'beach time' afterwards, with both very warm temps and humidity causing a small group of us to seek an early taxi back to the town.
Luckily Cozumel's docking for Spirit was right at the main Punto Langosta pier, and pedicabs came all the way down the long pier for those of us with mobility issues or maybe just sore feet.
Costa Maya our first stop,likewise had a very long pier, but they've got a people mover type shuttle that can transport a good sized group of pax about 2/3 of the way up and back. The created 'village' had inflated food/beverage and souvenir prices but they will barter a bit on the later.
We researched then chose a Maya Chan Beach day, first transported by air conditioned bus. There are numerous speed bumps and some potholes making this short distance almost 30 minutes each way. The Gilligan's Island type funky resort itself was very welcoming and relaxing, with all inclusive bar, homemade luncheon and some floats/glass bottomed kayaks and other activites included.
Since DH agreed to another cruise, I treated him to a half hour massage, which he loved. The price was very reasonable, and a tip was warranted. We also chose to tip Zach, Preston and Hugo for very fine service and pampering. To see Himself sitting out n a float chair, then staff trotting out tall and frosty beverages was a hoot. We made it back in plenty of time for an afternoon nap in our lovely chilled stateroom.
Belize is a tendered port with Belize City itself a jumping off point for ship sponsered or independent excursions. We wanted to experience Caye Caulker, so booked with a local popular restaurant. Our booking/deposit was apparently lost, but they promised it would be refunded so I drowned my sorrows in fresh watermelon juice and conch fritters.
Tip: about halfway down the pier is a very nice enclosed mall with wonderful AC, clean bathrooms and an excellent pharmacia. We liked this better than the one in Cozumel and I found several Rx medications in generic form, about half the US price, and still USP coded and with fresh exiration dates.
The port of Coxen Hole was preffered over Mahogany Bay, another 'created' destination), and a good jumping off place for our Victor Bodden Best of Roatan tour. The pier isn't long and there are resting spots along the shopping arcade for those of us less spry individuals. The island is very lovely and lushly tropical. We enjoyed the drive itself as well as a stop at a popular West Bay beach, resort and another eatery.
Prices for vanilla, Honduran coffee beans, woven/embroidered goods and carved mahogany were very competitive, plus the fact the weather cooperated with us the entire cruise, made for enjoyable explorations.
Like embarkation and lifeboat drill, NCL has this down to a science and all went smoothly. We met our concierge near Henry's Pub (7 midship), and a wheelchair whisked me from stateroom to gangway. A large stack of Style (compliment) cards was left with ship's staff, and extra special gratuity envelopes passed out to concierge, butler and room steward.
Our bags with their distinctive VIP color coded tags were easily retrieved and Customs was, well customs. My $200 declaration apparently wasn't noteworthy so we were on our way via the prebooked Airport Shuttle by 9 a.m. Unfortunately the second segment of our flight was cancelled, making a total of 18 hours from Louis Armstrong Airport to home but even that was not enough to harsh our mellow.
I was so impressed with NCL's Free Style cruising concept and execution, the Spirit and her crew in particular, and our overall treatment that I decided to partake of their Cruise Rewards program. So rather than plunking down a $500 deposit, it took just half that with a guarantee that we'd cruise NCL again in the next 4 years. Coupled with a $100 now cruise credit, that was a no-brainer.
Spirit will be going into a 2 week refurbishing dry dock this September, with sprucing up carpets, hard to get at balcony areas, brightwork and so on. She's a gorgeous gal with a bit of age on her, but we didn't notice any major wear.
She'd developed a loyal following and can count us among them. Thanks for making this such an excellent adventure, well worth the money, and the stuff of dreams!