By way of background, this was my fifth cruise and my girlfriend Paula's first. I am 41 and she is 33. The previous cruises I have been on were NCL Dawn out of NYC, Celebrity Century out of Fort Lauderdale (twice) and an RCCL ship out of Miami whose name escapes me.
We arrived at the Pier at approximately 2:45 or 3 p.m. or so. We were able to walk right up to a check-in counter, then we waited about five minutes in the line to get our room-key cards, and after that it took maybe ten minutes to go through security and then go through the final line to actually get on the ship. Total time for embarkation: Maybe 20 minutes or so -- very smooth, even a little bit easier than getting on an airplane these days!
We were in cabin number 9656, a category BD. It came with a balcony, a splurge that we indulged in because the price was really great. The cabin was slightly smaller than my previous two (a junior suite on the NCL Dawn and a mini-suite on the Celebrity Century) but in a way there was more space because I had shared those two small suites with two other people, and this time there was just Paula and I.
The cabin was beautiful. The layout made sense. The bathroom, with its three compartments (main area, toilet area and shower), truly separates NCL from the other cruise lines -- and this is a particular strength of the NCL Spirit. The balcony, while shallow (only 30 inches deep), was adequate. The best thing about the cabin was the way the sliding glass door to the balcony completely framed and dominated the entire cabin. This was architectural design at its most sensible and efficient, and it gave the cabin a bright, airy look.
One thing that really surprised me: During our first "at sea" day, which was on Monday, Jan. 3, after departing at 8 p.m. the night before, we were able to see Cuba from our balcony! This really surprised me. I could not recall ever seeing Cuba before on previous cruises. Yet we hugged the Cuban coast line, with it in distant site, for maybe three to four hours! I think I later heard that we were 20 nautical miles from Cuba, but I could be wrong about this. All I know is that although Cuba was very faint in the distance, it's coastline seemed to be very, very hilly if not mountainous. It was not, for example, flat, like Key West or Grand Cayman.
Perhaps my favorite public room was Galaxy to the Stars. This spacious bar is located near the very top of the ship and offers perhaps the ship's very best view. It is particularly wonderful at night, because there is a green lighting pattern over the center bar area that reflects off of the darkened windows to create a big-city feel that looks like one is surrounded by skyscrapers when you stare out of those windows. We hung out in this room several nights, taking in the evening's entertainment.
The other room I will mention is Champagne Charlies. This is a centrally located, open-air space located close to both the atrium shopping area and several restaurants. Many people hang out hear while waiting to go to dinner. They had caviar/champagne/vodka set-ups. I love caviar, but am not really a fan of champagne or vodka and the whole thing was just too expensive.
One disappointment: This ship did not have a classic piano bar like the other ships I have been on. There was a piano in the atrium area, with someone playing classical music each evening, but that's different. I missed the ambiance of a type of piano bar with someone singing, for example, Billy Joel or Elton John songs or songs from the '60s. Am I aging myself?
I went to the casino two evenings and -- no surprise here -- lost both times. The first time I played blackjack and the second time I played Texas Hold 'Em, a new addition to many, if not most, of the NCL ships. One warning: Be wary of playing Texas Hold 'Em unless you really, really know what you are doing. The play at this game is "loose," meaning people raise aggressively and seldom fold. This means two things: First, you can't bluff people out of a hand. And second, people who have no business remaining in a hand tend to "make" their hand on the last card -- meaning you can't logically make sense of when your hand justifies staying in and calling the bets
Two final notes about the casino: Unlike any other casino I have been in, the dealers sit at the table with you instead of standing. Also, NCL advertises the NCL Spirit's casino as "the friendliest" on any cruise. What they must mean by this is that it is the largest of any casino in their fleet. I believe this is a reflection of the fact that the Spirit used to be the Leo and sailed the Asian market, where gambling is historically more popular than in American culture.
This cruise only had two stops -- Grand Cayman and Roatan, which is an island off the coast of Honduras. When we docked at Grand Cayman, the captain announced that the sting ray city shore excursions would be canceled due to winds and waves. I had been warned on these boards that the ship would often cancel these tours in an overabundance of caution, so I had booked us on a private excursion (www.nativewaysports.com) to do the sting ray island tour.
This turned out to be a mistake. We went out in a boat and got to sting ray island, which is basically a sand bar about three to three and a half feet deep. The problem is that the waves were one to two feet in height (Paula says they were two to three feet)! I am about 5'6" and Paula is under 5'. I was able to touch bottom (and actually got to hold a sting ray in my arms and pet it) but Paula was swept off the bottom with almost every passing wave. We're both decent swimmers, but it was nonetheless a very unpleasant experience for her and not really a fun one for me. We spent the rest of the tour on the boat, watching the others cavort with the sting rays! I felt bad for Paula and was wishing that I had picked out something for us to do on a beach.
Lesson: Be warned. If the waves are a bit high and you are close to six feet and don't mind being bounced around a bit, you're going to be okay. If it is smooth, you're going to be okay. But do inquire about the weather and pay attention to the wind before you go out! Grand Cayman is exceptionally flat, so wind makes a HUGE difference.
Roatan, I have to say, proved to be one of my top three cruise stops of all time. (To me, it ranked up there with a private island experience I had while on Celebrity Century and with a trip I went to on St. Thomas, when we went to Megan's Bay, an incredibly beautiful swimming hole.)
Paula said she thought Roatan looked a lot like Fiji, where she went a year ago. The island was lush and beautiful and apparently has not suffered a hurricane in many years. The day at Roatan started out cloudy with some rain. Later it cleared up with totally blue skies. This day was emblematic of our cruise. I was marveling at the beauty and could have spent a week in Roatan.
This is what you were waiting for, wasn't it? The CRUISE FOOD!!!!!! For Paula, the food on this cruise was hit and miss. She liked the escargot in La Bistro, the alternative French restaurant, but not so much the fish dish that she had. And she liked one or two things she had in the main restaurants. She is a chocolate expert, and I think perhaps the chocolate on this cruise was not up to her standards. She did NOT like Shogun's, the alternative, somewhat pan-Asian restaurant. She found her main entree that night to be mediocre and the service to be slow if not rude.
For my part, and this shows how totally subjective cruising can be, I felt that the food on this cruise was the best of the five cruises I have been on. And that is really saying something; after all, Celebrity is supposed to be superior to NCL in this regard, but this was not my experience.
My favorite two meals were the first night, at La Bistro, and the last night, at Windows, one of the two mainstream "free" restaurants. At La Bistro I had escargot, which was to die for (but luckily I didn't) and filet mignon. For desert we had the chocolate fondue. There is a slight problem with the fondue -- they bring chopped-up fruit out to you in a carved-out pineapple, which is fine, but the pan of chocolate they bring out to you with the chocolate is simply not hot enough. It would be an improvement if they could do it in real fondue style and heat it at your table. But perhaps I am being too nitpicky about this.
In Windows, on the final night, Paula had perhaps her best meal of the cruise. She really enjoyed a lamb appetizer and she had the Duck A L'Orange which, she couldn't help but tell me, was as good as the Peking Duck I had paid extra money for in Shogun's previously!!! I also had a wonderful meal. I had two appetizers: Oysters Rockefeller and Lobster Mousse, which came topped with caviar and with -- what do you call it -- salmon regulet (salmon eggs, kind of like caviar). I also had a bowl of salmon bisque and the filet mignon in bernaise sauce and, for desert, the baked Alaska. (Those who know me know that I don't eat all that much. Paula was staring at me that night and saying, "Are you really going to eat all that?")
And I did. Every bite.
Here we come to the really negative part of this review. This ship was not built for five- or seven-day cruises, nor was it built for the American market. And it certainly felt much -- MUCH -- more crowded than any other ship I had been on. One example was on the "sea days" out by the swimming pool. Unless you get up really early you are simply not going to get a lounge chair by the swimming pool. There are your usual chair hogs -- but the chair hogs on this cruise were a little more clever than most. They did not merely reserve their chairs by putting a towel on them (illegal on most cruise lines). Rather, they reserved their chairs by putting a towel AND a personal item on them (like a book, for example).
Paula and I were hopelessly looking for two chairs so that we could sit by the pool and we ran across one woman who was "reserving" five or six chairs for her friends. When I asked if every one was being used, she said, "Oh yes, they'll be right back!"
Right -- after they finish their naps and trips to the spa!
Other crowds -- or what I call "choke points" -- on this cruise occurred in Raffles during the morning buffet, where the crowd was simply intolerable; on the elevators during many times of the day; and waiting for dinner in the main restaurants on the "at sea" days. NCL Spirit simply has to address this latter problem -- freestyle is not supposed to mean waiting for 45 minutes, as some people clearly were during one night on the cruise. Although Paula and I planned fairly carefully and hardly ever had to wait, I encountered some very hungry, unhappy campers who were not so fortunate!
One piece of advice: If you can stomach (ha ha!) eating very early or very late, do it! Generally speaking, all of the restaurants will seat you any time from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. The crowds really seem to be worse from 7 p.m. to perhaps about 8:30 p.m. Paula and I got into La Bistro and Shoguns no problem by being flexible with our times, and the same thing went for Windows during our last "at sea" day. We were seated at perhaps 5:40 p.m. in Windows and there were tons of empty tables. Yet halfway through our meal, I did notice that every single table quickly had filled in this huge restaurant and there was a growing waiting list outside.
A final note: Some people have complained that there are vibrations in Windows when the ship is moving and you are eating. Not to sound callous, but it is a ship, and even with all the modern technologies, stabilizers, etc., sometimes there are going to be vibrations. You're on a ship. Get over it.
I, personally, am not all that into shopping. Paula likes to shop but reported that the offerings on this cruise were so meager that she would be embarrassed to bring anything back as souvenirs. Indeed, the four or so shops they had on the ship were slim pickings compared to the other ships I have been on. And Paula did not care for the offerings in Grand Cayman or Roatan. Bottom line: If shopping is an integral part of your cruise, then this is not the cruise for you.
The entertainment never seems to vary from cruise ship to cruise ship, but may have been a little bit worse on this ship. Paula and I went and watched a ship's production that had something to do with celebrating the world's greatest cities (we left after New York City and while they were on, um, Nashville). I didn't like the musical so much and kept trying to get Paula to leave. She said, "I can't! It's like watching a car accident!" But finally we left.
Another poor spot was the ship's talent search -- basically they invited the ship's passengers to audition and they selected seven of them to perform songs. Whew. Two of them were really above average. The others ranged from painful to, well, painful.
There two bright spots, however. First, several evenings Paula and I watched this duo named PrimeThyme. They were pretty good! A very attractive couple from Barbados, they did pop hits from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Finally, on the last "at sea" day right before the so-called "talent search," they had a talent show involving crew members. Let me tell you: the talent pool among the ship's crew was much deeper than among the passengers! This was a fun time.