First, a bit of background: in 1994, DH and I took an NCL ship out of San Juan to celebrate our first anniversary. It was, in a word, horrific, and DH swore he would never sail NCL again. Fast forward to 2011, when the combination of timing, cost, and embarkation port (New Orleans) led me (now 44) to suggest that we give NCL one more try on the Spirit. DH (now 42) was skeptical, but agreed. We kept our expectations low and are happy to say that they were surpassed in almost every way. Now, for the details:
Embarkation: We drove to the New Orleans cruise terminal using the directions provided on the NCL web site. The terminal was easy to find, and parking in the structure was easy as well ($112 for the 7 days). However, when we stopped to unload our luggage with a porter, we discovered that he could not take our cases of diet coke and water. (Somehow in the preplanning I missed this.) DH was determined to bring both, so we ended up carrying them along with our other carry-ons -- not a great way to start! We entered the terminal building about 11:30, passed through security, and then presented our 4 bottles of wine for payment of the corkage fee. We were then directed to a check-in line, where we presented our documents and got our photos taken for our key cards. We were then given boarding letter "B," which meant we were next to board. Within 10 minutes, our letter was called and we were on the ship. As we entered, a crew member saw that I was struggling with my part of the drink load and took it from me. He then offered to escort us to our cabin, which was ready for us. We were impressed with NCL's embarkation process -- less than an hour from the time we arrived at the terminal to the time we were in our cabin.
Cabin: We had a balcony cabin on deck 11, slightly aft of midship. The cabin was a pleasant surprise. Although small, it was clean and appeared to have been recently updated. (It was much less "tired" than a similar level cabin on the Caribbean Princess that we stayed in a year ago, with the exception of the ridiculously out-of-date television.) The bathroom finishes were dated, but that was more than made up for by the bathroom's size, with its separate toilet, sink, and shower areas. (We loved having a shower door rather than a curtain.) As many people have noted, the balcony was very, very small, but certainly usable for the two of us. Storage was adequate for two people, but would be challenging for three. We also missed having a refrigerator or cooling box in the room. Finally, I don't know if the walls are thinner on the Spirit than on other ships or if our neighbors were noisier, but we certainly heard more than we expected to (or wanted to).
Service: We found service to be hit or miss, and wondered if perhaps NCL employs fewer service people per passenger in some areas than other lines do. Our cabin stewards sometimes did a wonderful job, making up our room almost as soon as we left it, filling our ice bucket as we had requested, and making towel animals for a fun surprise. Other times, they didn't make up the room for several hours, forgot to bring clean towels, left dirty plates behind, and forgot about our ice bucket. It became a bit of a game to guess what state our cabin would be in when we returned. Service in the main dining rooms (granted, we only ate there twice) was disorganized and inexperienced -- one evening, our server seemed unsure of how to handle the circumstance of our having brought our own bottle of wine to the dining room; another evening, we struggled to communicate with our waiter, who seemed to have limited English skills. However, service in the specialty restaurants (more on those later) was excellent, as was bar service. When we had a problem with our safe, it was handled promptly and efficiently by the maintenance staff. Officers were quick to say hello, and the food and beverage manager was present in many of the dining venues.
Food: This, too, was hit or miss. We ate breakfast and lunch at Raffles (the buffet) almost every day, and thought the food average to very good. I appreciated the yogurt bar at breakfast, and both DH and I thought the breads and rolls served at the various meals were quite good. The salad bar was not as extensive as I would have liked, but what was there was fresh. The Indian food served at lunch time was a nice change from some of the more standard buffet fare, and the stir fries were also generally good. The pizza was best avoided. We also went to Raffles later many afternoons for snacks to take back to our balcony. We ate lunch once at Blue Lagoon, where DH enjoyed the hamburger and I enjoyed the chef salad. We also grabbed a quick lunch at the Bier Garten, which I would not recommend -- the same hot dogs and hamburgers seemed much fresher at Raffles.
The food at dinner in the main dining rooms was average at best, with the appetizers, soups, and salads being better than the entrees. However, the specialty restaurants were amazing -- we enjoyed Cagney's, Le Bistro, and Shogun (twice), as well as the Jazz Brunch held on the first sea day. I know that some people complain about paying an additional charge to enjoy these venues, but for us, it was well worth it.
Entertainment: Although we're not generally "production show" kind of people, we really enjoyed the shows we saw. Bud Anderson, the comedian, had a dry sense of humor that appealed to us, and we enjoyed both The Second City's scripted show and their improv family show (we were too late to get a seat at their improv adult show). The acrobat duo was entertaining (more so in my opinion that DH's), as was the magician. We also enjoyed the "Dancing with the Spirit Stars" passenger/crew game show and the martini tasting in Champagne Charlie's.
Nightlife: This was a bit of a letdown. The 10 pm parties we checked out (toga deck party, white hot party, dance parties in Maharini's lounge) were sparsely attended, and most of the guests were teens. Although we didn't play, we did walk through the casino a few times, which was much more active.
Public areas: All in all, we thought the Spirit was a well maintained ship. As others have pointed out, we did see some rust and some wear and tear, but certainly no more than we have seen on Princess or Disney ships. We enjoy a more understated decorating style, and thought the Asian decor was unusual and lovely. In particular, we enjoyed the multi-level aft deck. From our stateroom on deck 11, were able to walk down the hall and out the back door to what we began to think of as our own private deck area. Although it overlooked the children's pool, it was much less noisy than the main pool area and was also a relaxing place to enjoy breakfast and lunch.
Ports of call: As our main goal was rest and relaxation, we did very little at our ports of call (and no NCL excursions). In Costa Maya, we went to the Maya Chan beach resort, which had amazing food, drinks, and service, but a less than stellar beach. In Cozumel, we went to the Nachi Cocom beach resort, which had a nicer beach and an even nicer pool, but food, drinks, and service that were not as good as those found at Maya Chan (if only there was a way to combine the two!). In Roatan, we got off the ship only briefly to buy a gift at the market at the port; however, we enjoyed listening to the band playing there from our balcony. In Belize, we chose to stay on the ship and have it practically all to ourselves.
Kids: Although our DS (12) was not with us (summer camp), we did try to take note of the activities for kids in case he were to come with us on NCL in the future. It was our impression that there was not much for kids or teens to do. Mostly, we saw groups hanging out in the stairwells or in the hot tubs -- the teen disco seemed to be largely unused. One odd thing is that the main pool is supposed to be "adult only," and yet the children's pool is for those age 12 and under. We wondered where the teens were supposed to swim (of course, they were all in the main pool).
Disembarkation: NCL lets passengers choose from among a variety of disembarkation times. Times are keyed to the color luggage tags you choose (for example, guests who choose brown tags are called by 9:30, guests with blue tags by 9:45, etc.). Luggage is not due in the hallway until 1 am the morning of disembarkation, which made the evening packing process more relaxed. After breakfast at the surprisingly uncrowded buffet, we waited with our carry-ons until our color was called. Exiting the ship, retrieving our luggage, and going through customs were hassle free, and we were in our car before 10 am.
Overall: We had a much, much better time than we expected on the Spirit. The Freestyle concept was a good fit for us -- we enjoyed having dinner at the time and place of our choosing and, although we choose to dress up most evenings, it was nice knowing that we didn't have to. We would not hesitate to sail NCL again.