My husband and I picked up the Auckland-Melbourne leg of this cruise February 12. Overall, we enjoyed the cruise, though there was room for improvement as noted below. The beautiful scenery of New Zealand and smooth flow of the cruise fortunately made up for the mild to moderate service flaws we experienced on this ultraluxury small ship which competes with Regent and Seabourn.
We spent two days prior to the cruise in Auckland . We stayed at the conveniently located Auckland Hilton, right on the pier near where the ship docked, which has a wonderful (though expensive) view restaurant called Fish. We also independently toured excellent wineries and had a gourmet lunch on Waiheke Island the day before the cruise at the fantastic and scenic Mudbrick Restaurant. I recommend allowing at least two full days for touring in and around Auckland as it is a delightful port with many options for half-day or full-day excursions, a good port choice by SS.
We had been on the Spirit before in May for the Monaco Grand Prix cruise in 2014 (see my separate cruise review from then). As before, the ship was very clean, with nice lines, and is elegantly designed (though I personally do not like a lot of the artwork adorning the walls, e.g., the African works and pop photographs), and appeared well-maintained. It was quiet and nicely air-conditioned in public and private areas. The chairs in the restaurants and lounges are soft and comfortable and public areas are uncrowded. Boarding was easy and pleasant and coming on/off the ship at each port was also easy (other than in Melbourne, where it took a full hour to get off the ship for our excursion).
There were many passengers already on board who had boarded in Los Angeles, or earlier, many of whom seemed a bit bored with the cruising they had done to date, but I doubt that is atypical for older passengers on long trips.
Passengers seemed to be, for the most part, between the ages of 65 and 75, though some were much older. A few were in wheelchairs, some were stroke victims, some were much younger (or at least young at heart) and some were very healthy and fit appearing. I did not see (or want to see) any small children, though I read on a CC post that the captain’s wife had her well-behaved baby on board with her and on some excursions. This is not really a ship for children. Most passengers appeared to be native English speakers, either North American or British, though there were also Germans, a couple Spaniards, French, and a few Japanese passengers on board (and probably others I did not identify). Passengers were all polite, well-dressed and mostly well-traveled and affluent at varying levels, though some passengers we met seemed to prefer monologues to dialogues. Crew in restaurants and housekeeping and maintenance areas appeared to be primarily Filipino descent, though there was a mix of origins. They spoke English with passengers, and either English or Tagalog or their native languages with each other. The quality of English spoken by basic crew ranged from poor to outstanding (mostly somewhere in between). Crew smiled frequently, though some smiles were forced. Officers were European and spoke excellent English (they also obliged with a very nice bridge tour). The chef is French, from Bordeaux, and an absolute delight, very animated (he led a galley tour and a wine/food demonstration, great fun). He sets high standards for his staff, and told us he requires they take a quiz identifiying passenger names and faces, which are posted on the kitchen walls.
FOOD: overall, good to very good, except for room service breakfast (the few times we ordered the latter, we often were delivered the wrong items, hot foods were served cold, or we received comical variants of what we had requested, such as an ultradiluted Tang-like pale pink liquid that was supposed to be OJ, or dry cereal but no milk) Once we ordered a room service “cheese plate” and what appeared was a plate of 10 small pieces of identical brie cheese instead of a variety (quicker to fix the plate that way). Our favorite restaurant for breakfast or lunch buffet was La Terrazza where we could choose from a variety of freshly baked breads, croissants, fruit, cheeses, meats, yoghurt, fruit, egg and sausage dishes, pizza, pasta, sushi, even European style creamed herring. We loved dining outside on the deck (choice of sun or shade). We had one excellent meal (lamb) in Le Champagne. Stars’ small plates, accompanied by a talented jazz singer and pianist, was also very pleasant, interesting. The food in The Restaurant was generally quite good though there were some tasteless pasta-in-red-sauce or rubber fish dishes ( the service was another story, see below). Unfortunately there did not appear to be anywhere to get some quick food of any kind other than through room service between 10 and 11AM, and between 11 and 12PM there is only service on the outside patio deck (not very convenient if you either have an afternoon excursion at 12:30 or 13:00, or the weather is inclement). However, with enough planning, there was never a risk of going hungry!
Here is where we had some problems, primarily with the butler and the main dining room wait staff.
Our veranda suite was immaculate on arrival and was kept in that condition the whole cruise, as before. The sheets were soft, the towels were soft and thirsty, and nothing was broken (not even the sink and tub stoppers which are often the first to go). There was both a shower and a separate soaking tub and a full supply of several kinds of toiletries, and a pillow menu.
The butler did not appear until we had already been checked into our room for several hours (he apologized for being late). Having traveled with SS before, I knew what I would want: I presented him with a modest written list of requests for the room , and reviewed these with him verbally as well to make sure he understood them. It took about three days before we finally got the mini-bar properly stocked, and I took to writing out a day by day request list and leaving it on the bed to avoid confusion between him and housekeeping. On the first day I noted the mattresses on both sides of the bed were quite hard and asked if they could be flipped to the soft side (as had been done on the Silver Cloud for us in the past). Without looking, he said he thought they were already on the soft sides. I asked him to doublecheck when we went to dinner and he said he would. We returned, but there was no comment. The next day I again asked him about the mattresses, and he fired back (inaccurately) that they were already on the soft sides. Eventually my husband and I flipped the mattresses ourselves and found there were indeed softer sides (we can only conclude the butler did not want to bother to look and just made up that we were already on the soft side to save work). As a bonus, when we flipped the mattress, one side had a yellow-discolored mattress cover.
There were also incidents where it appeared the butler and his assistant were determined to do things their way, no matter what, even if we did not want them done that way: e.g., they charged into our room despite a Do Not Disturb sign when just an hour before my husband had told the housekeeper that I was seasick and was resting and did not want to be disturbed. They insisted that it is their “policy” to call and if no answer then come into the room even with the sign up if they had not been in earlier in the day (and apparently even if they had just seen us and been told NOT to come in). Another incident showing a mechanical, no-judgment style was one late afternoon, when we had no sign out yet but the room had been serviced earlier. The housekeeper rang the bell and when I opened the door she was standing there holding cotton balls, indicating she wanted to put them into the bathroom. I first told her I did not need any balls, but she insisted on offering them, so I offered to take the few balls from her so I could just close the door. I was tired and did not want or need her coming into the room, but she refused to give them to me, and instead insisted on going with the balls into the bathroom, only to discover that the cottonball container on the high shelf was already full.
The main dining room personnel, though sometimes good, often appeared overworked and uninterested in doing anything other than their minimum and there is a lot of “someone else will do this” attitude. They rarely came over to ask how our food was after bringing it. Our first night, we sat over a half hour without even drink offerings. On other nights, personnel would often just come over and start pouring the generic white wine of the evening for everyone if the first person said he wanted white, without asking what others wanted. One evening my husband and I joined a table set for 8, and the waiter came and poured white for everyone and ran off before I could ask for red instead. I tried to catch his eye for 15-20 minutes, but he was busy studying his tablet, not looking up at our table at all. When I finally caught him, I asked to try the red. 10 minutes later, still no wine, so I waved at him at his station when he finally looked up. He immediately knew what I wanted as he then grabbed the red of the day which he’d forgotten to bring. As it was warm, and awful, I again tried to catch his eye, and after more struggles, asked for the Connoisseur’s wine list as I knew where on the list the wine I wanted was and could quickly show him. Three people and 15 minutes later I got the list, and to save time quickly pointed out the bottle of wine I wanted which had the price clearly marked. Instead of taking the order I wanted to give, the waitress ran off, hoping someone else would take the actual order, and another person eventually came. I thought I was finally set, but then instead of bringing the wine, the first waiter came over yet again, after another 10 minutes delay, to show me that there is a price to the wine I wanted, to make sure I would know there is a charge, which was already quite obvious! As I had specifically asked for the Connoisseur’s menu, which has prices marked, I was annoyed that yet another delay was somehow justified to make sure I REALLY knew that I would be paying extra. By the time I finally got the nicer wine, I felt exhausted enough to need a stiff drink instead. Perhaps if I’d been wearing formalwear I’d have had better luck.
In general, our perception was it was a long and difficult process on the cruise to order upgraded wine, either in the restaurants or in the room (where no wine menu is available – there is a food menu and a caviar menu but not the Connoisseur’s list, and to get that, you have to call the butler and start the struggles there). We would have ordered a lot more higher quality wine if it were not such a strain to do so each time.
Not uncommonly personnel also exhibited a “not my problem” attitude: in La Terrazza, the big, grind-style salt shaker on our table did not work (likely due to trapped moisture). The waiter tried it, no go, and I commented to him that many of the shakers on board did not work, likely due to moisture, so perhaps they could consider adding water absorbing substances (or rice). He managed to extract enough salt for my dish from another shaker that was slighty less impacted, and then took the broken shaker and just stuck it on the next empty table (instead of removing it from the dining room to get the moisture problem fixed). Another time I noticed papers blew off a tray a waiter was carrying on the outside deck , and they looked like they were headed for the sea. Another waiter came by, looked right at the papers, which appeared to be receipts of sort, ,and kept on walking, leaving them on the ground (not his problem, apparently).
In contrast, the front desk personnel and cruise/social directors were all friendly and helpful with proper executive function and judgment. The cruise consultant, however, was less friendly (other than in public, such as at the boisterous Venetian welcome), and was not in his office very often. My sense when I inquired about 2016 cruises was that he is tired of his job, or perhaps would prefer to deal with male customers or both man/woman together when they book.
SHOWS: a small group of delightful, talented enthusiastic singers did a good job performing everything from ABBA to opera. I went to all but one of their shows (hint: don’t sit in the front row during the Dancing Queen number or you may land up on the stage). There was also a very talented and beautiful classical pianist Van-Anh Ngueyn whose playing moved me to tears.
SPA: my husband loved the massages once I convinced him to go try them, and I loved the manicures and the pleasant lady from Latvia (Kristine )who did them (but not the world-beat pounding music that was playing there)
EXCURSIONS were overall well-organized, except in Melbourne (1 hour to disembark for a tour). In Tauranga we went on the Volcanic White Island tour by Helicopter, fantastic (I hope to post pictures my husband took)! Ulva Island excursion (off of Stewart Island) is also a not to be missed walk for light to moderate hikers, beautiful and invigorating.
Milford Sound was also spectacular, postcard perfect.
In sum, we enjoyed the cruise, despite some annoyances, and would consider returning to SS for the right itinerary (though our next two cruises are booked with Seabourn, to test them out and compare). But we do hope that the main dining room waiter and suite personnel training will improve. I hope to post some pictures showing “best of” in the near future.