Before I begin the blow-by-blow (literal description of the weather), let me first say a word about the sea conditions and weather. The entire ride down was plagued by high seas (up to 15 feet) and a VERY strong wind that blew at 40 knots at times. The sun did shine for very brief periods the first three days with frequent rain showers. We were greeted with moderate rain and 75 degrees when we arrived in Barbados -- not exactly the weather welcome we were expecting. The weather improved for the remainder of the journey, although frequent showers and clouds mixed in with the sunshine. Despite the sea conditions and wind, I thought the Spirit was amazingly stable.
Embarkation and Disembarkation
Embarkation was very smooth -- was on the ship by 11:50 am. Disembarkation began around 12:45 pm (delayed due to a no-show at the foreign visitor Immigration check-in). Are you not satisfied with your disembarkation time? Just ask the evening before if you can have an earlier time. We were given new dark-green luggage tags that move us to the front of the line. I was amazed!
I stayed in inside cabin 6529 on Deck 6 forward. This was a good location, as there were no cabins across the hall and only a few further forward. The result is less noise from folks walking down the hall. The cabin was average in size with a large bathroom and marvelous shower. I found a nice selection of television programming. I’ve read some complaints about hard beds. This must be a subjective observation, as I thought the beds were completely comfortable. I’ve certainly been on harder beds at on-shore hotels.
Ship Amenities and Atmosphere
The ship offers a nice compromise between the brightly decorated ships of Carnival and the more understated decor of Holland America. The ship was elegant with bright carpeting that complimented the faux wood paneling. Beautiful Asian artwork and recessed lighting really gives this vessel an upscale feel. Feeling lost? Clever color-coding will at least indicate which part of the ship you are in (red for forward, blue for mid-ship, and green for aft). The gym was a bit on the small side, but I do understand that this will be addressed during the next dry-dock.
Dining and Food
Have I had better food at restaurants at home? Sometimes. Do those local restaurants have to serve 2000 folks in the span of a few hours? Definitely not. So, it only seems realistic to compare oranges to oranges. Food on ships is mass-produced, and it wouldn’t be fair to compare the dining on-board with a 4 or 5 star restaurant at home. Given that most of the meals are really a glorified “banquet” product, the chefs aboard the Spirit do a wonderful job. Comparing the “banquet” fare to other cruise lines on which I’ve sailed, the food aboard this cruise was equal or superior to others I have experienced.
Windows is a beautiful and elegant dining room. The Garden is smaller, more intimate, and a better choice during rough seas (it is located mid-ship). Food in both locations is the same, although only Windows is open for breakfast and lunch.
The food experience on this ship was good to excellent (for banquet-style service) in the main dining rooms, and excellent in the specialty restaurants. Portion sizes were larger than average -- much more than I could eat! Food was of high quality and well prepared, seasoned, and presented. My favorite dishes came from the "A taste of..." option that features food specialties from different countries. I know food is very subjective and opinions will vary, but as a "foodie" who entertains and cooks frequently, NCL does a great job on this ship. The complaints I heard from passengers seemed to be due to the lack of familiarity with specific ingredients and dishes. I also found Raffles buffet to be satisfying. The selection was good and the food was nicely prepared. If I were to compare NCL with Holland America, HAL may have a better selection of some items, but NCL excels in other areas, so food-wise, it is a wash.
I have read some reviews that complain about waiting for tables in the evening. I really did not find this to be a problem, as the worst wait was only 5 minutes. You have to have some common sense here. You will likely do some waiting for a table-for-two if you present yourself at the dining room between 6:15 and 8:30 pm. You will have no problems before 6:00 pm (I prefer eating earlier, anyway).
The specialty restaurants were a great value. Take advantage of the two-for-one specials offered on the first night and up till 6:00 pm on many other nights. The experience in Shogun was wonderful with a very intimate and quiet atmosphere and wonderful service. Main dining rooms on ships can be a bit noisy and tiresome, so an evening at one of the specialty restaurants is a welcomed change. The Peking Duck – in my opinion the best dish on the ship – was bursting with flavor. It is served with crepe pancakes and a delicious duck sauce. The sushi is also very good here.
The experience at the Bistro was also excellent. With Rosenthal Versace base plates and subdued lighting, the atmosphere is very upscale. I wore resort casual, but a more formal outfit (at least a dinner jacket) better fits this venue. I sampled the filet with fois gras (did I spell this correctly?) and veal truffle jus -- delicious.
The service was certainly on par with Holland America. Staff were always friendly, smiling, and greeting guests throughout the ship. They seemed to have a genuine interest in your comfort. I really can’t see how NCL’s gratuity policy has had any negative effect on service. Service was a bit slow on one or two occasions, and dishes were sometimes delivered to the wrong individual, but this is really very minor and easily rectified. The warmth and friendly nature of the staff made up for any minor problems.
This is a wonderful concept and really worked well for me. When I’m on vacation, I don’t want someone telling me when to eat, where to eat, and with whom I am eating. With a traditional cruise, you can really get stuck with tablemates who are real turkeys. After a day or so, you make friends with others on the ship and you end up forming your own table – no more sitting across from some unfriendly passengers who are secretly judging you on your clothes or some other aspect of your life.
I took three of the ship’s excursions and the experience ran the gamut. I’ll explain below:
Barbados: We chose the 4x4 Safari and Beach Escape. This will be my last excursion in a 4x4. You are sitting facing out the side of the vehicle, so the scenery whizzes past you at a dizzying pace (promotes motion sickness). You do have a good view out the rear of the vehicle, but do you really want to see the backs of the road signs? Do you remember the station wagons in the 1970s that had that rear-facing seat in the back? Riding in those rear seats made me sick then, and they make me sick today. The guide was terrible and said NOTHING about the island’s history, culture and geography. This tour was a total waste of time, and I relayed these thoughts to the folks at the Excursion Desk.
Grenada: This comprehensive bus tour was better than the experience in Barbados, but the guide was really very mediocre. Grenada is an exotic island with very friendly people and some interesting sights. This island is very far south, and it feels such with intense sun and extensive jungle. You will find extensive damage to this island (fallen power lines, missing roofs, shredded buildings), but the tourist infrastructure is rebounding quickly. You will want to purchase spices here, as spices are very inexpensive and very fresh.
St. Lucia: The guide on this “Volcanic Expressions” tour was wonderful. If you look past the poverty, you will see that this island is stunningly beautiful with dramatic mountains, banana plantations, volcanoes, and jungles. You will want to take a trip to the southern part of the island to really absorb and appreciate the natural beauty here. On the negative side, there are aggressive street vendors at all of the tourist stops – more aggressive than on any of the other islands visited.
Antigua: I opted for an independent taxi tour costing $25 per person. We visited the interesting English Harbor area and Shirley Heights before visiting a beach on the western side of the island. Our driver suggested the beach because of the nearby restaurant, but he didn’t tell the whole story. As we entered the line for food, we discovered the price was $35 per person for a lobster lunch. Hamburgers were selling for $15.00. Luckily, we spotted a hotel next door with a buffet for $15 and sandwiches for $6.00. Unfortunately, one of the individuals in our party fell ill later in the day, and we suspected the hotdog from this hotel restaurant. Antigua was my least favorite of all the islands visited.
Tortola: Again, and because of the limited time her, we opted for a local taxi. For $15 per person, the driver took us across the mountains to the north side of the island to a location called Brewer’s Beach. There was a restaurant here (opens at 11:00 am) and only a handful of ship guests at this beach. The setting was quite beautiful with dramatic mountain and sea views. Tortola was undoubtedly the favorite destination of most of the passengers. The island seemed clean and unspoiled by masses of tourists, there were no aggressive vendors, residents seemed relaxed and laid-back, and the shops contained some authentic local goods.
As a wrap-up on my impressions of the shore excursions, with such a wide range of experiences, I can’t really say that the ship-sponsored trips are really any better than the individual tours arranged on shore. Folks who arranged their own tours also experienced varying levels of quality, so it seems one might be better off financially by opting for a tour arranged at the port.
There seemed to be many activities of which to avail oneself. I’m less inclined to enjoy the on-board experience, and I don’t really participate in many activities, so I am perhaps not the best judge on this subject.
Although this was a wonderful cruise in many ways – as good or superior to the others I’ve experienced – I think I’ll be taking a temporary break from cruising. Perhaps it was the 9-day itinerary, but I’ll be looking to take a break from crowds on my next vacation. Please don’t hate me for saying this, but it is becoming difficult to get an authentic travel experience on ships these days. Efficiency and popularity has led to pre-programmed experiences both on-board and at the ports. I’m sure I’ll be back on board in the future, but a break is in order for me.
For those of you booked on this cruise, and for those of you who enjoy cruising, you should have a wonderful time. As cruise experiences go, this was at the top of my list. Enjoy!