We have sailed more than 50 cruises since 1984 on multiple lines. Recent NCL sailings included Dawn from New York twice in 2003. Those two sailings were our first experience with Freestyle cruising, and although we admit a preference for traditional dining, we were happy with the Freestyle on those sailings. But on this sailing, not so much.
On this cruise we were joined by our friends Tom and Laurie from Long Island and happily surprised by our friends Len and Karen from Texas. Both couples had cruised with us before but Freestyle was new to both. All of us have sworn off NCL and Freestyle cruising in the future based on this sailing. That's not to say we didn't all have a great trip; we did. It's just that Freestyle was definitely a negative for us and something we have all decided to avoid in the future.
EMBARKATION: I knew it would be rough going in New York with three ships in port. Add a culinary event closing every other street, and it was chaos! It took us about 50 minutes to cover the first 40 miles from our house to the pier. It took us an hour and a half to cover that last single mile!
When we finally arrived, things progressed smoothly. I dropped our luggage and proceeded to park. The rest of the embarkation was painless. On each of out voyages from New York, NCL has done an outstanding job of embarking passengers. We were through check-in and onboard within 15 minutes. We were able to go through a shorter Latitudes line (for past passengers), but I doubt other passengers spent more than 10 minutes longer getting on board.
THE SHIP: The ship is magnificent. We found Spirit to be every bit as - if not more - spectacular as the newer Dawn. It features lots of seating with tables by the pool deck area, great public rooms and lounges, a good sized casino, and a fantastic kids' area aft. The Beer Garden overlooking the pool is great. We were all more than satisfied with the ship. She also features a wonderful promenade deck, which many of today's ships do not -- a great place to stroll, sit, or read near the sea, away the hustle and bustle of the pool area. Lounge chairs are provided on the promenade, another great selling point.
CABINS: We had cabin 9658, Tom and Laurie 9662, balcony BD category, on Deck 9 aft. We are spoiled in that we usually book a suite category, and would have preferred to do so on this sailing. But there are a limited number of suites on the Spirit. The cabin was roomy enough, and the balcony comfortable enough, with a sliding glass door. Two plastic chairs and a small table are provided on the balcony, and the plastic chairs are far superior and more comfortable than the horrible ones provided by Carnival.
Storage space while adequate is somewhat annoying. There were only four drawers. The major storage space was a large closet with triangular open shelves in one corner, so it was hard to get stuff in and out neatly. The closet space itself is more than enough. There is a decent sized safe in the closet, but it was located on a floor shelf, so serious bending was required. The bathroom was adequate but the toilet area can be a bit claustrophobic. The shower was roomy enough, with plenty of hot water and pressure; soap and shampoo were provided in wall dispensers. The cabin had a small table and couch seat, and a cosmetic mirror and built-in table as well. The TV was adequate though not interactive as most are today. You cannot order room service or check your onboard balances like many of the systems now allow for.
Our Texas friends were able to get a suite that opened up close to sailing. They were in 10022 on Deck 10 forward. Basically it had the space of two cabins, one serving as a living and dining room area with a balcony (same size as ours) and the other a bedroom and bath. The bath area was gorgeous and roomy, featuring a garden style Jacuzzi tub.
DINING: The food on the Spirit was excellent. None of us had any complaints about food quality in either the dining rooms or buffets. The Blue Lagoon area, which features 24 hour service, hamburgers, chili, chicken wings, wonton soup and such, must be tried at least once. It is a small area but provides table service -- and the wings were excellent. (Note that you only get three, so request a double order at minimum.)
Although I had read some complaints about Raffles buffet, we had none. The food was very good and there was plenty of seating available most times. There were exits to the pool area mid-ship and to the aft area, with outside tables in both -- nice for those who wish to enjoy sea air while they eat. Trays are not provided, which I always find odd; but the plates are large, so you can fill one with a good amount to carry. Drink dispensers for iced tea, water, hot water and coffee are adequate and provided at two locations on each side. Curiously, the iced tea never seemed to run out, but the water was almost always empty.
At dinner in the dining rooms, free cappuccino is a coffee offering.
FREESTYLE DINING: We experienced two major problems created by staffing (or non-staffing) that were not encountered in our 2004 sailings: Long wait times and an unhappy-looking wait staff. On three evenings, we had wait times longer than 30 minutes. We were given beepers to summon us when a table was ready (oh boy, just like Outback Steakhouse). Upon entering the dining room, you could see that they were only using about half or less of the dining area. On two occasions after we were paged we headed toward a table, but it wasn't actually ready.
Once we were finally seated, the assistant waiter put out bread, poured water, and was pretty much never seen again. The waiter's first business was to take a bar order, next a wine order, and finally a dinner order. In between taking and fulfilling these orders for numerous tables, they would serve dinner. The dessert course would come, and then half an hour later, coffee. One evening, the waiter asked us to order dessert at the same time we ordered dinner. He told us that he wouldn't have time to come back and take a dessert order separately!
You can't blame the staff; they were obviously assigned too many jobs and too many tables. Gone are the bar servers, gone are the wine stewards, all but gone are the assistant waiters. It looked to me like the assistant waiters were assigned twice the number of tables as the waiters. There was only one night in the main dining room that we were seated promptly and service was very good. That was the evening where the ship's officers were in our area seated at tables with passengers.
Although I normally wouldn't pay additional fees for the alternative restaurants, I finally conceded on the request of my travel mates. So we went to Cagney's steak restaurant. We were astonished to find that the service there, despite a fee of $20 a person, was just about as non-existent as it was in regular dining. The food was again excellent. Despite three requests for sour cream for a potato, it didn't arrive until the entrée was finished. Dessert was excellent; but even in Cagney's, coffee was brought long after dessert. So my theory -- that service was deliberately bad in the main (free) dining rooms in order to encourage you to pay more -- went out the window. It was just as bad when you paid more.
Since enjoyable dining is such a big part of cruising for myself and our group, and since we consistently met with such mediocre service at dinner, we all decreed that this was our last NCL cruise. It is worth noting that for some reason, if you order the free cappuccino with dessert, it comes much faster than just coffee or tea. I have no idea why, but since it is hot and excellent, once we figured that out we all ordered it.
STAFF: In general, except for the waiters, most staff made time to smile and wish you a good morning or whatever, and were always cheerful and courteous. But again short staffing shows. Our cabin steward and assistant were very nice, and provided a couple of towel sculptures during the cruise. However, it looked like those two guys handled about a third of our side of the ship. They left a half-used container of milk lying open after cleaning up breakfast, and apparently never heard of vacuuming under the bed. Another couple found old underwear, not their own, under the bed. The cabin care wasn't horrible, but it was less than in the good old days. Could auto-tipping be taking its toll, or is it just a matter of less and less staff to do more and more?
One of my travel mates posed an interesting question: If there is less staff these days, do they all get more from dividing the tips, or is management keeping a percentage? Is this all corporate greed, or is it simply that they can't staff the ships adequately because so many new ships are coming out so fast? The bar waiters in lounges were few and far between most of the time too.
Another example: The coffee cafe in the lobby. Normally you would have one server for all the tables in the lobby area and another person making drinks and coffees behind coffee bar. Nope: The coffee maker was also the waiter. Hence the easiest way to get something is to get up and get it yourself at the counter. Doing two jobs at the same time doesn't make for great service no matter how hard they try.
Raffles has a rather nice free ice cream bar. Wireless Internet worked well, with locations in the lobby and Internet cafe only. The casino was not much for small hits on the slots, but we observed several large hits ($8,000, $12,000 and $6,000). Personally, I had an $800 hit, but naturally fed that back, stupid me.
The poolside barbecue had excellent ribs, burgers, chicken and so forth. There was a Chocoholic buffet, but we never saw it; the line was just far too long.
Staying late in St. Thomas was a nice new experience, letting us watch the sunset from atop Paradise Point. Tortola is great for beach people willing to take an excursion, a nice get-off-and-stretch-your-legs for others. There's not a lot there except for three jewelry stores and a nice little spice shop. The straw market at the pier is nice for souvenirs and T-shirts to take home. Bermuda was gorgeous as always but we had little time there to appreciate it. Still, it's a great stop to end the trip on.
Hair dryer and electric onboard. Cabin has a 110 outlet but 500w -- okay to recharge cell phone, use a laptop, razors and such, but it can't run 1500-1800w hairdryers. There is a hairdryer in the bathroom that seems adequate to me, but my wife would differ. The other outlets are 220, so knowing this from other reviews I bought a converter and plug kit from Brookstone, which worked well and saved me being harassed by my lovely bride.
When did the drink of the day go from a special at an inexpensive $3.25 to a special $9 or $11 drink in a genuine plastic souvenir cup? When did the $6.95 embarkation photo go to $14.95 because it includes a "free" second postcard-type picture with it? When did you suddenly have to report to a location to pick up liquor at the end of the cruise instead of them delivering it to your cabin on the last night?
SUMMARY: The cruise was excellent in many ways, and the staff more than friendly -- except for the waiters, who simply didn't have time to be so. The ship is excellent, but dining is just too much like a night out at Outback, complete with a cutesy flashing beeper. The resort casual dress policy means pretty much come as you are for the New York sailings. Forget tuxes; pretty soon they will be renting Dockers for formal night. Bring a suit if you wish to get a nice portrait shot. If you aren't having your picture taken, you probably wasted energy carrying the jacket onboard.
You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for any specific questions or comments you might have. Please note "Spirit review" as the subject, lest your email be dumped as spam. Photos will be available soon at http://members.verizon.net/~georgeny/spirit.htm for a couple of months.