First let me say that I have been on over 20 cruises with various lines. I read the Cruisemates reviews and wonder how people can write negative things about cruise ships we have really enjoyed. Bottom line, I'm very positive. But while cruising on NCL's Spirit I had to work very hard to remain positive. Embarkation started out terribly. The ship was three hours late getting in because of a medical emergency and so debarkation was late making embarkation really behind schedule. The lines were understandably very, very long and NCL didn't have the people to process as quickly as needed. It took over two hours and a half of standing in line to finally get on the ship. It was the worst I'd ever seen, but still, understandable. What surprised me is the only recognition of this mess was a brief apology by the Captain at one of the shows. I think one free drink would have been a nice gesture or at least something to acknowledge how miserable the experience was. Very poor public relations!
Our cabin was on the 9th deck with a veranda. The veranda was the smallest we have ever seen and the cabin at 170 square feet was really small when we folded out the hide-a-bed for my daughter. The room became wall-to-wall bed. Storage and drawer space was at a minimum so we had to live partially out of our suit cases. They need more drawers and cubby's, but the room was so small, it isn't a real possibility. When compared to Carnival, Holland American, RCL, or Princess the rooms were significantly smaller and more crowded.
The ship itself felt small. The public spaces were small for the size of the passenger size of the ship. The buffet area was always jammed and tables scarce. We often had to eat outside, which was OK because we were in the Western Caribbean. The Lounge Show area, Galaxy of the Stars, was really small and over-used. When they had a lounge show (Second City) the place was jammed and sight lines were really bad. Seating was extremely limited.
Anytime dining worked much better than we would have expected as we only had to wait in line one night. We had avoided NCL since they started the "Free-Style" approach but for getting a table, it worked. The food was at best uninspired and mediocre. They had a fixed menu with about five items they served all week. I think this made them feel they could limit the nightly menu to only 5 or six choices. I won't say that every meal was awful, I did have a couple good items, but the selection was just not exciting. One night I had the 8 ounce New York that was on the every-night menu because there was nothing I wanted on the menu. Eight ounces may be an exaggeration. It was more like a small steak you'd get on a steak sandwich at the local diner. If they pushed it to 12 ounces it might have been better.
One night we went Cagney's, the specialty steak house with a $25 extra charge ($35 if you wanted the lobster). We were on RCL's Mariner of the Sea's in March so we compared the two steak houses. No, comparison! The one on Mariner of the Sea's was a 10 while Carney's was a 5. I had to send my steak back twice as I ordered it rare and it came out medium to medium-well.
In several reviews I read people say that the passengers were a little lower class than experienced on other ships. I know that sound s snobbish, but I have to agree. I think the Free Style concept must appeal to people who have little sense of taste. On the one "Formal or Not Night"(Remember, in "Free Style" cruising you do whatever you want) I saw a few people dressing nicely but I observed only one other man wearing a tux. We sat next to people in shorts and a t-shirt while we were dressed in formal attire.
Several reviews talk about how cruise ships are constantly trying to sell things. NCL takes this to a whole new level. They have so many extra activities that are available for a fee, you begin you wonder if anything is included in your fare. I expect this on every cruise ship, but NCL really makes it really annoying.
On a positive note, the entertainment was the best we have ever experienced. The shows were all wonderful and the dancers are the hardest working group I've ever seen. This alone could almost make me consider going on NCL again. Note, I said almost! But seriously, the shows were the best at sea.
The crew was also extremely good. They were extremely friendly and warm and seemed to be enjoying themselves. The joked with the passengers and laughed a lot. The group leaders on the ship and the people in HR for NCL should be recognized for assembling a great crew. I wish we had assigned dining times and tables as I would have loved to really get to know the servers better but with "Free Style" we had different servers every night.
We had a great cruise despite the shortcomings of the ship (Spirit) and the mediocre food. We enjoyed Mahogany Bay (Roatan) because we just walked down to the beach and relaxed. How can you not have a good time when it is December and you are sitting on a beach in 80 degree weather when it is 25 degrees at home.
One last positive comment. The shopping consultant, Riishi, comes off kind of arrogant during his presentations. But, we met him in Diamonds International (Cozumel) as we were looking for a new diamond and he was an incredible help. He really knows diamonds and if you are considering a new diamond you must talk to him and enlist his help. Or, maybe not, as our cruise ended up being very expensive.
Bottom line, I want to recommend NCL because I liked the people and the shows, but there are so many better options out there. I believe that NCL really needs to enlist a group of experienced cruisers to form a focus group and give them feedback on what they can do to improve.