The 2,018-passenger Norwegian Spirit debuted in 1998. You won't find a rock-climbing wall, bowling alley or some of the other whiz-bang features offered by some of the fleet's bigger, newer ships, but enjoyment doesn't always have to come in an ultra-modern package.
Spirit has 11 restaurants, eight bars and lounges, as well as plenty of family features. And it's a lively, friendly ship to boot. Despite its age, regular refurbishments, including a late-2008 overhaul, have kept the teenage ship looking fresh.
The ship debuted as Malaysia-based Star Cruises' SuperStar Leo (Star's parent company, Genting Hong Kong owns a 50 percent share of NCL). Transferred to NCL in 2004, Norwegian Spirit still boasts a pleasing, Asia-inspired decor that includes artifacts on display -- an antique vase here, a mannequin in Samurai costume there (little museum-like plaques tell you what's what). Staircases have wood and iron railings, the atrium boasts glass elevators and waterfalls, and the color palette is more mellow than over-the-top (no neon tones as on newer NCL vessels). The overall effect is that Norwegian Spirit feels like a fancier ship. Excellent service enhances the experience -- from the moment you board, there are touches of pampering.
During its 2008 renovation, the ship was outfitted with a new diesel engine, and 11 cabins were added (eight with balconies). The Stardust Theater got new red-velvet seats, and nearly all the upholstery and carpeting on the ship was replaced. (The carpet in cabin hallways varies by deck, so you can tell you're on the right one by looking at the carpet color.) Also added were a new phone system and wireless Internet access.
But the biggest change is that teens now control the Celebrity Disco, giving them their own private hideaway on Deck 13, at the opposite end of the ship from the younger kids' facilities -- something teens will, no doubt, hold over their younger siblings. The video arcade has also moved, from Deck 10 to a more prominent spot on Deck 7, and is geared toward the teen crowd with games like Downhill Bikes and Target Terror.
But the thing we enjoyed most on this ship was its lighthearted attitude and a prevailing sense of humor. Example? A Captain's invite read "free drinks on the Captain (we mean, with the Captain)."
With Freestyle Cruising comes a daily choice of where you want to dine, when and with whom for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The options are so varied, and in some cases so impressive, it's sometimes hard to decide. Fees charged by some of the venues help you sort that out, and for many, the decision comes down to how much you want to spend.
The ship has two main dining rooms, Windows and the Garden Room, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner at no additional cost. Of the two, Windows is the more elegant, located aft with dramatic Palladian-style windows on the sides, overlooking the stern's wake. With its classic ocean liner decor -- dark woods and cushy chairs -- the space is downright romantic. The U-shaped Garden Room has a more modern, casual look (also with windows on the sides). That said, the cuisine in the dining rooms is a bit pedestrian. Foodies will want to check out some of the alternative dining venues -- fortunately, there are many to choose from.
For a splurge, there is no better spot than Cagney's Steakhouse, a plush space where $25 buys you a wonderful rib-eye or other cut of steak, chops or seafood with all the usual steakhouse trimmings, including creamed spinach and not-to-miss truffle fries (yummy!). An extra $10 will get you a whole lobster. It's open for dinner from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Passengers in suites also get exclusive access to breakfast and lunch at Cagney's (with menu service and a solicitous waitstaff).
Sushi fans will love the all-you-can-eat sushi bar. For $15, you can order from the menu or ask the friendly sushi chefs to surprise you with treats, and they will. The sushi bar is located in Shogun, which also has a full menu of Chinese and pan-Asian delights that include delicious, spicy beef and sweet-and-sour pork, also for a flat fee of $15. Lunch is served from noon to 1:30 p.m., and you can get dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Another popular choice is the 10-person Teppanyaki room, where the chefs perform a stir-fry meal before your eyes, flipping knives in the air in the process ($25). It's more about the show there than the food -- you choose steak, chicken or seafood, and it's prepared with a little soy sauce here, a little onion or garlic there. (Minus the drama, you could do it at home with a wok.) You can have lunch there from noon to 1:30 p.m. For dinner, make reservations for seatings at 5 p.m., 6:30 p.m., 8 p.m. or 9:30 p.m.
Hint: You can watch some of the action through the windows, even if you don't dine there.
Le Bistro, the French restaurant ($20), serves a decent bouillabaisse, filet mignon and a sinful chocolate fondue dessert -- you dip chunks of fruit in warm chocolate. The space on Deck 7 is cushy with fancy chandeliers, plush banquettes and Versace plates, though, on my visit, it was hard to think romance with a badly sung version of "It's Raining Men" leaking in from the sound system during a karaoke session in the nearby Shanghai Bar. This venue is open for dinner only, from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
The Lido buffet, Raffles Court, has been reconfigured with a large number of stations that serve everything from vegetarian Indian and Tex-Mex to New York deli-style dishes. NCL has made big improvements in its buffets, and it shows. The made-to-order waffles and eggs at the buffet breakfast are great. Raffles Court is open for Early Riser breakfast (6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m.), breakfast (7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.), Late Riser breakfast (11 a.m. to noon), lunch (noon to 2:30 p.m.) and dinner (5 p.m. to 9 p.m.). Both indoor and outdoor seating are available. At night, a section of Raffles is converted to La Trattoria ($10), which serves up pasta and other Italian fare (open 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.).
You can grab a burger, fish and chips, mozzarella sticks and other such comfort foods (and breakfast, too) at any time of day or night for no extra charge at the 24-hour Blue Lagoon. Late-night snacks are also available in the casino (sandwiches, chicken sate with peanut sauce, veggies and dip). Another casual venue is the Bier Garten on Deck 13, overlooking the main pool. On a nice, clear day, enjoy knockwurst, soft pretzels and beer in an alfresco, Oktoberfest setting (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.). You can daydream that you're in Munich.
Do not miss the signature Chocoholic Buffet, held one night. The entire ship comes up to Windows Restaurant for this extravaganza, which includes sculptures and a myriad of edible creations. (According to the chief pastry chef, it takes his team of 25 and 15 additional helpers two days to create the sweet delights, and some 80 people are needed to set up the buffet.)
New and geared toward gourmets is a weekly Enchanted Dinner, featuring a special chef's menu and a glass each of Champagne and wine; it's held in the art auction gallery ($65). The evening is limited to 20 passengers, and the Captain stops by for a photo.
Room service, available 24 hours a day, doesn't offer much variety and mostly features cold items. Breakfast is continental only (except for suite passengers).
With all the waiter-serviced dining venues, reservations are suggested (with the exception of Blue Lagoon and the main dining rooms, though if you want to sit near the windows of the latter, you are better off booking ahead). You can book a table by phone or at the reservations desk in the atrium.
The ship's Grand Centrum atrium area is sure to elicit "ah's." The six-deck space -- with its waterfalls, black marble floor and grand staircase that rises to Palladian windows -- is a hub for social interaction. Sit in The Cafe coffee shop with a latte or with a glass of bubbly at Champagne Charlie's, and watch the shipboard world go by. The entertainment team makes good use of the space; it seems like there's always a piano player performing near the waterfall or at Charlie's, and on some cruises, an a cappella group will have people crowding the atrium's multiple levels to sing along to Harry Belafonte's "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)."
The oceanview library doubles as the Internet Cafe. Though it has a few shelves of books, the computers, which unusually face the ocean, are the real attraction. Note: When there is an event in the nearby Galaxy of the Stars lounge, this is not a quiet place to be.
Internet rates start at 75 cents a minute for the pay-per-minute option; special packages can bring the price down a touch, and some promotions give you free Bingo cards with an Internet package. The ship also has wireless access (for the same fee) in the library and some -- but not all -- public spaces, including the pool deck and atrium.
The ship's shops include a Colombian Emerald jewelry outpost and venues with the usual selection of duty-free alcohol, cigarettes, trinkets and logo wear. Special sales are also held frequently in the lower level of the atrium.
The medical center is located on Deck 4. Conference rooms are located on Deck 8, as are the photo shop and gallery.
Cabins received an upgrade as part of the ship's refurb and now have fancier pillows and duvets and cute new bathroom tiles that feature fish. But they are still small, and the balcony cabins have verandahs barely big enough for two white plastic chairs.
The four basic types of cabins include inside (measuring 149 square feet), outside (porthole or picture window, 157 square feet), balcony (172 square feet with a 29-square-foot balcony) and suite. Furnishings are pretty basic -- a bed, desk, couch (that converts to a single bed) and coffee table. Closets are on the small side, and storage space is otherwise in short supply, but it's OK for a ship where fancy duds are not required.
Bathrooms are the one aspect of the cabins that's actually oversized. They come with large showers, center sink areas (with storage shelves for your toiletries) and toilet compartments with door that close. This is a nice feature for those traveling with friends or who otherwise want privacy, but the toilet compartments are tight, and we heard more than one large person complaining the space was too claustrophobic with the door closed. Pack your own soap if you like a bar; here, you'll only get liquid dispensers of soap and shampoo.
More than 300 cabins are interconnecting, a benefit if you are traveling as a family. Most outside cabins have balconies, and these are accessed through full-wall sliding doors, meaning you have a great view, even when the doors are closed.
There are seven suites and 11 junior suites (NCL calls them Penthouse suites), luxurious spaces with features that include oval-shaped whirlpools, living room areas with dining tables, walk-in closets, CD/DVD players and refrigerators. The eight Category AC junior suites are notable not for their size (414 square feet with 22-square-foot balconies), but for their reasonable price -- they average $250 to $350 per night -- and because they boast bathrooms with one-way, floor-to-ceiling windows, so you can look at the sea from your whirlpool. Five Deluxe Penthouse Suites measure 507 square feet with 48-square-foot balconies, and two Owner's Suites measure 513 square feet with 92-square-foot balconies.
All Penthouse suites and above come with butler and concierge service and access to Cagney's Steakhouse on an exclusive basis at breakfast and lunch. The concierge makes dinner and shore-excursion reservations, sets up special requests and airport transfers, and arranges for priority disembarkation. There is no dedicated concierge lounge, but the concierge can be reached by phone or approached in person during Cagney's breakfast and lunch open hours.
Tip: Since quiet spaces are at a minimum on this ship, booking a balcony is a particularly good idea for those who want quiet reading time outdoors.
NCL recommends a minimum of $12 per day, which is automatically added to your shipboard account. This amount can be adjusted in either direction. Beverages purchased onboard include a gratuity charged at point of service. For those in suites, butlers and concierges expect to be tipped separately, at your discretion.
|Fitness and Recreation|
At Norwegian Spirit's recently rehabbed main pool, tent-like white canvas awnings provide shade for those who want it, though there are plenty of open sunning spaces too. The aft pool is the ship's family hot spot with its pirate-themed water park, complete with slides and squirting cannons that elicit squeals of delight from young revelers. (For quieter sunning, head to the front of the ship on Deck 13.) For those who don't mind public relaxation, four popular, large hot tubs surround the main pool.
The main pool works for laps if you get there in the early morning, but in the spa, you'll also find an indoor, heated swim-against-the-current pool with two lanes. The gym is small but has ocean views and is well-equipped with treadmills and bikes that face floor-to-ceiling windows. Weights occupy one corner, and there's a small, mirrored area for fitness classes (fitness classes levy an additional fee of $10 to $15).
The Roman-themed Mandara Spa is operated by Steiner of London and has separate changing rooms, relaxation areas, steam rooms and saunas for men and women. While men have a cozy indoor space as a relaxation room, women get a more expansive space with large windows that offer portside views. What's funny there is that the rooms were reversed when the ship landed in the U.S.; in Asia, it's the men who are more used to pampering.
Spa treatments feature Elemis and La Therapie products and include hot-stone massages and toning body wraps. Teeth-whitening and acupuncture are among the offerings, and Botox is served up by a visiting doctor. Regular massages run about $120. (Look for specials in the ship's daily newsletter.)
A delightful feature of Norwegian Spirit is a real wooden promenade that wraps around the entire ship on Deck 7. That's something you rarely see these days, and this one has both shuffleboard and a few traditional wooden deck chairs for lounging, as well as some tables and chairs for card-playing or enjoying drinks. It's also a nirvana for walkers. Uniquely, venues on the Promenade Deck, including the Shogun Asian restaurant and Henry's Pub, have store-like marquees fronting the wooden deck (although the real entrances are inside). When walking the promenade, you'll feel like you're on a street -- maybe in Singapore?
For joggers, there's a track up on Deck 13, near the net-enclosed basketball court. Six times around equals a mile. Nearby are four cages for driving golf balls; head to Deck 11 for Ping-Pong.
The ship's Charlie's Childcare Center on Deck 10 is a standout. More like day camp than daycare, the large center is divided into several rooms, each with a purpose and each age appropriate (6 months - 3 years, with parent, 3-5, 5-9, 10-12). Well-trained staff act as camp counselors for the kids. An activity room for younger children utilizes climbing tubes and tunnels, a ball crawl and lots of soft toys, all in bright primary colors; it even has a space with toys that's reserved for parents and toddlers to play together. Other kid-friendly spaces include an outdoor activity area and crafts section, as well as an indoor area with computers and Nintendo Wii.
Buccaneer's Wet and Wild is a pirate-themed water park that kids adore. It's got a pool that's surrounded by caves and a mountain, two small water slides that require entry through a tunnel, pirate's cannons that shoot water and even a children's hot tub. An amphitheater with views over the whole scene allows parents to sit and watch their kids play while enjoying a drink from the Raffles bar.
The center does not charge for daytime use, and toddlers in diapers are welcome, but only while their parents are onboard; parents are given beepers and are notified when their children need to be changed. Group baby-sitting is offered late at night (10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.) and when the ship is in port (so parents can go ashore). The cost is $6 per child, per hour, and $4 per hour, per each additional sibling in the immediate family.
Teens hang out in their own space in the Celebrity Disco on Deck 13, which is only accessible from the outdoor deck. The teen lounge is decorated with video screens and features a juice bar, foosball, air hockey and, of course, computers and a Nintendo Wii. A large video arcade, geared toward teens, is located on the Promenade Deck (Deck 7).
The shipboard crowd ranges from toddlers to seniors, with many in the middle range. NCL's "Freestyle Cruising" appeals to a casual and unpretentious clientele, and the overall cruise-ship vibe is young and fun. Family groups choose this ship for the hundreds of connecting staterooms, and the children's center is one of the best at sea.
The dress code is casual. Shorts are not allowed in the main or specialty dining rooms after 5 p.m. The Windows dining room is reserved for those who want to dress up a little at night (something beyond jeans), but it's not a formal ship. There's no need to pack a tux -- or even a suit.
Norwegian Spirit offers an impressive number of bars, lounges and entertainment venues.
The sexy Maharini's Lounge & Nightclub, which is accessed only through the casino, has an Indian-influenced decor with fancy chandeliers, velvet curtains and plush daybeds with pillows. It feels like a V.I.P. room in a South Beach Club, and a D.J. spins tunes there nightly.
Another fun space is the traditional, English-style Henry's Pub. (Yes, there are darts.) Henry's is a much better spot to watch sporting events on TV than the cheesy Shanghai sports bar near Blue Lagoon, which looks like an afterthought. At night, go to Henry's for folk music; the Shanghai Bar's main attractions are the seven private karaoke rooms for guests who want to sing along without a big crowd.
Elsewhere at night, Champagne Charlie's has live music (usually a piano player/singer), and the sound delightfully drifts throughout the atrium.
Galaxy of the Stars on Deck 12 is the ship's observation lounge and is a real winner, offering views from floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides. Its padded window seats are the perfect spot to sit and stare mindlessly at the sea (that is, if no activities like Bingo are going on in the space at the time). Blue carpeting and ship models in cases highlight the lounge's nautical theme. A bandstand and dance floor in the center of the large space get a good workout at night, and the lounge's large bar is the place for singles to meet and greet.
Editor's note: For some goofy fun, head down the steps at the front of Galaxy of the Stars, and snap a photo as you pretend to steer the ship via the captain's wheel that's positioned there. For the real deal, head down the circular stairway, and you can peer through a glass window at the Captain and officers on the bridge. You'll also find a small display of items the ship has acquired at its various ports of call, including plaques and artifacts.
The oversized Maharajah's casino sees lots of action, day and night, with its huge array of slots and tables, including blackjack, roulette, three-card poker, Caribbean Stud Poker, Let it Ride Bonus, Texas Hold 'Em and Craps. Baccarat and other specialty tables are available on request. Gaming areas are also located off the pool deck and in Galaxy of the Stars, but they're mostly focused on video poker and blackjack machines.
NCL is known for its colorful, lively production shows, and on this ship, they are performed by a team of singers and dancers in a real, classic theater. The recently renovated Stardust Theater, with its plush red-velvet seating and opera-house ambience, is one of the prettiest show lounges at sea. Two decks create a slant and great sightlines in the main section, but sit in the balcony on Deck 8 if you think you might want to leave early. (Otherwise, you need to walk to the front of the theater in front of everyone.) In addition to the show productions, the theater hosts visiting performers and is the venue for the highly popular International Crew Show. The resident Second City improvisational theater troupe does a couple of performances there too, encouraging audience participation. They also do an R-rated, late-night show in the Galaxy of the Stars lounge one night.
During the day, the activities crew hosts trivia contests, sports activities and frequent Bingo rounds. Lottery tickets are also proffered throughout the cruise. Game shows like the Not So Newlywed Game and The Perfect Couple -- all a tiny bit risque and geared toward adults (think PG, rather than R) -- are also fun.
Art auctions by Park West pack folks into the art gallery, which is hidden away above the casino. Frequent come-ons of free Champagne may be part of the draw.
On my Bermuda cruise, dozens of shore excursions were on offer each day, from beach transfers ($26) to twilight snorkel adventures ($56), SCUBA lessons ($164) and deep-sea fishing excursions ($260). Golfers will delight in a chance to play on some of the island's famous courses, such as Port Royal, Ocean View, Fairmont Southampton Princess, Belmont Hills, Riddells Bay or Tuckers Point (from $95 to $261 for 18 holes). One of the most creative tours is the Bermuda Triangle Night Glass-Bottom Boat tour, which ventures into the notorious waters, with the boat's lights illuminating the coral and fish and the crew sharing tales of disasters (spooky!). Prices are reasonable; most tours are less than $100 with many $60 or less. Often, the tours have discounted prices for kids, 12 and younger.
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