It’s always a gamble taking a Mediterranean cruise in January or February, but you get some great prices. And if the weather wasn’t kind, at least Norwegian Spirit was, writes Tony Slinn.
It’s going to be a big year for Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL). On the world stage, the launch of Norwegian Bliss will add another megaliner to the 17-strong fleet. Down Under, Norwegian Jewel will be refurbished and begin her assault on the Sydney market in earnest.
But there is another side to this American line. Norwegian Spirit is one of NCL’s smallest vessels in terms of passenger capacity, carrying just over 2,000 people, looked after by 912 crew members.
We put her through her paces in a slightly unusual way. January on the Med means the weather can be a little less than its magnificent best. That puts a lot of pressure on the ship and its crew.
Why NCL, this ship and this time of year? Firstly, it was a good deal, $2,526 each, including easyJet return flights from the UK to Barcelona, Spain, where Norwegian Spirit was sailing. The price included 10 nights aboard with some inclusive drinks, gratuities and an unusual bottled water package – 20 one-litre bottles stacked up in the cabin; more about that later.
We liked NCL’s Freestyle-dining concept, which allowed us to dine at any time, without assigned seating, and its casual dress code. That said, we did think some guests could have taken a little more sartorial trouble during dinners!
We also liked the itinerary: Casablanca in Morocco; Gran Canaria and Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands; Portuguese-owned Madeira; then back through the Strait of Gibraltar to Malaga and Alicante on mainland Spain before disembarkation at Barcelona. Well, that was the plan…
Secondly, we liked the medium-size cruise ship of about 2,000 guests. If well-designed, such ships don’t feel crowded, even on sea days, and are big enough to boast a good range of public areas.
As a bonus, Norwegian Spirit was refurbished during 2017. Originally built for Asian line Star Cruises as SuperStar Leo (you’ll find her original plaque on board), she began cruising in 1998. That refurbishment has given her updated dining venues, 17 in total including premium specialty restaurants. The latter do, however, come at a price.
Cabins have also been updated and there’s the usual four-choice range: inside; with a window (Oceanview); with a balcony; and suite. Our deal included a balcony cabin and as another bonus, and common with older ships, you get larger cabins than on newer vessels.
Ours was comfortable with a queen-size bed, a shower room with separate loo, settee, dressing table and chair, plenty of wardrobe hanging space (along with, unusually, plenty of coat hangers) and a flat-screen TV. A nice touch was the dual EU/UK plugs. And the balcony was big enough for two chairs and a small table. Sadly, we didn’t get to use it much…
Thirdly, why this time of year? Winters in the UK, and this one has been no exception, are often miserable – wet, cold, grey and dispiriting. Sandy and I always try to escape to the sun and with the Med and Canaries have mostly been lucky in the past. Not this time.
The port of Barcelona could make more of an effort with its cruise terminal organisation. Just two of five security terminals open and a huge queue snaking outside. Happily, it wasn’t raining.
Once through that, and as NCL newbies and thus not Latitudes loyalty club members (who get a dedicated check-in area), we then joined the longest queue. In all, well over an hour of shuffling lines before we were cleared to board.
NCL’s security not only has the usual prohibition on bringing alcohol aboard, but unusually also on soft drinks – any beverage come to that, even bottled water. Which brings me back to the water package.
We learned long ago that drinks and gratuities packages aboard American ships can save you a lot of money. Though there are discounted bottled water packs, a single one litre bottle of water aboard Norwegian Spirit is priced at nearly US$6, plus a 20 per cent compulsory gratuity plus another compulsory 10 per cent VAT if you’re in a Spanish port or waters. We buy supermarket bottled water in Europe for about 10 cents a litre.
Wine is typically from US$9 to US$14 a small glass (plus the 20 per cent and, where applicable, the 10 per cent). A limited range per glass is available and included in the drinks package (up to US$15). Beer and some spirits/cocktails are also included. Wine by the bottle (much bigger range) is not included in the package, though you get a 20 per cent discount.
Of the major restaurants, four are complimentary: Raffles buffet, the Garden and Windows main rooms, and the Asian fusion Shogun. Five are at a premium: French restaurant Le Bistro; American steakhouse Cagney’s; Italian themed La Trattoria; a Japanese Sushi Bar; and Japanese teppanyaki grill. Prices for a three-course meal are all reasonable, around US$30 to US$35 plus gratuity and tax. And discount packages are available.
We ate in the complimentary restaurants and the food was very good. We were also lucky enough to be chosen to join an officer, Venezuelan ship physician Luademic Villarroel Infante, for a special evening.
If, like me, you’re a steak lover, you’ll be delighted to find New York-style sirloin strip as part of the “classic” menu, available every night. But you will have to join CEMAAS if you want to get the best out of excellent cuts of American beef; my Campaign for English Mustard Aboard American Ships. During the 10-day cruise I recruited many other Brits, even some Americans, and persuaded one of our lovely waitresses to find a jar of Coleman’s English mustard, which she served to us for the last few days.
I should mention the staff; five-star throughout. Cabin steward Clifford came up with wonderful animals-from-towel creations nightly, while everyone was friendly, helpful and, yes, charming.
Facilities, too, are excellent, especially when it comes to looking after kids. The ship has facilities for age groups from babies to teenagers, even a special pool area.
NCL tries hard. From the “get to know the ship’” tour on day one (well worthwhile) through to complimentary lessons in the casino. I still don’t understand craps though, and lost US$60 playing blackjack.
But there was nothing NCL could do about the weather.
High winds diverted us from Casablanca to Tangier; it rained heavily and was fairly cold much of the time in the Canaries; and we couldn’t put into Funchal, Madeira, because of high winds and a blocked berth. Sun and warmth? Not until Malaga. As for Alicante, back to heavy rain and cold.
Shore excursion prices started at about US$30 per head, averaged US$65 to US$85, and topped out at US$179. The most expensive scheduled tour was US$199 for Casablanca, but of course we didn’t put in there. The latter bought you a 9-hour tour from Malaga to Granada and the World Heritage Alhambra. Having been there several times in the past, I can testify this was good value.
We found Norwegian Spirit one of the most stable cruise ships we’ve sailed on, despite the rough seas and high winds – thank you Captain Peter and crew.
It meant the pools and sundecks were mostly deserted, however, and we had more sea days than planned. And that’s where the raft of daily entertainments and plentiful indoor public areas aboard Norwegian Spirit came into their own.
There were dozens of games and plenty of classes, from painting to dancing, origami to bread making. We enjoyed very good evening shows in the Stardust Theatre – illusionists Magika and aerialists Duo Flyadage particularly impressed, and a variety of live music throughout the day and night. The entertainment team earned its pay on this cruise.
We like quizzes and teamed with Mary Ellen from Carolina. You need a Yank on an American ship. How many numbers are there in American bingo? How long is the Statue of Liberty’s nose? She knew! In all, together we won six quizzes and have the NCL insulated beer holders and packs of cards to prove it.
Of course, there was also on board shopping. NCL are Invicta authorised dealers and I couldn’t resist a really silly-sized diving watch in their sale. They gave me a raffle ticket, too.
Ever had a premonition? I was absolutely certain I’d win the raffle. I did. And my wife Sandy now has an Invicta, too. Didn’t feel so bad about losing 60 dollars in the casino after that.
HIGHS: Comfortable ship. Excellent staff . Good food. Huge range of entertainment
LOWS: Best food at a premium price. Outrageous price for bottled water. Limited choices in inclusive drinks package. And the weather, but you take that risk in winter
BEST SUITED TO SUIT: Singles (meetings are organised), couples, who have the best value with drinks/gratuities packages, and those with kids as there are dedicated staff and areas.
CRUISE LINE: Norwegian Cruise Line
VESSEL: Norwegian Spirit
STAR RATING: 3.5
PASSENGER CAPACITY: 2,018
TOTAL CREW: 912
PASSENGER DECKS: 10
ENTERED SERVICE: 1998, refurbished 2017
FACILITIES: 17 dining options, Stardust theatre, eight bars and lounges, basketball court, Splash Academy, Buccaneer’s Wet & Wild pool, teen disco, two golf driving nets, two pools, four hot tubs, jogging track, casino, card room, Mandara Spa & Salon, library, video arcade.
BOOKINGS: 11-Day Canary Islands, Spain & Morocco cruise from Barcelona on Norwegian Spirit is priced from $1,200 per person twin share. ncl.com