The oohs and aahs coming from the hundreds of passengers on board the Norwegian Spirit fell silent as the ship sailed under the Harbour Bridge. Couples were embracing, people were waving furiously to yachties and there were plenty of smartphone cameras out to take pictures.
It was a momentous occasion with the news choppers flying overhead and TV crews on board – the arrival of the Spirit marked the return of Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL), back into Australia since the start of the pandemic.
But what might not have been so apparent to the thousands of people watching the ship come in, is NCL had spent a staggering US$150 million on Norwegian Spirit – the most extensive refurbishment in any cruise line’s history. The entire ship had been gutted – new public spaces, new artwork, new carpet, new staterooms.
There are some sweet nuances you’ll be able to spot on the Spirit, that pay homage to her previous life as Star Cruises’ SuperStar Gemini, a ship designed for the Asian market. NCL has kept her maritime tradition in the Stardust Theatre’s signs to push or pull written in Chinese, as well as a few other pieces of signage. Aside from that, the only thing the Spirit team will tell you about her time as the SuperStar Gemini is how tigers were used as entertainment in the now Stardust Theater.
We were lucky to have jumped on board in Fiji as part of a two-week cruise that started in Hawaii carrying many Americans, Brits and Europeans for a stunning itinerary traversing through French Polynesia and down towards the South Pacific.
Of those passengers, Richard Lounsbury is without a doubt one of the most seasoned NCL cruisers in the world. With 62 sailings already booked with NCL and 12 more on the way, he, like many others, articulated what we all thought of the Spirit – it is the perfect size of ship for Australian cruisers.
“I really like the Spirit, it’s a ‘right-sized’ ship. It’s large enough to have the staff, activities and entertainment to keep everyone as active (or not) as they want to be. But small enough not to feel crowded or too busy,” said Mr Lounsbury.
“We choose this itinerary to get us to Australia to visit friends. The itinerary Honolulu-Papeete-Sydney is fantastic – we’ve done it before. Norwegian does the same itinerary in reverse then continues to Alaska in April/May.”
And while our fellow passengers had called at places like Apia in American Samoa and Bora Bora in Tahiti, our only stop on the itinerary was luscious Dravuni Island set among the clear, tropical waters of Fiji.
But we only had one mission – to experience all the Spirit had to offer.
Unlike her sister ships in the Bliss and Prima class, the Spirit has a more docile and sophisticated atmosphere, suited to the type of clientele that loves longer cruisers and a slower pace.
Looking back at the pictures, the biggest marvel is the extent of the ship’s refurbishment. NCL has completed major structural changes and included new features more appropriate for a Western market. The card, writing and smoking rooms are gone to make way for a bigger fitness centre and NCL made the bold decision to remove kids’ activities like the waterslides to create more of an allure for adults.
There are 15 categories of stateroom on board the Spirit, ranging from an Inside Stateroom to the Owner’s Suite which comes with a balcony, separate living room and dining room. The red carpets and drapes have been replaced with calming, muted tones of blue and abstract artwork depicting ocean waves.
For us mere mortals, my travel buddy (a cruise virgin) and I were assigned a lovely balcony stateroom which is available with either twin beds or a king bed. There’s a desk, a sofa, a full-sized bathroom and an outdoor area designed to fit two deckchairs.
The most notable change though is the size of the wardrobe. It’s not normally a feature I would carp on about, but with plenty of drawers and hanging space, the stateroom has been carefully thought out to take into consideration guests who will be travelling from warmer climates, such as the South Pacific, to a cooler environment, such as Alaska.
As we settle into the swing of the Spirit, we take a tour to get our bearings. By day, the decks and public spaces of the Spirit are brimming with people going about their different activities. By the time we joined midway through the voyage, all guests had already settled into their routine.
At 6am sharp, the band of regular runners would hit the top deck to take laps of the ship, while the gym junkies pumped iron, cycled and did their sprints on the treadmill in the Pulse Fitness Centre which is now three times the size of the original workout area.
By 7am, the Garden Café starts to fill with early-morning breakfast diners. Here, you’ll find the usual hot breakfast items: eggs, bacon, sausage links, waffles, oatmeal and porridge. Most guests get out into the fresh air and take their plates to The Great Outdoors (formerly known as the Raffles Terrace), which overlooks the adults-only Spice H20 with its pool, plentiful deck chairs, and sun loungers.
After breakfast, it’s then a mad scramble to hit the pool or to make use of the ship’s list of activities. Trivia, bingo, dance classes and game shows fill our planners on sea days. The spa is a revolving door of guests looking for hot-stone massages, facials, seaweed wraps and even microdermabrasion.
By evening, the bars and lounges fill with guests enjoying pre-dinner or pre-theatre aperitifs. The Oriental-inspired murals and bright colours are gone – instead, it’s all white marble with gold accents and cream-coloured chairs.
Magnum’s Champagne & Wine Bar on Deck 8 overlooking the Atrium is adorned with Moet and Chandon bottles and crystal chandeliers, while the Social Comedy and Night Club, which was once called the Maharini’s Nightclub and Lounge, is designed for comedy and late-night dancing and has become reminiscent of a kitsch karaoke bar.
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the ship is the vast number of dining venues and watering holes. There are 14 different restaurants on the ship 2 – half of which are complimentary, and the remaining seven are specialty – meaning there is a huge range of eating options on board.
It’s my seventh NCL cruise (unfortunately, I’m not as experienced and seasoned as Mr Lounsbury) but across all NCL sailings I’ve been on, the food has always been sensational, particularly the specialty dining.
The favourites are back, like Cagney’s Steakhouse, Le Bistro French Restaurant, Teppanyaki and the modern-Italian Onda by Scarpetta.
Our first night is spent getting to know the 22-strong group of journalists and their travel companions. As we regaled each other with stories of our travels in the past 12 months, we feasted on braised octopus, served with a bold combination of pancetta, romesco, sofrito and tomato, bright yellowtail crudo as well as a huge crumbed veal chop Milanese, branzino and lightly seared tuna with pistachio pesto and carrot ginger puree.
The highlight of the trip was Cagney’s Steakhouse, reminiscent of a New York bistro with its deep rich walnut furniture and heavy-set chairs. You know what you’re in Cagney’s for – the steak and sides. They keep it simple – ribeye, bone-in ribeye, medium, medium rare, garlic mash, onion rings, and roasted mushrooms. It’s the type of place where you’ll throw back your shrimp cocktail and filet mignon with a dry martini.
The evening entertainment rotates between magic shows as well as bespoke productions such as Blazing Boots, a tribute to pop country showcasing songs from superstars Taylor Swift, Carrie Underwood and Shania Twain.
By day three, we too had settled into the cruise life – gym and breakfast with a lie by the pool in the morning, before changing and heading off to the next trivia session.
While the Spirit might not be filled with big shows, waterslides and rides, her role in the Australian cruise market is to serve the seasoned cruiser. It is the chance to unwind, relax and enjoy the everyday life of being at sea.
What was your favourite meal on board?
Ask the chefs in the Garden Cafe when they will serve Indian. As many of the executive chefs on board are from India, you’ll find a great range of curries, dahls and biriyani, enough to rival what you would find on land. The Local on Deck 7 is a great place to settle in for a meal after a shore excursion. American classics are on the menu with items like fish and chips and Cobb salads but don’t go past the Reuben sandwich.
What are some of your top tips for travelling on the Norwegian Spirit?
- If you’re on a longer cruise, make sure you get to the pool area early. Both Spice H20 and the main pool area fill up quickly on sea days.
- Book your specialty dining before you get on the ship or as soon as you get on board. Particularly with longer sailings, you want to be able to space out the dining options to not coincide with shows and shore excursion days.
- Make use of the Pulse Fitness Centre. Even if it’s just for a walk on the treadmill or to have a stretch, you’ll get to enjoy its stunning views of the sea.
- Try to book an NCL cruise when there is a Free At Sea offer which includes packages for free beverages, WiFi and specialty dining, and credit for shore excursions.
Upcoming itineraries on the Norwegian Spirit to watch
Alaska: Hubbard Glacier & Skagway to Seward
When: May to August 2023
How long: 7 days
South Pacific: Fiji, Moorea & Vanuatu
When: March 2024
How long: 13 days