Plenty of quirks and nuances: That's the Spirit

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We've all heard it: A cruise ship is a cruise ship. Seen one, seen 'em all.

But cruise aficionados and industry folk know that's not exactly true. Each ship has its own personality and nuances. And its those nuances that can make all the difference in a cruise experience.

The Norwegian Spirit is full of quirks and nuances left over from its former life, when it sailed for nearly six years in Asia as the SuperStar Leo for Norwegian Cruise Line's sister company, Star Cruises. Star transferred the vessel permanently into the NCL fleet this summer.

The Spirit arrived last month in Miami for its winter series of Caribbean cruises, a gleaming white vessel that looks like its sister-in-design, the Norwegian Sun, which on this day was parked down the pier.

But on the inside I spotted a few things that were just a little bit different from other ships I've been on.   

I'll be sorry to see some of the ships quirks go, as they likely will when the Spirit goes in for a major renovation next year.

Those quirks include lots of neon signage in English -- and in Chinese.

There's a larger-than-average room for games such as bridge and mah-jongg.

NCL's signature Le Bistro French restaurant is housed in the ships former Chinese restaurant, Tai Pan (complete with statues of Chinese warriors standing guard by the door).

The casino is really big.

The Spirit has a designated movie theater, a feature that has disappeared from most U.S.-based cruise ships.

And the color schemes and themes are generally bright and active. Neutral, relaxing tones are not in the Spirit's personality.

The ship has a Roman Emperor-in-the-Orient feel to it, with red and black schemes and the Caesar's spa and the Tivoli pool, which is surrounded by marble busts, statues and columns.

None of this seemed to get in the way of my fellow passengers, who had signed up for the Spirit's maiden voyage from Miami, a one-night cruise to nowhere. They were there to sunbathe, have a romantic dinner, drink, gamble and dance -- which is exactly what they did.

After all, neon on a cruise ship isn't exactly a new design theme.

And although NCL declined to say exactly what will be changed on the Spirit next year, prior to its relocation to New York for winter cruises in November, I suspect at least one of their tasks -- unfortunately -- will be to remove the Chinese-language signs.

Ahead of its time 

The bigger surprise, at least for me, is how current this 6-year-old ship is.

The Norwegian Spirit is the prototype for NCL's newest ships, which were purpose-built for the line's Freestyle Dining concept.

Star executives have said they chose not to rely on North American cruise industry trends when they built their ships for the Asia market. So when Star's executive team reshuffled the ships decks to add the amenities they felt their customers wanted, they came out in front of today's biggest trends. Lots of kid-friendly spaces, multiple restaurants and a large spa, which have become standard and necessary on megaships, are all represented on the Spirit.

In fact, when the ship was introduced in 1998, NCL's Freestyle Cruising hadn't been launched.

Savvy cruisers who found their way to the SuperStar Leo back then would have been surprised at the number of restaurants onboard. There are eight of them, including two main dining rooms, a Japanese restaurant and a burger joint.

At 77,104 tons, the Spirit is not a huge ship. But I was surprised at the amount of space inside. The hallways are wide, the public rooms are sufficiently large and the lido buffet is spacious.

Unfortunately, there's not much room for sunbathing by the Tivoli pool (the Roman columns get in the way). And that's the only adult pool on the ship. Kids, however, get their own pool and waterslide, called Buccaneers Wet and Wild, on the aft end of the ship. The focal points are the small waterslides that shoot out of a rock and a fountain that shoots out of an alligator's mouth.

There's lots of space dedicated to the younger set, including their own mini wading pool and playground outside and a Habitrail-type climbing gym inside. And kids with quarters to spare will rule the Spirit: I've never seen a video arcade that big at sea.

Taking a gamble 

On many ships, passengers must walk through the casino to get from the dining room to the after-dinner show.

Not so on the Spirit: The casino is located forward on Deck 7, where the show lounge typically is on other cruise ships (and the show lounge is aft).

Some of Star Cruises' passengers, I was told, don't need to stumble onto the casino by accident -- some of them line up at the entrance and wait for it to open.

The Norwegian Spirit in its current incarnation is well-suited for clients who enjoy a few spins of roulette or a few hands of blackjack. This casino is pretty big by ship standards. It's called the Maharajah, which will give you a clue to the decor (lots of tents and elephants). One room opens up into another room, which opens up into a third room called the Club Royale.

The Norwegian Spirit's art auction area also originally was part of the casino.

The casino action was red-hot on this particular night because NCL's casino marketing group was hosting a large group of gambling enthusiasts that night. More than one table had a $100 minimum bet.

Moving upwards on the Spirit, the Celebrity Disco seemed just right: small and crowded. On this one-night cruise, I practically had to fight my way through the door (a good sign at any popular nightclub).

Promenade seats 

Maxims, the swanky, Italian-garden-themed restaurant across from the casino, used to double as a late-night noodle shop for hungry gamblers. But now it is a steakhouse with American-style, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. dinner hours.

One of my favorite spots on the Spirit was the British-themed Henry's Pub on the Promenade Deck, mostly because I liked the way they set up a few tables outside on the ship's promenade, sidewalk cafe-style -- a good use of space in an underused section of many ships.

I imagine this would be a quiet, shady spot for scenery-watching during the day and a relaxing, post-dinner hangout at night.

A short stroll down the Promenade from Henry's is the Le Bistro restaurant, which also has a neon-sign entrance from the Promenade (it still promotes the eatery as Tai Pan, the Chinese restaurant).

But just by opening Henry's and Le Bistro out to the promenade, the deck feels more like a pedestrian-friendly sidewalk than simply a walking circuit around the ship.

It's the nuances that make the difference.

To contact reporter Rebecca Tobin, send e-mail to [email protected]. 

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