My wife and I went on the ‘8-Day New Caledonia Cruise’ on the Carnival Spirit in April 2013, which included Noumea, Mare, and Isle of Pines.
Check-in/Getting on the ship
Check-in or getting on the ship commences from noon. Each cabin, or stateroom as they call it, is allocated a particular check-in time. Our check-in time was 1.30pm to 2pm. They were stricter than P&O about check-in time, as we arrived at 12.30pm and tried to check-in straight away but were knocked back. However, when we saw the 1pm-1.30pm check-in crowd had cleared by 1.15pm we tried again and were allowed to do so this time. So if you want to check-in earlier than scheduled, try 15 minutes before you allocated time period. The check-in process was quick, as was the customs process. Lunch was available in the La Playa Grille Restaurant (an area that has a buffet rather than a restaurant as such) so that was where we headed after dropping off our carry-on luggage. The view from the ship as it is docked in Circular Quay is good, but it was disappointing not to sail at sunset as with previous cruises.
Most rooms should have a bed, table, television, bedside lamps and tables, and bar fridge. Beware of the power plug in the room, as it takes Australian plugs, but is positioned in a way that makes it awkward to insert devices. We also had a balcony. Having been sceptical of the value of paying extra for it, I am now a convert. It was wonderful to lie out there and read quietly while the sun warmed me up. The shower had dispensers with shower gel and shampoo. There was a large magnifying mirror in the bathroom that I found disconcerting every time I walked in.
Food & Drink
The main restaurant is the Empire Dining Room. Each cabin is allocated a dining time of either 5.30pm (early) or 7.45pm (late). You will sit with the same people every night. This is good because if you get along with your other diners you will get to know them more after a few nights and progress beyond superficial conversations (eg. so have you been on a cruise before?). The upper floor of the Empire Dining Room has what is known as ‘Your Time Dining’. This means you can arrange your own group for dinner, although it means you may have to wait in line for a short while for a table. On elegant dressed dining nights they were strict about not being allowed in if you wore shorts. The food in the Empire Dining Room was diverse, of satisfactory quality, but sometimes not particularly interesting. Highlights were the potato mash (possibly the best I have ever eaten), warming melting chocolate pudding (could not get enough of it), and curries (authentic and delicious without being too hot). The lowlight was the ‘Funny French Toast’ (bread covered in nutra grain) and Eggs Benedict (not real hollandaise source but some strange tasting concoction from a bottle). Overall, it was about the same but no better than P&O.
At several of the dinners the waiters put on a short singing and dancing show. Although it was a bit cheesy at first, their enthusiasm with the performance and the quality of their voices won us over.
The La Playa Grille Restaurant is the buffet style eating area on one of the upper decks. It was a pleasant surprise and significantly better than P&O. There were a huge number of choices and the quality was generally good. Highlights were the pizzas, curries, and sandwiches and wraps. Lowlights were some of the desserts.
Fat Jimmy’s is an outdoor eating area on the upper deck. It specialises in perhaps the most unhealthy but mouth watering food on the ship. I enjoyed the most succulent pork and juicy cheese kransky sausage. A guilty pleasure that I was fortunate enough for my health not to discover on day one.
Surprisingly, the 24 hour room service was not extremely over priced (eg. $5 pizza; $3 salad), although we did not try it given how many included food options were available.
There is free tea and coffee available all day in the La Playa Grille Restaurant. The quality seemed satisfactory to mere mortals but will probably disappoint affecidandos. Instead, the $3.50 coffee made on demand by a barista in the cafes in the lounges were considered worth paying for.
A big disappointment was the inability of the bar staff to make a proper non-alcoholic ‘Fire Engine’. They did not seem to have the right ingredients (ie. lemonade and grenadine) and seemed to be using red cordial instead.
The Carnival Spirit’s daily newsletter is called ‘Fun Times’. It lists all the activities for the next day. Every hour there is at least one planned activity. Our favourite was ‘Guess That Song’. It was fun and educational at the same time. There was a direct negative correlation between the decade of the music and our ability to recognise it.
There wasn’t the same breadth of activities available on the Spirit as we have had in the past on P&O cruises. There were quite a lot of trivia based activities but not some of the other kinds of activities. We were also disappointed that we couldn’t do a tour of the kitchens unless we paid $90 per person to do a full behind the scenes ship tour.
Most of the nightly stage shows were mediocre. However, the comedians (Hung Le, Greg Sullivan) were generally of a good standard and attracted large audiences for the adult shows in the Punchliner Comedy Club. It was also nice how they made fun of the Cruise Director and Assistant Cruise Director, and their ability to poke fun back. The comedy should have been on every night.
I was very impressed with the quality of the live music, in particular the performers Music Manila and Good Times Duo.
We obtained some French Pacific Francs or CFP (the New Caledonia currency) before we departed Australia. I would suggest that you do not bother about that. Almost everything we wanted to purchase on shore was priced in Australian dollars and at a better exchange rate (ie. A$1 for PXF1).
There are a few self service washing and drying rooms. It costs $1.50 for detergent (in powder form) for one load, $3.25 for the washing machine (duration approximately 40 minutes), and $3.25 for the dryer (duration approximately 45 minutes). I suggest bringing a small container with your own detergent and use the machines. Considering the price it seemed like too much hassle to wash clothes in the bathroom sink and hang it up on the washing line that is provided in the shower. Another alternative is to pay $20 for 12 items to be washed and folded.
Why don’t cruise ships show more movies on the big screen in their lounges or theatres? On average, one movie per day was shown, sometimes on an open air deck. The television in the room had three movie channels, but only 3 individual movies per day were shown, at 3 hour intervals. Annoyingly, in between movies they showed extensive previews that were never shown.
Cheap alcohol and cigarettes. The limit for cigarettes is 50 per person, yet the sell cartons containing 300! Apparently, the price is so cheap ($18 for 50) that smokers buy a carton and go nuts during the cruise.
Boys, beware of your girls spending up to the credit card limit on jewellery during the daily specials.
For Noumea, you can get many of the same tours at much cheaper prices once you arrive onshore rather than booking a shore excursion on the ship. For example, the one hour ‘City Highlights’ tour costs $30 per person as a shore excursion booked on the ship, whereas when arranged with the local tour operator when you arrive at the passenger terminal it will cost $10 per person.
For Mare, the only activity is to visit Yejele Beach. This is something you must book through the ship (‘Yejele Beach On Your Own’, $16 per person). Apparently the cruise ships have only recently commenced visiting this island. The ships book every vehicle on the island and use them non-stop during the day taking passengers to and from the beach so there is no chance to arrange transport to the beach yourself. It’s also a good idea to go across to Mare either early or late. We went across at about 8.45am and had no issues what so ever. However those who went around 10 or 11am had to wait quite a while to get the bus from where the tender drops you off to Yejele beach.
For Isle of Pines, the ship charges $60 per person for the ‘Island Discovery’ tour. On a previous visit we arranged a similar tour with the local operator for $30 per person. Although, the ‘Snorkel At The Natural Aquarium’ appears to be an excursion that is best booked through the shop, due to the logistics of trying to arrange it yourself once you arrive.
No wonder they have siesta where they take a few hours off work in the middle of the day. There are beaches within walking distance from the city to spend lunchtime. Recommended activities are a guided city tour that includes Ouen Toro Lookout and FOL Viewpoint, and a swim or lazy layabout at Lemon Bay or Anse Vata Beach. That is what we did and we enjoyed our day. Another way of doing the city tour is not on a tour bus, but on the Tchou Tchou Train. It is more expensive, but looked like fun. At Lemon Bay, there was a man selling ice creams. After a feeble attempt at mumbling some French to order, he put me out of my misery by saying, “It is okay, you don’t need to speak French, I speak English.’ We had the best choc mint ice cream ever; creamy mint flavoured ice cream with good sized chunks of chocolate. If all you want to keep expenditure to a minimum, just visit the beaches. You can walk from the passenger terminal or get on the local bus. If you do a tour, the local operators will package it cheaply with a pass for $10 extra that will allow you to use their own hop on hop off buses that go to most of the tourist attractions such as the aquarium.
Australian dollars are accepted for transactions with the local tour operators.
CFP may be required for some local purchases, but given how much money is injected into the economy on cruise ship days, it would not be surprising if local shops also accepted Australian dollars.
Yejele Beach has some nice snorkelling. Just make sure you find your way between the inner coral bombies and out to the coral bombies a bit further out. This is where you will find more abundant fish and colourful corals. The locals sell food and drink at the beach. We were one of the first to arrive at the beach at around 9.30am. This was good, because it was not crowded with 2,000 passengers with nowhere else to be, and also because the wind started to pick up at around 11.30am and it became less pleasant.
Take your passport with you, because near the jetty there will be a table at which you can get your passport stamped with a New Caledonia stamp for $1. It was disappointing the ship did not mention this. We only find out about this when we got there. Fortunately, we had time at the end of our day to go back to the ship, quickly get our passports, and return to the island.
The locals also have a market near the jetty where you can buy souvenirs.
Australian dollars are accepted for all transactions.
Isle of Pines
Unfortunately, due to extremely high winds we were unable to disembark at Isle of Pines, as there were safety concerns about people getting on and off the tenders. We had been there twice before so were not too disappointed. I recommend climbing Pic N'Ga Mountain for the magnificent views. It is about a 3 hour round trip from the jetty. The snorkelling is reasonable for fish, but not very good for coral as much of it is bleached or dead.
Australian dollars were accepted for transactions when we visited a few years ago.
Debarkation/Getting off the ship at the end
The debarkation process was even quicker than the embarkation process. Customs Officers were on the ship and signed our customs and immigration cards so that once we got off we didn’t have to line up. The downside was that the latest debarkation time you can get seems to be around 8.45am. So it is pretty early start to the day once you factor in breakfast and final packing, especially considering all the sleeping in you have probably got used to after the previous week.
It was an enjoyable cruise. However, we have enjoyed all our cruises. Cruises are good value for money ($1235 per person for a twin Oceanview Cabin). The food was okay, the service was good, the bands were great, the comedy was great, the other live entertainment was not that great, and the destinations were good.