We've done a number of cruises - with P&O Australia, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Carnival. We've had a wonderful time on all of them... except on Carnival Breeze in the Mediterranean last October-November. That was such a horrible experience that it shook my confidence in ever cruising again (and I love cruising!); I vowed never ever to sail with Carnival again. We actually came home from that one feeling sad and discouraged. I won't go into that cruise, but if you're interested in the performance of Carnival international check out Carnival Breeze (brand new ship last year) reviews for 25th October 2012. It will be enlightening how bad a cruise company can perform.
There were a few reasons we chose this 11 night S. Pacific cruise on Carnival Spirit:
1. We'd cruised on the Spirit before, two cruises back-to-back, Vancouver to Alaska and Vancouver to Honolulu. We had a great time. So when Carnival Spirit came to sail out of Sydney we wanted to try it for old time's sake. We love this ship.
2. We like South Pacific cruises - we've done three with P&O Australia - and this cruise even included 3 ports we had never visited (Mystery Island, Santos, and Wala) and did not include Noumea (a very good thing!).
3. Sailing date was my husband's birthday.
Why book another Carnival cruise when we'd had such a miserable experience with Carnival Breeze in the Mediterranean? Because we booked it before going on our Mediterranean cruise. When we got back from it, we were very concerned with what sort of experience Carnival would offer us on Carnival Spirit this time, and though we still looked forward to it I was genuinely scared of having another awful experience.
We needn't have worried. From the moment of boarding, surrounded by smiling, friendly staff, we were so relieved to be back in the carefree, get-away-from-it-all frame of mind we were used to experiencing prior to Carnival Breeze.
Embarkation was fast and friendly. We were earlier than our allotted time, but when we went to leave our luggage for minding we were told it would be okay to board immediately. I recommend boarding as early as you can as it gives you time to have lunch and explore, and settle in.
We had an inside cabin, cabin 6177. I chose it after researching online.
I also studied the deck plans for Carnival Spirit and noticed that some inside cabins (ours included) looked squarer than most. After a lot of googling I found actual photos of the inside of one of these cabins and it looked a better layout so I booked 2177. It definitely was better. It wasn't quite as long but was wider, so that the queen sized bed went across ways instead of the end facing the door. That gave room for a very long bench/laptop space/dressing table, wider than the bed, with drawers and lots of usable space. It just had a more spacious feel than the other inside layout and I recommend it. Bathroom and clothes storage space was ample, same as other same-category cabins.
We enjoyed our meals both at the buffet and in the Empire Dining Room. We opted for Any Time dining, which we like as we get to meet lots of different people and are not tied to a definite timeslot (which can make it easier to organise your evening according to what entertainment you want to take part in). The Maitre'd was a standout. She had such a happy attitude and the whole dining room staff had caught that attitude too. Lots of smiles and fun from the dining staff; I have never in any ship's dining room experienced such a happy atmosphere. I took a video the last night, of the wait staff doing their goodbye song and dance, and every time I play it I find myself grinning.
Free soft serve ice cream is a plus! I don't recall having that on P&O Australia, though it does happen on international cruiseships.
The feeling of happiness was everywhere. The passengers, and the staff we met throughout the ship. What a contrast to Carnival Breeze, which had dour unhelpful staff at Passenger Services desk, no smiles from staff in passing, no vibe, no activities other than trivia several times a day and expensive Bingo.
There were lots of activities to choose from on Carnival Spirit. Even if they weren't all what I would choose to do, they were on offer. There were several choices, to the point that sometimes I had to miss something when times conflicted. We also thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment - the shows and the various comedians, magician, hypnotist.
The decor IS ornate. And I love it! For me, a cruise is a getaway. The ornate, colourful decor is a getaway. Its fun.
We loved the Serenity area; loved the fact that there were a number of musical entertainment options, so that as you walked through the ship the sound of one lot of music would be fading away as you walked to another area, to find more music. We really enjoyed the band in the Breeze lounge, and enjoyed some great dancing there.
The Carnival Spirit has a good layout, in that there are lots of nooks and crannies, places to hangout with friends, places to be entertained, places to sit quietly and relax.
We'd made contact on the Cruise Critic forums with some other passengers prior to the cruise and arranged to meet up with them on board. It was nice to run into them from time to time, stop for a chat, and to catch up with them at dinner a couple of times.
The gym is about the best I've encountered on a cruise ship, and it was lovely to do a work out with sweeping expanses of glass allowing light and sea views to come in. Plus there's a spa in the gym area which doesn't seem to be as used as the ones on deck.
Isle of Pines. We've been there twice before and love it. This time it was just a touch cool, and although I swam because it WAS still warm enough, not everyone did. Good for snorkelling. There are some tours offered by the locals which are a cheaper option than booking through Carnival.
Mystery Island. Magic! The best port in our opinion. I read a couple of reviews by people who didn't bother going ashore. They certainly missed out. This island is paradise, so relaxing, with great snorkelling and beautiful water for swimming. The little market set up by the natives is fun.
Another pretty spot. I felt a little overwhelmed by the natives offering something but expecting at the same time a payment. So I was hesitant to even take a flower from a child after the first couple, as I didn't have that many coins! But it was a lovely relaxing day. We did some snorkelling and swimming. I recommend reef shoes... we bought some from KMart for $10 and they were useful. No tours in Wala, other than a $5 tour by one of the natives to see their home. Many of the islanders were offering those little tours; its worth it just to get an insight, though some might be more personable than our's turned out to be. Again, lots of market stalls set up by the islanders with various trinkets to buy.
We hadn't been there. There's some market stalls right at the dock, but other than that I think its probably a good idea to get out and away from the dock, and for that you need transport. Because tours offered by the cruise lines are usually over-priced, I booked a canoe tour to the Riri Riri River and Blue Hole online prior to the cruise. It was cheaper than Carnival was offering but still over priced. If I went again I would investigate the wisdom of taking a taxi to the Riri Riri river (problem then is getting back?.....) Our tour was a mini van to the Riri Riri river and back to the ship; but once at the river we had to pay the $10 return fare for the canoe ride to the Blue Hole (pretty and peaceful). That hadn't been included in the tour price so was a bit of a surprise extra, making the "tour" basically a drive to and from the river, which would be cheaper by taxi.
Next time I might investigate a tour to Champagne Beach as its a place I visited on a P&O tour and it was beautiful. I'm not sure of the time frame to get there.
Since we'd been there a few times we didn't opt for a tour, but there are many, and I'm sure you could book one privately online rather than take one through Carnival. We took a "bus" from the dock to the town and wandered down to what we think is the best duty free shop, right at the far end of town on the left. If you buy alcohol they will deliver it back to the ship for you. We then just did some exploring of the town. We were told that the short ferry ride from the town to Iririki Island was no longer free, but found out later that in fact it is still free. We'd done that on a prior visit and it was pleasant to use the resort beach and relax... water not crystal clear like you find on the islands though.
Another option in Vila is to take yourselves to Hideaway Island. Go by bus or taxi as that's far cheaper than an organised tour. I've heard there's a charge to go on the island but I don't think its expensive. I'll google that next time to check it out.
The transport offered from Vila's port to the town: islanders with the option of taxis or buses. These are mostly rather ramshackle looking cars or mini vans, and the buses (mini bus vehicles) are cheaper. If you can disembark from the ship with a couple of friends, or simply team up with some strangers once ashore, you can quickly be on a bus and on your way for just a few dollars. Taxi drivers will try to charge you what they can get away with. But we caught a taxi back to the ship for $4 each, so be aware that you can get them down in price. If one is too dear, thank them and check out another. There's a lot of vehicles wanting your business.
I'd put off writing this review for a couple of months, but having just read one review in particular that went on at length in a negative way, I thought I needed to add my opinion.
No cruise will be perfect, nothing ever is, but the big enjoyments far outweighed any little issues (can't even think of any issues after 2 months, so they can't have been too bad!). My overall impression is happiness and fun, and that we felt special. That's how you should feel on a cruise.
Would I sail again with Carnival Australia? YES, definitely, and we will. I hope Carnival does a few more itineraries, and a few more itineraries of 11+ days. I just hope they keep on their toes and never become complacent as Carnival US seems to have done, to the point that international Carnival does not seem to care at all about their customers. Carnival Australia does seem to care about giving an enjoyable and value-for-money holiday.
(Would I sail again with Carnival US? No way! Never! If your Australian Carnival holiday has enticed you to try out Carnival US, be very cautious.)