This is my second journey on a cruise ship, the previous some 30 years ago, and what a world of difference those 30 years has made to cruising. We have difficulty flying or driving any distance due to my partners back injury, but we had never before considered a cruise until some friends suggested we travel together. We also invited our 20-something kids, Booking was easy and surprisingly cheap, especially considering accommodation and all meals are included in the price.
Embarkation was smooth and simple affair and we were directed to our room quickly, efficiently and courteously. We secured an ocean view room on deck 8 aft. Great location, no noise, wonderful views and stepping out onto the balcony to greet the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean every morning was a delight. After reading reviews on other sites we didn't expect much, but were pleasantly surprised at the cleanliness of the room and the friendliness of the attendant. Our room was spotless, sheets changed daily, fresh towels, turn-downs and each day we discovered a new novelty towel animal made by our steward.
Plenty of places to explore, from the Art Deco inspired lobby and quite areas on decks 2 and 3 to the Playa cafe area on deck 9. Four separate pools and spas, wide decks, various locations to sit in the sun or in shade, indoors and outside, an adults only "Serenity" retreat from the kids with hammocks and shaded pods, loads of bars, meeting and reading areas, an impressive dining room and two separate theatres. Surprisingly with over 2,000 passengers and almost 1,000 staff, the ship seldom felt crowded.
We embarked for a journey to New Caledonia and Vanuatu, however, after reaching the first port of Mare, we were faced with an intense tropical storm. Decisive action from the Captain and crew saw us diverted to at the last minute to Fiji (Suva and Port Denarau) - while we missed-out on several planned activities, this was ultimately the best decision ever as we enjoyed perfect weather every day of the trip and and the amazing Fijian hospitality.
While we didn't take-part in many organised entertainment events during this cruise, we did embark on a number of shore excursions. Good choices were available at all ports and the transfer process was seamless and well managed throughout. The only complaint I have is the need to physically line-up to secure places on the shore excursions. Being able to book these on-line would be a huge advantage and save the tediousness of waiting in line.
Easily, the best part of the cruise was the exceptional level of service provided by the crew. I have stayed at a number high-end hotels and establishments, but none compare with the service on-board Spirit. I never once walked past a staff member without being acknowledged with a "good morning". The restaurant wait staff (Obryan, Robbie and Ivan) were simply superb, utterly professional yet always warm, friendly and familiar, encountering them outside the restaurant, they would always wave and call you by name. Bar staff were also friendly and attentive, remembering your name and previous orders - often pre-empting your needs and delivering a fresh drink just as needed. Wait-staff in the Lido were exceptional, often removing empty plates seconds after you had finished using them. No request was ever a problem and it was nice to be constantly surrounded by friendly, smiling faces during the whole cruise. Cleanliness of the ship was amazing - every minute of the day staff could be observed cleaning and polishing every conceivable surface; ceilings, windows, walls, floors, light-fittings - not an area was missed. Whatever training program Carnival use for their staff, they are to be commended - service was exceptional the principal reason why I will definitely seek-out Carnival again.
The Serenity (18 and above) area of the ship offers a nice respite from the children, the shaded pods are a great feature, but plagued by rude passengers hogging the pods all day. As much as the staff try to prevent this happening, they are faced with a small number of passengers who are simply self-absorbed and ignorant cretins. That said, I found the majority of people on-board to be friendly, talkative and quite agreeable.
In particular we enjoyed the quiet seating areas surrounding many of the bars on levels 2 or 3, when one could read a book and socialise with friends. We would have liked to have played a few more card games but the tables in these areas were simply too small to serve any practical purpose. Once you had 3-4 drinks on a table, they were full. Larger tables in these areas would have been useful - we frequently found ourselves making use of the Lido dining area, as this was the only location with tables large enough to accommodate card and board games.
The food varied from average to exceptional. A wide variety was on offer at most sittings on both the Lido (informal buffet) and Empire (formal sit-down) dining areas. Overall, I found the quality of the food to be very high with the exception of the tasteless pineapples and the American style processed cheese. The vast majority of dishes were flavoursome, freshly prepared and delicious.
Be aware that while all meals are covered (except for the fine dining restaurant) alcohol is not included. Wines are very expensive. Beers are around $7-8. But a range of rather potent cocktails available for $10-12 - most are delicious and a bargain. Green Thunder was my favourite and my wife raved abut the Tiramasu.
Timing of the family entertainment shows was sometimes poor with many shows commencing during the time the early formal dining session was running. Considering most families with children younger chose the early dinner sitting, many of them couldn't then attend the shows, of if they did attend, they missed-out on the formal dinners. Besides that there were plenty of activities to keep most people amused. Carnival caters toward families, so if you want to avoid large numbers of kids, try travelling outside school holidays.
Not sure why the ship concentrated on Art Auctions? Perhaps this is something Americans like, but I'm not sure it translates to Australians. Another annoying feature was the advertising of supposed shopping bargains at certain times and days. This often encouraged many people to engage in the detestable and tasteless feeding-frenzy type of behaviour. Most of the items weren't actually bargains at all - recommend you go somewhere else and avoid the whole debacle.
Spa services (massages, facials, pedicures, treatments) are available but expensive. Leave it until the last few days when many of them are discounted by 30% or more.
In summary, we enjoyed almost every moment of the cruise. Superlative service from the Spirit crew was the highlight as was the friendliness and attention to cleanliness. Food was good to exceptional, and it never stopped. Cabin accommodation was quiet, clean and functional. Entertainment and activities were average to good. Considering your fare includes all accommodation and all meals, cruising is incredibly good value for money.
Overall, this was the best holiday I have had in many years and I found Carnival Spirit a delight. Highly recommended. We are already planning our next cruise for next year.