Simply walking around Carnival Spirit is like taking a trip around the world. Legendary Carnival Cruise Lines designer Joe Farcus seems to have been inspired by every design style he could think of. The show lounge is decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics and murals, the piano bar is an homage to Shanghai and "Chinoise" style, the Artists' Lobby highlights famed European artists, the Supper Club vibrates with the bright colours of Art Deco, the Chippendale Library is straight out of an English country manor house, and the Empire Dining Room is so French it has a statue of Napoleon. Initially, the hodgepodge of styles can be overwhelming, although the casino feels comparatively sedate because, despite the flashing lights and dinging bells, the room isn't done up as a Swiss alpine lodge or a Mayan temple. But once you start focusing on the activities in each room -- the dancers onstage in the show lounge or the food on the table in La Playa Grille -- the decor starts to fade into the background. It becomes the exuberant backdrop to a place that is more fun and whimsical than your daily life.
The ship, which introduced a whole new class for Carnival (its sister ships are Carnival Legend, Carnival Pride and Carnival Miracle), shares its basic design with Costa Atlantica
and offers all the best of earlier Carnival vessels -- a waterslide, numerous bars and extensive children's facilities. It also introduced some firsts for Carnival that have since become standards, including a fabulous steakhouse and a wedding chapel.
In early 2012, the ship underwent a $7 million refurbishment to ready it for its new home in Australia. The cruise line added a new aqua park and waterslide called Green Thunder, a 180-foot-long twister that begins with a near-vertical drop; the Serenity deck space, Carnival's signature adults-only retreat (for those ages 18 and older); and a new top-deck barbecue venue named Fat Jimmy's C-Side BBQ. Aussies will also be able to leave the adapters at home, as all cabins and suites sport Australian three-slotted power points. Local Australian beers now share the bar with other brews, and coffee is much better thanks to the introduction of good espresso machines and trained baristas. More interconnecting cabins were also added.
Here are some of our favourite onboard offerings:
. Look up the ship's soaring nine-deck atrium, and you'll see a striking red stained-glass dome. It's part of the fine alternative dining venue on top of the Spirit. You'll need to pay a service charge of A$35 per person to get in, but it's worth every penny. Many lines brag about bringing luxury elements to the mainstream cruise experience, but Carnival nails it with the food and service at this specialty steakhouse. From the first presentation of the cuts of meat available on that night's menu through to the exquisitely designed (and diet-murdering) desserts, we were convinced we were dining in some exclusive, five-star restaurant -- and we were the celebrity VIPs.
The Wedding Chapel
. This light, wood-panelled space with its angel fresco feels important -- and it should be. Real weddings have been conducted there by the ship's captain when Carnival Spirit cruised in Canadian waters. Carnival Cruises says it is currently working on a weddings programme for Australians, which it will launch in 2013. The chapel is also the venue for vow renewals.
. Most cruise ship fitness centres look the same, but Carnival Spirit's gym is an original, tiered like a Roman amphitheater so you get a view of the ocean from every piece of its state-of-the-art equipment. While the arrangement is attractive and unique, you've got to be pretty self-confident in your spandex to work out there. The tiered layout means that, from your position on the cross-trainer machines, you may be staring directly at the stair climbers across the room, and the runners on the treadmill are looking down on everyone. But the people having the last laugh are the happy soakers enjoying the hot tub that's positioned smack-dab in the centre of the gym. (It's also the waiting area for passengers about to have a spa treatment.) We stuck to the cross-trainers at the base of the stairs, which are slightly more tucked away.
Carnival Spirit feels large but not particularly crowded, and despite a plethora of rooms, it's fairly easy to find your way around. The public areas are mostly contained on Decks 2 and 3 and then up and outside on Decks 9 and 10. Once we figured out that the restaurant is aft and the show lounge is forward, we plotted out the most efficient way to get anywhere we were going. Typically that meant determining whether the casino on Deck 2 would be extra crowded, which would slow you down right in the one of the few places where smoking is allowed onboard, or whether it would be prime shopping time, making the trip past the shops and photo gallery on Deck 3 an obstacle course.
With any Carnival ship, you have to understand what you're getting. Cruise travellers looking for lots of enrichment or destination-based programming, or those looking for a wide variety of athletic pursuits onboard, won't find what they're looking for on Carnival Spirit. Education just isn't the goal. And while we expect Carnival crewmembers to be friendly and to do their jobs well, don't expect to be bowled over by white-glove service. That said, we found the waitress in the Nouveau Steakhouse a mine of information as she explained the different cuts of meat, and the wait between courses was minimal.
What the ship is designed for is having a good time, whether that be socialising over a drink or two, getting into the campy spirit of pool games, enjoying a song-and-dance show or zipping down a waterslide. We didn't try the new Green Thunder waterslide, billed as the steepest and fastest at sea, not because we're wimpy but because there was such a long queue waiting to ride it. But we did have a go on the yellow Twister ride, with glimpses of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House from various twists and curves. And we weren't the only ones who found an excuse to get up and dance in the disco, in the atrium, out on deck or even in the dining room. From families with young children to senior couples, this ship caters to everyone -- everyone, that is, who's looking to spend their vacation having quite a bit of fun.
On its Australia cruises, Carnival expects lots of families in the summer (December to late January) and Easter school holidays and then perhaps retirees from February to June and almost everyone in-between during the rest of the year, with an emphasis on the "middle Australia, let's have fun" crowd. Passengers will most likely have cruised before on local P&O, Princess or Royal Caribbean ships.
Carnival has a pretty laid-back dress policy. Most evenings are "Cruise Casual" when passengers can wear anything from nice jeans and dress shorts to trousers and casual skirts or sundresses. As long as you're not wearing swimwear, workout clothes or a man's sleeveless T-shirt, you won't be turned away. One or two nights per cruise will be designated "Cruise Elegant" -- men are requested to wear at least dress trousers and shirts, with the option of a jacket, suit or tuxedo. Suggested attire for women is cocktail dresses or gowns, or dressy trouser suits or skirts. Most people do seem to dress to the nines on these nights, creating a festive atmosphere as couples and families pose for photos while other passengers people-watch in the Atrium Bar and Artist's Lobby.
By day, the dress code is tropical as the ship visits the gorgeous isles of New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji (with the occasional foray to New Zealand, where it's a little bit cooler).
Carnival Spirit has heeded the Australian market (which hates tipping and always asks "why can't they just pay their staff a proper wage?") and moved to include all tips in the cruise fare. Even the usual 15 percent, which is normally added to the price of bar drinks, has been scrapped.