In August 2014, my fiancé and I boarded Carnival Spirit for a 9 night cruise to the South Pacific to attend a friend's 40th birthday. There were 16 of us in the group and the party was themed 'Come as your favourite Superhero ... Read More
In August 2014, my fiancé and I boarded Carnival Spirit for a 9 night cruise to the South Pacific to attend a friend's 40th birthday. There were 16 of us in the group and the party was themed 'Come as your favourite Superhero and we will take over the ship'. My fiancé wasn't terribly interested in the South Pacific as a destination but we certainly enjoyed the cruise with a large group of people. Having set the bar high with our first cruise ever on Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas in 2012, we were also interested to see what other cruise lines could offer and how their ships measured up.
Travel to embarkation Port + Embarkation
As we travelled from interstate to Sydney, we flew in on the morning of the cruise. After a slight hiccup when our carrier decided to cancel our early morning flight (which caused me to go into a minor panic momentarily), we flew out on the next available flight to Sydney. As we did on our last cruise, we caught the train directly from the airport to Circular Quay where the ship was docked. The train service is quick and easy to use with services at very regular intervals during the day. A one way trip on the train costs AUD$17.00 for an adult fare.
Once at the Circular Quay OPT (Overseas Passenger Terminal), we dropped our bags at the baggage drop off tent which was very quick and painless. I made sure all of our paperwork was in order well before we left so we had no problems. Our last experience of the OPT was very disappointing as embarkation took us 2 hours so we were really hoping that this scenario wouldn't happen again. We had chosen the earliest embarkation time of 12.30pm and despite our delayed flight, we made it there right on 12.30pm. The OPT was in the middle of being renovated so there was a lot of work being done (and it looks unsightly) but despite this, our embarkation this time was relatively quick and painless. From the time we started waiting in line to when we walked up the gangway of the ship, it took approximately 30 minutes (including the obligatory 'welcome' photo!).
Carnival Spirit is an interesting ship with lots of (some people might call it gaudy!) décor and decorations. I thought this added to the character of the ship and I wasn't disappointed or offended by the surroundings. There were plenty of places just to sit and relax or hide away if you wished. The ship itself is quite well laid out and we had no problem navigating our way around. Once you did a few laps, it was pretty clear where to find everything. The public areas were always kept clean and tidy. I must admit, I missed going up to the front of the ship like I could on Radiance but it wasn't really a big deal. The Serenity adults only area was a great idea but certainly not big enough. Most of the time, especially if the weather was good, it was very difficult to find a 'pod' in this area and I didn't see any time limits enforced. It was a good area for a quiet drink and the entertainment was also reasonable, at least you could find an area to get away from the noisy kids in the main pool area. One afternoon, while sitting near the main pool area, the noise from the kids was so loud it could have pierced your eardrums! Unfortunately, the whirlpools in this area were also clogged with kids 90% of the day so there was no way that adults could get in and enjoy their holiday peacefully. This ship has been 'Aussified' for it's new home port of Sydney so everything was in Australian Dollars (except in the Casino where I think transactions were done in USD) and this meant no tipping (yay!).
The Carnival staff are good at what they do and we didn't encounter an unfriendly staff member during our cruise, although some of the staff could have performed their jobs better. Our cabin steward we didn't see much of but she was great, unobtrusive and serviced our cabin very well. The Cruise Director (Giggles) was always visible in one way or another, you could always hear her laughing around the ship, whether it was on the TV or in real time. I don't know how she manages the energy sometimes! I was also pleased to see that the Captain was more visible on this cruise than I expected - our group was lucky to get a few photos with him and he even managed to come and perform the 'ice bucket challenge' on one of our group on one of the sea days. The muster drill seemed to go on for longer than what it should have but it is a necessary part of the cruise so we didn't mind too much.
We had a Premium Balcony cabin (Cat 9B) on this cruise and it's really a Suite cabin without the cost! What a great cabin if you can get it as there are only 8 of these on the ship (2 with an obstructed view). The cabin was quiet, well located and we had a huge amount of room. In the cabin, there was a large queen/king bed, a desk + chair, couch, coffee table, bar fridge (with drinks & snacks you could purchase), safe, 2 good size wardrobes with drawers and the bathroom was also a good size with a good size shower. The pressure and water temp of the shower was also good and we had no problem with any flooding or plumbing. The panel behind the toilet was quite unsightly though, having been accessed and slapped back on with silicone everywhere but this was a minor detail and everything functioned as it should on our cruise.
There is only one Australian power point in the cabin so make sure you take one or two universal converters (I'm pretty sure all the other plugs were European). The TV was a flat screen but not much in the way of programming on it. There was a news channel or two, documentary channel, movie channel and the ship's information channel. You could also check your account balance and transactions on the TV. The balcony was a reasonable size for the cabin type with two chairs, a table and a lounger. We took a bungee cord to keep the balcony door open if we wanted some fresh air.
To be honest, the food was pretty reasonable if you knew what to get. I didn't care much for the layout of the La Playa Grille buffet. Most of the time, just getting to the different stations was an effort with lines of people everywhere you went. Getting a coffee in the morning from the machines was quite a challenge at times. We didn't eat a lot from the pre-prepared food stations; the quality of the food from these stations were on the poor side and the temperature of the hot food was generally lukewarm or cold unless you managed to score something freshly made. As we tended to sleep in quite late each morning on sea days, I usually went for the freshly made omelette station for breakfast which was an absolute gem. The chef was always friendly and accommodating of your customised omelette request. The other great thing about the grill was the pizza station and we used this frequently. If you weren't too worried about paying for a decent coffee, the coffee shop next to the pizza station served up a reasonable brew. In fact, the coffee on Spirit was much better than we had on Radiance. I also had a fresh made toasted sandwich from the deli one day which was also very good. One other thing that was very noticeable on Spirit which we didn't have a problem with on Radiance was the ship's vibration while seated in the grill. The first day or so on a ship we usually have to adjust gaining our sea legs and the vibration made us both feel awful on the first morning of the cruise. The waiters and staff clearing away plates and walking around with water and a selection of drinks were wonderful. They were always friendly and it wasn't hard to find them, it was harder trying to find a decent free table though, especially at peak times.
The Empire restaurant
The food and service in the restaurant is top notch! We had opted for My Time dining but as we were a large group, we normally opted to book and sit together at dinner time most nights. A special mention must go to the Maitre d, Dessi Kostova! Her exceptional service and finding us a table every evening was certainly much appreciated by all of us in the group. If a table wasn't available, we took a buzzer and headed out to the Artist's lobby for a drink at the bar but we never had to wait long. Dessi's nightly cry (or whisper) of 'It's Showtime!!' during dinner prepared us for the dinnertime entertainment and we all participated in the dancing antics. The food was plentiful, the right temperature and there was a great selection as well. Our waiters were always on hand, although sometimes they were very busy and took a little longer to get what we wanted. Sometimes we waited quite a long time to order our drinks or for them to arrive but otherwise we had no complaints.
On our first sea day, we all went to the Nouveau Steakhouse for dinner. Unfortunately, I must say that I was disappointed with the food. The steak was overdone and I think that the $35 pp cover charge was certainly not worth it. In my opinion, Royal Caribbean does this much better. The staff weren't impressed with our group as some of them had a little too much to drink during the day so were quite rowdy. I think that this detracted from our overall experience because the staff were on edge and I felt like they were trying to get rid of the group as soon as they could (and I guess rightfully so!). The ship vibration was amplified quite significantly in the restaurant for some reason so neither my fiancé nor myself felt really great during dinner.
One night, my fiancé and I tried a burger and chips (which we paid for) from the outdoor grill near the main pool (can't remember the name of the place) and although a little greasy, it was very quiet there when we ate and the burgers were good, very filling.
Another place to try which is excellent (also additional cost) is the Fountain Café on the Promenade Deck forward. We went there almost daily for a decent coffee and the Chocolate Layer cake is to die for! There was no way that we could eat a piece of this each so we got one piece to share and we still couldn't finish it! They also had a huge layered carrot cake there as well but we didn't try that one.
A few times, we also tried Fat Jimmy's C-side BBQ on the Sun Deck aft. The food was good but make sure you get there just as they are opening or you'll have to wait in a huge line to get any food. There are some outdoor stools and tables on each side of the ship to accommodate the Fat Jimmy's diners but beware - if it is a windy sea day, be prepared for your food to be blown all over the place, including off the table! If it is windy, take your food down to the La Playa Grille or near the main pool area where there is undercover seating away from the wind.
Activities and Entertainment
My fiancé and I aren't really into the shows so much so we only went to a couple of the comedy shows in the 'Punchliner Club' (Versaille Lounge) on the Riviera Deck. The comedians were hit and miss depending on who was doing the show. If you want a seat, make sure you arrive early - we arrived a short time after the show started one night and it was packed with standing room only.
The casino is a place that a lot of our group frequented some nights as most of them were hooked on the automatic poker machine! While we didn't take part much, it was fun watching everyone sitting around the table losing their money! There were some machines in the casino where you had to move an arm and fit a shape through a keyhole or similar but beware - these suck you in and unless you set a budget, you could lose your money very quickly! The same goes for the token machine where it pushes tokens and sometimes cards or notes down into the catch area where you get less money for them than what you put in.
The interactive activities offered during the cruise were good (eg. trivia, treasure hunt) but beware of the huge number of kids participating in some of these, they'll knock you over in the process to win so choose your activities carefully! The bingo is overpriced and has a high participation rate but ok to pass the time. We found the 'Battle of the Sexes' and other show style activities held in the Pharoh's Palace very funny. Our group decided that the 'ship on a stick' trophies were a very coveted item during the cruise so went all out to get a few of them (and they were quite successful!).
A couple of nights at the end of the cruise we discovered the 'Music Manila' band playing in Club Cool. What an awesome band! We found ourselves singing along and getting involved in their music. They were very interactive with the crowd and some of the passengers even got up to sing with them. Carnival really needs to keep this group on their ships for as long as they are available because they are VERY good.
We didn't use the video arcade but there were a number of machines in there when we went to look. Likewise the waterslides which were not always working during the cruise but on the good days, there was quite a line of people waiting to jump on.
Neither of us utilised the gym but there seemed to be a lot of equipment in there. In addition, we didn't use the spa either as it was pretty pricey. I preferred to wait until I got home and went to my normal beautician at half the price.
There was no shortage of things to do and there was lots for both young and old to enjoy.
Port & shore excursions
During our last cruise, I made the mistake of booking too many shore excursions so this time I didn't book any and decided to make everything up as we went. Our first port of call was Isle of Pines which is a beautiful island. Rather than brave the masses of people snorkelling around in the lagoon, we went for a walk and found a small food place and bar on the foreshore with the ship in view. The service was on 'island time' so they were very slow but the local beer was great even if it was expensive (AUD$15 per bottle!).
Our second port of call was Lifou. This island was also beautiful although we were very disappointed that we missed out on the Jinek Bay snorkelling area tour which was booked out not long after we boarded the ship in Sydney. I was particularly annoyed that some people had booked but had either not turned up or spent very little time there when we really wanted to go. You could not buy tickets at the venue and the amount of people allowed was just 100 (out of approx. 2000 on the ship). Instead, we walked past Jinek Bay and up to the church on the hill. The views from the top were quite nice. We then walked back down and right up the beach opposite where the ship was anchored and snorkelled off the beach there. Unfortunately, the water became progressively rougher while we were snorkelling so we decided to go back to the ship after about 2 hours of snorkelling there. We did see a few fish there, but I think that Jinek Bay would have been much better as it was more sheltered.
The third stop was Noumea and buses were provided to get us to the information centre in town. We didn't do a shore excursion here so decided to explore the town on our own. Unfortunately we were there on a Monday so almost everything was closed. Noumea town is dirty and really needs to be cleaned up. The locals weren't overly friendly and we were very aware with them around us because quite a few just looked dodgy. We didn't spend long in the town (only about 1.5 hours maximum) before we got the bus back to the ship.
It seemed that Carnival saved the best port for last - Mare. What a beautiful and welcoming little island! When we got off the tenders, the local schoolchildren and a singing group greeted us as we came ashore. The schoolchildren were eager to find out where we had all come from and asked plenty of questions in good English. I thought they were very cute. The night before, we decided to pay the AUD$15 pp to take the bus to the other end of the island and go snorkelling from Yejele Beach. Yejele Beach is an absolute idyllic white beach with amazing snorkelling. We spent a lot of time in the sheltered lagoon and discovered a huge array of fish, a turtle (before a young child found it and scared it off) and a moray eel in it's hidey hole (which I think very few other people discovered while we were there). The locals set up small makeshift stalls on the beach selling some drinks, local finger food and hair braiding. We really enjoyed our day at the beach even though it was very busy with the majority of the other cruise passengers also in the same space. This was the only 'shore excursion' available on Mare.
The disembarkation process was very quick and we were off the ship and collected our bags within 30 minutes. Carnival had an option of leaving your bags outside your cabin the night before or a 'self service' option where you took them off yourself. It was busy trying to get off and you waited in lines but overall, the process wasn't too painful.
We really enjoyed our cruise on Carnival Spirit and we would cruise with this line again given the opportunity. Unfortunately, the weather was not great for the duration of our cruise but that, of course, can't be helped. It was quite rough on the return trip during the sea days in particular (60 knot winds & large seas). There were some things that were done better on Carnival than Royal Caribbean (for example, our room was of a better size for the price we paid) but we only prefer Royal Caribbean as we enjoy their ship layout, dining options and 'wow' activities (rock climbing anyone?) more. That said, there were a few areas where RCL could have improved, for example, the embarkation process was woeful so we hope this improves for our next cruise. Overall though, we could not have asked for a better experience with Carnival - it's a shame that the cruise wasn't longer!