Five years since Carnival relocated its first ever vessel out of the United States, Carnival Spirit has grown into one of Australians' favourite cruise ships. Like a true Aussie, it's laid-back, fun and friendly -- and that describes the crew, your fellow passengers and the atmosphere onboard. The mix of families, couples and singles works surprisingly well, with most children either in the pool or out of sight in the kids clubs, and adults escaping to the 18+ Serenity Retreat or enjoying the shows, spa, bars, restaurants and casino.
Above all, it's the crew that stands out. The Carnival Spirit team is five-star, even if the ship itself is not. From the beloved senior maitre d', Dessi, to the charming waiters, patient bartenders and unflappable cabin stewards, there's a real sense of community and comradeship. Crew members will remember your name and recognise you on your next cruise -- because, judging by the return rate of passengers, you will probably be back.
Spirit may not have many bells and whistles or a sleek and sexy design, but it has enough to keep people entertained, fed and watered. The Green Thunder water slide has long been Carnival's "child magnet" point of difference in Australia, and the free poolside food venues (and self-service soft-serve ice-cream machines) are very family-friendly. In our opinion, all of the dining exceeds expectations for such a mass-market ship, from the buffet to Chef's Table. The new Seafood Corner, added in January 2017, is another upgrade in between official refurbishments, serving local prawns delivered fresh from Sydney's fish markets at the start of every cruise.
Entertainment is low-key but popular, especially the Music Manila band, whose members have rock-star status among the regulars. Passengers can also sing with a live band at Carnival's next-level karaoke, see two comedians perform every night, attend music productions and game shows onstage or just soak up the buzz of the main pool deck. The optional theme nights are also a lot of fun, lasting until late at night, with everyone dressed in 80s, Mexican or Caribbean costumes.
Walking around Carnival Spirit is like taking a trip around the world. The Pharaoh's Palace show lounge is decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics and murals; the piano bar pays homage to Shanghai; the Artists' Lobby highlights famed European artists; the Chippendale Library is straight out of an English country manor house; there's a Mexican kiosk and a Japanese restaurant; and the Empire Dining Room has a statue of Napoleon. Initially, the hodgepodge of styles can be overwhelming. Passengers will either love or hate the look, but eventually they get used to it. Once you start focusing on the activities, the food, the entertainment and interacting with the crew, the decor starts to fade into the background. Most importantly, it's spotlessly clean (except for the grubby seat, pod and hammock cushions in Serenity which could do with a daily scrub).
The ship was first in a new class for Carnival (its sister ships are Carnival Legend, Carnival Pride and Carnival Miracle) and it also introduced some features that have since become standards, including a fabulous steak house and a wedding chapel.
In August 2015 the ship underwent an AU$44 million refurbishment, the second such face-lift since it sailed into its new home of Sydney in October 2012. Even before it debuted in Australia it was treated to an AU$7 million Aussification upgrade where Australian power points were added to all cabins, local beers were added to the bar menus and the coffee was improved following the introduction of good espresso machines and trained baristas. The big additions in 2012 were the much talked-about Green Thunder water slide, billed as the steepest and fastest at sea, along with the Serenity adults-only area and a water park of mini-slides and drenching buckets for the little ones.
The next refurbishment transformed the midship pool area on the Lido Deck (Deck 9) with the addition of Guy's Burger Joint and BlueIguana Cantina and two bars; one serves tequila-based drinks such as margaritas; the other offers rum cocktails. Other added venues included a couple that are already onboard sister ship Carnival Legend -- Bonsai Sushi and RedFrog Pub. Also new is the Cherry on Top lolly shop, a big outdoor movie screen situated on the Lido Deck and the Alchemy Bar, which is a popular meeting place, where drinkers devise their own cocktails on prescription pads. This major facelift also included new carpets throughout the entire ship, revamped kids clubs and improvements to 300 cabins.
All these enhancements work to ramp up the fun on a ship that has certainly struck a chord with Aussie cruisers.
Keep Reading: For more details about cabins, dining and things to do, see the separate sections of this review.