The upgrades - what's changed, what's the same?
The newly completed renovations are undoubtedly of the most interest to cruisers, so let's start the review there. The Fun Ship 2.0 makeover in Singapore brought quite a few additions to the Spirit, without taking too much away or altering the overall deck plan - and there are plenty of classic facilities which have not changed at all, which may come as a relief to some loyal Carnival passengers.
The accommodations, main dining room and buffet areas have not been altered, and neither have the theatres, the serenity retreat, Nouveau, and the majority of other public venues, except for some general refreshments like new carpeting. The biggest changes have taken place in the children's and teens areas, on the pool deck and in a few select bars and seating areas. A few bits and pieces of construction were still underway when the ship left Singapore which was bothersome to some passengers, but by the time we boarded this was more or less all done and dusted.
Burritos and burgers by the pool
If I could pick a favourite part of the new Carnival Spirit, it would absolutely be the Blue Iguana Cantina. I would have loved this even as a regular eatery on land, so having it by the pool and included as part of the cruise fare with no extra charge was an absolute treat! My only regret was eating there just once - by the time we found out that they also served breakfast burritos, we were about to disembark.
The cantina keeps it simple and delicious. Burritos and soft-shell tacos are the two options, containing pulled pork, chicken or fish. You can then embellish them to your heart's content at the salsa bar, with all kinds of yummy things: shredded lettuce, onion, cheese, coriander, a range of salsas including an amazing watermelon option, and a huge variety of hot sauces so you can pick your favourite brand.
Guy Fieri's Burger joint is just a hop, skip and a jump away on the other side of the big pool screen. This is no cheap and cheerful poolside grill, but serves made-to-order burgers and fresh, hand-cut fries. The menu has several options, from the simple Plain Jane to burgers filled with cheese, special sauces and onion rings - there's even a secret menu item: the Boomerang Burger, for Australian tastebuds. As if that wasn't enough, this place has a toppings bar too, offering extras like mushrooms, veges and plenty of sauces to dip your chips. We headed there soon after boarding, and it was a great introduction to the new and improved Carnival Spirit. We think kids especially will love this!
The new eateries are complemented by bars at the opposite end of the pool area: The Blue Iguana Tequila Bar and Red Frog Rum Bar (not to be confused with the Red Frog Pub, although we did). Burgers and rum cocktails or tacos and tequilas? The new Spirit is intended, as the team told us, to allow everybody to find the space that suits them, and the pool area has achieved that well, offering a mix of different options in a space which still feels cohesive. The self-serve ice-cream station remains, so you can follow up your poolside lunch with a sweet treat.
Lido deck lounging
Although the buffet remains the same - extensive and whimsical - the pool areas on the Lido deck have seen the biggest transformation and are looking great. We had trouble tearing ourselves away from the peaceful Serenity retreat, but the time we spent by the Dome Pool was surprisingly uncrowded, and relatively quiet apart from the occasional deck game taking place.
So what's changed? Carnival have separated the two pool areas with walls, as part of their aim to provide different spaces and styles for different people (boisterous music with fun activities, or relaxed and casual, for example). The all-weather Dome Pool, home to the cantina, burger joint and bars, also has a big outdoor movie screen, new seating areas themed to the new eateries and bars, and the hot tub has been taken away to open up the space. The Sun Pool forward has some more simple seating and is often used as a venue for pool parties. Wood grain throughout gives both areas a little elegance.
Bars and restaurants
The evening's entertainment also offered plentiful new and fun options, although we soon found our preferred space in the casual Red Frog Pub. This great new venue was previously Club Cool, a bar and lounge area which often featured live music. The Red Frog also hosts musicians, primarily acoustic and solo artists with the occasional feature by the Music Manila Band. They played during our cruise and were a highlight - there was plenty of fun being had on the dance floor! A little further research tells me they are a Carnival favourite, with quite a following - and have recently introduced a new female member who we can report sings very well.
The pub offers a range of drinks, with a focus on Caribbean cocktails and the line's own exclusive craft beer, the Thirsty Frog, which is created in partnership with the long-established Lord Nelson's Brewery in Sydney. It was developed with Aussie cruisers in mind, and Meghan reports that it is a nice beer to have over a game of foosball or shuffleboard. I can report that the mojitos are also good.
The relaxed and casual atmosphere, enhanced by a decor of palm trees and nautical knick-knacks, is intentional and appreciated. There are table games to play, including a particularly frustrating hook-and-loop contraption which provides just the right amount of mindless distraction for an enjoyable evening of beer and conversation. Foosball and shuffleboard tables provide more active entertainment, and a crew member comes around and takes photos of punters - both digital to display on the screen and polaroids as keepsakes. Beware the blinding flash.
On the more swanky end of the scale is the Alchemy Bar, another spot where we spent some time before dinner one evening, spoiling our appetites with custom cocktails.The premise here is very fun - the bartenders are cocktail chemists, and can prescribe you something to your particular tastes, or you can pick from a menu of tried-and true remedies. If the idea on the new Carnival Spirit is to find your space, this is one for those who like a little old-school glamour. Located right next to the main dining room, it's ideal for pre-dinner drinks.
Having both filled out the prescription pad, Meghan and I watched as our chemist created the elaborate mixtures and presented them to us garnished and looking pretty. The creativity here is great - and $12 is a very reasonable price for a custom-made cocktail with the flavours you choose!
The other new bar is the Sky Box, a refurbishment and improvement on the Carnival Spirit's previous sports bar. This venue has all you'd need to catch a game - great big screens, a bar and some sports-themed decor including signed jerseys from various codes. The big question, however, is what they show. Licensing issues for a public venue (as opposed to private viewing) means that Carnival cannot show everything that is requested, but they have a good range aimed at pleasing Australian sports lovers: all NRL and AFL games, the Melbourne Cup, Olympics, English Premier League and more.
Cruisers embarking in the next few months will also be glad to know that the Carnival Spirit will be showing all Rugby World Cup games live, while the Carnival Legend will be showing all knockout games live.
Bonsai Sushi is the only new specialty restaurant, and inhabits a space which was previously an atrium seating area, at the entrance to the casino. Although we did not have a chance to try it, it appeared that there were many passengers who were glad of the chance to enjoy their favourite dish at sea - and especially popular were the "sushi ships" for two at $17 each. They certainly looked impressive!
Fun for the kiddos
Carnival's known as a fun family line, and they haven't ignored their youngest passengers in the refit - in fact, the kids areas have had perhaps the biggest overhaul and have emerged looking shiny and new.
Club 02 and Circle C remain more or less the same, however Club 02 has changed places with Camp Ocean to now reside forward on Deck 5, below Circle C and the video arcade.
Those little ones aged 2-11 have a new home in Camp Ocean on Deck 10, which replaces Camp Carnival as the onboard children's program and space. They will love the marine-themed rooms which are kitted out with toys for the little ones, beanbags, screens and even 29 video game stations. The program director who gave us the tour said it's one of the best Camp Ocean facilities she's seen yet, and I was certainly inclined to believe her - I can imagine even the most recalcitrant of kids would find the facility hard to resist. The sports deck is directly above so they can get rid of some energy with a runaround.
A few cruisers have asked about the Dr Seuss at Sea, and although we did not have the opportunity to experience it, the team did confirm that it would be in place starting with the next cruise. The program should be great fun for the children, and even the adult Dr Seuss fans: parades, character photo ops, story times, and a Green Eggs and Ham breakfast which includes real green eggs, ham and a whole lot of other creative dishes, as well as character encounters, for a charge of $5 per person.
All in all, I think most cruisers will love the additions to the Carnival Spirit - we certainly did. Along with Fat Jimmy's BBQ, the burger joint and cantina on the Lido deck offer fantastic and varied options for casual dining, more than you are likely to find on most other cruise ships in Australia. We much preferred these specialised eateries than the buffet. The "find your space" concept is designed to allow each cruiser to customise their own cruise experience - and their cocktails! I found my happy place: poolside tacos and games of foosball over a mojito in the Red Frog Pub. What would yours be?
The good thing about a makeover that's not all-encompassing is that returning passengers will still recognise the ship they love. While onboard, we not only tried out the new features but enjoyed some Carnival Spirit classics.
The Empire Dining Room, Carnival Spirit's primary dinner venue, is as extravagant as ever, serving up tasty three-course meals with prompt, friendly service. I appreciated the willingness of the waiters to laugh and joke around a little, and the musical interlude during which the crew paused to put on tutus and dance to "All About That Bass" while encouraging diners to join in - all part of the fun for which Carnival is known. The Ossobuco was particularly delicious, and I appreciated the helpful suggestion from our waiter as it wasn't something which would normally catch my eye. The chocolate melting cake also came recommended for dessert, and it's a passenger favourite I can pass on to anyone planning to cruise with Carnival.
Loyal Carnival Spirit guests will be happy to know that Dessi, the famous and beloved Maitre D, was not a part of the makeover! She is still at her post and as friendly and welcoming as ever. We also had the opportunity to dine in Nouveau, the specialty steakhouse in an extravagant two-storey setting on Deck 10, and found it to be a great night out - although not for anyone who isn't a steak fan.
Modernising the Carnival Spirit a little has not done away with the age-old cruising pastimes. Meghan and I enjoyed some Bingo in the Versailles Lounge, amid a sea of very enthusiastic players (one card for each round is $20, while $40 will get you five chances at each round), as well as a spot of 90s music trivia in the Red Frog. There are hot tubs in the gym, at the Sun Pool and in the Serenity retreat, and a colourful Carnival waterpark on Deck 10, complete with Green Thunder waterslide which we braved once each. Standing and waiting for the floor to give way beneath your feet is a little terrifying!
Green Thunder Waterslide on the Carnival Spirit
Besides showing us the new features on board, Carnival Cruise Line Australia gave us a healthy dose of adrenaline with the Green Thunder Waterslide on board the Spirit. There's nothing quite as terrifying as having the floor give out beneath your feet!Posted by Cruise Sale Finder on Tuesday, 15 September 2015
The gym was well-equipped and large, and when I went at 8am found that there was plenty of space and spare machines. It was, however, quite difficult to find, even after asking some crew members to point me in the right direction. The entry is through the spa, but this is not signposted.
Serenity, the adults-only retreat, is as lovely as ever, and we had no trouble finding a spot to sunbathe - the covered two-person daybed pods on Deck 10 are also good for those seeking peace, quiet and a bit of romance (not too much romance).
The decor in our balcony cabin was a little dated, but everything was in working order and comfortable, with plenty of space for the two of us to spread out and put things away - the three wardrobe spaces were plentiful, and one even had a full-length mirror hiding inside.
Reclining deck chairs on the balcony provided the perfect spot to watch dolphins playing in the sunset-lit Brisbane River!
Any questions about the Carnival Spirit and her features both new and old? Ask in the comments below or on the Cruise Sale Finder facebook page, and we'll do our best to answer them.