by George Smart
February 12, 2003
A fabulous cruise! The ship: Carnival's refreshing departure from neon and chrome to inlaid wood makes for a new level of affordable and fun elegance. The ports: amazing Central America, especially Belize, should be on everyone's must-see list. The staff: unusually helpful, due in part to leadership by cruise director Amy Van Wyk and a easy-going affable Captain, Pier Paolo Scala.
The first of many changes we noticed (see list below) was the ship's official name on our initial Carnival Caper newsletter. It's now called the DeAz/s Spirit. This stands for Diesel Engine Azipod Ship, a new propulsion technology for greater speed and more efficient fuel use. In addition, there are two stabilizers to make sea trips more steady. Unfortunately during three days of our eight they were broken. We rocked and rolled but not so much that we got sick.
Carnival's Spirit was built in 2001 as a new class prototype. The Carnival Legend and the Costa Atlantica are carbon copies. As usual, most of the crew are from countries such as Croatia, Indonesia, the Phillipines, various former Soviet republics, and Romania. The ship's navigational and engineering staff, including the Captain, are Italian. Social hosts are from the US, Australia, and the UK.
Definitely take a taxi to and from the Miami airport -- it is way cheaper per person and much faster than the Carnival bus. Plus you don't have the long waits for other passengers, their bags, and the chaos involved getting on and off the ship. $18 for a cabful to or from the airport. If you get to Miami the day before, South Beach is a wild night among the pierced, tattooed, chic, barely clothed, and international crowd. Be sure to have breakfast at the News Cafe where movie stars frequently start their day. Although Carnival says embarkation starts at 1:30, get there by 11:30 and you'll be on by 12. Head for lunch on the Lido deck as your room will not be ready until 1:30. To save time, be sure to complete all paperwork before getting to port.
With an adult soda card, get all the soda you want - - a great savings over buying them one by one for $3. The card costs $39/adult for a 8 day cruise. Buy one the first day. We drank 4-6 sodas a day each saving over $100. There are cards for kids, too, at a lower price. The 24/7 pizza/salads/ice cream/yogurt are universal hits. They also serve calzones and chicken caesar salads on request, as well as some nonmainstream but delicious pizza (like goat cheese). Mildly amusing: the daytime pizza guy acts like the "Soup Nazi" on Seinfeld. Stand in the wrong place, ask for the wrong thing - no pizza for you! Dinner in the Empire Dining Room was consistently well-prepared, interesting, well- presented, and delicious. We loved the soups (pumpkin is not to be missed). The very best food and service yet on a Carnival ship.
The Nouveau Supper Club ($25 a person) is Carnival's experiment in "premium" dining. Although skeptical at first, we were won over. The service is impeccable as are the seven courses you'll receive. Be warned, though. Hustle up there FIRST THING to get the time and day you want for that special romantic dinner. Good times sell out quickly. And come hungry - this is not a dining experience for the timid of appetite. A very minor thing - sparkling water offered before the meal is not free, we discovered.
In Belize, the most popular tour in the country is the Cave Tubing (around $85), an astonishing day trip down an underground river. Panama's tours vary between visiting the Canal ($80) and actually going through the locks ($155). We chose the latter and it was well worth it. Costa Rica's port is as yet unimpressive but any tour to the rain forest will be exciting. Panama's port shopping and Free Zone shopping is second only to the deals in St. Maarten (which you won't be visiting on the Western itinerary). Book all your tours IMMEDIATELY upon getting on board.
On the Ship
Our cabin (Panorama 8186) was a treat. Lots of room, as in most Carnival ships, and spotless. Spirit's elevators, toilets, lights, and other systems always worked. Breakfast in the cabin is a wonderful way to wake up. Salmon, bagels, fruit, cereal, coffee, tea, and breads brought to your door starts the day off right. Breakfast is also served up on the Lido deck and in the main restaurant, Empire.
Lunch is standard fare except for the NY Deli which featured delicious reubens and roast beef. Lunch and dinner are on the Lido deck and in both restaurants. You'll wait 5-10 minutes at most stations. At dinner, all the fun flaming desserts (Cherries Jubilee, Baked Alaska, etc.) are no longer served "hot" due to past accidents (glad we weren't at those tables!). Best value? The wine markup is much less than landside restaurants. You can get many good ones (try the Chateau St Michelle) for under $20.
The most romantic spot is up by the mid-ship white navigational "ball". Hike up there late on a moonlight night and have a nearly 360 view of the ship and ocean. There are hot tubs everywhere. The "adults only" tub aft always had a kid in it during the day. The spa tub had no kids and was almost always empty. Despite Carnival's rules, people still save chairs on deck -- which irritates us no end. Get on deck by 9am if you want a chair near the pool.
The gym/spa features workout machines everywhere, a hot tub, separate wet and dry saunas for men and women, an aerobics studio on the second level (it's that big!), massage rooms, a hair salon, and locker rooms with five-head showers (gotta do these at least once). Want to indulge cheaply? Try the mind-numbing (in a good way) 45-minute Indian Scalp Massage in port or the last day when it's on sale for $44.
Carnival "taxes" your shipboard Sign and Sail card $10 per person per day for tips which be changed at the purser's desk. The Maitre'd has to be tipped separately. Ours did nothing special. He primarily made announcements and introduced the wait staff entertainment (which had us on our feet, especially the new "Ketchup Song" and the venerable "Macarena").
Cruise Director Amy Van Wyk should be on Broadway not on a mere cruise ship. She has a stunning stage presence singing and dancing, having started as a Carnival dancer since the early 90's. Amy became a CD in the last year, first on the Imagination. In the role of performer she's a pure knockout. In the role of emcee, however, loosening up would really help her natural charm come to the surface. The over-gestures and big winks that make her performances so compelling look artificial when just chatting from stage. Her recommendations for a happy cruise? Bring a pair of old shoes you can get dirty on excursions, book your special events early, and read the fine print. Carnival will not trick you (we found them to be very forthright) but there are policies and rules for everything, especially refunds.
Amy and asst CD Skippy from Australia do an informative "morning show" on TV each day. This innovative program, the only one in the fleet, gives timely data on the day's events, ports, changes, and charges. Watching will save you time calling the Purser's office with questions they've heard a zillion times before.
Finally, we loved the big band Spirit Orchestra and encourage Amy to have them play outside a few times for dancing on deck!
Not So Great
The waterslide is fun for kids but DANGEROUS for adult males. George was one of many guys who hit their heads in the last curve on the way down. Almost knocked him out. Carnival should have this slide open only for those under 130 pounds.
Stupid reached new heights during the Farewell Show. Its stars, the aptly-named Village Idiots, should have been thrown off the ship in the first five minutes.
At the casino, there is no easy money. You only choose how much to donate. Play Bingo the last day for the free cruise - otherwise unless you're bored Bingo is a waste of money. There are also Scratch-off Lotto cards for a buck. Carnival makes a mint on these. We NEVER heard of anyone winning.
At the Captain's Welcome, you don't get your picture taken with him unless you take it yourself. You'll only shake his hand if you happen to be in line when he is, which is only for about half an hour.
At the Asian Station (Lido deck), the sushi is either overcooked or vegetarian. Although this "saves" us from the perils of eating raw fish, this sushi was awful, truly awful. We heard from others that the Nouveau Supper Club's sushi was the real thing and quite good.
The Photo staff is talented and friendly but overworked due to their crazy scheduling. Let 'em sleep, Carnival!
Haven't Been on a Fun Ship in a While? There are many changes:
1. Wired? Fees for using the Internet are cheaper
by 25% from a year ago.
Spirit alternates W and S Caribbean during the winter then goes to Alaska in the summer. Spring and Fall each feature a 16-day Panama Canal transit between San Diego and Miami. Hellos to Mike and Meg from Washington, first time cruisers who have caught the fever and will be back again!
To see all our reviews, visit www.strategicdevelopment.com/travel. Happy Cruising!