real life

TRAVEL: The lowdown on cruising the high seas.

Kate feeling cruisey

TRAVEL: Before March, my knowledge of cruises had been gleaned entirely from the ‘70s TV series The Love Boat.

Captain Stubing, Julie McCoy and the rest of the crew taught me everything I needed to know: cruises are for couples whose relationships were on the rocks, people with terminal illnesses and families with small sons called Bobby (or possibly Timmy) with bowl haircuts wearing polo shirts and chinos.

More recently I’ve gathered that cruises are also popular among time-rich, cashed-up baby boomers, and schoolies drinking flaming jelly shots from each others’ navels.

Because of this, I could happily have lived my life without ever setting foot on a cruise ship.

But then, I was invited by Carnival Cruises to test-sail the Carnival ‘Spirit’ on a 5 day cruise from San Diego to Mexico – down the Baja Penninusla to Cabo San Luca and back again. Tough gig I know, but someone had to do it. This would be one of the ship’s last cruises in American waters. Carnival Spirit is being brought to Australia to sail the South Pacific out of Sydney from October.

This is one big ship. NOTE – Never, ever refer to a cruise liner as a ‘boat’.  Especially when dining at the captain’s table; it’s nautical faux pas number one.

Spirit accommodates some 2,500 guests and about 900 staff. She boasts ten decks, three swimming pools, two waterslides, 16 bars and I reckon if you laid the corridors end to end you could walk from Sydney to Vanuatu with a side trip to Fiji.

Carnival Spirit anchored off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

A cruise ship is a giant, floating resort hotel. This one looks like Vegas-At-Sea. Not a bad thing once your eyesight returns after the visual assault of the chandeliers, ornate carpets, and Sistine Chapel style painted ceilings. It’s all a bit over the top (and I’ve been to actual Vegas three times) but it does make you feel like you’re on holiday. Which is, after all, the point.

It might seem odd to be surrounded by Tiffany lamps and flock wallpaper when you’re cruising tropical islands, but with a perfectly made Pina Colada in your hand, it makes weirdly perfect sense.

Here’s my rundown of what you need to know about cruising aboard Carnival Spirit:

Staterooms. ‘Cabin,’ like ‘boat,’ is an unutterable word aboard a cruise ship. No matter how modest, it’s a stateroom. Mine was way up on Deck 7, close to the bow. It was elegant, quiet and the bathroom was roomier as roomy as a good hotel’s. A veranda is well worth paying for. For families, there are interconnecting staterooms with shared lounges and wraparound verandas. All staterooms are made up twice a day and every evening there’s an animal fashioned from a towel on your bed. These are something of a company signature and it’s sweet. Except for the night my towel monkey was hanging from a curtain rod, like a ninja. It scared the bejesus out of me.

No, you can't take the towel animals home

Fun & Games. If all you want is to lie on a quiet beach, you need a quiet beach, not a cruise ship. But – if you want to dress up and dance, dress down and lie in the sun, have your margaritas delivered, see a show, meet people, play roulette, enjoy a lime ginger salt scrub in a spa, then go on a waterslide – and only unpack once, then a cruise might be for you.  The cruise director is Sydneysider Stu. He’s like Julie McCoy from The Love Boat but with popeye-like forearms and no curls. He’s  brilliant at his job, pulling together an amazing program of activities and entertainment. Despite my early resistance (I’m not normally a group activity kind of girl)  I got right into ‘Stu’s Dance Party,’ along with college students on Spring Break, retirees from Nevada and 7 year olds from the kids’ club. It was hilarious. I wished my kids were there.

All systems go in 'Green Thunder' - the bigest waterslide afloat.

Importantly, Carnival Spirit boasts the biggest water-slide aboard any ship anywhere in the world. You stand in a capsule at the top and the floor disappears from under you. Excellent fun in a terrifying kind of way.

Kids. For families that like to be busy, Spirit is heaven on earth, sorry … sea. The ship has three kids’ clubs. That means 12 year olds won’t be finger-painting with the toddlers. There’s a great mix of outdoor activities and indoor fun and at night there are kids’ discos and movie nights – so parents can enjoy a meal without chips and with unbroken conversation.

Serenity. The best part of this ship, (for me anyway), was the ‘Serenity Deck’ No kids. Private bar. Roomy lounges. I sipped wine, finished a novel (reading it, not writing it) and spotted whales.

Food. This is a biggie when it comes to cruises. There were lots of options some better than others. Most people tended to go for the all-you-can-eat buffet. And they would go and go and go. There was pizza and ice cream available 24 hours a day.  It’s perfect when you want to refuel and get back to the dancefloor / sundeck/ bar/ casino …

The Chefs table on the disco floor. Get down and eat.

A more refined place to eat is the ‘Empire’ restaurant where you can order from a menu. The tables were beautifully set, and the food is elegant and delicious if not overly innovative. It’s a calmer place to eat. There are fancier options too – for an extra charge you can eat at the chef’s table which offers a degustation menu which, while not quite Tetsuya’s, it’s certainly in the same neighbourhood.

Wherever I ate, the service was friendly and fast. Service American style. Customer is king. I’m assured this won’t change when the ship relocates to Sydney. Most of the crew are staying with the ship.

Drinks. Alcohol and soft drinks aren’t included in your cruise (filtered water, juice, tea and filter coffee are part of the deal). But drinks prices weren’t outrageous – about the same as you’d pay in a pub or RSL. When you’re on a cruise, at some point you must have a cocktail served in a pineapple.

I had a great time aboard Carnival Spirit. And not just because I was a guest of the cruise line. It was relaxing and fun in equal measure. Many of the people I spoke to were on their third, fourth, fifth cruise. Many were family groups comprising three generations.

A cruise really does offer something for everyone – plus a waterslide and a serenity deck.

I travelled as a guest of Carnival Cruise Lines. You can find out more about Carnival Spirit, itineraries and prices here. Cruises out of Sydney begin in October.

How do you feel about cruising? I’ve only been on this one but happy to answer what I can …

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