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Cruise Ship Review

Carnival Spirit - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Working off the name Spirit, legendary Carnival designer Joe Farcus got inspired to celebrate the "creative spirit" on this ship by serving up what looks to us like every design style he could think of. So as you go from one public area to another, you can bask in the glory of Gothic, the grace of Art Deco, the exotic ambience of Chinese, the thrill of Egyptian and so on. Carnival Spirit, which introduced a whole new class for Carnival (its sister ships are Carnival Legend, Carnival Pride and Carnival Miracle), shares its basic design with Costa Atlantica and offers all the best of earlier Carnival vessels -- a water slide, numerous bars, extensive children's facilities. It also introduced some firsts for Carnival: a fabulous supper club and a wedding chapel. Here are some of our favorite onboard offerings:

Nouveau Supper Club. Look up the ship's soaring nine-deck atrium and you'll see a striking red stained glass dome. That's part of the fine alternative dining venue on top of the Spirit -- and tops with us. The service charge of $30 per person is worth every penny.

The Wedding Chapel. This light-wood paneled space with its angel fresco feels important and it should. Real weddings are conducted here by the ship's captain when Carnival Spirit is in Canadian waters (he is even authorized to marry same-sex couples). It's also the venue for vow renewals.

The Gym. Even those who are not exercise nuts will appreciate this facility, tiered like a Roman amphitheater so that you get a view of the ocean from every piece of state-of-the-art equipment. If heavy sweating is not your thing, sit in the hot tub in the center of the gym and enjoy watching other people pump it up.

Carnival Spirit feels large, but not particularly crowded, and despite a plethora of rooms it's fairly easy to find your way around. It would be near to impossible to be bored on this vessel -- in fact, you'd have to make a big effort to hit all the bars and lounges. Our very favorite hangout spot on a recent sailing was the Deco Bar, a comfy corner near the disco. You can smoke cigars at the Deco, and a jazz trio plays nightly -- plus, they make a mean martini. We even caught the captain hanging out here one night.

Dining

The 1,300-seat, two-deck Empire dining room is done up in Napoleonic splendor, the ceiling domes painted with murals and hung with crystal chandeliers. Even the large portholes are trimmed in gold and the grand circular staircase decorated with a sculpture of Napoleon at his coronation. Flanking the entrances are pilasters in the form of female statues. You'll either love it or find it over the top (it grew on us). Two dinner seatings are featured (6 and 8:15 p.m.). There are tables for two, four and six, and fewer than usual for eight or more (intimacy was obviously the goal here). The food was good to excellent (try the duck and on Alaska cruises go for the fresh salmon) and service was friendly, although not necessarily sharp. Suggestion: Get a seat near the glass rail on the second tier and you can spy on your fellow passengers below. Breakfast and lunch are also served in the dining room for those who want waiter service (if ribs are on the menu go for it -- they're yummy).

The reservations-only, 156-seat Nouveau Supper Club, at the top of the ship, features aged USDA prime beef including a 14-ounce New York strip, an 18-ounce classic porterhouse, an 18-ounce prime rib and a 9-ounce filet mignon, plus other dishes, for a service fee of $30 per person. The service and experience are fantastic (although the space feels a tad cavernous for such an intimate experience) and couples who choose can hit the dance floor to the music performed by a live duo. For another $29 you can even get an order of caviar. Expect dinner here to be your nighttime entertainment (it takes several luxurious hours).

The two-level La Playa Grill is a casual alternative for buffet-style breakfasts and lunches. The international food station at lunch features a different cuisine each day including Japanese and Indian, and there's also a daily deli station and rotisserie; breakfast includes a made-to-order omelet station. At night, the offering is a no-fee Seaview Bistro, perfect for those who want a quick bite without the formality of the dining room. The pizzeria is open 24 hours a day (and the Caesar salad here is excellent). For late-night munchies there is the midnight buffet, and complimentary 24-hour room service is also available (from a limited menu).

Public Rooms

Carnival Spirit's Artists Lobby is the main hub of the vessel, decorated in Art Deco style with lots of color, gigantic murals of soaring spirits and famous art icons (a little Monet here, a little Gauguin there), rich wood, dark antique copper accents, two grand staircases, a bar with a dance floor, and the information and tour desks.

From there, walking from one public room to another feels a bit like going on a trip around the world. Egypt is in the show lounge. England is in the Chippendale Library, which features a mural of an English garden overlooking a traditional secretary and bookcases mounted on desks that hold 12 computer terminals offering Internet access (basic charge is 75 cents a minute, though packages are available offering savings for heavy users). France is in the Empire Room, and China is in the Shanghai Bar -- the ship's piano bar, done in a "Chinoise" style with walls covered in Chinese fabric and silk screens illuminated from behind. How fun is that? Loads. Love it or hate it, "wow" will be heard on this vessel.

With most of the public spaces located on two lower decks, passenger flow is excellent -- the public rooms are connected by a two-level promenade with a grand staircase leading from one level to the other. Other neat spaces include the two-deck disco done up in funky Gothic. On Alaska cruises, the captain can conduct weddings in the pretty Wedding Chapel (including for same sex couples) as long as the ship is in Canadian waters. Vow renewal ceremonies are also offered. Shoppers will enjoy the ship's large arcade, designed to look like an airport duty-free with separate areas for perfume, $10 bargains, fine jewelry and so forth. Elsewhere are five self-service launderettes (a wash is $1, a dry is $1; soap and softener are 50 cents each).

Cabins

About 80 percent of the cabins are outside, and of those, 80 percent (624 cabins) offer balconies and a sitting area. All cabins feature attractive decor in pleasant, if a bit bland, earth tones; twin beds that convert to a king; color televisions showing first-run movies (for a fee of $8.99), a safe, a separate vanity area, a hairdryer and a phone.

A standard inside or outside cabin measures a decent 185 square ft. Suites (Categories 11 and 12) include separate dressing and sitting areas, a refrigerator, double sinks and a bathtub in the bathroom, and large balconies. Good design and soft lighting add to a feeling of spaciousness in interior staterooms (Category 4). Category 5A staterooms with French doors have obstructed views.

Entertainment

Carnival's nightlife is legendary, and if you come aboard ready to party, you will not be disappointed (but don't expect a big nighttime crowd on Alaska sailings when many passengers are so exhausted from shore excursions they go to bed early). The ship has 16 lounges and bars to suit every mood. The three-level Pharaoh's Palace, decorated with hieroglyphics, 20-ft. tall stone figures and sarcophagi inspired by the golden one of King Tut, sets the scene for Vegas-style revues. Seating is in comfortable high-back theater chairs.

The joint is also jumping at the Louis XIV Casino featuring 220 slots and tables for roulette/dice (1), blackjack (10) and poker (2). There are sing-alongs in the Shanghai Piano Bar, smooth jazz in Club Cool and disco in Dancin' (a two-tiered dance club with a two-story 20-by-20-ft. video wall with 48-inch monitors). The Champions sports bar offers big-screen televisions for catching the big games. You can sip a cappuccino and people-watch in the Fountain Cafe on the promenade. You can smoke cigars and listen to decent jazz in the comfy Deco Bar. And for late-night entertainment, musical and comedy acts are presented in the Versailles Lounge.

Fitness and Recreation

The Grecian-inspired, Steiner-operated Nautica Spa incorporates Doric columns and hand-painted murals featuring a Greek vase motif and depictions of Olympic events. The two-level, 13,700-square-ft. oceanview facility, located forward on Decks 9 and 10, offers sauna, steam, beauty salon, one whirlpool (within the gym; there are four others aboard) and 10 treatment rooms for European-style therapies including Aroma Stone (using heated, scented oils and warm basalt stones). The decently sized aerobics room is mirrored so you can watch yourself sweat, and the gym, one of our favorites at sea, features a tiered design so from every piece of equipment you get ocean views.

The equipment includes 10 Quinton treadmills, 4 Stairmaster stair climbers, an assortment of Life Fitness cycles and elliptical machines, Keiser progressive resistance machines, and free weights. There's a jogging track (15 times around equals a mile) and three swimming pools, one of which is covered by a retractable dome for all-weather use (key in Alaska where it can be chilly). Kids get a separate splash pool and the young -- and young at heart -- can enjoy a spiral water slide. The ship offers a lot of open deck space for outdoor sunning as well.

Family

The line's complimentary Camp Carnival program with activities for children ages 2 to 15 has its own "Fun House," a 2,400-square-ft. enclosed play area. Themed to the bottom of the sea, it has three areas connected by tunnels -- one area for crafts, a second one for computer games and a third one for games -- plus a video wall for movies and cartoons. One deck below is an arcade with video games and virtual reality games. An outdoor play area offers mini-basketball, jungle gyms and other playground equipment.

A children's wading pool and a corkscrew water slide are among the opportunities for kids to make a splash. Supervised activities are featured morning 'til night. Special on Alaska cruises are activities like creating totem poles and special kids-only lectures by naturalists discussing the region's sea, animal and plant life. Children's menus are featured in the main dining room and kids can dine with the counselors on Lido Deck one night each cruise. A Fountain Fun card, good for unlimited soft drinks, costs $19.95 for seven-day voyages. Babysitting is available from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. at the Fun House ($6 for the first child and $4 for each additional child in the same family).

Fellow Passengers

A broad crisscross of (mostly) middle America; the Alaska cruises attract an older, less party-hearty crowd than the line's Caribbean cruises, with most passengers over 50 (there are more under 50's on tropical sailings).

Dress Code

For one or two nights, a dark suit or formal attire is suggested -- with most men opting for suits. The dress code for the rest of the evenings ranges from sport coat and tie to resort wear. For Alaska, layers, comfortable walking shoes and rain gear are recommended.

Gratuity

Tips of $10 per person, per day are added to your shipboard account. A 15 percent gratuity is added to bar bills.

--by Fran Wenograd Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and destination-oriented port profiles, is the travel editor of the Boston Herald and also co-author of Frommer's Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call and Frommer's Europe Cruises & Ports of Call. Simply walking around Carnival Spirit is like taking a trip around the world. Legendary Carnival designer Joe Farcus got inspired to celebrate the "creative spirit" on this ship by serving up what looks to us like every design style he could think of. The show lounge is decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics and murals, the piano bar is an homage to Shanghai and "Chinoise" style, the Artist's Lobby highlights famed European artists, the Supper Club vibrates with the bright colors of art deco, the Chippendale library is straight out of an English country manor and the Empire Dining Room is so French, it sports a statue of Napoleon. The hodgepodge of styles can be initially overwhelming; I remarked during our first exploration of the ship that the casino was comparatively "sedate" because despite the flashing lights and dinging bells, the room wasn't done up as a Swiss alpine lodge or a Mayan temple. But I realized that once I started focusing on the activities in each room -- the dancers onstage at the show lounge or the food on the table in La Playa Grille -- the decor faded into the background. It became the exuberant backdrop that highlighted how we were now in a new place, one more fun and whimsical than our daily life.

Depending on what time of year you travel, that new place will either be Alaska, Hawaii or Mexico. Carnival Spirit is based on the West Coast, sailing Alaska cruises in the summer out of Seattle and Mexico cruises in the winter out of San Diego. In between sailing seasons, they sneak in a visit to Hawaii. The ship, which introduced a whole new class for Carnival (its sister ships are Carnival Legend, Carnival Pride and Carnival Miracle), shares its basic design with Costa Atlantica and offers all the best of earlier Carnival vessels -- a waterslide, numerous bars and extensive children's facilities. It also introduced some firsts for Carnival that have since become standards, including a fabulous supper club and a wedding chapel. Though the ship was built in 2001, a 2009 dry-dock refurbishment has updated the carpeting and soft goods. All the cabins were already outfitted with the aptly named Carnival Comfort Bed -- the ship does not feel dated at all.

Here are some of our favorite onboard offerings:

Nouveau Supper Club. Look up the ship's soaring nine-deck atrium and you'll see a striking red stained glass dome. That's part of the fine alternative dining venue on top of the Spirit -- you'll need to pay a service charge of $30 per person to get in, but it's worth every penny. Many lines brag about bringing luxury elements to the mainstream cruise experience, but Carnival nails it with the food and service at the supper club. From the first presentation of the cuts of meat available on that night's menu through to the exquisitely designed (and diet-murdering) desserts, I was convinced I was dining in some exclusive, five-star restaurant -- and I was the celebrity VIP.

The Wedding Chapel. This light, wood-paneled space with its angel fresco feels important and it should. Real weddings are conducted here by the ship's captain when Carnival Spirit is in Canadian waters (he is even authorized to marry same-sex couples). It's also the venue for vow renewals. The Hotel Director told me at least one wedding takes place per cruise, and sure enough, we passed by a wedding reception in Club Cool on embarkation day. The captain is the most popular wedding officiant onboard -- other senior staff members like the hotel and cruise directors are usually licensed as well, but the hotel director bemoaned that in all his years of cruising, he'd never been allowed to conduct a wedding onboard.

The Gym. Most cruise ship fitness centers look to the same to me, but Carnival Spirit's gym is an original, tiered like a Roman amphitheater so that you get a view of the ocean from every piece of its state-of-the-art equipment. While the arrangement is attractive and unique, you've got to be pretty self-confident in your spandex and sweats to work out here. The tiered layout means that from your position on the elliptical trainer, you may be staring directly at the stairclimbers across the room, and the runners on the treadmill are looking down on everyone. But the people having the last laugh are the happy soakers enjoying the hot tub that's positioned smack-dab in the center of the gym (it's also the waiting area for passengers about to have a spa treatment). I stuck to the elliptical machines at the base of the stairs, which are slightly more tucked away.

Carnival Spirit feels large, but not particularly crowded, and despite a plethora of rooms it's fairly easy to find your way around. The public areas are mostly contained on Decks 2 and 3 and then up and outside on Decks 9 and 10. Once we figured out that the restaurant is aft and the show lounge is forward, we could plot out the most efficient way to get anywhere we were going. Typically that meant determining whether the casino on Deck 2 would be extra crowded, which would slow you down right in the one of the few places where smoking is allowed onboard, or whether it would be prime shopping time so getting past the shops and photo gallery on Deck 3 would be an obstacle course.

With any Carnival ship, you have to understand what you're getting. Cruise travelers looking for lots of enrichment or destination-based programming, or those looking for a wide variety of athletic pursuits onboard, won't find what they're looking for on Carnival Spirit. Education just isn't the goal here. And while I expect Carnival crewmembers to be friendly and to do their jobs well, I'm not expecting to be bowled over by white-glove service. That said, I found the dining room to be appallingly slow with overly long waits between courses (I often found myself waiting for my dish to arrive, even when everyone else at the table had that course served).

What the ship is designed for is having a good time, whether that be socializing over a drink or two, getting into the campy spirit of pool games, enjoying a song-and-dance show, or slipping and splashing down a two-deck waterslide. I was not the only adult climbing the stairs time and again for just one more ride down the waterslide, and giggling like a schoolgirl when the water went up my nose. Nor was I the only one who found an excuse to get up and dance, in the disco, in the atrium, out on deck or even in the dining room. From families with young children to senior couples, this ship caters to everyone -- everyone, that is, who's looking to spend their vacation having quite a bit of fun.

Dining

The 1,300-seat, two-deck Empire dining room is done up in Napoleonic splendor, the ceiling domes painted with murals and hung with crystal chandeliers. Even the large portholes are trimmed in gold and the grand circular staircase decorated with a sculpture of Napoleon at his coronation. Flanking the entrances are pilasters in the form of female statues. You'll either love it or find it over the top (it grew on us). Passengers can opt for assigned tables at one of two dinner seatings (6 and 8:15 p.m.), or choose Your Time Dining, with open seating on the starboard side of the upper level anytime from 5:45 to 9:30 p.m. There are tables for two, four and six, and fewer than usual for eight or more (intimacy was obviously the goal here).

Menus consist of starters (appetizers, soups and salads), entrees and desserts, with healthier Spa Carnival choices and always available Carnival Classics dishes like Caesar salad, French fries, broiled fillet of mahi mahi, grilled chicken breast and steak. Vegetarian items are always on the menu, but aren't marked; be warned that the hot soups are typically made with chicken broth. Food quality ranged from mediocre to excellent, and my table especially enjoyed the lamb, the Indian vegetarian dinner and the blackened tilapia. On Alaska cruises go for the fresh salmon. We did have to send back a particularly inedible piece of prime rib on the last night, but that was an anomaly.

The waiters are extremely friendly and do the usual Carnival song-and-dance numbers on select evenings, including an energetic rendition of the theme song from "Slum Dog Millionaire" complete with Bollywood-inspired dance moves and a poignant version of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" with new lyrics, requesting our return to a Fun Ship cruise. But despite our waiters chatting and joking with us over our dinner choices and plans for the evening, the actual service at our table was spotty. One diner out of six was often waiting for a late-coming appetizer to arrive after the others had been served, and long waits between courses were frequent. However, as we were usually among the last diners left in the dining room, it's clear that service was better at other tables.

Breakfast and lunch are also served in the dining room for those who want waiter service (through lunch service may not be available on all port days). Couples will typically be seated with another party. The breakfast menu had all the standards without much innovation, but at better quality than in the Lido buffet. If ribs are on the lunch menu, go for it -- they're yummy.

The reservations-only, 156-seat Nouveau Supper Club, at the top of the ship, features aged USDA prime beef including a 14-ounce New York strip, a 24-ounce classic porterhouse, an 18-ounce prime rib and a 9-ounce filet mignon, plus other dishes, for a service fee of $30 per person. If you appreciate great food and service, the experience is a must and definitely worth the price. The service is on a par with luxury lines. We particularly appreciated the sweet hostess who remembered us from embarkation day, the sommelier who walked us through the wine menu and helped us choose the perfect wine, and our waiter, who was friendly and attentive and even brought out the chef to answer our questions.

And the food was so delicious that we kept reminiscing about it throughout the rest of the cruise and comparing the meal to fancy land-based restaurants we'd dined at on special occasions. The cuts of meat are plump and juicy and attractively decorated with sprigs of rosemary. Vegetarians should not be worried by the steakhouse moniker, as the vegetarian mushroom and asparagus strudel is a fantasy of cheese, pastry and vegetables, all artfully arranged on the plate and pleasing on the palate. Dessert is whimsical and rich, with cheesecake in the shape of a star and a quartet of chocolate desserts linked by chocolate ribbons.

Expect dinner here to be your nighttime entertainment (it takes several luxurious hours). Carnival is, however, phasing out the music-and-dancing aspect of the restaurant, and changing the supper clubs into steakhouses (the large dance floor with bandstand will be changed into an additional seating area). In my opinion, it's a move for the best, as the loud music can make it difficult to carry on a conversation with your tablemates.

La Playa Grill is the casual alternative for buffet-style breakfasts and lunches. The buffet is arranged in stations, to create better passenger flow and reduce long queues. At lunch, you'll find an international "Taste of the Nations" food station featuring a different cuisine each day like Japanese or Indian (our favorite nation was chocolate!); an all-Asian buffet line; made-to-order deli sandwiches; a rotisserie; a disappointing salad bar with the occasional limp lettuce and soggy veggies and a general lack of options; and a dessert bar (offering cupcakes every day, something I'd never seen before). Breakfast includes a made-to-order omelet station, in addition to typical breakfast pastries, fruits, cereals and hot items like pancakes and bacon. A pizzeria is open 24 hours a day (and the Caesar salad here is excellent), and a small outpost of the Fountains Cafe serves up specialty coffees for a fee. A grill by the pool offers hamburgers, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches and tenders, and French fries from noon to 6 p.m. Both ice cream and frozen yogurt self-serve machines are stationed fore and aft of the Playa Grill (look out for afternoon sundae bars when fun ice cream toppings are available).

At night, one section of the buffet is open as the Seaview Bistro, a no-fee casual dining option perfect for those who want a quick bite without the formality of the dining room. There's typically one hot line with a carving station, salad bar and dessert bar. You'll find some repeats from that evening's main dining room menu, and other dishes prepared specially for the Lido buffet.

For late-night munchies there is the "late night bistro" from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.

The Fountain Cafe coffee shop serves specialty drinks (from $1 for tea to $3.50 for large cappuccinos and lattes), milkshakes ($3.95) and sweets like cakes, cookies and chocolate-covered strawberries ($1.25 to $4).

Afternoon tea is served in the Artists' Lobby. Waiters come around with hot water, your choice of teas, and a cart with scones, pastries and finger sandwiches. The treats vary in quality (go for the scones, avoid the chocolate macaroons) and the tables are too small for pots of tea (they're pretty crowded with the tea cups and dessert plates), but it's a delightful way to pass an hour in the afternoon. Just be prepared for the sugar rush that is bound to follow.

From 5 to 8:15 p.m., a complimentary sushi bar is set up next to the Fountain Cafe. Sake is on offer for $12 a bottle.

Complimentary 24-hour room service is also available from a limited menu of sandwiches, salads and desserts (though you cannot order room service from the dining room menu). Full stateroom bar service is available from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. at bar prices. Continental breakfast can be delivered to your cabin, if you hang the order form on your door before 5 a.m. Basic choices include fruit, cereals, breakfast breads and pastries, yogurt, hot and cold beverages and smoked salmon. You cannot order hot entrees or eggs of any sort.

Public Rooms

Decks 2 and 3 form the hub of the ship with a combination of public areas and bars and lounges. Passenger flow is excellent -- the public rooms are connected by a two-level promenade with a grand staircase leading from one level to the other. At the ground level of the atrium on Deck 2 are the guest services and shore excursions desks. Farther forward on that level, the Monarch's Card Room is often packed with bridge and other game players, while the Fountain Cafe seating area is the spot for trivia and arts and crafts.

Upstairs on Deck 3, the Art Deco Walk combines a seating area with the ship's main shopping boulevard. Heading from fore to aft, the Jungle winter garden is a walkway with seating areas and porthole windows, decorated with jungle animals like giraffes and orangutans. It accesses the stairs leading to the kids' areas one flight up, and is a favorite hangout for teens and tweens. The Wedding Chapel is the location for wedding ceremonies and vow renewals.

Note: On Alaska cruises, the captain and select ship officers can conduct weddings (including for same sex couples) as long as the ship is in Canadian waters.

The Chippendale Library/Internet Café has a small collection of books and 10 computer terminals, as well as a printer and comfy chairs for reading. Internet packages cost $100 for 250 minutes, $55 for 100 minutes or pay as you go at 75 cents a minute. Carnival does not offer any computer education classes.

Continuing along, the Fun Shops on either side of the walkway sell jewelry and watches, makeup, perfume, liquor, Carnival logo wear, resortwear, and sundries. Formalities is a combination candy shop and formalwear rental shop. The photo gallery surrounds the atrium -- photos are priced from $7.99 to $21.99 (based on photo type, not size) and you can add a digital image file to your purchase for an additional $9.99. They also sell cameras, photo frames and scrapbooking materials, or you can print out photos from your own digital camera on special machines, again for a fee. Every evening, a selection of backdrops are available for portrait sittings; the most clever we saw was a background of a Christmas tree and gifts, so you can take your family photo to include on your next holiday cards.

A conference room is located outside the Deco Lounge at the aft end of the deck -- on our cruise it housed the Park West art auction collection.

Five self-service launderettes are located on Deck 1 mid-ship, Deck 4 aft, Deck 5 aft, Deck 6 forward and Deck 7 aft. A wash is $3, a dry is $3, and soap and softener are $1 each. We found that pretty pricey for do-it-yourself laundry, but sending out your laundry is more expensive (a midweek special was $15 for a bag). A medical center is located on Deck A.

Cabins

About 80 percent of the cabins are outside, and of those, 80 percent offer balconies and a sitting area. The 213 inside cabins measure 185 square feet, and are pretty spacious for standard cabins. Outside cabins measure 220 square feet, while balcony cabins are also 185 square feet with balconies measuring another 35, 60 or 75 square feet, depending on category. Standard balconies featured two metal chairs with plastic mesh seating and a small metal table. Obstructed view cabins located behind the lifeboats on Deck 4 (category 4K) have French doors that open to allow light and air, but have no balcony.

All cabins feature attractive decor in pleasant, if a bit bland, earth tones; twin beds that convert to a king; color televisions (not flat-screen) showing Carnival programming, regular TV and both free and pay-per-view movies; a vanity area with drawers, a safe, a hairdryer (in a desk drawer), mini-bar and a phone. Bedside lamps provide enough light to read by. Many cabins have either pullout sofas or pull-down beds from the ceiling. There's one 110V and one 220V plug -- bring an extender for more. Closets provide ample storage space but the hangers are the kind that can't be removed from the rod. Bring your own hangers or ask your steward for more.

Bathrooms come with shower gel and shampoo in dispensers in the shower, as well as bar soap. A samples basket includes trial sizes supplied by various manufacturers that can change from cruise to cruise; we had packets of shampoo and conditioner, toothpaste, Pepcid and razors, but don't depend on the same items being there when you cruise. Bring your own lotion and cottonballs. The shower has a curtain on a curved rod to avoid the clingy curtain syndrome. The shower head is adjustable and a retractable clothesline is perfect for hanging up wet bathing suits. There's plenty of shelf space in the bathroom for storing toiletries.

Carnival has never emphasized the uber-suites that some big ship lines have embraced but there are options for more spacious accommodations. Suites measure 275 square feet with 65 square foot balconies, and Penthouse Suites measure 345 square feet with 85-square-foot balconies. Suites include separate dressing and sitting areas, double sinks and a bathtub in the bathroom, and large balconies with lounge chairs in addition to the regular chairs and table.

Editor's note: Cabins with connecting doors tend to be noisier, regardless of whether you have the connecting door open or not.

Entertainment

Carnival's nightlife is legendary, and if you come aboard ready to party, you will not be disappointed (though don't expect a big nighttime crowd on Alaska sailings when many passengers are so exhausted from shore excursions they go to bed early). The ship has 12 lounges and bars to suit every mood, many of which feature live music (everything from country to old standards, jazz and modern dance music).The Atrium Bar is at the hub of pre-dinner socializing, and couples would dance to the sounds of the guitarist or saxophonist perched above the bar. We loved to watch them and cheered when an 80-year-old man -- and one of the better dancers in the group -- berated the younger couples for not getting out on the dance floor. The two bars adjacent to the Deck 2 and 3 dining room entrances -- the Artist's Lobby (the backs of the banquettes feature reproductions of art classics from Gauguin, Klimpt and others) and Deco Lounge (done in art deco style) -- are great spots for people-watching to the sounds of jazz, especially on formal nights (we saw everything from Zoot Suits to designer jeans).

The popular Shanghai Bar -- done in a "Chinoise" style with walls covered in Chinese fabric and silk screens illuminated from behind -- is the sing-along piano bar. I've seen more engaging pianists on other Carnival ships (I mean, the guy didn't know how to play the piano bar classic, "Me and Bobby McGee"), but he certainly had his regulars who we saw perched on stools around his piano night after night. Below the Shanghai Bar, in Club Cool, karaoke reigns supreme every evening. Karaoke, too, has a loyal following, with a fairly wide range of talents. However, some of the best performances were done by the staffer in charge of kararoke; she did a spot-on version of Shaggy's "Boombastic" -- her accent was perfect for it -- and a hysterical, over-the-top rendition of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," complete with a dramatic exit out the door to the Fountains Cafe where she sang about her love for milkshakes. The Champions sports bar offers big-screen televisions for catching the big games and doubles as the cigar bar. (The Fantail Bar on the aft pool deck is the place to watch the game during the day.)

The three-level Pharaoh's Palace, decorated with hieroglyphics, 20-foot tall stone figures and sarcophagi inspired by the golden one of King Tut, sets the scene for Vegas-style revues and guest comedians. Seating is in comfortable high-back theater chairs, but bring a wrap or sweater -- they've got the A/C turned way up in there. Song-and-dance shows on my cruise were toe-tapping good fun with lots of energy and songs from the Big Band era and an homage to New Orleans, but not overly innovative with choreography or effects (unlike the Beatles tribute that really wowed me on a previous Carnival Freedom cruise). We enjoyed watching the "prop comedian" escape from a straitjacket and teach a three-year-old kid to juggle, all the while keeping the audience in stitches. We missed the hypnotist due to our long Supper Club dinner, but everyone on the ship was raving about all the crazy things he got audience members to do; one woman was made to forget the number five, while another man answered "yes" to any question asked him.

Day or night, the Louis XIV Casino was always packed with hopeful cruisers trying to win a few bucks. The casino features 220 slots and tables for roulette/dice, blackjack, poker (including Three Card Poker, Let It Ride and Caribbean Stud Diamond) and video poker. Three tables are reserved for blackjack tournaments. The Dancin' Disco is a two-tiered dance club with a two-story 20-by-20-foot video wall with 48-inch monitors and colorful, swirly-design banquettes and drinks tables. Sadly, the disco was pretty empty most nights save for formal nights, which drew a crowd.

We referred to the Deck 1 Versailles Lounge as "Brigadoon" because we didn't even notice it until halfway through the cruise (the stairs down are next to the Deck 2 Pharaoh's Palace entrance) and we could never find any events going on there. It's a whimsical space with walls decorated with fairy tale scenes of village homes and a castle (at night, twinkle lights embedded in the walls look like stars). On the second to last night, we finally found the lounge listed in the Carnival Capers, and enjoyed a cover band that played modern dance music. Although the four band members were all Indonesian, they impressively managed to sound just like the Western musicians they were covering, and all four played instruments and took turns on lead vocals. Try to find it earlier in the cruise because it's a great venue.

During the day, Carnival Spirit focuses on fun in the sun. Passengers can participate in arts and crafts (visor painting, needlepoint), lots of trivia contests, bridge and other games in the card room, silly pool games like the Rubber Chicken Olympics and Men's Hairy Chest Contest, the occasional wine tasting, towel animal making and bingo. The closest thing to an enrichment lecture is the free spa seminars on health, diet and wellness, but that's Carnival's choice. The cruise line's focus is on having a good time and not about an educational vacation. On sunny days, the pool and sun decks are the places to be; on cool days, the casino is hopping.

Shore excursions in Mexico were reasonably priced and ranged from day passes to hotel beaches, kayaking, snorkeling, ATV and jeep rides, and city tours. Choice was greatest in Acapulco, and a little lacking in Manzanillo, where there didn't seem to be that much to see or do. We took one tour in Acapulco, and found the organization of the tours to be lacking. The pier was a chaotic scene of people trying to find the right tour, and we spent quite a bit of time waiting around, not sure what was going on and trying not to accidentally end up on the wrong tour. If you don't want to do an organized tour, the shore excursions staff does not have much information on other options, but you will be bombarded by touts and taxi drivers in every port.

Alaska cruises have a more robust offering of tours, with everything from helicopter and floatplane scenic tours to fishing, dog sledding, whale watching and other wildlife viewing opportunities, and salmon bakes. More active options include kayaking, biking and hiking excursions. The tours are pretty typical for Alaska and are similar to what you'll find on most other cruise lines sailing there.

Fitness and Recreation

The Grecian-inspired, Steiner-operated Spa Carnival incorporates Doric columns and hand-painted murals featuring a Greek vase motif and depictions of Olympic events. The two-level, 13,700-square-foot oceanview facility, located forward on Decks 9 and 10, offers sauna and steam rooms (free) in the men's and women's locker rooms, a beauty salon, a whirlpool in the center of the gym, and 10 treatment rooms for spa therapies ranging from aroma hot stone massages to acupuncture, facials and body wraps. Prices are steep -- $65 for a pedicure, $95 for a man's shave, $155 for a 50-minute hot stone massage -- but look for combo packages and port specials for discounted pricing.

Free fitness classes held in the decently sized aerobics room included stretching, abs workouts, Chinese longevity exercises and boot camp; group cycling classes were held on a couple of days for a $12 fee. The class options were minimal compared with other cruise lines -- no yoga or Pilates, and only two to three fitness classes held each day. The morning stretching class I attended was popular despite the early start time, while the afternoon spinning class I peaked in at only had three participants. Perhaps by the afternoon, people are already ensconced in a sunny spot up on deck or too busy with other activities.

The gym itself features a tiered design so you get ocean views from every piece of equipment. In addition to weight machines and free weights, the fitness center offers stationary and recumbent bikes, elliptical trainers, stair climbers, treadmills and a rowing machine. However, be warned that the steam from the whirlpool does rise, making the temperature on the upper tiers a little warm. I went to work out first thing in the morning on the first sea day and had to wait in line for a spot on a cardio machine (every machine was in use with the exception of a stair-stepper and a recumbent bike). I was told that after a few days, the crowd thins out, but I simply switched my workouts to a later hour. If you've got late-seating dinner, head to the gym at 6 p.m. The only people in there are crewmembers (I saw several dancers and one of the ship's engineers) because they know it won't be crowded.

Nutrition programs and body composition analysis are available for a fee, and the free seminars found on most ships (Secrets to a Flatter Stomach, Eat More to Weigh Less, etc.) are held on Carnival Spirit, as well.

There are two jogging tracks onboard. The longer Deck 10 track is only available for running in the early morning or evening because daytime runners would be doing an obstacle course, hurdling lounge chairs, dodging drinks waiters and racing through photographers snapping pics of their friends at sea. As it is, you'll have to dodge walkers and early-bird sunbathers who take over the deck. Three-and-a-half laps equal a mile. The Deck 11 track at the front of the ship is 14 laps per mile, as you circle the nine-hole mini-golf course and basketball court again and again and again. Wear your seabands so you don't get dizzy! The mini-golf course isn't outfitted with crazy obstacles like windmills or water features, but its top-deck location with all the wind and ship movement make it a more challenging game than you'd expect. Ping pong tables are located on Deck 10 overlooking the pools. A golf simulator on Deck 10 mid-ship lets passengers practice their swings and putts.

Three swimming pools (two mid-ship, one aft), are each flanked by a hot tub and freezing cold showers to wash off the salt water. Sculptures of evil-looking, green birds tower over each pool -- we're really not sure why. One of the mid-ship pools is covered by a retractable dome for all-weather use (key in Alaska where it can be chilly). Plastic lounge chairs with plastic mesh seats are plentiful throughout Decks 9 through 11, but many of them seem to be broken, so be careful when you recline or adjust the back height of the lounger. An adults-only sun deck is located on Deck 11 mid-ship, and the aft hot tub is also reserved for adults only. The Lido Deck stage is the place for poolside music and silly pool games, such as bean bag toss, the Chicken Olympics (a series of games involving rubber chickens) and ice carving.

Kids get a separate splash pool on Deck 11 aft, and the young -- and young at heart -- can enjoy a spiral waterslide. Not making a big enough splash? Try arching your back and keeping your arms glued to your sides (as opposed to crossed over your chest) to pick up more speed.

Family

The line's complimentary Camp Carnival program offers activities for children ages 2 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 11, 12 to 14, and 15 to 17. The "Fun House," a 2,400-square-foot enclosed play area tucked away at the far front of the ship on Deck 5, has two connecting rooms stocked with big-screen TVs for movies or Nintendo Wii play, video game stations, toys and games, and materials for arts and crafts projects. Here, the two to 11 year olds enjoy magic shows, face painting, talent shows, sand art, pizza making and supervised free play -- either together or separated out by age groups. When I visited, the kids had just built and decorated a volcano, which they would make erupt on the final sea day.

Special on Alaska cruises are activities like creating totem poles and special kids-only lectures by naturalists discussing the region's sea, animal and plant life.

Late-night babysitting is available from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. for a fee ($6 for the first child and $4 for each additional child in the same family). Pillows and blankets (and cribs for the littlest tykes) are provided when kids get sleepy.

Accessible only via stairs down from the Fun House or up from the Jungle Walk, the Circle C (12 to 14) hangout is located on Deck 4. The tweens certainly have a real hideaway with this area -- it took me half the cruise to figure out how to get there! The lounge features game consoles and a dance floor, and supervised activities include games like charades and Apple to Apples, themed dance parties, and sports competitions. Next door, a video arcade is open to kids and adults alike, but many adults never find it. Kids have reserved arcade hours when all games are free and no parents are allowed.

The teen lounge is also tricky to find; it's outside the aerobics studio on Deck 10. Club O2, as it's called, also has TV's for movie-watching and video-game play, as well as a dance area and a "mocktail" bar serving up sodas and non-alcoholic smoothies and fruit drinks. Teen activities include movie trivia, Guitar Hero rock-offs, hot tub hangouts and late-night parties.

The almost hidden location of Camp Carnival is fairly unusual; while some cruise ships will try to corral the kids into one section of the ship, I've never needed a detailed map to find the kids' areas. In fact on Carnival Splendor, the teen area is in the main entertainment hub of the ship. On Carnival Spirit, the kids are kept entertained away from the adult venues, so you get the impression that there are fewer kids onboard than there actually are. Plus, the hangouts are so popular that most cruising children are eager to participate in the activities or chill with friends in the clubs, rather than take over hot tubs or lounge in the stairwells. The result is that the arrangement keeps everyone happy, with minimal complaints about rowdy children. That said, the balance may change when there are many more kids onboard.

I was particularly impressed to see how much the kids seemed to be enjoying the program -- as opposed to taking the sneering adolescent approach that the activities weren't cool enough. On one sea day, I came across a group of teens happily playing a word guessing game with the teen counselor in the Jungle Walk, and on another, saw several kids happily playing in the pool with their faces painted like pirates. The head counselor told me that some kids spend eight to 10 hours at Camp Carnival and are pretty happy to be there.

Babies and toddlers ages six months to two years cannot participate in Camp Carnival activities, but do have additional babysitting hours (fees apply) on port days, with hours varying from port to port. On sea days, parents can drop toddlers off from noon to 2 p.m. for a fee, or use the facilities for parent-child playtime for no extra charge. The regular late-night babysitting is available to under-2's as well. Camp Carnival counselors do change diapers.

Kids who are not toilet trained are not technically allowed in the main swimming pools, though we did see a couple of families breaking that rule. A children's wading pool is located on Deck 11 by the waterslide.

Children's menus are featured in the main dining room and kids ages 2 to 11 can dine with the counselors on the Lido Deck most nights. A Fountain Fun card, good for unlimited soft drinks, costs $36.75 for eight-day voyages (adults can also choose a soda package for $50.50).

Fellow Passengers

Passengers represent a broad crisscross of (mostly) middle America. Summer Alaska cruises attract an older, less party-hearty crowd, with most passengers over 50. Fall and winter Mexico cruises attract a more fun-loving, sun-seeking crowd with a larger age range -- a mix of families, young couples and seniors. Because of its itineraries, the ship doesn't get quite as many kids as other Carnival ships. An August Alaska cruise had about 450 under-21's onboard, while my October Mexico cruise had only 160.

Dress Code

Carnival has a pretty laidback dress policy. Most evenings are "Cruise Casual," during which passengers can wear anything from nice jeans and dress shorts to slacks and casual skirts or sundresses. As long as you're not wearing swimwear, workout clothes or a men's sleeveless T-shirt, you won't be turned away. One or two nights per cruise will be designated "Cruise Elegant" -- men are requested to wear at least dress slacks and dress shirts, with the option of a sport coat, suit or tuxedo. Suggested attire for women is cocktail dresses or gowns, or dressy pantsuits or skirts. Most people do seem to dress to the nines on these nights, creating a festive atmosphere as couples and families pose for photos and passengers people-watch in the Atrium Bar and Artist's Lobby.

For daywear in Alaska, layers, comfortable walking shoes and rain gear are recommended. Be prepared for summer days to be warm and sunny or cold and rainy -- the weather can vary dramatically from day to day.

Gratuity

Tips of $10 per person, per day are added to your shipboard account. A 15 percent gratuity is added to bar bills. If you wish to tip the maitre d', an envelope is left for you on the last day.

--Updated by Erica Silverstein, Senior EditorWorking off the name Spirit, legendary Carnival designer Joe Farcus got inspired to celebrate the "creative spirit" on this ship by serving up what looks to us like every design style he could think of. So as you go from one public area to another, you can bask in the glory of Gothic, the grace of Art Deco, the exotic ambience of Chinese, the thrill of Egyptian and so on. Carnival Spirit, which introduced a whole new class for Carnival (its sister ships are Carnival Legend, Carnival Pride and Carnival Miracle), shares its basic design with Costa Atlantica and offers all the best of earlier Carnival vessels -- a water slide, numerous bars, extensive children's facilities. It also introduced some firsts for Carnival: a fabulous supper club and a wedding chapel. Here are some of our favorite onboard offerings:

Nouveau Supper Club. Look up the ship's soaring nine-deck atrium and you'll see a striking red stained glass dome. That's part of the fine alternative dining venue on top of the Spirit -- and tops with us. The service charge of $30 per person is worth every penny.

The Wedding Chapel. This light-wood paneled space with its angel fresco feels important and it should. Real weddings are conducted here by the ship's captain when Carnival Spirit is in Canadian waters (he is even authorized to marry same-sex couples). It's also the venue for vow renewals.

The Gym. Even those who are not exercise nuts will appreciate this facility, tiered like a Roman amphitheater so that you get a view of the ocean from every piece of state-of-the-art equipment. If heavy sweating is not your thing, sit in the hot tub in the center of the gym and enjoy watching other people pump it up.

Carnival Spirit feels large, but not particularly crowded, and despite a plethora of rooms it's fairly easy to find your way around. It would be near to impossible to be bored on this vessel -- in fact, you'd have to make a big effort to hit all the bars and lounges. Our very favorite hangout spot on a recent sailing was the Deco Bar, a comfy corner near the disco. You can smoke cigars at the Deco, and a jazz trio plays nightly -- plus, they make a mean martini. We even caught the captain hanging out here one night.

Dining

The 1,300-seat, two-deck Empire dining room is done up in Napoleonic splendor, the ceiling domes painted with murals and hung with crystal chandeliers. Even the large portholes are trimmed in gold and the grand circular staircase decorated with a sculpture of Napoleon at his coronation. Flanking the entrances are pilasters in the form of female statues. You'll either love it or find it over the top (it grew on us). Two dinner seatings are featured (6 and 8:15 p.m.). There are tables for two, four and six, and fewer than usual for eight or more (intimacy was obviously the goal here). The food was good to excellent (try the duck and on Alaska cruises go for the fresh salmon) and service was friendly, although not necessarily sharp. Suggestion: Get a seat near the glass rail on the second tier and you can spy on your fellow passengers below. Breakfast and lunch are also served in the dining room for those who want waiter service (if ribs are on the menu go for it -- they're yummy).

The reservations-only, 156-seat Nouveau Supper Club, at the top of the ship, features aged USDA prime beef including a 14-ounce New York strip, an 18-ounce classic porterhouse, an 18-ounce prime rib and a 9-ounce filet mignon, plus other dishes, for a service fee of $30 per person. The service and experience are fantastic (although the space feels a tad cavernous for such an intimate experience) and couples who choose can hit the dance floor to the music performed by a live duo. For another $29 you can even get an order of caviar. Expect dinner here to be your nighttime entertainment (it takes several luxurious hours).

The two-level La Playa Grill is a casual alternative for buffet-style breakfasts and lunches. The international food station at lunch features a different cuisine each day including Japanese and Indian, and there's also a daily deli station and rotisserie; breakfast includes a made-to-order omelet station. At night, the offering is a no-fee Seaview Bistro, perfect for those who want a quick bite without the formality of the dining room. The pizzeria is open 24 hours a day (and the Caesar salad here is excellent). For late-night munchies there is the midnight buffet, and complimentary 24-hour room service is also available (from a limited menu).

Public Rooms

Carnival Spirit's Artists Lobby is the main hub of the vessel, decorated in Art Deco style with lots of color, gigantic murals of soaring spirits and famous art icons (a little Monet here, a little Gauguin there), rich wood, dark antique copper accents, two grand staircases, a bar with a dance floor, and the information and tour desks.

From there, walking from one public room to another feels a bit like going on a trip around the world. Egypt is in the show lounge. England is in the Chippendale Library, which features a mural of an English garden overlooking a traditional secretary and bookcases mounted on desks that hold 12 computer terminals offering Internet access (basic charge is 75 cents a minute, though packages are available offering savings for heavy users). France is in the Empire Room, and China is in the Shanghai Bar -- the ship's piano bar, done in a "Chinoise" style with walls covered in Chinese fabric and silk screens illuminated from behind. How fun is that? Loads. Love it or hate it, "wow" will be heard on this vessel.

With most of the public spaces located on two lower decks, passenger flow is excellent -- the public rooms are connected by a two-level promenade with a grand staircase leading from one level to the other. Other neat spaces include the two-deck disco done up in funky Gothic. On Alaska cruises, the captain can conduct weddings in the pretty Wedding Chapel (including for same sex couples) as long as the ship is in Canadian waters. Vow renewal ceremonies are also offered. Shoppers will enjoy the ship's large arcade, designed to look like an airport duty-free with separate areas for perfume, $10 bargains, fine jewelry and so forth. Elsewhere are five self-service launderettes (a wash is $1, a dry is $1; soap and softener are 50 cents each).

Cabins

About 80 percent of the cabins are outside, and of those, 80 percent (624 cabins) offer balconies and a sitting area. All cabins feature attractive decor in pleasant, if a bit bland, earth tones; twin beds that convert to a king; color televisions showing first-run movies (for a fee of $8.99), a safe, a separate vanity area, a hairdryer and a phone.

A standard inside or outside cabin measures a decent 185 square ft. Suites (Categories 11 and 12) include separate dressing and sitting areas, a refrigerator, double sinks and a bathtub in the bathroom, and large balconies. Good design and soft lighting add to a feeling of spaciousness in interior staterooms (Category 4). Category 5A staterooms with French doors have obstructed views.

Entertainment

Carnival's nightlife is legendary, and if you come aboard ready to party, you will not be disappointed (but don't expect a big nighttime crowd on Alaska sailings when many passengers are so exhausted from shore excursions they go to bed early). The ship has 16 lounges and bars to suit every mood. The three-level Pharaoh's Palace, decorated with hieroglyphics, 20-ft. tall stone figures and sarcophagi inspired by the golden one of King Tut, sets the scene for Vegas-style revues. Seating is in comfortable high-back theater chairs.

The joint is also jumping at the Louis XIV Casino featuring 220 slots and tables for roulette/dice (1), blackjack (10) and poker (2). There are sing-alongs in the Shanghai Piano Bar, smooth jazz in Club Cool and disco in Dancin' (a two-tiered dance club with a two-story 20-by-20-ft. video wall with 48-inch monitors). The Champions sports bar offers big-screen televisions for catching the big games. You can sip a cappuccino and people-watch in the Fountain Cafe on the promenade. You can smoke cigars and listen to decent jazz in the comfy Deco Bar. And for late-night entertainment, musical and comedy acts are presented in the Versailles Lounge.

Fitness and Recreation

The Grecian-inspired, Steiner-operated Nautica Spa incorporates Doric columns and hand-painted murals featuring a Greek vase motif and depictions of Olympic events. The two-level, 13,700-square-ft. oceanview facility, located forward on Decks 9 and 10, offers sauna, steam, beauty salon, one whirlpool (within the gym; there are four others aboard) and 10 treatment rooms for European-style therapies including Aroma Stone (using heated, scented oils and warm basalt stones). The decently sized aerobics room is mirrored so you can watch yourself sweat, and the gym, one of our favorites at sea, features a tiered design so from every piece of equipment you get ocean views.

The equipment includes 10 Quinton treadmills, 4 Stairmaster stair climbers, an assortment of Life Fitness cycles and elliptical machines, Keiser progressive resistance machines, and free weights. There's a jogging track (15 times around equals a mile) and three swimming pools, one of which is covered by a retractable dome for all-weather use (key in Alaska where it can be chilly). Kids get a separate splash pool and the young -- and young at heart -- can enjoy a spiral water slide. The ship offers a lot of open deck space for outdoor sunning as well.

Family

The line's complimentary Camp Carnival program with activities for children ages 2 to 15 has its own "Fun House," a 2,400-square-ft. enclosed play area. Themed to the bottom of the sea, it has three areas connected by tunnels -- one area for crafts, a second one for computer games and a third one for games -- plus a video wall for movies and cartoons. One deck below is an arcade with video games and virtual reality games. An outdoor play area offers mini-basketball, jungle gyms and other playground equipment.

A children's wading pool and a corkscrew water slide are among the opportunities for kids to make a splash. Supervised activities are featured morning 'til night. Special on Alaska cruises are activities like creating totem poles and special kids-only lectures by naturalists discussing the region's sea, animal and plant life. Children's menus are featured in the main dining room and kids can dine with the counselors on Lido Deck one night each cruise. A Fountain Fun card, good for unlimited soft drinks, costs $19.95 for seven-day voyages. Babysitting is available from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. at the Fun House ($6 for the first child and $4 for each additional child in the same family).

Fellow Passengers

A broad crisscross of (mostly) middle America; the Alaska cruises attract an older, less party-hearty crowd than the line's Caribbean cruises, with most passengers over 50 (there are more under 50's on tropical sailings).

Dress Code

For one or two nights, a dark suit or formal attire is suggested -- with most men opting for suits. The dress code for the rest of the evenings ranges from sport coat and tie to resort wear. For Alaska, layers, comfortable walking shoes and rain gear are recommended.

Gratuity

Tips of $10 per person, per day are added to your shipboard account. A 15 percent gratuity is added to bar bills.

--by Fran Wenograd Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and destination-oriented port profiles, is the travel editor of the Boston Herald and also co-author of Frommer's Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call and Frommer's Europe Cruises & Ports of Call. Simply walking around Carnival Spirit is like taking a trip around the world. Legendary Carnival designer Joe Farcus got inspired to celebrate the "creative spirit" on this ship by serving up what looks to us like every design style he could think of. The show lounge is decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics and murals, the piano bar is an homage to Shanghai and "Chinoise" style, the Artist's Lobby highlights famed European artists, the Supper Club vibrates with the bright colors of art deco, the Chippendale library is straight out of an English country manor and the Empire Dining Room is so French, it sports a statue of Napoleon. The hodgepodge of styles can be initially overwhelming; I remarked during our first exploration of the ship that the casino was comparatively "sedate" because despite the flashing lights and dinging bells, the room wasn't done up as a Swiss alpine lodge or a Mayan temple. But I realized that once I started focusing on the activities in each room -- the dancers onstage at the show lounge or the food on the table in La Playa Grille -- the decor faded into the background. It became the exuberant backdrop that highlighted how we were now in a new place, one more fun and whimsical than our daily life.

Depending on what time of year you travel, that new place will either be Alaska, Hawaii or Mexico. Carnival Spirit is based on the West Coast, sailing Alaska cruises in the summer out of Seattle and Mexico cruises in the winter out of San Diego. In between sailing seasons, they sneak in a visit to Hawaii. Editor's note: Come October 2012, Carnival Spirit will be redeployed to Australia

The ship, which introduced a whole new class for Carnival (its sister ships are Carnival Legend, Carnival Pride and Carnival Miracle), shares its basic design with Costa Atlantica and offers all the best of earlier Carnival vessels -- a waterslide, numerous bars and extensive children's facilities. It also introduced some firsts for Carnival that have since become standards, including a fabulous supper club and a wedding chapel. Though the ship was built in 2001, a 2009 dry-dock refurbishment has updated the carpeting and soft goods. All the cabins were already outfitted with the aptly named Carnival Comfort Bed -- the ship does not feel dated at all.

Here are some of our favorite onboard offerings:

Nouveau Supper Club. Look up the ship's soaring nine-deck atrium and you'll see a striking red stained glass dome. That's part of the fine alternative dining venue on top of the Spirit -- you'll need to pay a service charge of $30 per person to get in, but it's worth every penny. Many lines brag about bringing luxury elements to the mainstream cruise experience, but Carnival nails it with the food and service at the supper club. From the first presentation of the cuts of meat available on that night's menu through to the exquisitely designed (and diet-murdering) desserts, I was convinced I was dining in some exclusive, five-star restaurant -- and I was the celebrity VIP.

The Wedding Chapel. This light, wood-paneled space with its angel fresco feels important and it should. Real weddings are conducted here by the ship's captain when Carnival Spirit is in Canadian waters (he is even authorized to marry same-sex couples). It's also the venue for vow renewals. The Hotel Director told me at least one wedding takes place per cruise, and sure enough, we passed by a wedding reception in Club Cool on embarkation day. The captain is the most popular wedding officiant onboard -- other senior staff members like the hotel and cruise directors are usually licensed as well, but the hotel director bemoaned that in all his years of cruising, he'd never been allowed to conduct a wedding onboard.

The Gym. Most cruise ship fitness centers look to the same to me, but Carnival Spirit's gym is an original, tiered like a Roman amphitheater so that you get a view of the ocean from every piece of its state-of-the-art equipment. While the arrangement is attractive and unique, you've got to be pretty self-confident in your spandex and sweats to work out here. The tiered layout means that from your position on the elliptical trainer, you may be staring directly at the stairclimbers across the room, and the runners on the treadmill are looking down on everyone. But the people having the last laugh are the happy soakers enjoying the hot tub that's positioned smack-dab in the center of the gym (it's also the waiting area for passengers about to have a spa treatment). I stuck to the elliptical machines at the base of the stairs, which are slightly more tucked away.

Carnival Spirit feels large, but not particularly crowded, and despite a plethora of rooms it's fairly easy to find your way around. The public areas are mostly contained on Decks 2 and 3 and then up and outside on Decks 9 and 10. Once we figured out that the restaurant is aft and the show lounge is forward, we could plot out the most efficient way to get anywhere we were going. Typically that meant determining whether the casino on Deck 2 would be extra crowded, which would slow you down right in the one of the few places where smoking is allowed onboard, or whether it would be prime shopping time so getting past the shops and photo gallery on Deck 3 would be an obstacle course.

With any Carnival ship, you have to understand what you're getting. Cruise travelers looking for lots of enrichment or destination-based programming, or those looking for a wide variety of athletic pursuits onboard, won't find what they're looking for on Carnival Spirit. Education just isn't the goal here. And while I expect Carnival crewmembers to be friendly and to do their jobs well, I'm not expecting to be bowled over by white-glove service. That said, I found the dining room to be appallingly slow with overly long waits between courses (I often found myself waiting for my dish to arrive, even when everyone else at the table had that course served).

What the ship is designed for is having a good time, whether that be socializing over a drink or two, getting into the campy spirit of pool games, enjoying a song-and-dance show, or slipping and splashing down a two-deck waterslide. I was not the only adult climbing the stairs time and again for just one more ride down the waterslide, and giggling like a schoolgirl when the water went up my nose. Nor was I the only one who found an excuse to get up and dance, in the disco, in the atrium, out on deck or even in the dining room. From families with young children to senior couples, this ship caters to everyone -- everyone, that is, who's looking to spend their vacation having quite a bit of fun.

Dining

The 1,300-seat, two-deck Empire dining room is done up in Napoleonic splendor, the ceiling domes painted with murals and hung with crystal chandeliers. Even the large portholes are trimmed in gold and the grand circular staircase decorated with a sculpture of Napoleon at his coronation. Flanking the entrances are pilasters in the form of female statues. You'll either love it or find it over the top (it grew on us). Passengers can opt for assigned tables at one of two dinner seatings (6 and 8:15 p.m.), or choose Your Time Dining, with open seating on the starboard side of the upper level anytime from 5:45 to 9:30 p.m. There are tables for two, four and six, and fewer than usual for eight or more (intimacy was obviously the goal here).

Menus consist of starters (appetizers, soups and salads), entrees and desserts, with healthier Spa Carnival choices and always available Carnival Classics dishes like Caesar salad, French fries, broiled fillet of mahi mahi, grilled chicken breast and steak. Vegetarian items are always on the menu, but aren't marked; be warned that the hot soups are typically made with chicken broth. Food quality ranged from mediocre to excellent, and my table especially enjoyed the lamb, the Indian vegetarian dinner and the blackened tilapia. On Alaska cruises go for the fresh salmon. We did have to send back a particularly inedible piece of prime rib on the last night, but that was an anomaly.

The waiters are extremely friendly and do the usual Carnival song-and-dance numbers on select evenings, including an energetic rendition of the theme song from "Slum Dog Millionaire" complete with Bollywood-inspired dance moves and a poignant version of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" with new lyrics, requesting our return to a Fun Ship cruise. But despite our waiters chatting and joking with us over our dinner choices and plans for the evening, the actual service at our table was spotty. One diner out of six was often waiting for a late-coming appetizer to arrive after the others had been served, and long waits between courses were frequent. However, as we were usually among the last diners left in the dining room, it's clear that service was better at other tables.

Breakfast and lunch are also served in the dining room for those who want waiter service (through lunch service may not be available on all port days). Couples will typically be seated with another party. The breakfast menu had all the standards without much innovation, but at better quality than in the Lido buffet. If ribs are on the lunch menu, go for it -- they're yummy.

The reservations-only, 156-seat Nouveau Supper Club, at the top of the ship, features aged USDA prime beef including a 14-ounce New York strip, a 24-ounce classic porterhouse, an 18-ounce prime rib and a 9-ounce filet mignon, plus other dishes, for a service fee of $30 per person. If you appreciate great food and service, the experience is a must and definitely worth the price. The service is on a par with luxury lines. We particularly appreciated the sweet hostess who remembered us from embarkation day, the sommelier who walked us through the wine menu and helped us choose the perfect wine, and our waiter, who was friendly and attentive and even brought out the chef to answer our questions.

And the food was so delicious that we kept reminiscing about it throughout the rest of the cruise and comparing the meal to fancy land-based restaurants we'd dined at on special occasions. The cuts of meat are plump and juicy and attractively decorated with sprigs of rosemary. Vegetarians should not be worried by the steakhouse moniker, as the vegetarian mushroom and asparagus strudel is a fantasy of cheese, pastry and vegetables, all artfully arranged on the plate and pleasing on the palate. Dessert is whimsical and rich, with cheesecake in the shape of a star and a quartet of chocolate desserts linked by chocolate ribbons.

Expect dinner here to be your nighttime entertainment (it takes several luxurious hours). Carnival is, however, phasing out the music-and-dancing aspect of the restaurant, and changing the supper clubs into steakhouses (the large dance floor with bandstand will be changed into an additional seating area). In my opinion, it's a move for the best, as the loud music can make it difficult to carry on a conversation with your tablemates.

La Playa Grill is the casual alternative for buffet-style breakfasts and lunches. The buffet is arranged in stations, to create better passenger flow and reduce long queues. At lunch, you'll find an international "Taste of the Nations" food station featuring a different cuisine each day like Japanese or Indian (our favorite nation was chocolate!); an all-Asian buffet line; made-to-order deli sandwiches; a rotisserie; a disappointing salad bar with the occasional limp lettuce and soggy veggies and a general lack of options; and a dessert bar (offering cupcakes every day, something I'd never seen before). Breakfast includes a made-to-order omelet station, in addition to typical breakfast pastries, fruits, cereals and hot items like pancakes and bacon. A pizzeria is open 24 hours a day (and the Caesar salad here is excellent), and a small outpost of the Fountains Cafe serves up specialty coffees for a fee. A grill by the pool offers hamburgers, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches and tenders, and French fries from noon to 6 p.m. Both ice cream and frozen yogurt self-serve machines are stationed fore and aft of the Playa Grill (look out for afternoon sundae bars when fun ice cream toppings are available).

At night, one section of the buffet is open as the Seaview Bistro, a no-fee casual dining option perfect for those who want a quick bite without the formality of the dining room. There's typically one hot line with a carving station, salad bar and dessert bar. You'll find some repeats from that evening's main dining room menu, and other dishes prepared specially for the Lido buffet.

For late-night munchies there is the "late night bistro" from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.

The Fountain Cafe coffee shop serves specialty drinks (from $1 for tea to $3.50 for large cappuccinos and lattes), milkshakes ($3.95) and sweets like cakes, cookies and chocolate-covered strawberries ($1.25 to $4).

Afternoon tea is served in the Artists' Lobby. Waiters come around with hot water, your choice of teas, and a cart with scones, pastries and finger sandwiches. The treats vary in quality (go for the scones, avoid the chocolate macaroons) and the tables are too small for pots of tea (they're pretty crowded with the tea cups and dessert plates), but it's a delightful way to pass an hour in the afternoon. Just be prepared for the sugar rush that is bound to follow.

From 5 to 8:15 p.m., a complimentary sushi bar is set up next to the Fountain Cafe. Sake is on offer for $12 a bottle.

Complimentary 24-hour room service is also available from a limited menu of sandwiches, salads and desserts (though you cannot order room service from the dining room menu). Full stateroom bar service is available from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. at bar prices. Continental breakfast can be delivered to your cabin, if you hang the order form on your door before 5 a.m. Basic choices include fruit, cereals, breakfast breads and pastries, yogurt, hot and cold beverages and smoked salmon. You cannot order hot entrees or eggs of any sort.

Also available on all of Carnival's ships is The Chef's Table dining experience, which affords a dozen passengers a multicourse dinner with a master chef, a private cocktail reception and a tour of the galley and its operations. This dining option usually takes place in a nontraditional venue, such as the galley or library, and it can be booked onboard at the information desk for a per-person cost of $75.

Public Rooms

Decks 2 and 3 form the hub of the ship with a combination of public areas and bars and lounges. Passenger flow is excellent -- the public rooms are connected by a two-level promenade with a grand staircase leading from one level to the other. At the ground level of the atrium on Deck 2 are the guest services and shore excursions desks. Farther forward on that level, the Monarch's Card Room is often packed with bridge and other game players, while the Fountain Cafe seating area is the spot for trivia and arts and crafts.

Upstairs on Deck 3, the Art Deco Walk combines a seating area with the ship's main shopping boulevard. Heading from fore to aft, the Jungle winter garden is a walkway with seating areas and porthole windows, decorated with jungle animals like giraffes and orangutans. It accesses the stairs leading to the kids' areas one flight up, and is a favorite hangout for teens and tweens. The Wedding Chapel is the location for wedding ceremonies and vow renewals.

Note: On Alaska cruises, the captain and select ship officers can conduct weddings (including for same sex couples) as long as the ship is in Canadian waters.

The Chippendale Library/Internet Café has a small collection of books and 10 computer terminals, as well as a printer and comfy chairs for reading. Internet packages cost $100 for 250 minutes, $55 for 100 minutes or pay as you go at 75 cents a minute. Carnival does not offer any computer education classes.

Continuing along, the Fun Shops on either side of the walkway sell jewelry and watches, makeup, perfume, liquor, Carnival logo wear, resortwear, and sundries. Formalities is a combination candy shop and formalwear rental shop. The photo gallery surrounds the atrium -- photos are priced from $7.99 to $21.99 (based on photo type, not size) and you can add a digital image file to your purchase for an additional $9.99. They also sell cameras, photo frames and scrapbooking materials, or you can print out photos from your own digital camera on special machines, again for a fee. Every evening, a selection of backdrops are available for portrait sittings; the most clever we saw was a background of a Christmas tree and gifts, so you can take your family photo to include on your next holiday cards.

A conference room is located outside the Deco Lounge at the aft end of the deck -- on our cruise it housed the Park West art auction collection.

Five self-service launderettes are located on Deck 1 mid-ship, Deck 4 aft, Deck 5 aft, Deck 6 forward and Deck 7 aft. A wash is $3, a dry is $3, and soap and softener are $1 each. We found that pretty pricey for do-it-yourself laundry, but sending out your laundry is more expensive (a midweek special was $15 for a bag). A medical center is located on Deck A.

Cabins

About 80 percent of the cabins are outside, and of those, 80 percent offer balconies and a sitting area. The 213 inside cabins measure 185 square feet, and are pretty spacious for standard cabins. Outside cabins measure 220 square feet, while balcony cabins are also 185 square feet with balconies measuring another 35, 60 or 75 square feet, depending on category. Standard balconies featured two metal chairs with plastic mesh seating and a small metal table. Obstructed view cabins located behind the lifeboats on Deck 4 (category 4K) have French doors that open to allow light and air, but have no balcony.

All cabins feature attractive decor in pleasant, if a bit bland, earth tones; twin beds that convert to a king; color televisions (not flat-screen) showing Carnival programming, regular TV and both free and pay-per-view movies; a vanity area with drawers, a safe, a hairdryer (in a desk drawer), mini-bar and a phone. Bedside lamps provide enough light to read by. Many cabins have either pullout sofas or pull-down beds from the ceiling. There's one 110V and one 220V plug -- bring an extender for more. Closets provide ample storage space but the hangers are the kind that can't be removed from the rod. Bring your own hangers or ask your steward for more.

Bathrooms come with shower gel and shampoo in dispensers in the shower, as well as bar soap. A samples basket includes trial sizes supplied by various manufacturers that can change from cruise to cruise; we had packets of shampoo and conditioner, toothpaste, Pepcid and razors, but don't depend on the same items being there when you cruise. Bring your own lotion and cottonballs. The shower has a curtain on a curved rod to avoid the clingy curtain syndrome. The shower head is adjustable and a retractable clothesline is perfect for hanging up wet bathing suits. There's plenty of shelf space in the bathroom for storing toiletries.

Carnival has never emphasized the uber-suites that some big ship lines have embraced but there are options for more spacious accommodations. Suites measure 275 square feet with 65 square foot balconies, and Penthouse Suites measure 345 square feet with 85-square-foot balconies. Suites include separate dressing and sitting areas, double sinks and a bathtub in the bathroom, and large balconies with lounge chairs in addition to the regular chairs and table.

Editor's note: Cabins with connecting doors tend to be noisier, regardless of whether you have the connecting door open or not.

Entertainment

Carnival's nightlife is legendary, and if you come aboard ready to party, you will not be disappointed (though don't expect a big nighttime crowd on Alaska sailings when many passengers are so exhausted from shore excursions they go to bed early). The ship has 12 lounges and bars to suit every mood, many of which feature live music (everything from country to old standards, jazz and modern dance music).The Atrium Bar is at the hub of pre-dinner socializing, and couples would dance to the sounds of the guitarist or saxophonist perched above the bar. We loved to watch them and cheered when an 80-year-old man -- and one of the better dancers in the group -- berated the younger couples for not getting out on the dance floor. The two bars adjacent to the Deck 2 and 3 dining room entrances -- the Artist's Lobby (the backs of the banquettes feature reproductions of art classics from Gauguin, Klimpt and others) and Deco Lounge (done in art deco style) -- are great spots for people-watching to the sounds of jazz, especially on formal nights (we saw everything from Zoot Suits to designer jeans).

The popular Shanghai Bar -- done in a "Chinoise" style with walls covered in Chinese fabric and silk screens illuminated from behind -- is the sing-along piano bar. I've seen more engaging pianists on other Carnival ships (I mean, the guy didn't know how to play the piano bar classic, "Me and Bobby McGee"), but he certainly had his regulars who we saw perched on stools around his piano night after night. Below the Shanghai Bar, in Club Cool, karaoke reigns supreme every evening. Karaoke, too, has a loyal following, with a fairly wide range of talents. However, some of the best performances were done by the staffer in charge of kararoke; she did a spot-on version of Shaggy's "Boombastic" -- her accent was perfect for it -- and a hysterical, over-the-top rendition of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," complete with a dramatic exit out the door to the Fountains Cafe where she sang about her love for milkshakes. The Champions sports bar offers big-screen televisions for catching the big games and doubles as the cigar bar. (The Fantail Bar on the aft pool deck is the place to watch the game during the day.)

The three-level Pharaoh's Palace, decorated with hieroglyphics, 20-foot tall stone figures and sarcophagi inspired by the golden one of King Tut, sets the scene for Vegas-style revues and guest comedians. Seating is in comfortable high-back theater chairs, but bring a wrap or sweater -- they've got the A/C turned way up in there. Song-and-dance shows on my cruise were toe-tapping good fun with lots of energy and songs from the Big Band era and an homage to New Orleans, but not overly innovative with choreography or effects (unlike the Beatles tribute that really wowed me on a previous Carnival Freedom cruise). We enjoyed watching the "prop comedian" escape from a straitjacket and teach a three-year-old kid to juggle, all the while keeping the audience in stitches. We missed the hypnotist due to our long Supper Club dinner, but everyone on the ship was raving about all the crazy things he got audience members to do; one woman was made to forget the number five, while another man answered "yes" to any question asked him.

Day or night, the Louis XIV Casino was always packed with hopeful cruisers trying to win a few bucks. The casino features 220 slots and tables for roulette/dice, blackjack, poker (including Three Card Poker, Let It Ride and Caribbean Stud Diamond) and video poker. Three tables are reserved for blackjack tournaments. The Dancin' Disco is a two-tiered dance club with a two-story 20-by-20-foot video wall with 48-inch monitors and colorful, swirly-design banquettes and drinks tables. Sadly, the disco was pretty empty most nights save for formal nights, which drew a crowd.

We referred to the Deck 1 Versailles Lounge as "Brigadoon" because we didn't even notice it until halfway through the cruise (the stairs down are next to the Deck 2 Pharaoh's Palace entrance) and we could never find any events going on there. It's a whimsical space with walls decorated with fairy tale scenes of village homes and a castle (at night, twinkle lights embedded in the walls look like stars). On the second to last night, we finally found the lounge listed in the Carnival Capers, and enjoyed a cover band that played modern dance music. Although the four band members were all Indonesian, they impressively managed to sound just like the Western musicians they were covering, and all four played instruments and took turns on lead vocals. Try to find it earlier in the cruise because it's a great venue.

During the day, Carnival Spirit focuses on fun in the sun. Passengers can participate in arts and crafts (visor painting, needlepoint), lots of trivia contests, bridge and other games in the card room, silly pool games like the Rubber Chicken Olympics and Men's Hairy Chest Contest, the occasional wine tasting, towel animal making and bingo. The closest thing to an enrichment lecture is the free spa seminars on health, diet and wellness, but that's Carnival's choice. The cruise line's focus is on having a good time and not about an educational vacation. On sunny days, the pool and sun decks are the places to be; on cool days, the casino is hopping.

Shore excursions in Mexico were reasonably priced and ranged from day passes to hotel beaches, kayaking, snorkeling, ATV and jeep rides, and city tours. Choice was greatest in Acapulco, and a little lacking in Manzanillo, where there didn't seem to be that much to see or do. We took one tour in Acapulco, and found the organization of the tours to be lacking. The pier was a chaotic scene of people trying to find the right tour, and we spent quite a bit of time waiting around, not sure what was going on and trying not to accidentally end up on the wrong tour. If you don't want to do an organized tour, the shore excursions staff does not have much information on other options, but you will be bombarded by touts and taxi drivers in every port.

Alaska cruises have a more robust offering of tours, with everything from helicopter and floatplane scenic tours to fishing, dog sledding, whale watching and other wildlife viewing opportunities, and salmon bakes. More active options include kayaking, biking and hiking excursions. The tours are pretty typical for Alaska and are similar to what you'll find on most other cruise lines sailing there.

Fitness and Recreation

The Grecian-inspired, Steiner-operated Spa Carnival incorporates Doric columns and hand-painted murals featuring a Greek vase motif and depictions of Olympic events. The two-level, 13,700-square-foot oceanview facility, located forward on Decks 9 and 10, offers sauna and steam rooms (free) in the men's and women's locker rooms, a beauty salon, a whirlpool in the center of the gym, and 10 treatment rooms for spa therapies ranging from aroma hot stone massages to acupuncture, facials and body wraps. Prices are steep -- $65 for a pedicure, $95 for a man's shave, $155 for a 50-minute hot stone massage -- but look for combo packages and port specials for discounted pricing.

Free fitness classes held in the decently sized aerobics room included stretching, abs workouts, Chinese longevity exercises and boot camp; group cycling classes were held on a couple of days for a $12 fee. The class options were minimal compared with other cruise lines -- no yoga or Pilates, and only two to three fitness classes held each day. The morning stretching class I attended was popular despite the early start time, while the afternoon spinning class I peaked in at only had three participants. Perhaps by the afternoon, people are already ensconced in a sunny spot up on deck or too busy with other activities.

The gym itself features a tiered design so you get ocean views from every piece of equipment. In addition to weight machines and free weights, the fitness center offers stationary and recumbent bikes, elliptical trainers, stair climbers, treadmills and a rowing machine. However, be warned that the steam from the whirlpool does rise, making the temperature on the upper tiers a little warm. I went to work out first thing in the morning on the first sea day and had to wait in line for a spot on a cardio machine (every machine was in use with the exception of a stair-stepper and a recumbent bike). I was told that after a few days, the crowd thins out, but I simply switched my workouts to a later hour. If you've got late-seating dinner, head to the gym at 6 p.m. The only people in there are crewmembers (I saw several dancers and one of the ship's engineers) because they know it won't be crowded.

Nutrition programs and body composition analysis are available for a fee, and the free seminars found on most ships (Secrets to a Flatter Stomach, Eat More to Weigh Less, etc.) are held on Carnival Spirit, as well.

There are two jogging tracks onboard. The longer Deck 10 track is only available for running in the early morning or evening because daytime runners would be doing an obstacle course, hurdling lounge chairs, dodging drinks waiters and racing through photographers snapping pics of their friends at sea. As it is, you'll have to dodge walkers and early-bird sunbathers who take over the deck. Three-and-a-half laps equal a mile. The Deck 11 track at the front of the ship is 14 laps per mile, as you circle the nine-hole mini-golf course and basketball court again and again and again. Wear your seabands so you don't get dizzy! The mini-golf course isn't outfitted with crazy obstacles like windmills or water features, but its top-deck location with all the wind and ship movement make it a more challenging game than you'd expect. Ping pong tables are located on Deck 10 overlooking the pools. A golf simulator on Deck 10 mid-ship lets passengers practice their swings and putts.

Three swimming pools (two mid-ship, one aft), are each flanked by a hot tub and freezing cold showers to wash off the salt water. Sculptures of evil-looking, green birds tower over each pool -- we're really not sure why. One of the mid-ship pools is covered by a retractable dome for all-weather use (key in Alaska where it can be chilly). Plastic lounge chairs with plastic mesh seats are plentiful throughout Decks 9 through 11, but many of them seem to be broken, so be careful when you recline or adjust the back height of the lounger. An adults-only sun deck is located on Deck 11 mid-ship, and the aft hot tub is also reserved for adults only. The Lido Deck stage is the place for poolside music and silly pool games, such as bean bag toss, the Chicken Olympics (a series of games involving rubber chickens) and ice carving.

Kids get a separate splash pool on Deck 11 aft, and the young -- and young at heart -- can enjoy a spiral waterslide. Not making a big enough splash? Try arching your back and keeping your arms glued to your sides (as opposed to crossed over your chest) to pick up more speed.

Family

The line's complimentary Camp Carnival program offers activities for children ages 2 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 11, 12 to 14, and 15 to 17. The "Fun House," a 2,400-square-foot enclosed play area tucked away at the far front of the ship on Deck 5, has two connecting rooms stocked with big-screen TVs for movies or Nintendo Wii play, video game stations, toys and games, and materials for arts and crafts projects. Here, the two to 11 year olds enjoy magic shows, face painting, talent shows, sand art, pizza making and supervised free play -- either together or separated out by age groups. When I visited, the kids had just built and decorated a volcano, which they would make erupt on the final sea day.

Special on Alaska cruises are activities like creating totem poles and special kids-only lectures by naturalists discussing the region's sea, animal and plant life.

Late-night babysitting is available from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. for a fee ($6 for the first child and $4 for each additional child in the same family). Pillows and blankets (and cribs for the littlest tykes) are provided when kids get sleepy.

Accessible only via stairs down from the Fun House or up from the Jungle Walk, the Circle C (12 to 14) hangout is located on Deck 4. The tweens certainly have a real hideaway with this area -- it took me half the cruise to figure out how to get there! The lounge features game consoles and a dance floor, and supervised activities include games like charades and Apple to Apples, themed dance parties, and sports competitions. Next door, a video arcade is open to kids and adults alike, but many adults never find it. Kids have reserved arcade hours when all games are free and no parents are allowed.

The teen lounge is also tricky to find; it's outside the aerobics studio on Deck 10. Club O2, as it's called, also has TV's for movie-watching and video-game play, as well as a dance area and a "mocktail" bar serving up sodas and non-alcoholic smoothies and fruit drinks. Teen activities include movie trivia, Guitar Hero rock-offs, hot tub hangouts and late-night parties.

The almost hidden location of Camp Carnival is fairly unusual; while some cruise ships will try to corral the kids into one section of the ship, I've never needed a detailed map to find the kids' areas. In fact on Carnival Splendor, the teen area is in the main entertainment hub of the ship. On Carnival Spirit, the kids are kept entertained away from the adult venues, so you get the impression that there are fewer kids onboard than there actually are. Plus, the hangouts are so popular that most cruising children are eager to participate in the activities or chill with friends in the clubs, rather than take over hot tubs or lounge in the stairwells. The result is that the arrangement keeps everyone happy, with minimal complaints about rowdy children. That said, the balance may change when there are many more kids onboard.

I was particularly impressed to see how much the kids seemed to be enjoying the program -- as opposed to taking the sneering adolescent approach that the activities weren't cool enough. On one sea day, I came across a group of teens happily playing a word guessing game with the teen counselor in the Jungle Walk, and on another, saw several kids happily playing in the pool with their faces painted like pirates. The head counselor told me that some kids spend eight to 10 hours at Camp Carnival and are pretty happy to be there.

Babies and toddlers ages six months to two years cannot participate in Camp Carnival activities, but do have additional babysitting hours (fees apply) on port days, with hours varying from port to port. On sea days, parents can drop toddlers off from noon to 2 p.m. for a fee, or use the facilities for parent-child playtime for no extra charge. The regular late-night babysitting is available to under-2's as well. Camp Carnival counselors do change diapers.

Kids who are not toilet trained are not technically allowed in the main swimming pools, though we did see a couple of families breaking that rule. A children's wading pool is located on Deck 11 by the waterslide.

Children's menus are featured in the main dining room and kids ages 2 to 11 can dine with the counselors on the Lido Deck most nights. A Fountain Fun card, good for unlimited soft drinks, costs $36.75 for eight-day voyages (adults can also choose a soda package for $50.50).

Fellow Passengers

Passengers represent a broad crisscross of (mostly) middle America. Summer Alaska cruises attract an older, less party-hearty crowd, with most passengers over 50. Fall and winter Mexico cruises attract a more fun-loving, sun-seeking crowd with a larger age range -- a mix of families, young couples and seniors. Because of its itineraries, the ship doesn't get quite as many kids as other Carnival ships. An August Alaska cruise had about 450 under-21's onboard, while my October Mexico cruise had only 160.

Dress Code

Carnival has a pretty laidback dress policy. Most evenings are "Cruise Casual," during which passengers can wear anything from nice jeans and dress shorts to slacks and casual skirts or sundresses. As long as you're not wearing swimwear, workout clothes or a men's sleeveless T-shirt, you won't be turned away. One or two nights per cruise will be designated "Cruise Elegant" -- men are requested to wear at least dress slacks and dress shirts, with the option of a sport coat, suit or tuxedo. Suggested attire for women is cocktail dresses or gowns, or dressy pantsuits or skirts. Most people do seem to dress to the nines on these nights, creating a festive atmosphere as couples and families pose for photos and passengers people-watch in the Atrium Bar and Artist's Lobby.

For daywear in Alaska, layers, comfortable walking shoes and rain gear are recommended. Be prepared for summer days to be warm and sunny or cold and rainy -- the weather can vary dramatically from day to day.

Gratuity

Tips of $10 per person, per day are added to your shipboard account. A 15 percent gratuity is added to bar bills. If you wish to tip the maitre d', an envelope is left for you on the last day.

Gratuity

Carnival recommends $11.50 per person, per day. The guidelines allocate $5.80 to dining room services, $3.70 to cabin services and $2 per day for alternative services, which include kitchen, entertainment, guest services and other hotel staff members. The amount is automatically added to your shipboard account, but can be adjusted in either direction at the guest services desk. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar bills. Tipping for room service at delivery is expected (and appreciated) by the service staff. An envelope is provided on the last night for those who want to extend thanks to the maitre d'.Simply walking around Carnival Spirit is like taking a trip around the world. Legendary Carnival designer Joe Farcus got inspired to celebrate the "creative spirit" on this ship by serving up what looks to us like every design style he could think of. The show lounge is decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics and murals, the piano bar is an homage to Shanghai and "Chinoise" style, the Artist's Lobby highlights famed European artists, the Supper Club vibrates with the bright colors of art deco, the Chippendale library is straight out of an English country manor and the Empire Dining Room is so French, it sports a statue of Napoleon. The hodgepodge of styles can be initially overwhelming; I remarked during our first exploration of the ship that the casino was comparatively "sedate" because despite the flashing lights and dinging bells, the room wasn't done up as a Swiss alpine lodge or a Mayan temple. But I realized that once I started focusing on the activities in each room -- the dancers onstage at the show lounge or the food on the table in La Playa Grille -- the decor faded into the background. It became the exuberant backdrop that highlighted how we were now in a new place, one more fun and whimsical than our daily life.

The ship, which introduced a whole new class for Carnival (its sister ships are Carnival Legend, Carnival Pride and Carnival Miracle), shares its basic design with Costa Atlantica and offers all the best of earlier Carnival vessels -- a waterslide, numerous bars and extensive children's facilities. It also introduced some firsts for Carnival that have since become standards, including a fabulous supper club and a wedding chapel. In early 2012, the ship underwent a $7 million refurb to ready it for its new home in Australia (from October 2012). The line added a new aqua park and waterslide, Green Thunder, a 180-foot-long twister that begins with a near-vertical drop; the Serenity deck space, Carnival's signature adults-only retreat; and a new top-deck barbecue venue. Aussies should also expect improved coffee, more draught beers and more cabins with interconnecting doors.

Here are some of our other favorite onboard offerings:

Nouveau Supper Club. Look up the ship's soaring nine-deck atrium and you'll see a striking red stained glass dome. That's part of the fine alternative dining venue on top of the Spirit -- you'll need to pay a service charge of $30 per person to get in, but it's worth every penny. Many lines brag about bringing luxury elements to the mainstream cruise experience, but Carnival nails it with the food and service at the supper club. From the first presentation of the cuts of meat available on that night's menu through to the exquisitely designed (and diet-murdering) desserts, I was convinced I was dining in some exclusive, five-star restaurant -- and I was the celebrity VIP.

The Wedding Chapel. This light, wood-paneled space with its angel fresco feels important and it should. Real weddings are conducted here by the ship's captain when Carnival Spirit is in Canadian waters (he is even authorized to marry same-sex couples). It's also the venue for vow renewals. The Hotel Director told me at least one wedding takes place per cruise, and sure enough, we passed by a wedding reception in Club Cool on embarkation day. The captain is the most popular wedding officiant onboard -- other senior staff members like the hotel and cruise directors are usually licensed as well, but the hotel director bemoaned that in all his years of cruising, he'd never been allowed to conduct a wedding onboard.

The Gym. Most cruise ship fitness centers look to the same to me, but Carnival Spirit's gym is an original, tiered like a Roman amphitheater so that you get a view of the ocean from every piece of its state-of-the-art equipment. While the arrangement is attractive and unique, you've got to be pretty self-confident in your spandex and sweats to work out here. The tiered layout means that from your position on the elliptical trainer, you may be staring directly at the stairclimbers across the room, and the runners on the treadmill are looking down on everyone. But the people having the last laugh are the happy soakers enjoying the hot tub that's positioned smack-dab in the center of the gym (it's also the waiting area for passengers about to have a spa treatment). I stuck to the elliptical machines at the base of the stairs, which are slightly more tucked away.

Carnival Spirit feels large, but not particularly crowded, and despite a plethora of rooms it's fairly easy to find your way around. The public areas are mostly contained on Decks 2 and 3 and then up and outside on Decks 9 and 10. Once we figured out that the restaurant is aft and the show lounge is forward, we could plot out the most efficient way to get anywhere we were going. Typically that meant determining whether the casino on Deck 2 would be extra crowded, which would slow you down right in the one of the few places where smoking is allowed onboard, or whether it would be prime shopping time so getting past the shops and photo gallery on Deck 3 would be an obstacle course.

With any Carnival ship, you have to understand what you're getting. Cruise travelers looking for lots of enrichment or destination-based programming, or those looking for a wide variety of athletic pursuits onboard, won't find what they're looking for on Carnival Spirit. Education just isn't the goal here. And while I expect Carnival crewmembers to be friendly and to do their jobs well, I'm not expecting to be bowled over by white-glove service. That said, I found the dining room to be appallingly slow with overly long waits between courses (I often found myself waiting for my dish to arrive, even when everyone else at the table had that course served).

What the ship is designed for is having a good time, whether that be socializing over a drink or two, getting into the campy spirit of pool games, enjoying a song-and-dance show, or zipping down the waterslide. I was not the only adult climbing the stairs time and again for just one more ride down the waterslide, and giggling like a schoolgirl when the water went up my nose. Nor was I the only one who found an excuse to get up and dance, in the disco, in the atrium, out on deck or even in the dining room. From families with young children to senior couples, this ship caters to everyone -- everyone, that is, who's looking to spend their vacation having quite a bit of fun.

Fitness and Recreation

The Grecian-inspired, Steiner-operated Spa Carnival incorporates Doric columns and hand-painted murals featuring a Greek vase motif and depictions of Olympic events. The two-level, 13,700-square-foot oceanview facility, located forward on Decks 9 and 10, offers sauna and steam rooms (free) in the men's and women's locker rooms, a beauty salon, a whirlpool in the center of the gym, and 10 treatment rooms for spa therapies ranging from aroma hot stone massages to acupuncture, facials and body wraps. Prices are steep -- $65 for a pedicure, $95 for a man's shave, $155 for a 50-minute hot stone massage -- but look for combo packages and port specials for discounted pricing.

Free fitness classes held in the decently sized aerobics room included stretching, abs workouts, Chinese longevity exercises and boot camp; group cycling classes were held on a couple of days for a $12 fee. The class options were minimal compared with other cruise lines -- no yoga or Pilates, and only two to three fitness classes held each day. The morning stretching class I attended was popular despite the early start time, while the afternoon spinning class I peaked in at only had three participants. Perhaps by the afternoon, people are already ensconced in a sunny spot up on deck or too busy with other activities.

The gym itself features a tiered design so you get ocean views from every piece of equipment. In addition to weight machines and free weights, the fitness center offers stationary and recumbent bikes, elliptical trainers, stair climbers, treadmills and a rowing machine. However, be warned that the steam from the whirlpool does rise, making the temperature on the upper tiers a little warm. I went to work out first thing in the morning on the first sea day and had to wait in line for a spot on a cardio machine (every machine was in use with the exception of a stair-stepper and a recumbent bike). I was told that after a few days, the crowd thins out, but I simply switched my workouts to a later hour. If you've got late-seating dinner, head to the gym at 6 p.m. The only people in there are crewmembers (I saw several dancers and one of the ship's engineers) because they know it won't be crowded.

Nutrition programs and body composition analysis are available for a fee, and the free seminars found on most ships (Secrets to a Flatter Stomach, Eat More to Weigh Less, etc.) are held on Carnival Spirit, as well.

There are two jogging tracks onboard. The longer Deck 10 track is only available for running in the early morning or evening because daytime runners would be doing an obstacle course, hurdling lounge chairs, dodging drinks waiters and racing through photographers snapping pics of their friends at sea. As it is, you'll have to dodge walkers and early-bird sunbathers who take over the deck. Three-and-a-half laps equal a mile. The Deck 11 track at the front of the ship is 14 laps per mile, as you circle the nine-hole mini-golf course and basketball court again and again and again. Wear your seabands so you don't get dizzy! The mini-golf course isn't outfitted with crazy obstacles like windmills or water features, but its top-deck location with all the wind and ship movement make it a more challenging game than you'd expect. Ping pong tables are located on Deck 10 overlooking the pools. A golf simulator on Deck 10 mid-ship lets passengers practice their swings and putts.

Three swimming pools (two mid-ship, one aft), are each flanked by a hot tub and freezing cold showers to wash off the salt water. Sculptures of evil-looking, green birds tower over each pool -- we're really not sure why. One of the mid-ship pools is covered by a retractable dome for all-weather use (key in Alaska where it can be chilly). Plastic lounge chairs with plastic mesh seats are plentiful throughout Decks 9 through 11, but many of them seem to be broken, so be careful when you recline or adjust the back height of the lounger. The Lido Deck stage is the place for poolside music and silly pool games, such as bean bag toss, the Chicken Olympics (a series of games involving rubber chickens) and ice carving.

Carnival WaterWorks is a top-ship space comprised of two waterslides (a traditional yellow twister slide and Green Thunder, a 180-foot-long tube that begins with a near-vertical drop) and the Power Drencher, a huge bucket that periodically dumps water on expectant passengers. Nearby is the Serenity deck space, Carnival's signature adults-only retreat featuring a pool, hot tub and plenty of super-plush loungers.

Gratuity

Carnival recommends $11.50 per person, per day. The guidelines allocate $5.80 to dining room services, $3.70 to cabin services and $2 per day for alternative services, which include kitchen, entertainment, guest services and other hotel staff members. The amount is automatically added to your shipboard account, but can be adjusted in either direction at the guest services desk. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar bills. Tipping for room service at delivery is expected (and appreciated) by the service staff.Simply walking around Carnival Spirit is like taking a trip around the world. Legendary Carnival Cruise Lines designer Joe Farcus seems to have been inspired by every design style he could think of. The show lounge is decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics and murals, the piano bar is an homage to Shanghai and "Chinoise" style, the Artists' Lobby highlights famed European artists, the Supper Club vibrates with the bright colours of Art Deco, the Chippendale Library is straight out of an English country manor house, and the Empire Dining Room is so French it has a statue of Napoleon. Initially, the hodgepodge of styles can be overwhelming, although the casino feels comparatively sedate because, despite the flashing lights and dinging bells, the room isn't done up as a Swiss alpine lodge or a Mayan temple. But once you start focusing on the activities in each room -- the dancers onstage in the show lounge or the food on the table in La Playa Grille -- the decor starts to fade into the background. It becomes the exuberant backdrop to a place that is more fun and whimsical than your daily life.

The ship, which introduced a whole new class for Carnival (its sister ships are Carnival Legend, Carnival Pride and Carnival Miracle), shares its basic design with Costa Atlantica and offers all the best of earlier Carnival vessels -- a waterslide, numerous bars and extensive children's facilities. It also introduced some firsts for Carnival that have since become standards, including a fabulous steakhouse and a wedding chapel.

In early 2012, the ship underwent a $7 million refurbishment to ready it for its new home in Australia. The cruise line added a new aqua park and waterslide called Green Thunder, a 180-foot-long twister that begins with a near-vertical drop; the Serenity deck space, Carnival's signature adults-only retreat (for those ages 18 and older); and a new top-deck barbecue venue named Fat Jimmy's C-Side BBQ. Aussies will also be able to leave the adapters at home, as all cabins and suites sport Australian three-slotted power points. Local Australian beers now share the bar with other brews, and coffee is much better thanks to the introduction of good espresso machines and trained baristas. More interconnecting cabins were also added.

Here are some of our favourite onboard offerings:

Nouveau Steakhouse. Look up the ship's soaring nine-deck atrium, and you'll see a striking red stained-glass dome. It's part of the fine alternative dining venue on top of the Spirit. You'll need to pay a service charge of A$35 per person to get in, but it's worth every penny. Many lines brag about bringing luxury elements to the mainstream cruise experience, but Carnival nails it with the food and service at this specialty steakhouse. From the first presentation of the cuts of meat available on that night's menu through to the exquisitely designed (and diet-murdering) desserts, we were convinced we were dining in some exclusive, five-star restaurant -- and we were the celebrity VIPs.

The Wedding Chapel. This light, wood-panelled space with its angel fresco feels important -- and it should be. Real weddings have been conducted there by the ship's captain when Carnival Spirit cruised in Canadian waters. Carnival Cruises says it is currently working on a weddings programme for Australians, which it will launch in 2013. The chapel is also the venue for vow renewals.

The Gym. Most cruise ship fitness centres look the same, but Carnival Spirit's gym is an original, tiered like a Roman amphitheater so you get a view of the ocean from every piece of its state-of-the-art equipment. While the arrangement is attractive and unique, you've got to be pretty self-confident in your spandex to work out there. The tiered layout means that, from your position on the cross-trainer machines, you may be staring directly at the stair climbers across the room, and the runners on the treadmill are looking down on everyone. But the people having the last laugh are the happy soakers enjoying the hot tub that's positioned smack-dab in the centre of the gym. (It's also the waiting area for passengers about to have a spa treatment.) We stuck to the cross-trainers at the base of the stairs, which are slightly more tucked away.

Carnival Spirit feels large but not particularly crowded, and despite a plethora of rooms, it's fairly easy to find your way around. The public areas are mostly contained on Decks 2 and 3 and then up and outside on Decks 9 and 10. Once we figured out that the restaurant is aft and the show lounge is forward, we plotted out the most efficient way to get anywhere we were going. Typically that meant determining whether the casino on Deck 2 would be extra crowded, which would slow you down right in the one of the few places where smoking is allowed onboard, or whether it would be prime shopping time, making the trip past the shops and photo gallery on Deck 3 an obstacle course.

With any Carnival ship, you have to understand what you're getting. Cruise travellers looking for lots of enrichment or destination-based programming, or those looking for a wide variety of athletic pursuits onboard, won't find what they're looking for on Carnival Spirit. Education just isn't the goal. And while we expect Carnival crewmembers to be friendly and to do their jobs well, don't expect to be bowled over by white-glove service. That said, we found the waitress in the Nouveau Steakhouse a mine of information as she explained the different cuts of meat, and the wait between courses was minimal.

What the ship is designed for is having a good time, whether that be socialising over a drink or two, getting into the campy spirit of pool games, enjoying a song-and-dance show or zipping down a waterslide. We didn't try the new Green Thunder waterslide, billed as the steepest and fastest at sea, not because we're wimpy but because there was such a long queue waiting to ride it. But we did have a go on the yellow Twister ride, with glimpses of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House from various twists and curves. And we weren't the only ones who found an excuse to get up and dance in the disco, in the atrium, out on deck or even in the dining room. From families with young children to senior couples, this ship caters to everyone -- everyone, that is, who's looking to spend their vacation having quite a bit of fun.

Dining

The 1,300-seat, two-deck Empire Restaurant has a Napoleonic splendour, the ceiling domes painted with murals and hung with crystal chandeliers. Even the large portholes are trimmed in gold, and the grand circular staircase is decorated with a sculpture of Napoleon at his coronation. Flanking the entrances are pilasters in the form of female statues. You'll either love it or find it over-the-top. (It grew on us.) Passengers can opt for assigned tables at one of two dinner seatings (6 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.) or choose Your Time Dining, open-seating on the starboard side of the upper level anytime from 5:45 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. There are tables for two, four and six, but fewer than usual for eight or more. (Intimacy was obviously the goal.)

Menus consist of starters (entrees, soups and salads), main meals and desserts, with healthier Spa Carnival choices and always-available Carnival Classics dishes like Caesar salad, French fries, grilled fillet of mahi mahi, grilled chicken breast and steak. Vegetarian items are always on the menu, but they aren't marked; be warned that the hot soups are typically made with chicken broth. Food quality ranges from mediocre to excellent, but waiters provide song-and-dance entertainment in the dining room most nights.

Breakfast and lunch are also served in the dining room for those who want waiter service (though lunch service may not be available on all port days). Couples will typically be seated with another party. The breakfast menu had all the standards without much innovation, but the food there was a better quality than in the buffet-style La Playa Grille Lido Restaurant.

The reservations-only, 156-seat Nouveau Steakhouse Restaurant at the top of the ship features aged prime beef, including a 14-ounce New York strip, a 24-ounce classic porterhouse, an 18-ounce prime rib and a 9-ounce filet mignon, plus other dishes, for a service fee of A$35 per person. All beef is imported from the United States. If you appreciate great food and service, the experience is a must and definitely worth the price. The service is on par with luxury lines. Of particular note are the waitresses who know their meat, so to speak, and the sommelier who can walk you through the wine list and help you choose the perfect vintage.

The food, served over four courses, was so delicious and hearty that we regrettably only had room for fruit salad for dessert. We don't normally eat tartare but opted for the tuna tartare entree, and it was lovely; the surf and turf (steak and lobster tail) was gorgeous, and everyone at our larger table ordered it, while tablemates were cooing about their more caloric desserts. The cuts of meat are plump, juicy and attractively decorated with sprigs of rosemary. Vegetarians should not be worried by the steakhouse moniker, as the vegetarian options are just as tasty. For A$35 a head, it's a steal, and the area has its own bar, which is the perfect place for pre- and post-dinner drinks. One enters this lovely restaurant via lifts or via a somewhat scary see-through glass staircase. It's OK walking up, but going down the staircase is a little disconcerting.

Previously, the restaurant was called the Nouveau Supper Club and featured entertainment, which Carnival has phased out. The stage area has been taken away to allow more room for dining. It better suits the gourmet cruiser, who wants to enjoy a special meal without loud music. However, entertainment does occur during the Chef's Table experience, which affords a dozen passengers a multicourse dinner with a master chef, a private cocktail reception and a tour of the galley and its operations. This dining option takes place in Nouveau and costs A$75 per person. It can be booked onboard at the information desk.

La Playa Grille Lido Restaurant is the casual alternative for buffet-style breakfasts and lunches. The buffet is arranged in stations to improve passenger flow and reduce long queues. At lunch, you'll find an international "Taste of the Nations" food station, featuring a different cuisine each day, including Japanese or Indian (our favourite nation was chocolate!); an all-Asian buffet line; made-to-order deli sandwiches; a rotisserie; a disappointing salad bar (limp lettuce, soggy veggies and a general lack of options); and a dessert bar. Breakfast includes a made-to-order omelette station, in addition to typical breakfast pastries, fruits, cereals and hot items like pancakes and bacon. A pizzeria is open 24 hours a day (with excellent Caesar salad), and a small outpost of the Fountains Cafe serves up specialty coffees for a fee.

We found the buffet choices reasonable but not as good as we'd experienced on other mass-market ships we've travelled on. However, another cruiser recommends you grab the ribs if they are on the buffet menu -- they're said to be yummy.

The Fat Jimmy's C-Side Grill by the pool offers hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled chicken breasts, hot chips and, Aussie favourite, barbecued sausages from noon to 6 p.m. Both ice cream and frozen yogurt self-serve machines are stationed fore and aft of the Playa Grille. (Look out for afternoon sundae bars when fun ice cream toppings are available.)

At night, one section of the buffet is open as the Seaview Bistro, a no-fee casual dining option that's perfect for those who want a quick bite without the formality of the dining room. There's typically one hot line with a carving station, salad bar and dessert bar. You'll find some repeats from that evening's main dining room menu and other dishes prepared specially for the Lido buffet.

For late-night munchies, there is the "late night bistro" from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.

The Fountain Cafe coffee shop serves specialty drinks (from around A$1 for tea to A$3.50 for large cappuccinos and lattes), milkshakes (A$3.95) and cakes, cookies and chocolate-covered strawberries (A$1.25 to A$4).

Afternoon tea is served in the Artists' Lobby. Waiters come around with hot water, a choice of teas and a cart with scones, pastries and finger sandwiches. The treats vary in quality (go for the scones), and the tables are too small for pots of tea (they're pretty crowded with the tea cups and dessert plates), but it's a delightful way to pass an hour in the afternoon. Just be prepared for the sugar rush that is bound to follow.

Twenty four-hour room service is also available from a limited menu of soup, sandwiches, salads, pies, pizza and desserts. (You cannot order room service from the dining room menu.) Each item costs between A$3 and A$5, with the most expensive items being the pies, sandwiches and pizza. There is a separate room service continental breakfast, with items ranging from A$2 for fruits and cereals to A$3 for breakfast breads with spreads beverages, hot and cold. Full stateroom bar service is available from 9 a.m. until 3 a.m. at bar prices.

Public Rooms

Decks 2 and 3 form the hub of the ship, with a combination of public areas, bars and lounges. Passenger flow is excellent. The public rooms are connected by a two-level promenade with a grand staircase leading from one level to the other. At the ground level of the atrium on Deck 2 are the guest services and shore excursions desks. Farther forward on that level is the Monarch's Card Room, often packed with bridge and other game players, while the Fountain Cafe seating area is the spot for trivia and arts and crafts.

Upstairs on Deck 3, the Art Deco Walk combines a seating area with the ship's main shopping boulevard. Heading from fore to aft, the Jungle winter garden is a walkway with seating areas and porthole windows, decorated with jungle animals like giraffes and orangutans. It accesses the stairs leading to the kids' areas one flight up, and it's a favourite hangout for teens and tweens. The Wedding Chapel is the location for vow renewals, but there are plans for wedding ceremonies.

The Chippendale Library and Internet Cafe has a small collection of books, 10 computer terminals and a printer, as well as comfy chairs. Internet packages cost around A$100 for 250 minutes, A$55 for 100 minutes, or pay as you go at around 75 cents a minute. Carnival does not offer any computer education classes.

Continuing along, the Fun Shops on either side of the walkway sell jewellery and watches, makeup, perfume, alcohol, Carnival logowear, resort wear and sundries. Formalities is a combination candy shop and formalwear rental shop. The photo gallery surrounds the atrium; photos are priced from A$7.99 to A$21.99 (based on photo type, not size), and you can add a digital image file to your purchase for an additional A$9.99. They also sell cameras, photo frames and scrapbooking materials, or you can print out photos from your own digital camera on special machines, again for a fee. Every evening a selection of backdrops is available for portrait sittings. The most clever one we saw was a Christmas tree and gifts background, so you can take your family photo to make Christmas cards.

A conference room is located outside the Deco Lounge at the aft end of the deck. On our cruise it housed the Park West art auction collection.

Self-service launderettes are located on the stateroom decks. There are two or three washers and dryers, as well as one iron and ironing board in each launderette. The costs is A$3.25 per washing load and A$3.25 per dryer load. Tokens for the machines can be bought from the guest services. Vending machines dispense small boxes of detergent and water softener at A$1.50 per box, and this is charged to your Sail & Sign Card.

A medical centre is located on Deck A.

Cabins

About 80 percent of the cabins are outsides and, of those, 80 percent offer balconies and sitting areas, meaning there are more than 600 balcony cabins. The 213 inside cabins measure 185 square feet (17.2 square meters) and are pretty spacious for standard cabins. Outside cabins measure 220 square feet (20.4 square meters), while balcony cabins are also 185 square feet with balconies measuring another 35 square feet (3.25 square meters), 60 square feet (5.57 square meters) or 75 square feet (6.96 square meters), depending on category. Standard balconies each feature two metal chairs with plastic mesh seating and a small metal table. Obstructed-view cabins located behind the lifeboats on Deck 4 (category 4K) have French doors that open to allow light and air, but have no balconies.

Sixteen cabins have been modified for wheelchair access.

All cabins feature attractive decor in pleasant, if a bit bland, earth tones; twin beds that convert to a king; new flat-screen colour televisions showing Carnival programming, regular TV and both free and pay-per-view movies; a vanity area with drawers, a safe, a hair dryer (in a desk drawer), mini-bar and a phone. Bedside lamps provide enough light to read by. The family-sized Ocean View Quad option and balcony staterooms have sofas that convert to third beds, while fourth beds drop down over the sofas. Cabins have now been fitted with Australian power points. Closets provide ample storage space, but the hangers are the kind that can't be removed from the rod. You can ask your steward for more, or bring your own hangers if it's important to you.

Bathrooms come with shower gel and shampoo dispensers in the shower, as well as bars of soap, but if you like particular shampoo brands and other toiletries, it's best to bring your own -- as well as moisturisers and cotton balls. The shower has a curtain on a curved rod to avoid the clingy curtain syndrome. The shower head is adjustable, and a retractable clothesline is perfect for hanging up wet bathing suits. There's plenty of shelf space in the bathroom for storing toiletries.

Carnival has never emphasized the uber-suites that some big ship lines have embraced, but there are options for more spacious accommodation. Suites measure 275 square feet (25.55 square meters) with 65-square-foot (6-square-meter) balconies, and Penthouse Suites measure 345 square feet (32 square meters) with 85-square-foot (7.9-square-meter) balconies. Suites each include separate dressing and sitting areas, double sinks and a bathtub in the bathroom, plus large balconies with lounge chairs in addition to the regular chairs and table.

The ship has 42 sets of interconnecting staterooms: balcony to suite, balcony to interior cabin, double to quad and everything in between to cater for families and large groups. Cabins with connecting doors tend to be noisier, regardless of whether you have the connecting door open or not.

Entertainment

Carnival's nightlife is legendary and if you come aboard ready to party you will not be disappointed. The ship has 12 lounges and bars to suit every mood, many featuring live music (everything from country to old standards, jazz and modern dance music). The Atrium Bar is at the centre of pre-dinner socialising, and couples dance to the sounds of the guitarist or saxophonist perched above the bar. We loved to watch them and cheered when an 80-year-old man -- and one of the better dancers in the group -- berated the younger couples for not getting out on the dance floor. The two bars adjacent to the Deck 2 and 3 dining room entrances -- the Artists' Lobby (the backs of the banquettes feature reproductions of art classics from Gauguin, Klimpt and others) and Deco Lounge (done in Art Deco style) -- are great spots for people-watching to the sounds of jazz, especially on formal nights. We saw everything from Zoot Suits to designer jeans.

The popular Shanghai Bar, decorated in a "Chinoise" style with walls covered in Chinese fabric and silk screens illuminated from behind , is the singalong piano bar. The pianist on our sailing was fantastic and played all the "hits and memories." This is the place to be perched on a bar stool, night after night. Below the Shanghai Bar, in Club Cool, karaoke reigns supreme every evening. Karaoke, too, has a loyal following, with a fairly wide range of talents. However, be prepared for some great performances by the staff, who turn up to do a star turn every now and then. The Champions' Sports Bar offers wide-screen televisions for catching the big games and also doubles as the cigar bar. This bar has had a facelift, and the walls are now adorned with photos of Australian sports champions like superstar sprinter Cathy Freeman and swimmer Kieren Perkins. Rugby League posters for the various teams also have pride of place.

The three-level Pharaoh's Palace show lounge is decorated with hieroglyphics, 20-foot-tall stone figures and sarcophagi inspired by King Tutankhamun's golden mask, to set the scene for Vegas-style revues and guest comedians. Seating is in comfortable high-back theatre chairs, but bring a wrap or sweater -- they've got the air-conditioning turned way up in there. Song-and-dance shows on my cruise were toe-tapping fun with lots of energy, featuring songs from the Big Band era and an excellent homage to New Orleans called "The Big Easy."

Day or night, the Louis XIV Casino was always packed with hopeful passengers trying to win a few bucks. The casino has 220 slots, plus tables for roulette/dice, blackjack and poker (including Three Card Poker, Let It Ride, Caribbean Stud Diamond and video poker). Three tables are reserved for blackjack tournaments. All poker machines now take Australian coins. The Dancin' Dance Club (a disco with a none-too-imaginative but apt name) is a two-tiered dance club with a two-storey 20-by-20-foot video wall with 48-inch monitors and colourful, swirly-design banquettes and drink tables.

We referred to the Deck 1 Versailles Lounge as "Brigadoon" because we didn't even notice it until halfway through the cruise (stairs next to the Deck 2 Pharaoh's Palace entrance), and we could never find any events going on there. It's a whimsical space with walls decorated in fairytale scenes of village homes and a castle. (At night, twinkle lights embedded in the walls look like stars.) On the second-last night, we finally found the lounge listed in the "FunTimes" and enjoyed a cover band that played modern dance music.

During the day, Carnival Spirit focuses on fun in the sun. Passengers can participate in arts and crafts (visor-painting, needlepoint), lots of trivia contests, bridge and other games in the card room, silly pool games that might include Rubber Chicken Olympics and a Men's Hairy Chest Contest, the occasional wine-tasting, towel animal-making and bingo. The closest thing to enrichment lectures are the free spa seminars on health, diet and wellness, but that's Carnival's choice. The cruise line's focus is on having a good time and not about an educational vacation. On sunny days, the pool and sun decks are the places to be; on cool days, the casino is hopping.

There is a huge range of shore excursions available in the islands of New Caledonia, along with Vanuatu and Fiji. Many appear to be overpriced, particularly the Tchou Tchou train (le petit train) and the trip to Duck Island in Noumea, which can normally be had for half the price. Also avoid taking the A$59 Isle of Pines trip that ventures to Oro Bay. Once you get off the tender boat at Isle of Pines, there are two lovely beaches to relax at, and if you want to go to Oro (about 20 minutes away and said to be absolutely amazing for swimming and snorkelling), look out for local islander men who offer the trips for about A$20 in their own cars. Another overpriced ship excursion is the Cascades tour (to the Mele Cascades) near Port Vila, Vanuatu. If you want to go to the Mele Cascades (a series of waterfalls deemed by many to be the best attraction in Port Vila), organise a taxi with friends (about 7,000 vatu or A$73 return) to get there, and pay the normal gate entrance (around A$20) yourself.

Those who don't mind spending money and want to be looked after will be happy to do the ship's excursions, and it may be preferable to book adventurous trips or those with many components (such as a cultural tour/village visits) with the cruise line to avoid a lot of work for yourself.

Fitness and Recreation

The Grecian-inspired, Steiner-operated Spa Carnival incorporates Doric columns and hand-painted murals that feature a Greek vase motif and depictions of Olympic events. The two-level, 13,700-square-foot oceanview facility, located forward on Decks 9 and 10, offers sauna and steam rooms (free) in the men's and women's locker rooms, a beauty salon, a whirlpool in the centre of the gym and 10 treatment rooms for spa therapies, ranging from aroma hot stone massages and acupuncture to facials and body wraps. Prices are steep, as on all ships, ranging from around $65 for a pedicure and $95 for a man's shave to $155 for a 50-minute hot stone massage. Watch out for combo packages and port specials for discounted pricing.

Free fitness classes held in the decent-sized aerobics room include stretching, abs workouts, Chinese longevity exercises and boot camp; group cycling classes were held on a couple of days for around $12. The class options were minimal compared with other cruise lines: no yoga or Pilates and only two to three fitness classes held each day. The morning stretching class we attended was popular, despite the early start time, while the afternoon spinning class we peeked in at only had three participants. Perhaps by the afternoon, people are already ensconced in a sunny spot up on deck or too busy with other activities.

The gym itself features a tiered design, so you get ocean views from every piece of equipment. In addition to weight machines and free weights, the fitness centre offers stationary and recumbent bikes, cross-trainers, stair climbers, treadmills and a rowing machine. Be warned that the steam from the whirlpool does rise, making the temperature on the upper tiers a little warm. We went to work out first thing in the morning on the first sea day and had to wait in line for a spot on a cardio machine. (Every machine was in use, with the exception of a stair-stepper and a recumbent bike.) We were told that the crowd thins out after a few days, but we simply switched our workouts to a later hour. If you've got late-seating dinner, head to the gym at 6 p.m. The only people in there are crewmembers because they know it won't be crowded. (We saw several dancers and one of the ship's engineers.)

Nutrition programmes and body composition analyses are available for a fee, and the free seminars found on most ships (Secrets to a Flatter Stomach, Eat More to Weigh Less, etc.) are held on Carnival Spirit, as well.

There are two jogging tracks onboard. The longer Deck 10 track is only available for running in the early morning or evening because daytime runners would have to hurdle lounge chairs, dodge drink waiters and race past passengers snapping pictures of their friends at sea. As it is, you'll have to dodge walkers and early-bird sunbathers who take over the deck. Three-and-a-half laps equal a mile (or 1.6 kilometers). The Deck 11 track at the front of the ship is 14 laps per mile (or 1.6 kilometers), and you'll circle the nine-hole mini-golf course and basketball court again and again and again. Wear your seabands so you don't get dizzy! The mini-golf course isn't outfitted with crazy obstacles like windmills or water features, but its top-deck location with all the wind and ship movement make it a more challenging game than you'd expect. Ping-Pong tables are located on Deck 10 overlooking the pools. A golf simulator on Deck 10 mid-ship lets passengers practice their swings and putts.

Three swimming pools (two mid-ship, one aft) are each flanked by a hot tub and freezing-cold showers to wash off the salt water. Sculptures of evil-looking green birds tower over each pool; we're really not sure why. One of the mid-ship pools is covered by a retractable dome for all-weather use. Plastic lounge chairs with plastic mesh seats are plentiful throughout Decks 9 to 11; be careful when you recline or adjust the back height of the loungers, just in case they're broken. The Lido Deck stage is the place for poolside music and silly pool games, such as beanbag toss, the Chicken Olympics (a series of games involving rubber chickens) and ice-carving.

Carnival WaterWorks is a top-ship space comprising two waterslides (a traditional yellow Twister slide and Green Thunder, a 180-foot-long tube that begins with a near-vertical drop) and the Splash Zone for kids, which features a new Power Drencher -- a huge bucket that periodically dumps water on passengers -- and two purple mini-waterslides.

One deck below is the Serenity deck space, Carnival's signature adults-only retreat, featuring a pool, hot tub and plenty of super-plush loungers, hammocks and pod lounges -- two-person cane huts for luxuriating out of the sun. These cozy pods are extremely popular, and there have been complaints of partying types crashing out in them overnight (after too much booze) and commandeering them for the whole day or people getting up before dawn to stake their claim on a pod. Let's hope Carnival sorts out what could be a very contentious issue.

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