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The “Aha!” moment came early, when the ship’s engines first heaved into motion, and we began leaving port for the open sea. Although I’ve traveled to more than 50 countries, this would be my first ocean cruise. The Carnival Spirit embarked from San Diego and would take us on an eight-day itinerary with stops in Acapulco, Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa and Manzanillo, Mexico.
“For travel agents to book Carnival properly, they have to know the ships,” said Keith Bunton, hotel director, Carnival Cruise Lines. “We have so many ships and itineraries, and we have something for everyone.”
Bunton observed that it was important for guests to be matched with the right experience.
The Spirit delivers on its fun-ship promise. // (C) 2010 Mark Rogers
“While there are different ships and itineraries, the common theme is fun,” he explained. “This is something we market to — our ships are not stuffy at all.”
The fun aspect of the cruise was easy to access. I was a little apprehensive about the number of full days at sea (five) but, with plenty of dining options, a casino, a nightclub, lectures, bingo, a spa, pools, Jacuzzis and nightly entertainment, the hours on board flew by.
As a first-time cruiser, I found my cabin to be comfortable, with ample space to stow gear. The cabin’s spacious balcony felt more like a small deck, and the privacy and fresh air it afforded made a pleasant afternoon break from the hustle-and-bustle of the ship. I also appreciated the attentive but discreet stewards who made up the room twice a day.
When Bunton heard how much I enjoyed the cabin, he agreed and said, “The only way to go is by booking a balcony cabin.”
The ship’s main restaurant is the Empire Restaurant. On the first night, when we arrived for the 8:15 p.m. dinner seating, I was concerned — the line was huge. But in minutes we began moving at a brisk clip, and all 1,300 of us were promptly seated. It was a real exercise in organization. The Empire Restaurant’s menu changed nightly and was varied, with choices running the gamut from New York strip steak to an Indian vegetarian entree.
I also found the Nouveau Supper Club to be a great value at only $30 per person. The restaurant is on Deck 10, seemingly miles away from the hubbub of the Empire Restaurant. Drinks are extra, the wine list is varied and you can order by the glass or by the bottle. The service was impeccable.
Bunton informed me that the Nouveau Supper Club was only weeks away from transforming into the Nouveau Steak House (a change that is now in place).
“The Nouveau Steak House will be a little more casual, a little livelier,” he explained. “It will also have a typical three-course steakhouse menu, as opposed to its current menu serving five courses.”
Mixing it UpOnboard, the passengers were a mix of honeymooners, families with kids and couples. There was even a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender group called the Friends of Dorothy. Altogether, it was a very friendly and unpretentious atmosphere — definitely not a jaded crowd. My impression was that the cost of a cruise didn’t come easy to many of the passengers, and they weren’t going to let anything get in the way of having a good time.
I saw lots of multigenerational groups traveling together. During the cruise, I also met passengers from England, India, Russia and the Middle East. The majority were from the U.S., especially from California.
“It’s been Carnival’s strategy to foster a drive-in market,” said Bunton. “Passengers save money by not having to fly in.”
Bunton also noted that a growing trend in shore excursions is all-inclusive resort day stays; for example, passengers on my cruise could opt for a day at the all-inclusive Club Med Ixtapa Pacific.
Carnival has an enviable 50 percent repeat ratio, and this was reflected in my sailing, where 1,250 of the total 2,500 passengers were repeat guests. A casual canvassing of passengers found them to be a satisfied bunch that would return for a subsequent cruise on the Carnival Spirit.
Even those without children found the presence of kids a positive rather than a negative factor. I was surprised to learn that there were 700 kids onboard — it didn’t seem like nearly that many. One exception to wholeheartedly embracing the cruise was a couple who were first-time cruisers. They would do things a little differently the second time around.
“We’d definitely cruise again on Carnival, but next time we’d choose an adults-only cruise with a three-day itinerary,” the couple said. “The eight-day itinerary was a little long for us.”
“The eight-day itinerary is not easy for everyone,” said Bunton. “It’s hard for many people to get away for that long.”
Bunton did mention that yield has gone down from what the company was seeing two years ago.
“This results in a real positive for agents and their clients,” he said. “The deals right now are terrific.”
Carnival Cruise Lines 888-555-5555www.carnival.com
Ship: Carnival SpiritTotal Staterooms: 1,062 (Interior, Ocean View; Balcony; Junior; Ocean and Vista suites; Grand Suite) Decks: 12 Total Crew: 9302010 Spring Sailing Dates: March 3, 6, 11, 19, 27 and April 4
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