Carnival Spirit puts on speed to expand its itinerary and port options

Cruise editor Brian Major and his 16-year-old son, Derek, joined an eight-day cruise to Belize, Costa Rica and Panama aboard Carnival Cruise Lines' 2,214-passenger Carnival Spirit. His report follows:

Carnival Spirit is the first ship in what Carnival calls the Spirit class, a series of vessels designed to be as large as possible while still narrow enough to transit the Panama Canal.

The ability to transit the canal was key for the line, as it needed a large, feature-filled ship to cruise the high-yield Alaska market in the summer and the core Caribbean arena in the winter.

Carnival Spirit, which debuted last spring, will split 2002 between the Caribbean and Alaska. True to Carnival's intentions, the vessel -- which debuted last spring -- will split 2002 between the Caribbean and Alaska. The Spirit will offer eight-day Caribbean voyages through March, plus Hawaii and Panama Canal cruises in April and May.

Following those voyages will be seven-day Alaska sailings through early September. The ship then spends November and December back in the Caribbean.

The Spirit is an unusual ship in other respects, the advantages of which became clear during the course of our trip.

For starters, the ship is fast. Designed to cruise at 21 to 22 knots with a maximum speed of 24 knots, the Spirit is faster than most other large ships. Its speed was intended to expand the vessel's range and, thus, its itinerary options.

The ship's current itinerary illustrates the benefits of its design. The Spirit's unusual eight-day program -- one day at sea; a call in Belize City, Belize; another day at sea; back-to-back calls in Limon, Costa Rica, and Colon, Panama, followed by third and fourth sea days -- would not be achievable on most cruise ships departing from Miami.

The vessel's speed also enables it to wander to farther-flung ports less visited by mainstream ships. That was certainly the case during our voyage.

Our journey began with a day at sea, a great way to begin any cruise. Sea days enable passengers to relax, explore the ship and prepare for the upcoming port calls.

The trick worked here, as groups of passengers strolled the Spirit's generous open decks and lounged around each of its three pools throughout the first day. Our ship was full, the weather was excellent and everyone seemed to be having a good time.

Much of the enjoyment was due in no small measure to the ship itself. The vessel offers a little bit of almost everything. Staterooms are spacious and tastefully decorated, and facilities offer a diverse collection of attractions and activities.

Service is friendly and efficient, although some areas need improvement.

The ship's decor parallels that of a contemporary upscale hotel, with a variety of wood and leather furnishings, metal and marble accents and richly colored soft goods. I found the Gauguin reproductions in the Deco Lounge particularly welcoming.

The vessel gives an overall impression of a cruise product that has become better as its passengers have matured, and Carnival has changed with its passengers.

To be sure, our fellow passengers were -- like the line's passengers throughout its more than 30-year history -- in search of Carnival's core experience: Fun.

But though the line once was known for its younger clientele, our Carnival contingent consisted largely of 40- to 60-year-olds, people who I found to be heavily drawn from among professionals, business owners and civil servants.

This passenger group was easily the most ethnically and racially diverse I've encountered in nearly 10 years of cruise reporting.

There were quite a few honeymooning couples, and although there were some young parents with young children, there were probably more 40-something parents with their teen-age kids -- a category into which I fell myself.

While there was plenty of organized daytime action around the midship "Sun" pool during our sailing, the Spirit also considers passengers in search of more sedate outdoor, daytime areas, with several spots that are practically secluded from other areas of the vessel.

Most passengers appeared to be quite content with the ship's facilities, no matter what their area of interest.

Derek clearly fell into that category, as did most of the friends he made within days after boarding. In fact, he told me most of his friends turned down their parents' invitations to participate in shore excursions. Many were simply happier to walk around port areas or stay aboard the ship.

And why not? The Spirit has all the features that make a large ship so enjoyable. Deck 2 offers Pharaoh's Palace, a two-level showroom; the Fountain Cafe, a quiet spot for drinks, and the Champion's Bar, a sports bar with banks of televisions and memorabilia adorning the walls.

Also on Deck 2 are the Louis XIV casino, which was well-patronized during our voyage, and the ship's main lobby, which also serves as the ground floor of a soaring atrium that rises to Deck 10.

The second deck also holds a dance club and the Empire Restaurant, which like the Pharaoh's Palace extends two levels up to Deck 3.

Deck 3 is another hotbed of activity, with a library and Internet facility, a chapel (the first on a Carnival ship), a piano bar, a flower shop and a row of stores and boutiques that together form the most retail space available on any Carnival vessel.

Next is the Deco lounge, a quiet spot for intimate conversation. Directly adjacent is a cigar bar with a small but well-chosen collection of cigars.

Decks 5 through 8 are largely made up of passenger staterooms, with the exception of a children's fun house on Deck 5.

Deck 9, the ship's lido deck, features the three pools and an indoor/outdoor food facility that offers a variety of options from 24-hour pizza to grilled food, Asian specialities, pasta and deli sandwiches.

The midship pool features a retractable cover, and there are three whirlpool spas.

Deck 9 also features a fully equipped gymnasium that overlooks the bow and extends up one level. The facility also includes a spa, beauty salon and a whirlpool spa.

Deck 10's highlight is the Nouveau Supper Club, a terrific venue that successfully creates the atmosphere of an intimate supper club with live music, low lighting and a very good steakhouse menu.

The Spirit's cuisine is excellent, particularly when compared with other mass-market operators.

The only complaint here is the service. Intended to be leisurely -- so that passengers enjoy their company as well as their meal -- the service toes the thin line dividing leisurely from just plain slow.

Worse yet, our hostess, an eastern European woman, was very nice but not very experienced and clearly not familiar with North American passengers or their preferences.

Then again, with a relatively new ship like the Spirit, matters such as these are usually worked out after the vessel has cruised for a length of time.

There is no better example of the ship's diversity than the habits of my son and myself.

While Derek preferred to stroll around the ship with his friends, bouncing from the video game room on Deck 4 to the disco to just about everywhere else, I was content to find a quiet spot to read, sunbathe and enjoy the excellent weather.

Within a day, I found the perfect spot -- the sunbathing area on Deck 10. Secluded and relatively difficult to notice, the area was always quiet, drenched in sun and frequented by no more than 10 to 15 people throughout the cruise.

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