Carnival alters course with Spirit

Cruise editor Brian Major recently sampled a three-day preview cruise to nowhere aboard Carnival Cruise Lines' newest ship, the 2,124-passenger Carnival Spirit. His review follows:

MIAMI -- Carnival Spirit isn't the biggest ship in Carnival Cruise Lines' massive fleet nor is it a neon-lighted center of constant activity, like 1980s-era Carnival vessels.

Instead Spirit, which entered service in early May, represents the company's evolution from the days when Carnival stood for nonstop entertainment.

The core audience that once celebrated Carnival's cruise ships as party vessels has matured.

While some traditions die hard (there are still bathing-suit-stuffing contests on Carnival ships), the character of Carnival cruises has changed so much that company officials say they will host more weddings and vow-renewal services in 2002 than another high-profile vacation resort, Walt Disney World.

According to Vicki Freed, Carnival's senior vice president of sales and marketing, "We haven't changed the 'Fun Ship' experience; it's broadened.

"Years ago, one of the main benefits of cruising was that you got away from it all," said Freed. "Now, passengers don't really want to get away from it all; they want more options. Their concept of 'fun' has changed."

Entrance to the Pharoah's Palace show lounge.To be sure, groups of partying singles can still be found aboard Carnival ships, but you're just as likely to run into young couples with children, 40- and 50-something baby boomers and multigenerational families.

In many respects, Carnival Spirit reflects this change in the line's core audience.

Like other Carnival vessels, Spirit features a soaring, nine-deck atrium lobby.

But the Las Vegas-inspired themes of past Carnival ships have been replaced here by an art deco flavor, which gives the room a more sophisticated character.

The lobby has two grand staircases and a bar with a dance floor, and furnishings are tasteful with rich wood and antiqued copper.

The ceiling features stained-glass domes, and walls and elevators feature marble inlaid frames and embossed copper trim.

On the third deck, the Deco Walk, a long corridor that connects several shops and lounges, is disappointingly similar to walkways on other Carnival ships, but it is among the few spots that are reminiscent of the line's past.

Overall, Carnival has adopted a more fanciful approach that emphasizes diversity. Club Cool, Spirit's jazz club, is a good example of the line's changing approach.

With its smooth, black-and-red leather decor, Club Cool has the authentic feel of a Greenwich Village jazz club.

Unfortunately, the two-member band that performed during my sailing played contemporary soft-rock music. Carnival would do well to hire authentic jazz musicians to play this room.

Carnival Spirit at sea.Carnival Spirit uses the line's revamped Carnival Total Choice Dining program, another concession to consumer demand for more shipboard options. The system allows guests in Spirit's Empire Restaurant (the ship's formal dining venue) to eat when and with whom they want or opt for the traditional two-seating dining experience.

In addition to the main dining venue, Carnival features several other dining options, including a 24-hour pizzeria, a poolside restaurant and the ship's lido restaurant, which offers breakfast and lunch buffets.

At night, the lido transforms into a seaview bistro, offering casual-style dinner service. During the day, the lido restaurant also includes meat-carving and pasta stations, a New York-style deli and Asian and Italian specialty stations.

Another specialty restaurant, the Nouveau Supper Club, is located above the lido dining area on deck 10.

The supper club is a welcome addition to the Carnival fleet.

Located under a red-tinted glass dome that forms the front of the ship's funnel, the venue gives off the upscale, exclusive feel of a private dinner club.

The decor combines pillars shaped like Tiffany-style flower buds with hand-painted wall murals. There is a display cooking area with bar stools, where passengers can watch the cooks at work. The venue also features a stage and a dance floor.

I enjoyed a very good meal at Club Nouveau, although lighting problems plagued the early portion of our dinner as table lamps occasionally gave way to obtrusive flood lighting. This is a venue that's best appreciated under soft lighting.

Spirit houses a variety of other venues noteworthy for their diversity.

The three-level Pharaoh's Palace show lounge is decorated in Egyptian Revival style. The entrance features sarcophagi modeled after King Tutankhamen's, and 20-foot-tall stone figures flank the stage.

The Chapel, decorated in elegant Gothic style, is designed in the style of a traditional house of worship and is available for weddings and other ceremonies.

The two-level Dancin' Dance Club is one of the best of its sort, with a large dance floor on the lower level and a bar and seating that overlook the dance floor on the upper level.

The two-deck construction even allows wallflowers to play it cool, as they can observe the proceedings from a comfortable distance.

Diversity also extends to the ship's stateroom categories. Besides 624 standard outside staterooms with balconies, the ship offers 68 staterooms with French doors, 52 suites and six penthouse suites.

Of course, one thing that hasn't changed much is Carnival's emphasis on fun. Everyone seemed to have a good time during our brief voyage, which isn't too hard to understand since this ship has a little bit of everything.

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI