Louise Goldsbury joins the party as the world's biggest line sets sail with the spirit of Australia.
Carnival Cruise Lines advertised that the Carnival Spirit, its first ship to be based full time in Australian waters, would undergo an "Aussification" - and it seems the locals liked what they heard. When the vessel enters Sydney Heads today, winding up a 16-night voyage from Hawaii, its contingent of Australian passengers will be visible. Many will be on the vessel's top decks, drinks raised, leading a welcome-to- Australia party.
"The Aussies are ready," says the senior vice-president of guest operations for Carnival, Mark Tamis. "They're going to bring the ship in for us."
Carnival, the world's biggest cruise company, has spent $US7 million ($6.9 million) stripping the vessel of American apparel to fit with the needs of Australian passengers, including installing Australian power points and switching the on-board currency to our dollar. The changes extend to the drinks menu. VB, New and Carlton Draught is on tap, bottles of Pure Blonde and Crownies are in fridges. The "sav blanc" is from Marlborough, the "cab sav" from McLaren Vale.
Fat Jimmy's, a barbecue on the ship's highest deck, is tipped to be the hot spot on board this summer. Here, passengers can order slow-cooked pulled pork, smoky chicken breast or Black Angus beef sausages, with salads, jacket potatoes and onion rings. A few steps up - literally and gastronomically - is the Spirit's Nouveau Steakhouse, the only restaurant on board that attracts a surcharge ($35 for four courses). The steakhouse is worth every cent: prime cuts are wheeled to your table prior to cooking, seafood options include lobster tail and ahi tuna tartare, and service is excellent.
Another change is the launch of theme nights. Beyond the usual fancy dress parties that are held on cruises, Spirit staff start the fun at dinner. Meals and drinks match the theme, and waiters break into choreographed dance moves. Then the party moves to the pool deck, with live music, themed cocktails, games and giveaways.
Interestingly, when Carnival asked its Australian Facebook fans to vote on favourite themes, locals expressed the same preferences as American passengers: Mexican fiesta and Caribbean beach party. Pack your sombrero and practise your reggae moves; these party styles are set to be held on every cruise.
Spirit's most advertised attraction, Green Thunder, is billed as the world's steepest waterslide at sea. It lives up to the hype. The almost vertical drop induces shock and awe in equal measure.
While cruising, I took note of a few on-board costs to see if prices would increase with "Aussification". However, most items appear to be roughly the same in price. A shampoo, cut and dry starts at $65 (compared with $US59). A Swedish massage is $131 - not inexpensive, but not bad for a day spa on the ocean. Childcare fees (night only; daytime is free) are about $6 an hour, a bargain for parents who want a hassle-free evening.
Spirit's drawback is its decor: key interiors swing from art deco style to abstract, Egyptian Revival to postmodern. The clash of colours and patterns is dazzling and there's a lack of natural light in the central atrium. However, the interiors may encourage people to stay on deck and have fun in the sun - which is the point of taking a Carnival cruise in the first place.
Best spots on board
Head for the ship's Serenity adults-only retreat before everyone else works out where it is.
Just before sunset is another ideal time to curl up on a cabana or have a spa at Serenity. Plus, Serenity's outdoor bar is open later than most (until 3am or 4am, if people are still buying).
At breakfast, fresh omelets are also available at La Playa Grille buffet's back counter - where the queue is shorter.
For lunch, be pampered by waiters in the Empire Restaurant (12-1.30pm).
At dinner, choose "any time" seating or help yourself at La Playa Grille.
The Green Thunder waterslide is busy between 11am-3pm, or try it on port days, when most people are on land.
Louise Goldsbury travelled courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines.
Carnival Spirit arrives in Sydney today, passing through Sydney heads at 8.30am and arriving at Circular Quay at 9.30am. Itineraries include cruising to New Zealand and the south Pacific islands, as well as short sailings in Australian waters. See carnival.com.au.
All hands on deck
New ships are arriving as Australia's summer cruise season gets under way.
The largest ship heading our way, Royal Caribbean's 15-deck megaliner Voyager of the Seas, sails down Australia's west coast next month, arriving in Fremantle on November 5 to begin its debut season in our waters. It docks in Melbourne on November 11, then heads to Hobart and New Zealand before arriving in Sydney on November 22.
Voyager is too tall to sail under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The ship can carry 3840 passengers and 1176 crew, who supervise 10 swimming pools and spas, 15 bars and lounges, sports courts, restaurants, theatres, a casino, kids' clubs and a vast duty-free shopping arcade.
It has features never before seen on liners in Australian waters, including an ice-skating rink, central promenade lined with shops and cafes, and DreamWorks movie characters.
Voyager's first visit to Sydney coincides with the departure of Celebrity Millennium, of sister company Celebrity Cruises, as it heads to Asia. The two ships are set to cross paths in the harbour in a historic evening rendezvous near Fort Denison.
Australians are taking to cruising in record numbers, lured by the convenience of affordable, inclusive holiday packages and the opportunity to sail on more ships to more destinations. Last year, the Australian cruising market grew by 30 per cent to more than 500,000 passengers, according to industry figures.
Melbourne Ports' summer cruise ship schedule for 2012-13 has more than 60 vessels docking at Station Pier from next month; Sydney Ports' cruise ship schedule is at least double that. The Carnival Spirit is taking up a full-time home in Australia's waters to take advantage of growth (see story at left), while the youngest and most modern ship to be based in this region, the sleek Celebrity Solstice, begins cruising from Australian ports from December until April. The 2850-passenger Solstice has one of the largest day spas at sea, an ice-topped martini bar, award-winning dining and the Lawn Club, which has a stretch of freshly manicured grass for play or picnics.
Another giant setting up home for the summer is Holland America's 2388-passenger Oosterdam. Built in 2003, the ship makes its maiden call to Sydney on October 24, Hobart two days later, Brisbane on November 9 and docks in Melbourne on February 8.
Queen Mary 2 also returns in February to undertake its inaugural circumnavigation of New Zealand. As well as all these big (mostly temporary) ships, the small yet elegant Seabourn Quest is coming. Radiance of the Seas is here for the summer season; its Royal Caribbean fleet mate, Rhapsody of the Seas, is due to arrive in Sydney tomorrow. Carnival's Australian-based fleet, comprising P&O and Princess ships, carry about 325,000 passengers a year from Australian ports, mostly on itineraries to New Zealand and the south Pacific, as well as to Asian destinations.
This season, they are sharing ports with so many new ships that the docks look busier than ever. By the end of the 2012-13 summer "wave season" in April, the cruise industry will have experienced a 25 per cent increase.