South Pacific cruise on Carnival Spirit: Cruising food so cheap, it may as well be free

Here's the boat-drill.

Help yourself to a couple of spicy tacos or a burger with the lot. Order a cold beer or an icy margarita. Grab a deck chair by the pool, mosey it slightly out of the sun and angle it just so as to catch a good view of the big movie screen. Now settle in and relax. Perfect. 

This could well become the default position onboard the new-look Carnival Spirit this summer as the ship makes its way around the South Pacific.

The deck 9 mid-ship pool looks set to become the place to be following a $44 million renovation, the second and most expensive facelift that the 88,500-ton, 2124-passenger ship has had since it began cruising local waters in September 2012.

Carnival Spirit is all about fun and now the Lido Deck, aka deck 9, is the place to find it. Each of the four corners flanking the pool sports a new bar or eatery, while the big new screen is suspended on the back wall.

In the blue corner, (literally) there's the BlueIguana Cantina serving tacos and burritos for lunch, and a breakfast version for the early risers who like a hint of chilli. The choice of fillings runs to chicken, beef, fish and beans, and there's a hearty tray of salsas and toppings to help yourself to. The cantina's buddy across the pool, the BlueIguana Tequila Bar, serves south-of-the-border beers, such as Cerveza, along with margaritas and other Tequila-based drinks.

In the red corner, the RedFrog Rum Bar is the place to sample Caribbean concoctions like daiquiris, pina coladas and mojitos served by the glass or the pitcher.

The fourth corner houses a "designer" burger outlet. Every ship worth its salt has a celebrity chef and Carnival Spirit's is Guy Fieri, an American TV personality, cook-book author and owner of seven burger and grill bars in California.

While Fieri isn't behind the counter at Guy's Burger Joint, he has devised a special burger for Aussie passengers – the Boomerang. It distinguishes itself by the addition of beetroot relish, a hip little condiment to replace the usual canned vegetable that many crave. 

What's interesting about Carnival Spirit's recent renovation (which added three restaurants, four bars, new production shows and redesigned kids' clubs) is that these two outdoor eateries are included in the price of the cruise fare. 

Nowadays cruise lines are finding more ways to generate revenue and adding speciality or extra-fee restaurants is often the way. 

The third new restaurant, Bonsai Sushi, is so cheap it may as well be free.

While I like sushi I'm certainly no aficionado, however I'd say the fare at Bonsai is some of the best around. We ordered too much, not realising that the servings are big.

Starters including our Wagyu Kakuni (braised wagyu short ribs with caramelised onion) are delicious and just $5 a serve, while the bonsai noodle soup is $3 and the large California roll (which is actually about 10 small pieces) is a mere $6. A bento box of soup, side salad, several pieces of sushi and a California roll is $12.  Desserts of green tea cupcake or a yuzu custard are a snip at $2 apiece and Japanese beers and sake are also on the menu.

Cruise lines rely on the bars as revenue spinners and Carnival Spirit has also added three new indoor bars by sprucing up old venues and hiving off "dead" areas of the ship.

The former Club Cool on Deck 2 has morphed into the RedFrog Pub (I never discover the significance of the RedFrog moniker). A Caribbean bar meets Irish pub, it sells the usual drinks and an especially "commissioned" Aussie craft beer, Thirsty Frog Summer Ale, brewed by the Lord Nelson pub in The Rocks. 

The adjacent SkyBox Sports Bar, which was the old Champions Bar, has had a facelift with the addition of all sorts of video sports games from the US-owned EA Sports company, and a wall of TV screens. It means nothing to me but sports' fans will no doubt love to play virtual tennis and soccer while having a beer.

But the place expected to be the coolest watering hole on the ship is Alchemy, which has taken over an unused corner of the Artists' Lounge on Deck 2. Here patrons armed with prescription-style pads can devise their own cocktails from a choice of spirits and flavours. I tick cognac as my base liquor, ginger from an array of fruits on offer, elderflower from the savoury items on offer and for the finale decide on "aromatic" from the list of bitters. 

The barman peels and muddles the ginger in the glass, adds a drop or two of elderflower and lemon, and splashes in the cognac. I love it, but others who have a sip purse their lips and push it away!

Drinkers who don't want to risk conjuring up a disastrous libation need not worry as the barman will concoct something tasty. As this is tipped to be a hot ticket, it pays to get there early in the night to secure a seat at the bar. 

Carnival's decision to spend $44 million updating its 14-year-old ship is all about keeping up with, if not overtaking, the competition. The cruise line has two ships cruising Down Under (sibling is Carnival Legend) but it's hardly alone. P&O Cruises has just added two "new" ships to its fleet (they were previously part of Holland America Line and have had expensive makeovers) and Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean have added more ships Down Under this season. 

While Carnival certainly has the edge when it comes to hair-raising waterslides – in the convoluted shape of the much-hyped Green Thunder slide – it also has an unsung gem in its Chef's Table. It has to be the best degustation-at-sea meal I've had and it's another bargain. While many cruise ships offer a degustation or multi-course dinner in some guise or other, generally passengers don't know about them, or don't want to spend the extra dosh. But here's my tip – book it and book it early. 

With a maximum of 12 diners, our degustation starts with a tour of the galley and the sampling of several appetisers, while sipping sparkling wine, as the executive chef talks over the clatter of pots and pans. The morsels, such as salmon tartare cornets and beef carpaccio on an "air pillow" are exquisite. 

Our group moves onto the special dining location – the nightclub – where a table is set up under the mirror balls and lights that normally flash when the disco is pumping come 11pm. Here another seven courses are delivered, dish by dish (with fantastic vegan options, as my companion attests) and all accompanied by freely-poured red and white wine. Among the dishes are barramundi and wagyu beef, and a tasting plate of dessert treats. At $75 all up, it's a crime not to give it a go.

Wherever one dines at night, be it in the Empire dining room, the Lido buffet or at Bonsai, it's always a dinner-and-a-show kind of experience. After the meal there's a new option apart from the Broadway-style productions on offer. Now you can grab a deck chair, settle in under the stars, with popcorn and blanket, and watch a first run movie on the big screen. 

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

carnival.com.au

CRUISING THERE

Carnival Spirit is one of Carnival Cruises' two ships sailing in the South Pacific, New Zealand and coastal waters. Carnival Spirit cruises year-round and Carnival Legend arrived in Australia in October 2015 for the summer season. Discounted fares are on sale until December 14, 2015; they include a 10-night New Caledonia and Vanuatu cruise on Carnival Spirit departing Sydney on April 15, 2016, starting at $1099 a person twin share and a five-night Tasmania cruise departing Sydney on January 29, 2016, starting at $649.50 a person twin share.

Caroline Gladstone was a guest of Carnival Cruise Lines.  

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