Come on down

As a Carnival liner prepares for its October debut in Sydney, Joanna Hall heads to the US to inspect its 'Aussification'.

It was a chilly spring afternoon as Carnival Spirit pulled out of San Diego's picturesque harbour, embarking on a five-night jaunt along Mexico's Baja coastline to Cabo San Lucas.

For the families on board it was an early Easter break, while for the small clutch of "spring breakers" it was the last chance to party before heading back to college. For us, however, it was an opportunity to take a sneak peek at one of the latest ships to call Australia home, before its debut in October.

We headed back to take a ride on Green Thunder.

The announcement that Carnival Cruise Lines was sending Spirit Down Under in 2012 made headlines for many reasons; it would be the first Carnival ship to be based outside the US permanently, as well as the largest ship based in Australia year-round. It was news of its "Aussification", however, that grabbed everyone's attention.

It was a full cruise, so immediately after boarding we took a tour to view its many types of accommodation. My first impressions were how colourful it was and how the Carnival Cruise Lines design architect, Joe Farcus, loved orange.

Spirit has been through the first of two makeovers, a large one in January costing more than $7 million, which included an update of its staterooms. The range of accommodation is impressive, from spacious inside staterooms to several large, elaborate suites. It has staterooms with three or four berths, and interconnecting staterooms that are ideal for families.

Our accommodation for the cruise was a balcony stateroom, which will be popular among couples in Australia. The decor featured plenty of orange tones in the wood and soft furnishings and it was surprisingly spacious, with plenty of storage, a decent-sized bathroom and standard amenities including a minibar, flat-screen television, hairdryer and toiletries.

A day at sea gave us time to explore some of Spirit's other features, in particular those that formed part of the "Aussification". With 600 junior cruisers on board, typical for a school-holiday cruise to Mexico, you might expect kids under your feet all the time. If they were, however, you could always escape to Serenity retreat.

A new addition to Spirit's line-up, occupying the back of deck nine, this spacious retreat is exclusively for over-18s - and free. Besides hammocks, sunbeds, cabanas and comfy loungers, it also features a pool, a large heated spa and a bar. It's the largest Serenity in the fleet, designed to maximise the outdoors year-round on Spirit's itineraries of Australia and the tropics.

The only port of call on the cruise was Cabo San Lucas, on the southern tip of Baja California and a beach-lover's paradise with a nightlife that's become legendary. Thanks to priority tendering, we hopped off the ship before the masses to take a walk along the beach and reacquaint ourselves with this perennially popular resort.

Cabo has expanded considerably, evolving from a quaint Mexican fishing village into a North American-style playground. It's lost much of its authentic personality but as a port of call it remains high on the list for many cruise fans.

Before long, we took advantage of our fellow cruisers being ashore and headed back to Spirit to take a ride on Green Thunder. A new addition to Spirit and the Carnival fleet is the SplashZone - a kids' haven that features a giant bucket called the Power Drencher, which fills up with water then tips over, soaking everyone beneath it.

There's also WaterWorks, on the very top deck, which is home to two water slides. Twister is one, but Green Thunder, the steepest and fastest water slide at sea (and designed by an Australian cruise fan by way of a competition), grabs the spotlight for good reason.

Just climbing to the top of the platform is exciting enough; the view across Cabo's expansive harbour was breathtaking. Then you climb inside a capsule, cross your arms over your chest and wait. Seconds later, the floor disappears and you plunge downwards, zipping and twisting your way through a bright-green tube flowing with water, until you're spat out at the bottom.

Our last few days on board were consumed with enjoying Spirit's other facilities. They included the fitness centre, which had benefited from a huge investment in new cardio and weight machines in the recent makeover, and the spa, which offered a full menu of treatments.

Spirit's menus of alcoholic drinks and food are also a big focus in its "Aussification" but they won't change until after it's completed its season in Alaska. Spirit is expected to retain its existing three dining venues, with the only confirmed addition a yet-to-be-built Aussie Outdoor Barbecue.

Although Spirit already has an Australian cruise director, Sydneysider Stu Dunn, entertainment will be overhauled to better reflect the tastes of its new home and the final stage of its transformation will take place in Sydney, where it'll receive Australian power points, new pokies and adopt the local currency.

Carnival is breaking new ground with the deployment of Spirit to Australia, adding a colourful new twist to the growing fleet of ships cruising our backyard next summer.

The writer travelled courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines.

Need to know

Guests 2124 at double occupancy.

Staterooms 1062 including six penthouse suites, 44 suites and 632 with balconies.

Dining Four venues including the Empire dining room offering fixed seating and flexible dining, the buffet La Playa Grill and Nouveau Steakhouse, which attracts a per head surcharge.

Bars and lounges 16, including one for karaoke and one for comedy shows.

Other facilities Four pools, four heated spas, wi-fi throughout, laundrettes, duty-free shops, clubs and activities catering for kids aged 2-17, babysitting services, spa and fitness centre, minigolf and jogging track.

The facts

Carnival Spirit will operate year-round cruises to the south Pacific and New Zealand from Sydney, with its maiden voyage departing on October 20. A 10-night south Pacific cruise to New Caledonia and Vanuatu, departing on December 6, is priced from $1080 for an inside stateroom, $1230 for an ocean-view stateroom and $1330 for a balcony stateroom. All fares are per person, based on twin sharing. 13 31 94,