It's a long review, sorry! My previous cruises have been with Princess. After reading reviews and speaking to friends/relatives who have been on Carnival, I did not have high expectations. However, Carnival exceeded my expectations and I will be sailing with them again.
Hotel: We drove to Long Beach Thursday night and checked into the Queen Mary Hotel. The hotel is very convenient for Carnival cruises as it shares the parking lot and the early check-in is actually on the QM. The old girl is looking a bit tired these days but it was clean and comfortable. Parking is $14/day either in the Carnival garage or in the QM lot.
Boarding: The Carnival early check-in office is near the engine room. There were no lines when we checked in at 9:45. We dropped off our bags with the porter in the parking garage and then toured the QM. We were in Zone 1 and could have boarded around 11:30, but waited until after the rush. We boarded at 1:45 and were through security and on the ship in about 10 minutes.
Of course going from the QM (elegant) to the Inspiration (loud) was quite a shock. Style is subjective, but I will say the Inspiration's interior design is not boring and is actually amusing. Our cabin was forward on Upper deck, so we headed down the staircase and found our cabin right away.
Cabin: The cabin was spotlessly clean. In contrast to the public spaces, the cabins are plain. Our cabin was an interior-porthole, which is the same as an ocean view but with two small portholes instead of a picture window. The shower was bigger than on Princess Grand-class ships and had awesome water pressure. The bed and linens were very comfortable.
We did notice a smoky smell in the cabin, so we went directly to Guest Services. I didn't go to complain, just wanted it noted so we would not be charged a cleaning fee. The crew was wonderful, over the next 18 hours we received two in-person inspections, a phone call, and a pot of coffee delivered as an apology. The smoke smell faded but came back a few times; someone must have been smoking near a vent on the decks above.
Ship: The ship was very clean (except for the windows which are impossible to keep clean) and well maintained. The Inspiration is an older ship, only has one pool and isn't as well 'coordinated' as newer ships, but was fine overall. Because there is only one pool, and given the nature of a 3-day cruise, the Lido area was always noisy and crowded so we tried to avoid the area. I did notice that the spas were always filled with people and lots of kids. Aren't kids under 13 supposed to avoid spas?
We had a difficult time finding a quiet space to read. Based on activities any one given area can be quiet one minute and crowded the next. We tried the Serenity adult-only area, but found some guests brought speakers and were playing music from their iPhones. Carnival did not stop this, and the music ruined the quiet atmosphere for me. Finally we ended up in the Chopin lounge and found comfortable lounges to use.
Food: The food was good to very good in the dining room but only fair in the buffet. We had 'Your Time' dining and were assigned the Mardi Gras dining room. Noel was our server the first night and we came back each night at the same time because of his and his team's excellent service. The food was generally good, but the menu choices were limited compared to Princess. The second night featured decent prime rib, so I was happy.
The first morning, we had breakfast in the buffet and were unimpressed, so we ate in the dining room the rest of the voyage and used the buffet only for snacks. Breakfast service was always good, lunch service not as much. Our poor lunch experience was due to our server also having a table of 10, then 12, then 14 (more kept coming) and they were pretty demanding, so our server was busy with them.
The deli sandwiches were decent, as was the pizza. Having the drink, ice cream (ice milk) and pizza stations open 24 hours was nice. We did not get to try the omelet bar, Mongolian BBQ or hamburger grill, but the food looked good. We tried the Martini sampler (8 different kinds) in the Chopin lounge and will get the sampler again.
Ensenada: The little cruise terminal is nice and has gift shops (of course) and clean bathrooms. We did the wine country tour, and had a great time -- highly recommended. Our tour guide Melanie was awesome (and from Quebec -- go figure). Keep in mind the tour can run late depending on the crowds at the wineries, our tour took nearly 5 hours. We each got a bottle of wine (and bought a bottle of champagne) that Carnival took from us upon boarding, but we got them back the last morning.
Entertainment: We watched one show: Shout. It was typical cruise-quality but a lot of fun. The Paris lounge seats (at least in the balcony) were very comfortable and roomy. We watched some of the on-board games and they were as expected. We did not attend any other shows or events but plenty were available.
Disembarkation: The worst part of any cruise, but it went fairly smoothly. You can stay in your cabins until 9:00. We left ours at 8:15 and hit the restaurant for breakfast. Just after 9:00 we went to the Paris lounge to wait for our group. Once called it took about 45 minutes to clear customs.
Overall: We had a good time and I liked Carnival more than I expected to. I'll take this cruise again, and will look at taking longer cruises on newer ships. The people were as expected; there were some drunk/obnoxious people but not as many as I'd feared. The Carnival crew was uniformly friendly and eager to please. Good job Carnival!