Carnival Inspiration 01/02/06, out of Tampa, FL, 5 nights, Grand Cayman and Cozumel ports of call.
GENERAL: 8th cruise, 1st on Carnival and apprehensive about it as we are 60 and prefer an older, quieter crowd. Have been a happy RCL/Celebrity customer. Pleasantly surprised. While the crowd is younger, drinks more and is a little rowdier, there were no incidents involving drunkenness that I saw (but we retire by midnight). While the crowd is different, it was definitely not a "show stopper" for us even though we're older more sedate travelers. Great value. Monday to Saturday, 5 day schedule is convenient. Tampa is an excellent departure city. Great kids programs. We prefer children "to be seen but not heard," and that's exactly how it played out. Carnival is noted to have very good children's programs. It seems they do as I never saw a miserable, whining child anywhere on the ship. I've seen plenty of miserable complaining older adults who are not happy about anything on Celebrity/RCL - there are less of those on CCL. A nice change. It all balances out.
EMBARKATION: Modern, efficient airport and cruise terminal in Tampa. 20 minute cab ride from the airport ($24.05 for 4). Porters take your bags, you proceed to check-in ($2 per bag is standard tip). Late arrival at Terminal (about 2:45) we were the only passengers being processed. Took 10 minutes to clear and board the ship (fill out your embarkation details on line, print out fun pass and present it to embarkation personnel - saves time). I'd recommend late arrival for families with small children who don't like to wait. A breeze and a quantum leap better than Miami and Fort Lauderdale arrival experience.
The Ship: Older ('95) but very clean and in good repair throughout. Cleanliness improved on day 2 - 4 which indicates good ship's officer supervision of maintenance staff. Difficult to move forward and aft because of partitioning but not a major drawback. Gaudy colors (purple and orange) and design in buffet dining area and elsewhere. Looks better at night. Somewhat cramped public spaces which we do not use a great deal anyway. Lots of open deck space and outside seating with tables compared to other ships - a nice feature that we liked. Beverage and serving stations well located and convenient. Typical pool arrangement.
Cabins/Pricing: We always book a guaranteed inside cabin to get the lowest rate about 90 days out and usually get upgraded to an outside cabin. It worked with Carnival. Typical price for the 5 day cruise is $400 for passengers 1 and 2 and $290 for passengers 3 and 4. There are benefits to being on the lower decks and amidships in the more "iffy" cruising months like January. You can experience some rough weather - we had one day (the last at sea day enroute back to Tamap) of 50 MPH winds and 25 foot seas. We had our 2, 20 something daughters with us in a 4 berth room. It worked out OK since no one ended up killing anyone despite shoes and hair dryers everywhere. Bath area as spacious as any I've seen. No 115 AC outlet in the bath area for hair dryers and no hair dryer provided. Bring one to plug in at main cabin desk. Very comfortable mattress and bedding. Poor AC controls and cabin tended to be on the cold side. Storage not well designed in cabin but adequate for 4 on a 5 day trip. Would be inadequate for a 7 day trip or more for 4. Good storage above the sink in the bath area. No shelving in the shower area but you can use the large sink surround - that works fine. Cabin service on a par with RCL/Celebrity maybe just a tad less visible but no problems. Stewards were friendly and responsive when asked.
ENTERTAINMENT. There was one good production show out of 5. We enjoy the shows so I was a little disappointed but not outraged. Sight lines are not optimal in the theater area but adequate if you watch where you sit. The seating is flat from back to front. Not good. Get there early. It fills up fast and the best seats go quickly. CCL pushes the photos - take advantage. You can have all the photos done you want for free. Get several at different locations on formal night. At the end of the cruise, pick just one or two that you really like. Its expensive to buy a bunch but if you get a couple of good shots of your party, its worth every penny to buy the best two. Be disciplined. You can spend a ton on drinks. Set a budget and stick to it. Bring your own soft drinks and a sports bottle to hold water from the taps. You can save by bringing a couple bottles of wine. I did not get charged the $10 cork fee by my head waitress (she got that back in tips - good move on her part). Can't say that's policy. She'd probably get hammered by supervisors for not charging me if they knew about it. Liquor and Perfume are duty free - you can get some good buys from the ship. Some jewelry is favorably priced. I'd still shop at reputable stores ashore in Cozumel for jewelry and bargain. Its more fun.
DINING: Buffet with good variety and tasty foods. Salad, fruit/cereal/yogurt/pastry, omelet, sandwich bars. Good pizza, burgers, fries and hot dogs. Food a-plenty available all the time and conveniently located. Good and always available beverage service in the buffet area and near the pool. Great pastries and cookies. Buffet dining area staff slow to clean up tables which indicates poor ship's officer supervision in this area. Wait staff was eager to do anything you asked though. Don't hesitate to ask them. There are plenty standing around. Uninspired but good sushi after 5PM on deck 8 in a lounge area - it was fine and I ate plenty of it. A good deal of outside table seating in the buffet area - we like this. We dined twice in the Mardi Gras dinning room - once for breakfast, once for lunch. It was fine although I prefer the buffet. We selected late dinner seating in the Mardi Gras dining area (8:30). We always do this and ask for a large table of 8 or more as we like meeting other guests - a highlight for us. We've never had bad table mates and this cruise was no exception. Table service was slightly rushed. Nicely varied menu. Wait staff discouraged substitutions in subtle ways but you got what ever you wanted if you persisted. Small portions - that is fine with us. Great desserts. Frankly, this was the best run dining room and best food I've found on 8 different ships (except Celebrity specialty restaurants but you pay extra for it). A pleasant surprise. CCL is reported to have invested a great deal of effort and money to improve its food and dining service. Its very apparent on Inspiration.
ITINERARY: This is our first 5 day cruise. 6 years ago, our first cruise, we traveled for 10 days and loved it thinking we could never get used to less. Less can be better - its cheaper and tends to fit better into busy work schedules when you can't afford to take too much time off. Traveling on Monday and Saturday, to and from the cruise port is also cheaper, less stressful and less crowded. You have a weekend before to pack and a Sunday after to unwind and get ready to go back to work. I recommend departing from the lesser used ports such as Galveston, Mobile and Tampa. We had a very good experience arriving and departing from Tampa compared to Miami or Fort lauderdale. Ports of call included Grand Cayman and Cozumel. We've eliminated future cruises with Grand Cayman on the itinerary. Been there 3 times and my impression is that locals don't particularly care about cruise travelers even though the Cayman government pushes the cruise lines to keep coming there. Why do I want to pay $10 for a bracelet made in China in a Cayman shop with rude employees when I can buy it for $5 at Target in the US. The whole shopping experience is like that. There are good jewelers in Cayman but its high end stuff at discount but high end prices. Some like the 7 mile beach (nice if you like beaches) and the snorkeling with the sting rays. Its a personal thing with me but I think this is over-priced and over hyped.
Cozumel is coming back following the hurricanes and I have high praise for businesses that stuck it out and are trying to make a come-back. Compared to Cayman, these people want your business and work hard to get it. There's still a good deal of obvious damage but the downtown area and shops around the ports are open and in good repair. Plenty of restaurants now open. Most resorts on the beaches are still closed having sustained extensive property damage. We've started booking tours on the internet instead of using the cruise tours - just watch your times as the ship won't wait for you on privately booked tours. Its a better value. Try Cozumel Sailing. We chartered a 38 foot catamaran from 10 AM to whenever you wanted out of Porta Debrigio - about 20 minutes from Porta Maya and a $12 cab ride. $70 per person. We had all the food (prepared fresh on the boat) and all the drinks we could have wanted. Grilled Chicken in a great sauce, steak fajitas, tortillas, guacamole, pasta salad. We sailed, snorkeled, fished, ate, drank, went to a beach and rode a spinnaker. Wow - it was a great value. Both Cayman and Cozumel use tenders, Cozumel because the cruise piers are gone, Cayman has always done it. Be prepared for a wait both debarking and embarking but it works out OK as long as you plan for it time wise and are patient. Its well organized at Cozumel, not so well organized at Cayman. Cozumel has two ports serving the cruise ships both about 5 minutes apart from each other by taxi. Porta Langusta is right in the center of downtown. Porta Maya is newer and has a nice shopping area located at the dock (what's left of the former cruise ship terminal). If you book a tour on the ship, you'll get priority debarkation. If you didn't book a tour and want to get off the ship early, for Cayman get in line by 7:45 on deck 4. Cayman tenders are small (maybe 70 seat max) and frustratingly infrequent. In Cozumel, the ship used a numbering system. Pick up your number tags from activity staff on the pool deck by 8:00 AM EST (ship stays on EST but Cozumel is an hour earlier on CST). Tendering for non tour booked passengers starts at 9 AM EST. We were in group 8 and got on the first tender which held about 200 folks - yes, they're big. Smaller ones held about 90-100. We were ashore and in a cab by 9:55 EST (8:55 CST or Cozumel time). Don't get confused about times - stay on ship time or you'll miss the embarkation and the ship.
FITNESS: Gym was a tad small but adequate. Not enough tread mills/elliptical trainers. My wife and I cruise to exercise together. We like step and floor aerobics classes. We've found that all the ships we've been on suffer a declining level of well run fitness programs. Steiner - a private contractor that has a corner on the market - provides fitness staff and programs. The cruise lines are not involved in fitness or spa programs except to hire a contractor to provide these services. Steiner has de-emphasized free aerobic and stretching classes to focus on the revenue producing Yoga, spinning and Pilates classes ($10 each) and useless body analysis programs that they actually charge money for. Can't believe people actually buy this. 3 of the 4 free fitness classes were cancelled - 2 for unacceptable reasons. This has become typical. Steiner appears to me to be uncaring about complaints - why should they care. They have no competition. The cruise lines don't seem to care much either. If you are as unhappy about this as we are, start complaining to the cruise lines. Maybe they'll start thinking about dumping Steiner and re-competing when their current contract expires.
TIPPING: Included in your sign and sail account is a $10 per day/ per person charge that goes to the cabin and wait staff. You can adjust this amount up or down or give money directly to your waiter or cabin steward (which I did). You are asked to tip the Matre'de separately and I did as the dining room service and food were top notch.
FINAL COMMENTS: I was impressed with CCL and Inspiration despite my initial apprehensions. While the ship is perhaps a little gaudy for my tastes and the cruise/activity staff a little more active than I like (lots of announcements and overly energetic staff), I'd still recommend Inspiration to flexible, open, older travelers who are looking for good value. Its great for families with young kids and/or teens. As RCL and Celebrity prices rise, CCL is holding there's down and working to provide the same level of service and food that's a given with Celebrity and RCL - I think they've achieved it. While CCL/Inspiration is definitely service oriented toward a younger crowd who wants to party and to families with young kids, I found it to be a nice, low priced alternative. I'd go back.