The Overview: This was my third cruise, and my second with Carnival. My first was on the Majestic, of the old Premier Line, and then a seven day trip on the Sensation. I really enjoy Carnival, and anticipated this cruise greatly. The itinerary was four days, Tampa to Cozumel, then back again. My group consisted of two of my co-workers, and other friends for a total of ten people in 4 cabins on the Empress deck. This was intended to be a weekend diversion for relaxation and a good time, and greatly exceeded those goals. We all had a great time, and I have only a few very minor complaints.
The Embarkation: We all arrived at the Tampa seaport at around 1 p.m. and found the front drop off area to be congested, but organized. The porters were very pushy, and demanded tips for the unsolicited service. The port was packed with people, and the line was long to get through the security checkpoint. This was temporary, and things sped up quickly after the check. Carnival's Fun Pass is a great idea, and greatly reduces time at check in. For those who haven't been on Carnival recently, the Fun Pass is a program on their website where you type in your personal information, and print off a ticket. You then show the ticket to the Embarkation Officer at the desk, they check your ID and passport (or birth certificate) and give you your Sail and Sign card, and other papers. It takes only a few minutes, then you're done! After that you wait a few minutes, get your photo taken, and board the ship.
The Start: Because I was already familiar with Carnival's Fantasy class ships, we found our room quickly, threw down the carry-on bags, and headed for the Brasserie Grill up on the Lido Deck for some lunch. After that was the life boat drill...sigh. Once we were done with that little slice of heaven, we headed up to the sports deck to watch the ship pass under the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Its breathtaking to watch the ship's funnel pass only feet below the roadway of that beautiful bridge (great photo op!). The voyage was off to a great start.
The Ship: The Inspiration is a medium aged (10 years old), and medium sized boat when compared to the newer ships of the fleet. It is still in great shape, and so clean that you could eat off of the floors. The crew does a great job keeping the carpets cleaned, and showed only minimal wear and staining. I liked the new atrium bar, which replaced the old sculpture that sat in the center. It was nice to sit and enjoy a (really overpriced) beer, and gaze up through five decks at the huge glass ceiling. The promenade was well furnished, though I thought the faux wood violin sculptures to be a bit cheesy. The night clubs were very lively, I loved the piano bar! The library was quiet, and provided a haven from all the kids on board. I found only minor infractions in regards to the interior. The starboard glass atrium elevator was out of service, and in the regular elevators I found that some of the finish on the inside of the doors had come off.
The Amenities: I really liked the spa. The steam room and sauna were relaxing, and the hot tubs were never crowded. They also provide towels and soaps so you can shower there without bringing bath supplies. They also have a full gym, which I avoided like the plague since I was on vacation. They also provide a jogging track which I looked at from afar. The main pool has a nice waterslide, but the whole area was clogged with kids; much to my chagrin as I am a childless twentysomething. I spent most of my time on deck at the rear pool, where you will find mostly adults since there is no slide. Both pools are flanked by two adequately sized hot tubs. There is also a children's pool far aft, which I saw about as much as the jogging track. Deck chairs were plentiful, and the deck waiters were attentive.
The Cabin: I think the cabins aboard Carnival ships are top notch. We had a bare bones interior stateroom. This was more than adequate since we only slept there. The beds were comfortable, and the linens were always fresh. We continually had clean towels, and our steward kept the room neat. There are soap and shampoo dispensers in the shower, which I found very convenient. The sodas and bottled water in the room were pricey, I recommend buying the Fountain Fun card at the start of the cruise for unlimited sodas at the bars. They also provide robes and deck towels in the rooms, but don't lose them since they are about thirty bucks each.
The Food: Plentiful and delicious. I have never had any problem with Carnival's food offering. The steak on the first night was tender and flavorful, and the lobster on formal night was also very good. Our servers were excellent and very polite. The Brasserie Grill was our usual destination for lunch and breakfast. We always found fresh food waiting for us. I enjoyed the pizzeria and the delicatessen. The only crew complaint I had was in reference to the fellow manning the pizza counter at night. He usually seemed angry to have to serve anything more than cheese or pepperoni. I guess that's to be expected though, as I would probably be grouchy having to deal with drunken tourists all night.
The Port of Call: Our day in Cozumel was enjoyable. I had already been there once aboard the Sensation, and enjoyed it very much. After leaving the ship you MUST walk through a long mall type building built into the pier. I tried to take the sidewalk next to it, but that plan was foiled by two security guards. Once in the mall you get bombarded with offers of cheap tax free booze, cigarettes and perfume/cologne. This is not entirely bad, as the prices are better than the ships, but I did not like being a captive audience. After the mall, you enter a small village of gift shops and jewelry stores. I found the prices here to be slightly higher than in town. We caught a cab, and headed into town. The cabbies usually speak some English and all charge roughly the same for a one way trip. We went to the shopping areas first. Never pay what the merchants ask for! You can negotiate the price of almost any item. I got several things for less than a quarter of the stated price. Of course a visit to Cozumel would not be complete without a visit to Senor Frogs/Carlos and Charlies. The downstairs (Carlos and Charlies) was packed with sweaty tourists dancing to modern American hip hop music. I found the upstairs (Senor Frogs) to be much less crowded, but still very lively. There were conga lines and dancing, plus free popcorn. They gave out free shots during the conga line. It was more like free rubbing alcohol and water sprayed in your mouth, and on your shirt, and up your nose. We still had a great time, especially when they played Shelley West's Jose Cuervo, and a guy in a stereotypical Mexican outfit with sombrero came out and danced. WARNING: Gentlemen guard your ladies, we saw numerous instances of the local staff groping the female tourists who had one too many drinks. As the midnight drew near we returned to our ship and left Mexico behind. The midnight buffet that night was a drastically Americanized Mexican feast, deliciously ironic.
The End: The saddest part of any cruise is seeing the home port on that last morning. You know that its time to return home to the usual grind, and leave your floating hotel behind. We ate our last meal on board in the Brasserie. It was fitting that we began and ended our cruise there. We waited on the lido deck with our carry off bags for the call to debark. This brings me to the single biggest complaint of the entire cruise. Once customs cleared the ship for debarkation I expected the staff would call the sections of the ship one at a time to leave. How wrong I was. They simply said customs had cleared us, go ahead and leave! This caused a stampede of people to snarl the stairwells and hallways because everyone has to leave through the same door. Imagine 2000 people trying to exit a building trough a fire exit door at the same time. It was a huge human traffic jam that took over an hour to traverse. I jumped in an elevator and rode it down to the Empress deck, which saved a few minutes of standing in line. The whole unorganized process was maddening. Once off the ship the progression through customs was quick. With the exception of the terrible debarkation I really loved this cruise. It was a great time had by all! It prompted me to book another cruise on the Inspiration in July of 2006. This time we will be doing the 5 day, with the extra stop in Grand Cayman. I can't wait! Hopefully the review of that cruise will be as positive as this one.