Our 9th overall Cruise and 5th with Carnival began as an idea after we had returned from our Bahamas cruise on the RCCL Sovereign of the Seas back in October, 2005.
My wife and I noticed several groups of families and friends having a wonderful time partying together. Upon our return home, we discussed putting together a group cruise with some of our friends in our neighborhood.
We mentioned the idea to some of our closest friends and we had a positive response from seven couples. I did some research and decided on two cruise options for the group, either a four day cruise on the Sovereign of the Seas out of Port Canaveral or a four day cruise on the Inspiration out of Tampa.
Both cruises were about a 6-7 hour drive from our home in the Florida Panhandle. The group voted for the Inspiration cruise to Cozumel. Normally, my wife and I book our cruises online through Cruise-Pros.com. However, we didn't want to take the chance of something going wrong and being blamed by our group of friends so we decided to book through a local representative of Global Travel. My wife's father uses Global Travel for all his bookings so we knew that they had a great reputation. I will recap our experience with Global Travel later in this review.
Booking: Our representative with Global Travel was able to get us a very good deal. Carnival was offering a special where you book a lower grade cabin and get the best available upgrade. We all booked an inside cabin on the Riviera deck in late November, 2005 and we were all upgraded to an inside cabin on the Veranda deck. All of our rooms were together. This was perfect for all of us.
Precuise: We all departed the day before the sailing so we could visit Ybor City in historic downtown Tampa. We chose the Don Vincentes Inn which was an excellent choice. This "boutique" hotel was located in the middle of the old Ybor City district which can be best compared to Church Street in Orlando or even Bourbon Street in New Orleans. The hotel itself was an old hospital built in the 1800's destined to be torn down a decade ago, but was purchased and remodeled about six years ago. The staff was outstanding and accommodating. Each room is different with decor purchased at an estate sale in England. We have to say thank you to all of the staff of the hotel for putting up with our all night partying. When we arrived, we had lunch a sports themed restaurant around the corner, then went for a trolley ride to the Channelside area where we had cocktails on the patio of Margarita Mama's bar overlooking the harbor while listening to a guitar duo. After we rode the trolley back to Ybor, we proceeded to walk down 8th and 9th streets, taking in the shops and bars as we went. Some of the highlights were the Green Iguana Bar and Coyote Ugly.
Boarding: We all slept in the morning of the cruise, took a late check out about 11:30 and proceeded to the pier. We arrived at noon, unloaded our luggage, parked the cars and went to check in. We were prepared for long lines but when we arrived, we were able to go right to the counter, present our "Fun Pass" and passports and walk on to the ship within ten minutes. We first went to check our dining tables. They were two tables of eight, next to each other, by the window in the Mardi Gras dining room exactly as we had asked Global Travel to do. While boarding, we were told our rooms would not be ready until after 1:30PM. I took a chance and went to our room on the Veranda deck. I found our room ready, clean and neat, with chocolates and strawberries, a bottle of champagne and a $50.00 cabin credit compliments of Global Travel. To sum up our experience with Global Travel we would have to say Superb!
The Ship: This was our second time on the Inspiration. Even after all the years of plying the oceans, she was in great shape with a very attentive staff that met and exceeded all of our expectations. If we needed something for the room, our cabin steward took care of it. We had a couple of people in our group suffer a bit of motion sickness. Our steward found some medicine for them right away. We attended most of the shows and found the dancers and entertainers to be very professional. All guest areas were clean and well maintained. We enjoy the Fantasy Class ships of Carnival since there size allows you to acclimated very quickly. We spent our two days at sea lounging by the pool at the stern of the ship on the Veranda deck. There are two jacuzzis that were never too crowded. Bar service was excellent and we were one staircase away from the Lido deck buffet. The food was always plentiful there. I would recommend the sandwich station located in the middle of the dining room where you can get an excellent reuben a pressed panini or even a smoked salmon sandwich on a bagel. Yum! The main dining room was very good. I did notice an improvement in the presentation of our dinner. I had heard that Carnival had hired a new Fleet Chef and his influence was noticeable.
Cozumel: We knew that Cozumel had suffered a lot of damage from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. It had been a year since Wilma when we arrived early that Saturday morning. I knew we going to tender from reading the posts here on Cruise Critic. The sun was just rising when I when out on the deck to survey San Miguel. From the deck you can easily see the devastation along with the rebuilding. The Puerto Maya pier where Carnival used to dock is totally gone. There is nothing left except orange buoys marking underwater debris so the tenders could steer clear.
I could see construction at another pier that looked nearly complete, but there was no activity at the Puerto Maya pier. The old Duty Free shop at the end of the pier was destroyed except for a small section that is acting as the staging point for the tenders that serve Carnival. But I was very pleased to see that the shops of Puerto Maya are all rebuilt and open.
Ron Jon's Surf Shop was a welcome beacon! Even before we had anchored, the tenders were busy gathering near the ship. I was please to see the size of the tenders. Each must handle several hundred people on each trip. The RCCL Enchantment of the Seas was docked at the International Pier and the Carnival Holiday was right behind us preparing to anchor also. We got our tender tickets at the poolside stage at 8AM and were off the ship and in Cozumel within 30 minutes.
We had made plans to spend the day at Paradise Beach. We took a taxi for $18 plus tip for the ten minute ride. As we drove, we could witness the power of Wilma. Many homes destroyed, the trees stripped of their leaves and plenty of rebuilding going on everywhere. As we arrived at Paradise Beach, we found the landscaping had totally been redone. It was beautiful. We have to compliment Paradise Beach Tom on his commitment to satisfying his guests. The tiki bar looked like it always had, but the old bathrooms were gone. Tom has built new ones, closer to the entrance with a spotless bath house and changing area.
We were the first to arrive that day. The staff was still getting organized. We found chairs and umbrellas (for free) right on the water's edge directly in front of the "iceberg". Our server (Thank You Grande!) was there right away with menus and a cold bucket of Tacate Light! A great way to start our day. We spent the morning sunbathing, swimming and snorkeling. I knew that the area was a sandy bottom but I did find some coral and grass areas just pass the iceberg where I could see some tropical fish in the shallows.
We had booked a snorkeling excursion through the Paradise Beach web site. It was definitely the best deal for $35US. We departed on a Fury Catamaran at 12:30. The crew was excellent. They played excellent music on the way to the Palancar and Columbia reefs. Had us all reved up! After the safety talk, they dropped us off in 25 feet of water and drifted for on hour over the reefs. On the way back to Paradise Beach we were served cool margaritas and more dance music. It was a blast! When we returned to Paradise Beach, there was Tom, dong his thing and welcoming his guests. My wife and I made a point of speaking with him in order to compliment him and his staff. We had our picture taken with him and he thanked us for coming. We finished our day in Paradise and took a cab back the shops of Puerto Maya.
After a little shopping, we spent the last part of our day at Fat Tuesdays with some cold beers and a couple of half yards of sex on the beach. It was fun watching the younger kids dancing and drinking. The line to return to the ship was a bit long but we met some other folks from our area in line and the time passed quickly as we chatted. I must warn you to be watchful of fellow passengers on the tenders who have consumed too much alcohol on Cozumel. The ride back to the ship was be choppy and some guest were having a problem keeping down their lunch.
Recap: This was the first time we had cruised with a large group. Everyone had a great time doing their own thing or hanging out as a group. Carnival has a laid back style that suited our group very well. We even chose to do the self assist debarkation which got us off the ship at 7:30AM and to our car in fifteen minutes. When we all returned home, we all agreed that this was something we would want to try again.
Likewise, my wife and I have two more cruises booked with Carnival in the next 12 months. In January, 2007 we go to the eastern Caribbean on the Carnival Triumph and on the Elation out of Port Canaveral in October, 2007. And these won't be the last!