Background Information: We are past cruisers, ages 63/59, semi-retired. Our preferences for cruises are those that have the most days at sea. Ship-sponsored shore excursions (typically very costly) are the exception for us, not the rule. We prefer the occasional private tour, or perhaps a little sightseeing, beach-hopping, or casual meal at one of the local restaurants when in port.
Travel To Port of Embarkation/Hotel Info: We only live 90 miles from Tampa, so getting to the port was an easy drive for us. We drove up the night before to have dinner with our daughter who lives just north of Tampa. We stayed overnight at the Holiday Inn Express on Rocky Point Dr, about 5 miles west of Tampa International Airport, and only about 8 miles from the Port of Tampa. This is one of our favorite places to stay, because the Bahama Breeze Restaurant is within walking distance next door. We've stayed here often in the past and would soundly recommend this hotel, as well as the restaurant.
On the day of the cruise, we checked out of our hotel and made a leisurely drive over to the Port of Tampa. We intended on doing a bit of shopping and not trying to board too early. We discovered that most of the shops around the Port were not open, so we checked with the parking lot attendant as to whether we could park our vehicle and retrieve our baggage later. She suggested that we go ahead and park our car, take our baggage and go to the terminal. She assured us that there would be no problem with early boarding. We paid $60 in advance via credit card for parking. We easily walked the short distance to the port terminal with our luggage, and arrived at the doors of the terminal at about 10:20am. A porter met us promptly, gave us luggage tags, and pointed us to the right doorway. We were third in line, and the Carnival agents opened the doors at 10:30am. We were checked in after only a few minutes, and given a boarding number. (We were in group #1). We waited for approximately an hour, but it was pleasant, and we talked with people as we waited. When the announcement came, we were first in line to board. By 11:52am, we were seated on the Lido Deck enjoying a cool drink. BTW, when we booked this cruise the agent told us that Carnival would not be sending us any paper documents. All we got was an E-mail confirmation from the TA with our cabin#, cruise info, booking #, etc. We did go online and check in, so the only paper we had with us when we arrived was our fun pass (and of course proper ID) which we had printed out. We probably spent no more than 3 minutes at the check in counter.
Stateroom: Our cabin was on the Upper Deck, port and aft. It was an easy walk to the aft elevators and straight up to the Brasserie Bar & Grill for breakfast or lunch. As we hung out on the Lido & Verandah decks often, this particular location worked great for us. The cabin is an ocean view with adequate space for storage and for movement about the cabin. All things considered it was very satisfactory. Plenty of room for two people and the bed was oh so comfy!
Ship Info: The Inspiration is the sixth Fantasy-class ship, launched in 1996 and is similar to her sister ships Ecstasy, Fantasy, Fascination, Imagination, Sensation, and Paradise. It carries 2044 passengers and a crew of 920. The ship is still in excellent condition, and cleaning and maintenance activities were present each day. Overall, the level of cleanliness aboard the Inspiration was excellent to above.
Dining: We were assigned early seating by request, and were assigned to the Carnivale dining room, however, on the first night, we elected to stay on deck to observe our passage under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which takes place about 2 ½ hours after the ship leaves the dock. So we missed the first night's dining, and ate in the Brasserie instead.
The food in the Brasserie was always fresh and of good variety. There are lots of salads, fruit and a pleasant variety of main dishes, many of them international in flavor. There are mountains of deserts to choose from, as well as a deli-sandwich bar and 24-hr pizza. For breakfast, there was the standard assembly-line steam table food, but you could also get a fresh made-to-order omelette, choose from a variety of fruits and cheeses, and a wide selection of cereals. All in all, we would rate the Brasserie as one of the best places to eat on this ship.
The food in the Main Dining room, however, was another matter. We do like the dining room experience because of the elegance, and being able to meet and talk with other people on the cruise. We did meet several people from our Cruise Critic forum. The quality of food, unfortunately, left a lot to be desired. Many of the selections were overcooked and tasteless. On the first night we were served lobster and prime rib. The prime rib was severely overcooked and the lobster has obviously replaced the proverbial rubber chicken that we used to get served on airline flights. On two occasions I ordered the sirloin steak, which turned out to be a stringy, somewhat-tough NY Strip. A fellow diner ordered the Beef Wellington, and when it arrived it was soggy and devoid of flavor. And so it went. The dining room experience is a great social activity, and our waiter was superb, but the quality of food is simply not all that great.
Activities: We spent most of our sea days on deck, reading and relaxing, and did not participate in any of the ship's scheduled activities. However, for those who were interested there was a variety of things to do, such as trivia contests, bingo, hairy chest competition, several dance classes, karaoke, yoga classes, various games and other contests, as well as a variety of exercise and spa programs. The ship was not overly crowded, and there were a lot of elderly folks, and also people with small children. There was something for everyone depending on your likes or dislikes.
Service: All in all, this was a great cruise, and the level of service provided by ship's personnel was excellent in every regard. We encountered nothing but the utmost courtesy from every crew member we met in the context of our cruise. Our cabin steward was rarely seen, but he knew exactly when to make up our cabin, and often, after being gone for only a short time, we returned to our cabin to find it cleaned and restored to pristine condition. Our table waiter in the main dining room, as well as his assistant, provided us with the utmost of care and service during our times in the dining room. Bartenders were friendly and helpful, and table waiters in the Brasserie were also friendly and efficient.
Entertainment: We attended one of the entertainment shows, Shout, which was really very good. The dancers were well practiced and the show was executed with great coordination and rhythm. On the last night out, however, we attended another Broadway type show entitled, El Neuvo Caribe. It was terrible. It lacked any creativity, most of the dance moves were pretty standard aerobic exercise moves, and although it was colorful and flashy, it was downright boring. We left the show about halfway through and opted for an early bedtime. We are normally very flexible about these kinds of things, and can generally accept whatever comes along and roll with the flow. But this show was really, really, bad!
Shore Excursions: We did not avail ourselves of any of the ship-endorsed excursions. In Georgetown, we tendered ashore and spent several hours just walking around, snapping photos and experiencing the local culture. Shortly after our arrival in the harbor, four other huge ships arrived, the Radiance of the Seas, Freedom of the seas, Caribbean Princess, and Carnival's Imagination. In spite of five ships in the harbor and all of them having to tender passengers ashore, we found the tendering operation to be quite efficient. The longest wait for a tender was only a few minutes at most. While ashore, we visited the newly opened Margaritaville, which is right on the waterfront. A great place to have a margarita, of course, and to chat with other passengers and the bartenders. We could see our ship from the bar, and the afternoon was quite pleasant there.
In Cozumel, based on reading previous cruise reviews, we opted for a taxi to Paradise Beach, a 10-minute taxi ride ($12 US) from the International Cruise Terminal. It was everything we had read about, and more! A nice bar and restaurant under a thatched roof, beautifully landscaped grounds with restrooms and changing rooms as well. We were met by one of the many waiters who informed us that the lounge chairs, umbrellas, and float pads on the beach were free, but if we wanted to kayak or snorkel, there was an $8.00 US charge. We opted for the freebie arrangement at first, but I did go back later and do some kayaking.
It was a perfect day at the beach. Our waiter came along often and kept us stocked with cold beer or margaritas. He also served us lunch, nachos and guacamole, bringing it all right down to us on the beach on a huge tray. The best part of it was they allowed us to run a tab at the bar for all of this, and we settled up with a credit card just before we left. ( A 20% gratuity is automatically added) Of special note - when you make a trip to the restroom, there is a guy outside with a water hose and a bucket. He takes your sandals/flip flops and rinses them in the bucket of fresh water, and then washes the sand off you feet with the hose! Can it get any better than this? Also, a young woman came by while we were lounging on the beach and offered massage services. The cost was $1 per minute, payable in advance. My wife opted for a 30 minute massage, and was escorted to a small tent right on the beach. The curtains were closed for privacy and she enjoyed a very relaxing, totally professional massage. Would highly recommend this if you're interested.
There are plenty of available taxicabs back to the ship, and we were back on board by around 4pm. I would highly recommend Paradise Beach to anyone, and they have a web site you can check out at paradisebeach.com.
Disembarkation: Disembarkation was the most efficient I have ever experienced. We were docked by about 6am, and we both went up and had a nice breakfast in the Brasserie lounge. Afterwards we left our cabin, opting for the self-assist method, and took our bags down to the Empress deck, intending on just sitting there until we could leave the ship. As we came off the elevators, we noticed a small line had formed behind the tape across the gangway area, so we just joined this line and waited. It was 7:20am. At 7:30, we began leaving the ship, and we were off the ship quickly, zipped through the customs checkpoint, and after a short walk to the parking garage, were in our car by 7:40am
Summary: A recent cruise on Carnival's Fantasy had left a sour taste in our mouths regarding Carnival. However, this particular cruise turned a lot of that around. There is clearly a much higher level of esprit-de-corps among the Inspiration's crew and the overall atmosphere on this ship was great. One distinguishing event serves to illustrate what I mean. On the previous cruise aboard the Fantasy, the lifeboat drill was very poorly run, many of the entertainers were present in the muster areas, but all the instructions came from the PA as the cruise director obviously read them to us. It was very disorganized and unprofessional. On this ship, however, things were much, much different. Although many of the ships entertainers were there to assist, there was an abundance of ship's officers there as well. Everyone was asked to don their life vest, (they had theirs on too) and they actually exhibited a great degree of oversight and leadership throughout this exercise. Afterwards, we all were directed to our particular lifeboat stations, and finally were dismissed. There was such a contrast to how this drill was conducted; I must say kudos to the Inspiration crew and leaders for such a well-run exercise.
All in all, this was one of the best cruises we've ever taken on Carnival. We had two glorious sea days, and only two ports of call. It was the perfect combination for a 5-night cruise. I can sum it all up by saying that we would definitely take this cruise again.
Of special note is the passage under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. It takes about 2 ½ hours to get to the bridge and out to the Gulf of Mexico. Watching the ship traverse the very narrow and serpentine channel out of Hillsborough Bay into Tampa Bay and thread its way through the tight squeezes between the channel markers is quite something to see. It is very much a highlight of the cruise to be on deck as this huge ship glides smoothly beneath the majestic Skyway Bridge. Great photo opportunity. The observation areas were packed with people waiting for this exciting event. For those who want an even more unique experience, when the ship returns to port, it typically passes back under this bridge around 3am. It is worth it to experience it at night.
I've posted an album from this cruise for those who are interested. You can view it at: http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/love2batc/my_photos