Background information: This was the first cruise for my HB (36) and I (29). We brought our 6 month old son, so we weren't exactly looking to party and drink. We've done the all-inclusive resort before, and we've also done the hotel vacation. I just needed to escape another long, cold Canadian winter, but not break the bank to do so. I booked the cruise about 4 weeks before leaving; my main criteria was that it had to fit into my HB's vacation schedule and be somewhat baby friendly.
Ship information: There's a good synopsis of the amenities and services aboard the Inspiration on Carnival's website. I did find it confusing to navigate around the ship. I wish I had printed out the individual deck plans that are available on Carnival's website. The deck plan available from the Purser's Desk doesn't have each floor individually (it's more like a side view rather than plan view), so we got lost getting to dinner a couple of nights. Also, trying to navigate around Lido Deck and the Brasserie was very confusing. We usually went up to Lido on the rear-most elevators. If you walk into the Brasserie and head directly to a window on either side, you'll find the hallway that will take you out to the pool. That stumped me for a couple of days!
Hotel information: Since we had 3 flight connections to make in order to get to Tampa, we flew in the night before. Excellent idea, as we missed our first connection in Calgary, thanks to Expedia booking us on an illegal connection! We caught a later flight and made it to Tampa shortly after 11 pm. I booked us into the Best Western Westshore through Air Miles. Not the best hotel I've ever stayed at, but it was free.
Travel to & from port: We traveled to port (and returned to the airport) by the shuttle offered at the Best Western Blue One. I don't know how the price compares to taking a cab, but our hotel alone filled one shuttle bus, so we went straight to the port. The shuttles don't have seat belts. I wish I had known that, because I wouldn't have put my son in the car seat and paid for him to have a seat. I could have saved myself $20 and just had him sit in our laps.
Embarkation: I followed all the advice I read here: locked our bags with zipper ties before handing them off to the porters; have your FunPass completed beforehand, etc. When we walked into the main room where you do the check in, it looked like a complete zoo. Surprisingly, things went as smooth as silk. We took the 1 pm shuttle from our hotel and were on-board the ship by 1:45 pm.
Stateroom: We booked an ocean-view stateroom, category 6A. It was exactly as it appeared in the photos on Carnival's website. Slightly more spacious than I was expecting; the bathroom was much larger than I anticipated.
Dining: We were at table 125 in the Mardi Gras room, early seating. Carla & Titus were our waiters. We had fantastic food and service all around. I'm on the hunt for the recipe for the teriyaki ribs; we practically licked our plates. Portion sizes were good; very similar to what we received at the AI resort. The after meal entertainment was a bit cheesy, but bearable. We had breakfast here one morning as well; otherwise we usually headed to the Brassierie for the breakfast & lunch buffets.
Activities: Mostly we sat in a shady area and just relaxed. Having a baby on board keeps you from burning to a crisp, which would be very easy to do. We never had any troubles finding a deck chair! My HB hit the casino one night and lost $100. I wanted to go to one of the art auctions and the fitness classes, but never found the time. I went on the galley tour, which was fascinating I highly recommend it. We played one game of Bingo. Other than that, we just relaxed, which was exactly what we wanted to do.
Entertainment: We took in part of the first musical show, but left about half way through as our son was getting cranky. I think it was a bit too loud for him. My HB saw most of the comedy show (I was dealing with the baby and only caught the last few minutes) and he says it was good.
Children's Club: We didn't use the Camp Carnival service, but I suspect they were doing their jobs because I really didn't notice that there were 175 kids on board! The location of the kid's pool and play area is very difficult to find and is only accessible via stairs up from the Camp Carnival area, or through the smoky Candlelight Lounge (again, with stairs).
Service: All around, the service was excellent. Our steward did an OK job. There was some confusion regarding the bedding we required (one queen and the crib), but once he was made aware of the situation, he fixed it promptly. Pool towels were slow on getting replaced, but I think it was my HB's fault for hiding them one night. There always seemed to be people cleaning and fixing things, which was good to see. It wasn't until our last day on board that I learned that these folks are on-duty for 12 to 14 hours a day for 6 or more months straight. If I worked that kind of schedule, I would not be as happy as they were, that's for sure!
Life-boat drill: I don't understand why people complain about having to do this. I don't care how many times you've been on a cruise. If there were an accident or other event that necessitates abandoning ship, wouldn't you like to know where to go and what to do? It only takes half an hour. If you can't spare half an hour out of your vacation to do the safety drill, then don't go on a cruise. I couldn't believe the complaining I heard from people who appeared to be adults!
Shore Excursions: If I have to find fault somewhere, this is where I'm going to find it. Being first time cruisers, we had no idea what to expect for tendering. BOTH Grand Cayman and Cozumel required tendering. This is outside of Carnival's control, so I understand we need to make the best of a bad situation.
The leap from the Inspiration to the tender boat at Grand Cayman (with baby in arms) left my husband very uncomfortable. We saw another couple who left their baby in the stroller, so we tried that on the return tender. It wasn't much better. Finally, we figured out the best way (in my opinion) to navigate on and off a tender with a baby: use a baby carrier. I have a hip-style carrier that I normally never use, but it was absolutely perfect in this circumstance. It may have helped that the water was calmer at Cozumel than it was at Grand Cayman, but if I can avoid tendering in the future, especially with a baby (or someone with impaired mobility), I would.
For Grand Cayman, we booked two excursions: Grand Cayman Island Tour and the Cayman Beach Break (Sea Grape Beach). A lot of people were on the same shore excursion at Grand Cayman (GC Island Tour). In retrospect, I really wish we hadn't done it. The air conditioned bus was hardly air conditioned. It was a very small bus, and they crammed us in like sardines. Between trying to get so many people off the Inspiration to get on the GCIT and the mass-confusion on the part of the tour operator (Reid's, I believe), our tour was a full hour late getting started. Therefore, we didn't have any time at all to do our second excursion. However, the Shore Tours desk on-board refunded our money, no questions asked.
I would much rather have just navigated our way to a store that sells rum & rum cake on our own and just hit the beach. Whatever you do, do not leave Grand Cayman without any rum cake. I don't even like rum, but this cake is unbelievable. I still have two cakes left; I'm afraid to open the box because I might just eat the whole thing by myself!
In Cozumel, we went booked the Playa Mia Beach Break Deluxe. This was fantastic. We sat on the beach, got a beach umbrella (driver's license or US$5 deposit required) and enjoyed the view. The buffet was OK, as buffets go, and it was nice to have unlimited food & drink. I wish we had gotten chairs closer to the change rooms, because it was quite a hike through the sand with the baby. Although, that would have put us farther from the swimming area, so I guess it's a toss up. According to their website, they have a petting zoo; I totally missed that! We had some time after the beach to do some shopping in Cozumel. We bought the typical touristy T-shirts from Del Sol and I made sure to get a bottle of vanilla, too. Nothing is better than Mexican vanilla!
Disembarkation: This is another one of those things that I was dreading. Because we are not Americans, we had to get up early and do the customs thing at 6:15 am. Yes, it sucks, but you're in a foreign country. There was another person who appeared to be an adult but was behaving like a child in the line behind us, complaining about having to be there; I can honestly say that my 6 month old was better behaved! Only US citizens can do the self-assist disembarkation (where you carry off your own bags). We were travelling with many bags (babies do that), so even if we could have done self-assist, we wouldn't have. We headed down to the Grand Atrium at 8:50 am. We were probably off the ship by 9:20 am and had our bags in the porter's hands, waiting for our shuttle by 9:30 am. The bags are all sorted by the colour-coded tags. I easily found all of ours (5 bags plus my son's car seat). Honestly, it's not that bad and I don't know what all the complaining in some of the reviews is all about!
I should note that we took in the Disembarkation Talk that the Cruise Director (Risa) did on the last day. That answers a lot of questions about customs forms, how to get your bags, how to get off the boat, etc. I highly recommend it!
Summary: Less than 24 hours after our flight landed at home, I was back on the internet at Carnival's website, trying to decide where to go next. I think that says it all!