Background Information : We are previous cruisers - this was our 7th cruise overall, 6th cruise on Carnival, and our 2nd cruise aboard the Inspiration. We are late 50's/early 60's, and this time another couple, friends of ours, joined us. We booked our cruise directly with Carnival as we have consistently gotten better prices & specials by dealing with them instead of going through a TA.
Travel To Port of Embarkation: We live about 90 miles south of the Port of Tampa, so driving to the port is a breeze. Even though we can easily drive to the port on the day of departure, we chose to drive up a day early and get into the "pre-cruise" mode.
Hotel Info: We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express on Rocky Point Dr. - only a few minutes from the Tampa Airport, and about 8 miles from the Port of Tampa. We like this location because of the Bahama Breeze Restaurant which is adjacent, only a short walk across the parking lot. We checked into our hotel early - around 1pm - and went directly to the restaurant where we enjoyed a few brews and some appetizers. We came back to the hotel for a few hours, then returned later, as some other family members joined us for dinner. The next day, embarkation day, was a leisurely drive to the port and check in.
Stateroom: We had a Category 6C Ocean view cabin on the Upper Deck. If you've sailed on Carnival Fantasy class ships before, the room is a standard Carnival staple. We were in U197, which I had asked for out of the cabin choices which were available. I like early morning coffee, and to be out on the deck before sunrise. This cabin is very close to the aft elevators, and only a short ride to the Brasserie Grill on the Lido deck. When you step out of the elevators, voila! - there is the coffee!
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. Although the ship is in overall very good condition, there are some signs of wear and tear. Maintenance activities were present each day, and there were on-going cleaning activities as well. Some of the public rest rooms seemed to be always in need of cleaning, however, but I attribute this to high passenger use. The Inspiration is scheduled for upgrade and refurbishing in September of this year.
Dining: We missed the first night's main dining because we stayed on deck to watch the Skyway Bridge passage, which is about 2 ½ hours after departure. Over the remaining nights we dined in the Mardi Gras dining room, with our waiter Dennis. Overall, the quality of food was excellent, and the service was impeccable. We were seated at a table of ten, and we got to know our table mates quite well. We also ate breakfast and lunch in the Brasserie - excellent selections, fresh variety, and always good friendly service. You just can't beat the view as you enjoy breakfast or lunch at sea. We ate breakfast a couple of times in the main dining room, but the atmosphere was less than pleasant. They insist on seating you in certain areas and are adamant about your not sitting anywhere else. One morning, we were led to a large table where four people were seated. They were waiting for four other family members, who had not yet arrived, but the waiter was unyielding in her admonition that "you cannot save seats." So they made us sit there, and only seconds later, the remaining family members arrived, and were made to sit at a different table. I'm not sure why Carnival insists on this policy, but it needs to be examined. On another morning, I stood my ground and refused to go where I was directed, opting instead for the sunny side of the ship which was all empty tables. I just kept pointing to the tables where the sun was pouring through the curtains and kept repeating, "I want to sit in the sunshine," After going through several waiters, they finally (but reluctantly) gave in. The food served at breakfast in the dining room is OK, nothing to brag about. Much better to get a fresh omelet prepared to order in the Brasserie.
Activities: On board, we are mainly a relax and read kind of group, and most of our days at sea were simply spent reading, snapping photos, eating (is it time to eat again?) and just enjoying being at sea. For those who wished to participate, there were many daily activities, and no lack of things to do for those who wanted to be a part of them.
Service: This is still Carnival's high point. Except for the very minor attitude problem in the main dining room at breakfast, the friendliness and over courtesy of Carnival's service staff cannot be overstated. Always a smile, a greeting, and a willingness to help from all staff. Waiters, bartenders, room stewards, and servers all exhibited great attitudes while providing excellent service.
Entertainment: We attended the first night's entertainment "Shout," which was very creative, full of energy and excitement. Great choreography and singing, and just good solid entertainment. Our last night at sea, however, we went to the "El Nuevo Caribe" performance, and it was just as dismal as it was the last time we saw it six months prior. If "Shout" is the "thrill of victory," then "El Nuevo Caribe" is certainly the "agony of defeat." It lacked creativity, was largely comprised of basic dance moves with little or no originality, and just plain lacking in all aspects. I won't waste my time going to this one again.
Shore Excursions: In Grand Cayman, we opted for a simple tour of Georgetown aboard the "Trolley Roger." Hosted by Steve, aka the "Captain," in full pirate's regalia, it was a nice one-hour tour of Georgetown, complete with narration and bits and trivia about the history of the Cayman Islands. If you're looking for a stress-free, inexpensive ($27) activity, think about this tour. You will learn a lot about the Caymans and just enjoy hearing Captain Steve's humorous banter. We booked this excursion aboard through the excursion desk, and tickets were delivered to our stateroom.
A word about tender operations - I read a lot of complaints about tender operations on previous cruises re: Georgetown, but they have opened up a brand new tender dock (it was still under construction last Oct) which has greatly improved tender efficiency. Although there were four ships in the harbor, there was never more than a few minutes delay waiting for a tender, mainly in order to just fill up the boat.
In Cozumel, we did the same thing as our last visit, a trip to Paradise Beach, which is a non-ship excursion. We docked at the Punta Lagosta Pier, and took a $13 cab ride to Paradise Beach, where we enjoyed relaxing on the shore, under beach umbrellas, and also enjoyed several buckets of cold beer and nachos. Paradise Beach is very service oriented and you will not lack for a cold refreshment. Highly recommended. Punta Lagosta pier is directly across the street from a huge shopping center, and many other stores within walking distance. Senor Frogs, Carlos & Charlies, and other restaurants nearby as well. Prices in the mall area seemed a little high, but you can walk down the street in either direction to find other stores.
Disembarkation: Smooth and efficient. The four of us were packed and on the Lido Deck for breakfast prior to 7:30am. While we were enjoying our breakfast, we heard the announcement for "self assist" debarkation to commence. This is the first group to be released. We finished our breakfast, made our way to the Empress Deck, and were off the ship and through customs in minutes. Summary: We like the Inspiration. Although its an older ship, it is well-maintained, and as I have said before, the crew is great, service is excellent, and this time there was a definite improvement in the quality of food served in the dining room. As we live so close to Tampa, this 5-night itinerary remains one of our favorites - the perfect balance of two days at sea, and two port stops. Although this cruise seemed full, there were always plenty of vacant lounge chairs, there were only a few occasional small lines for lunch and breakfast, and always plenty of places to hang out in relative quiet. (My favorite is the Lido Deck amidships - check it out if you want a quiet place to read and enjoy the view) A great value for the cost, and we will probably sail again aboard this vessel.
If you would like to see photos from this cruise, check them out at: http://www.photoshots.phanfare.com/