We just returned from a 5 day itinerary on the Carnival Inspiration to Grand Cayman and Calica. In general it was a great trip, with many highs and just a very few lows. I am wordy, so I apologize for the length of this review ahead of time.
This was our third cruise, and the second with Carnival. Our first was on the Disney Wonder, which we hold up as the high water mark for a lot of our comparisons. This was a five night itinerary, previously the others were 4 nights.
There were nine in our group, four adults and 5 kids ranging in age from 11 to 18. Two in our group had never cruised before. My family is pretty low maintenance, yet we have stayed at some very luxurious resorts in the past, so we know all levels of service and accommodations. We don't require all the fluff, just the basics, and I think we got that and probably more on this trip.
We had three cabins on the Empress Deck, which we loved. My two were on one side of the Grand Atrium, our companions were down the hall to the other side. They were close to everything, but we always felt like we were able to retreat when we needed the quiet of our cabins. Being on the same floor as the photo gallery might account for my increased photo expenditure this trip! We booked through a Carnival PVP, and she did a great job getting us close together, and on a great floor.
We drove to the Port of Tampa, which should have been about an hour trip. I pulled the directions off of the Carnival website, and they weren't the clearest, so we got a little turned around in the port area. We finally found our way, and it was not a bad trip at all. Next time we will know.
We pulled up, dropped off the luggage, and I drove to the parking garage across the street from the Tampa Aquarium. It was close, and within minutes we were all in the line for check-in. Check-in went quickly as I had done the Fun Passes online. We were only in line five/ten minutes max. Next a quick stop for our group photo, and we were up on the Lido Deck before we knew it.
Our rooms weren't quite ready, but we were happy to just sit on the Lido Deck by the pool catch our breath and make a few last minute phone calls before I confiscated all the cell phones. I didn't want to rack up a bunch of international charges, you know teenagers! Though I did observe many folks using cell phones throughout the cruise. We took walkie-talkies, but never used them. I knew our rooms were ready when I looked up to see my 16 year old son, and 18 year old nephew gracing the Lido Deck in their robes from the cabin, while enjoying the first of many ice cream cones!
The ship was in good shape, probably looked nicer than I recall the Fascination two years ago. Nothing looked like it was in disrepair, and there was constant cleaning and polishing going on. I am not crazy about the smoked glass and chrome style of decorations. That went out years ago. We fell in love with the classic nautical theme of the Wonder, but can't afford Disney very often. That said, we know what we are getting with Carnival, and we were pleased that it looked clean, smelled clean and well cared for.
As far as activities go, we are not big on the ones offered on most cruise ships. Bingo is less appealing than dental work to me, but others in our group took in everything from the shows, to sports trivia and shopping excursion talks. We used the main pool a lot, and my husband did spend some time in the casino. He's not able to take too much sun, so it was a nice refuge for him occasionally. He came out ahead, so I can't complain! I hate the smoke smell so I didn't hang there too much.
We do have one complaint regarding the Main pool area. We were subjected to blaring music almost constantly. It was impossible to get away from the blasting band, the D.J., or the assistant cruise director narrating some deck activity. The upper deck was probably quieter, but there is no shade, and it was hot! I noticed that many older folks who were looking forward to relaxing by the pool, being driven away by the loud music. They would just look at us, shake their heads and leave. We all got sore throats from trying to shout over the sound system.
The alternative pool was small, and my son described the water as part, spit, beer and sweat. It wasn't an appealing place for us. I was pleased when the security guards finally asked the kids to vacate the adult hot tub, and we did find that relaxing. My other minor complaint is about the type of music. We love all kinds, but why can't songs written after 1972 be played as well? I can't take more than a few days of disco music. The pool area waiters were very attentive, but it only got to be bothersome at one point. We didn't observe any overt chair hogging, and everyone respected when someone's shirt, glasses or towel signaled "unavailable". I think it was so hot, that no one could take the heat for very long, so chairs became available often. We tended to stick with a table and chairs, though the plastic chairs are hard to take for long spells.
We had every intention of spending some gym time, but you know how that goes! So I can't comment on that area, or the spa. Our traveling companion had hoped to get a hot stone massage, but by the time she got up to the desk, the time slots were all full, and that was before we ever left Tampa! My kids did enjoy the ping pong, but having to wait in the long towel line to return the paddles or basketballs was a pain. Seems like they can employ some technology, maybe cage the balls and equipment to be unlocked with a room key?
We enjoyed formal night, but then there is the whole "how formal is formal" issue that surrounds it. With teenagers it's a minefield. We had photos taken since it's the rare occasion my whole family is looking good together! I also don't like that I had to buy 8X10 sizes of the photos, just to get a smaller one. I think it's all digital, they should allow viewing online somehow, maybe via the room tv, and order just what guests want? Seems like a huge waste of photography supplies, and photographer time. The teens made friends and had a old Western Style photo taken on the last night. I guarantee if I had suggested that the response would have been, "no way". It came out very cute, and I found the photographers to be very willing to take their time and take multiple shots.
We did catch one musical show, El Nuevo Caribe on the final night. The singers were very good, but it ran a bit long. I thought the quality of the performance had improved over our previous Carnival cruise. Again, after seeing the Disney entertainment, it's tough to compete. The Paris Lounge is not the best venue. Many seats have blocked views, and the drink waiters are a distraction during the performances. I hope in dry-dock they find a better way to arrange the seating. We also caught a good comedian, Tony Esposito, and he was funny. They should offer more of that, and try to be less Las Vegas. Just my opinion.
We had great service throughout the cruise, especially our room steward Nana and our Dining Room waiter, (forgive me for misspelling his name) Visnic. He was from Macedonia, and did a fantastic job keeping us served, without feeling rushed. The last night he was sick, and his replacement tried, but never rose to the standard of Visnic. Our room steward Nana did a fine job keeping us cleaned and picked up, without being in our way. My two cabins were a few doors away. The kids made a total mess of their inside cabin, but Nana understood and let it be most of the time. We appreciated that. He did manage to make the beds in their room daily, and we both always had fresh ice in the bucket. I can do without the towel animals, seems like a waste of time and linens to me. Maybe they can give that option, I can see families with small kids might really enjoy that, but got tired of undoing the critter, then putting the towels away. I never had one Carnival employee offer me less than respectful and cheerful service. High marks overall on the attitude of the staff.
We had back-to-back port days, and did excursions pre-booked through Carnival each day. Grand Cayman was lovely, and we surely will find a way to get back someday. Part of our group did a beach break, but they were not totally happy with that. They felt the Colony Hotel was not the resort they were expecting, and with it being half a day, there was less relaxing, and more "watch checking". They did say the beach was spectacular. My husband, son and nephew did a shore snorkel excursion. I went along to carry stuff! They had originally hoped to skateboard at the Black Pearl Skatepark, but the short time in port, (8 - 2) and the time difference made that impossible. They snorkeled the Cali Wreck, thought it was interesting, but didn't see too much aquatic life. We then walked back to the pier area, and did some shopping while the boys skated the streets. We never saw a "No Skateboarding" sign, and everyone was asking them to show them a trick or two, which they happily obliged. Royal Caribbean offers an excursion to Black Pearl, wish Carnival would, or better yet, put some ramps and rails up on the activity deck!
The next day we were in Calica. We had arranged a Mayan Jungle Explorer trip through Carnival. We were met by Yugo of AllTourNative Off Track Adventures. He did a wonderful job. We waited for two other couples in an air conditioned van, then took off for the highway. We drove about 20 minutes, and arrived at a practically unmarked gated area. Yugo got out, and opened the gate, soon we were driving on a very bumpy road. After about 15 minutes we arrived at an area with several thatched roof open air huts. We got our instructions and were off on the first leg, a 3 mile bike ride. It was basically back up the road we had just traveled, circled in a field, then back. We could have skipped that part, but it felt good to burn a few calories after the food we had been eating on the ship.
Then we got our helmets and instructions for the Zip Lines. Beware if you are fearful of heights, it starts out pretty tame, but the final zip line back to the starting point is very high up above the treetops. The climb up the tower alone will make you feel as though you have something to be proud of! It was awesome, and no one chickened out. Yugo handled the scared ones gently, and we all have one of those unforgettable memories! We bought the video to prove it. They also offered photos, which our companions bought, but I didn't they were the highest quality. The excursion was pricey for five of us, $110 per person, but afterward I felt good about it, and spending our money that way.
When we arrived back at the dock at Calica, we were able to shop at a makeshift shopping area. Tents had been set up with local wares, jewelry, etc. So really if you don't book something you still have an opportunity for a little shopping. We did buy a few things, haggling is my husband's job!
As I wrote earlier our cabins were fine, about what we expected. My husband and I had the OV and we let the kids take the Inside for the most part. It wasn't how we were booked but no one said anything. I kept close tabs on the kids, and had them slip a note under the door if they came in late, so I didn't worry too much. I do wish Carnival would make better use of the spacious cabins that they do offer. The Corner TV set up is a huge obstacle to getting to the window, or the other side of the bed. I hope they do something different after the dry-dock improvements. More hooks would be helpful, and a more comfortable chair for sitting, since the only alternative is lying on the bed. We thought the beds were super comfortable though, sleeping was never a problem!
We had dinners in the Mardi Gras Dining Room each night. We all thought the food was very good. Some of the meats were a bit overdone, so we scaled back how well we ordered them. We liked the variety of selections, and of course the chocolate melting cake, (pudding really) was very popular. I also liked the Cappuccino Pie, and I am not big on desserts. It was light and very good. We had the seating, so pretty much, we ate, had a little casino time, walked around some and hit the hay. Our traveling partners are more night folks, so they enjoyed the shows each night after dinner. Two nights they moved the show time up, before dinner, which we appreciated. Our maitre'd was Babu. We could have done without all the fanfare, but the others seemed to enjoy it. My kids are still saying "Opa".
We actually thought the Carnival food was better than what we recall on the Disney cruise. Maybe it's just better for us, not so fancy, but also not things we have all the time. My kids only had to resort to the "alternative selections" of an Angus Burger once or twice. They were usually able to find something they could enjoy. My husband and I usually ate breakfast in the Brasserie, or on the Lido deck, since we are early risers, and it was not so hot or crowded at that time. I liked the Brasserie lunch offerings, always something different reflecting the port of call and tasty. The Caribbean day they had a stew that was like Ropa Vieja, and delicious. I can't imagine not being able to find something at lunch, there were just so many choices. They also had pizza and Caesar salads available, though the salad given was small and had a bit too much dressing, but still I ate it! My kids got fries, burgers and hot dogs quite a few times, and as previously mentioned the ice cream machine was in constant use. I took the stairs almost exclusively, but still managed to gain a couple of pounds.
The final day we chose not to self disembark, though we could have easily as our cabins were on the same level. We got breakfast in the Mardi Gras Dining room. It was the basics, but always good. I wish they would offer the omelettes with no oil, though. We got the kids up, pulled it together and were in line and off in no time. It was a bit like a cattle call, with the requisite "line jumpers". I think next time we will take advantage of the self debarkation. I saw there were few passengers taking advantage early, so getting off then would have been a breeze.
My only complaints are pretty minor. As previously mentioned, I disliked the constant loud music on the Lido deck. The other thing was the general lack of manners some guests showed. I insisted that my boys take off the ball caps in the dining room, but I observed many grown men did not. Also I felt that anyone venturing through the glass doors to eat lunch or breakfast in the Brasserie would at least do others the favor of putting on a shirt! Most did, but quite a few had the attitude "my vacation, I'll do what I want". I saw bare feet in the casino, and did often see kids running a bit wild. I know that the kids will be kids, but knocking on doors running down the halls would not fly with me if it was my child. Quite a few parents ignored the Adults Only sign posted on the hot tub, but as I said, Security usually intervened to clear them out. I actually appreciated that my kids were never hassled for being kids, though they never caused any damage or ruin anyone else's time either. There was some egregious line cutting at disembarkation, but Carnival is partly to blame for the haphazard setup. Take a hint from Disney when they need to direct guests for an upcoming parade, put removable posts and ropes in place to guide the lines from each floor. Still it wasn't a huge long wait, with two machines scanning the Sign and Sail cards.
One observation: I was kind of troubled by the excesses, lots of food thrown out, the towel animals, all the photos that went unclaimed must really add up day after day. I would love to see Carnival take a more environmental approach. I would be happy to recycle, or reuse more than just my cabin towels. Just a thought.
We are likely to cruise Carnival again, maybe a newer ship, or we might also try a competitor next time, just to have more of a greater range of comparison. We all agree, it was a great time. We felt the five day time frame suited us perfectly. Not too short, but not so long that the kids get bored and into trouble, or that too much had piled up waiting for us at home.