We booked this cruise as a late summer vacation because our 14 and 16 yr-old children had so enjoyed a Princess cruise we took over last Christmas. Our pocketbook was a little stretched so this was the longest cruise we could afford. We had been on Princess, Royal Caribbean, and NCL before so we thought we would give Carnival a try. We departed from Tampa after a short 2 1/2 drive from our home.
Embarkation: We used the valet service for an extra $15 which we read was worth it (it was). Embarkation was a breeze- we arrived at 11:30 and hardly had to wait in line at all. Since we were carrying some of our luggage (garment bag with formal clothes, etc), we had to wait until 1:30 to go to our room. We made our way to the Lido deck to have lunch at the Lido cafe (an extension of the Brasserie buffet). The food was passable but this was when we were first introduced to the "special drink" hard sell. Every 3-5 minutes a waiter would come by asking us if we wanted a "special drink". We are not drinkers and my 16 and 14 yr-old kids were, of course, not either. It got so bad that we had to develop a defensive technique to fend them off before they got a chance to ask us. Either my wife or I would put up the universal "stop" sign each time a waiter would drift into our area. This was the beginning of the intrusions into what we had hoped was going to be a pleasant cruise. We got to our room and deposited our carry on luggage. Our dropped off luggage arrived much earlier than I had expected, around 2:30. This was a pleasant surprise.
Our stateroom: We had decided to stay in one room as the Inspiration has a category of room with a king sized bed and two drop down single berths. I was a little worried that this would make the room very cramped but it turned out to be very reasonable. Whenever the kids needed to sit out of the way, they would pull down the bunks and sit in them. I did bump my head a couple times during the night but it wasn't too bad. The bathroom was bigger than I had expected and the shower was much bigger than the room we had on the Princess cruise. We always book inside cabins simply because we don't expect to stay in them very much. There was enough room to unpack two adults and two teenagers with some room left over. The room and the overall decor of the ship is showing its age but I understand the Inspiration will be going through an overhaul this fall. We had expected that the room would have a refrigerator but it didn't. We started to panic a little as my daughter's bleeding disorder medicine has to be refrigerated. It is very, very expensive (cost more than the price of the cruise). Had we been forced to stay without a refrigerator, we would have had to leave the ship. After some initial confusion, the purser and room service came through with a small refrigerator that did the job. We were very thankful for the help, but really, refrigerators should be standard.
Leaving Tampa: It seemed to take forever to get through the lifeboat drill and depart. We had decided to take the early seating at dinner but had we known it was going to be at 5:45, we might have done differently. The early seatings are staggered between the two main dining rooms- the Carnivale (5:45) and the Mardi Gras (6:15). 6:15 might not have been as bad as 5:45. We sat at a table with another couple with two teenage kids. They were very pleasant and we immensely enjoyed their company during the cruise. Passing under the Sunshine Skyway was an awesome experience as well, although it occurred when we were sitting at dinner.
Meals: The Inspiration has the usual buffet style eaterie called the Brasserie. Most times the food was pretty good. I would rate it better than the Princess cruise buffet but possibly only because on the Princess ship they were taking sanitation precautions and wouldn't let you serve yourself. The Brasserie is very cramped and it is difficult to get around when full. The service was good, though, and the 24-hr pizzeria in the back was very good. Except for the one morning we landed at Grand Cayman and had to get off the boat at the crack of dawn, we ate in the Mardi Gras restaurant. It was ok for breakfast, but the food was rather bland. We had hoped that dinner would be of the same grand quality as Princess but were disappointed on some nights. Our waitress, Jana, was excellent, and she took good care of us. We didn't see our assistant waiter, Lazlo, as much as I expected. It seems that the assistant waiters are spread out over more tables than the head waiters. More intrusions into our peaceful cruise occurred at each dinner. Our maitre' D, George, for some reason felt the need to interrupt every meal with some silly game or announcement, including coaxing us to dance to the Macarena or some other silly dance. My wife and I were flabbergasted that what should've been a pleasant and peaceful dining experience where we could talk about the day's events to our tablemates would be so surreptitiously interrupted every night. Honestly, we felt like not going to dinner just to avoid the intrusions. The food itself was better than I expected and the warm melting chocolate cake was to die for. For all the parading and silliness the wait staff was forced to do throughout the week, I was surprised not to see the baked Alaska parade on the final night. This seemed to be a tradition on the other cruise lines we had been on.
Drinks: We decided to forego the daily soda sign up that we had done on previous cruises. It seems awful expensive to spend $5 per day per person for the occasional soda. We took an empty suitcase (to bring back souvenirs) and packed a case of waters that lasted us the entire cruise.
Entertainment: We didn't go to the sailaway production, but regretted it later given the dearth of entertainment on this ship. We were very disappointed in the entertainment overall. One night there was a combination magician and comedian, both of which were uninspiring. The same comedian performed a night later at an R-rated presentation. That was a little better than the "clean" comedy but was still pretty amateur. The two production numbers we saw were very good. We enjoyed the dancers and the two singers were good. I guess I was expecting more so I was disappointed. On the Princess cruise there were options about what entertainment you saw each night, either a production show or a comedian or magician in the lounge theater. On the Inspiration, there were not really any choices. If there was a production show, that was the only choice and every one went, so finding seats required that you get to the Paris Lounge at least 45 minutes before the show where you would have endure one of the neverending bingo games the ship seemed to run. And even during the shows you had to endure the endless waiters walking in front of you trying to get you to buy drinks. During the "fun" days at sea, there was very little to do unless you like sitting by the pool and drinking all day. There were a few trivia games every once in a while but they often were held in the bar areas where the people there to drink would spoil the game. There was something called "Karaoke Craziness" in the lounge at night but it turned out to be nothing more than a place where teenagers went to make fools of themselves trying to sing songs with dirty words in them. The last "fun" day at sea we spent most of the day playing cards with our kids- we could've done that at home without paying the expense of a cruise. We did hit the casino a couple times. My wife likes to play Roulette but the ship only opened one of the two roulette tables and it was too crowded to play most times. The other games there were about the same as any ship casino.
Teen club: Although we had two teenagers with us, they decided not to partake in the Club O2 activities. I heard that they were pretty good, but have no first hand knowledge.
The ports: Grand Cayman- We had been to Grand Cayman twice before- once on our honeymoon and once on a NCL cruise 20 years ago. So much has changed- I expect a lot of it due to Hurricane Ivan in 2004. It used to be a very quaint place to go with unique shops and a neat waterfront area. Now it looks like any other Caribbean port city. Tacky tourist shops line the waterfront street in St. George. We took the on shore snorkeling excursion because we wanted our kids to experience the great snorkeling in Grand Cayman. That part didn't disappoint us at all. Grand Cayman is still one of the best snorkeling/scuba diving locations. We were worried about debarkation from the ship given that we were only in port from 7:30 to 1. I have to give Carnival a lot of credit here. They really excelled in this department. We all met in the Paris lounge and the crew walked us directly on to the tender. There was no waiting in line or colored tickets like RCL and Princess do. We thoroughly enjoyed the snorkeling but were very rushed trying to go through the shops to catch the last tender back. It's really a shame that the ship stays such a little time here.
Calica- Calica is a quarry. There are some shopping tents outside the dock but we had heard not to shop there as they were more expensive than in Playa Del Carmen. We took the Tuluum Express shore excursion. We wanted the kids to experience Tuluum as we had 20 years before. Alex our tour guide was awesome and the experience, despite the oppressive heat, we excellent. I was disappointed that the main temple stairs had been closed off as I distinctly recall climbing those stairs 20 years before. They had also closed off the beach area for some reason. At any rate, it was too hot to spend much time there. My wife and kids spent most of their time in the literally hundreds of shops at the Tuluum entrance. After hearing our dinnermates adventures on their shore excursion, we sort of wished we had done something different. It was an ok excursion but if you go to Calica, take advantage of the snorkeling in the Cenotes or tours to Xel Ha. In the afternoon we went into Playa Del Carmen. Once thing to note- if you do take the Tuluum Express, they take you into Playa Del Carmen for free in the afternoon. You have to get a taxi back but at least that's $10 bucks you don't have to spend. Playa Del Carmen was like one continuous street of shops with similar stuff that was at the Tuluum shops and at Calica. Its like one company owns all of these shops and they all sell the same stuff. They all would haggle with you so you could get some good deals. I was surprise that the price of silver was so much higher than I expected. Even haggling couldn't reduce it enough for me.
Debarkation: Debarkation was a snap since we used the valet service. Since we weren't in a hurry we had a leisurely breakfast in the Mardi Gras dining room, then made our way off the ship around 9. Again, we didn't have to stand in line hardly at all as Carnival really has their act together on how to get a lot of people off of the ship.
Summary: If you like to drink, party, and lay around the pool, this is the cruise for you. I was pleased with the stateroom and room steward, the food for the most part (except for the nightly dinner interruptions), with the dinner wait service, and with the production shows. I was very disappointed with the lack of entertainment at night on the nights there were no production shows. I was disappointed with the amount of "pushing" of special drinks and drinks in general. I was disappointed that we spent so little time in Grand Cayman. We will stick with RCL or Princess in the future, though, because of the more pleasant cruises we have had with them.