Background Information: We are previous cruisers - this was our 8th cruise overall, 7th cruise on Carnival, and, can you believe it, our 3rd cruise aboard the Inspiration. We are late 50's/early 60's, and we were joined by our youngest daughter and her husband. 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. Additionally, we received a very nice military discount from Carnival, and we are appreciative of this break that Carnival provides to military veterans.
Travel To Port of Embarkation: One of the reasons for cruising aboard the Inspiration so many times is because we live about an hour and 20 minutes from the Port of Tampa, so driving up the day of the cruise is a breeze. This cruise was no different. We dropped our car off at valet parking - well worth the extra cost. When we returned, all we had to do was walk across the street, and our car was waiting for us. Check-in was quick and easy, and once again we were on the Lido Deck, enjoying a cool drink before noon. Cabins were still being cleaned, but that didn't bother us as we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and explored the ship a bit. The sights and sounds of the Port of Tampa are very exciting, even while the ship is docked, and all of this contributes to the cruise experience.
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. This time we were in U177, 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. The Inspiration is scheduled for upgrade and refurbishing in September of this year. Although the Inspiration shows some wear, she is still a very fine vessel from a passenger perspective.
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. On some cruises, like Miami, for example, ten minutes after you leave the dock, you're at sea. Not so with The Inspiration - the ship takes approximately 2 ½ hours to maneuver out of the Tampa Channel and into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. During this time, there is much to see along the way, and of course the passage under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is simply spectacular. Over the remaining nights we dined in the Mardi Gras dining room, (we had the 6:15PM early dining) with our waiter Dennis, and his assistant, Iwayan. Overall, the quality of food was excellent, and the service was impeccable. We had emailed the Maitre'd before the cruise and asked to be seated at Dennis' table. We enjoyed his attentive care on a previous cruise and wished to repeat the experience. The Maitre'd did a great job, and the four of us were seated by ourselves in a small booth, at the rear of the dining room. We 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. On this cruise, we did not visit the main dining room for breakfast, as we simply preferred the more casual and relaxed atmosphere of the Brasserie, the outside tables, etc. 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. If you wanted to be busy doing stuff, there were ample activities to choose from; if you wanted to enjoy a place of comparative solitude to read or relax, there were plenty of these as well.
Service: As we have stated in previous reviews, service is still Carnival's high point. The overall friendliness and 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. While I've read about complaints regarding the purser's desk, we have always experienced great courtesy and a helpful staff there. Guess it depends on one's attitude.
Entertainment: The rest of my group attended the first night's entertainment "Shout," but I opted out. As our daughter and her husband had not seen any of the shows, they wanted to experience the entertainment. They also went to "El Nuevo Caribe" (which I again opted out of) and they reported that it was ok, entertainment yes, spectacular, no. For me, I just couldn't go a third time.
Shore Excursions: In Grand Cayman, we did the Cayman Seven Mile Beach Break. Everything was organized well and the transportation only took a few minutes. Everything at the beach was as advertised - no complaints. We were able to enjoy this experience for about an hour when we began to get concerned about the weather, as a huge darkening storm was developing nearby. Rather than wait for the tour bus transportation, we opted out early, and paid 5 bucks to ride one of the public buses back to the tender dock. It turned out to be a good choice, as the wind and rain hit as soon as we got aboard our tender. Its interesting to be in a tender in those conditions, as everyone got soaked, even being under the roof. But it was all good fun and just another aspect of the shore experience.
We experienced Calica for the first time. I suppose the best way to approach this is to remember that Calica is not a port - it is simply a rock quarry dock that Carnival uses to disembark passengers for tours and excursions around the area. One the one hand the Calica experience is kind of ugly, but when you remember that it is simply a rock quarry, then I guess it looks exactly as it is supposed to look. There were ample numbers of taxis and buses for everyone.
We didn't really want to do anything too organized, so we took a taxi ride into Playa Del Carmen. The ride was pleasant and only a few minutes duration. The taxi driver spoke very little English, but he was friendly and drove sensibly. We were dropped off in the downtown area, where we spent the next 2-3 hours walking around, sightseeing, taking photos, and every so often enjoying a cold brew at one of the many outside bars. There is a little bit of everything here, from shopping to dining and everything in-between. Merchants all very friendly, and overall a nice tourist atmosphere. We will definitely come back to Play Del Carmen on future visits. Snagging a taxi for the return ride to the ship was easy.
Final Day At Sea: Although not a specific review category, our last day at sea was so extraordinary, I felt it merited some special mention. It was June 13th, our final "sea day," and of course we were sailing from the Yucatan Peninsula area to Tampa, in the Gulf of Mexico. The day started with a very spectacular sunrise and a calm sea. As the day progressed, the seas remained calm, so calm, in fact that I don't ever remember seeing such a day in all of our cruises. The sea was a dark blue and so calm that the bow of the ship made waves as it moved along, but there was no white water at all. Except for our forward motion, we moved along smoothly with virtually no rocking motion at all. Along about mid-morning as we enjoyed lunch on the Lido Deck outside, a school of dolphins began to follow the ship and many passengers enjoyed watching these beautiful and graceful creatures as they frolicked alongside the Inspiration. All said, it was simply one of those perfect days at sea.
Disembarkation: We enjoyed our breakfast on the Lido Deck and around 8am we joined the many hundreds of people exiting the ship. The crew has closed the passageway doors to the atrium area on one side of the ship, necessitating everyone going to the other side to enter the Atrium. Coupled with those coming up and down the stairs and out of the elevators, it simply produced a huge crowd all feeding through two exit stations. Some disembarkations go smoothly, some not so smoothly. I wasn't too impressed with this one overall.
One aspect I didn't care for was that there were continuous announcements from the crew that we weren't cleared for disembarkation yet, but while these announcements were on-going, people were actually leaving the ship. Sounds like the right hand wasn't talking to the left hand.
Final Thoughts: A cruise is what you make it. We have always enjoyed our Carnival experiences, and a less than exemplary disembarkation experience certainly did not prevent us from coming away with a positive attitude toward this cruise. Admittedly, we like Carnival - the value for the cost is definitely there, and we have never had a "bad" cruise. So Carnival will definitely see us again, in fact we already have another cruise booked with them for October!
If you would like to see photos from this cruise, Calica, Playa Del Carmen, the last day at sea, and a few dolphins, etc., check out my photos at: http://photoshots.phanfare.com/album/389736#imageID=24670696