It was also my third cruise on one of the Fantasy-class ships. The last time (Imagination, 1998), Carnival had not yet launched the Destiny, and these ships were considered state-of-the-art. After three subsequent classes (Destiny, Spirit, and Conquest) featuring 12 newbuilds that have taken over Carnival's bread-and-butter seven-plus-day trips, the Inspiration and its seven sisters have been assigned to shorter cruises, often from homeports. But all those turnarounds and the sheer number of different passengers results in a lot of wear and tear. In addition, other cruise lines, as they modernize their mainstream fleets, are also assigning their previous generations of top-line ships to these markets.
Of course, with ages ranging from ten to eighteen years, these ships are "old" only in dog years; nevertheless, Carnival has decided to refresh these ships with a bunch of new features and upgrades called "Evolutions of Fun." The Inspiration was the first to go through the necessary dry dock. Anyone who remembers what these ships used to be like will appreciate the tremendous amount of work that went into the upgrades. The new features are a big success, adding some real class to this ship without reducing any of its way-out-there exuberance. And if they don't exactly turn the ship into a silk purse, well, neither did she start out as a sow's ear.
I drove from Atlanta to North Tampa on Friday and stayed at a Sleep Inn off I-75 for about $80 with tax and breakfast. The room was basic but clean and well-equipped with a king bed, coffee pot, fridge, and microwave. Breakfast was the usual cold items, pretty good coffee, plus make-your-own Belgian waffles. As a bonus, the place was only 20 minutes' drive from the pier. The entrance to the self-parking garage is kind of a hassle to find from the baggage drop-off, but once you find it and get parked, it's a very short walk to the terminal.
After going through Tampa's friendly and seamless embarkation procedures (for me, 45 minutes from luggage drop-off to lunch on the lido), I found myself in the lobby at the bottom of the six-deck atrium. The space, like the rest of the ship, is big but not overwhelming. A big skylight brightens things up by day, while neon tubing and Tivoli lights keep things festive at night. The large golden sculpture "Bird of Paradise," which appears in a lot of online photos and used to be the signature centerpiece of the lobby has been removed and replaced by a bar. The ship was being decorated for the holidays with long banners, greenery, and a cute gingerbread village near the casino (no jokes, please). The effect was very festive. On the lobby level (Empress Deck) includes the purser's and shore excursion decks, the internet lounge, and an art "gallery" featuring pieces to be offered at the art auctions - when they remove all these pieces to the actual auction location, this space looks like a museum that's been robbed.
But enough of that, anyone who's cruised before knows that (and here's a tip for first-timers) if you've just boarded the ship, it must be time to eat. I grabbed some soup, some fish, some other stuff I don't remember, and a Fun Ship Special - nothing says "welcome aboard" like a hot pink hurricane glass - and headed out to the new pool area. The pool isn't very big but is very attractive, with new lighting, pretty blue and yellow tile work, poolside benches underneath yellow umbrellas, and two whirlpools that seem new and larger than the old ones. There are two spiral staircases to the deck above, and a new stage features live entertainment that often can't be seen by the passengers because wind-blocking curtains obscure the view. There are also some odd-looking fake palm trees with yellow lights spiraling up their trunks. The whole area is extremely attractive and is becoming more so: in the middle of our cruise, half of the old white resin deck furniture disappeared and was replaced by new composite-and-brown-mesh loungers and wicker armchairs. By the time all of the furniture is in place, this area - and the other open deck areas - are going to be pretty classy. A big "well done" to Carnival here.
Between lunch and the time my cabin was ready, I explored the other new "Evolutions" areas. One deck up from the pool, on Verandah Deck aft, is the Carnival Waterworks. This is a splash park that replaces the secondary pool and two whirlpools. On one side, two blur water slides look like the ones you slid down on the playground, only longer, faster, and more fun. On the other side is a humongously tall tubular water slide that's visible from a considerable distance. The slide is lots of fun but not so fast as to be a real screamer - probably exactly what Carnival had in mind. Even with this big new attraction, there is still plenty of room for sunning, and the deck surface, here and on almost all the open decks, is not composite but that lovely teak that feels so good against one's bare feet.
One deck down from the pool, at the aft end of Promenade Deck, is the "Serenity" adults-only space. It has two whirlpools, a bunch of really cushy padded loungers (much nicer than the other open decks), and a view of the wake that might make you want to join the crew. There's food just one deck upstairs in the buffet, and drink service is frequent. Best of all - especially for the revved-up atmosphere of a Carnival ship - this place is really quiet. Do the hot tub with a fruity beverage, or get into that monster Follett novel about cathedrals, or redefine the word "nap" - or just talk it all over with your fellow grown-ups. It's not big, but it's big enough - I always found a chair in the shade and almost always in the sun. This is where I could always relax and was my favorite place on the ship, one of my favorite places on any ship.
And now for full disclosure: there are a couple of issues, especially with the Waterworks and Serenity, that Carnival needs to work on. Both of these areas are located behind the ship's funnel and so vulnerable to engine exhaust and the resulting dirt and increased maintenance. In just a couple of months' use, the Waterworks already shows problems. There are many brown spots on the blue of the Waterworks surface, and the yellow water slide looks sooty. The metal borders on the surrounding mosaic tiles are corroded and dirty. The cushions on the Serenity loungers are a lovely turquoise, but many of them are smudged and dirty from the tiny pieces of ash that occasionally hit them. So far, I'm not sure that Carnival is keeping up with the extra cleaning that will have to be done to keep these parts of the ship looking as good as they should. I can't say that cleaning issues will be confined to these new areas. The ship is very clean, but I didn't encounter the constant cleaning that has been a feature of every other cruise I've ever taken.
Whether that's a budget matter or a crew matter, I hope the staff will keep on top of it because the ship is really very pretty. The dining rooms have new furniture and are bright without being gaudy. There is new carpeting everywhere. New color-changing fiber optic signage got me where I needed to go. The spa and gym have been redone and are very attractive; unfortunately, the previous whirlpools under the skylight have been replaced by treatment rooms. The color palette is pleasant, and though where the ship is bright it is very bright, there are relaxing rooms like the Shakespeare Library in which to chill out. And last but oh so certainly not least, Carnival has redone all of the public restrooms with new mirrors, bright new tile work, and neat Kohler fixtures, a very nice touch. Once again, Carnival spends the money out where people can see it, but they need to keep at it - there was a broken light fixture cover in the elevator lobby nearest my cabin, at least one elevator had been keyed by some idiot and not fixed, and in some places where the pretty mosaic floor tiles had broken away, they were fixed with grout and not replacement tiles.My cabin was a category 4A inside on Riviera Deck. It was nice and spacious for one person, but it was not as modern as cabins on newer ships - the Carnival Legend, for example, manages to squeeze in a sofa, coffee table, and more (and better organized) storage space in the same size box. Even though the cabin had only been in use a couple of months, it had two dents and a crack in its ceiling. The Carnival Comfort Bed really is a true king-size when the twins are pushed together. Otherwise, it's a mixed bag - the mattresses are way too firm to be luxurious, but the linens are snuggly nice.
The food was good but rarely excellent. The dining room food was very bland, not nearly as well-spiced as on the Legend, and the dinner menu contained fewer choices than on newer ships. But my table mates were great - hey Steve, Michelle, Jay, Linda, and Eleanor, great cruising with you, and hi to Nicole and Joann and Leon and Earl and all the rest of the salsa dance group that either ate with us some night or another (there was a lot of that going on) or dropped in for dessert and a chat. Formal night isn't very formal - jacket and tie was as far as most of the men went, but as usual the women were a little dressier than the guys. The buffet was pretty good - the breakfast omelet station turns into a lunchtime deli sandwich counter, the salad bar is fine, and the fast food choices (burgers, hot dogs, pizza) are all yummy, and you can get the pizza 24/7. The soft serve ice cream is tasty and also available at any hour, and there's even a full bar stuffed into a corner, convenient to the Serenity deck if the waiter hasn't circled through in the last five minutes.
Service was decent but uneven. Melonny and Jose in the dining room were terrific, very friendly and more attentive than most waiters on my previous cruises. My cabin steward did not come to my cabin to introduce himself (I met him in the hall); he was efficient and thorough and invisible. Room service breakfast was almost always about 15 minutes early, so I was almost always still in bed. Drink service was pretty aggressive, especially in the casino and the dining room, but this comes with the territory and is better than no service at all. I noticed that the PA announcements were fewer and less frequent than usual, a nice plus.
The entertainment was good, not spectacular. Here is one place where you can tell that this ship doesn't rate the budget of other (presumably newer) vessels. For example, the showroom orchestra was half the size of that on the Legend, and the talent level was not up to that on other ships - the guitarist in the promenade lounge outside the casino was one of the worst singers I have ever heard. The main showroom, the Paris Lounge, seats 800, but only around 100 of them have totally unobstructed views; the rest have to peer around one or more of the 24 poles that hold up the balcony and ceiling.
Our ports were Grand Cayman and Calica. I've been to Grand Cayman a couple of times so didn't take a tour, but did go ashore, mostly to take some pictures of the ship (and the four others in port that day) from the tender. I looked in all the expensive shops and took a long walk toward the beach. There are taxis everywhere and tours galore, leaving from a central location on the pier. Go snorkeling with the stingrays. Calica is in the Mexican Yucatan and is the port for a quarry, which you will see and occasionally hear from the ship. Taxis and buses leave for tours to the Mayan ruins, Playa del Carmen, and so forth, but there are no tourist facilities at the pier itself. Kinda strange. I didn't care, though - I didn't plan on much touring before I left so hung out on board all day and enjoyed the peace and quiet. We had two sea days, with the latest iterations of old faves like the hairy chest and belly flop contests, Newlywed/Not-so-Newlywed game, all manner of trivia contests and game shows, plus the ubiquitous bingo. Don't forget the casino! - I won a little bit and suggest you look for the "99 Bottles of Beer" quarter slot machine. The only bummer about sea days - and it's a pretty big one - is that the 'Evolutions' have left the ship with only ONE pool, midships with the stage and all the hubbub and oh yeah, the crowds. Time to escape to the Serenity deck, where the whirlpools are warm and bubbly, the beverages are fruity, lunch can be retrieved in five minutes or less, and you can watch (and hear) the water going by.
Disembarkation seemed to happen a little later than usual, but it went as smoothly as embarkation. The self-park garage is a quick trip from the pier, and there are plenty of porters to help with luggage. Once my departure number was called on the ship, I needed less than 15 minutes to reach my car and get on the road back to Atlanta.
Lots of passengers, especially new cruisers and Carnival fans, are going to cruise on this ship (and her Fantasy-class sisters as they go through their refits) just to see what all the "Evolutions" hubbub is all about, and they will be pleased - my cruise was full of happy passengers using all of them, and I'm glad to say I was one of those passengers. Even though I was traveling alone, I met lots of nice folks and never lacked for companionship or a good laugh. OK, this isn't a 5-star ship by any stretch, but I had a 5-star good time, and at that ever-amazing, you've-got-this-much-in-your-sofa-cushions Carnival price.
Hey, whatever we pay, it's the same ocean for everybody. If you want grand elegance and intellectual appeal, you've got a wrong number here. But if you want a shorts and flip-flops good time with your sweetie, your family, your buds, your girlfriends, or just your own self, you might just have the time of your life. I would take this cruise again any time.