We are previous cruisers, (10 overall) and this was our 9th cruise on Carnival. We are 64/60, traveling with another couple, and their adult son. We live in southwest Florida and typically drive to our port of embarkation. This was the 4th time that we've cruised on Carnival's Inspiration, and obviously we like the ship and its cruise itineraries.
Travel To Port of Embarkation
We drove to Tampa on the day prior to the cruise, about an hour's drive. It has become a regular concept for us to travel to our port city on the day before the cruise. Being only a few miles from the port on cruise day takes away a lot of stress associated with traveling, and allows us to relax and get into a "pre-cruise" mode.
We chose our favorite hotel, the Holiday Inn Express on Rocky Point Drive, about 8 miles from the port of Tampa. It is only a short walk across the parking lot to the Bahama Breeze restaurant, a great place to relax, dine, and mentally prepare for our cruise. We've done this on four different cruises out of Tampa, and we find this model works well for us.
Basically it was a breeze. We arrived at the Port of Tampa around 10am, and the last of the previous cruise passengers were still getting off the ship. We parked the car, paid $48 for parking, (4-day cruise) and rolled our luggage across the street to the Port. Carnival agents opened the doors promptly at 10:30am and we were checked in with our boarding passes,etc., in only a few minutes. We began boarding the ship around 11:30am, and were on board having lunch before noon.
Having cruised on the Inspiration previously, we were somewhat excited to see the changes that had taken place when it went through a multi-million dollar refurbishment in Sep 2007. We were not disappointed! The changes were evident everywhere, not only in replaced and refurbished decorations, but some actual design changes as well.
There was new tile, carpet, and wall coverings in nearly every public space. New colors and replacement of old materials provided some very nice enhancements. The Verandah deck aft now has a new waterworks park, with new water slides - a great place for the kids, but we saw a lot of adults utilizing this as well. On the Promenade deck aft (it used to be the children's area?)there is now an adults only area known as "Serenity." We spent a lot of time there and it is very nice - comfy full length cushions on the chaise lounges, lots of chairs with cushions, a scattering of umbrellas, and lots of small tables on which to place your drinks. Its obvious that Carnival put a lot of thought into this concept and kudos to their designers. A few small negatives - hard to not have some of these when something is redesigned from its original intent - there are no restrooms in easy reach. Its either up to the Lido Deck, or up further to the Verandah deck, or you can choose to walk through the Candlelight Lounge to restrooms in the foyer area near the elevators. Additionally, there is absolutely no handicapped access to this area. It's either through the Candlelight lounge (several up/down steps to be negotiated), or come down the stairway from Lido Deck. Another minor negative is because of the design of this area at the rear of the ship, if there is no breeze directly across the stern, it can get awfully hot in this area. But all in all, we think it is a positive improvement.
On the Sports deck a miniature golf area has been installed, which seems to nicely fill that huge expanse between the running track. A nice touch. Some changes on the Lido Deck midships as well, new awnings for shade, etc., new tables and chairs all over the ship, and oh yes, all brand new chaise lounges everywhere.
In addition to new furniture, tile, and carpet in public areas, perhaps the most dramatic changes were seen in our stateroom. New carpet, new flat screen tvs, and most importantly, completely refurbished rest rooms! New wall coverings in the shower, new floors, new sinks, everything bright and sparkling! A very dramatic and positive change from the well-worn bathrooms of yore. One of the best things they did in the cabin was to get rid of that stupid corner cabinet thingy where they used to store the life vests, and replaced it with a small and simple stand. Now you can actually navigate around the bed without banging your knees. In the passageways, all new carpet, new lighting, new wall coverings, new room number signs, etc. All in all, the entire ship has a really new feel and a bright new look.
We had asked for us and our friends to be assigned to our dining table and time, but when we checked in, we discovered we were in different dining rooms, and had different times as well. As soon as we boarded, we went directly to the Maitre'd, (Babu). He was able to accommodate our request and were given a small table (#227) at there rear of the Carnivale Dining room, adjacent to a huge picture window. Here we enjoyed several fine dinners, views of the sunsets, and impeccable service from our waiter and assistant. (Michael & Edit). We took particular note that there was a definite change in the quality of the dining room meals when compared to previous cruises. Food was excellent in quality overall, and served promptly and hot.
We did have breakfast one morning in the Dining Room, and found that in this regard, nothing much has changed from our previous visits. They still pack you in like sardines, even being a little testy about where you must sit, typically at a table with all strangers, many of them very cranky, as they fill the tables one by one. They insist on filling up tables one-by-one, so you cannot sit just anywhere you would like. On this particular morning, the sun was shining brightly in our picture window, and there was some discontent among a few about whether the curtains should be opened or closed. The waiters would open them until someone complained, then they would close them again - went through this 3 or 4 times. Give me a break.
I'm not sure why Carnival insists on using this sardine-packing method for breakfast and lunch in the main dining rooms. It would seem that it wouldn't be such a big deal to allow people to sit wherever they wanted; (Hello Carnival - its called FREE STYLE DINING!) I mean they're going to have to clean up afterwards anyway, so what's the big deal? We only went that morning because our friends wanted to go, but even they said they wouldn't do it again. In all of our Carnival experiences, this is probably the least positive aspect that we've encountered. No complaint about the servers and waiters, this is simply a management strategy that has outlived its usefulness and needs to be modified.
After that we enjoyed our other breakfasts in the Brasserie Grill on the Lido Deck. It is our favorite place to eat. Lots of variety (eggs & omelettes cooked to order, if you want), and most importantly you can sit wherever you want. Our favorite spots - on the Port or Starboard side on the outside decks, or on the fantail areas - outside decks at the rear of the Brasserie Lounge on Port and Starboard sides. Hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, and of course there is always ice cream available.
We must confess as to little or no participation in most of the onboard activities. For us (and our friends) we simply like to lay out and read, or just enjoy the ocean views. (perhaps along with a cool libation ?) We found plenty of chaise lounges available, although there was some "saving" by a few people, but not of epidemic proportions.
We did opt for Bingo one afternoon, but we won't do that again. Back in the day when we first began to cruise, it was great fun - $5 bucks a card, $100 - $500 dollar jackpots, and all your old cards went into a big plastic bag for a final drawing and jackpot. Well, those days are gone forever, it seems. Now, you pay $20 for a three-game card, and the jackpots are pitiful. Everything is done electronically and just doesn't have the excitement and thrill of the old Bingo days. One this one afternoon, there appeared to be about 300 people playing Bingo (300 X $20 a card = $6,000), but the progressive jackpots only paid out about $800 total. Hmm...maybe I can find something else to do next time.
Once again, we found Carnival's service to be above and beyond. Everyone seems geared to helping all the passengers enjoy their cruise. At no time did we experience anything except politeness, helpfulness, and courtesy from everyone on Carnival's staff.
On our first night out, our friends stayed up for the late show, the hilarious comedy of Happy Cole. They reported that it was extremely funny and great entertainment. The second night out we all went to see "Shout" with the Inspiration Dancers. Although we had all seen this show before, it seemed to flow with new life and excitement and was thoroughly enjoyable. On our last night at sea, we went to see "Fiesta Latina," which apparently has replaced the old "El Neuvo Caribe," which was a disaster. "Fiesta Latina" is new, fresh, and colorful. Especially notable were the very colorful Caribbean costumes, lots of new dance routines and songs, and overall just great show time entertainment. It's clear that Carnival has made some good changes in this area.
This was a four day cruise, and our only stop was at Cozumel, and we were there from 8am until about 6:30pm. We again opted for our favorite pastime, a trip to Paradise Beach. We docked at the Punta Langosta pier and took a taxi to the beach. We spent about six hours there, quaffed a few Dos Equis' and guacamole, dip, and nachos. A real tough day at the beach. Then we taxied back to the ship, got changed, and had time to do a little shopping right across from the ship.
Debarkation was a new experience for us for a couple of reasons. On previous cruises on the Inspiration, we had always opted for the "self-assist" method, simply rolling our luggage off the ship in the first group to leave. As my wife now needs to use a wheelchair to board/debark, we had to check our luggage this time (out in the passageway by midnight the previous night),and then retrieve it after debarking. Another change is that Carnival has adopted a zone system, where everyone is given numbers, and debarkation is done by those zone numbers. Knowing it would take a little longer, we just hung out in the Brasserie lounge until our number was called. We ended up getting off the ship around 9:15am.
Even though it took a little longer, we did notice that there were only small lines to exit the ship, and gone was the mass packing of the lobby area and overall inefficiency that we had seen on previous cruises. (Incidentally, on a recent phone call to Carnival Cruise Lines, there was a recorded message stating that you can now take your luggage on board with you as you embark, similar to the "self-assist" method now in use for debarkation. I assume the criteria for taking your luggage with you onto the ship is the same for taking it off the ship.) In any case, kudos to Carnival for making these changes. Debarkation was much more orderly than we've seen on past cruises.
Once off the ship, we quickly and easily retrieved our luggage (all of it placed according to the zone numbers) and were through customs and outside the port before 10am.
We like Carnival and we'll be back. Our next cruise will be as Platinum guests so we're looking forward to that. Carnival has always come through for us and we like the overall experience. As far as the Inspiration is concerned, it is a great ship, a wonderful crew, and we have enjoyed every cruise we've taken on it. Now that it has been refurbished, it's even better. For us, living in SW Florida, driving to most of the major ports is easy, and Carnival provides a lot of variety of ships and itineraries. We already have two more Carnival cruises booked in 2008. Hope to see you onboard!