Previous cruiser (12), this was 10th on Carnival - first cruise as Platinum Guest and 5th cruise on the Inspiration. I am 66, retired, wife is 56, we are recently married, this was our honeymoon cruise. We live in North Port, Florida, only hours away from major cruise ports in Jacksonville, Port Canaveral, Ft. Lauderdale, Miami, and Tampa.
Travel To Port of Embarkation
It's an easy drive from our home to the Port of Tampa, right up I-75, then I-275 over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. Actually drove up the night before the cruise, eliminating any delays or unforeseen circumstances on cruise day. As an experienced cruiser, and having cruised out of Tampa many times, we arrived around 10 a.m., parked in the parking garage two blocks away, for which I was charged $56.00. Then, an easy walk to the terminal with our luggage. *Note - there is a sign at the garage that says "check your luggage first, and then park your car." I wouldn't recommend this, as you can have traffic problems getting to the curb with your vehicle, many people arriving, many still disembarking, typical pre & post cruise congestion. I find it much easier to park first and then walk the luggage over. Thank heaven for wheels on those suitcases.
Although the official Carnival information advises you to arrive after 1:30pm, in reality the terminal opens for check-in at 10:30a.m. Checked the bags with the curbside porter, showed our funpass and photo ID, and we proceeded smoothly into the terminal. Another advantage of checking in early is that you simply beat the crowds.
As we were Platinum Status, we proceeded promptly to VIP check-in, and in a few minutes were seated to wait for boarding to begin. There were two wedding parties which were boarded first, then all the VIPs were allowed to board, around 11:30 a.m. We proceeded to the Brasserie Lounge on the Lido deck for a nice leisurely lunch, then toured the ship until we could get into our stateroom at 1:30 p.m.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express on Rocky Point Drive, (it's actually very close to the TPA airport), dinner at Bahama Breeze Restaurant which is adjacent to the hotel, simply walk next door and you're there. The hotel is located about 8 miles from the Port of Tampa, which makes for a leisurely drive to the Port on cruise day. I firmly believe that staying overnight near the port before cruise day eliminates any potential travel problems on embarkation day and contributes to more stress-free check-in experience.
We were on the Empress deck, Cabin E50. A typical ocean view cabin on the Inspiration, it was only about fifty feet from the lobby bar, purser's desk, and shore excursion desk. Although we were near the front of the ship, walking aft for dining or to lunch in the Brasserie lounge was not an issue. Nothing is really too far away on this ship. I had pre-purchased a dozen red roses for my bride, as well as "Happy Honeymoon" decorations, online through Carnival. Everything was there as ordered, the cabin was beautifully decorated, and my new bride was thoroughly impressed. Our cabin steward was Elio - what a jewel this man was. He was openly friendly and talkative, very helpful, and our room was always promptly cleaned each day. If you cruise aboard the Inspiration, you will be fortunate to have this man as your cabin steward.
Living in Florida, and Tampa being only an hour and twenty minutes away, I must admit to gravitating to the Inspiration many times. It's 4 & 5 day itineraries make for such affordable getaways and it's such an easy drive from where I live to the Port of Tampa. The Inspiration, although one of Carnival's older ships, has been well maintained, and continues to provide a wonderful and relaxed environment for cruising. Having been refurbished in September of 2007, everything is updated, new furniture, decorations, and especially the bathrooms in the cabins, all new and updated. Overall, a great ship and I've always enjoyed cruising on this vessel, even now planning our next one aboard this ship. I have cruised on the Inspiration three times before it was refurbished, and twice since the upgrade.
Someone in the Carnival dining room assignment hierarchy must have picked up on the fact that this was our "honeymoon" cruise, because we were assigned table 371 in the Carnivale dining room, (aft) we had late seating at 8:15p.m. It was a nice table for two, against the rail on the elevated portion of the dining room, overlooking the starboard side windows, with additional tables below our level between us and the windows. Our table was nice and private and would have been a great romantic experience except for the fact that our waiter also had two huge tables of ten people each. Because of the necessity of taking care of those two tables as well as us, we had to wait for what I consider unacceptable amounts of times between courses. For example, we would be served our soup, then 25 minutes later, the salad, then 30 minutes later the main course. We watched many other tables around us finish their meals and have their dessert and were up and gone before we even got our salad. I attribute this simply to the fact that our waiter just had too many people to take care of. My previous dining experiences on Carnival have all been good ones, so I consider this to be just one of those things that happen occasionally. (We did discuss changing our table, but we liked the small intimate arrangement and wanted to stay with it.)
I would not give our overall dining situation a bad review because of this singular situation, but the slow service was so bad that on the last night of the cruise, we finally gave up on the dining room, and decided to have dinner in the Brasserie Lounge which was much more relaxing, food was fresh, and we enjoyed not having to wait between our courses.
Overall the food was excellent, well-prepared. I did opt for the "pan-fried grouper" one night, which came out, cold, dry, and pretty much tasteless. Just a bad choice on my part, the other main courses were all very good. All things considered, the Carnival dining room experience is still a very good one.
Except for our minor fluke experience in the dining room, Carnival's service overall was typically friendly, courteous, and at all times helpful. Crew members and service personnel were very nice, very friendly, very welcoming. I have found this to be a standard on all of my cruises aboard Carnival, and this particular cruise was no exception.
This cruise was sold out (approx. 2000+ guests) so there were lots of people on board, quite a few children, and many teen-agers aboard, and there were a couple of incidents worth noting. Once, I saw two young boys repeatedly ringing the bell on the pizza counter to the point of obnoxiousness. Soon, a ship's officer (white uniform) appeared and gave them a sound scolding - you have to wonder, where were the parents? But kudos to this officer for actually doing something about it.
On our second night out, we were awakened by rowdy guests in the hallway around 3 a.m. - sounded like teenagers partying down, lots of yelling, shouting and general horseplay. We mostly tried to ignore it and eventually went back to sleep. When the same thing happened on a subsequent night however, I called the Guest Services number, and was informed that they would take care of it. Soon, the noise stopped and to the credit of the security officers, we never heard that kind of disruption again.
As this was my first cruise as a Platinum Guest, I want to comment on that aspect in particular;
There was a letter in our cabin when we arrived, welcoming us as Platinum Guests, and describing the complimentary amenities, such as Personalized Stationery, Petit Fours delivered to our stateroom one evening, a special Carnival Logo item, along with guaranteed dining times, complimentary entrance to the Blackjack or Slot Tournament, complimentary arcade tokens, an exclusive "behind the scenes" tour of the galley, complimentary wash and fold laundry service, and last but not least, priority debarkation.
The personalized stationery was in the desk - but who writes real paper letters anymore? The Petit Fours were delivered without warning one night just before dinner - and consisted mostly of small sugary items, small pieces of cake that looked as if they had been cut out with a cookie cutter, and some other small pastry items. They were all pretty unappetizing. We never touched them because they looked so dry and unappealing. We also did not take advantage of the casino benefit or arcade tokens, didn't use the Spa or the laundry service, or take the galley tour, so can't comment on those either.
We returned to our cabin one afternoon, and were surprised to find a huge chocolate cake with "Bon Voyage" written across it, along with a note from the staff telling us the "special Carnival Logo items" had not arrived, so they were giving us a cake instead. (I think we were supposed to get a keychain or something.) Oh, well, can't blame them for trying to do something. But not being "sugar" people, we never touched the cake, but lo and behold, the next day another cake was delivered to our cabin along with another apologetic note!
We carefully put both cakes in the passageway outside our cabin along with the unappetizing "Petit Fours," and at some point they all thankfully disappeared. Although it may seem strange that I see this as a "positive" experience, I actually do, because it means that somewhere, someone was actually paying attention to their Platinum Guests and at least trying to step up to the plate (no pun intended!) in living up to their promised Platinum Guest benefits.
There were however, three other specific elements of Platinum status that actually had substance (as far as I am concerned) and that were meaningful to us;
First, there was VIP check-in - instead of going to the "mass" check-in counter, we were directed to a smaller desk in a separate enclosed area, where a Carnival specialist verified our documentation, and gave us our Sail & Sign cards. Afterwards, we would normally be escorted to a separate VIP waiting area, although for this cruise that particular area was occupied by those two huge wedding parties. But to Carnival's credit, they kept all the VIPs together, an assigned agent continually brooding over us like a mother hen, and after the wedding guests and such were all on board, the VIP group was led aboard by a Carnival representative. So this is a really nice perk, you get to have lunch before the crowd hits, explore the ship ahead of the crowds, etc.
Secondly, because we were Platinum Guests, our luggage tags had "VIP" on them, which provides for expedited handling. When we arrived at our cabin at 1:30 p.m. our luggage was waiting for us! This is something I have never experienced before, (my first thought was that it belonged to the previous guests) and I can say without reservation, this is a very nice perk. On previous cruises, sometimes the luggage didn't show up until after dinnertime, so this was quite a pleasant surprise.
Thirdly - there was priority debarkation. On the last sea day, a letter was delivered to our cabin, inviting us to participate in "Priority Concierge Club Debarkation Service." You could either opt for the "self-assist" debarkation method, or the "check-in luggage" method. As we were in no hurry to leave the ship, we opted for the latter. We replaced our old luggage tags with the silver Concierge Club luggage tags provided for us, and put our luggage out in the passageway around 9pm. (You have until 11pm)
On debarkation day, we were directed to go to the Shakespeare Library on deck 8 at 8:45a.m. As we were pretty much pre-packed because of having already checked our luggage, we slept in, said good-bye to our wonderful cabin steward, and then enjoyed a leisurely breakfast in the Brasserie Lounge. We arrived at the library at the appointed time, along with perhaps 50-60 other Platinum guests. A Carnival representative was there promptly at 8:45 to tell us that as soon as they received clearance, we would be escorted off the ship.
The "self-assist" people debarked first, around 7:45, (this took the better part of an hour or so) and everything seemed to go smoothly. From my vantage point in the Library, I could see the guests leaving through two security stations on the Empress deck, and everything seemed to proceed smoothly. It was orderly and quiet, and there was never a back up into the stairwells and elevators like I have seen on some previous cruises.
We were allowed to leave approximately 9a.m., and were escorted off the ship by a Carnival representative, and once in the terminal, were directed to collect our luggage from the "Concierge Club" staging area. All in all, this was nicely done, and as VIPs, we were essentially the first group (among those who had checked luggage) off the ship. (On a minor note - one of our bags was not in the Concierge Club area - so we had to flag down a Carnival rep who was very helpful in assisting me in locating the missing piece which had mistakenly ended up in the mass luggage from our deck. But this was a very minor event as far as I am concerned, and overall, Carnival did a really nice job with the priority debarkation)
Port & Shore Excursions
In Cozumel, we opted for the Ultimate Beach Adventure, purchased online before the cruise. We were met promptly at the pier at 9 a.m., left on time with about 20 other guests, for the 40-minute ride to the south end of the island to get to Crystal Beach which is located in Punta Sur Ecological Park. Our tour guide was "Felipe," very cordial and friendly, along with several other assistants, and a tour photographer.
Once there, you could snorkel or use the kayaks, however those two activities were very structured and organized - you had to go with the group. Way too structured for me and my bride, so we simply stayed on the beach, swam a little, walked along the shore, and just relaxed. We were served a nice tropical lunch, barbequed chicken, rice, salad, guacamole & chips, fruit, water and fruit juice furnished as well. There were plenty of lounge chairs, and if you wanted shade you could go inside the luncheon area. We also had the opportunity to purchase photos on a CD (which we did), then a 40-minute boat ride back to the pier, arriving around 2p.m. This approximate 5-hour tour was just right, leaving us time to get cleaned up, and go back to the pier for a little souvenir shopping. It was a nice relaxing excursion, and we just might do this one again. (A reminder, bring some cash if you want beer, purchase photos, and of course for the tip - there was no pressure, but you do have the opportunity to tip if you want to.)
Overall, very nicely handled by Carnival, very smooth. I have been on previous cruises before the current zone/color system was instituted, and it was an absolute nightmare. Carnival has truly put some effort into revamping this entire procedure, and now, all you essentially have to do is have some breakfast and wait for your area to be called. Unless of course, you opt for "self-assist" - but being retired and in no hurry, I don't typically use that method, although it works well for a lot of people. If you opt for self-assist you must have at least one hand free in order to grasp the hand rail on the escalators in the terminal, otherwise you will be directed to the elevators where there is usually a line.
You should be able to tell from this review that I am a confirmed Carnival "happy camper!" After ten cruises on Carnival, I have experienced nothing less than professional, friendly, and courteous treatment on each and every cruise. (I don't consider the minor issue in the dining room or with the misplaced luggage to be "cruise-killers," but then we are pretty flexible people and what bothers some people just doesn't bother us.) Although there have been minor bumps along the road in some of our cruise experiences, none of them has dampened our enthusiasm for Carnival. We have discovered that much of your treatment from cruise crewmembers and staff depends on your own attitude. Believe me I have watched some genuine idiot exchanges between unhappy and often impolite and downright rude guests and some of the Carnival staff, however this has not been the case for us.
Always worthy of note on any cruise out of Tampa is the spectacularly photogenic and exciting cruise from the dock, along the Tampa ship channel, until finally passing under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge approximately 2 ½ hours after sailing time. It is truly a sight to behold, a genuine Kodak moment, as the ship majestically glides beneath the bridge span and heads into the sunset and the waters of the open Gulf of Mexico. According to Wikipedia, The Travel Channel rated the Sunshine Skyway #3 in its special on the "Top 10 Bridges" in the World, and the bridge is considered the "flag bridge" of the State of Florida (*Note - if you have early dining seating you will miss the bridge passing - it's best experienced from the outside upper decks. Our solution? - late seating, or just do the Brassserie for dinner first night out.) For you stalwart photographers or sightseers, the ship passes under the bridge around 3 a.m. on the return leg.
Like most cruises, even though the ship was full, you could always find places to hang out away from the crowd. We never found serving lines too long, we could always find a lounge chair, a table for lunch, or a quiet place to read a book. Will we cruise Carnival again? Well, we already have a cruise booked for next year on the Liberty! Of course, in the meantime, there is always the Inspiration...so close...