Amid the new cruise ship boom of the early 21st century, during which we've seen bowling alleys, duplex suites the size of houses, foliage-filled parks and surf simulators, the middle-aged Carnival Inspiration may seem a little quaint. The 70,367-ton, 2,052-passenger ship debuted in 1996 as the sixth of Carnival Cruise Lines' eight Fantasy-class vessels, which began with Carnival Fantasy in 1990. But Carnival has shown a serious commitment to preserving its older hardware, and the teenage Inspiration was the first recipient of the line's "Evolutions of Fun" (EOF) makeovers, a $350 million modern reinvention of the now "classic" Fantasy-class vessels.
Inspiration went under the knife during a fall 2007 dry dock, and the most visible renovations -- a sun deck space with a 300-foot-long corkscrew waterslide, a children's aqua park and an adults-only retreat space -- have the ship holding its own against newer, more amenity-laden vessels. Other dry-dock additions include a dedicated space for the inscrutable 12 - 14 set ("tweens"), bow-to-stern Wi-Fi, a new state of the art sound and lighting system, and new buffet dining options like all-you-can-eat sushi. When everything was complete, Carnival had pumped some $40 million into Inspiration.
Still, while new touches have kept the ship in line with current cruise expectations, it's certainly lacking some modern amenities. You won't be pouring over 10 different restaurant menus to decide if it's the Tex-Mex joint, steakhouse or French bistro tonight. On Inspiration, you get just two choices: the buffet and the dining room. Ninety-five percent of cabins are insides or oceanviews, and only 28 of the ship's 1,026 accommodations have true balconies (26 more have half-size verandahs). And there is just one pool. It also must be said, that because Inspiration was the first Fantasy-class ship to receive the EOF upgrades, it's been a few years since that special month in the shipyard. There's nothing glaring, but several seasons in the Caribbean sun and salt have certainly stripped Inspiration of some of its "new ship" sheen.
None of what the ship lacks, however, detracts from the great enjoyment passengers have on a Carnival Inspiration cruise -- if they have the right expectations, that is. Carnival avoids "pretention" like the plague, so fun comes in the form of gaping in awe or disgust during the hairy chest contest, repeatedly plunging down one of the best waterslides at sea, and feasting nightly on all-you-can eat sushi and pizza. Activities abound -- so many that you could be racing around the ship from trivia to bingo to the buffet to the waterslide to laser tag to dinner to the casino without catching your breath.
Carnival's Camp Carnival program is among the best at sea, with enough activities and videogaming, including Rockband Karaoke (which blends the popular video game with the classic cruise pastime), to keep the kids engaged. Adults can ogle at the 12 sometimes bizarrely decorated bars and lounges, whose "arts" theme pays tribute to a mishmash of subjects: Picasso (cubist women in the Avant Garde Lounge), Shakespeare (scrolling quotes, Elizabethan furniture in the ship's library) and a few undefinables, like the frightening, lamprey-like structures slithering across the ceiling of the Brasserie buffet (ship designer Farcus' existential dread?).
Onboard, "controlled chaos" reigns, especially during the summer months, when the ship is full to the gunwales with families looking for a quick and simple vacation. But it's easy to duck into the library or adults-only Serenity Deck if you're looking for a little respite from the hurricane of energy that surges through the ship.
The whole experience is tied neatly together by a congenial crew, like our room steward Baby, who wore an ever-present smile, and Caesar the pizza man, another big grinner, who served pizza to disco-ed out cruisers until the wee hours of the morning.
As a final note, while they're not the newest ships in the industry, Inspiration and its seven Fantasy-class sisters have carved out a highly successful niche offering four-, five- and seven-night cruises from a variety of regional drive-to ports. Passengers can forgo the flight and drive to Los Angeles (Inspiration), Charleston (Carnival Fantasy), Jacksonville (Carnival Fascination) and New Orleans (Carnival Elation), among others. The length, pricing -- inside cabins can start at $50 to $75 per person, per night -- and uncomplicated appeal, make them a great pick for first-timers looking to test the cruise travel waters without over-committing, financially or time-wise.