Carnival Inspiration Dining
Carnival Inspiration has two main dining rooms, the 650-seat Mardi Gras (midship) and the 658-seat Carnivale (aft). Despite names evocative of wild masquerade balls, the dining rooms are relatively forgettable. Each is a mishmash of browns, yellows and oranges, with a whimsical flourish here or there, such as the chandeliers in Mardis Gras reminiscent of a two-belled jester's cap. Forgettable, that is, until the house lights dim, and the thousands of LED's lining the ceiling and light fixtures get to flashing. The dining rooms then transform into pulsating dance clubs, with the wait staff whipping diners into a frenzied party mode, complete with riotous napkin waving, tableside shimmying and a bouncing, snaking conga line.
During dinner, both dining rooms feature set seating, with the early meals taken at 6 p.m. and late at 8:15 p.m. "Your Time" dining, Carnival's open seating option, is available from 5:45 to 9:30 p.m. in one portion of Mardis Gras. Tables in the Your Time dining section are first-come, first-serve, so arrive early (or late) if you're looking for a two-top.
Carnival Inspiration's menus feature starters (appetizers, soups, salads), main courses and desserts. There's always a vegetarian starter (like gazpacho) and main course (cinnamon pumpkin, yam and cheddar pot pie), but be sure to ask about the seemingly innocuous vegetable soups, most of which use chicken stock bases. Low calorie items, like sugar-free orange cake, are designated with a Spa Carnival symbol.
Judging food is certainly a subjective practice, but few items on the menu left any real, lasting impressions -- great or terrible. The aforementioned gazpacho, which had the right bit of acidic back-of-the-tongue tang, earned my brother's seal of approval ("This is just how I make it," he said between rapid slurps). A chicken supreme had a palette-pleasing Cajun char, and a vegetarian Indian medley of curried chickpeas, vegetable mash, paneer and basmati rice was the best dining room meal of the cruise -- despite the server's slightly annoying insistence that I wouldn't enjoy it. "Are you sure, sir?! Would you perhaps like something else?" Conversely, a tiny Cornish hen was more bone than meat. And while the braised beef boneless short ribs were the perfect consistency -- as if they'd fallen off the bone -- the flavor fell flat.
If you don't fancy the nightly rotating options, choose from the always-available "Carnival Classics," such as mahi mahi, grilled chicken, baby back ribs and French fries. And as on every Carnival ship I've ever been on, waiters will encourage passengers to get something else if there's even a hint of dissatisfaction.
Carnival Inspiration has no alternative restaurant -- Carnival's newer ships all have an extra-charge steakhouse -- but the line was testing a for-fee main dining room steak option on my particular cruise. (A spokesman says it's too early to tell how the experiment went.) Diners could pick from a 14-ounce New York strip, a 12- to 14-ounce Maine lobster tail, or surf and turf. Each entree cost $18.
The Mardi Gras dining room also features traditional sit-down breakfast and lunch. (Lunch service is unavailable when the ship's in port.) Breakfast in the main dining room included standard hits like waffles, omelets and eggs Benedict, but food was little better than in the buffet. (For the best breakfast option onboard, head to the pool grill for a custom-made omelet.) Lunch options, like chilled avocado soup, steak salad and vegetable fajitas, were similar to those found in the buffet restaurant, as well. Breakfast and lunch are open seating, and by default, you'll be seated with other passengers. If you want a private table, let the host know.
In the combination entertainment and dining department, the Chef's Table is an exclusive dining event for 12 passengers. For $75, diners can attend a multicourse dinner, hosted by one of Carnival's chefs. The evening begins with a private cocktail reception and a tour of the galley, led by the chef, and concludes with a multicourse dinner in a nontraditional dining venue, like Inspiration's Shakespeare Library. Book the Chef's Table at the guest services desk.
Carnival Inspiration's casual lido buffet complex, Brasserie, is a collection of what amounts to shopping mall-esque food court stations serving pizza and calzones, sandwiches, salads, soft serve ice cream, baked goods, and various hot and cold items throughout the day.
Buffet breakfast includes the typical scrambled eggs, greasy bacon, fried potatoes, cereals and yogurt, with a few less standard items, like turkey sausage and mini-bacon quiches, mixed in for good measure. Choices open up for lunch. There's a rotating internationally themed station -- Caribbean day featured jerk chicken, fried Jamaican dumplings, red beans and rice, and fried plantains. A salad bar setup offers the basic crunchy (and sometimes wilted) options, alongside a few more creative combinations, like an Asian carrot slaw topped with black sesame seeds. The dessert setup has cupcakes, strudels, cookies and cakes. There's a deli kiosk serving made-to-order sandwiches and paninis from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. We tried a grilled ham and cheese and a mozzarella, arugula and roasted pepper on a roll; both were adequate snacks. Pizza is available 24 hours a day, and while Carnival's pies come up number one on Cruise Critic's perennial "best pizza" poll, the offerings on Inspiration were a bit erratic. The de chevre (goat cheese and mushroom) that I've previously applauded was undercooked and inedible. A whole plain pie, ordered well done, came out just fine, though it was more like the "cheesy bread" you'd find at Dominos or Pizza Hut than a local pizzeria pie. After an evening of responsible indulgence, a few slices really hit the spot.
In the evening, one section of Brasserie is turned into the "Seaview Bistro" -- a more casual, self-serve alternative to the main dining room. Passengers will find many of the main dining room options here in buffet form. Late-night snacks are offered on some evenings from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Coffee, tea and ice cream (and frozen yogurt) are available in the buffet 24 hours.
Just outside Brasserie, the Poolside Grill features the much-sought-after made-to-order omelet, a key inclusion for those looking for a fresh-cooked breakfast. During lunch, the venue turns smokier, with the cooks grilling up cheeseburgers, wieners, chicken and the like. For the late-night bite, the poolside grill was transformed into Mexican buffet one night from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. (Basically, the late-night snacks switch between the Brasserie outdoors and the Poolside Grill.)
Saving the best for almost last, a sushi cart is stationed on Inspiration Boulevard (Deck 9) from 5 to 8:15 p.m. We're not talking about a Tokyo sushi house, but the three rotating nightly options were consistently tasty, and business was brisk. All-you-can-eat maki, nigiri and sashimi choices included salmon cream cheese rolls, tuna nigiri, California roll and eel tofu rolls. Sushi is included in the cruise fare; the also-available sake is $12 a bottle.
If you grow weary of the buffet's free coffee, there's the for-fee Cafe des Artistes on the promenade. A small cafe Americano is $1.50, large cappuccino $3.50 and milkshakes are $3.95. The cafe was typically open from 7 a.m. until midnight, but closed during a portion of port days. Check your Fun Times daily newsletter for hours.
Passengers who enjoy soft drinks might want to consider buying the Unlimited Soda Program. On four-night cruises, the Unlimited Soda Program is $20.70 for those 17 and under and $27.60 for those 18 and above (on five-night cruises, fees are $25.88 and $34.50).
Room service is included in the fare -- with the exception of 10-inch pizzas, which are cooked to order and cost $4 per pie delivered. Room service choices include about a dozen sandwich options (from a PB & J to a steak and brie on a baguette), salads (Caesar, mixed greens) and desserts. A bar menu is available 24 hours a day, also for an additional fee.