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.
The circular Grand Atrium is the ship's indoor locus. Beginning on Deck 7 (Empress) and spiraling skyward six decks to its glass domed roof (reminiscent of the Reichstag Dome in Berlin), the atrium is quintessential Carnival neon, an explosion of purple, pink and light blue fluorescence.
Passengers will find the ship's guest services and shore excursion desks on the atrium's ground floor, as well as an ATM machine if they need cash for onshore endeavors ($6 fee). The small 24-hour Internet Cafe is also here -- but there's bow-to-stern Wi-Fi should you want to bring your own laptop or Wi-Fi enabled device. (Despite guest services suggesting that there may be some soft spots onboard, we never had any issues; naturally, speeds are much slower than you'd find at home.) Connectivity is sold in a number of packages or a la carte, though per-minute prices are lower when you buy in bulk. For instance, a block of 120 minutes is $59 or 49 cents a minute; 480 minutes for $159 or about 33 cents a minute; otherwise, expect to pay 75 cents per minute.
The art gallery, situated in a long corridor with art hanging on each wall, is also located on Deck 7. The auctions are held in the Candlelight Lounge up on Deck 8 (Atlantic Deck), aft.
Carnival Inspiration's duty-free Fun Shops, selling the usual Bacardi and bangles, are located up the stairs on Deck 8. There's also a "$10 or less" store on Deck 9 (Promenade Deck), selling costume jewelry (lots of beady stuff) and the like. The large photo gallery surrounds one side of the atrium on Deck 9.
For a little quiet time, try the Shakespeare Library, located off the atrium on Deck 8. The venue is dressed up with faux-flame candelabras, arched glass bookcase doors and Elizabethan-style furniture. Shakespeare quotes etched in calligraphy ("Friends, Romans, countrymen") run along the dark brown ceiling beams.
Self-service launderettes are available on Deck 10. There are a couple of washers and dryers, and one iron and ironing board in each launderette. The cost is $3 per washer load and $3 for a dryer load. Vending machines dispense small boxes of detergent and water softener at $1 per box.
Editor's Note: Due to local environmental requirements, the washing machines in the guest launderette will be closed in port, per each port's specific requirements; the dryers and irons will be available for passenger use.
Carnival has never been a line with much use for elaborate suites or endless cabin categories, so Inspiration's cabin breakdown is proletariat. Of the 1,026 rooms, 972 are similarly configured oceanview or inside cabins averaging an industry standard 185 square feet.
Cabins are decorated in a mild peach and white color scheme and come equipped with a flat-screen TV, vanity area, closets, safe, bathrobe, life jackets and an amenity basket with an assortment of toiletries. (We got his and hers razors, scented shave gel, a mini-sunblock and wet wipes, but items vary from cruise to cruise, so pack what you need.) There's only one outlet in each cabin, which contains a three-prong 110 volt and a 220 volt input -- so those bringing their gadgets may want to consider packing a power strip. The beds can be arranged in a two-twin format or as a king with the two beds pushed together. While it doesn't look like there's all that much closet and drawer space, we found plenty of room to accommodate our belongings for our four-night Western Caribbean cruise (with one format night). And if you're bringing just a carry-on, checked baggage fees being what they are, your luggage will slide easily under the bed.
En-suite bathrooms in standard accommodations are shower-only. The showers have fantastic water pressure, which you can use to fight off the clingy curtain as it creeps unrelentingly towards you (no glass doors here). Showers stalls include shampoo and body wash in dispensers as well as bar soap. There are no in-cabin hair dryers, so bring your own.
Of the standard cabins, 50 connect via side doors -- a great option for families or groups traveling together.
For passengers in need of a little more room, there are twenty-six 220-square foot "suites," which oddly enough have just queen-size beds. Besides a little more space, these accommodations add a narrow, mini-balcony, on which chairs are placed sideways so you can stretch your legs out lengthwise along the ship's superstructure.
The twenty-eight 330-square-foot Penthouse Suites include a whirlpool bathtub, walk-in closet, king-size bed, unstocked mini-fridge and full-size balcony.
Passengers in the 54 suites also get VIP check-in.
There are 24 cabins for disabled cruisers. These cabins have wider doorways and handrails in the shower, among other things. Carnival offers additional special services for passengers in need of assistance. Contact the line directly for more information.
Those in tune with Carnival's brand of not-too-serious fun will struggle mightily not to have a super-duper good experience. And with so little time -- Inspiration sails three- and four-night cruises -- it may be impossible to attend the mixology class, compete in the hairy chest contest and snag front row seats to see the R-rated comedian. But given the high-octane energy onboard, many passengers certainly try.
Beginning with the mass-appeal entertainment, two production shows take place each night in the Paris Lounge, a two-deck, 1,300-seat theater with great leg room on the floor seats and stadium seating, comfortable banquettes and bar stools on the balcony. Certain spots have obstructed views, so if decent sightlines are important, arrive early. Besides the earnestly energetic Las Vegas-style song and dance revues (such as "Fiesta Latina," ayayay), the Paris Lounge hosts comedians, illusionists, an always well-attended passenger talent show, the Gender Showdown (who's smarter?) and even inflatable laser tag ($5 per person), where players try to zap each other in a mini-arena. Check the Fun Times for laser tag availability.
The Paris Lounge also plays host to a number of daytime activities, like the popular country line dance classes, bingo and trivia. And because no first-time cruiser comes back without raving about the towel creatures (is that monkeybat wearing my sunglasses?), you might as well learn how to make your own during a towel folding demo.
Inspiration's secondary entertainment venue is the Candlelight Lounge, the spot for karaoke, art auctions and the "R-rated" comedy shows, among other activities. At the entrance of the Candlelight Lounge is Chopin, a combination cigar and sports bar with stogies for sale at inflated prices (about 25 percent pricier than onshore) and a number of flat-screen TV's airing popular sports on a seasonal basis. (Fall equals football time.) Upon entering the bar, gaze up for a look at a ceiling mural of cherubs horseplaying as they float from cloud to cloud.
Night owls are served by a pair of dance venues, The Rock and Roll Dance Club, a venue adorned with giant Art Deco guitars, and the Avant Garde Lounge, with its Picasso-esque cube-lady dancers. On our cruise, Avant Garde featured a classic rock cover band, and the Rock N Roll Dance Club a DJ spinning hip hop and R&B hits (ironic, no?). The Rhapsody in Blue Piano Bar is hugely popular with fans of the Journey/Billy Joel/Elton John sing-along, and with a capacity of less than 100, it can be hard to stake out a spot. Be sure to get there before the start time to assure a seat. More low-key, adults-only evening parties with live music, like the "Cheers, Beers, Margaritas & More" event, are held on the adults-only Serenity Deck.
The Monte Carlo Casino offers the usual mix of slot machines, blackjack, craps and Caribbean stud poker. A dealer-less poker pro Texas Hold 'em table is located just outside the casino in a little alcove. Slots, blackjack and poker tournaments are held at various times throughout the cruise. For High Rollers, credit lines can be set up prior to cruising by sending a fax to 305-406-6461.
When the Caribbean sun is shining on sea days, daytime entertainment revolves around the pool deck. Help determine which passenger's chest is the most sweater-like, listen to a Calypso band or a solo guitarist/crooner, watch the ship's master mixologist showcase his acrobatic chemistry skills, or take part in some classic deck games. Other day-time activities include scrapbooking classes and a break dance class that takes place on the lido deck's stage. A special note for trivia buffs: you'll have many chances to compete for the coveted "Ship on a Stick." On one sea day, options included a morning trivia challenge at 9:45 a.m., Super Trivia at 11:45 a.m., music trivia at 1 p.m. and sports trivia at 4 p.m. (Suffice it to say, besides the occasional art lecture, trivia is really the only "enrichment" activity available on the good-time Carnival Inspiration.)
On certain nights, for instance during sailaway from Cozumel, the lido pool hosts a deck party, complete with a classic rock cover band.
For those looking for an inside look at the inner workings of a cruise ship, the Behind-the-Fun Ship Tour is available on a first-come first-served basis for two groups of up to 15 people. The three-hour tour costs a very reasonable $55 per person and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the production shows, recycling room, engine control room, crew dining areas, bridge and more.
Ship-sponsored shore excursions in Cozumel and Grand Cayman, the two ports the ship visits, are relatively standard fare. In Cozumel, you can snorkel, visit Chankanaab marine park or various Mayan ruins, or glide around Caribbean in clear kayak. In Grand Cayman, passengers can opt to swim at the world famous stingray sandbar, visit the turtle farm or swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery.
Carnival passengers cover the spectrum. You'll see couples in their 20's through 80's, large groups traveling together, single partiers, and plenty of families. The hotel manager told me that, during the summer and over school holidays, as many as 1,000 of the 2,500 passengers may be children. The ship also relies on a Southeast U.S. regional passenger base, as Tampa is an easy drive-to port for central and northern Floridians.
Carnival builds ships with families in mind, and families flock to Carnival Inspiration during the summer, when the number of children onboard may exceed 1,000. (Max occupancy of the ship is 2,658, according to Carnival's official stats.) The Camp Carnival program is one of the best in cruising, offering activities for children broken down by ages 2 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 11, 12 to 14, and 15 to 17.
The dedicated space for the 2 - 11's, complete with video game consoles, arts and crafts supplies, and various toys, is on Deck 11 (Verandah). The 2 - 11's are further broken down in three groups, each with its own age-appropriate activity list. Toddlers (2 - 5) might enjoy story time or finger painting. Juniors (6 - 8) can participate in jewelry making or bingo. Options for Intermediates (9 - 11) include scavenger hunts and pool parties.
Camp Carnival activities are included in the cruise fare up until 10 p.m. for the 2 - 11's. A babysitting service is available from 10 p.m. - 3 a.m. at a cost of $6 per hour for the first child and $4 per hour for each additional sibling. The occasional "Curfew Extended Parties" for kids are held within Camp Carnival from 10 p.m. - midnight (babysitting fees still apply).
Circle C, located off the atrium on Deck 8 (Atlantic), is the spot for the "tween" 12 - 14 set. A major focus here is on video games and movies, with Nintendo Wii consoles and a decent selection of games on offer. Other tween activities include dance parties (hosted at one of the ship's dance clubs before the adults take over), sand art making, build your own pizza, group mini-golf, T-shirt decorating and waterslide races. The 12 - 14 set (as well as the older teens) can come and go as they please.
The 15- to 17-year olds can make use of Club 02, located up a deck from the tweens on Deck 9 (Promenade). Like Circle C, Club O2 has Nintendo Wii's for video gaming and big-screen TV's for movie watching. Club 02 also has its own dance floor and "mocktail bar" with various Coke products. Other teen offerings include pool parties, mock casino night, Rockband Karaoke and a selection of board games.
Both Circle C and Club 02 offer a handful of teen-only shore excursions, such as a clear kayak and snorkel option in Cozumel and a stingray city snorkeling excursion in Grand Cayman. These can be cancelled, however, depending on the number of signups.
Adjacent to Club 02 is a small 24-hour video game arcade featuring the typical mix of car racing and first-person shooter games (killing big bucks or criminals); games are $1.25 per play. Parents take note: Each child's sail and sign card comes with a set spending limit of $20 per day; this can be raised or lowered to any amount at the parents' discretion.
Kids ages six months (the youngest allowed on the ship) to two years aren't technically allowed to participate in Camp Carnival activities, but the full contingent of babysitting options are available at the aforementioned babysitting rate. (Additional in-port babysitting hours may be available; check with a Camp Carnival representative.) Camp Carnival staff will change diapers, but passengers are required to supply the diapers and the wipes. Parents should also bring along all the baby food/formula they'll need on the cruise. Cribs are provided complimentary in staterooms, but you'll have to request a crib at the time of booking. Baby strollers can be rented onboard, but only a limited number are available.
Dress throughout the ship is relatively casual, though you'll see plenty of passengers in collared shirts or nice dresses during dinner in the main dining room. (Jeans are cool; bathing suits are supposedly not.) On the one formal evening occurring on the four- and five-night cruises, suits and evening dresses appear, but few passengers don the full tuxedo.
Carnival recommends $11.50 per person, per day. The guidelines allocate $5.80 to dining room services, $3.70 to cabin services and $2 per day for alternative services, which include kitchen, entertainment, guest services and other hotel staff members. The amount is automatically added to your shipboard account, but can be adjusted in either direction at the guest services desk. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added to bar bills. Tipping for room service at delivery is expected (and appreciated) by the service staff.
|Fitness and Recreation|
Carnival Inspiration's 12,000-square-foot Spa Carnival, a combination spa, beauty salon and fitness center, is run by Steiner, the Britain-based company with a near-monopoly on big-ship spas.
Seriously marked-up spa treatments include a variety of facials ($119), a hot stone massage (50 minutes, $159), tooth whitening ($199) and Swedish massage (50 minutes, $119). These prices do not include tip. Look out for in-port specials, when you can expect to save a little less than 10 percent. Sampler packages, which blend three mini-treatments (massage, pedicure, facial, for instance) into an hour-long treatment are typically offered as $99 specials. For an onboard to onshore comparison, I just had a 50-minute Swedish massage at a reputable local spa for $85 including tip. Passengers between the ages of 12 and 17 have their own overpriced choices as part of Carnival's YSPA program. Treatments include things like an "Acne Attack" facial ($99) or a "Heavenly Massage" (25 minutes, $89). Check with the spa as to the availability of these and other YSPA treatments.
The modest-sized gym has eight treadmills offering seaviews, several bikes and elliptical trainer, various weight machines, and a variety of free weights. Professional equipment is brought to you by LA Fitness. The multiple fitness classes offered are either free (aerobics, sunrise stretch) or for-fee (yoga, Pilates at $12 per person). Men and women get their own sauna and steam room, which are located in their respective locker rooms. Use of the steam and sauna facilities is included in the cost of the cruise. Note: The gym is a little hard to find at first, but entrances are located to the right and left of the spa desk, and through the women's and men's bathrooms.
Carnival Inspiration has just one pool, located midship. The lively deck area features metal palm trees ringed with Carnival's ever-present LED's, a pair of hot tubs abutting the pool and the oft-occupied lido stage. During sunny sea days, the lido pool is a beehive of entertainment, hosting pool deck Olympics, ice carving demonstrations and plenty of live music (from calypso to classic rock covers). The ship's other area for water-based fun is the aft-situated Carnival WaterWorks, which includes a four-story tall, 300-foot-long corkscrew waterslide; an 82-foot-long triple-lane waterslide (great for racing); and a spray park, complete with various sculptures spewing water. Onboard water parks are hot right now, and Disney Dream (debuted in early 2011) and Norwegian Epic are certainly in the running for best at-sea waterslides, but even so, Carnival's Fantasy-class ships are definitely in the running for top honors.
The adults-only Serenity Deck, added during the November 2007 dry dock, is a teak deck space located on the ship's stern (out of earshot from the more boisterous WaterWorks). The space includes two hot tubs and a decent number of loungers with thick, blue padding -- so comfortable that you're likely to for doze off as you stare out at the ship's wake. The Serenity Deck offers both sunny and shady spots, with yellow umbrellas and a thatched-roof overhang providing cover from the Caribbean sun. As described in the entertainment section, the Serenity Deck also hosts more low-key, adults only evening entertainment featuring a solo guitarist and drink theme (mojitos or margaritas, for instance).
A running track (eight times around for a mile) surrounds the nine-hole mini-golf course, which was added to the forward section of the sun deck during the fall 2007 refurb.
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