Inspiration Southern Caribbean Cruise May 10-17, 1998Recently I had the pleasure of sailing the MS Inspiration - one of Carnivals Fantasy class ships. I have sailed on the Fantasy and twice on the Sensation, so this ship review will focus on the not so obvious aspects of a cruise. There are many reviews already posted on the wonderful Fantasy class of ships and their amenities - so I will try my best as a cruise journalist to discuss some of the behind the scenes aspects of the Inspiration.
As I write this review,- it is cool and rainy here in Boston. I bet it is never cool and rainy in the Lesser Antilles - I wish I was back there, walking amongst the aromatic spice markets of Guadeloupe and Grenada or snorkeling amongst the tropical Caribbean fish.
Booking the Inspiration occurred for several reasons - but mainly, one can only visit the Eastern or Western itinerary islands so often - one needs a change. My long time cruising buddy, Dr. Edward Pedrak of Chicago, was up for the new islands as well, and first time cruiser Debbie Jacobsmeier of Iowa City, Iowa was ready for anything.
We booked in February for our May 10th departure from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Booking 3 months in advance can have its advantages, but for me a drawback is that once I receive my confirmation, I am ready to go!
Debbie and I came a day early and stayed at the beautiful Hyatt Cerromar Beach Resort and Golf Club. This terrific property is located about 25 miles from downtown and an easy drive from the port. We rented a car, which was far cheaper than public transportation, and even late at night had no trouble finding the resort. In the morning we walked the beautiful beach and enjoyed the sun at the swim-up bar - which is located in a wonderfully set 'lazy river' in the courtyard of the hotel. Surrounded by lush and tropical trees, this gravity-flowing little river was time well spent, and, the grotto-like hot tub was wonderfully relaxing. And check out the waterslide if you like a fast, long ride - it even rivaled the excitement of the 200' waterslide on the Carnival Destiny!
We boarded the ship around 4pm. I had read many reviews where large crowds were common about 1-2 PM, so we relaxed at the hotel, had a late check out, and literally walked right on the ship at 4pm. I do not even think we saw another couple boarding during the entire process. After checking into the room and finding our friend Dr. Ed, I took the rental back to the airport (about a 20-minute easy drive) and caught a quick $15 cab ride back to the ship.
Dinner was open seating the first night, so Debbie suggested that we dine in the other dining room - which for us was the Carnivale Dining Room. We dined the rest of the nights in the Mardi Gras Dining Room, and for those of you not familiar with the history of Carnival, the Mardi Gras was the first Carnival ship in the water - followed by the Carnivale. Anyway, we ate with a nice couple from England and one from the states. We remember the young couple from England because the wife, who is a housewife, won the cruise from a local radio show. In fact, that IS her job she says. They have no children (yet), and she stays home and rings up radio stations diligently from 6am till 10am Monday through Friday - then calls it a day!! This was the 4th major trip they had won!! Another one I remember her telling us about was an exotic one to Polynesia for 2 weeks. Needless to say, you meet all kinds on cruise ships!
DINING ROOMSI'd have to be really picky to say I would prefer to dine in one of the dining rooms versus the other, because they were almost equal. The advantage might go to the Carnivale Dining Room for I remember the lighting being more attractive. However, we were staying at the front of the ship and the Mardi Gras Dining Room was extremely convenient for the 3 of us. And as Sharon Jackson, editor of the SeaLetter has pointed out, entering through the Atrium area is a little nicer than the entrance to the aft dining room.
The other dining facility is the Brasserie Bar & Grille on the Lido Deck at the aft of the ship. It is here that I typically dined twice daily - breakfast around 9 AM and lunch around 2 PM. This dining room was a marked improvement from the one on the Sensation due to the carpeting throughout - vs. the bright, loud tile. The carpeting really softened up this room. And my favorite feature of this facility is the outside dining available both starboard and port sides of the ship. No matter where I go, I love to have a view of the water when I dine. The serenity of the translucent aqua waters is simply irreplaceable - and when you dine at these tables for four, your salt shaker is inches away from a 100'+ fall to the water.
The other improvements are the separate Pizzeria - which also doubles as an omelet bar for breakfast (while still serving pizza 24 hours/day!). Carnival also did away with the long bar in the aft of the dining room and providing a smaller, more functional one in the opposite corner of the pizzeria - which frees up some indoor window views for dining passengers. This bar has a TV, which drew small crowds from time to time.
THE FOODHmm, as critical of food as I can be, I would find it hard to say anything but good things about the food we had. I can't remember a single complaint from any one of us. In fact, it was nothing but praises. Ed and Debbie found the fellow in the Brasserie who cooks up fresh special daily plates near the salad bar to be excellent (I think one day it was curried chicken they went on about). I love the salad bar in the Brasserie and on those warm days when you're in the mood for ice cream or frozen yogurt, it's all right there.
Debbie one night chose a Pasta dish and unfortunately the meal was served with a white sauce. Debbie loves Marinara sauce - and luckily that night the midnight buffet featured many Italian dishes, so Debbie recommends asking questions about the dishes if you aren't sure what the dish consists of. It was about 1:30 AM and we were still warm from the dance floor - so we decided to take our meals to the Sun Deck to check out the full moon and fresh air. One of the waiters on duty prepared us a very nice "to go" tray and off we went - that was a nice touch.
THE SERVICEThe service we experienced in our dining room was about as good service as one can get - in fact, it may have been the best service ever on a cruise ship. Our waiter (Catalin - who says "Yes Thank You" to anything you say) and our smiling busboy (Mihael) got along very well and that is something that people often do not understand. They are a team and need to work like dogs to be a good one. Ours did and passed with flying colors. We came in late to dinner each night and therefore were the last ones to leave - which was fine with us. And our Headwaiter appeared to be in tune with our table and, did not overstay his welcome.
THE CAPTAIN AND HIS STAFFWell, I have to add this to my review because Debbie and I were very fortunate to dine with Captain Francesco Loffredo one evening - so we had a chance to meet some of the Captain's Staff. Sitting with the Captain is very special - especially when you consider they usually only dine twice per week with passengers. Being on a ship with 2000 passengers and being lucky enough to be selected as one of 14 is quite something, and on this cruise, there were only 7 who dined with the Captain due to a scheduling situation the second formal night.
Captain Loffredo was the first Captain of the Mardi Gras 26 years ago - when the Arisons began Carnival in Miami. To sail with him was an honor, and he is in marvelous shape and quite the congenial Captain. Seated to my right was Shahnaz Kashanipour the Hotel Manager, better known as Shaz - who has 900+ people under her command. All Restaurant, bar and rooms personnel report eventually to the Hotel Manager of a ship. And seated to the left of Debbie was Chief Engineer Gianfranco Borzone - the man I would later interview. We dined with these 3 Crew members and some sisters from Boston - and I'll bet I have probably never seen such clean silverware in my life! We ordered from the regular dining room menu, although some of us took suggestions from the staff. The food was fine, the service was obviously right on target and, my wine glass was continually being filled with a luscious Merlot from Australia.
And as if this wasn't enough, Carnival and a buddy back in Boston sent in a bunch of goodies to our cabin - so going hungry or needing a glass of champagne were never an issue this cruise! But, the biggest highlight was yet to come! I heard Gianfranco (pronounced John Franco) mention something about a high ranking Carnival person boarding the ship mid week - but really paid no attention to it. That is, until I spotted him at a special reception in the Wine Bar before dinner one evening. This attractive dark featured man had 100% of the Captain and his entire staff's attention - and as they began walking to dinner, Gianfranco told me it was the CEO and Chairman of the Board of Carnival - Micky Arison, accompanied by his beautiful wife Mattie.
After dinner, we were entering the lounge when we spotted the entourage seated for the show. I went to say hello to Shaz and to see if I could at least just meet Mr. Arison. They were happy to oblige and later again I ran into him and Mattie and had a nice conversation. Mr. Arison is also the owner of the Miami Heat, and since the Heat did not make the playoffs, he had some free time!! He and Mattie have a house in Grenada, and joined us from there on the 5th day of the cruise.
This was my 20th cruise - with half being on Carnival - so to meet the man who helped forge the industry that is nearest to my heart was a big thrill. Seldom do I get tongue tied - having been in Sales and Marketing all my life, but on this occasion I did. I babbled on about stuff and asked Mr. Arison rocket science questions like: "Are you proud of Carnival?." He and Mattie were very gracious and we ran into him several more times before the end of the cruise.
THE CABINHow can you go wrong on a Carnival ship? About 99% of them are identical - which while it may not leave much to the imagination - neither does a room at a Courtyard by Marriott - but that is a good thing for travelers in my opinion. The cabins have plenty of space, are quite soundproof, and the bathrooms are sufficient. And, there's plenty of room for storing your suitcases under your beds, hanging your clothes in the closet or, placing them in the drawers. If you are looking for bright colors or soft pastels though, you won't find them on Carnival - yet!
The built-in safes in the closets are a nice feature if you carry valuables - but in my 20 years of cruising, I have never heard of anyone reporting a theft within their own cabin. And as always, the Room Steward is invisible - yet thorough. We did have a day or two where we woke up late and did not leave the cabin till noon, and on those days, our cabins were not cleaned till dinnertime due to the steward's schedule - but no problem for us.
The sisters that dined with us at the captains table were staying in one of the two Presidential Suites - so we had the chance to visit one of the rooms that make up the remaining 1% of non-conforming rooms. The suites overlook the main pool and are moon shaped - complete with bar, large patio, king bed, living area and spacious closets. They are nice rooms and the only drawback about them is that only up to 4 can be booked in one - even though 50 teenagers would be totally comfy in there!
ENTERTAINMENTSince this was Debbie's first cruise - I sat in on a few of the shows. I was so happy to see some of the singers actually singing the songs - vs. lip-syncing. Occasionally some of the great outfits and the energy levels of the cast helped overshadow the acts, but not nearly as much as in past cruises.
Unfortunately I never saw any of the late night acts, but the passenger talent show is always a must see for me. Oh, and the Cruise Director did a funny skit that I thought was brilliant - chose a woman from the audience to join him on stage and he proceeded to woo her. The stage rotated in a clock like fashion and as the two of them would be rotated behind the curtain for a few seconds, they would reappear, but, the Cruise Director would be less dressed with some sort of funny prop.
We enjoyed the raspy voiced woman in the Piano Lounge on several occasions and she will be on board till November. I only once made it to the Avante Garde lounge - and was a bit disappointed in the decor - but the two piece Latin group played some great music. And the Disco was as always, the Disco - with great music, tons of calories being burned and new friendships being formed.
DECORBetter than the Sensation and Fantasy - by far. I can see how Carnival and Joe arrived at the Carnival Destiny colors and materials after being on this ship. The large six-story art piece in the atrium was interesting to look at, but did nothing for me. The only thing that I kind of did not like, is that in the public areas around the atrium and the Promenade Deck, they chose these big wooden-like scrolls, which were actually plastic and took something away from a generally nice looking interior.
MY INTERVIEW & SHIP TOURNext month, the SeaLetter will publish another of my articles detailing the interesting life and job of the Chief Engineer of the Inspiration, Gianfranco Borzone, but I thought I'd say just a few words about the tour that Debbie, Ed and I received from Gianfranco.
As the Chief Engineer, he has responsibility for all electrical and mechanical aspects of the ship. A crew of 55 report to Gianfranco, and the heart of the ship is the engine room. There are 6 engines on board - 4 big and 2 small. We were in port the day we had the tour, so only one big and one small were operating. The engines do more than turn the propellers, they help provide the ship with its electricity. Along with the noisy ships engines, we saw the huge steel shafts for the propellers, the de-salinization tanks (where salt water is turned to fresh water), the sprinkler system, the vacuum for the plumbing, the generators and the high tech engine control room.
Tours of the Engine Room are no longer offered to my knowledge to the public - unless on certain occasions. In my line of work, I have seen much of this equipment before, but the equipment was doing things other than powering a cruise ship around the Caribbean! What was almost spooky in a way was that all of this is below sea level - and on the other side of the steel walls was water - lots of water!!
PORTS OF CALL
CLOSING THOUGHTThe Inspiration provided some nice surprises. We found the ship in good shape, the crew did an excellent job, the service and food were above average, the weather cooperated and the ports were fine. While my ideal itinerary has fewer ports, the diverse ports that are visited kept the cruise interesting.
Doug Terhune is quite the experienced "solo cruiser" and is a regular columnist and reviewer for the SeaLetter.
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