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Cruise Ship Review

Carnival Inspiration - Ship Review provided by Cruise Critic

Editor's Note: All eight of Carnival's Fantasy-class ships will receive extensive upgrades as part of Carnival's $250 million "Evolutions of Fun" program. Expansive children's water parks, a new design style and features for the pool areas, and the creation of the Serenity adults only deck area will be part of the changes to the open decks of Carnival Cruise Lines' eight Fantasy-class ships.

The expanded outdoor recreation areas will be initially incorporated onto the 2,052-passenger Inspiration and Imagination during month-long dry docks in fall of 2007 and added to other Fantasy-class ships in 2008 and 2009 during scheduled dry-dock periods.

Carnival Cruise Lines is the largest cruise line in the world carrying one-fifth of all cruise passengers. A good percentage return again. This is a great mainstream cruising value for those that are looking to have a "Fun Ship" vacation with a party atmosphere. You will find excellent spa and fitness facilities, great programs for kids, and some of the largest cabins in this price range. Onboard all Carnival ships, guests under 21 must be accompanied by a parent, relative or guardian 25 years of age or older. This cuts down on the spring break reputation Carnival is trying to beat.

Inspiration is the sixth Fantasy-class ship and is similar in all but the theme, the "arts," to sister ships Ecstasy, Fantasy, Fascination, Imagination, Sensation and Paradise.

Many first-timers get their initial taste of cruising on the Inspiration and are, for the most part, younger than passengers on other lines. However the days of T-shirt-clad crowds are gone; today's cruisers are honeymooners, young families and singles, as well as veteran travelers who like the Carnival ambience. Dancing is a popular pastime for all, and late-night adults-only comics bring out huge crowds.

Dining

The two main dining rooms, Mardi Gras and Carnivale, are not at all crowded and service is quite good from maitre d' to assistant waiters. Tables range from booths for 4 to tables of 10. Three meals a day are also available in Brasserie Bar & Grill, through room service and at a 24-hour pizzeria. The Brasserie Bar & Grill, with its various-sized tables, modern metallic chairs and ever-present neon overhead, provides good service but passengers carry their own plates to the table and have to wiggle past the line to get drinks from another area. The same dinner menu that is offered in main dining rooms is available in Brasserie Bar & Grill with waiter service. A spa menu provides calories and carbohydrate totals for some menu items, and special diets are available with advance notice.

Room service comes on time and is available 24 hours a day, but offers a limited menu. Staggered serving times on Inspiration, as well as other Carnival ships, means early sitting is at 6 p.m. and late sitting is at 8:15 p.m. Midnight buffets continue to be popular on Inspiration where passengers, for the most part, party heartier and stay up later than on similar mass-market cruise ships. Carnival's food service has been kicked up several notches, and presentation and variety are superb.

Public Rooms

Inspiration's promenade stretches the length of the ship and is lined with "noveau art" style violin stems, leather sofas, chairs and banquettes, and is the place to see and be seen nightly after dinner.

The $1 million art collection is displayed throughout the public areas, but a rendition of Mona Lisa in Pablo's Lounge is a standout.

Two self-service laundry rooms are available for passenger usage.

Cabins

Standard cabins are 185 square ft. and most cabins have twin beds that can be configured into a king. Lighting is good with individual reading lights at each bed. Bathrobes are included in the amenities of all outside cabins. In-room safes and satellite television are offered ship-wide. Bring your own hair dryer. Only suites and demi-suites offer verandahs. Twenty cabins are equipped for physically challenged passengers. Six cabins on Verandah Deck offer partially obstructed views. Decor is simple and uncluttered. Drawer and closet space is more than adequate for two people sailing seven-day itineraries.

Entertainment

The Paris lounge features Carnival's popular Vegas-style revues nightly. This state-of-the-art theater boasts lasers lights, special effects and a sound system to rival any land-based show room. A word of warning -- be sure to get there early to get the best seats. Some of the seats have limited or obstructed views of the stage.

The Monte Carlo Casino is large and popular offering up an array of blackjack tables, roulette, craps and poker tables in addition to a variety of slots. Tournaments are scheduled almost every day.

One of the most popular places on the ship is Rhapsody in Blue, the sing-along piano bar. Get there early if you want a seat. Later in the evening, it was standing room only -- in the hallway! Passengers in the mood for a high-octane dance club will find the Rock and Roll Dance Club a satisfying alternative. The Avant-Garde Lounge takes its "Inspiration" from Picasso's cubist period complete with a chess-board dance floor and live music is on the bill most nights. The Teen Dance Club is a popular hideout for the 18 and under crowd.

Fitness and Recreation

The large pool complex on the Lido Deck is the scene of live music and the signature slide gets plenty of use. Snorkeling equipment is for rent for the length of the cruise. A topless sunbathing area is situated aft on the Sun Deck. The Nautica Spa is more than large enough to accommodate passengers at 12,000 square ft. including beauty salon. A fitness center offering pneumatic pressure machines, treadmills, stationary bikes, Stairmasters, and whirlpools get plenty of use. The spa is operated by Steiner, as on most cruise ships, but rates are pegged to the cruise passengers and are lower here than on the more upscale ships. There's a jogging track and a total of six whirlpools.

A state-of-the-art golf simulator that enables golfers to "play" some of the world's top courses is onboard. The computerized golf simulator includes a high-impact 10-ft. by 12-ft. screen for crystal-clear graphics, and a fully recessed hitting mat with simulated fairway featuring light and heavy rough and even sand surfaces, adding a realistic element. The new golf simulator is located in the Inspiration's former card room, which has been reconfigured to resemble a pro shop with the latest golf equipment, apparel and accessories. Golf packages, which include professional golf escort, are available as well as professional onboard lessons and equipment rentals.

Family

Camp Carnival operates on sea days from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m., and is divided into four categories: Toddlers (2 - 5), Juniors (6 - 8) Intermediates (9 - 11) and Teens (12 - 15); there's a playroom for children under the age of 3. On days in port, Camp Carnival offers supervised free-play from arrival until 2 p.m.; scheduled activities run from 2 until 10 p.m. Group babysitting is available on sea days and port days; cost is $6 for first child and $4 apiece for additional children (available from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. in the children's play room. The dining room features a "daily junior special" each day plus a regular kids menu with the usual staples (chicken nuggets, hot dogs, pizza, peanut butter and jelly). On formal nights, counselors host a kids-only dinner at the buffet. Diapers are sold in the infirmary, and there's a turndown service featuring fresh baked chocolate chip cookies at bedtime. Carnival also offers teens-only shore excursion outings and walkie-talkies available for rent onboard. A Fountain Fun Card ($9 to $23 depending on length of cruise) is available for the under-21 set.

Fellow Passengers

Lots of young couples and families choose this ship. However, it also draws a complement of singles.

Dress Code

There are two formal nights, and most gentlemen opt for a suit and tie as opposed to a tuxedo. Most ladies wear a short cocktail dress or a dressy pants outfit on formal nights. Other nights are casual, with most gentlemen wearing a sport shirt and long slacks and most ladies wearing a casual dress or skirt and blouse or pants outfit. Shorts are not permitted in the dining rooms at dinner. The dress is very casual during the day, with swimsuits, shorts and T-shirts being the rule. Swimsuits are not allowed in the dining rooms.

Gratuity

Carnival recommends $10 per person, per day, broken down to $5.50 to the headwaiter/waiter, $1 to the assistant waiter/cooks and $3.50 to the cabin steward. Tips for drinks are included in bar bills. Amid the new cruise ship boom of the early 21st century, during which we've seen new-builds with 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 massive "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 throughout the ship, 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 still 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 the dry dock. 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 (existential horror?).

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 an exceedingly 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 forego the flight and drive to Tampa (Inspiration), Charleston (Carnival Fantasy), Mobile (Carnival Elation) and Galveston (Carnival Ecstasy), 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.

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 multi-course 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 multi-course dinner in a non-traditional dining venue, like Carnival 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.

Public Rooms

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.) Carnival's fees for Internet use on cruises of six days or less are as follows: Initial activation fee is $3.95; pay as you go is $.75 a minute; 30 minutes for $16.50 ($.55 a minute); and 60 minutes for $24 ($.40 a 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.

Cabins

Carnival has never been a line with much use for elaborate suites or endless cabin categories, and Carnival Inspiration's cabin breakdown is very proletariat. Of the 1,026 cabins, 972 are similarly configured oceanview or inside cabins averaging an industry standard 186 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.

Entertainment

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 four- and five-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.

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 (debuting in 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.

Family

Carnival builds ships with families in mind, and families flock to the Tampa-based 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.

Fellow Passengers

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.

Dress Code

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.

Gratuity

Carnival automatically adds $10 per person, per day to your onboard bill. These auto-gratuities can be increased or decreased at the guest relations desk. Fifteen percent auto-gratuity is added to bar bills. On the last day of the cruise, passengers also receive a tip envelope marked maitre d'; tipping the dining rooms' top brass is optional.

--by Dan Askin, Associate EditorEditor's Note: All eight of Carnival's Fantasy-class ships will receive extensive upgrades as part of Carnival's $250 million "Evolutions of Fun" program. Expansive children's water parks, a new design style and features for the pool areas, and the creation of the Serenity adults only deck area will be part of the changes to the open decks of Carnival Cruise Lines' eight Fantasy-class ships.

The expanded outdoor recreation areas will be initially incorporated onto the 2,052-passenger Inspiration and Imagination during month-long dry docks in fall of 2007 and added to other Fantasy-class ships in 2008 and 2009 during scheduled dry-dock periods.

Carnival Cruise Lines is the largest cruise line in the world carrying one-fifth of all cruise passengers. A good percentage return again. This is a great mainstream cruising value for those that are looking to have a "Fun Ship" vacation with a party atmosphere. You will find excellent spa and fitness facilities, great programs for kids, and some of the largest cabins in this price range. Onboard all Carnival ships, guests under 21 must be accompanied by a parent, relative or guardian 25 years of age or older. This cuts down on the spring break reputation Carnival is trying to beat.

Inspiration is the sixth Fantasy-class ship and is similar in all but the theme, the "arts," to sister ships Ecstasy, Fantasy, Fascination, Imagination, Sensation and Paradise.

Many first-timers get their initial taste of cruising on the Inspiration and are, for the most part, younger than passengers on other lines. However the days of T-shirt-clad crowds are gone; today's cruisers are honeymooners, young families and singles, as well as veteran travelers who like the Carnival ambience. Dancing is a popular pastime for all, and late-night adults-only comics bring out huge crowds.

Dining

The two main dining rooms, Mardi Gras and Carnivale, are not at all crowded and service is quite good from maitre d' to assistant waiters. Tables range from booths for 4 to tables of 10. Three meals a day are also available in Brasserie Bar & Grill, through room service and at a 24-hour pizzeria. The Brasserie Bar & Grill, with its various-sized tables, modern metallic chairs and ever-present neon overhead, provides good service but passengers carry their own plates to the table and have to wiggle past the line to get drinks from another area. The same dinner menu that is offered in main dining rooms is available in Brasserie Bar & Grill with waiter service. A spa menu provides calories and carbohydrate totals for some menu items, and special diets are available with advance notice.

Room service comes on time and is available 24 hours a day, but offers a limited menu. Staggered serving times on Inspiration, as well as other Carnival ships, means early sitting is at 6 p.m. and late sitting is at 8:15 p.m. Midnight buffets continue to be popular on Inspiration where passengers, for the most part, party heartier and stay up later than on similar mass-market cruise ships. Carnival's food service has been kicked up several notches, and presentation and variety are superb.

Public Rooms

Inspiration's promenade stretches the length of the ship and is lined with "noveau art" style violin stems, leather sofas, chairs and banquettes, and is the place to see and be seen nightly after dinner.

The $1 million art collection is displayed throughout the public areas, but a rendition of Mona Lisa in Pablo's Lounge is a standout.

Two self-service laundry rooms are available for passenger usage.

Cabins

Standard cabins are 185 square ft. and most cabins have twin beds that can be configured into a king. Lighting is good with individual reading lights at each bed. Bathrobes are included in the amenities of all outside cabins. In-room safes and satellite television are offered ship-wide. Bring your own hair dryer. Only suites and demi-suites offer verandahs. Twenty cabins are equipped for physically challenged passengers. Six cabins on Verandah Deck offer partially obstructed views. Decor is simple and uncluttered. Drawer and closet space is more than adequate for two people sailing seven-day itineraries.

Entertainment

The Paris lounge features Carnival's popular Vegas-style revues nightly. This state-of-the-art theater boasts lasers lights, special effects and a sound system to rival any land-based show room. A word of warning -- be sure to get there early to get the best seats. Some of the seats have limited or obstructed views of the stage.

The Monte Carlo Casino is large and popular offering up an array of blackjack tables, roulette, craps and poker tables in addition to a variety of slots. Tournaments are scheduled almost every day.

One of the most popular places on the ship is Rhapsody in Blue, the sing-along piano bar. Get there early if you want a seat. Later in the evening, it was standing room only -- in the hallway! Passengers in the mood for a high-octane dance club will find the Rock and Roll Dance Club a satisfying alternative. The Avant-Garde Lounge takes its "Inspiration" from Picasso's cubist period complete with a chess-board dance floor and live music is on the bill most nights. The Teen Dance Club is a popular hideout for the 18 and under crowd.

Fitness and Recreation

The large pool complex on the Lido Deck is the scene of live music and the signature slide gets plenty of use. Snorkeling equipment is for rent for the length of the cruise. A topless sunbathing area is situated aft on the Sun Deck. The Nautica Spa is more than large enough to accommodate passengers at 12,000 square ft. including beauty salon. A fitness center offering pneumatic pressure machines, treadmills, stationary bikes, Stairmasters, and whirlpools get plenty of use. The spa is operated by Steiner, as on most cruise ships, but rates are pegged to the cruise passengers and are lower here than on the more upscale ships. There's a jogging track and a total of six whirlpools.

A state-of-the-art golf simulator that enables golfers to "play" some of the world's top courses is onboard. The computerized golf simulator includes a high-impact 10-ft. by 12-ft. screen for crystal-clear graphics, and a fully recessed hitting mat with simulated fairway featuring light and heavy rough and even sand surfaces, adding a realistic element. The new golf simulator is located in the Inspiration's former card room, which has been reconfigured to resemble a pro shop with the latest golf equipment, apparel and accessories. Golf packages, which include professional golf escort, are available as well as professional onboard lessons and equipment rentals.

Family

Camp Carnival operates on sea days from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m., and is divided into four categories: Toddlers (2 - 5), Juniors (6 - 8) Intermediates (9 - 11) and Teens (12 - 15); there's a playroom for children under the age of 3. On days in port, Camp Carnival offers supervised free-play from arrival until 2 p.m.; scheduled activities run from 2 until 10 p.m. Group babysitting is available on sea days and port days; cost is $6 for first child and $4 apiece for additional children (available from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. in the children's play room. The dining room features a "daily junior special" each day plus a regular kids menu with the usual staples (chicken nuggets, hot dogs, pizza, peanut butter and jelly). On formal nights, counselors host a kids-only dinner at the buffet. Diapers are sold in the infirmary, and there's a turndown service featuring fresh baked chocolate chip cookies at bedtime. Carnival also offers teens-only shore excursion outings and walkie-talkies available for rent onboard. A Fountain Fun Card ($9 to $23 depending on length of cruise) is available for the under-21 set.

Fellow Passengers

Lots of young couples and families choose this ship. However, it also draws a complement of singles.

Dress Code

There are two formal nights, and most gentlemen opt for a suit and tie as opposed to a tuxedo. Most ladies wear a short cocktail dress or a dressy pants outfit on formal nights. Other nights are casual, with most gentlemen wearing a sport shirt and long slacks and most ladies wearing a casual dress or skirt and blouse or pants outfit. Shorts are not permitted in the dining rooms at dinner. The dress is very casual during the day, with swimsuits, shorts and T-shirts being the rule. Swimsuits are not allowed in the dining rooms.

Gratuity

Carnival recommends $10 per person, per day, broken down to $5.50 to the headwaiter/waiter, $1 to the assistant waiter/cooks and $3.50 to the cabin steward. Tips for drinks are included in bar bills. 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 an exceedingly 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 forego the flight and drive to Tampa (Inspiration), Charleston (Carnival Fantasy), Mobile (Carnival Elation) and Galveston (Carnival Ecstasy), 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.

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.

Public Rooms

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.) Carnival's fees for Internet use on cruises of six days or less are as follows: Initial activation fee is $3.95; pay as you go is $.75 a minute; 30 minutes for $16.50 ($.55 a minute); and 60 minutes for $24 ($.40 a 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.

Cabins

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.

Entertainment

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 four- and five-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.

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.

Family

Carnival builds ships with families in mind, and families flock to the Tampa-based 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.

Fellow Passengers

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.

Dress Code

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.

Gratuity

Carnival automatically adds $10 per person, per day to your onboard bill. These auto-gratuities can be increased or decreased at the guest relations desk. Fifteen percent auto-gratuity is added to bar bills. On the last day of the cruise, passengers also receive a tip envelope marked maitre d'; tipping the dining rooms' top brass is optional.

Gratuity

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. An envelope is provided on the last night for those who want to extend thanks to the maitre d'.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.

Public Rooms

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.

Entertainment

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.

Family

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.

Gratuity

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.

Fellow Passengers

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.

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