Carnival's Inspiration brings people together

Travel Weekly associate editor Margaret Myre and her husband, Bill, sailed from New Orleans to Montego Bay, Jamaica; Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands; and Playa del Carmen/Cozumel, Mexico, aboard Carnival Cruise Lines' Inspiration. Her report follows:

NEW ORLEANS -- We boarded the big, bold, bejeweled Inspiration -- the largest cruise ship ever to sail from here year-round -- barely six weeks after its repositioning from San Juan to the Crescent City on Sept. 24.

With room for 2,042 passengers, the Inspiration replaced Carnival's smaller and older Fun Ship, the 1,486-passenger Celebration, now sailing from Galveston, Texas.

On this cruise, as on every cruise for the past six weeks, the Inspiration was full.

At the embarkation center, we found out what a crowd of 2,000 peo- ple looks like.

Carnival's Inspiration docked in New Orleans.With the installation of the Inspiration, Carnival had moved into a larger terminal at the port and equipped the check-in counter with a string of new laptop computers and a staff that could have used a half-dozen more trained hands.

At 10:30 a.m., when we and scores of other early birds arrived (boarding time was 12:30 p.m.), the Inspiration was off-loading from the previous Sunday-to-Sunday cruise.

In short, it was a madhouse.

Returning cruisers and their porters, pushing carts stacked precariously high with luggage, wedged through the one open set of double doors and into the crowd outside.

Most of the arriving crowd, it appeared, had come directly from the airport.

"There are some glitches that have to be worked out," said one embarkation staffer.

Outside the terminal, construction was going on.

An elevator and an escalator, due for completion in December, will replace the winding ramp that leads passengers up into the ship.

Because we arrived a little early, we opted to spend a couple of hours in the French Quarter, taking the trolley that runs from the pier every 30 minutes or so at a cost of $1.50 per person.

We ate gumbo at the Gumbo Shop on St. Peter's Street; strolled along Royal and Bourbon, and took a $5 cab ride back to the pier.

Carnival offers a pre- and post-cruise option for those who want to spend more than a lunch hour in the Big Easy. (See related story.)

As first-time cruisers, we were the embodiment of one of two market segments Carnival hopes to attract with the Inspiration's seven-day Caribbean itinerary.

The other target is the drive-in market, which Carnival identifies as people from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

Judging by the accents we heard as we roamed the decks, lounges, casino and other public areas, locals were well represented.

Yet during the course of the cruise, we breakfasted with a couple from Australia; chatted on the lido deck with Silvia and Gil Mendez of California; climbed into a hot tub with Judy and Al Parsons of Denver, and shared a shuttle in Jamaica with a couple of pretty blonde teen-agers from Vancouver and four middle-aged, Fun Ship-type gals from Albany, N.Y., who had left their husbands home.

There were people from Portugal and Idaho; Arizona and Pennsylvania, and a man with a 10-gallon hat.

The first passengers we met, on the 25-minute van ride from the airport, were siblings Bob Delmour, Jodi Delmour and Barbara Hudack and their spouses and children -- all from Cranford, N.J., about 20 miles from our own home.

They were headed for an on-board reunion of 22 family members, eight of them from California.

We talked to anyone who looked friendly, and that was just about everyone -- in the elevators, on the decks, at the dining tables.

We found that the Inspiration's passengers come not only from all over the nation but from all age groups, as well.

And here's what Carnival does better than any other cruise line.

Carnival takes an 855-foot vessel, plops in almost equal quantities of age categories -- 30% under age 35, 40% between 35 and 55 and 30% over 55 -- and stirs them up with activities that bring everyone together, but without cutting out any of the traditional cruisers' (over 55) favorites.

In the daily Cruise Capers newsletter, slipped under the door each morning, a passenger might find country line dancing, a kids' talent show or a hairy chest contest among the continuous round of activities.

Our favorite was the Tarzan contest, in which several young men swam the length of the pool and jumped into the hot tub to save "Jane" from unseen cannibals. The audience would decide the winner.

"Jane" (Doris Adkins of Kirbyville, Texas, from the over-55 category) had trouble reading from the script and kept pleading to be saved from the "cannonballs," to the delight of the crowd.

However, the winning Tarzan, Scott Sontag of Phoenix, would be throwing Jane over, metaphorically speaking, the next day, because he and his fiancee were to be married in one of seven weddings that were to take place during the cruise.

During the afternoons, a calypso band played at poolside on the lido deck.

Those who wanted quiet could settle down on the aft deck, where there is another pool, two hot tubs and blessed silence.

Some of the 12 bars and lounges offered big band music, piano music, disco and rock 'n' roll.

At 10:30 each night, the two-level, 1,300-seat Paris Lounge mounted shows ranging from a Las Vegas-style revue to a come-on-up talent show.

We explored the casino, where we found 275 slot machines and various table games: roulette, craps, Caribbean poker and blackjack.

Annexed to the casino was an arcade with video games.

The Inspiration also has Camp Carnival, a supervised play program, with separate rooms and activities for toddlers (ages 2 to 5), juniors (6 to 8), intermediates (9 to 12) and teens (13 to 15).

Dining options included a poolside eatery, a 24-hour pizzeria, 24-hour stateroom service and two main dining rooms -- Mardi Gras and Carnivale, with one chef and 120 cooks between them.

We ate regularly in the Mardi Gras, where the menu was varied (right down to low-cholesterol meals), the food and service excellent and the presentation more than adequate.

The seasoned cruisers we spoke with liked the larger ship and bigger rooms.

Those with cabins with two single beds especially liked being able to put them together to create a king-size bed and more walking room at the same time.

The Inspiration offered shore excursions in each port: 12 in Montego Bay, where Ocho Rios and the Dunn's River Falls Tour are said to be the most popular, at $53 per person; 18 in Grand Cayman, where swimming with stingrays was a big favorite, at $33 per person; three in Playa del Carmen, including the Mayan Ruins of Tulum tour, $68 per person, and 13 in Cozumel, featuring plenty of scuba and snorkeling options plus a chance to swim with dolphins, for $99 per person.

Seven-day cruises start at $709 per person under Carnival's Super Savers advance-purchase program.

Sailings are available in conjunction with Carnival's Fly Aweigh program, which offers roundtrip air transportation from a variety of gateways in the U.S. and Canada.

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