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Age: 46


Number of Cruises: 4

Cruise Line: Carnival

Ship: Carnival Inspiration

Sailing Date: June 24th, 2006

Itinerary: Western Caribbean

HIGHLIGHTS: Here’s what you really need to know, IMHO:

The Camp Carnival girls who take care of kids ages 2 through 14 are great, talented, qualified and fun. Wendy and Gladys were who I dealt with most and they are first rate human beings who love kids. You can trust them with your kids and the kids will have a good time. This will allow you adults to sneak off to your room or the 12th deck sundeck (aka the “booty deck”) for some R & R. Babysitting is available (free before 10 p.m. and $6 hour after) till 3 a.m.

If you drink a lot, bring your own liquor. If it won’t kill you to spend $5 - $6 for a beer or glass of wine, man up and pay at the bar.

Bring walkie-talkies. They’re a great convenience when you split up, and are very reassuring if you have a child.

If your teenager is missing in the evening he or she is probably making out with their summer romance on the bow in the area of deck 9 or 10 or the promenade deck aft; at least they were when I tried to go up there for some midnight yoga. I found deck 11, the topless deck (a/k/a “booty deck”) at the smokestack, deserted at that time in case mom and dad need some private space.

In Grand Cayman, unless you dive, there is very little to see or do IMHO but the locals were VERY friendly. However the beaches were beautiful. Our take was we’d rather go there than the Bahamas. Others I spoke to said the scuba dive to “the wall” was an awe inspiring experience. Most of the people on the ship I talked to went to “Stingray City” which is a wading/snorkeling experience.

I strongly suggest NOT taking the Carnival-organized excursions. Generally, you can book a comparable experience on the dock for half the price by negotiating with the locals.

In Grand Cayman, when we got off the boat, we literally saw one row of hawkers offering tours for $40, followed immediately – like 5 feet -- behind them by a second row offering the same for $20. We hooked up with 2 other couples from the ship on the spur of the moment and negotiated for a van tour for two hours for $20 per person. I believe the Carnival excursion rate was about 3x that.

We recommend looking for Ursula (pronounced UrSOOLa), who is hard to miss as a 68 year old Scottish-Jamaican lady who’s a lifelong native and will drive you around in her van and give you the local’s version of the tour. Of course, she’ll take you to the stores her friends own, but that’s how life in the islands works.

The lesson of this story, and what you should apply to your cruise experience, is a lesson in monopoly economics: when you’re on the ship, you’re dealing with 1) a monopoly seller that can set the price, and 2) an information monopoly. Nobody is going to volunteer you the info that you can get the same experience on shore for half what Carnival will charge. This is not a knock on Carnival – that’s just smart business, just like they do at a resort, hotel, or airport. Set up in a place where there’s no competition and charge accordingly. Carnival could probably charge 50% more for drinks and photos and get it, in fairness to them. It’s no coincidence that internet access is 37 cents a minute on the ship because it makes it uneconomic to shop for prices online. It’s up to you to be a smart consumer and 1) take the good deals for the list price of the cruise you can find online and 2) if there are things like liquor, souvenirs, good coffee, and shore excursions that you must ABSOLUTELY have, either be prepared to pay the premium or be prepared to make other arrangements.

From my perspective, going to the pier and meeting a local taxi driver to negotiate your own itinerary for what YOU want to see is part of the fun. I strongly encourage others to do the same and see the real world.

On that point: In Calica, Mexico, you MUST get ground transportation to see something else because there is NOTHING in Calica except a concrete aggregate loading facility, a dozen flea market grade junk stands, $2 coca colas, no breeze, and every tour bus in Quintana Roo (when the ship arrives). Oh, and a taxi kiosk/hack stand which functions as the information and transport exchange.

Again, go to the hack stand and take your chances. The taxi stand manager was very friendly and helpful and again will direct you to beaches and attractions he’s getting a commission for, but his commission and your price will be significantly less than the onboard excursion price.

We strongly recommend Fernando Hernandez’s van service ( or tel. (044)984-114 5193. Don’t let the scary e mail address fool you; he is a very pleasant and quiet young man who took our group of 7 to Tulum and to the beach in his van for basically $25 per person for 4 hours of use of his van and driver, plus $10/hour per extra hour (we tipped him an extra $30). If this sounds like a lot, the Carnival package price was $90 per person (for the transportation component, $60). Fernando sat around and waited patiently while we cavorted and kept the AC in the van maxed out for us. He drove us to Tulum where we (my wife) also negotiated a guide (Miguel) for 45 minutes, trolley tickets, and entry for $14 per person. So our group of 6 adults and a child would have paid $630 total at the Carnival rate for this package, vs $ 350 ( $50 per person for a full day, including snorkel gear, but ex lunch drinks and tip) at the “get off the boat and talk to a human being nicely” rate. (The kicker would have been Xel-ha, included in the carnival package, which is now a $35 entry instead of $25 in 2004. That would have brought the cost in just a little south of the $90 carnival rate)

·Where to go if you draw the Calica port of call instead of Cancun or Cozumel? If you MUST get yet another Hard Rock T shirt or throw up at Senor Frogs, fine, go to Cancun. You will miss the best of the Riviera Maya, and, you too, like our dinner companions, can spend $78 on 2 steak fajitas, two tequila shots, a kids meal and a soft drink.

On the other hand, if you want to go to a place which looks like it came out of the Corona commercial – the one where the guy’s cell phone rings and he skips it across the lagoon like a stone – have a taxi driver take you to Paa Mul, about 10 minutes south of the port.

Like nirvana, neither words nor pictures can describe Paa Mul. The calm and the blue simply wash over you and change your mind and your life. Be careful – one of the locals is selling his palapa for $75,000 and you may just buy it an never come back. Paa Mul is that place you dream that you’re going to find when you go to the Keys or the Bahamas but instead you end up in a condo. Paa Mul is the real thing. You can go to a Hard Rock anywhere (and everywhere) and see the same damn thing. Paa Mul you may only see once in a lifetime.

It's listed in Frommer's but I missed it -- no bullet and none of the attention it deserves. Perhaps the authors didn't want the crowds to spoil it. So enjoy it but respect it.

Have lunch at an open air palapa restaurant (we spent $38 with tip on some awesome fajitas for 2, beers, and flan)The owner is Brazilian, which may explain the laid back attitude -- no warranties, but we saw a young woman topless and a couple of young gay Mexican men caressing on the beach and nobody seemed to care, so I guess this is an unofficial topless/gay friendly locale

Snorkel off the beach into a blue green lagoon for $9 to rent your gear from Scubamex ( right on the beach, and they have a dive boat too. The owner is an American doctor who did a Billy Clyde in the 80s, built his place on the beach and never came back. Nice guy and super qualified in all areas of diving. He's mixed gas certified so he can probably get you hard core divers into as much trouble as you can stand. However the lagoon is perfect for little kids and newbies. My water-fearing wife and companions and my 8 year old kid paddled 25 yards offshore, well within the protected area of the lagoon, and saw lots of fish, coral, and sea urchins in 5-6 feet of water.

It’s a quick 50 mile trip to Tulum, the Mayan ruins of a late postclassical Maya town. The ruins are said not to be such a great archeological treasure by knowledgeable Mayanists. However, they may be the only Mayan ruins you and your kids ever get to see, so spend the damn $14 on the educational experience (admission, guide and tram ride to the ruins, which tram ride is a must if you expect to survive the heat). Visually, the site is spectacular – ruins overlooking the kind of cliffs and blue water that bring to mind Acapulco. The first touch of the cool ocean breeze as you advance from the suffocating tropical heat inland toward the ocean cliffs is one of those experiences you wish you could keep in a bottle and bring home. There is a public beach at the site as well. Entry without a guide is $4 -- cheap --plus 1.50 for the essential tram ticket. In addition your kids will get to chase iguanas the size of small dogs and you’ll get great pictures of this.

Recommended but not personally -- I didn’t get to see them. These looked interesting according to Frommer’s or our local sources. They are all within the 50 mile corridor south of Puerto Calica on Mex Route 307 (the U.S. 1 of the Riviera Maya) and an easy cab ride:

Xel-ha ecopark – snorkeling, tubing down a tropical river. Took more time than we had and the price is up to $35. But I’m going back for this!

Hidden Worlds Cenote – a cenote and cave exploration experience with snorkeling – featured in an IMAX film we saw at the Orlando Science Center

Akumal caves – cave exploration and zoo

Bahias de Punto Soliman/Oscar and Lalo’s restaurant – more restaurant on the beach/snorkeling/ water sports/lazing on the beach. Said not to be as beautiful as Paa Mul but quien sabe?

YOUR NEIGHBORS ON THE CRUISE: WHERE DID THEY FIND THESE PEOPLE? If you are an introvert or elitist (and I definitely am both) with a low tolerance for people “not of your caliber” (I’m not), this is not the experience for you. You will spend time, possibly stuck at dinner for an hour and a half, with people of a different social classes and cultures, whose choices, child rearing philosophy, politics, wardrobe, opinions and behaviors you may find completely unacceptable and distasteful. (The five little girls aged 4 through 10 being pushed by their mom to sing “Baby Got Back” on karaoke night left us wondering how they managed to fit a trailer on the lido deck, and how to call the international maritime version of HRS). Back in the day we called the skills to deal with this gracefully and without rancor “good manners”. The Buddha would tell you, deal with it, learn to accept, and smile. If you’re not up for this character building experience, then cruising may not be for you. However, we also have met great people on these cruises, who were very different from us but who we grew wiser or better from meeting, or just plain had fun with. The encounters with these great folks make these trips more than just a vacation. A cruise is a continuing social interaction.

I would definitely do this cruise again, for all of the above reasons, including the little challenges that are really growth opportunities.

Wow, that was 3 pages of highlights mostly about the destinations. About the shipboard experience

OVERALL EVALUATION: This is not a 5 star experience; it’s more like a three and a half star, but you definitely get your money’s worth if you choose wisely. It’s not fair to call Carnival a “budget” or “discount” line because the look and feel is much better than “budget”; however it is a low cost provider and it’s not the Ritz either. Maybe “McShip” is the right idea. However it is more than adequate as a family vacation experience. For that matter, the previous Carnival cruise was definitely an all-adult experience (a number of, ahem, alternative lifestyle travel groups were in attendance and we definitely got a few eyefuls, but those groups had an equally fantastic kid free time).

I’m not shilling for Carnival – God knows I can come up with a list of things that could use some attention -- but I read some of the reviews of this ship from 2006 and was puzzled by the expectations and criticisms of those who expressed disappointment. Frankly they sounded like people who would be unhappy anywhere. Whether you like this cruise experience depends on your attitude. Standing in lines is a fact of life, not a management failure. Stick to the philosophy of not lining up until the LAST call, and you can avoid this. In fact our asst cruise director, Ryan, on exit specifically announced that there was 25 MINUTE WAIT TO DEBARK SO WHY NO JUST HANG OUT ON THE LIDO DECK TILL THE CROWD THINS OUT?

First, the ship and crew: the ship is clean, glitzy, a little Vegasy, which is not my style but is a nice change from sitting at home or in a sterile airport. The staterooms are small but adequate to the purpose. Our group was my wife and me and our 8 year old boy. We booked last minute on and got an outside cabin, Riviera (low) deck, with a very comfy queen bed, plus a “really cool” Pullman bed that came out of the wall which my little guy considered to be one of the “rides” on the ship. He also loved his daily “towel animals” made by the steward.

This was my second Carnival cruise. You will not find a staff which is more attentive or friendly. However the cruise director does make a difference. On this cruise the lounge singer was actually bad, and the comedian not funny when working “clean”. I’m assuming that’s a cruise director decision. I also found her announcements to be a little pushy and brassy and driven toward selling jewelry.

The Food: Imagine Iron Chef on a budget, plus always a “safe” choice.

Breakfast: The breakfast pastry is ok, the omelets good. The rest indifferent. The free coffee is ok (weak American stuff but better than Mickey D’s) but the coffee in the pseudo-Starbucks is worth the $2.50 premium.

Lunch: The buffet by the pool has kid food (burgers and dogs), something exotic (Indian, Caribbean) plus something mainstream (round of beef, turkey, pork roast). I made myself try something new every day and always found something I liked.

Dinner: The dining room aspires to and shoots for haute cuisine, but face it, they’re cooking 2,000 dinners on a budget. Nothing was four star, but nothing was less than “not bad”. The presentation and service, however, are first rate. I can’t get beef Wellington, baked Alaska, Etouffe of prawns, or Grand Marnier soufflé at home, so unlike some of the other critics here, I’m not gonna' complain while my mouth is full.

Getting Around on the wandering around saying they’re lost. This, I think, is a corporate failure by carnival. If it was by design at least the signs would route you past the casino. Carry your map and make notes or leave a trail of crumbs. Never mind the crumbs, the staff would be right behind you cleaning them up. Try to remember that you can’t go “through” from front to back on deck 8 and you should be ok.

In short, a bad day on a cruise ship is better than a good day at work. IMHO it’s better than a good day at most vacation locations because I don’t have to cook, worry about where to eat, drive, or pay a cover charge. I can disco, drink and people watch all night and walk or if necessary fall home. I can sun my buns on the booty deck and take in the natural and plastic sights. I can meditate under the stars at midnight in the ocean breeze in the middle of the ocean. I can smoke a cigar on the fantail and catch a great sunset just about every night.


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