The author of this report is Meg- I'm 25, work in theatre production (I'm a stage manager) and caught the travel bug early on. This is my second cruise, having taken one on Enchantment of the Seas two years ago- two of the ports of this cruise (Cozumel and Belize) are actually repeats for me, but I enjoyed them both and this cruise fit everyone's schedule best, so I was happy to return! I did most of the "travel agent" duties for this endeavor.
My roommate for the trip is Stephanie- we went to college together and now work together (technically she's my assistant), also 25, and has never cruised before, but has traveled extensively, including two backpacking trips the previous two years- the first to Europe, the second to Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain.
My mom initiated this trip- she wanted to spend some time as a family, so she invited both kids as well as our significant others (I broke up with mine, thus bringing a friend) and bore much of the financial burden. We are incredibly grateful! She had never cruised before, and was excited to participate in the planning process with me.
Dad was very much along for the ride- he really didn't pay much attention to the planning at all during the lead-up to the trip, but seemed to enjoy once he got there. It was his first cruise as well.
My brother Matt is 23. His girlfriend, Emily, also joined us- it was nice to get to know her, since living in different parts of the country I'd only met her a couple times. It was both of their first cruise as well.
Our original plan was for everyone but Stephanie to fly down on Saturday, stay at the Hyatt Place Airport North, and have Stephanie join us Sunday morning before heading to the port. My flight from the DC area got in successfully, albeit delayed by 2 1/2 hrs. My family wasn't so lucky- they were routed from Buffalo to Ft Lauderdale via Atlanta, and snow in Atlanta caused their flight to be canceled. They ended up making a 24-hour drive straight through, from Saturday morning to Sunday morning. Stephanie was the only one whose plans went smoothly- she arrived just as my family did, at about 10am.
The Hyatt Place was wonderful. We had booked through Hotwire, so figured we were out of luck getting the second room refunded. I asked at the desk just in case, and they worked with Hotwire to get us our money back- something they totally didn't have to do. They also sent the shuttle to get Stephanie from the airport, since with my parents arriving imminently and not knowing how long they'd want to rest/clean up/etc, I wasn't sure whether to send Stephanie to the port or what was best. Besides our extenuating circumstances, the hotel was clean, well-set up and -run, had great shuttle service, adequate continental breakfast, and was walking distance from a grocery store and several dinner options. I wouldn't hesitate to stay there again.
Now for the ship- in summary, it is amazing. Looks brand new, never ran out of things to do (in fact, we never did see it all), amazingly well laid out, and just great in general. I enjoyed my Enchantment cruise, but this was just a million times better. For my parents who wanted to just relax, there were places like the Olive or Twist lounge or the solarium to do so- but for those of us who wanted activities, there was never a dull moment. Truly something for everyone.
The Activities/Cruise Director Staff on this ship is amazing. Everyone is so engaging and so much fun, you can't help but want to be a part of it. We did everything from the rock wall to the flow rider to trivia, to the game shows, Quest, Love and Marriage, etc- all were superb. I never understood how someone could say they'd miss the staff after ending a cruise, but I do now.
The entertainment had some standouts and some mediocre moments. My favorites by far were the 70s night and Strings, the ice show. The parades and the guest entertainer (Tony Tillman maybe?) were tons of fun too. The comedian was alright (as twenty-somethings we weren't really his target audience), and the production shows kind of hit-or-miss- some performers were definitely stronger than others. We did attend the backstage tour on our last sea day, and a normally half-hour tour turned into an hour and a half because Stephanie and I kept asking detailed questions, and the production staff quickly realized we knew what we were talking about so went into more detail. That was really interesting, and lots of others joined our group once they realized we were getting a more in-depth tour. My usual respect for dancers was reinforced when I realized that the dancers and skaters each run followspots and serve as dressers (helping w/ costume changes) for each other's shows- there aren't dedicated crew members to do this.
Service was also great. We initially requested a change in our dining table based on location (tucked into a corner right by the entrance to the kitchen) but were quickly pleased when it couldn't be granted, once we met our waiter, Mihae from Romania. He (along with our assistant waiter and head waiter, also named Mihae) did an amazing job, and made dinner a lot of fun. The food was good banquet-quality food- exactly what I expected. Our room steward also did a great job.
Disembarkation was very smooth, since two of us did self-disembarkation and the rest were on a post-cruise excursion.
In summary, I could have done with another week on this ship and not been bored. The staff on the Independence makes it a great place to be, and I was truly sad for the trip to be over! See my port reviews for info on what we did in each place.
Our only drawback for the day was wasted time. We were on the first tender off the ship and were at the meeting place by 8am, after a quick stop to buy sunglasses for those of us who had forgotten or broken ours. We waited an hour before everyone else arrived and we could depart. We lost another hour or so in smaller chunks waiting to regather everyone after bathroom breaks, lunch, etc. We ended up making the last tender back to the ship with about 10 mins to spare. If I had this to do again, I'd book with NCQ Adventures, because they would have taken us in a private group and we wouldn't have wasted so much time or cut it so close.
We were greeted by David at the meeting area, and he took our cash, got us checked in, directed us to restroom facilities and gave us bottled water very efficiently. We then boarded the bus, where Ivan gave us lots of info about the area and Mayan history on our way to the ruins. During our ruins tour, Ivan gave us tons of info about Mayan history, religion and culture. I've done one previous Mayan ruin tour in Belize, and what a difference it makes to have a tour guided by someone so proud of his heritage and culture! Listening to him talk was amazing. We also got to learn about some of the indigenous plants of the area, including chewing on an all-spice leaf and learning about its anesthetic qualities, which was very cool.
Afterward we split up- Matt and Emily enjoyed the Baclaar Lagoon, where they went kayaking, and had lunch and margaritas (which were included). Our tour took us to the modern village of Chacchoben, where we had a tortilla-making lesson, ate lunch, and watched as our hostess demonstrated a traditional Mayan dance. This was a great opportunity to connect with local people that view tourists get to experience- I can't recommend it highly enough.
On a side note, we got to take pictures at the pier holding a spider monkey for $5 each- that was my best-spent souvenir money because it was so much fun to hold him!
The rest of us went to Playa Palancar. We arrived just as they were opening up, and had the beach to ourselves for picture taking- truly gorgeous. Once the dive shop opened, Stephanie and I checked in- she's certified, and I was doing a Discover dive. I had done a previous "Discover Scuba" experience back home in a pool, and was glad that I had because the class here was just verbal- they didn't have a pool to try anything out until I was in the water. That said, it was a great experience! I had trouble equalizing my right ear at first, but Miguel took me by the hand and helped me all the way down. Once we were down, it was amazing- the coral (we were at Palancar Gardens) was beautiful, and we saw tons of gorgeous fish, a barracuda, a crab the size of a dinner plate, and the rest of the group saw a turtle, but I had to come up at that point because my nerves in the beginning ate up too much of my air. After the dive, we went back to the beach and relaxed in the sun, and had lunch and some cervesas with my parents.