This was my second-ever cruise and my first was on a similar-sized ship (RCCL's Majesty of the Seas) with a similar cruise length (4 nights) and departing from the same port, Miami, so I was continually comparing the two cruise lines and how they handle different aspects of the cruise. Some things CCL did better, some things RCCL did better.
I was travelling with my sister Cindy, who is disabled and generally needs a cane, and my mom Loralee and her husband Gaylord. This was my sister's first cruise, my mom's 20th or so, and Gaylord's 18th.
MIAMI OVERNIGHT AND TRAVEL TO THE PIER: We drove down from Atlanta the Sunday before embarkation day and, based on reports right here on Cruise Critic's message boards, we stayed at the LaQuinta Miami Airport East since they would allow the car to be parked there for 5 days for free, and transport us to the pier (but NOT back) for free. The hotel itself was so-so; we couldn't get the TV (or the remote) in the room to work and for light sleepers, the sound of aircraft taking off overhead might disturb them.
As promised, the mid-sized bus and trailer from KSA Transportation was there promptly at 9:45 to take us to the pier. We were then given an opportunity to purchase the return ride back to the hotel on Friday for $10 each, which we and several people opted for. We realized this was a colossal mistake on the way through Miami, when our driver, speeding on a one-way street, nearly collided with a tractor-trailer that pulled out in front of him. Everyone was thrown forward into the seat-backs, except Gaylord, who was sitting in the back bench with the aisle in front of him. He was thrown about fifteen feet down the aisle. Everyone was screaming, it was pretty bad. The driver eventually got up to check on Gaylord's condition -- amazingly, he only had a bruised/scraped elbow -- and we continued on to the pier. We have contacted the hotel management about reconsidering their contract with KSA.
EMBARKATION: pretty much the same as on my previous cruise, perhaps a bit less taxing from a security standpoint. We were aboard by around noon.
Then it was time to buy the "Bottomless Bubbles" sticker. This is something that Royal Caribbean handles much better than Carnival: RCCL allows you to purchase their unlimited sodas via their website before sailing, and they charge $6/day and do not add gratuity, so your sailing card already has the soda symbol embossed on it when you get it. They also give you an insulated cup that triggers a soda fountain located (on Majesty) right by the pool. Carnival also charges $6/day, but they add gratuity to it, make you wait in line to purchase it, and charge an extra $5 for the insulated cup -- which doesn't activate anything, since all sodas are served by the can and had to come from bars or restaurants. RCCL is the easy winner here.
Staterooms were ready by 1:15 -- a bit early, but the ship was not sailing full -- and I went ahead and booked the "Behind the Fun" tour for myself at the Shore Excursions desk with no problems and, at that moment, no line. I got lucky. We had the Mongolian stir-fry barbecue for lunch -- it was great, one of the dining highlights of the cruise.
Imagination's ship-design is quite old-fashioned and it shows in various ways. One of these is in the dining rooms, which are separated by the galley and there is no direct route between them. After finally finding our way to the Spirit Dining Room (named after one of Seabourn's ships, as is the other dining room, Pride), we had a great meal enhanced by a surprise birthday cake and serenade for ME, since it was my birthday. Really cool!
Spent the later evening trying to escape the loudness of the Lido pool deck and went down to Serenity, which was great. It became my nighttime escape-place for the rest of the cruise.
PORT DAY (KEY WEST): Since the ship arrived wayy early and departed Key West at 2pm, I didn't bother going ashore, electing instead to enjoy the ship's pool and outdoor deck with few people on board. We noticed that the hot tubs on Lido were much cooler than the ones on Serenity. The 'resort-style pool' is still pretty small and divided in two. Not sure why since both sides are the same depth. Dinner that night was really good again, and my sister had three lobster tails (!). She was happy after two, but Ben, our table waiter, encouraged her to get three. :)
We have no complaints about the MDR staff except that, as far as I know, we never had a visit from the headwaiter, who still got 75 cents/day gratuity from us for....something.
I should mention here that the winds and seas for much of the voyage were pretty high. During the run down to Cozumel the ship was rocking from side to side, sometimes heeling 3 degrees, and also bucking and plunging front-to-back. Winds were sometimes at or exceeding 30 knots. It made for an...interesting ride.
PORT DAY (COZUMEL): Imagination arrives in Cozumel at around noon local time and departs late, at 9pm local time. This limits some shore activities like the beach clubs, which close at 5 or 6. With showers in the area and temperatures below 80 my sister and I opted to go to Paradise Beach, since it's cheaper than somewhere like Chankanaab. By the time we disembarked (there was a long line) and escaped the Puerta Maya shops and took a taxi ($13 flat rate) the beach was fairly empty since Carnival Legend was the only other ship in port and she was leaving in a few hours. The staff there were great, since they outnumbered us, and we thought the $2 we paid for beach loungers and the $15 we spent on food was a decent trade. The food -- jalapeno poppers and 'Mexican' fries -- was actually quite good!
Snorkeling was poor, as I knew it would be. I'd brought my own snorkeling equipment so neither of us had to pay for a fun-pass (at $12).
Returned to the ship just after 6pm, so we couldn't make our assigned dinner time and ate in the Lido buffet instead, which was good. (By this point our stomachs needed a break from the excellent, but rich, fare in the MDR. :))
I had prearranged with Carnival's Bon Voyage Department to have my mom's stateroom decorated with 'Happy Anniversary' on Wed. night, since Thursday was their 10th wedding anniversary. I'd been told it would be done while they were at their scheduled 6pm dinner in the MDR, but my mom didn't mention it afterward. I checked with Guest Services and they confirmed it had been scheduled for Wednesday night and would be done in a bit. It turned out that they DID decorate the room while my mom was away, but her husband was asleep in the room while they decorated it. (!) I'm glad he didn't wake up, as things would have gotten...awkward.
I was also supposed to be receiving my ticket for the Behind the Fun tour that evening delivered to my stateroom, but it never showed up. I had to go to Guest Services to request one, and they cancelled the old one and rebooked it and handed it to me. Pretty odd, but it was resolved okay.
Later, I found the Lido pool and hot-tubs inexplicably closed before the scheduled time (midnight), but the Serenity hot-tubs were nice and warm and they didn't come by and close them until 12:45. Bonus! :)
FUN DAY AY SEA and Behind the Fun Tour: Thursday was our sea day, and I had to be in the ship's library by 8:45 for the Behind the Fun tour. There were ten of us, escorted by the ship's chief training officer, Debbie (I think), from South Africa. We went first to the galley for a presentation (and some free dessert) from the head chef, then down to the linen room, the laundry (huge washing machines), and then to "I-95," the corridor that runs all the way from bow to stern on Deck 3, where we saw the storerooms, the staff, officers' and crew messes, the training center, the garbage area (not as smelly as you might think), and then down the steep steps to Engineering Control where, to our tour guide's surprise, Chief Engineer Testa himself was present to show us the myriad displays and their meanings. It was a highlight of the tour and the entire cruise. From there we went to "Oasis" the crew lounge, backstage in the Dynasty Lounge, onto the forepeak (crew-only front of the ship), and then up to the bridge itself. By this time we were running almost 30 minutes late, but Captain Andrea Cavaliere was able to make time for us and for a group photo, which was later delivered to my stateroom by Debbie. Definitely a great tour!
This was the first day of truly smooth sailing we had had, and for the first time in the cruise the pool deck and hot-tubs and the Serenity area were all really full, but my sister and I were able to find two loungers on the deck above and we had an enjoyable relaxing afternoon, although it was quite windy still. I even rode the big twisting slide twice -- the wind had to be 35 knots up there, tallest part of the ship -- and we had more of the Mongolian barbecue, which was awesome again!
Dinner that night was good although for the first time I had to opt for something from the everyday menu. Others at our table had some minor complaints as well. Oh, well. Having seen firsthand how hectic the galley is, I can understand how challenging dinner preparations must be!
I had prearranged to have an anniversary cake for my mom brought to our table that night, but SHE had also arranged the same thing in secret for her husband. I had cancelled my request the day before, but a lady still came to our table to verify the cancellation, which probably muted the surprise. Still, both my birthday cake and the anniversary cake were great!
Back at our stateroom, another surprise awaited -- a dessert tray sent to me courtesy of the Behind the Fun tour, complete with strawberries decorated 'tuxedo' style with white and dark chocolate and some other desserts. Really nice surprise!
Spent the later part of the night on the Serenity deck, relaxing in the hot-tub and watching the ship's wake curl away in the moonlight. Moments like that are why we take cruises in the first place.
DISEMBARKATION: here I have to give the edge to Carnival and not RCCL. We opted to have our larger baggage taken out overnight, so we waited for our baggage number to be called. On this ship we could wait anywhere on Lido or Promenade decks, so we could get food and drinks (but not sodas or alcohol, as the bars were closed) and use the facilities. On RCCL we had been herded into one of the show lounges by zone number with less freedom of movement. Advantage: Carnival.
The actual disembark and the Customs lines weren't as bad as my prior cruise, but again, the ship had not sailed completely full so that might have been a factor.
Outside the pier, we waited for 45 minutes for the KSA shuttle bus to return us to the hotel (we had been promised 30 minutes max), and to everyone's horror, the driver was the same crazy guy as on the way out. We managed to avoid any crashes, though, and after dropping off some folks at the airport we were back at the hotel to pick up the car. Our fun vacation had come to an end.
All in all, I had fun.
I was surprised at a few things: no strolling musicians performing in the MDR, and no live 'island/party' theme band performing on the pool-deck, as there was on my previous cruise; the ship's design seemed more old-fashioned than even Majesty of the Seas despite being built 4 years later (but kudos for the Serenity area, which was great)....
Of course I plan to cruise again, and wouldn't be averse to sailing CCL, but maybe not with this itinerary.