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The Imagination: A Moveable Feast

February 16, 2009
By PHYLLIS R. SiGAL Design Editor

As we board the tram to take us to our gate at the Pittsburgh International Airport, we meet a talkative couple - they tell us they are on their way to San Diego for a 15-day Hawaiian cruise - their 42nd cruise.

And, we, I tell them, are taking our maiden voyage on a cruise ship.

"The first one is always the best," she says.

Article Photos

Heaven ... pure heaven.


"Because you have nothing to compare it with."

After 42 cruises, "you start complaining about things," they said.

I wish I had more time to talk, to pump them for information and cruise tips, what they liked, what brought them back 42 times.

But we head in opposite directions, and before we know it, we're boarding our plane in Miami.

It was an easy trip. The actual boarding process was painless.

Soon we're on the Lido Deck; lunch is ready, our room is not.

We inspect the food lines, and settle on one to try. And a fancy drink.

My cruise planner, Bill Bryson from Uniglobe Ohio Valley Travel, warns me the fancy drinks they offer as you arrive on board are not free. A good tip to keep in mind. But nonetheless, I feel the urge to try at least one ... Today's special is the Carnival Fun Drink. And what better time than on this sunny, hot afternoon, when I have nothing to do but to enjoy the day.

I'm ready to trade my black jeans in for some cooler capris.

I sip my pretty, fruity drinks, kick off my shoes and lean back, my face to the sun.

A couple of hours in - so far, so good. So very good.

We check out our room to see if it's ready, and I'm still carrying my fancy drink in its Carnival cup, when we hear the orders for the mandatory drill. And they do mean mandatory. No drinking. No cell phones. No smoking. No eating.

All 2,000 and some of us are ordered to our staterooms to retrieve our life jackets. A steward tells us to which deck to report. They mean business before the Carnival Cruise ship "Imagination" really becomes a "fun ship!"

We listen to how to put on life vest and where we must be in order to get on a lifeboat - in the event of an emergency.

So, that's over, and we're ready for some fun! The ship begins to move, and we're off, leaving Miami in the dust as we head out to sea.

I'm lying on the deck, sipping my wine spritzer now, and a voice booms from the loudspeaker: "You are officially on vacation."

Like he had to tell me!

I'm watching Miami slip away, smaller and smaller it's becoming. It's almost as if the "real world" is melting away right before my eyes as the land disappears from view.

We decide to take a tour of the ship, just to get our bearings. And because I have no sense of direction, I am happy the ship is well-marked. I did not get lost ... well, not much.

We see the Dream Bar, the casino, the sushi bar, the Dynasty Lounge, the Serenity Deck (no kids!), the gift shop, the library, the spa, the Promenade, the pool, the exercise room, the two dining rooms ... it's a big ship, for sure!

Meals, of course, are an important part of any cruise - any vacation, for that matter. I was a bit apprehensive about mealtime, having to sit with a table of strangers every night.

But that turned out to be one of the most fun parts of the day. We had a great group of dinner companions. We all agreed we were lucky - we could've gotten stuck with worse!

Breakfast could be taken at the buffets or in one of the dining rooms. We tried the dining room one morning, but decided the buffet was better.

It really is quite easy to eat healthy at breakfast; there are lots of fruits, yogurts and eggs from which to choose. There also are pancakes, waffles and pastries that I tried to avoid.

Lunch was good, as well. I enjoyed the pizza and there was a deli with delicious grilled sandwiches, bagels and wraps.

Each day, one of the buffets had a "Taste of Nations" theme - French, Italian, Caribbean, All-American were the choices during our cruise.

At dinner, there were many choices. And each evening's menu included a spa selection - lower calories, lower fat. Or if you wanted, you could have two appetizers and two entrees. How often does a waiter ask, "Does anyone want a second lobster tail?"

The "Captain's Party" preceded dinner one night. Waitresses offered cocktails - manhattans, daiquiris, martinis, whiskey sours, wine - and appetizers. "Funship Freddy"- the ship's mascot - and the captain joined the party.

Captain Andrea Viacava introduced all the senior officers and personnel, noting that they were from a myriad of countries around the world.

"We try to make this the best vacation you've ever had," he told us.

Then Karl ("Karl With a K" as he was known), cruise director, was introduced. He told us that the captain is the "world's No. 1 designated driver."

Cheers to that!

He also mentioned that 50 countries were represented by the staff members.

About 900 staff members take care of the 2,200 guests.

Karl With a K was everywhere throughout the week, leading fun and games.

There were bingo (the prize was a free cruise!), towel-folding classes, limbo, dance classes, concerts, exercise and yoga classes, a golf clinic, Blackjack tournaments ...

Every day we received the Carnival Capers, our "daily guide to FUN," in which the day's activities were set forth. You could be busy from 6 a.m. when the gym opens until ... well ... 6 a.m. when the gym opens again!

There are parties and music and sing-alongs until the wee hours of the morning and the video arcade is open 24 hours a day.

We were docked at ports for parts of two of our days. We stopped at Key West, Fla., from 7:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. on our second day at sea. It was a beautiful spot, one worth returning to. We walked around the town - just long enough to fall in love with it! - and spent a couple of hours touring the Ernest Hemingway home. (More to come about that in a future Key West travel article.)

We docked at Cozumel, Mexico, from 1 until 10 p.m.the next day. There, we had a glass-bottom boat/snorkeling excursion booked, but we canceled due to the pouring rain and overcast day.

Prior to each port day, Diana Gawel, our destination shopping specialist, told us the best spots to shop when we departed the ship. In fact, she even hung out at some of the shopping spots in Cozumel and in Key West, offering specials at many of the shops.

Carnival offers shore excursions that can be booked onboard.

Some of the offerings include pub crawls, kayak tours, scuba diving, snorkeling, shopping, deep sea fishing, a tour of the Mayan ruins, a swim with dolphins, cooking and tasting classes and horseback riding, to name a few.

A cruise can just about be whatever you want it to be. It can be a relaxing vacation - if you just want to sit on the deck with a drink and visit the spa for an afternoon facial or massage.

It can be a social vacation, if you participate in the fun and games led by the cruise director.

It can be full of entertainment if you take in the shows each evening.

It can be a gambling trip if you want to spend hours in the casino.

It can be a shopping vacation; there are plenty of on-board places to shop as well as at the ports-of-call.

Of course, it can be a sport vacation, too, with visits to the gym, the miniature golf course, running track and swimming pool, along with the horseback riding, snorkeling, scuba and golf excursions.

It can be a family vacation where kids can have a ball. Camp Carnival, Circle C and Club O2 are geared to various age groups and give Mom and Dad some couple time.

These are all - well, some! - of the offerings of our Carnival Cruise.

Some cruise lines cater to gourmet dining, private decks, luxury accommodations or romantic experiences.

Norwegian Cruise Lines tout their "freestyle cruising," where you can eat whenever and wherever you like. Royal Carribbean features rock-climbing walls and onboard surfing.

Disney Cruises cater to families.

Carnival's catch phrase is "fun," and they certainly do that well!

The key to choosing the right cruise for you is to research what each line offers. Your travel agent will be able to help.

I may not be planning 42 cruises in my lifetime, but I certainly am glad I took my first one.

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