In the interest of avoiding hassle, we allowed Carnival to arrange flights for us. Now that I have gone through the experience, there was no reason to do this, and we could have pursued cheaper flights on our own easily. Everything through picking up your luggage is just like any other flight. After retrieving the luggage, you have to seek out the Carnival representative in the area.
We inadvertently located the Carnival area before we found our luggage, so we knew roughly where to go. We attempted to walk up to the uniformed gentleman to ask what to do, and we were curtly told to go to the end of the line. We both glanced around, and aside from a few people milling around, did not see anything that would constitute a line. We attempted to get clarification, and were repeatedly and I would say rudely told to go to the end of the line. We tried to explain that we would be happy to go to the end of the line, if we knew where the line was, but he wouldn't really let us speak to him. So we moved in the general direction he was pointing, and found a place to rest against a wall. He quit telling us to go to the end of the line at that point, so we assumed we were in the right place. Eventually additional attendants came along and organized people into two lines, because there were two different ships involved. After maybe 20 minutes of waiting, they started taking batches of people out to the busses. We wound up just missing the previous batch, so were first in line for the next batch. This turned out to be a good thing, because apparently we did not have the proper paperwork out and handy. So Mr. Happy was quite joyful in helping us to get our affairs in order. Is it really so hard to put fluent English speakers in jobs that require dealing with people? At last we were able to board the bus.
Tip: Do not sit at the back of the bus. Once we got moving, horrible smells just wafted over us. Other passengers around us noticed it as well, and speculated it was from the bathroom. Seems a reasonable explanation to me, but it was horrible, whatever it was.
We were not off to a very good start, and hadn't yet reached the point we had been warned about: the line to board the ship. The bus trip was another 20 smelly minutes or so through Miami. Upon reaching our destination, the bus driver - another skilled English speaker - said something that we didn't catch and got off the bus, closing the door behind him. We eventually figure out that he's pulling the luggage out of the storage compartments. When he was done, he opened the door and let us off. I don't know how his little routine gets started, but by the time we got off he was just standing there with a handful of cash. I put Teri in charge of tipping. I figure there were 50+ people on the bus, and I think it is safe to assume that everyone gave him at least $1. Not a bad bit of income for about a half hour's work.
I went to reach for one of our bags, and was directed to go to the sidewalk without it. Uh, ok... Once we were all gathered on the sidewalk, a gentleman introduced himself as our porter, and explained how the process of getting luggage onto the ship worked. He then turned us loose to retrieve our bags from the bus offload area, and then bring them to him. This was, of course, a calm and orderly process. Eventually we got our luggage tagged, left them with the porter (don't forget the tip!), and we walked towards the, uh, I guess terminal might be the right word.
The first thing to do inside the terminal is go through security. This was a lengthy line, although it moved reasonably quickly. After reading the signs about putting electronics into bags, I left my laptop carefully tucked away. After going through the scanner, the security agent asked if I had a laptop, and informed me it would need to be sent through separately. Great signs, guys!
After passing through security, we enter an area not unlike the counters at an airport. A large multi-windowed wall allowed us our first good glimpse at the ship: the Carnival Imagination. We were handed a ticket with a number, and told this would be our boarding group. An announcement indicated the current boarding group, and it was only a couple numbers ahead of ours, so we would not have to wait too long. We got in line to speak to a counter attendant about our sail and sign cards (basically, on-ship credit cards and door keys). We were informed that although boarding had begun, we could not go into our cabins until about 1:30 (it was currently around noon), however lunch was being served on the lido deck. As we were speaking to the attendant, our boarding group was called. There was a lengthy line waiting to board the ship, and it wasn't really moving, so we decided to just sit in the waiting area for a while. We only had to wait for about 20 minutes or so until the line had dwindled enough.
After taking an escalator up to the boarding level, we were presented with our first of what would turn out to be many photo opportunities. I'll talk more about pictures later, but this is a real racket. So we posed for our picture, and then got in line. It wasn't until we got off the ship at the end of the trip that we realized we forgot all about this particular picture.
Once on board, we had about an hour to kill before we could go to our cabins. Teri wanted to wander the ship, but since we both had backpacks I was in favor of getting lunch so we could sit down. We wandered up to the lido deck, and went to the first food line we saw. This would turn out to be the longest we would wait in line for food the entire trip. Burgers and hot dogs, nothing fancy, then we wandered around trying to find seating.
The lunch plan worked well, as by the time we were done eating we could go to our cabin. Upon reaching the cabin, we were a little taken aback by how small the room was. We weren't really expecting much anyway, but this was really small. The comedian on the trip would later joke that we didn't realize that the photos in the brochure were actual size.
We still had a couple hours before the ship would set sail, and there was a mandatory meeting shortly before that, so we had some time to kill. This we did by wandering around the ship for a bit.
The mandatory meeting had to do with reviewing the safety procedures in the event of emergency. Teri and I both were expecting to be shown how to get to the escape boats. Mostly it turned out to be instructions on how to put on our life jackets, and they never took us to the boats.
We did some more ship wandering. The highest deck had a running track and mini golf.
And a good view of the pool/lido deck.
I wanted to see how we would get underway, so we found a nice spot on the lido deck to watch. There were ships in front of and behind us when we got on board, so I was expecting a semi-complicated process. There were dock workers waiting to release the ropes holding us in place, and they kept waiting and waiting. They were paying a lot of attention to the ship behind us, and I noticed that we were sharing a mount point, and their ropes were above ours. I assumed this meant the other ship would have to leave first, or at least retract those particular ropes. That ship did eventually sail off first, but then we kept waiting and waiting. There were supplies still being forklifted onto the ship, but they finished up and we still weren't going anywhere. Finally an announcement was made that we were being delayed because a guest on board was having medical issues, and an ambulance had been summoned. It must not have been too much of an emergency, because the ambulance took for.ev.er to arrive.
Eventually the person was offloaded, the ropes were released, and we set off.
This was my first real surprise of the trip. In my head, big ships like this need tugboats to do anything when they aren't out on the open sea. Well, turns out that technology has rolled along just fine, and big ships are equipped with side thrusters. So once the ropes were all free and retracted, we just scooted sideways to get away from the dock.
And then we started moving... in the wrong direction. I didn't realize it at first, but we were pointed in the opposite direction that the other two ships were, so we were leaving in the opposite direction that they left. We moved along the dock a short ways, then came to a stop in a little harbor-like area. Then the thrusters fired up again and we started turning. Basically these ships have zero-turn-radius capabilities, and we were effectively turning around in a cul-de-sac. I was on the wrong side of the ship to see it, but there was a second exit out of the cul-de-sac, so once we were properly lined up, we headed out.
We putted along next to a highway for a little while, heading out to open sea. I'd say there is a little bit of money in Miami. Between the houses, personal boats, and cars zooming along the highway... yeah, just a couple of dollars floating around down there. We passed a ferry carrying several cars, pretty much all of which were very expensive. That's a Rolls Royce in the front.
We stayed on outer decks for a while to watch as we left Miami and headed for open sea.
I really enjoyed sitting and watching the water, and for a little while we saw some other ships. This looks like some kind of cargo ship or something.
And it took us a little while, but we managed to chase down another cruise ship. I believe this is a Norwegian Cruise ship.
There was just enough daylight left to catch this picture of Miami. Again, this is an iPhone taking the picture, and I'm really pleased with how well this turned out.
We had signed up to do the late dinner which sat at 8:15. We did this with the expectation that our shore excursions would last most of the day, so we'd be hard pressed to get the regular seating. Turns out this would not have been an issue. The ship always set off by around 5:00.
Carnival does assigned seating, and this was one aspect that our friends warned us about as being negative. If you don't like the people you are assigned to share a table with, you are stuck with them for the entire week. Well, I guess that's not technically true; we could always skip the formal dinner and go hit the 24-hour food bar. It turned out pretty well for us, as we got along well with everyone at our table. Out of 5 couples, 3 were from Ohio. Not sure if that was deliberate or not. Our head waiter was awesome. He had our names all memorized by the end of the first night, and remembered them all week, even though we sat in different seats. Dinner was decent each night. Appetizer, main course, and dessert. On most nights, dinner took nearly two hours, but it never felt that long.
After dinner, there was a "welcome aboard" show held in the lounge.
We were introduced to the cruise director ("George before 5:00 PM, Jorge after 5"), enjoyed a bit of a song and dance routine, and also the family-friendly version of the comedian's show (the adult version was the next night, but we didn't make it).
After the show, we settled in for our first night at sea.