Getaway: Caribbean cruise escape

Jessica Scarpati

Who's a better kisser: Debbie or Freckles?

Frankly, it doesn't matter. With 25 stingrays swirling around a shallow beach off Grand Turk - playfully darting between your legs or brushing up against you like cats - there's plenty of love to go around.

"She's just a big portabella mushroom," coos tour guide Roger Cunningham to "Debbie," a 3-foot-wide Southern Atlantic stingray that he kisses with his lips and cradles in his arms.

It's moments like these that will make you thankful you ditched the beer buckets and got off your five-day cruise on the Carnival Imagination at the ports of call - Grand Turk, Half Moon Cay and Nassau, Bahamas - to go exploring.

If you want to do more than bake in the sun, the excursions ($71 per person for the "Reefs & Rays” outing) afford the chance to literally and figuratively dive in.

Happy sharks and hairy chests

The Grand Turk rays have come to associate the sound of the boat with food. The same thing happens in the snorkeling site in Round Cay reef, where Cunningham take groups to see barracudas and sharks.

He says "Harry," the 3-foot barracuda, and "Shaun," the 6-foot shark, remain happy and docile by being fed regularly. Although it seems to be working, marine life experts might argue these practices could cause the fish to attack people.

If you have any leanings toward ecotourism, the expedition may not sit well with you. Then again, the vibe among passengers on the 2,052-passenger ship, which leaves from Miami, doesn't exactly scream "political correctness."

Instead, you may wander onto the pool deck and right into the hairiest-chest contest, in which half-naked men compete - for better or worse - right next to the buffet line.

The Carnival Imagination is smaller and older than most other ships in the Carnival fleet, so you won't find a movie theater or an upscale steakhouse, as on the newer vessels. But the recently refurbished Imagination seems to attract a crowd diverse in age and more interested in things like sunning, snoozing and boozing.

Exploring the Bahamas

Although they call it a “Fun ship,” the real fun for me was onshore.

The second port after Grand Turk is Half Moon Cay, operated by sister line Holland America.

Here you can try parasailing ($87 per person), which is the kind of activity that sounds like a better idea while on dry land, but in the end is worth the breathtaking view and peaceful hush 450 feet above the sea.

When you're all adventured-out, Carnival throws a fun, complimentary party and barbecue on the beach. Frozen drinks are never far away (for a fee), and there is plenty of snorkel gear, paddle boats and kayaks to rent.

In Nassau, Bahamas, my companion and I went off on our own and learned no one there can tell you the exact address for anything.

As you stroll past all the duty-free alcohol, perfume and jewelry stores on the main drag, Bay Street, it's easy to miss the Pompey Museum (Adults, $3; seniors over 60, $2; children under 14, $1). Most people will describe it as "next to the Straw Market." Even the curator couldn't read the weathered numbers outside; the cross street is George Street.

But it's well worth a visit. The former slave market rotates exhibits, usually highlighting the impact of colonialism and slave trade on the Caribbean. It's a wake-up call from the scene outside - a community that is both dependent on and clearly tired of tourism.

In the famous Straw Market at the end of Bay Street, a man hacked at a piece of woodcarving. An American woman asked brightly, "What are you making?" He kept swinging the ax and replied flatly, "Money."

We eyed the authentic-looking Caribbean food many of the merchants were eating and inquired where they got it. We were directed to "Da Junkanoo Shak" (again, no address given - "Make a left at the Gucci bags" - but it's at the corner of Bay Street and Navy Lyn Road, an unmarked side street adjacent to Woodes Rogers Walk).

Everything on the menu is vague, such as "chicken snack" or "pork dinner." We took the waitress' recommendation and each ordered a delicious conch burger for $5.50.

Back on the ship later, I savored my final four-course dinner - the Carnival food is surprisingly good. But pushing a portabella mushroom around my plate, I couldn't help thinking dreamily about Debbie, the stingray.

`Evolutions of Fun' overhaul

The Imagination - a 13-year-old ship - is one of the first two Carnival "Fun" ships to be refurbished as part of line's Evolutions of Fun relaunch.

Many of the changes will be noticeable to dedicated Carnival cruisers, including remodeled rooms, wider hallways, reupholstered furniture and low-energy LED lighting.

The Imagination has added 50 new adjoining cabins for families, said Hotel Director Miles Willis. Willis said another change guests will notice is all guestrooms now have flat-screen TVs and bathrobes.

Many changes come in an attempt to make the old ship new again: bowl sinks, wireless Internet and a new sound system. But the glaring fluorescent colors and Art Deco designs still scream 1995.

Some of the things you can do on the ship have also changed.

A 300-foot-long water slide, dual-racing slides and water sprays replaced a pool and hot tubs.

If you want to get wet without getting wild, the Imagination also added an adults-only hot tub area (appropriately dubbed "Serenity").

Long gone is the topless sunbathing deck; in its place is a miniature golf course.

Inside, the ship's rebuilt spa, new exercise equipment in the gym is good for working off the midnight Mexican buffet or the infamous chocolate melting cake served at dinner every night.

The kids are all taken care of with Camp Carnival for tots, Club O2 for teens and the new Circle C program for "tweens," ages 12-14.

Other features on the ship remain, such as the free sushi bar and late-night poolside parties, casino, dance clubs and comedy shows.

Pay extra and you'll have access to the espresso cafe, yoga classes and airbrush temporary tattooing poolside.


Rates for five-day eastern Caribbean cruises on Carnival Imagination start at $479 per person. The Imagination also does four-day western Caribbean itineraries visiting Key West and Cozumel, Mexico, priced from $349. Beginning Sept. 22, the ship will begin offering three- and four-day cruises from Miami, priced from $219 and $349, respectively. The three-day cruises overnight in Nassau; the four-day cruises visit Cozumel and Key West. (The eastern Caribbean route is being taken over by the Carnival Destiny.)

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