Thursday, May 25, 2006

On the high seas, part 1

It's, uh, Thursday, and we're in between ports and the Babe is upstairs sleeping in the shade, so I have a chance in our hurly-burly social schedule to update this. Also, note that there are a couple hundred pictures to catalog and display, but doing this at 42K is an unbelievable pain, so I'm going to just add a few links for some notable pictures and then an overall link to the Caribbean Cruise Pictures group of my area where I keep the pictures and figure I'll get back to them when I'm back on land and have a cable modem to play with again.

We boarded the ship. The ship, Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas, is beautiful and I kept going "Wow!" Our stateroom (one of the promenade view staterooms) is on deck 8 and not bad at all. (Check out the virtual tour on the stateroom virtual tours page.) The promenade is the main drag, apparently modeled after the Grande Promenade in Milan. It's about 3 stories tall starting on deck 5 (where the shops are as well as a number of cafes and bars).

Much of getting settled was unpacking, which does take cooperation in a space that's 167 square feet, but we got that taken care of without too much biting and snarling. The room is really comfortable and very attractive. I've had a lot of hotel rooms I liked less, honestly. We got finished at about 3:30 and we had an hour before the mandatory lifeboat drill, so we went over to Steve and Andy's stateroom for a little bit.

We'd gotten a decoration and gift package for Steve and Andy's stateroom, so they had streamers and hanging paper ornaments, and champagne and chocolate strawberries for their anniversary (which is actually in June, but what the heck?). It looked good. Andy's sister Darris and their mother, Elaine, stopped in and we hung out. At one point, the Babe told me to go get the life jackets (laid out on the beds in each stateroom) and to read the sign on the back of our door to find out which lifeboat station we were at. I ducked around the corner and down the hall to our room, grabbed the life jackets, saw that we're at B13, and headed back. When I got there, the Babe asked which deck we were on and which side of the ship. I wasn't quite sure and said that she'd asked me to find out which lifeboat station, not where we were and, basically, the rest of the poster. In the middle of all this, the lifeboat procedure video on the TV suddenly showed the poster from our room or one like it that showed we were at B13 on Deck 4 and even showed the map of the ship with our station highlighted. Andy and the Babe goggled at this and I said "You see? I can make all this happen; you've just got to give me a moment."

Lifeboat drill was fine, but it was bloody hot. We were standing outside on a hot Miami day wearing huge foam block life jackets. There were perhaps 150 people in each group and they had us lined up in rows of 8 and packed tightly together, so there was even more heat. Urgh! At least we were in the shade, but it was still close to steaming. Fortunately, the drill only took about 20 minutes and we were dismissed.

The ship debarked at 5:00pm. Much to my disappointment, there was no blowing of the ship's horn. (The Babe says that, on the Carnival cruise she took about 8 years ago, they were followed by a Disney cruise ship into every port and the blowing of the Disney ship's horn--which played the notes for "When You Wish Upon a Star"--got old pretty quickly.) In fact, I've not heard the ship's horn blow once yet this trip, now that I think of it. Well, maybe it'll tell us that it's all ashore that's going ashore when we dock in Miami.

Without the horn and without confetti and streamers, pulling away from the dock was an anticlimax. I have a bunch of photos of the docks in Miami and downtown Miami as we pulled past. I even got to see the one, the only Miami beach, which was a pleasure for the seeing of it.

Most of our luggage showed up within a couple hours of us getting on board and the last piece was there by 7:30 that evening as promised. (But Tuesday evening, we got on an elevator and a porter was pushing a large baggage cart with four suitcases on it; apparently, someone was only getting their luggage three days after we sailed. I'd be seriously frosted about that.)

We changed into something a little more casual and wandered around the ship to get acquainted with it. We were signed up for late dining (8:30pm) with Steve and Andy and Darris and Elaine. The food was exceptional, which is one of the hallmarks of most cruises and certainly of Royal Caribbean. "More" is never a problem, either. You want two entrees? Have two entrees! It's disturbingly easy to put on weight. Breakfast and lunch are on a "whatever you want, whenever you want" basis, too. Buffets and cafes are all over the ship, at least one of which is open 24 hours a day in case you get peckish at 3:30am.

The tables in the formal dining areas are for eight people. With but six of us in our group, there was room for two more, who turned out to be Don and Susan, a very fun couple from Edmonton. They were on ship with a bunch of other people for a wedding. This turned out to be the third wedding on ship that we were aware of. Chatting with Don and Susan, it turned out they were very fond of Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie and had even seen them recently. They weren't familiar with the Arrogant Worms, though, and we told them about the Worms and how much fun they are. After dinner, we went to a revue of selections from half a dozen Broadway musicals that was pretty good.

Our first full day was an "at-sea" day, as we steamed towards Puerto Rico. We hadn't signed up for the tours we wanted online, so we needed to nail them down as soon as we got on board ship and the excursions and guest relations office had opened up. We stood in line with a lot of other people who'd probably not done this, either. While we were there, we chatted with the guy next to us, who's been on a number of cruises. He spoke highly of Royal Caribbean, poorly of Carnival (the Babe's experience, too), and also well of Norwegian Cruise Lines. He asked where we were and we told him that we had a promenade stateroom. He laughed and told us that there was a parade down the promenade on the first night of the cruise and that a friend of his had just stepped out of the shower only to discover someone in the parade on stilts walking by the open window. It's admittedly not something I'd normally think of as a problem on a second- or third-story window. Fortunately, there are really good privacy curtains as well as the normal sheers.

We did a lot of exploring on the ship. We were enjoying the d├ęcor of the ship and the staff was incredibly friendly and very helpful. (I kept saying "Wow!" periodically at the art, at the facilities, at everything.) There are a number of swimming pools, whirlpools, hot tubs, and sunning areas. It is very easy to get a really good sunburn, by the way. (I mention this purely for informational purposes.)

While we were up in a very strong hot tub/whirlpool, I leaned over to the Babe and said "You know, there are certainly a number of plump women here, which I approve of after all, but it's amazing the number of men who are much larger and qualify as 'land mammals'." I then pointed at a couple of men who'd just heaved into view and said "I'm bringing this up because there are a couple over there who are in the 'Heffalump' class." The Babe smiled and said "If they come over here, we're getting out." Sure enough, both gentleman--and a much smaller woman--headed directly towards the whirlpool we were in. We exited before they got in and sunned for a while. Mind you, it's not that they're big… it's the back hair that really does it. shudder

We both had pina coladas and listened to the band playing calypso and things like that. There was dance instruction by the band leader and there were several ship members, on stilts no less, dancing along to show people how it's done. Later that evening, a shower and a shave were in order to prepare for the Captain's Gala, a formal event that we dressed up for (and one of the things I'd brought the tuxedo in anticipation of). It was really grand seeing so many people in tuxedos and finery mingling on the promenade. A jazz combo was playing and there were a couple of good jazz singers with them.

Other miscellaneous highlights to mention:
  • Napping in the afternoons is a biggie. It's been almost a requirement, really, given that I've been staying up late and getting up relatively early.
  • Alcohol is a working part of the cruises. I could be drinking a whole lot more than I am… and it's tempting to have more pina coladas and peach daiquiris, I'll tell yuh!
  • It's impossible to do everything that's available, so I've had to relax about the idea that "Oh, well, I'm going to spend a few quiet hours here at the computer catching up with email or writing blog entries or whatever"
  • The cruise director is a crazy Brit named Graham Seymour. He does a morning show on the in-ship TV station that's a hoot. He also has been the emcee of most of the entertainment and has done stand-up comedy shows on a couple occasions. His late-night comedy show (which we caught the night before docking in Puerto Rico) was very funny. Looking him up online, it appears that he's been in the cruise business for some time: I spotted reviews of him from about 5 years ago on one of Princess line ships (and getting good reviews there, too). His morning show seems to be a trademark. Everyone seems to speak of him in superlatives, to which I'd like to add my endorsement. The boy's a hoot.

Our first stop was in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We did a bus tour rather than a walking tour, for which we were both glad: it was very hot and humid and neither of us were happy with San Juan. The whole place looked incredibly squalid and we both had the feeling of "If this is an American protectorate, we should be doing a better job down here." Our bus driver drove us around a good deal of the city and was pointing out hotels and resorts, none of which looked (a) attractive, (b) interesting, or (c) appealing as a vacation locale. I was thinking that if I wanted to see a million and a half people living in squalor, I could go to the Lower East Side or parts of Los Angeles. Even the good parts of San Juan looked crappy.

The big thing on the tour was a stop at Fort San Cristobal. It's run by the National Park Service, but there was very little there to tell us about the fort, although there were one or two exhibits of some of the people involved in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and a few very interesting political cartoons that showed that a lot of people felt that the US was busy being imperial back then, which it was, of course. We bullied the Spanish until they gave us a bunch of property like Puerto Rico and the Phillipines, neither of which seemed particularly pleased by the prospect. There are some good and history available at the Photos of Puerto Rico web site. I also found some photos on Yahoo of the fort. (And yes, there are some photos in the the Caribbean Cruise Pictures group of my area. They'll be cataloged soon, honest!)

We could've stayed in the shopping district of San Juan and walked back to the ship, but we both felt really uncomfortable and couldn't think of anything we wanted to buy, so we stayed on the bus and went back to the ship directly. After another delightful dinner, we went to the show of another comedian. He had a very different style from Graham Seymour's, but he was also very funny (sorry, don't recall the name). He interacted heavily with the audience and finished his show by picking up a guitar and singing a wholly improvised song about the things he'd been doing and saying with the audience members. Good stuff.

The following day we docked at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Now this was more to our liking! The place was much cleaner and prettier. A lot of this is the lack of population pressure: where Puerto Rico has 3.5 million people (with 1.5 million in San Juan alone), St. Thomas has but 56,000 people. Even though it's a much smaller island, the lack of population pressure makes a huge difference.

The most famous feature of St. Thomas is Blackbeard's castle... which we didn't choose to see. We caught a bus to an open air market in the morning and had had hopes of doing an island tour, but it turned out that we were the only ones who wanted to do a tour and, while we could have done a tour on our own, it would have cost us a great deal more. Nope, we said, we'll look at the market and then walk back to the ship. I noticed with some amusement that there were a great many dope pipes--chillums and so on--for sale in the market. I didn't buy one, having no need for one and Her Honor would've probably brained me if I'd even made a move to buy one in any case. We did find a St. Thomas collector spoon for Susan the Wonder Child's spoon collection.

The walk back was about two miles. It was pretty darned hot, too. (Note: Okay, okay, so I know it's the Caribbean and I should be expecting snow 'r nuthin'; it's just that I'm not used to lots of sunlight and "hot" is a relatively new thing to me in my recent life experience. As I'm fond of saying, "If I wanted sun and heat, I'd 've stayed in Tucson.")

About a quarter mile from the ship, we'd spied a funicular tram and, while I'd been loath to try this being no fan of heights, I told the Babe that I'd give it a whirl for her sake. She was very pleased about this and we bought tickets and waited for the next tram to appear. We got on and road up. I did okay by not looking straight down, but rather straight ahead, so the trees and ground looked like they were at my height. I also looked at the view as we rode up, which, being the harbors and hills of St. Thomas, was about as pretty as you could imagine. (Go see the Caribbean Cruise Pictures group now; I got a lot of shots, trying for panoramic views I could assemble.)

We chatted with the other couple in the tram, who were on a Carnival cruise they'd gotten for free and they also said dubious things about Carnival cruises. It was all kind of backhanded praise and they felt that it was worth at least what they'd paid for it, but they just felt that the quality of people and the service on Royal Caribbean and Norwegian were better.

The top of the mountain was about 20 degrees cooler than the foot of the hill (oh, effing hurrah!) and there was a lovely breeze. Okay, I can't post a blog this long without having at least one picture of us, so here's the first (there will be another, as you'll see later):

Down a set of short flight of stairs, there were a few shops and a restaurant and an outdoor bar that had four or five of those big machines for making Slushies, except that they each had high-test frozen drinks in them: margaritas, daiquiris, and a local invention of the restaurant called a "Bushwacker." It looked awfully good, rather brown and creamy, but it actually was deadly: one ounce each of rum, vodka, Bailey's Irish Cream, Kahlua, Amaretto, and coconut milk, blended with enough ice to make a slushy drink. Garnished with a heavy dash of nutmeg, whipped cream, and a cherry, they'll go down like chocolate milkshakes on a hot day... and so will you with the that much alcohol. They sound incredibly tasty but we both wanted to be able to move at some point later that day and skipped them in favor of something non-alcoholic.

While we were there admiring the view, we struck up a conversation with the folks at the table next to us, who turned out to be from the Maple Valley (a suburb about 15-20 miles from Seattle). It turns out that they'd read the original Washington Trivia book and remembered it. Hot damn! We chatted bits of trivia for a few minutes.

We came back down the mountain on the tram and returned to the ship to change. The big event was up for the afternoon: helmet diving. This is where you wear a rather heavy (75 pound) helmet that then is connected to an air hose on the surface that keeps the helmet full of air. This was done at Coral World Ocean Park. We were bused out to the park, which actually has a number of different attractions. We were in the second group scheduled to go down, so we had about an hour to wander around. We first went to a very good aquarium that showed off a lot of the local marine life, including the biggest lobsters I've ever seen (perhaps 15 pounds or so).

Years ago, I'd read about the Puritans starving because they couldn't get anything from the land and there were no crops to harvest while 30-pound lobsters were washing up on the shore nearby. The Puritans thought they were some kind of insect. My thought at the time had been "Stupid gawdam Puritans!" but having seen lobsters half that size now, I'm willing to revise my opinion somewhat to "Stupid gawdam Puritans who knew 30-pound armor-plated bugs when they b'God saw 'em!"

There were signs around saying "Please don't feed the iguanas," and sure enough, there were literally pilesof iguanas here and there. They're kind of interesting but they're not animals you'd confuse with the concept of "cuddly."

There were green sea turtles (a heavily endangered species) in a pool near the shore. There was also a duck pond with some of the local waterfowl, including a white whistling duck native to those parts. The same enclosure had red turtles, which had been brought to the area many centuries ago by the native populations (now extinct) from South America as a food source. The Babe said "I don't see them." After a moment, I pointed out a pile of turtles, looking like large rocks, asleep near the back of the pond area, two and three deep. They're quite large, about a foot and a half long.

The most exciting display had to be the shark pool. There was a large open pool that had half a dozen nurse sharks about two feet long. The guides talked about sharks for about 10 minutes. During the talk, one of the guides was dropping chunks of fish into the pond. When they went into the water and sank, the sharks would circle the food for a moment until one of them ate it, no big deal. But there were a couple of sharks who new right where the food was coming from and had their noses pressed up to the edge of the pool. When the guide dropped a piece of fish next to them, there was a really loud "CLOP!" noise and you wouldn't have seen the shark move but the piece of fish would be gone. (Hint for the observant: Do not screw with sharks, even small ones.)

They drove this point home rather neatly by pointing out during this demonstration of how sharks operate by saying that this particular kind of shark (and remember, these were only 2 feet long) has its mouth way down below and tends to be rather quiescent, so divers would think that they're docile and pick them up by the tail and even wave them in the water a little. And the sharks, not surprisingly, would take exception to this and turn around and try to take the diver's wrist off, with varying degrees of success. And all the while they were saying this, there'd be this periodic "CLOP!" and there'd be one less piece of fish. Point made.

After all of this, they said "Okay, we're going to let you touch a shark," and the guide who'd been doing the feeding got a 2-month old shark that was about 18" long from the pool and held it carefully and firmly and told us to touch the shark near the tail. The first guy to do this was quite surprised when the shark suddenly thrashed around and tried to bite him. The rest of us laughed nervously. I know what shark skin feels like (rough, in a very interesting way), but I'd certainly never felt it on a live shark before. It was pretty neat and I jumped when the shark thrashed when I touched it, too.

We'd killed most of the time prior to our safety briefing and dive, so we headed out to the dome. Our guide briefed us on safety and hand signals and we got dive shoes and gloves on and headed down.

I volunteered to go first. I stepped down the ladder until my shoulders were in the water and they put the helmet on my head. It was heavy, which I expected, and I felt claustrophobic, which I did not expect! I was having trouble adjusting to this as I went down and I was worried that I'd not be able to go through with it but I kept pushing myself and finally got used to it, although it took me a little effort. But once I forced myself to relax, it was okay and I stopped worrying about it. I was also digging the ability to look around underwater, which I'd never done before.

The Babe was next down and we had fun mouthing "I love you" at each other and laughing in excitement at what we were seeing. It was very cool being down there. One of the things we both noticed right away was that the helmets, which have bends in the plastic faceplates, are hard to see out of. The air-to-water refraction caused depth perception problems, so when we reached toward the chain set up on posts as a hand rail, we'd miss it.

The rest of the party assembled and the guide directed us to move forward. There were all kinds of fish around us, silver fish with yellow stripes about 9" long and large metallicly-silver fish about 18-24" long with big eyes that, frankly, looked like really good eating. Every so often, there were incredible iridescent blue-and-rainbow fish that I found out were parrotfish of various sizes up to 2' long. We moved forward along the chain, looking at mosses and corals and many other smaller fish of all kinds.

We stopped after about 40 feet along the chain (the chain on posts marked out an area perhaps 40' in diameter) for us. The guide had been holding a mesh bag of fish food. He opened it up and squeezed it so that fish food came out. The fish mobbed him! I couldn't see him behind the cloud of fish. He handed me the food bag a moment later. The fish, no fools when it comes to finding food, mobbed me. I felt them tugging at the food bag and banging into me. I was laughing my head off. After a moment, I felt the guide pulling on the food bag from me to give to the Babe (I couldn't see him from behind all the fish), so I let go.

Except it wasn't the guide, it was the damn fish! They'd tugged so hard at the bag that it felt like the guide yanking on the bag. I leapt upwards and snagged the bag back from the scaly greedheads and gave it to the Babe. She loved it, too, but at least she didn't have them steal the bag from her.

As the bag got to the end of the line, the guide motioned for me to take my glove off. He showed me that he had a sea urchin on his bare hand and then slowly turned his hand upside down and the sea urchin held on to his hand. He put the sea urchin on my hand, and after stroking it slightly, it adhered somewhat to mine. I carefully passed it to the Babe and the guide stimulated the sea urchin so it would stick to her hand, too. We played "Pass the Uni" down the line to the other people, after which the guide carefully deposited the urchin back on the rock.

The guide brought us forward another 20 feet and had me squat down to look at a fish. (If you bend over with the helmets on, the air bubbles out of the bottom of the open helmet and you get a helmet full of salt water. It can be alarming if you it happens, but all you need to do is hold your breath and lift your head back up and the air pressure forces the water back out.) The guide motioned for me to hold my glove out and this little fish--I found out when I came back up that it's a damselfish--started nipping at my hand!

The guide also showed us a brittle star, a fast, animated starfish that crawled over his hand and then ours in turn like a spider. A couple of the women were a bit phobic and didn't care to hold it. The Babe and I squatted down and looked at a live coral and could see the individual polyps questing for food. As we got back to toward the ladder, the guide showed me a type of anemone that looked like multiple fans hanging out of a small tube. He brushed into it and they all snapped back into the tube out of danger instantly. Very cool!

We went back up the ladder and dried off, but we all had a fine patina of salt. The bus driver had been told we were running a bit late (we had to make it back to the ship by 4:30 because the ship was leaving at 5:00). Our driver got us back at 4:30 without any incident and we headed back on board, straight for the showers to debride.

After yet another wonderful dinner, we had the TV on and saw a broadcast of a late-night show from the Metropolis theater on ship hosted by Graham Seymour, our indefatigable cruise director, entitled "The Love & Marriage Show." He pulled three couples from the audience: newlyweds, a 25th wedding anniversary couple, and the longest-married couple there. The newlyweds turned out to be the couple that our dinner companions Don and Susan were there to take part in the wedding of (small world).

Graham asked the couples ten questions, which each person filled out separately. The couples were seated facing away from each other. The first was "When and where did you meet?" and there were many more like that: "Guys only: without looking, what is your wife wearing?" and "Was last night like Fourth of July fireworks, Thanksgiving turkey, or Memorial Day: remembering the dead?" For each answer that both people got right, the couple scored a point.

Graham Seymour did a good job of hosting the process and then had fun scoring the questions. Things took a weird turn when he got to question 6: "Sex took on a whole different turn after we made it *where*?" The newlyweds answer turned out to be "In the balcony of this theater late last night." This clearly broke new ground for the host and was the cause of a good deal of commentary by members of the audience. At the end of the game, everyone got prizes. It was a heckuva show.

The following day, we got to St. Maarten, but I've been typing for hours and hours and hours now and I'm going to stop now and post this and go shave and put on my tuxedo for another formal dinner. More soon.


Sarah said...

I'm glad you guys are having a good time. The pictures are gorgeous!

Anonymous said...

Woo hoo! Glad you're having such a grand time! What was up with your heart? I expect email or a phone call when you get back, bub.

hoysewell said...

We were on the same cruise. On san Juan we walked a bit and ate at El Mohito's (they made a mohito served in a hurricane glass and they crushed fresh mint..delicious. also when we wlaked off the boat we walked into the visitors center and tehy were pouring free rum punch drinks.(our opinion of san juan, however, mirrors yours) I was there 25 years ago and everything looks the same!) on St thomas we took the submersible sub tour and did lots of shopping. jewelry mostly. St Martan we took the art tour which was very nice and also turned into an island tour, On Nassau we just walked, went to the straw market, getting accosted by all the natives selling their wares, we ate lunch at a greek restaurant on top of a jewelry store and paid 76.00 for basically 2 appetizers, a gyro and 2 beers.