A Caribbean Delight
Lila and I just returned from a cruise to the Caribbean with Deborah, Greg and Kevin aboard the Royal Caribbean ship, the Explorer of the Seas. Each of Royal Caribbean’s ships are “something of the Seas”, but the Explorer is now the largest cruise ship in the world and the concept of “cruising” has now been altered from the image that existed early last century and what we pictured in our minds when we remember the Titanic…no, not the hitting an iceberg and sinking part. In days past we would think of cruising from someplace to somewhere else, but in a more formal atmosphere…for back then remember, cruising was only for the rich.
With these newer bigger ships…well, we could think of it as “cruising with a village” and just maybe, the port visits are almost an unnecessary feature of the vacation. Why leave the ship to shop for t-shirts and other touristy items, when you could stay aboard and enjoy the benefits of the “resort”. The Explorer of the Seas holds 3400 passengers…I am sure that you will agree that it is a small village. And yet we never felt crowded, as there are so many places to just go and be alone or to be with others. But, I will discuss more about the facilities on the ship and its amenities later. Today, cruising is definitely for everyone …one just selects the cruising company based on the amenities they desire…in this case Royal Caribbean is focusing on families with children of all ages and they provide services that make family cruising fun.
We set out on our journey a day early to spend some time in south Miami Beach to see the changes since the time when Lila and I visited there on our honeymoon forty-five years ago. I was quite concerned about the plane trip, not because of any fear of flying, but rather because of the crowds and lines that we would encounter just getting to the plane. And lines and delays were in fact the order of the day. My how airplane travel has changed as a result of the terrorist attacks from 9/11. There were lines and more lines, security checks and more security checks…and that was yet before the shoe bomb incident in an airplane in another part of the world… the very same day that we were traveling.
On our return flight home we of course had to remove our shoes…I can only dream of the time when some crazy terrorist tries to bring a bomb aboard an airplane in a jock strap. Well, I will live for that moment in the future. Anyway our flights were originally planned to get us into Miami early on the day we left, giving us plenty of time to tour around South Beach. But that was not to be as our non-stop was canceled and since our seats were fully paid for, U.S. Airways decided to not even book us onto any other flights. When we finally realized that our original flights were cancelled, we had to accept later flights with only middle seats for each of us …what fun and the grandkids loved sitting with strangers. After a delay for some maintenance issue we did arrive in Miami well after dark...tired and hungry. By the way U.S. Airways had a sign posted that 95% of their flights arrive on time when they leave on time…isn’t that nice I guess that means that their pilots do not stop someplace on the way for lunch.
We did have a couple of hours the following morning to look around and even found a Starbucks on Lincoln Road...I was a happy camper. Back when I visited there with my parents and brother some fifty years ago and even when Lila and I spent a portion of our honeymoon there in 1957, Miami Beach was a Jewish enclave. Today, Miami Beach has a recognized Hispanic population and is in the process of reinventing itself in an Art Deco motif. New stores, renovation of the many hotels along the ocean front…they should have done a much better job with the hotel where we stayed…and a delightful boardwalk extending for miles adjacent to the dunes protecting the beach front. Well, we did not have too much time, but I did get a chance to visit the hotels where Lila and I spent our first few nights of married life (unfortunately there were no plaques honoring that special event) and I also walked into the hotel where I had stayed as a teenager. We also ate at a delicatessen restaurant, Wolfies, that Lila and I had visited during our honeymoon…. either our tastes have greatly improved or their food quality and service went south…it was quite poor.
It was time to get to the ship and begin our voyage. We finally were able to secure a van taxi to accommodate our extensive assortment of luggage, bags and bodies and off we went to the ship. As we approached the pier, the ship loomed ever larger …much bigger than I had imagined. It is over 1,000 feet long…like an aircraft carrier…its beam or width at the widest point is almost 160 feet and its displacement is a massive 138,000 tons. That is a big ship and I was to learn later that it was designed with a flat bottom ensuring that it does not ride well is heavier seas…it was designed to sail in protected waters close to shore. There are currently two of these ships in operation (the Explorer and the Voyager) and Royal Caribbean is planning three more ships of this class…the Explorer operates primarily in the Caribbean. This is the family picture as we board the Explorer of the Seas. By the way –– check-in was a breeze as we had a suite and received special handling…thus passing the swarms of guests arriving all at the same time.
It is hard to imagine that there are so many people who want to visit the Caribbean each week, but they do…for example when we were in the Bahamas, there were seven ships in port…the next day I was told that there would be fourteen ships in port…possibly in excess of 25,000 people…. all searching for the cheapest price t-shirts, cameras, jewelry and the multitude of other items for which people shop. Shopping in these ports is like a feeding frenzy for hungry sharks in a loaded swimming pool. Streets are full, the stores are full, and everyone is carrying bags of goodies. I even went into a store and asked for a bag and pretended to carry the goodies I “purchased” so I would not appear foolish enough to be missing all these great “bargains”. I guess the well informed spend thousands of dollars to reach these destinations, so they can save a few hundred dollars on their purchases.
Back to the ship, which is what I did most times since I “hate” shopping …besides the boys and I are not beach people…you know just sitting there and relaxing…that’s no vacation. Well, let’s see this large ship with the fifteen decks that I had climbed (I am sure there are more decks below) houses a promenade (deck 5) that must be about five hundred feet long and rises through three decks and at one point even rises to deck twelve. Quite impressive and may represent the “Main Street” for this little village…it is filled with shops, a café that is open twenty-four hours a day, saloons or drinking “holes”, an arcade, and a small stage where music is often being played. A beautiful dining room, three decks high can feed well over three thousand guests at two seatings each mealtime and operates with great efficiency and polish. In addition there is a buffet restaurant (four buffet lines) that operates on an upper deck and is continually serving breakfast, lunch and then dinner. And, in addition there is even a Johnny Rockets “diner” for the young at heart with strong stomachs.
That is only the beginning…for our village also sports a large theatre, an ice skating rink that presents excellent shows and is also available for guests to use on their own, a rock climbing wall, that Greg, Kevin and I tried to climb (it is much, much harder than it looks), and in-line skating rink, a miniature golf course, a basketball and soccer court, volleyball court, three swimming pools, an adventure beach (pools for the children with a two deck slide), six Jacuzzis, a complete and extensive gym, fitness center and spa facilities, a convention center, a computer center with twenty computers, a library, large game arcade, a card/game room and even a skylight wedding chapel on the fifteenth deck. Of course, there were a few bars and cocktail lounges placed strategically throughout the village. There is even an oceanographic center, a small aquarium and a fully staffed medical center. I cannot go on…this place is just too much.
And our stay aboard the Explorer was especially satisfying as we had the Royal Family suite…what is that you ask…. two bedrooms, two baths, a living room and dining alcove all opening onto a large verandah. The spacious accommodations were great because the boys were able to use the living room to entertain their friends while I would be relegated to watch television in my bedroom. As a result of the suite we also had access to a concierge lounge that would make reservations for us at the many facilities aboard ship and drinks and appetizers were available for our comfort and enjoyment.
We settle in…learn our way around the ship and get to the dining room the first night finding ourselves wrapped around one end of a ten person table. Finding it difficult to converse among ourselves and talking only sparingly with the other family of five, we selected a smaller table for the subsequent nights just for our crowd…. it was in a better location and then no other guests would have to hear me yell at the boys. The next few evenings were either formal or semiformal dress, so I dressed up in my tuxedo…a throw back to the Titanic era. Certainly not everyone wore a tuxedo…well, maybe not a lot of men wore tuxedos…well, I looked a hell of a lot better than those guys in their t-shirts.
Our second day on the ship was a visit to Royal Caribbean’s private island Labadee, located in Haiti. I think it is really a peninsular, with the bay on one side of the island and the ocean on the other. Here is Greg and Kevin on the beach in Labadee. Food buffets …did I mention that Royal Caribbean did feed us from time to time…. were set up at three different locations on the island and all we had to do was go in the water, lie on the lounge chairs and eat every so often…what a tough life. Unfortunately, I was never properly trained for this type of mission and was not able to sit in one place for very long. Consequently, I hiked around the island...the island that I was told Christopher Columbus discovered during his journeys…surveying some of the ruins and natural highlights. Greg and Kevin played in the water, Lila and Deborah relaxed, but after the boys came out they became impatient…wherever did they inherit that trait…so we did catch a little something to eat and then returned to the ship to continue the fun part of our vacation.
The next day was Christmas and the ship put on a fabulous ice show with the singers and dancers from the evening show troupe with music reflecting both Hanukkah and Christmas. Santa arrived early that morning (earlier than we did as we would not usually get up until about ten o’clock each day) and he was giving each child a gift…the boys immediately became interested...it was not a religious thing…it was the gift. We headed on down to meet Santa (I was invited, no directed by the boys to assist them in this difficult quest), but after they surveyed the line and saw that the gift was not to their liking...I was relieved of my duty and told to carry on.
Well, Christmas was a day at sea and the next day we were in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Everyone decided not to go to the beach, as we had so much fun at Labadee...so instead we headed into downtown St. Thomas along with the other fifteen thousand people from all the ships in port. I did refer earlier to the shopping frenzy…I cannot explain why so many people want to get rid of so much money so fast buying so much of what they don’t need. But there we were anyway thrown in with all these crazy people. I decided to shop for a camera…and when I was finally able to approach a counter, I engaged the salesman in conversation with “I could get that camera as cheap back home”. He immediately pulled out all the adds from Circuit City, Best Buys, Ritz Camera and other stores selling cameras in our area proving to me that these guys have not only done their homework but what a small world this really is.
After a little more sightseeing (or being pushed and jostled) we headed back to the ship to rest and yes, to eat. The boys had become interested in ping-pong and started playing it every free moment (meaning when we were not eating and making unwanted port visits). Actually, they started to become quite good (I mean at the game) and soon they were playing with the teenagers and even some adults. The picture has Greg and Kevin relaxing between their ping-pong games (actually I had to threaten them to take this picture). So here we are on this grand and glorious ship with all its amenities and Greg and Kevin are enjoying ping-pong…I could have bought a ping-pong table and stayed home…midnight they are playing ping-pong, after breakfast they are playing ping-pong. They only thing that would get in the way of their ping-pong playing was eating and arcade games. Who would have ever guessed!
I did get to sit in on the art auction aboard ship…however, it really appeared to be an art sale…not much of an auction. The first bid that the auctioneer received, would immediately be followed with “Going once, going twice, gone”. In fact, when something did not seem to sell immediately, the auctioneer would raise his arm signaling a sale, but I could not usually identify a winner of the bid. Watching the process was interesting…but I do not believe there were any bargains. Another interesting part of cruising is the gambling. I love to watch people play Blackjack…I stand behind the players and “phantom” gamble. Their money and my excitement. Since they lose much of the time, I feel quite satisfied…I am not a good loser.
The boys kept playing ping-pong and yes, eating as well, we had one last port of call… Nassau, in the Bahamas, another shopper’s paradise. We did the real tourist thing…a horse drawn buggy through town (I did ask the buggy operator if he had fed the horse beans, like in the Seinfeld skit and he laughed knowing immediately what I was referring to). Here we are in the buggy and then we competed with thousands for some touristy items…ugh!
We then dropped the boys off at the ship so they could spend time with Deborah and play ping-pong. We walked from town to Paradise Island to see the Atlantis Hotel. The Atlantis is an elaborate hotel on the island that has the ocean running through the lobby and an aquarium that one pays $25 to visit (if you are not a guest, or you could spend $700 or $800 a night and get into the aquarium and beach for free). That fee is also necessary to use the beach facilities, as well. The hotel has many upscale stores, ornate architecture and absolutely beautifully groomed grounds…. a great place to stay or see.
There was only one sad note on the trip and that was when we learned that a crewman was missing Christmas morning. Last seen at about 12:30am he did not report for his normal duties that morning. The ship turned around and headed back along the track we had taken, the U.S. Coast Guard began their search, but to no avail. We learned of no positive results of the search.
Back to the ship to start packing, as tomorrow we must leave this life for another…one where when you throw your towels on the floor they stay there until you pick them up and when you sit down at the dining room table nobody asks, “What you would like to eat tonight?”. A rude awakening, but we measured up to the task …packing our bags and putting them in the passageway. Getting off the ship was easy, orderly and since we signed up for a tour to Everglades National Park before our flight for home…we boarded a waiting bus.
The trip through the Everglades included an airboat ride in waters filled with alligators and lectures on the fauna, the birds and the environment. The boys being gutsier than Lila or I, held and patted an alligator…I could barely get close enough to take this picture. It was really a fun trip. We also had a demonstration of alligator wrestling and an introduction to many of the other animals that inhabit that ecosystem.
Then onto the airport for our long trip home.