Saturday, April 27, 2013

Cruise Control: Day 5

Water, water everywhere.....

You know that old saying, right?

I'm not sure where it originated but I understand it from a new perspective now. And I have a finer appreciation of the readily available fresh water we have every day....and perhaps more incentive to help protect it.

I cruised to two new island paradises, St. Maarten and St. Thomas, during my latest voyage that can't say that. Who would have thought?

Rivers? Nope.

Even a tiny stream--somewhere, anywhere? Afraid not.

Lakes, springs....something?? No, and no again.

If I hadn't sailed hundreds of miles due east into the Atlantic last year to spend two days in Bermuda, it never would have occurred to me to ask such a question: Does this island have a fresh water supply? But because of what I learned there--they capture rain water for drinking and other necessary uses in specially designed roofs on all the buildings in Bermuda--I asked in both St. Maarten and St. Thomas recently as we toured these two islands paradises. The only difference this time is that both countries use desalinization plants to turn the salt water surrounding them into fresh water.

We took an island tour in St. Thomas and stood at 1100 feet at the top of its one "mountain," the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. Water as far as we could see in all directions.....and not a drop to drink.

Needless to say, neither restaurant we visited on these two jeweled isles offered us water at the table. And I certainly didn't ask for any, either.

We spend a lot of time haggling over how to protect our own water resources, and I'm sure there are a myriad of ways to do so and still protect not only the water supply but also just about everyone's interests along the way. I see this constant bickering from a different perspective now, one of being grateful first for the great river that wends its way through my own city here in NE Florida. My next thought is to be a bit more proactive in speaking up for its protection. It's hard to envision living without this natural resource at all, like thousands of people all over the world do every day. 

They would be overjoyed to even be part of the discussion.

Water is the driving force of all nature.
Victor Hugo

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cruise Control: Day 4

Cloud-watching is fine by me, but if you want to be entertained on a cruise, you don't have to wait long. Or ever.

Half of the activities for one day

Every evening, your cabin steward places the next day's schedule of activities in your room, probably because it will take you overnight to read it all. Much less decide what your plan for the day will be, between comedy shows, bingo, dance lessons, art auctions, movies, ice carving demonstrations, tours of the galley or laundry, musical theater shows to rival Las Vegas, magicians, lectures, bands. There is literally some form of entertainment scheduled every minute of every day, in dozens of venues around the ship.

And, the best part, it all runs on time.

Of course, there are places where nothing happens at all, if your reason for cruising is relaxation. That's where you will generally find me: next to a hot tub on a deck chair in the shade somewhere. A glass of champagne will be close by, with more available whenever I look around for one of those helpful young people who hover everywhere. And a book, of course, which I checked out from the ship's library. These "quiet zones" offer vistas of the ocean meandering by, its shade of blue changing from a brilliant azure close to shore to deep navy the farther we sail from shore. Not everyone wants to experience non-stop entertainment on vacation, especially those of us who are aging perfectly.

But rest assured, if it's on the ship's schedule, it will run on time, whatever it is. These people could educate a few businesses I know of back here on dry land.

Entertainment in the Piazza

Our favorite: Jazz

Zumba class in the Piazza

Dance demo

Tour of the galley

The blue card is your pass to....everything!

My personal favorite!

Is it legal to have this much fun??

Comedy show coming up!

"Fun is good."
Dr. Suess

Monday, April 15, 2013

Cruise Control: Day 3

A cruise ship is a luxury hotel on water, it's that simple. The opulence in the central gathering area--with a variety of names like The Atrium of The Piazza depending on the cruise line--is hard to believe when you contrast it with the price of the ticket. Soaring skylights, mosaic floors, floating staircases, and exquisite lighting everywhere can trick the traveler into believing they paid a lot of money to be there amid it all. The payoff for the cruise lines, of course, is that everyone wants to do it again, and as quickly as possible. (Just to make sure, though, you can reserve a future cruise for a mere $100 refundable deposit before you step a foot off the one you haven't finished yet. These people aren't stupid.)

The Piazza

The Piazza

The Piazza
Once you leave these areas, though, and head to your stateroom (which is a generous term for the kind of cabin most of us working folks can afford), be prepared to downsize quickly--including your basic turning-around radius. They have done the best they can, I must admit. Well-placed mirrors expanded the approximately 800 square feet of "living space" we were allotted in a regular sized cabin for two. The bathroom/changing area might add an additional 20 square feet, but I "paced off"

It WAS a king-size bed!

Desk, refrig, TV area

Main part of the cabin

Dressing area


Sink in bathroom
(without moving any part of my  body other than my toe) about 2.5 feet by 3.5 feet in the toilet/sink area, and another 3.5 feet by 4.5 feet in the shower. Suffice it to say, plan on exiting the shower stall completely if you drop the soap. There is no bending over room for retrieval.

But when you consider that you spend very little time in your cabin, the small size is not too great a burden to carry in exchange for being in this beautiful space to begin with. Coupled with the service and the great entertainment that is offered practically around the clock, you simply fall into bed at night, and rush out in the morning to eat, drink, and be merry.

Of course, you can pay more for a bigger space, right on up to a family suite with a balcony. (I imagine if you reserve that one you might need that balcony to toss off annoying family members after a few days at sea. At least, that's the nasty rumor I heard.) So far, however, I have been in an outside cabin (which means you have a window looking out at the ocean) with single beds when I traveled with two family members, an outside cabin with one huge bed taking up the majority of the square footage, and most recently, an inside cabin with no window at all.

And I learned a valuable lesson in this inside cabin. Well, actually two lessons: One, it won't ever happen again. The "no window" aspect, I mean. I WILL cruise again, I can assure you of that. And two, I won't get stuck without a window again because I was disoriented all the time without it. When I woke up in the morning, I never really knew if it WAS morning. It could have been midnight for all I knew, I had no way of knowing. In an ocean view room I could look outside and tell. Without it, I was simply at a loss about what time it might be. So, in the future, we will pay a bit more (less than $100 usually) for a room with a view, as water logged as that view might been.

Have I mentioned how large these ships are? Stay tuned.....

Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Cruise Control: Day 2

Food, glorious food!
Pastries in the Atrium

Coffee Bar

Traditional British Meal


Welcome to the buffet

Waiting in line for pizza!

I can just see the orphans in the Dickens novel dancing among the scarred wooden tables, rejoicing in the fact that they finally had food.

Kind of like cruise folks dance into the buffet line three (or more) times a day, reveling in the vast array of entrees, desserts, salads (notice desserts came before salads here), rolls of all kinds, fruit, soups, veggies...the list goes on. I had heard travelers talk about the food on cruise ships, but until you see it yourself, it's a bit hard to process.

It's unlimited, for one thing. And the choices often stretch for dozens of feet in either direction. 

The price of your ticket includes food. Where else can you take a vacation for seven days for under $500, including enough food to, well, sink a ship? Maybe tent camping in the mountains, but I learned to enjoy sleeping in a soft bed and not having critters sneak into my bedding at night a long time ago. Your cabin, excellent service (see Cruise Control, Day 1 for that story), PLUS all the food you can stomach for that ridiculous price? Not too many other opportunities out there. I know, because I have tried to find them.

There are several options for dining, too. When you book a cruise, you choose an evening dining time, either early (around 5:30 or 6 PM) or late (around 8:30), and at the appointed time you head to the dining room assigned to you. Keep in mind, most of these ships carry between 1000 and 4000 people, so they provide multiple dining rooms. When you show up there, you are shown to your table, complete with white tablecloths, beautiful place settings, crystal glasses, and real flowers in the vases. (I don't know how they do that one on longer cruises...where do they keep flowers to keep them fresh that long?) 

The server snaps open the napkin for each lady and places it in her lap, welcoming everyone and taking drink orders. Another chance to be dazzled by the service. As a woman who cooks at home, I'll take this kind of treatment any day, believe me. (I've asked several of these waiters if they would come home with me, but no takers yet.)

If you decide you want two entrees, just ask. No extra charge. One of each on the menu that night? That's fine by them. Don't like the one you thought would be tasty? They'll whisk it away and bring something else in a flash. Dessert choices always includes a sugar-free option, and on this trip I saw more gluten-free and vegetarian options, too. Your wish is their command.

But if all of that is a bit too formal for you, head on over to one of the many buffet lines in other areas of the ship, and chow down. They're open probably 18 hours a day. The coffee bar in the atrium is open 24/7....I just discovered that on this trip.(Additional charges do apply for specialty coffees, but we're all used to that anyway, aren't we?) Everywhere you turn, there it is: food, glorious food!

Your travel companion can roll you back to your cabin later.

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
Virginia Woolf,
A Room of One's Own

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Cruise Control: Day 1

It wasn’t easy getting on the ship this time. But it is best that I experience cruising from more than one perspective, I imagine, especially if I plan on taking all of you along with me.

You know all that talk about budget cuts in Washington these days? Most of us yawn and turn down the volume since all the politicizing is posturing anyway, designed to get the other side of the aisle in Congress to buckle under the weight of all their obstructionism. But in this case, I came face to face with the results of the cut-backs. Or I should say, there weren't many faces to face at all at the US Customs desks as over 3000 travelers tried to get off the ship I was waiting to board. (We experienced the same lack of assistance at the other end of our trip, but more on that later.)

My previous embarkations were as smooth as the Caribbean’s aquamarine surface that would soon surround this huge floating party boat. No waiting, no glitches, nothing standing in the way of all the fun to come. The port personnel in this case did the best they could to process the incoming 3000 in a little over three hours, but the line I had to stand in stretched off into the distance—I literally could not see the end of it—and then it folded back over itself and wended its way back to where I started. But in the meantime, I chatted with the people standing around me and made some new friends. The time passed quickly. (I never saw any of those people again once we boarded, which is a testimony to how large these vessels actually are.)

Once inside the terminal, things happened fast, too, and soon there it was—the gangway leading up to the ship and a host of welcoming crew members. It is astounding to me that these folks can get that many people off the ship, clean and reset everything, and then take on another 3000+ to sail out of port so quickly. They dock at around 7 AM and the ship then heads back out to do it all over again at 4 PM. Amazing. Plus they all keep smiling.

I think this is what is so enticing about spending time on board a cruise ship: the level of service is extraordinary. You need extra towels in your cabin? No need to ask—your cabin steward (who I am convinced must hide in the wall directly outside my door to watch our comings and goings) will notice how many you use and will add extras until you finally reach the perfect number for you. Want all your meals served in your cabin? Just pick up the phone and ask—you’ll never have to leave the comfort of your (admittedly very small) cabin. You don’t feel like walking from your table in the dining room to get another glass of water? Just look up—you can be sure that a server is watching for your signal. He will hustle off to get what you need.

They smile, they agree, they are present without being pressing.

It’s important that the neophytes at cruising among you understand that, although these service professionals are superb at their jobs, there is a price attached to it. At the end of your journey, you will settle up your tab with the purser, part of which includes about $12 a day in tips for the staff. But I’ve always believed that we get what we pay for—and I am more than willing to pay these people to pamper me a few times a year. The ridiculously low price of the cruise includes food, cabin, ports of call, and a beautiful vacation, too. These tips still don’t push the cost of the entire trip off the fiscal cliff.


It’s a steal and heaven knows we don’t generally experience this level of service at home.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about food. Just make sure you’re hungry.

Year by year we are learning that in this restless, strenuous American life 
of ours vacations are essential.