Southern Caribbean Cruise

ANTICIPATION, BOARDING, SETTLING, SAILING

Each time we venture out of our squirrel cage and explore places we’ve never seen before, we change—or ought to. Last January, Connie and I joined our faithful travel buddies, Bob and Lucy Earp on a cruise to the Southern Caribbean, in order to celebrate together one of Lucy’s most special birthdays. Joining us on the cruise were Ed and Jo Riffel of Glasgow, Kentucky. We first became acquainted with Riffels on a cruise to the Mexican Riviera six years ago. Never will we forget that first dinner! It was a table for ten, and none of us knew the other six. Before long, introductions were made, and to Connie’s and my consternation, we discovered that all three couples came from Kentucky; since Bob was born in Kentucky, it was instant Old Home Week! To say we bonded would be the wildest sort of understatement. We’ve met as a group several times since at resorts or restaurants. Well, Ed and Jo Riffel were one of those twosomes. Afterwards, they joined the Zane Grey’s West Society, thus cementing our friendship even more. At any rate, we were able to convince the Riffels to cruise with us, thus bringing the birthday celebrants up to six.

FORT LAUDERDALE HARBOR


During recent years, Fort Lauderdale, Florida has become one of the world’s great cruise ship harbors. And it was a perfect—and blessedly cool—afternoon when we hugged our son Greg good-bye, cleared the milling cattlepens that process so many thousands (methodically and efficiently assigning and tagging and passporting and shipcreditcarding and roomassigning and dinnerassigning) each of the somewhat bewildered wannabe cruisers.

Eventually, we were ushered to our room, the door to our home for the next two weeks opened, and to our delight, the room was as perfectly prepared for us—including fresh fruit and fresh-cut flowers—as though we were royalty. First things we did after the door closed was to rush to our veranda, one of the very best things about cruising. Couldn’t even imagine booking an inside cabin—we’d get claustrophobic for sure!

For a time we sat there and looked out at the other cruise ships around us, each a beehive of activity just like ours. Then the Earps and Riffels logged in, so we evacuated and proceeded to explore our new home from prow to stern, lowest deck to highest. Afterwards, we returned to our room to await a process that seems like Russian Roulette: Will all pieces of our luggage be making the same trip we are? It is no idle worry, for unscrambling those thousands of multi-tagged suitcases clogging up a vast area of the terminal was not for the faint-of-heart. Every once in a while we’d be regaled by stories dealing with how much “fun” it was to sail out sans luggage. Happened on this cruise too, someone’s luggage ended up on another cruise ship—eventually, the baggage caught up with them. As somewhat seasoned travelers, we’ve learned to always carry on one case each, with enough clothing for a couple of days (toilet articles, meds, etc.), just in case. Several hours passed before we could breathe giant sighs of relief, when outside in the hall docked those precious arks containing our clothing and “stuff.”

Then it was time to separate his from hers and commandeer cupboard, closet, and shelf space for the coming two weeks. Finally, everything distributed and housed, we shoved the suitcases under the bed, and were ready for our journey to begin. This is one of the beauties of cruising: not having to repack suitcases each morning and evening.
When the time neared for sailing out we all climbed up to the top deck. Quickly we noted the usual separation between the physically fit and the lethargic: one took the stairs and the other waited in lines that were often long for elevators.
Up on top, we could look out at all the other cruise ships, also teeming with passengers on top in order to take photos of the sailings. Among our Fort Everglades Harbor sister ships were the Queen Mary 2, Crown Princess, Navigator of the Seas, and the talk of the cruising world, the new mega ship, Oasis of the Seas (a veritable floating city with probably 7,500 – 9,000 people, including crew) on board. Other ships were moored further away. As each ship cast off its ropy tentacles, smoke poured out of the smoke stacks, and it slowly eased out into the main channel. It was a never-to-be-forgotten sight as each ship, each as beautiful as its designers and builders could dream up, sailed out to sea, each one mantled with all the radiant colors of a tropical sunset.

AT SEA

Then we six made our way to the aft dining room, and were seated at the windowside Table 79, where we’d dine together each evening. Several hours later we returned to our rooms, and more tired than we’d realized, decided to forego any of the ship’s entertainment, instead opting to just sit out on the veranda and revel in the sounds, sights, and odors of the sea. And after a time—the luminosity of a rising room.

We retired, left the veranda door open a little so we could hear the waves breaking out from the prow and forward section of the ship, and an occasional seabird. As we encountered the full force of the Atlantic Ocean, the turbulence proportionally increased. I held my woman for a while, before she dropped off to a light sleep from which she’d awaken periodically; my thoughts, unlike hers, reveled in the oceanic turbulence, and I blissfully dropped off into a disgustingly deep [to Connie] sleep. My last conscious thoughts having to do with, How will this cruise change me?

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Judging by the responses coming in to us, our blog-readers appear to really enjoy and appreciate our “on the road” blogs, vicariously traveling along with us. In weeks to come, we will be stopping at St. Maarten, Antigua, Saint Lucia, Barbados, Grenada, Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire.

It will be great to have you along.

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RHAPSODY OF THE SEAS & STORMS I HAVE LOVED

Yes, it’s possible to fall in love with a ship. They say there are only three perfect shapes in our world: a violin, a ship’s hull, and a beautiful woman—and each of these harmonizes with the other two.

Well, I just fell in love with Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas; it is that rarity: a near perfect ship (both inside and out). For a ship is either a work of art—or it is not. Perfect ships don’t just happen: they must be dreamed up by visionaries; visionaries who know that perfection rarely results from happenstance. It’s like a perfect dinner: every piece of it mut appeal to all one’s senses without a false note anywhere. As is true with a beautiful woman, it is impossible to define what makes her so; it is either there or it is not. I seek the same perfection in our books; indeed I agonize over every piece: the choice of stories (emotive power, length, mood, velcroishly impossible to forget once read, etc.), the position each is slotted into, the illustrations, the cover, the typeface, the paper—each is a totality that is either a beautiful work of art or it is not. Just so a ship like Rhapsody.

Connie and I have cruised on a number of beautiful ships owned by Carnival, Olympia, Celebrity, Silversea, Norwegian, and now Royal Caribbean. Several of them I have loved enough to incorporate into stories: Carnival’s Jubilee, in “White Wings (Christmas in My Heart 10); Olympia’s Stella Solaris in “Stella Solaris” (Tears of Joy for Mothers); and the Norwegian Sun in my upcoming Christmas story, “Journey” (Christmas in My Heart 19). But of them all, only Silversea’s Silver Cloud is as beautiful as Rhapsody of the Seas.

But I really didn’t fall deeply in love with Rhapsody until May 19. I had no sooner finished my “Thousand Miles to Nome” lecture for the entire ship when the waves began to grow as we faced the full 10,000-mile-across power of the Pacific Ocean in British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Sound. By dinner-time, we spent half the time looking out the window at the gathering storm.

Each minute that passed, the storm grew worse—of course, loving the elemental power of storms so much, I’d personally classify such storms as ‘better.” In spite of sophisticated stabilizers, the ship began to rock. Occasionally a broadside-wave would hit us so hard you could almost hear the Rhapsody cry out in pain. Connie went to bed early so that she’d have something firm to hang on to. I, on the other hand, left the room and ricocheted from wall to wall as I attempted to walk down the long hallways. Few people were about, for they’d even had to stop the evening show part way through, fearing the performers would break legs or worse. But the venturesome ones who were out—well, we bonded, for it would have been great fodder for America’s Funniest Home Videos. We reeled – staggered – sashayed like so many thoroughly soused drunks. The wildest sensation was doing stairs, for when taking steps up, the steps would rise up to greet you; when taking steps down, the steps would drop away from you. I was so enchanted with this stair phenomenon that I did the aft set of eleven flights of stairs a number of times. What was really funny was seeing the look of disbelief on the face of a first floor staff member who couldn’t believe this lunatic was back for another run at it.

Afterward, since I couldn’t even stand up without crashing into something in our stateroom, I tumbled into bed and blissfully fell asleep to the night-long rocking of the deep while poor Connie couldn’t sleep at all. Come to think of it, Christ must have loved storms as much as I, for His disciples couldn’t believe it when He slept through a violent storm in mid Sea of Galilee.

I was reminded of several other great storms in my life, especially the one on the rim of Mexico’s Copper Canyon. We were visiting my brother, acclaimed concert pianist, Romayne Wheeler, and staying in his Eagle’s Nest studio on the canyon rim. A terrific storm hit, and the wind-driven rain fell up at us from the mile-deep canyon below, so it came at us from all directions. The battered studio began to leak like the proverbial sieve, both from the roof and from below through the shuttered windows. The two grand pianos getting drenched, we formed a brigade to help save them from ruination, sloshing around barefoot all the while. Terrifying because continuing lightning pyrotechnics could easily have electrocuted us all.

The only comparable storm I can remember on the sea to the one on May 19 (waves 40 feet high and 70 MPH winds) was one I experienced when I was 13 on a banana boat en route from Trujillo, Honduras to Tampa, Florida. This 300-foot-long fruit tanker ran straight into a full-strength hurricane—weather forecasting was still in its infancy back then, so we had no warning. In the absence of stabilizers, the ship rolled from side to side and frontally plunged deep down and then leaped sky high, to such an extent that almost everyone was throwing-up from nausea. But where was I? You guessed it: up on the top deck holding on to the railing for dear life as great waves all but buried me. Oh it was wonderful! My folks were too sick to care if I washed overboard or not. Undoubtedly the long line of New England sea captains in my paternal lineage has much to do with my reveling in the fury of great storms.

After the May 19 storm had run its course, the master of the ship, Captain Stein Roger Bjorheim [what intrigues me no little is that almost all cruise captains seem to come from Norway] came on the intercom and after-the-fact reassured us, declaring that the safest place to have been in a storm such as yesterday’s was in the Rhapsody of the Seas for she’d earlier on ridden out a Category 5 hurricane with hardly a scratch. That’s when I fell deeply in love with Rhapsody of the Seas. I yearn to tryst with her again.