“I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.”
From “Sea Fever” John Masefield
Cruising on a big commercial cruise ship wasn’t quite what Masefield had in mind when he wrote that, but I couldn’t help feeling a tad bit nautical, this being my first excursion out of sight of land since the early 90s. If you were wondering where I’ve been since before Christmas (and I’m sure you’ve been at your wit’s end, admit it), I was finally persuaded to take a cruise with my family for Christmas. For fun. On the water.
We departed on Royal Caribbean ship Grandeur of the Seas on Christmas Eve, and sailed for ten days, visiting Labadee Beach, Haiti; San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands); and finally Saint Maartens, then a much quicker return journey to arrive back at Grandeur’s home port of Baltimore Md. by 03 January.
So, what was the trip like, and did I have a good time? In general, I did. There were some frankly wearisome aspects to being away from shore and in a very tiny crowded space for ten days. The cabin was confining, I did not sleep well and the bathroom was an athletic challenge– to take a shower you basically encase yourself in a nylon tube of water and shower from top to bottom vigorously while avoiding flooding the bathroom. As you might expect, I avoided the cabin unless necessity called. Food was .. plentiful. The one thing RC does to keep passengers quiescent is overfeed them until they can do little more than roll around like Violet Beuregard post-blueberry transformation. Meals are highly ritualized and there are many of them– the three basics, plus free food at all hours from room service and a short order kitchen on the pool deck. I was forewarned about this aspect of cruising and did my best not to overeat, though my son Gar pitched in like a good un.
Service by Royal Caribbean staff and crew was uniformly excellent. Everyone, from waiters, room attendants, the sailing crew from the Captain on down.. simply everyone was friendly, accommodating and gracious. RC makes its living in a very competitive market and they know they sell their service first and foremost as a market niche.
With that said, well, life at sea is a little challenging to keep people occupied when you cruise from port to port. There were many shipboard activities, but not of the sort I find particularly breath taking– I did play in the trivia challenges and went to a couple of seminars, and I read an unexpected three and a half novels when I was at sea. Fortunately I’m an old hand at keeping myself amused. Christmas and New Years Eve were both celebrated at sea, and the ship’s crew did gainfully attempt to infuse the ship with holiday spirit. The New Year’s festivities were lavish.
New Year’s was fun, but Christmas at sea just doesn’t feel like Christmas at all to me. Our celebration was meager at best. I did get to attend midnight mass in the ship’s theater and did attend mass once more during the cruise, so that felt most like Christmas to me.
For me the singularly best part of the cruise were the destinations. Labadee isn’t the Haiti you are thinking about– it’s more like what we termed “Disney Haiti”. Labadee is a small peninsula jutting out from the island of Hispaniola, leased by the Royal Caribbean company until 2050. So no squalid, grinding poverty or violence in sight, just happy sunshine, rum drinks and beaches, and lots of “extreme” rides to spend extra on. This is Royal Caribbean’s land, bought and paid for, and though it wasn’t spoken of, I couldn’t help but wonder what keeps the people of Haiti from climbing the big hill that separated the beach from the mainland? A lot of men with guns, hidden somewhere.. at least that’s my theory. Still, we had fun. I didn’t take any photographs of Haiti but really all we saw was the beach and lots of green coastline– when we pulled off the island receded quickly and then it was gone.
I loved visiting San Juan. We engaged a colorful local named Jose (yes, really) and he drove us around the city maintaining a non-stop imaginative commentary about life in Puerto Rico, American-Puerto Rican relations, a history of U.S. Presidents engaged in Puerto Rican history, exports, the tourism industry, the policy of cruise ship lines, the efficacy of the port tax, and other fascinating topics. I loved this guy– he had a hipster sang froid about life and making a buck that I admired. He dropped us off a few blocks North of the docks so we had opportunity to tour just a little bit of the extensive fortifications on the island dating back to the 1500s. The fort in San Juan is amazing, and well worth the visit. Later, we strolled down to a dockside bar and had a light meal offship and some VERY expensive rum drinks. I wish we had more time in San Juan. As the ship was leaving, we noticed a man leaving the ship– possibly being ejected, though the established reason was “medical reasons”. Hard to say.
Saint Thomas was tinier than I imagined.. again we engaged a colorful local, this time named Elvis, and he took us around the island at breakneck speeds. Since St. Thomas is essentially a volcanic island like many other Caribbean islands, it featured a big mountain in the middle with steep sides. The views from the top of the island are breathtaking. I liked Saint Thomas quite a bit.
Our final stop was Saint Maartens, which was (along with San Juan), my favorite stop on the trip. Saint Maartens has a Dutch side and a French side, both of which seem to get along with each other amicably. St. Maartens is huge compared to some islands and a mixture of development and wilderness. I liked both sides of the island– the Dutch side seemed more laid back but the French side was just stunning, visually. Again, we engaged a colorful local to take us around the island at breakneck speeds. The formula seems to work.
On the way back to Baltimore, we amused ourselves as best we could.
Garrett got a Bridge Tour of the Grandeur before New Years, and an Engineering deck tour the day after. It was quite impressive.
New Year’s Eve was all out– and I didn’t really get the sense that it was nautical, it could have been a New Year’s eve at any hotel out there.
A very hungover ship the next day. Not being much of a drinker, I enjoyed being relatively uncrowded when I went up for breakfast the next morning!
The weather changed dramatically on the return trip, especially when we entered the welcome sight of the Chesapeake Bay. Temperatures dropped to 17 degrees and we noticed snow in the air and on the ground when we pulled in.. disembarking was fast and efficient, which I liked, but standing in the biting wind with only light jackets wasn’t a thrill. Lessons learned; bring winter stuff and pack it in the car.
So, that was our cruising holiday. Yes, it was fun and I would consider doing it again, though not soon. I liked it, but wasn’t insanely crazy about the experience, like some addicts were, and I never drank the kool-aid on this one. It’s a good time and I loved being with my family, but it didnt’ feel like the Holidays to me, and it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I’m a quiet kind of guy when it comes to day to day amusement. The ship was crowded, and always noisy. There’s just no quiet part of the ship to go to and hangout. I found a part of the fantail where nobody seemed to visit and went there repeatedly to read, but it gets windy on the stern. Many of the “activities” were thinly veiled attempts at selling something– art, jewelry, more cruises, etc. That’s one thing you have to take in stride on a cruise ship.. everybody has their hand out for something. This is sanctioned by the cruise line as they provide services by ride-along contracted services that sell stuff. Nothing is free, and nothing is cheap. Everything that can be segmented into a niche and sold, will be. For instance, I didn’t drink hardly any alcohol on the ship, because to drink wine or mixed drinks or even a beer costs big money– you pay by the “plan” or by the drink. Even drinking soda requires a magical cup (which they will sell you for 80 dollars) with a chip in it so you can be part of the privileged elite who paid to drink soda. I assure you I can live without soda, so I didn’t bother. The only thing I missed was an occasional beer, and I had one or two.
If you plan on cruising on ANY commercial line, understand that not everything comes with the package and the extras cost you dearly. If you have a gambling problem, the cruising life may not be for you– they start up on the slot machines as soon as the boat crosses into international waters, and make it TOO easy to extend credit. Not a good combination, especially with the liquor. If you can reign it in a bit and keep that part controlled, you’ll have a great time.
Happy New Year everyone!