Friday, October 29, 2004

I think I'll move to Charlotte

According to this article, UNC Charlotte is offering a course on American Idol.

There are universities that offer J.R.R. Tolkein's invented language of Elvish as a foreign language, courses on Star Trek and classes that discuss the philosophical ramifications of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", so why not a class on American Idol?

Friday, October 22, 2004

The bootscraper that won't go away

When Andrew got married a year and a half ago, Sarah and I went to Bed, Bath & Beyond to look for wedding gifts. Andrew and Megan had registered there for their wedding so Sarah and I went to see what they had.

In addition to buying them something off their list, I also asked the salesgirl to point out the ugliest tacky gift they had. So she pointed me to an endcap lined with pig bootscrapers. So naturally, I bought one.

I'm happy to report that every time we've gone to visit them, Andrew and Megan have the bootscraper outside their front door. Maybe they only get it out when they know I'm coming, but it's good to see that this gift may someday become an heirloom.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

My cruise webpage

I put together a webpage for our cruise. It includes all of the vacation diaries here and also some pictures.

Feel free to stop by any time.



Click here to visit the page.

Some final thoughts on the cruise

Cost
We had a really good time. I was surprised at how much there was to do on the boat and for what we spent, bang for buck it was probably one of the best vacations we’ve ever taken.

The cruise itself cost about $750 per person, which includes the room, non-premium food, port charges, taxes, fees, all entertainment and transportation. We spent another $700 on the boat (half of which was in the spa), $400 in airfare and probably another $500 in other expenses that we mostly paid cash for (souvenirs, taxi charges, dinners out in Orlando, Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts, etc.).

In looking over the bill, nothing we paid for on the boat we really needed and could have done without. Same thing for most of the “extras” we got. So for about $1,900 (including airfare) we got a nice week long vacation. I figure it’s still less than what it would have cost us to go to the beach or to San Diego for a week.

Kids
I don’t know that I’d ever take kids on a cruise. Royal Caribbean tries to make their boats as kid friendly as possible, but I think that by mid-week they’d be going crazy. For little kids (under 10 or so), they had lots of activities (which I believe are included in the price of the cruise). Most of the “adults-only” activities are open only to people 18+, but for 16-17 year olds, there are still lots of activities they can get in to.

It’s the 11-15 year old group that I’d worry about. There are planned activities for them, but not as many as for younger kids. And most kids in that age group are too young just to be turned loose. There’s a video arcade but the price of games is astronomical ($1.50 for Ms. Pac-Man, $2.50 for Time Crisis 3, for example).

And then there’s the problem of where to stick the kids. You could always have them stay in the room, but our room was only a little bigger than my college dorm room and I’m not sure I’d want to have more than 2 in it. So you can either live on top of each other, get an adjoining cabin or get a larger family suite.

If I did take kids, I’d make sure that they were either grown or young enough to put in the day care facility. The family that sat next to us had two kids, one was probably 3 and the other was maybe 7, and it looked like they brought along the wife’s sister to help babysit, which may be another good alternative, assuming you can find someone who’d be willing to spend their vacation watching your kids.

Of course, I would expect Disney to have better kids programs, so that may be the way to go for families.

What We Did Wrong
The only things we forgot were Sarah’s sunglasses, so I can’t really say we screwed up big.

I did overpack. I brought two pairs of shoes (one pair of pool shoes and one pair of sneakers) that I never wore. I also packed two sweatshirts thinking it might be cool at night when on deck. Everything else I packed seemed to work out well, although I should have brought more shirts and fewer shorts.

We also left the laptop at home, although I think I’ll bring it on the next cruise. Sarah didn’t want to carry it, but it would have been nice to have so we could download pictures right away and see if we needed to take more, especially the ones where it seems like the lens of my camera was fogged over.

Sarah and I also talked about what we spent money on, and that if we really wanted to, we could have gotten off the boat with no charges to our Sea Passes (either by skipping the spa and drinks or by simply paying cash for what we wanted and keeping our credit card bill down).

What We Did Right
Many of my friends who have been on cruises before gave us lots of suggestions that were very helpful. For instance, one person suggested bringing a toiletry kit that hangs up and that saved us a lot of space in the bathroom.

Originally we had planned on driving to Orlando, but in hindsight I’m glad we flew. I think it would have been very hard to get in a car after a week’s vacation then drive 14 hours back to West Virginia. I think I may have picked an itinerary that didn’t involve spending 2½ hours in Greenville/Spartanburg airport and I may have taken my liquor on as carry-on luggage, but I’m still glad we flew.

Despite all the “unnecessary” things we bought or spent money on, I’d have done it all over again. In the end it was all worth it.

Some other suggestions and observations

Power outlets are in short supply in the room, so it might be a good idea to take an extension cord or line splitter with you.

Lots of folks were wearing motion sickness patches, although neither of us ever felt sick. The boat does move, not drastically, but you can definitely feel when the seas get rough. The first day we were back on dry land, there were several times when I could have sworn I could feel the ground moving underneath me. That’s another reason not to be driving home the day of the cruise; get your land legs back first.

Walk or exercise every day. I tried to walk about 2 miles every day on the jogging track and work out on the ellipticals every day and I still put on 5 pounds. We even got some extra exercise when in port, but with all of the available food on board, it’s very easy to pack on pounds.

Don’t get used to having a soft-serve ice cream machine at your disposal.

If you see something you like, such as a double-layer chocolate fudge cake, take a whole one back to your cabin then because you may not see it again all week.

Go to all the shows. They’re “free.”

Be prepared to lose every quarter you take into the casino.

“If you see it, and you like it: Buy it.” How I wish I had taken this advice. You’re on vacation. Splurge a little. Know how much you can afford to spend, but if you want to spend an afternoon in the spa, do it; if you want to go snorkeling in the Virgin Islands, go. There’s no telling when/if you’ll be back.

Royal Caribbean was very good to us, but we have no prior cruising experience or bias. I’ve also heard that Carnival, Holland American and Disney are good. It may come down to personal preference, but I thought RC’s big Voyager-class boat was absolutely first rate. I’d cruise with them in a heartbeat.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Vacation Diary: Day 11, Monday, 11 October 2004

Travel day. The end of the vacation. Complete and utter sadness.

We woke up Monday morning and packed the few things we kept at Betsy and Dave’s in our suitcases and got ready to travel. Sarah had finished her cheesecake the night before, but I had about half of mine still left, so that was breakfast.

Dave drove us to the airport at about 9:00; even though our flight didn’t depart until 12:35, he still had to get to work. He dropped us off curbside and we went in to check our bags and get our boarding passes.

Since we had some time to kill, we walked around the Orlando terminal which has a Hyatt Hotel built around the atrium and in fact many of the rooms open out overlooking the airport waiting area. There is also a shopping center featuring a food court, the Disney Store, a Universal Studios store, bookstores, and some of the usual airport shops.

We poked around for a little while then ate at a pseudo-seafood restaurant in the terminal (we were a couple of weeks too early for the Outback in the airport that should be opening soon). The flight left on time and we landed in Greenville/Spartanburg airport about an hour later.

Let me get out my soapbox and say that airline scheduling is absolutely insane. Why the hell to we have to go to Greenville/Spartanburg on our way to Cincinnati to get back to Huntington? Does Delta think I have nothing better to do? We spent 2½ hours in Greenville/Spartanburg, and I have nothing against either city, but their airport blows.

So after my ass fell asleep in the airport, it was time to head off to Cincinnati, for another layover. Our trip time was about 7½ hours; we spent about 3 hours in the air, 2½ hours in Greenville/Spartanburg, about 1½ hours in Cincinnati and half an hour sitting on the ground in Greenville/Spartanburg waiting for clearance to take off. There wasn’t a delay in Greenville/Spartanburg, but the folks in Cincinnati didn’t want any more incoming planes at the time.

Anyway, to make a long boring airport story short, we got home almost right on time; we got to the gate at HTS at 7:58, when our scheduled arrival time was 7:54. We picked up our luggage and Beth Ann drove us home.

There is just one final chapter to our travels, and it’s not a pleasant one. When we unpacked our bags, we found out that the Transportation Security Administration had gone through all three of our suitcases. Sarah was incensed, but I understand random searches and probable cause searches. There was a notice in the bags that TSA had searched the bags and another slip that they had removed some butane lighters from my suitcase. There were also 3 bottles of liquor that were missing.

I don’t smoke and I wasn’t carrying any lighters in that suitcase. I did pick up a couple of souvenir lighters on St. Thomas, but they were in a different suitcase and were not confiscated.

We bought 8 bottles of liquor on the cruise: 2 bottles of Cruzan Gold rum, 1 bottle of Bacardi rum, 1 bottle of Chocolate Amaretto, 2 bottles of Crown Royal, 1 bottle of Guavaberry and 1 bottle of Guavaberry Lime liqueur. In one box were the 2 bottles of Cruzan, the Amaretto and the Bacardi. In the other box was the Crown Royal and Guavaberry. Both boxes were sealed with tape and the second box had some tshirts in it to pad the bottles from bumping into each other.

When I opened the suitcase, the box that contained the Cruzan had 1 bottle of Cruzan, the Bacardi, the Amaretto and the Guavaberry. There was no sign of the second box and one bottle of Crown Royal was lying loose in the suitcase. All of the clothes that I had used as padding were in the suitcase.

So somewhere between Orlando and Huntington, 3 bottles of liquor disappeared. There is nothing on the Notice of Baggage Inspection that tells me where the bags were searched and who did the searching. This makes me a little suspicious. I called TSA and they only have a claim form I can fill out for missing/damaged items and Delta baggage claim does not have any provisions that items that are missing after a TSA search.

It bothers me that someone can search my luggage anonymously and apparently take items out without any oversight. The person(s) who searched my bags apparently do not have to leave their names or ID/badge numbers and there is no apparent way I can find out who it was.

The monetary value of what is missing is negligible (about $38). I understand that some alcohol is a fire hazard (Everclear or Bacardi 151, for instance). However, none of what I was carrying was labeled as a hazardous material and interestingly, only what I had two of came up missing. I would even understand if the lighters were confiscated.

What truly disturbs me is that I could have had jewelry, my digital camera, a family heirloom or something else of more value (sentimental or actual) in my bags and it could have been stolen without me having any way to recover it or even find out who was in my bags.

There were also some things around the house that were broken/damaged but they will be fixed. Still, it was good to be home after 11 days and we’re already talking about taking another cruise.

Vacation Diary: Day 10, Sunday, 10 October 2004

When we woke up, the boat had already docked, although none of the passengers had disembarked. Each cabin was assigned different colour tags for their luggage and disembarkation was called out by colour, with the people with earlier connections being given priority.

Since most of our stuff was packed in the suitcases, we had a handful of things packed in the backpack, plus 8 liters of liquor in bottles we had packed in carry-boxes. They wanted us out of the room by 8:00 am so they could get it cleaned for the next guests, but we still had time to pick up a quick breakfast; Sarah went for one last serving in the main dining room, I went back up to the Windjammer.

We did one final once-over in the room then went up to the pool deck to wait for them to call our luggage tag colour. I had originally thought that Betsy & Dave would be picking us up early, so I put 9:00 as our connection time. That placed us in one of the first groups to be called. As soon as we pulled into port, I called Dave and they left Orlando for the hour or so drive to Port Canaveral.

With no place to stay and nothing really to do, we sat with Jim and Peggy to await disembarkation. They called our colour at about 9:00 and we headed off the boat, stopping first by Immigration and Customs, then we went to pick up our luggage.

We gathered everything up and went to wait for Betsy and Dave who arrived a short time later. While waiting, we ran into a guy who called the trip, “the worst damn trip” he had ever been on. Apparently, he was 88 years old and thought the boat was too big and he hated walking everywhere. He recommended Holland America. I also talked to another woman who was a travel agent and sold cruises; she enjoyed Royal Caribbean, although she said the slots were looser and the food was better on Carnival and there were more kids activities on Disney. Different strokes for different folks, I guess.

So after Betsy and Dave picked us up, we drove back to their house and dropped off our luggage then went to an art festival in Winter Park. We ate at a New York style Italian restaurant called Pannullo’s. I had scallops over ziti with a white sauce that was good, but there was a lot of bacon in the sauce that overpowered the other flavours.

We also stopped by The Cheesecake Factory and picked up a couple of slices of cheesecake for dessert later. I got a slice of traditional cheesecake with strawberries and whipped cream and Sarah got the chocolate mousse. We went back to Betsy and Dave’s where I actually got to see the Jaguars play on TV; too bad it was being blown out by the Chargers. I took a short nap while Sarah finished one of her books.

Earlier in the day, Betsy made a reservation at The Melting Pot, one of the few chains Sarah and I actively seek out when we travel, so we went there for dinner. The four of us split one of the dinners for two which featured a cheese fondue appetizer (the traditional swiss), salads (I had the house salad with their to-die-for house sweet and sour dressing, Sarah had the mushroom salad) and the court bouillon entree with beef teriyaki, filet mignon, shrimp, chicken, mahi-mahi, salmon and vegetables. It was wonderful (as usual).

We finished dinner and debated on whether to get one of their chocolate fondue desserts, but ended up going back to Betsy and Dave's for our cheesecake.

Day 9, Saturday, 9 October 2004



Boo-hoo! The last full day of the cruise. We were sad.

So sad in fact, we had to start with breakfast at the usual places. Then it was more laying out for Sarah and walking on the jogging track. The two days at sea were unusually rough. The boat seemed to be moving a lot, but it still wasn’t bad. After all, it takes a helluva a wave to move a 140,000 ton boat.

Thursday night, with our usual cruise update, we received a set of envelopes to tip the service personnel who worked most closely with us, the cabin steward, the head waiter, our main waiter and the assistant waiter and suggested gratuities for each person.

We ended up tipping Lloyd extra because he was so good; anything we asked for we got and he always had something nice to say when we saw him. We tipped Nickolay at the suggested rate, less the one day we ate in Portofino’s; Nickolay was good, if a bit over worked. We didn’t stiff Alejandro, but we didn’t tip him at the suggested rate because we thought he was slow and that he made Nickolay work extra hard. The head waiter we only saw once, but we tipped him at the suggested rate (which isn’t a lot) less the day we didn’t eat in the dining room.

I understand that tipping is an expected part of cruising, especially since it seems like most cruise lines pay their employees poorly. They had a way to automatically charge tips to your shipboard account, but we tipped in cash, partly because we wanted to pay them immediately, but also because we wanted to be able to adjust our tips (up and down) based on the quality of the service we received.

Some services, such as drinks at the bar, had the gratuity built into the bill. I guess you could ask them to remove the gratuity, but I think a lot of folks tipped on top of that because they didn’t read the bill. We also tipped the people in the spa at the time of our massages and the cruise line isn’t timid about pointing out when and how much gratuity is expected.

After some more time on deck, Sarah went to the spa to get a facial and massage package which was being advertised for $40 off the regular price on the last day. I spent the afternoon packing and preparing tips.

Following her massage, Sarah cleaned up then went to a wine tasting in Vintages wine bar. The theme of this tasting was “How merlot can you go?”, one of several different theme tastings they had on the boat. We then went to the finals of Karaoke Idol, which was won by the guy who did “Bust a Move”. One of the finalists apparently got sick and so instead of 8, there were 7, and two of the guys sang “My Way”.

Our final night in the dining room was a casual dinner; I didn’t write down what we had. We said good-bye to Nickolay, who had one more week on the ship before rotating off for two months, when he would decide if he wanted to sign on for another 6 months.

Sarah and I stopped in the casino again and gave them another $5, to put us down about $25 for the entire cruise. We then went to the Farewell Show in the Savoy Theater, featuring most of the entertainment staff on the boat, the singers and dancers and of course, Kirk.

Kirk read a list of things we would do when we got off the boat like, “You’ll go out to eat at a restaurant and leave without paying” and “You’ll wake up in the middle of the night and be hungry because it’s been 3 hours since you ate last.” He also had a list of stupid things he’s heard on the ship like, “Does the crew sleep on board?”, "Do you have to be Catholic to play Bingo?", “What do you do with the ice sculptures when they melt?” and “I didn’t pay $4,000 to look at a parking lot all week.”

We left the show and hung out on the promenade for the closing parade then went back to the room to finish packing and put our luggage out for disembarkation. Sarah went to bed (no late nights for her) and I went to the late night adult comedy show featuring stand-up comedian Jim David, who was funny, but not great.

When I got back to the room, our luggage had been collected so I crashed for the night.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Vacation Diary: Day 8, Friday, 8 October 2004

Friday was the first of two consecutive sea days and it was when we realised that the week was almost over. On each of the elevators is a plate that shows what day of the week it is; we were very sad to see that it was already Friday.

We started the day by sleeping in. After being away from work for over a week, “sleeping in” for me meant 8:30. Being a sea day, it was slow, which was good.

We got up and Sarah and Peggy went to the main dining room for breakfast; I had my usual in the Windjammer. One of the things we tried to do was poll the other guests as to whether they liked Royal Caribbean compared to other cruise lines. We found out that the general consensus is that the food is better on Princess and Carnival and there’s more stuff for kids on Disney, but that no other boat has as much stuff to do than the Royal Caribbean mega-ships.

After breakfast, Sarah and Peggy went to lay out at the pool and get some sun. I tried to walk about 2 miles (10 laps around the jogging track) every day and get some time on the elliptical every day to keep my weight from ballooning due to the vast amounts of food that were readily available, so I got my time in then.

After a leisurely lunch in the Windjammer, I went aft to the sports deck and took a shot at the boat’s rock-climbing wall. I’m deathly scared of heights and I figured I’d never get another chance (until my next cruise) to go rock-climbing for “free”. So I suited up and ended up first in line.

I got a good start with lots of hand and foot-holds low, but as I got further up the wall, the holds got smaller and smaller. Finally, I came to a place and made two mistakes: First, I stopped and second I looked down. I got dizzy and had to come down. Still, I made it farther up than I ever thought I would (and have some pictures to prove it).

We went to clean up and get ready for the second formal night of the cruise. Before dinner was one of the three ice skating shows so we got dressed and went to the show, which was very good, unless you’re spooked by clowns, in which case it would have been terrifying.

After the ice show we went to dinner, which was very good. I had the lobster tail entree (actually I had a couple); Sarah had the prime rib, which she said was tough. There was a family that ate next to us every night that had two young kids and the wife’s sister with them and they were alone Friday night; I guess the sister decided they needed a night out by themselves. The parents looked like they didn’t know what to do without any rugrats to horde their attention.

It was after dinner that I realised that I had lost my soda cup. I had it when I went rock-climbing, but it was nowhere to be found after dinner. Thankfully, the folks at the pursers desk were very helpful and I got another one without having to pay $12 more for the last two days of the cruise.

The show on Friday night was called “Pure Energy” and featured 80s music. The show was very good, if you like 80s music. The four featured singers in the show were all good. One reminded me of Kimberly Locke, one reminded me of Clay Aiken and one looked like Riff-Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sarah dreaded the 80s theme of the show, but it wasn’t so bad.

After “Pure Energy”, we went back to the Lotus Lounge for the second round of the ship’s Karaoke Idol. Some of the same people from the night before were there and there were some new ones.

There were the usual Karaoke standards (“I Will Survive”, “Respect” and “My Way”) but also some not so regular ones (“Bust a Move”, “I Fall to Pieces”). There was one audience judge who was obviously in cahoots with some of the contestants; they all happened to be from Huntsville, AL, despite some of the singers being obviously inferior. However, the guy who won the night was a black guy who did “Bust a Move” and he rocked.

There was one other woman who was so awful she deserves special mention. She tried, and I emphasised “tried” to sing “Respect”. When the first notes came out, all of us jumped it was so bad. There was a black couple sitting behind us and all they could do was laugh. I turned to the woman and said, “Yes, I’ll take ‘Songs White People Shouldn’t Sing’ for 500, please” and that brought a chuckle.

Friday was also the night for the Gala Buffet in the main dining room. It was so big, they had a 45 minute “viewing” before the buffet began. The only other things I know of that have viewings are funerals. Still, the buffet looked magnificent, with lots of marzipan centerpieces and ice sculptures and other food.

For us the highlight of the buffet was another shot at the double-layer chocolate fudge cake we had in the cafe earlier in the week, but didn’t see again, much to our chagrin. We took a couple of plates back to our room loaded mostly with dessert and then went to bed (leaving a couple of pieces of double-layer chocolate fudge cake in the fridge for tomorrow).

Vacation Diary: Day 7, Thursday, 7 October 2004

Thursday was another port day, this time in Phillipsburg, Sint Maarten. The northern half of the island is owned by the French and the southern part by the Dutch. Everyone speaks English and they readily accept American dollars.

We woke up just as the boat was docking. One of the things about having a cabin on Deck 2 is that it’s very close to the waterline and all of the mechanical parts of the ship. So whenever one of the ships maneuvering thrusters or azipods fires up, we heard it. I think if we’d been up another deck, we wouldn’t have heard anything.

I got up and took some pictures from the boat, but for some reason, they’re all blurry. It’s like the lens was fogged over when going from inside where there was air conditioning to outside where it was warm and humid. Looking back, I wished that I had brought the laptop so I could have downloaded the pictures right then and been able to take more pix .

Sarah went to the main dining room again for breakfast; I went up to the Windjammer for eggs, smoked salmon, cottage cheese, bacon and some fruit.

In Sint Maarten, the boat docked in Phillipsburg harbour, which has gorgeous crystal-clear water. At the dock, there is a small shopping area and a water taxi stop. The taxi goes to a marina and to the main shopping area in Phillipsburg. You can pay either $3 each way or $5 for the whole day.

The folks in Phillipsburg have done a good job of presenting the city as a tourist destination. Right at the dock where the water taxi stops is a main boulevard and shops. Unlike Nassau or St. Thomas, the shops are clean and they’ve gone out of their way to hide the locals as much as possible. There’s also a beach with soft white sand right there.

From the shopping seminar I went to on Tuesday, I had several coupons for “free” stuff, so we set out to collect. We met Jim and Peggy at the boat ramp so we spent the morning poking around Phillipsburg and found out that Peggy was out for jewelry (it was her anniversary, after all).

We checked out a couple of jewelry stores (there seemed to be a gazillion) and Peggy finally found a 1 carat diamond pendant that she liked which was priced for just under $50 for every year she and Jim had been married. While in the jewelry stores, the sales people kept trying to get Sarah to try stuff on, but she didn’t go for it, partly because she doesn’t usually wear a lot of jewelry and partly because she thought she might buy something.

The sales guy who sold Jim Peggy’s pendant kept offering us drinks: water, cola, even beer. Jim managed to talk the guy down from his initial price and, compared to prices in the States, he really got a good deal.

We walked down the main street (which was being dug up and the bricks put back down since it was the off-season) as Jim looked for a straw hat. We walked by one shop that was advertising both water and Heineken for $1.

The shopping area in Phillipsburg looks very nice and is devoid of a lot of the crap that we saw in Nassau. Sure there is lots of chincy touristy stuff, but for the most part, the things for sale in Sint Maarten were on the higher end of the quality scale than the stuff in Nassau, St. Thomas or even Tijuana.

After getting the pendant for Peggy, the four of us did some power shopping. Nick Maley, one of the creature creators for ILM has set up a shop in Phillipsburg. Nick is the guy who is credited for creating the models for Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I picked up an autographed picture of Nick working on a Yoda model and had my picture taken with him. You can read more about Nick Maley at his website.

Just across from Nick’s shop is The Belgian Chocolate Shop, a local chocolatier. Sarah went in when there was no other business and the young lady behind the counter kept feeding her samples. Both Nick Maley’s shop and The Belgian Chocolate Shop are “guaranteed” by Royal Caribbean and the chocolate shop delivers to the boat, so we didn’t have to carry the chocolate around while it melted. You can visit their website here.

We also went to a Del Sol store. Del Sol is a chain that specialises in colour-changing items, ranging from sunglasses to shirts to nail polish to jewelry. We went by one in St. Thomas but the store on Sint Maarten was giving away a “free” keychain with a purchase. The stuff in Del Sol is pretty cool; when you take the item out in the sun, it changes colour. Sarah bought some nailpolish for Luke’s girlfriend and we got our keychain.

Our next stop was the World Famous Guavaberry Emporium. When we walked in, they started feeding us shots of Guavaberry liquor. Guavaberries are a local fruit harvested on Sint Maarten and used medicinally and sold to tourists. They had regular guavaberry, lime, almond, chocolate and a couple of other flavours. Of course, we had to try a shot of each and even a guavaberry daiquiri. We ended up getting a bottle of guavaberry liquor and a bottle of guavaberry lime. Check out their website at Guavaberry.com.

Since we were getting loaded on guavaberry, we decided to look for something to eat. We headed back to the boat to change and Sarah, Jim and Peggy ended up staying back on the ship. I went back to Phillipsburg hoping to find something to eat and maybe go jet-skiing. There were a couple of restaurants in the main shopping square, but I didn’t find any that had low prices and didn’t have a line, so I skipped lunch.

I also made the mistake of assuming that the jet-ski rental place accepted credit cards and I didn’t bring enough cash to go jet-skiing. I did, however, manage to go swimming in the Caribbean (and have pictures to prove it). The water was clear and warm. Because of the way the harbour is shaped, there are virtually now waves; I normally hate the beach, but this one was very nice.

There’s not a lot one can do at the beach alone, so I toweled off and went back into town. I was curious to see if the prices on electronics were as low as everyone said, so I went into a “guaranteed” electronics shop and asked about digital cameras.

They had a Minolta Dimage A1 5.0 mega-pixel camera I really liked. The initial price was $499, and included the camera, a set of rechargeable batteries, a carrying case, all of the hardware/software to connect it to a computer and a memory card. They also had the 4.0 mega-pixel version for $399. I probably could have talked them down some more, or gotten them to throw in some more stuff for “free” if I’d really tried.

Remember the catchphrase from the shopping seminar, “If you see it and you like it, buy it”? Well, I didn’t remember that and when I got home, I found the same camera at Best Buy for $834 and now I’m kicking myself for not having bought it.

After returning to the boat, I found Sarah taking a nap, so I went up to gym and walked on the elliptical for 20 minutes. I made the mistake of getting on the scale they had there; by Thursday, I was up 6 pounds. I should not have been surprised; I was eating 3 meals a day, having generous portions and I was drinking soda (mostly Sprite). Frankly, I’m surprised I was only up 6 pounds.

We had dinner reservations at Portofino’s, an Italian specialty restaurant on the boat. There is a $20 per person charge to eat there. Since it was Jim and Peggy’s anniversary, we also had a bottle of white Merlot delivered from Vintages wine bar on the Promenade to go with dinner.

Mariner of the Seas has two specialty restaurants, Portofino’s and Chops steakhouse. We were debating which one to go to, but Nickolay recommended Portofino’s, not that Chops is bad, but they didn’t have anything you couldn’t find in a good steakhouse. He said the menu at Portofino’s is that of a high-end Italian restaurant and couldn’t be had anywhere else for less than about $50 per person, so we went to Portofino’s.

Our dinner reservation was for 7:00 pm, so we went to the top deck as the boat departed Sint Maartin at 6:00. We got to watch the sun set as we pulled out of the harbour and headed back to Florida.

A little before 7:00 we went up to Portofino’s. The food was spectacular. I had a carpaccio and risotto appetizer, lobster and spaghetti pasta and filet-mignon entree. For dessert, I had a flourless chocolate cake with strawberries, a coffee cream sauce and a chocolate cream sauce. They also had a tuna entree that I was very close to ordering, too. Sarah had the chicken parmigiana, and it was very good, too. Like all of the other dining rooms, Portofino’s is an all-you-can-eat place, so for the $20, I could have ordered another entree, even if all I wanted was a couple of bites of the tuna.

Sarah said we would have to roll her out of the restaurant so we walked around the boat for a little while longer then went to the evening’s show, which was a guy named Finis Henderson a celebrity impersonator and musician. He was okay; I didn’t particularly care for his act, but he was good. His website is Finis.com. Finis did some good impressions, but his pants were waaaayyyyy too tight, like “Jew or Gentile” tight. Yech.

We left the show and went up a deck to the Lotus Lounge. They had a jazz quartet playing when we got there, but that was followed by The Liar’s Club Game Show and Karaoke, both of which were terribly funny.

The Liar’s Club featured four crew staff, each dressed as a different character: Fifi Le Pure, Dieter, Sheila Dundee and Peter Proper. The host would give out a word and each contestant would give a definition, but only one was correct. The audience was broken into teams and had to guess who was giving the correct definition. The team that had the most correct answers won a price (bottle openers or keychains or something like that).

The words included shittah, vagitis, whisperpoop and haushole. Jim laughed so hard I thought his head was going to explode. Fifi had a ridiculous (fake) French accent, Deiter was played by a Canadian guy as a German model, Sheila was a real Aussie and Peter was a real uptight Canadian. Fifi kept taunting Peter about girls and using the phrase, “Did you lick it? Lick it! Lick it! Lick it! Lick it!” which was often followed by “We are SOOOOOO fired!” It may have been a “you had to be there” thing, but it was really, really funny.

Almost immediately after Liar’s Club was, Karaoke. I love Karaoke, not singing or performing myself, but watching other people (most of whom have been drinking). Some of the folks were good, some were bad and some were really bad.


A girl named Hazel sang ABBA’s Dancing Queen and she was horrible. Two folks sang Patsy Cline songs and were good; one girl sang “After Midnight” and another sang “Crazy”, but mostly the performances ranged from bad to very bad, like the two brothers that tried to sing, BBMak’s “Back Here”. Still it was very funny.

There was one group that consisted of two couples who were part of a 45 person family reunion on the ship. Sarah and I were talking about sending out an email to all of our family and seeing who would be interested in having a family reunion on a big ship. Royal Caribbean loves big groups and gives out group rates; in addition to the 45 person family, there were 162 shriners from Sarasota and a VFW post from the midwest on board.

The Karaoke left us laughing until our sides split, so we called it a night before two full days at sea.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Vacation Diary: Day 6, Wednesday, 6 October 2004

Wednesday was a busy day. St. Thomas.

The first thing we had to do was check in with US Immigration. Because we had visited a foreign port (Nassau) and then come back to a US territory, everyone had to be checked through by the Border Patrol.

We stood in line behind one of the 72 newlywed couples that were on the Mariner of the Seas for their honeymoon. They had been married for something like 8 days and it might have been their first time coming up for air. They were very nice, even though they tried to save us with a Jesus pamphlet. While we were standing in line, we passed through one of the ship’s kitchens and saw a bottle of Kirschwasser, a cherry liqueur used in cooking. We almost swiped it.

After Immigration, we went down stairs for breakfast in the main dining room; Sarah and Peggy ate there often. They said they liked being waited on instead of serving themselves at the buffet. I had a bacon, eggs and hashed browns breakfast; Sarah had toast, cereal and eggs.

Everyone has assigned seating at dinner, but for breakfast and lunch, everything is first-come, first served, so they sit you at the first open table with complete strangers (unless you have a large party). We got to talking with folks who had been on cruises before and tried to pump them for things to do in St. Thomas.

They recommended a couple of jewelry shops and said the prices were excellent.

We left breakfast, went back to the cabin and packed our backpack for an excursion into St. Thomas. When we decided to book the cruise, the one thing I really wanted to do was go snorkeling or SCUBA diving. Unfortunately, because my vision is so bad, I need a diving mask with prescription lenses in it or I need to start wearing contacts. Dive masks with prescription lenses run about $200 in the states and contacts and contact eye exams cost about the same, so it hardly seemed worth it to spend that, plus $100 for the diving excursion.

So the day before, I found a pamphlet for something called BOB (or Breathing Observation Bubble). You can read more about them here and they have a company that rents them on St. Thomas. I thought about doing this, but decided not to spend the money and instead Sarah, Peggy, Jim and I booked the Island Driving Tour, which was approximately a 2½ hour driving trip around St. Thomas beginning in the capitol of Charlotte Amaile.

We disembarked from the boat and were looking for Jim and Peggy when the shore excursions guy told us the last bus was about to leave. So we hopped on without any sign of Jim & Peggy.

The island tour itself was pretty interesting. Our driver’s name was “Panhandle” a tall black man with a distinctive, but not unintelligible, Caribbean accent. One thing about the USVI: even though they’re a US territory, they drive on the left side of the road, which is a little unnerving, especially when trying to cross the street.

The other thing you notice about the islands in the Caribbean is that everyone lives on the side of a hill. I thought things were bad in West Virginia, but I’ll tell you, we’ve got nothing on people in St. Thomas. The other thing I noticed is that everyone has what looks like a swimming pool on the roof. It’s not a pool, it’s a cistern.

We stopped at several scenic overlooks around St. Thomas and the driver gave us a couple of narratives about the sights. The truck was pretty scary. It was an old (early 90s) Ford F-250 long wheelbase pickup with the bed removed and replaced with six rows of seats and a cover. As we were going up hill, I could hear the engine struggling and going down hill, I could smell the brakes.

At one of the photo spots, there were some folks selling t-shirts and bottled water; I didn’t get a t-shirt there and we brought our own water. I got some nice pictures of the boat and of the Disney Magic ship that was also in port. At another scenic overlook, we saw the island of St. John and Megan’s Bay, a beach with sparkling sand and crystal-clear water.

Above Megan’s bay is a concrete bench called Drake’s seat. Sir Francis Drake, the legendary English “Sea Dog” allegedly sat in the same spot while on the lookout for ships coming in and out of the islands.

The next stop was the “World Famous” Mountain Top souvenir shack, supposedly the home of the banana daiquiri. We didn’t buy anything thing but we got a random stranger to take our picture in front of Megan’s Bay. Another interesting thing about St. Thomas is that the island is being overrun by American stores. There was a brand new Home Depot, McDonald’s and other franchises.

We left Mountain Top and had Panhandle drop us off in town, near the prime shopping areas. We went in a store called Diamonds International where I picked up a free gold-plated bracelet with a diamond charm. We also went into a store called A.H. Riise that specialises in duty free liquor, perfume and cigarettes.

Being a US Territory, the customs rules for St. Thomas are a little different from the other islands. Normally, you are only allowed to bring 1 liter of liquor per person into the US without having to pay an import duty. However, you are allowed an additional 3 liters if they are purchased on St. Thomas, and you are allowed an additional liter if that is a product of St. Thomas that was purchased on the island.

We didn’t find any Kirschwasser, but we got two bottles of Cruzan Gold, a local brand, for $4.95 each, a 1.14 liter bottle of Bacardi rum for $6.95 and a bottle of chocolate Amaretto liqueur for $7.95. That probably would have run about $50 back in the States. One other thing about the cruise line’s “guaranteed” stores: if you buy stuff from them by early afternoon, they’ll deliver it to the ship for you, although if you buy any liquor, you’re not supposed to keep it in your cabin.

After A.H. Riise, we walked around some more. Sarah found a t-shirt for Matt that changes colour in the sun, and I found the St. Thomas Hard Rock Cafe, where I naturally had to pick up a city t-shirt.

There wasn’t any place in town where we wanted to eat, so we hopped a taxi back to the boat ($3 each). It turns out we got back just in time; it started to rain just as we boarded the boat. Jim and Peggy, who were also told, “The last bus is about to leave” finished the tour and got back about an hour ahead of us, were on deck and got wet.

Sarah and I dropped our bags off at the room then went up to the Windjammer for lunch. The rain passed through pretty quickly but it drizzled on and off for the rest of the afternoon. The downtown area of Charlotte Amalie is about 3 miles away and only accessible by taxi, but there is a small shopping area nearby within walking distance called the Havenstreet Market.

Sarah went to take a nap and I went into the small shopping area. One of the stores was a Bernard K. Passman Gallery. Bernard Passman is an artist who specialises in black coral sculpture and jewelry. He has a special license to harvest black coral and highlights it with gold and diamonds. His jewelry is absolutely gorgeous. Check out their website here.

Sarah and I stopped at a gallery in Charlotte Amaile, and they tried to sell us some rather pricy jewelry. One of the things Sarah saw was the Sunrise Cross, which could be had for the reasonable sum or $1,099. Needless to say, Sarah didn’t want to pay that much for jewelry, so we didn’t get it. While I was at the Havenstreet Market, I found a smaller Passman Gallery and I picked up a black coral pendant in the shape of a heart. There is no gold or diamonds in the pendant and I got it for the much more reasonable sum of $95.

I headed back to the ship and stopped to get some pix of the Disney Magic, which was also in port. Ordinarily, I’d think the Magic was a huge ship, at almost 900 feet, it easily qualifies as a mega-ship, but next to the Mariner of the Seas, it was over 100 feet shorter bow to stern and about two decks shorter.

Just before dinner, I went to a trivia game in the Lotus Lounge. Nothing exciting; my team lost but it was still fun. We had dinner in the main dining room again. It must not have been too great because I didn’t bother to write down what I ate.

A kid one table over looked like he was sick. He kept sinking down in his seat and disappeared from view several times. Happily, he appeared to make a full recovery the next night.

After dinner, the show started later (10:30) than usual, so Jim & Peggy went up to the spa and gym with us. The Mariner has one of the nicest gyms I’ve ever seen. There is a huge hot tub with weights, exercise machines and a room for group exercises (spinning, step aerobics, kickboxing, etc.). The ellipticals, treadmills and bikes have heart monitors on them and workout programs. Peggy got on one of the ellipticals but it coldn’t find her heart rate. We decided to hang out in the hot tub until the show later.

The evening’s entertainment was the “Love and Marriage Game Show” in the main theater. Like the Quest, the show was an absolute riot. The game was set up like The Newlywed Game, only with cruise guests willing to embarrass themselves in front of everyone else on the boat.

There was one couple who was on their honeymoon, one couple that had been married for about 1½ years, a couple who had been married for over 20 years, and a couple that had been married for over 40 years.

In the first part of the show, the girls were sent out of the room while the guys were asked questions. When the girls were brought back, they were asked the same questions and points were awarded if the answers matched. The questions were almost all embarrassing, such as “What colour underwear is your wife wearing tonight?” to “Which member of your wife’s family would you not want to be stuck in a traffic jam with?” to “What is your wife’s bra size?”

The newlywed man answered, “Medium” and the host made him pick an actual bra size (30A). When the woman was asked what he said, she replied, “Do you want a number because I know he said, ‘Medium’?” It was very funny.

Then the guys were sent out of the room and the girls were asked questions. “What is the first thing your husband puts his hands on in the morning?” (The remote, a cup of coffee, her butt and “himself”). The newlyweds won and were awarded with a bottle of wine and some Royal Caribbean knick-nacks.

After the Love and Marriage Game Show, Sarah and I went up to the pool deck where they had a midnight buffet and pool party. The pools themselves were closed, but they had line dancing, a band and a lot of food. We pigged out some more then went to bed.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Vacation Diary: Day 5, Tuesday, 5 October 2004

Tuesday was four first full day at sea. We thought about taking a cruise for our honeymoon, but decided against it, 1) because of the cost (we went to Vegas for $500 each including airfare, but including food, it probably worked out to cost about the same) and 2) because we were a little apprehensive about being stuck on a boat for a week.

Let me tell you: there is no shortage of stuff to do on the big boats. If you want to spend all week laying out on the deck by the pool, you can. If you want to spend all week giving the casino your money, you can. There are activities and entertainment going on all week and no shortage of things to do. The only down time we had was when we chose not to do anything.

Sarah slept in, but I was still on my work time (I get up at 6:15 or so every day), so I got up and went to the spa for 20 minutes on the elliptical and a couple of laps around the jogging track. When I got back, I showered and we went to breakfast in the Windjammer Café, where they had a traditional breakfast buffet with fruit, pancakes, an omelette station, toast, eggs, bacon, cold cereal, a juice bar and best of all, grits.

As I‘ve said before, the food was not spectacular, but it was far from bad and even a couple of steps above “good”. The breakfast buffets were especially good.

Sarah took her towel out and lay by the pool. I went to a Q&A hosted by the ship’s shopping gurus. They have a list of places that are “guaranteed” (read: give the cruise line kickbacks for sending business their way, but also will back up their prices and guarantee the quality of their goods). There were lots of giveaways at the seminar, but the one thing he kept repeating was, “If you see it and like it, buy it” and “Don’t go home with regrets.”

Sadly, I did not take his advice.

After the shopping Q&A, I met Sarah for lunch, also in the Windjammer Café for a buffet lunch. The menu changed subtly every day; they always had hamburgers and french fries but one day they might have a Cajun chicken and the next beef with noodles.

At the beginning of the vacation, I told Sarah she was going to go to the spa if I had to hold a gun to her head, so when we took the tour of the boat on Sunday, we booked an appointment in the spa for Tuesday. We left lunch, then went back out to the deck for a little while and then went to the spa.

The spa takes up the forward part of Deck 12 on Mariner of the Seas. We opted for the “couples massage and float” which consists of a 25 minute massage and 25 minutes in a “float”, basically a large heated waterbed with a healthy dose of soothing music and aromatherapy thrown in. While one person is getting the massage, the other person gets the float, then you switch.

Our masseuse was Weena (pronounded VEE-na), a nice girl from Portugal. I was first on the massage table; Weena was very good, although I think I almost kicked her when she tickled one of my feet. The float was also surprisingly nice; I fell asleep.

After the massage, Weena sold us some massage oil and told us not to go out in the sun until we had taken a shower, drink lots of water, sit in the hot tub every day for the rest of the week and chided Sarah for not continuing to see a chiropractor for her back. The spa wasn’t cheap ($179 plus gratuity for the two of us), but it was very much worth it.

So we goofed off for the rest of the afternoon and went to dinner in the main dining room. Sarah had the sea bass, I had the rack of lamb; both were excellent. The dessert was cheesecake, which wasn’t very cheesy, so we stopped by the café on the promenade and picked up a couple of slices of double layer fudge cake that was simply wonderful. It was the only day we saw the cake in the café and we asked for it all week long (unfortunately, we didn’t see it again until the Gala Buffet later in the week).

The show in the theater was “Front Row” a montage of Broadway showtunes. The singers and dancers were all very good, and the production value surprised me; the show actually looked better than some Broadway shows I’ve seen.

Sarah was worn out so she went to bed. I stayed up, gave another $5 to the casino then went to “The Quest” in Studio B, a secondary theater that doubles as an ice skating rink. The main theater is the Savoy, which seats several hundred in two levels. Studio B is smaller (seats about 350) and has video displays and a dance floor they put down when there’s no ice skating.

The Quest was a riot. It started out with an announcement, “This show is for adults only. If you are under 18 and your parents aren’t here, you need to leave. If you brought your kids, you might want to take them somewhere else because they’re going to get an education you may not want them to have yet.”

Cruise Director Kirk divided the audience in to 15 teams and each team selected a captain. The Quest was something of a scavenger hunt; Kirk would call out an item and the audience would have to produce that time within about 1 minute, so you couldn’t leave the room to get it. As each team produced the item, Kirk called out their team number and awarded points.

Things started out tame. The first item was “a piece of fruit”, so people were pulling the oranges and cherries out of their drinks. Things stayed reasonably tame for the next couple items: a picture of the White House (on the back of the $20 bill), a sock with a hole in it (one girl ripped some guy’s sock forgetting that all socks have holes in them-where you put your foot in).

Kirk then went on to some stranger items: a set of dentures and “someone with an appendectomy scar”. Then things started to get wild. The next few items were: “a man wearing lipstick”, “two women doing the electric worm”, and “two men skipping together”. All of this was very, very funny. Throughout the contest, there were dance breaks and lots of funny off-colour comments.

Finally, they started to get seriously off-kilter. Kirk first asked for “a man wearing women’s shoes.” Then he asked for a bra. Of the bras that were brought up, he kept one of the larger cup sizes and after everyone was done, pronounced that there was a stand in the Nassau Straw Market that was missing its cover.

The last thing the teams needed to produce was a man, stripped down to his underwear, wearing lipstick, women’s shoes and a bra. I thought I was going to fall out of my chair, I was laughing so hard. The things people will do on a cruise ship full of strangers, especially after being loaded up on drinks.

After The Quest, Studio B opened up to kids and became the “Dancing Through the Decades” dance party. I didn’t stay for that (I don’t dance) so I went to bed to prepare for St. Thomas.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Vacation Diary: Day 4, Monday, 4 October 2004

Monday was a much slower day, although it started off weird. The guest cabins do not have clocks in them. One of Sarah’s weird tendencies is that she can’t sleep in a room that doesn’t have a clock in it she can read in the middle of the night, so be brought a small travel alarm clock with us. When we unpacked, we set up the clock and set the alarm to get us up early so we could get an early start on Nassau.

At 7:00 am, the alarm goes off. I stumbled out of bed and went to take a shower. I got out of the shower and thought Sarah would be up and watching TV while waiting for me to get out of the cramped bathroom. Instead, she was buried under the covers and the TV was off. I said, “Aren’t you going to get up?”

“Not at 6 am,” came the muffled reply. I turned on the TV to the Royal Caribbean’s information channel and sure enough it was a little after 6:00 in the morning. Apparently, our alarm clock picked up over an hour overnight. Maybe it was because we were in the Bermuda Triangle. Or maybe the clock has just gone psycho.

Anyway, since I was already up and showered, I took the camera and went walking around the boat. We were a little ways out of Nassau, so I got a picture of the sun rising over the Bahamas and watched as the boat docked. I had packed a sweatshirt in case it got cool at night with the breeze, but it was still very comfortable in a t-shirt and shorts.

After a little bit I went back to the cabin for what was supposed to be breakfast in bed. Each cabin had forms you could leave on the door for breakfast and as long as the form was filled out by 3 am, room service would deliver breakfast when you wanted (they even call ahead to make sure you’re ready). There is no additional cost, except to tip the room service guy.

Each of us had an omelette with fruit and bread, so we dug in as the boat docked. We had a nice view of the pier from our cabin. The Mariner of the Seas doesn’t have a traditional screw propeller and rudder; instead there are three propellers on swivel mounts and some maneuvering jets along the sides of the boat. In port, the captain can move the ship left to right in a straight line to parallel park; it’s really quite amazing.

So after breakfast, we packed up the backpack with a couple of bottles of water, a little bit of cash and set off to see the sights of Nassau. One of the more annoying things about the cruise is that there were ship photographers everywhere including on the gangways on and off the boat. Of course there is no obligation to buy any of the pictures they take and they’d usually walk away if you said, “No, thank you”, but their omnipresence was a little bothersome.

The ship docked at 8:00 am, but most of the shops and attractions don’t open until 10:00. Being a part of the British Empire, everyone drives on the left and there are apparently on 5 street signs on the whole island. That made land navigation a little strange and we got lost a couple of times (but we did see lots of nice back streets).

On our way to Ft. Fincastle we found a little church, the Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of the church as well as the Archdiocese of the Bahamas, which is a little stone church that was built in 1885. Right next to the original church, is a new stucco addition that was commissioned in March 2004.

We finally made it to Ft. Fincastle, only to find that it didn’t open to tourists for another hour. So we took a picture and went back to do some serious shopping. We looked at jewelry in a couple of places and Sarah even entered a raffle to win a diamond tennis bracelet at Diamonds International (but didn’t win). We also walked through the Straw Market which was just opening when we got there.

I was struck by how much of the same crap each booth had. It was like all 200 stands got their wares from the same 5 places and had basically the same stuff. The only booths that had unique items were the wood-carving artists who were working as you watched.

In our pre-cruise sight-seeing research, we had heard that the Straw Market had suffered a lot of damage from the hurricanes, but it was still operational. There is a metal frame around the area which was bare, but each booth was covered by a blue plastic tarp. I was frankly surprised that how little apparent hurricane damage there was in Nassau. Maybe it was because we didn’t see a lot of the really poor sections, but to me it looked like Orlando suffered far more physical damage than Nassau.

We walked around some more and I managed to find the Nassau Hard Rock Café and picked up a t-shirt there, plus I found the pen I wanted to buy for Grandma. Years ago, my dad and his brother sent Grandma and Grandpa on a cruise for their anniversary. They brought us pens back that had a little cruise ship that “sailed” from end to end depending on the way you tipped it. I made it my mission to find such a pen to buy for Grandma and I finally found it just as we were leaving.

On the way back to the boat, Sarah stopped at a stand and bought a straw purse from a vendor. We got a random stranger to take a picture of us then began walking back to the boat. As we got close, Sarah said, “What’s wrong with the boat?”

I shrugged. She continued, “What’s missing from the sides?”

All of the lifeboats were gone! It turns out they were in the harbour, tooling around under their own power, apparently in a crew-only evacuation drill. It was pretty cool and it was nice to know that the things work.

We boarded the ship and dropped off the few things we bought and then went up to the Windjammer Café for a buffet lunch. In the middle of lunch, a seaplane passed by, on its way to the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island. It’s a huge place; you can see it clearly from the boat and they even offer tours of the place and use of their casino.

After lunch, we went up to Deck 11 and hung out by the pool. Sarah laid out in the sun and I went to the gym to walk on one of the ellipticals for 20 minutes. Our stay in Nassau was short; we got in at 8:00 am and left at 2:00 pm. I was on the elliptical when the boat started moving, but the ship is so smooth that I didn’t notice that we had departed until I looked out the window and saw a building start to drift further and further away.

Once out to sea, we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around and doing nothing. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon on vacation.

Monday was the first of two formal nights on the cruise. We got dressed then went to dinner in the main dining room. We dodged more shutter-happy cruise photographers. Sarah had a tenderloin steak and I had the duck l’orange. Both were excellent. Sarah also got a bottle of wine with dinner; she said it was good, I just wanted to avoid a medevac to a hospital.

Following dinner, we went to the Promenade where the Captain of the ship, Tor Olsen of Norway gave a brief talk, introduced his staff and welcomed everyone aboard. Next was a comedy act of Two Funny Guys, a pair of really funny brothers from Chile. You can go to their website at www.twofunnyguys.com to learn more about them.

Jim and Peggy retired after the show; Sarah and I hit the casino. We finished Monday night down by about $15 to the slot machines. The slots on the Mariner of the Seas were very tight; I’ve heard that the slots on Carnival are looser and the slots in Vegas are the loosest in the world. I keep threatening to learn another casino game, but I don’t want to play games with a high house advantage like pai gow poker or roulette and I’m intimidated by craps. I think on the next cruise (or trip to Vegas), I’ll learn how to play craps.

Anyway, after giving Royal Caribbean $15 in quarters, Sarah and I went back to the main theater to see the “Late Night Adult Comedy” with Eric Lyden, who was again very funny, but with a lot more cursing and sex jokes. You can read more about Eric at www.ericlyden.com. If you get a chance to see him, he’s pretty funny.

The show started at midnight, so by 1:00 am when it ended we were pretty tired and went to bed.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Vacation Diary: Day 3, Sunday, 3 October 2004

Cruise Day!!!!!

We got up fairly early Sunday and drove to Maitland (about halfway between Ocoee and Lake Mary) and met Andrew, Megan and Mom for breakfast at Denny’s. As usual the place was freezing-ass cold, but since there’s one Denny’s within 4 hours of Huntington, I didn’t mind. I had the traditional Grand Slam breakfast, by the way.

After breakfast, we drove back to Betsy & Dave’s and did a last minute check of our luggage. We brought three suitcases to Florida, but only took two on the boat with us. We left the third at Betsy’s to fill with stuff we picked up in the islands.

We packed our stuff in Betsy’s van, then drove the rental car back to the airport and headed out to Port Canaveral, about an hour long drive. Our boarding time wasn’t until 2:00, so we left Orlando at about noon and got into Port Canaveral a little after 1:00. Security wouldn’t let Betsy & Dave park, so they dropped us off, took a “before” picture and left us at the dock.

Jim & Peggy linked up with us, then we went through security. Just ahead of us in line was a couple traveling with a young child, maybe 9 months old. They had it in a stroller and tried to push him through the metal detectors. Security told them they had to carry the baby through and they patted the stroller down. From then on, when we’d see this couple and the kid we called him the “terrorist baby”.

After security went through the check-in, got our Sea Passes (swipe cards where you charged your life away), showed our proof of citizenship and then got in line to board the boat. I’ll tell you, Royal Caribbean has a machine going. They processed 3,400 passengers in a matter of hours, set up everyone’s accounts and got us ready to go quickly, efficiently and courteously. I was very impressed.

The first thing we did was head to our cabin, which was on Deck 2, the lowest deck where there were guest quarters. We were in the aft section, near the elevators. It was a good room; kind of small, but we didn’t spend a lot of time there except to sleep. The bathroom was very cramped with room for only one person at a time and a small stand-up shower.

On the beds were our life-jackets; over-sized, blaze orange and really, really ugly. We put some of our things away, and then started exploring the ship. The Voyager-class boats Royal Caribbean has are absolutely huge. 1,020 feet long, 138,000 tons.

The first place we went was the Windjammer Café for a buffet lunch (what else?!, We were on a cruise!). I picked up an all-you-can-drink cup for unlimited soft drinks ($48 for the week); water, tea, milk, juice, and coffee were free, soft drinks and alcohol are extra.

We finished lunch, then headed forward and took a tour of the spa. The prime spa times filled up quickly, so we heeded some friends’s advice

They have a hair salon, nail shop, massages, facials, aromatherapy, hot stone massages, seaweed wraps, cellulite treatments, teeth whitening and anything else you could think of. They also have a large gym including a large adults-only hot tub, a weight room, enough treadmills, elipticals and exercise bike to fill a YMCA, and a workout room where they had kickboxing classes, step aerobics and other group workouts.

Before the cruise, I told Sarah she was going to have to spend a day in the spa if I had to hold a gun to her head and make her go, so while we were on the tour, we booked a couples massage and float treatment ($179 for both of us) on Tuesday, the first fully day at sea.

We left the spa in time to head back to our rooms and pick up our lift jackets for the mandatory evacuation drill. They lined us up, everyone on deck with big ugly life jackets on. We were still in port and it was hot, easily 85° of Florida sun.

As I was standing there, waiting for the “all clear”, I saw a woman walk by in a formal dress and her life jacket. Then I saw a guy in a tuxedo walk by in his life jacket. Next came a woman in a wedding gown. And a life jacket. It was pretty funny and I wish I’d had a camera with a faster shutter or I’d have gotten some pix of them.

Sarah ran into (literally) a woman in a wheelchair whose foot had been run over the day before by a car. Instead of going to see a doctor, the woman borrowed a wheelchair from someone and went on the cruise because she feared the doctor would want to either do surgery or hold her overnight and keep her from making the boat. I’d be interested to see if she suffers permanent disfigurement/disability because of this.

Following the evacuation drill, we stowed our life jackets back in the cabin and unpacked our bags. One thing several people told us is that there wasn’t a lot of space to store stuff. For us, there was more than enough stuff—and there would have been more if we hadn’t packed so much junk that we turned out not to need (like sweatshirts and 3 too many pairs of shorts).

One suggestion that was gold was to bring a toiletries bag with a hook on it to hang up in the bathroom. There isn’t a lot of counterspace and hanging all of our toothbrushes and hairspray and lotion on the towel rack saved us a lot of space. The only thing I wished I had brought was an extension cord with a power-outlet splitter on it. If we had brought the laptop, this would have been a must-have.

After unpacking, we went up to Deck 12 (the top open-air deck) and waited for the boat to depart. There was a Carnival boat in port and a Disney boat there; both were dwarfed by the Mariner of the Seas. The Disney boat was empty (I think for repositioning) but the Carnival boat was full. We waved and stayed on deck until we cleared the harbour.

We finally met up with Jim and Peggy again and went to dinner in the main dining room. We got a table for six, because Tom and his girlfriend were supposed to go, so we ended up having two empty seats all week, which was nicer than sitting with strangers. We got a wonderful view out of one of the main dining room windows at the early seating; I don’t know if we just got lucky or if our travel agent came through for us, but eating in the main dining room was a very pleasant experience.

Our main waiter was a guy named Nickolay, a guy of about 25 from Bulgaria. He had a Slavic accent, was very pleasant but didn’t quite understand how sick the sense of humour is in our family; Jim had a hard time understanding him but the rest of us did okay. The assistant waiter was Alejandro from Chile, who was a nice guy, but slow . . . not as in Forrest Gump slow, but leisurely.

The first night’s dinner, Sarah had the ribeye steak which she liked and I had the shrimp ravioli. Both were very good, although people later told us that the food on Royal Caribbean was “mediocre” or “average” compared to other cruise lines. We generally liked food, especially at Portofino’s (more on that later), but the desserts were a little below par (the cheesecake wasn’t very cheesy, but they had a double-fudge layer cake that was worth killing for).

After dinner, we killed some time walking along the Promenade and then went to the opening night show in the boat’s Savoy Theater, which seats maybe 600 people. The show featured the cruise director Kirk Detweiler (not a cute as Julie, but a very good host) and comedian Eric Lyden who was also very funny.

Kirk opened the show with Styx’s “Come Sail Away” which had me humming this tune all week (much to my chagrin) and also introduced the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers, 5 men and 9 women including 4 “featured” singers, and the Mariner of the Seas Orchestra, and 8 piece band. In addition, there was a guitarist who played in one of the pubs, a salsa band in one of the bars and a pianist who played in another. The entertainment was excellent and there were always lots of different things going on.

We didn’t go, but they also had a disco on board and on opening night there were several mixers for adults and kids and a parade on the promenade.

After the show, we headed back to the room and went to bed.

Vacation Diary: Day 2, Saturday, 2 October 2004

Saturday was a slower day. Sarah spent the day with Betsy. They went to an art show in Lake Mary, the Florida Mall and Target, where Sarah picked up a pair of sunglasses (the only thing either of us left behind) and a pair of denim shorts she found on sale.

I drove down to Ocoee and spent the afternoon with Mom, Andrew and Megan. We had lunch at Andrew’s; sandwiches and chips. Then we drove over to Lake Buena Vista and walked around the Disney Marketplace and Downtown Disney. We talked to Meredith and are trying to get Mom to get a cell phone.

Mom wanted to ride the boats around the lake, so we drove to the Grand Floridian and rented two of the little motor boats, one for Andrew and Megan and one for me and Mom. They’ve done away with the 3-seat (and very fast) jet boats they used to have, so the only options are for the 2 seaters with the outboard engines.

After that, we drove over to Universal Studios so I could stop by the Margaritaville Café where I got some pix (just to make my buddy Charley jealous), picked up a shirt and a pair of “University of Margaritaville” car window stickers and then went to the Hard Rock Café where I got a new Orlando "city" t-shirt.

By then, it was about 5:00, so we left Universal and met Sarah, Betsy, Dave and Betsy’s son Trevor at a place called Crazy Buffet in Altamonte Springs. Crazy Buffet features a standard Chinese all-you-can-eat menu, along with a Mongolian BBQ and all-you-can-eat sushi. The sushi was not great; they had a fairly wide variety and the fish is very fresh, but the serving style was very impersonal (as buffets tend to be). Still, it’s great for $20 a head. I've paid much more for far worse.

After dinner, Sarah and I went back to Andrew and Megan’s with Mom and hung out for a while before heading back to Chateau Betsy.

Vacation diary

Sarah and I just got back from a cruise. Seven nights on the Mariner of the Seas, one of Royal Caribbean's Voyager-class boats, the second largest cruise ships in the world (behind the Queen Mary).

The cruise started in Port Canaveral and went to Nassau, Bahamas, St. Thomas, USVI, and St. Maartin, NA. I'll be updating this as I finish my vacation diary, and hopefully, I'll be able to post some pictures as well.

Day 1, Friday, 1 October 2004


Our vacation started out shaky. Granny drove us to the airport Friday morning for a 10:20 flight. We got through security and sat in the lobby as our plane circled the airport waiting for clearance to land due to heavy fog. Bobby Pruett and a couple of his coaches were flying out to scout some kids in Mississippi so we got to listen to him schmooze over his cell phone.

Sarah and I plotted overthrowing Pruett's coaching staff and taking over with me as offensive coordinator, Sarah as special teams coordinator and installing Adam as defensive coordinator. Unfortunately, they let the plane land before we could mount our coup.

We finally got boarded and took off at 11:25 and barely got to Cincinnati in time to catch our 12:31 flight to Orlando. The plane landed at 12:15, but in the Cincinnati airport, all the puddlejumpers (even the small jets) land in the C concourse and if you’re connecting to a bigger plane, you have to take a bus to another concourse and hope you don’t miss the connection.

So we get off the plane, get on the bus and luckily out gate if right next to 1) bus drop-off point and 2) the food court. They were boarding our flight when we got there, so Sarah went to board the plane and tell them to wait just a minute while I ran (literally) through the Chick-Fil-A stand and picked up a couple of chicken sandwiches.

I got on the plane at 12:25 and wasn’t even the last person to board. It was a nice spacious jet and I took a nap.

We landed in Orlando right on time. When we pulled up to the gate and walked off the plane, the heat hit us. Well, it his Sarah; I remembered how hot Florida can be, even in October. When we left Huntington, it was probably 45°. The temperature in Orlando was 87° with about 65% humidity, so it was like walking into a brick wall.

After we picked up our bags, we took a shuttle bus to the Thrifty rental car lot to pick up our car for two days. There was hurricane damage everywhere. Trees were blown over, roofs were either patchwork or covered in places by tarps. We passed one hotel with a large glass atrium that was smashed and covered in tarps.

We picked up the rental car (a Dodge Stratus, nothing special) and drove to our friends Betsy and Dave’s house in Lake Mary. After unpacking, we hung out for a little while then decided to go out in search of food.

Betsy said she wanted to try out a restaurant called Blackfin so we headed that way, but the line was too long, so we ended up in a place called Amura, which is a high-end Japanese steakhouse and sushi bar. We sat in the sushi bar section, which was nice, if a little loud. There was a band playing on the patio and the evening was cooling off nicely. Amura runs about $25-40 per person for their entrees, and they have 101 different kinds of martinis.

Dave had sea scallops in a white sauce that was very good, Sarah and Betsy split a soba and chicken with vegetables plate and I had some very good tempura with a generous helping of sushi. I highly recommend Amura if you like Japanese cuisine with a splash of French flair.

After Amura, we walked around the outdoor shopping center and ended up at Coldstone for ice cream. Coldstone is a place with soft ice cream (not soft serve) and lots of toppings. The ice cream is scooped onto a marble slab, where the toppings are mixed in with the ice cream. It was pretty good. After dinner, we went back to Betsy and Dave’s and crashed.