Miami, St. Thomas, San Juan
Saturday, April 7, 2001
For Spring Break, Danielle and I decided at the last minute to take a cruise aboard the newly-launched Explorer of the Seas. It’s the sister ship of the Voyager of the Seas, on which we sailed last year. Explorer sails the Easter Caribbean, while Voyager continues its Western Caribbean itinerary. We got a great last minute deal on an outside cabin. We even ended up on the port side of the ship, which proved to be the best view throughout the cruise.
Unfortunately Linda, swamped with six simultaneous projects, couldn’t get away. Never mind that Disney is laying people off right and left, she seems to be required to do the work of half a dozen of them.
So Friday Danielle and I packed up and headed down to Ft. Lauderdale for a night at the beach. That way it’s a relaxed drive to the port on Saturday.
We had a nice time at the beach at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort. We invented a new game, “dueling towers”, where two identical towers made by inverting a plastic cup of sand must be defended against the encroaching surf by the respective players. Danielle found that a combination of walls and trenches worked best.
Saturday we headed down to the Port of Miami, stopping for lunch in a tiny Chinese restaurant on the way. It turns out you can get on the ship long before the advertised 2pm boarding time. Some people reported having lunch aboard. Still, we felt lucky to be settled in our cabin shortly after 2pm. Our luggage arrived soon thereafter.
Explorer of the Seas is extremely similar to Voyager of the Seas. As we wandered around the ship Danielle pointed out to me a wall covering here or a carpet there that is different, but on the whole it’s nearly a twin. Our cabin was about half the size of the suite we had last year, but was very nice, well-finished and comfortable.
After the obligatory lifeboat drill (which we spent mugging for the camera) we checked the seas for any signs of icebergs, and then returned our life preservers to the cabin.
Ain’t technology grand? Even halfway to the Bahamas, of course we could send and receive email in our cabin. Cybercabin turned out to be a modem connection through the phone at 45K. It worked almost 100% of the time, and cost $100 per cruise – maybe not as cheap as a few quick uses of the Internet terminals in the library at $0. 50/minute, but a whole lot more convenient.
Danielle was the social butterfly at dinner. We have people from Ft. Lauderdale, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Philadelphia at our table for 10. It’s actually one of the best tables on the ship, being in a quiet side room right next to a very large window. It’s so secluded that it even took the maitre d’ a while to find it. The food was about the same as the last cruise – good, but not great – but the service was much better.
Sunday, April 8, 2001
Well, we survived snorkeling. Linda wouldn’t have liked it. There were a lot of very colorful fish that have learned the boats bring people with fish food. There were also a zillion itty bitty jellyfish (0. 5″ size), harmless, but they would have freaked Danielle out if she’d noticed that we were swimming through them. Fortunately she didn’t. The water was very warm, and fairly clear.
Linda would have liked the ride on the catamaran. We lay on the cargo mesh and sailed back while the crew and a few of the rum-plied women danced to some pretty good reggae CDs.
We managed to lock ourselves out of the safe in our cabin (my fault, I think). It took at least 5 seconds for one of the officers to open it with an electronic device that plugs in behind the handle.
We left port at 2pm today for the long trip to St. Thomas. Danielle went to her first Adventure Ocean Voyagers group. Afterwards there was the formal dinner (which Danielle also attended, since Adventure Ocean is closed at that time).
We got dressed in our best formalwear and went to the captain’s reception, where we had our portrait snapped about a dozen times. I hope Danielle doesn’t pressure me into buying every version. I managed to hold out against buying the stupid photo with the pirate in the background.
Our dining companions all did different things in Nassau. One group went on the pseudo-sub – a boat with portholes below the water – another group went to Atlantis, and the third went on the dolphin encounter. The boy who did this was very enthusiastic about it, but frankly both his descriptions and the printed materials sounded pretty lame. It’s not like you get to swim with them.
Our captain has quite a good sense of humor. He described our day at sea tomorrow as “cruising through the middle of the Bermuda Triangle”.
Monday, April 09, 2001
The day started with room service on the balcony. The lochs were the best food I’ve had onboard. Throughout the day I’ll wrestled with the vagaries of C++, while Danielle joined the Voyagers.
We had a “high Italian” meal at Portofino for dinner ($20 extra, and worth it). Danielle, to her surprise, found plenty of things she liked, including a nice cheese plate, filet mignon, and chocolate mousse.
Afterwards we headed for the main theater, where we saw an entertaining – if uneven – musical review called History Repeating, and watched small Spanish-speaking children attempt to commit suicide by leaning over the balcony railing.
St. Thomas, U. S. Virgin Islands
Tuesday, April 10, 2001
Today we had breakfast on the Balcony overlooking the harbor in St. Thomas – it always reminds me of the Greek islands. Then we headed for downtown Charlotte Amalie (pronounced “Am-all-yuh” aboard one of the 22-person “taxis” that take passengers – on the wrong side of the street – from the Pier, along the harbor to the shopping district. Danielle blew her wad on souvenirs, mostly from the “changes color in the sun” shop. We also checked out a few Jewelry stores and a liquor and cigar shop. They make an excellent rum here in the Virgin Islands, and it only costs about $5 a bottle, but I couldn’t be bothered trying to get it back intact. I looked briefly for Cuban cigars until it occurred to me that St. Thomas is technically part of the United States. It may be duty free, but it doesn’t appear to be free from politics. In fact our only non-U. S. -affiliated stop on this trip was Nassau, so I guess I’m out of luck.
After a snack in the ship’s Promenade Café, we caught the “Leeland Snead” oyster boat (or facsimile thereof) for the hour cruise to Trunk Bay on St. John. I never realized how many little islands, rocks and reefs there were around St. Thomas. You definitely have to know where you’re going.
The crew of the Snead proved to be quite personable, and provided a running commentary throughout the trip. They were mostly Maryland and Virginia expatriates, down for the season. The captain was from North Dakota, a place I don’t associate with seafaring. He must have spent time on the east coast, though, as he had a fuzzy little dog named Chesapeake.
The diving at Trunk Bay was good, not great, but better than Nassau. We snorkeled along the reef and right up to the beach. After some sand and surf play they hauled people back in small inflatable dinghies, but Danielle and I speed-snorkeled our way back to the boat. Some snacks and unlimited rum punch (hic) occupied the hour-long return trip.
After a much-needed shower we headed down to dinner to swap stories with our dining companions. There we watched the sun set on the Charlotte Amalie harbor as we pulled out of port. Since it is only about 80 miles from St. Thomas to Puerto Rico, once we were out to sea we “killed time”, as the captain put it, cruising at what we reckoned to be a mere three knots for most of the night. Oddly, the ship rolls much more at this speed. I sat on the balcony and smoked a (Dominican) Partagas and watched the glow of the lights of the Greater Antilles beyond the horizon.
The cabin stewardess made Danielle a sting ray out of wash clothes and hand towels.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Wednesday, April 11, 2001
As the ship pulled into through the headlands around 6am there was a spectacular sunrise over the fort that guards the entrance to San Juan harbor. In the distance I could see rain coming down over the tropical forest in the mountains.
At 8:30 the bus left for the hour drive to our horseback ride. Our bus driver was very skilled, navigating the traffic while wielding the horn as his chief weapon.
San Juan is a city of barred windows. Destruction sites outnumber construction sites by a wide margin. We were quickly out of the city, though, following the coast on a road lined with fast food stands and factory outlet malls. In about an hour we arrived at the 600-acre Caraballi ranch, a tropical plantation that rambles over several foothills adjacent to the rainforest.
There were about thirty of us on the outing. We were divided into experienced and inexperienced groups, with experienced being defined as “having been on a horse five times”. I was surprised to find myself in the experienced section, and to discover that far more than half of the group was in the “never been on a horse” category.
We were assigned horses individually, and each indeed seemed to match its rider’s personality. Danielle, probably the best rider in the group, mounted “Sensation” a horse that always wanted to be at the front. I found myself on Marquis, who was extremely dependable and loved to eat.
The ride went over rolling terrain, sometimes crossing open hillsides but more often under the trees. The trail was muddy from the morning’s rain, but the horses didn’t seem to mind. They were extremely responsive to direction, and I found myself successfully resting most of my weight on the stirrups, which made for a comfortable ride.
These are Pasafino horses, trained a bit differently than those Danielle normally rides. They have a very quick trotting gate that Danielle called a “jog”. It’s tough for an inexperienced rider to get the horse to do it, but during the brief moments I accomplished it, it was like gliding on ice.
After an hour we stopped for a drink by the river. Normally this is an opportunity for a swim, but we were told that they were expecting flash floods. This didn’t give me a warm feeling as we sat by the bank sipping our drinks. Frankly, I think we were just running late.
Another half hour brought us back to the barn, surprisingly free from saddle sores and with only slightly tired legs. Danielle, of course, was unaffected.
Mr. Toad’s Wild Bus Ride back to the ship got us onboard shortly before our 2pm departure time. The afternoon was a good time to relax in our cabin and catch up on journals.
Danielle again accompanied me to a formal dinner (just between you and me, I think the social experience is growing on her) and then spent the evening and late night at the kid’s pajama party.
The towel animal of the day was a lamb. Or possibly a crab.
Thursday, April 12, 2001
Today we awoke in Labadee, a private cove at the northern tip of Haiti (which Royal Caribbean calls Hispanola for marketing reasons). The southern two-thirds of Hispanola is the relatively prosperous Dominican Republic, which was primarily settled by the Spanish. Haiti, on the other hand, is a colony comprised 95% of the descendants of former slaves. Two hundred years of mismanagement and deforestation have reduced it to near-total poverty. On satellite photos you can actually see the demarcation between the two countries. Royal Caribbean’s private cove remains forested, however.
After a late breakfast on the balcony we caught a tender to shore. We stopped briefly at the native marketplace, where we received the Jamaica-like hard sell from dozens of vendors selling utterly worthless native “crafts”. Danielle was out of spending money, but I gave her $10 to let her try out her negotiating skills. In mere minutes she’d negotiated a $2 pair of maracas down to only $10.
We caught the dive boat Fire Dancer for the hour ride to Amiga Island, a tiny oasis surrounded by coral reefs. The water was the clearest we’ve seen on the trip. We started by exploring the 16th century canons, pottery and giant kettles that have been sunk here since our last visit. There was also an enormous anchor. The current was stronger than on our last visit, and I was concerned that Danielle would find it a struggle to make it back to the shore if we went all the way out to the reef, so we contented ourselves with beach play for the rest of our stay.
A strong wind blew up, and the Fire Dancer had quite a fight getting back to the ship. Shortly afterward we set sail, and Explorer also found it rough going. Still, Thursday night is lobster and filet mignon in the main dining room, so even if we have to weave, we make the trip.
Danielle wanted to go to the midnight buffet, and stayed up watching “Best of Show”, which was hilarious — a spinal-tap style fake documentary about a dog show. But in the end, the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak, and we both slept through it.
They’ve been replaying the video of some of their entertainment in the cabins. The best one was the “Not So Newlywed Game”. The couples ranged from one married 45 years to one married a week. When they asked the latter “What is the most unusual place you’ve made love?” I don’t think they were expecting the answer “In one of the ship’s glass elevators”.
Today’s towel animal: a swinging monkey.
Friday, April 13, 2001
A leisurely day at sea, the best way to end a busy cruise. I spent some time in the cabin torturing myself with C++, then caught Danielle in the talent show, where she recited Shel Silverstein’s “Christmas Dog”. Later she went ice skating, which is a neat trick when you’re six miles east of Cuba.
After a bite at the Island Grill, which affords a 180 degree view of our no-wake zone, Danielle spent the afternoon at Ocean Adventure doing improv and redeeming her Ocean Dollars.
We made a quick stop to say goodbye to our dining companions (and tip the waiters) and then it was back to the Portofino for an elegant farewell dinner.
Saturday, April 14, 2001
Our lucky color was brown. After a leisurely breakfast in the Windjammer, we were called first for debarkation. There was the usual uncomfortable backup getting to the gangway, but then we quickly cleared customs and hit the road. It felt strange to be driving again. We found that we still had our sea legs when we stopped at a service plaza on the turnpike and felt the building swaying. Even with a break for lunch we were home in under four hours.
Things to remember for future cruises:
Book a port-side balcony cabin between the elevators.
Arrive early, perhaps by noon.
Don’t buy the unlimited soft drink sticker for the charge card. It’s a complete rip-off, since it’s only good in the bars, and they’re never open when you want a soft drink. I think I got two Diet Cokes for my $33.
Book the six-person sailboat snorkel trip on St. Thomas.
Buy cigars in Nassau.
Don’t even think of shopping in San Juan.
Make sure Danielle brings shoes that can actually be worn, and don’t bother packing panty hose, slips, or 75% of her other clothes.