December 17, 2016

Two Days At Sea And Home

After leaving St Maarten we have a two day cruise to the Port of Miami. The first day is sunny with temperatures in the mid or low 80's, winds about 13 or 14 knots on our stern, and the seas very slight. The next day is the same except the skies are cloudy and the temperature reaches a high of 76. As we turn Westerly the ship begins to rock a little, the first time on the entire cruise.

There are the usual trivia sessions and sales in the shops, and several more glass shows. Nearly every lounge chair is occupied, sometimes by people using towels as blankets. Eddy, the cruise director, gives a presentation about some of the unusual aspects of crew life on the ship. One tidbit I learned is the "Noname Bar" in Cozumel is the goto place for crew members of all ships from all cruise lines. I had heard of the Noname before, but didn't understand its popularity across cruise lines. Eddy is from Wales, started as a DJ on The Rhapsody of the Seas about 10 years ago, and since has worked on 20 different ships for 6 different cruise lines.

The captain also gave an hour long presentation about the ships chain of command and various cruise planning and execution procedures.

Both were followed by questions from the audience. One passenger had seen oil barges refueling the ship in two different ports and wanted to know where the ship refueled its nuclear reactors.

The best question was posed to the captain. He had spent quite a bit of time explaining the training process to become a captain or senior officer. The guest wanted to know what was the training process for the autopilot. I won't comment except to say that I am not creative enough to make up such stories.

Earlier in the cruise I had indicated that some of the passengers were a little stuffy. This hasn't changed, but there is a group of about 20 of us that has taken over half of the bar every night during free cocktails. Obviously we are all frequent cruisers, and about half of them are Royal customers that are on Celebrity because of the better itinerary. Surprisingly on the west coast it works just the opposite, Celebrity customers go to Royal Caribbean for the better itineraries to Australia and New Zealand.

I also learned why there was such a mess at the port when we left Miami two weeks ago. Since it was the weekend after Thanksgiving many workers took a long weekend and there were not enough personnel to clear the incoming ships and process all the passengers and their baggage in a timely fashion. The same problem occurred in Port Everglades. Something I will try and remember for future cruises.

For quite some time Royal had been preparing to cruise to Cuba. They spent about 50 or 60 million refurbishing the old Nordic Empress, renaming her The Empress Of The Seas. Yesterday I received an email from Royal indicating they have finally completed all the legal stuff and cruises to Cuba are now available. Not that I am a fan of Castro, nor believe in Cuban politics, I might just go so see what they are presenting to the tourists.

I am one of the last passengers scheduled to disembark the ship. That is what the shuttle bus operator told me to do. I will let you know how it all works out. I am scheduled to be back at the Burger King in Orlando at 5:30 Sunday night.

I need to vacate my cabin at 7:00 so they can begin preparations for the next manifest of passengers, about 50 of which are staying on and doing a back to back cruise. I have a leisurely breakfast and then go to the Tuscan Grille to await my call for disembarkation, I'm in group number 31 out of 33.

By 9:15 I am one of the last passengers to leave the ship, my luggage is found within a few minutes. Customs clearance is speedy and I proceed outside to find my bus. A representative directs me to a bus waiting area. After about 30 minutes I board the bus and begin the trip home. The skies have drizzled on and off since we were approaching Miami, the excellent weather ended with the cruise.

There are about 20 of us on the bus, and we stop in Fort Pierce to pick up a dozen more arriving on a bus from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. I arrive at the Orlando "Burger King" at 2:15, and at home before 3:00, 2 ½ hours early. Despite some of the delays and inconveniences, taking the bus is more economical and less hassle than driving. I will take the bus again in the future. In six weeks I board The Oasis of The Seas.

Pictures have been posted. They are located with all other travel pictures and are accessed from the main blog page.

December 09, 2016

St Kitts, St Maarten, At Sea

The weather this morning in St. Kitts is pretty much the same, mostly sunny skies, 82 degrees, with an 11 knot breeze out of the East. There are three other ships here, NCL Breakaway, the Arcadia, and The Wind Surf, a modern 5 mast schooner. The Wind Surf is anchored a half mile or so off our starboard side in the harbor and using their life boats for tendering passengers to shore. Definitely an upscale ship, I doubt she carries more than 150 passengers.

I have decided not to get off the ship at these last two ports, at least that is my plan at the moment. There is a train excursion here is St. Kitts, but I have taken it at least twice, the last time just a year ago. I will also be back here and in St Maarten again in a few months.

I spend most of the afternoon working on train club stuff. The national convention for the NMRA is in Orlando next summer, and I have a lot of work to do yet, not the least of which is to complete more of my layout at home to bring it to a presentable level. Of course there are priorities, cruising always comes first.

My youngest daughter has been looking for a house of her own for about a year now. This afternoon I received an email that she made an offer on a house and it has been accepted. She is keeping me in suspense on any of the details, but I can assume that if the house inspection goes as expected she will be moving within a month, leaving all the "old" people in my 55 plus community as a memory in her past.

I am very fortunate in that all my children live close by and get along with each other very well. I don't need to travel long distances to visit them and can therefore devote all of my travel energy to cruising the high seas.

The Beakaway is scheduled to leave at the same time we are, so passengers are boarding at the same time. In case you think all cruise lines are the same, when approaching the gangway for the Eclipse there is a chance to sip on flavored ice water and everyone is handed an ice cold towel to freshen up.

In contrast the breakaway has a receiving line of about 75 staff and officers dancing to a DJ blasting music that can be heard inside many areas of our ship and along the entire pier into town. Personally I find the music level deafening, but each to his own opinion. I have just been reminded why I haven't sailed with NCL, and probably won't. Too much noise for me.

I again dine with Lisa and Bill in the Oceanview Cafe after we have last call for happy hour. Bill is much like me in many ways including our same appetite for sports. They are staying on next week for basically the same itinerary. Lisa is celebrating her birthday, and they are both, obviously, celebrating their wedding anniversary.

Tonight is a short cruise to St Maarten. We have already been warned there will be many ships there and everything will be quite busy. At this point I plan to stay on the ship, but I will see what tomorrow brings.

We arrive for another gorgeous day, mostly sunny, 84 degrees with a slight breeze. As expected there are four large cruise ships in port, and several very small ones. I conclude that my original plan was the best, and stay on board, as do many other passengers. I don't have breakfast, instead going to lunch right after noon. The Oceanview cafe is very busy. The featured menu items vary from day to day, but they always have pizza, pasta, sandwiches, fruits, salads, etc.

Celebrity offers several Cultural Lecture series on all of its ships, usually covering topics relevant to the area where the ship is sailing. On this cruise there have been presentations about weather patterns in the Caribbean, how the islands were formed, and political history. Another series was an entertaining series on spy stories and movies presented by an author of thriller books. I have attended none of them, but did stick my head in the theater several times just to see how many other passengers were interested. Essential no one attended the history series, but the author series was well attended.

Our captain has an unusual sense of humor. This afternoon as he was telling us about the plans to be the first ship leaving port, he made a very special announcement for the passenger that had reported earlier this morning that he had lost his gold Rolex watch... the current time is four twenty two.

As we leave St Maarten, we head into the North Atlantic to begin our two days cruise to Miami. Being so far South it doesn't sound correct that we are sailing in the North Atlantic, but it is true. The weather is forecast to be much the same as we have experienced the last 12 days.

December 06, 2016

At Sea, Barbados, St Lucia, Antigua

Another typical day in the Caribbean. The skies are mostly sunny with a few scattered clouds, temperature 84, with a 10 knot breeze out of the West almost directly on our stern as we head East to Barbados. The waves are slight and don't rock our ship at all.

The card room and the library are packed nearly all day and evening, another indication of the more reserved crowd on board. Today the entire Sky lounge has been taken over by Park West in their never ending quest to sell overpriced art. Only a handful of seats were left available for guests that enjoy the view and solitude of this venue.

I arrive in the main theater for the shore excursion presentation a few minutes early just as the shopping talk was concluding. There were only about 30 passengers in attendance, and surprisingly about 25 shopping gifts were handed out. They included 24 hours of free internet, a diamond pendant, and $100 gift certificates in the spa. One lucky gal won 3 prizes.

I listened to the shore excursion presentation and pretty much decided I have already done the best of what there is that I have any interest in. The key words are "interest in" as going to a beach does nothing for me.

The glass blowing artists have another presentation this afternoon. Their skills have reached a higher level than the artists I remember from previous cruises on Celebrity. They make 6 to 10 pieces every day. A few will be raffled off, while the best ones will be auctioned at the end of the cruise with the proceeds going to the Corning Glass Museum and the World Wildlife Fund. The inability to carry the work home precludes many passengers from bidding. Tax laws and the resultant complications prevent any of the work from being priced or sold.

We arrive in Bridgetown, Barbados and are cleared by 8:00 AM. The skies are mostly sunny and the temperature is 85 with a light breeze. I probably sound like a broken record, but another gorgeous day in the Caribbean. We do not need to be back on board until 11:30 PM, but almost everything is closed because it is Sunday. The shops tied in tightly with the cruise industry, like Diamonds International, are the only ones open. Even KFC and Burger King are closed.

On previous times here I have taken scenic tours and visited Harrison Cave, actually good tours but it hasn't been enough years ago that I have forgotten and wish to do them again. I decide to take a taxi tour. There are 5 of us in a van that could sandwich in 13, but I wouldn't want to be one of them. The other 4 people are off the Aida Diva, a German cruise line. One of them, I will call him the leader, speaks fairly good English, the others about as much English as I speak German, which is none.

We weren't even off the dock when the leader starts telling the driver to move along more quickly, they are running out of time. Eventually I learned they didn't need to be back on the ship for 10 ½ hours. What was his hurry?

I do need to diverge for a minute. A dear friend of mine has been suffering from a rather common medical condition for quite some time. I could rationalize some of my world travels as an quest to find some relief for him as conventional western medicine hasn't been 100% successful. That excuse for travel really wouldn't be truthful, but it sounds good. That said, when I learn of something different in a foreign land I sometimes wonder if that would be a treatment that would help him.

This time I have no doubt, so Robert, when you read this immediately book a flight or cruise to Barbados and ride around in the back seat of a 12 passenger van for 4 hours. I will guarantee your kidney stones will pass.

Yes, the cab ride was very rough. Especially with the leader constantly telling the driver to hurry up and the driver choosing to take some farm paths through the sugar cane fields instead of the longer route on the main roads, not that the main roads are much smoother.

Some of the views are spectacular. Sugar cane is still a viable crop here and is used mostly to feed the rum stills and a few tourists that are in the right cabs. There are signs everywhere indicating the roads are private, but our cabby doesn't care and even stops to cut some sugarcane for his passengers. He also bought some bananas to feed the monkeys, another practice discouraged by many signs.

Several weeks ago the island experienced three days of torrential rains. Many areas were flooded and the driver showed us video he took with his phone of cars being washed away by the three feet of water gushing thru the streets. I am sure glad I wasn't caught in those rains.

At one point we passed a construction site where a water main had broken and was spraying a geyser of water 20 feet in the air. It was explained that no one worked on Sunday so it would be at least Monday morning before anyone even looked at the situation and probably a day or two more before the water would be shut off for repairs. In the meantime parts of the road were being eroded away.

The Aida Diva and the Tui Discovery leave port before us. It is a short cruise to our next port, Castries, St Lucia. We should arrive about 7 AM. The Aida Diva will also be in St Lucia.

In the morning the weather is the same, another great day in the Caribbean. I keep saying Caribbean, but depending on which side of any of these islands you are on, the sea could be the Atlantic ocean as these islands are the boundary between the Atlantic and the Caribbean.

I wander off the ship for a few hours, taking the water taxi to the downtown shopping area. St Lucia is poor and the infrastructure is in very poor condition, having deteriorated from previous years. At one time there were traffic control signals, but by their appearance I would guess they haven't worked in decades.

Tonight there is an officers party for elite and above loyalty members. Drinks are the same as available on other nights for the frequent cruisers. The captain and all the officers are introduced, and the ships band provides entertainment for about 30 minutes.

Again the show is one I have never seen before, a young husband and wife ventriloquist team. They entertain mostly on ships, and will have had 74 engagements on cruise ships by years end.

On Tuesday, Dec 6th we arrive in St Johns, Antigua. The weather is the same, maybe a little warmer but just as humid. Two other ships are also here, The Saga Pearl II, which I have never heard of, and The Adventure of The Seas. I have never been on the Adventure, and she currently sails out of San Juan. That said, I do have a good friends, Kelly and Ann that on board. Had I thought ahead of time, I would have made arrangements to have a beer with them, but I didn't so that will have to wait until another time.

Antigua appears to be doing much better economically than our other ports since Curacao. I walk the downtown and then return to the ship before lunch time.

As I had threatened earlier, I have been eating in the buffet at night instead of the dining room. The staff noticed and the head waiter called my cabin acknowledging my absence and to check if there was anything he could do. Very thoughtful, and a gesture never made on any other ship.

An observation I have made over the past 10 days or so is that I am one of a very few passengers that doesn't have a drink package. Celebrity has been promoting free drink packages with some of its fares, and obviously that has worked very well. Personally I can't drink $50 or $70 worth of drinks every day, and I clearly understand that one pays for everything that is "free".

My yellow roses are totally wilted, but the red rose still looks fresh. I wonder if the cabin steward will throw them out? Speaking of cabin stewards, he is not among the best I have encountered. Some days he forgets to leave a bath mat, other days it is washcloths, and yesterday I had no bath towels. So far with the exception of the first night he has remembered the two little pieces of dark chocolate. I don't know if it is just him, or the ship has a shortage of linens. Take your pick.

We will leave port tonight at 5:00 headed to Basseterre, St Kits. Tonight is another production show with the singers and dancers. By going to the buffet I can eat early and still attend the 7:00 PM show.

December 02, 2016

Aruba and Curacao

We arrived in Aruba this morning to perfect weather. Temperatures in the low 80's, mostly sunny skies, and a nice 11 knot breeze from the NE.

The first passengers are off the ship shortly after 8:00 AM, and some have started to return by 9:30. Even though it is such a nice day, I decide to stay on board and take pictures around the ship, check my email and post my ramblings about the first few days of the cruise. Visually the harbor area has changed little since my first visit here in the spring of 2012. There is a large commercial building that still sits empty, there are small areas of construction that seem to progress at a snails pace, and most importantly the tree that grows out of the sandbar on the ocean side of the harbor still looks like it will float away any minute but somehow looks very healthy and remains year after year. There are at least three drilling platforms just a mile or two off the coast. Something you would never see in the U.S., but now that we have elected a new president....

A few passengers remain on board, but not a lot. There is plenty of room in the Solarium, and all around the main pool. I am tempted, but go to the pool nearly every day when I am home. All aboard is 7:30 this evening. I don't know if that is late enough to entice passengers to dine on shore, but probably not.

Many of you are aware that my three children live near me in Florida. This week we are scattered about the globe. I just read an email that my son arrived safely in Japan where he will be spending about a month on a work assignment. My oldest daughter, Adrienne, is somewhere in the Caribbean on The Majesty of The Seas, and I am here in Aruba on the Eclipse. My youngest daughter, Alyssa, has been left all alone in Florida. Well not exactly alone as she is the common communications point for everyone whether it be phone calls, emails, or text messages. How things have changed since I was a youngster.

I head to the dining room by 6:00. Again I find I am the only guest at a table for 8. In fact my waiter did not have a single guest to serve, instead of eating by myself, I went to the buffet after asking to change my table assignment for the balance of the cruise. I feel bad for George as he is a good waiter and is not a factor in guests not showing up at his tables. I wonder what he does for several hours with no guests to take care of?

We pull out of port precisely at 8:00 pm headed to our next port of Curacao. Only having to travel less than 75 miles, we idle along at 6 or 7 knots.

We arrive in Curacao before 7:00 am in a heavy rain. The forecast is for 50% rain today. Fortunately by mid morning the skies have cleared, the temperature is 85, and there is a slight breeze to make the humid air feel more comfortable. Many passengers disembark and walk to the shops. Surprisingly few take any tours. I heard from other passengers that many tours are canceled because of low participation and not meeting minimum bookings.

The weather remains near perfect all day. The dining room is only about 60% occupied for dinner, I expect a result of many passengers electing to dine in town with no concern about making it back to the ship. Tonight I am one of 3 guests at a table for 10. The others are originally from the UK, but now live in Vancouver, BC. Certainly an improvement over dining alone. My basic change in attitude about dining in the buffet instead of the dining room continues to make sense, and I am sure I will return to the buffet on some of the remaining nights.

Our entertainer for tonight is a magician originally from Townsville, Australia, currently lives in the US. He has appeared on the Penn and Teller show and other venues around the globe. His show is excellent. A side note is that Townsville is a small coastal town that was an unexpected port of call on my world cruise earlier this year. Our welcome there by the local residents was one of the warmest at any port where I visited. Kitt was aware of the unscheduled call of The Amsterdam even though he only gets back to Townsville every few years.

When I return to my cabin I find I am locked out. My key doesn't function. This has become an old habit when I cruise. Off to guest relations to get a new key.

Friday morning in Curacao finds the weather about the same, expecting a 60% chance of rain. Temperatures are in the mid 80's and the wind has shifted to the south, coming from the ocean. Many passengers stay on board today, having done their touristing and shopping in Curacao yesterday. Passengers are scheduled to be on board by 4:30 with a departure scheduled for 5:00 PM. I go ashore for about an hour.

The Eclipse is a very modern elegant ship. The dining room glistens with lots of chrome and crystal. The sky lounge is very bright with white leather seating. Of course the view extends from forward to back on both sides of the ship. The theater is what you would expect, but the cushions and seat mechanism are broken in most of the seats. An obvious case of inadequate design. The clientele is more upscale and reserved than what I find on Royal ships. Actually I might even say that some of them are rather cold and stuffy. As an example, only 2 people volunteered to sing at karaoke last night and the dance band in the Sky Lounge later in the evening drew a handful of listeners but no dancers. The piano player often plays to a near empty lounge. Even trivia attracts only a few participating teams.

My cabin is quite comfortable and spacious. This is one of the few ships where they still put a piece of chocolate on your bed each night when they turn the covers down, and I must say not just any chocolate, but dark chocolate.

Celebrity does give me some recognition for my status level with Royal Caribbean. (Both brands are owned by the same corporation, but operated independently.) A two hour cocktail party, 90 minutes of free internet use, one bag of free laundry service, and a number of discounts on additional purchases like spa services that I never use. No fruit baskets, bottles of wine, or cheese plates, but a lovely vase of yellow and red roses that haven't wilted yet.

Dinner tonight finds the table now set for 8 instead of 10, and eventually 5 guests arrive. Everyone orders, and from that point conversation is dominated by two people, the rest of us are unable to get a word in edgewise. Definitely back to the buffet.

Our main show entertainment tonight was Savanna Smith. An excellent singer that can usually be found doing the rounds at various Las Vegas venues.

Tomorrow will be a day at sea, then we will stop at five ports in the next five days, as we start our journey North towards Miami.

November 30, 2016

Two Days At Sea

Last night we set our clocks ahead one hour. This morning the skies are mostly sunny with a few high clouds. The wind is on the stern at 11 knots as we head towards Oranjestad, Aruba at about 16 knots. The temperature will remain at 77 most of the day.

As I leave my cabin I meet my stateroom attendant, Ovidio. He is very pleasant, but speaks little English. I tell him about the TV. I think he understands, but I'm not sure.

Two eggs cooked to order, and a glass of apple juice for breakfast. Seating is limited, but I am able to find a table quickly. After breakfast I go to the "shore excursions presentation". I quickly remember that I have done the tours of our first three ports that would interest me the most.

The Corning Museum Of Glass has glass blowing demonstrations on three Celebrity ships. I always find them interesting, and the artists are very talented. I probably watch for an hour and a half. It is very comfortable on the 15th deck, and today the seats are all in the shade. The two gals and a guy take turns making vases, cups, and a water pitcher. Now don't think the pitcher is for display, it is for them to keep water in while they are working. The one they are currently using is cracked, and slowly leaks, so they need a new one. So they do as any good glass blowing artist would do, they just make one.

It needs to sit in the annealing oven for many hours, so they won't be able to use it for a few days.

Usually glass blowing ovens are gas fired, but being on a ship they are all electric. Designed specifically for the Celebrity ships at a cost exceeding two million dollars, only 5 sets of these furnaces have ever been made. Three are on ships and the other two are at the Corning Glass Museum. They need to be rebuilt once a year, these were done last week, a week long process as it takes several days for them to cool, and sevral more to be reheated.

I head back to my cabin. The TV still does not work, so I call the front desk. Within an hour the cabin attendant comes to put new batteries in the remote. That obviously does nothing. He calls the "tech" guy. Within 20 minutes the technician calls me and says he was in my cabin earlier, and the TV worked fine. I politely disagree and he says he will be here in ten minutes.

As I let him in the cabin, he apologizes and says he was sent to cabin 9160 not 9260 earlier. And yes, the TV in 9160 works just fine. Again fresh batteries don't help. The cabin attendant should have given me a new remote, but didn't, so the technician gives me the remote from his cabin. He also explains that the buttons on the TV are all disconnected because they found many guests would get confused and switch the TV to an input that didn't exist and then wonder why nothing worked. I can now turn the TV off without having to unplug it.

Celebrity no longer has "formal" nights. Today the wording is: "Say goodby to Formal Night, and hello to Evening Chic. While dressier than smart casual, Evening Chic is intended to be less dressy than Formal attire." In yesterday's "Celebrity Today" evening chic was defined as: "Tuxedo, suit, or dinner jacket"....sounds like formal to me. When our waiter was asked, his interpretation is that jackets are no longer required in the dining room, period. I'm sure that is all clear. I'll let you know how the passengers interpret this.

Celebrity uses the entire Sky Lounge for complimentary cocktail hour from 5 to 7 for their best guests. No getting a jump start here, the doors remained locked until after 5:00 as the crowd of thirsty passengers gather in anticipation. The beverage selection is similar to what is offered on Royal ships. Personally I notice Beefeater is used as their bar gin, fine with me.

I leave just before 6:00 to be at the dining room on time. I have a long wait for the elevators and arrive a few minutes late. All 8 chairs are empty, I settle into my spot next to the window. George greets me with a complimentary gin and tonic in hand. Data mining at its best, or a big coincidence. No one else shows up. I have a salad and sliced duck, and no desert. I am out of the dining room in time to catch the 7:00 show.

It is a production show tonight. I will assume it is new since I was here in March of 2014, as I do not remember a bit of it. After the show I decide to walk thru the buffet on my way to listen to the piano player. Of course this means walking the length of the ship twice, that's just the way life is on a ship. Wherever you are going it is always on the opposite end of the ship from where you are.

The buffet is busy but not crowded. Many of the staff are having dinner as well as a number of passengers probably including those that have never showed in the dining room. The entree selection is quite varied. Kobe beef patties, sliced leg of lamb, steak, chicken, and the usual pasta to order, pizza, large salad selection, etc. There is even a choice of about 10 flavors of hand dipped ice cream with a multitude of available toppings.

I listen to the piano player for about an hour and then call it a night.

The next morning finds the weather basically unchanged. The wind is now on our port side at 13 knots, the seas have calmed a little, and the temperature has warmed to the low 80's. Very typical weather for this time of year in the Caribbean.

Many people are already burning themselves around the pool. I am surprised at the number of "lobsters" I see, probably shouldn't be as there are quite a few Europeans and Canadians on the ship, and they probably just don't realize how easy it is to burn in the southern sun.

At noon time today there is the "Captain's Club Appreciation" in the Sky Lounge. Many officers are in attendance along with the Captain. He is just returning from vacation time, and appears to be fairly young compared to many captains. The high point cruiser is recognized, a gentleman with over 4000 points with Celebrity. (basically days) No bottle of wine or any other gift, just a picture with the captain.

I spend the afternoon reading the shore excursion brochure.

There are a few that I will consider, but I still have time to make any decisions.

After taking a good look at how passengers dressed in the dining room last night, I come away with the conclusion that regardless of what Celebrity may be saying, the passengers are focusing on "less formal". Tuxedos were few and far between. Probably only half of the men wore any jacket, and only a small fraction of them wore a tie. Many passengers wore no jacket at all. Typically the dress tends to go down as the cruise goes on. It will be interesting to see the third "Evening Chic". FYI 2 years ago on this same ship and same itinerary you were not allowed in the dining room without a jacket, and Celebrity enforced that rule, even loaning you a jacket if needed.

At 5:00 I head to the Sky Lounge for free cocktails. I expect I will go to the buffet tonight. One of my reasons to go to the dining room is to chat with other passengers, but that plan isn't working as my mind hasn't yet deteriorated to the point that I talk to myself.

Tonight's show is Doug Cameron playing the violin, a show that is very familiar to me. He does a good show and I have heard him on at least two previous cruises, I just can't tell you which ones.

Tomorrow we arrive in Aruba at 8:00 AM.

To Miami for 14 Days on the Eclipse

I have a 14 day cruise booked on the Celebrity Eclipse sailing out of Miami. Parking is expensive, and its too far to ask one of my children to make two round trips, so I am going to try a new approach. I have booked a round trip shuttle bus with Cruse Connection by ESCOT. With a few extra stops, it should only take a few hours longer than if I drove myself, and cost much less. I am told the bus is scheduled to be at the pier in Miami by 12:30

I packed yesterday, set my alarm for 6:00, and leave the house at 7:00 to drive to a Burger King in Orlando where the bus is schedule to pick me up about 8:00. I have been asked to be 15 to 20 minutes early, and arrive with plenty of time to spare. Alyssa is going to take my car back home, and come back to meet my bus in two weeks.

After a few minutes an ESCOT bus arrives, I gather my luggage and walk to the bus. A habit I learned many many years ago is to ask the driver if the bus is going where I expect before I get on. He tells me he is not going to Miami, but that my bus will be along in a few minutes.

Since Alyssa is meeting a friend for breakfast I wave her on and she is on her way. About 10 minutes later, not one but four other ESCOT buses arrive. I ask the driver of the closest bus...she not only is not going to Miami, she doesn't know where she is going. The next driver is going to Port Canaveral, and adds the comment that he has never seen so many buses at this pickup spot. After another 10 minutes or so, one of the drivers indicates that he in fact is going to Miami. Many passengers and lots of luggage are shuffled between buses.

The driver has a list of every passenger that is supposed to be on his bus, and he writes down every piece of luggage and which ship it is going to. Despite more confusion than the drivers expected, we are all boarded and could leave only a few minutes later than our scheduled time. We could, but it doesn't work that way. We all sit in the Burger King parking lot for another 30 minutes. Why? No guess, no other passengers or buses arrive. Oh, maybe it is because the drivers all want a long coffee break.

The bus is comfortable, there are only about 15 passengers headed to Miami, some for the Navigator of The Seas, some for a Carnival ship, and other like myself for the Eclipse.

Our next scheduled stop is Fort Pierce. So as not to play favorites with a particular fast food burger business, this time it is a McDonald's parking lot. On line information about the trip says we will have a 30 minute stop somewhere for lunch. This is it, but we are almost already an hour late so I ask the driver how long we will be stopped. 15 minutes I am told. That makes sense to me. I am about the second or third person off the bus, and head straight to McDonald's entrance. I can do this in 15 minutes. When I open the door there are at least 40 people waiting in line for one order taker, regular customers and passengers from the two buses already parked when we arrived. I use the restroom and decide to forgo lunch.

I make it back on board within my 15 minutes. A few new passengers are on board, and I take a different seat near the back of the bus. Then again we sit, and sit. Finally after 50 minutes the driver counts his passengers and we are on our way again. The ship isn't scheduled to leave until 4:30 so I am not worried.

Traffic gets heavier as we get close to Miami. An accident delays us for a few minutes just before one of the toll booths. Northbound traffic is at a crawl, but fortunately Southbound traffic in the express lanes is moving smoothly. The port is in sight, there are at least 7 ships. We head into the tunnel and arrive at the port. Our first stop is for the Navigator. It is early afternoon and thousands of passengers are standing outside, with the line to security not even moving. I have never seen such congestion waiting to board a ship.

We make stops at several other ships, then finally the Eclipse is the last stop. I should say there is a line headed towards the entrance, but a better description is that there is just a mass of people between the piles of luggage stacked on the walkways. Slowly the mass of humanity inches towards the security entrance. A cruise line representative tells us that the majority of passengers are already on the ship, and once we get thru security the lines are moving quickly. I'll assume you are already laughing.

I finally make it thru the process and I am aboard the ship by about 3:30. There are hundreds of passengers still on the dock at the bus unloading area. The muster drill is at 3:45. I leave my carry on in my cabin, send a message to my kids, and head to the muster drill. Just as I get on the elevator it is announced that the drill is being postponed until 4:15. So far all I have heard was that all ships coming into port were delayed, the Eclipse by about 2 hours. At our scheduled departure time of 4:30 there are still truckloads of provisions sitting on the dock along with hundreds of suitcases. Our departure is delayed until after 6:00.

Historically Celebrity has always done a good job in the dining room, and since it is the first night, I head to my table for early seating at 6:00. I am promptly greeted by my waiter, and his assistant. I tell him I will wait for the others that have been assigned to the same table.

After 20 minutes, no one has arrived so I order, then as expected another couple arrives. I ask George if he will hold my dinner and serve us all together. He probably would have done that anyway, as he has many years of experience. Unlike most other ships I have been on lately, George has at the most 16 guests to serve, tonight he has only 11. The food is good, and everything is served hot or cold as appropriate. The wine steward comes by several times to ask if anyone would like anything, and the assistant keeps the water glasses full and the dirty dishes removed. For the first night anyway, Celebrity is providing top notch service.

After dinner I have one drink, attend the 9:00 show, and head to the cabin for the night. The show was good, a female trio from Toronto that will be getting off the ship in a few days. When I get back to the cabin I find I am unable to turn the TV off. Neither the remote nor the buttons on the TV work. I try changing the remote batteries to no avail. (No, I don't carry spare batteries for TV remotes, but do carry them for my mouse.) Eventually I manage to get the power cord disconnected. I'll deal with this tomorrow, a day at sea.

November 18, 2016

Day at Sea, Then Home

After leaving Nassau, it is a slow passage back to Port Canaveral. The seas are less than 6 feet, the skies partly cloudy, and the temperatures only reach a high in the low 70's. Actually a very nice day for November. Actually a fantastic day if you happen to reside in the Northern parts of the country as snow is forecast for some areas.

Most of the chairs around the pool are occupied, many by people that are covered with a couple of towels to keep warm. There is definitely an advantage to other ships which have retractable roofs or enclosed pool areas. I spend part of the afternoon catching up on emails and posting to the blog. There is the usual trivia, bingo, and belly flop contests, none of which is for me.

On my way to the Diamond lounge I stop and listen to the orchestra performing a jazz set in the Schooner Bar. It is very enjoyable. There are not a lot of jazz music fans left so jazz entertainment is becoming harder and harder to find.

The Diamond lounge is relatively empty tonight, but there is the best selection of appetizers this entire cruise. Shrimp, chicken wings, many cheeses, wrapped hot dogs, pastries, and several things which I can't even guess as to what they are. If I can't identify it, I won't try it. Too easy be be undercover seafood.

There are a number of guests remaining on the ship for the next cruise, and Shawn (future sales manager) shares with me there will be only 5 Pinnacle guests.

I head to the Windjammer when it opens at 6:30 and have lasagna, probably the same as I would have ordered if I went to the dining room. If you follow my travels you may already recognize this, but despite being a very predictable creature of habit, my habits are changing. Prior to about a year ago I would always eat every evening meal in the dining room, now I find myself eating most evening meals at the buffet, and forgoing the dining room entirely. I do miss that opportunity to meet new people, but at the same time I have much better self control in the buffet and can stay away from the rolls and the deserts, two things I really don't need. Since I serve myself, there is never any issue with the service in the buffet, not a statement that can be said for every dining room I have been in.

As I get to know more and more frequent cruisers I find the majority of them also seem to prefer the buffet. Some for reasons similar to me, others because they prefer the wider choice offered in the buffet, and others for a multitude of individual reasons, the worst of which is they then feel they don't need to tip the staff, a selfishness I don't understand.

After dinner I listen to part of the production show from the back of the theater. If it has changed in the last half dozen years, it is very little. A Sprite Zero at the Schooner bar and then to the cabin to pack and leave a wake up call on the phone. I don't know why, but I will carry my broken clock back with me.

For the first time in many cruises, the passengers are very rowdy tonight. There is a very loud party down the hall somewhere, and kids, not little kids but adults (?) probably between 20 and 35, are running up and down the hall. After having been awakened several times I call the front desk to make them aware of the situation. Miraculously the noise stops in about 10 minutes. Another area that Royal does a much better job in than some of the other lines.

The telephone awakens me promptly at 6:30. After a quick shower I grab a glass of juice for breakfast and depart to deck 4 for disembarkation. Even though I am 10 minutes early, the entire deck is packed with passengers and suitcases waiting to head home. They start promptly on time, and passengers steadily and orderly have their sea pass cards scanned for the last time.

There is only a minute or two wait for the customs agent and I am soon on my way to my car and the drive home.

By 9:15 my suitcase is unpacked, the laundry started, and I sort thru the few pieces of mail that accumulated while I was away.

The family will actually be celebrating Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving Day this year, and then a few days later I am off for two weeks on the Celebrity Eclipse to Curacao and other ports in the Southern Caribbean.

November 17, 2016

Coco Cay and Nassau

I always bring an LED alarm clock with me when I travel. The few occasions I need to set an alarm, I can, but more importantly if I awaken during the night I can see what time it is without turning a light on. I wake up and see that it is 10:15. I am surprised I slept so long and wasn't awakened by the dropping of the ships anchor. I get up, turn on the TV to the bridge camera channel, and am further surprised to see Coco Cay several miles off in the distance. Everything falls into place when I read that the time is 7:40 not 10:15. My old dependable clock has gained over 2 ½ hours in the last 18!

I get up anyway. The temperatures are forecast for a high of 75. Currently it isn't raining, but I can see rain to the North. It is cloudy and foggy with an almost non-existent breeze. John Denton, the hotel director, is having a private reception on the island today for his best customers, the Diamond Plus and Pinnacle members. Since it has been years since I have gotten off the ship here I decide to attend. The rain looks like it has dissipated, and the temperature remains very comfortable in the low 70's with no sun.

About 40 us show up at the gathering point and we are escorted as a group to the tender and then to the picnic pavilion overlooking the beach. Before my hip replacements it had become near impossible for me to walk on any unstable surface like gravel or sand. I still find the uneven surface of my lawn very challenging, but hadn't tried sand in a long time. Well, I managed to walk across the island and back, but have determined sand will continue to be on my "things to avoid" list.

Having never been able to eat seafood, I can't say that I ever missed it, but today they had platters of some of the largest shrimp I have ever seen. They looked delicious. There was lots of other food and of course the two bartenders were able to make just about any drink that didn't require a blender. (No electricity on this part of the island.) Being so early in the day I settle for a Sprite Zero. The group stayed a little over an hour and then broke up and headed back across the island to the tenders. Being as cool as it was, there were few people in the water. The bars were busy, and many people were still finishing the ever popular BBQ on the island. (Brought from the ship's galley.)

One of the tidbits I heard from another guest explains a lot of the inconsistencies I have seen in how the higher level Crown and Anchor members are treated on different cruises. According to the story the Hotel Director is given a budget, and he has near total discretion on how the money is spent. A party on the island, shrimp, chicken wings, chunks of cheese, celery, or nothing at all for appetizers in the Diamond Lounge. He can use the budget for guests, staff parties, or to even spend on himself. In the case of John, he will tell you he works because he loves his job and the people. As a result, being the kind of person he is, he probably spends the entire budget, and maybe then some, on guests and staff.

Another passssenger related a story he witnessed when John encountered a crew member having a beer in port. John asked if he could buy him another and the crew member replied no thank you as he was scheduled to be back on the ship shortly. John bought him another beer and told him to enjoy it and that he would take care of his return time.

I have recognized for years that John is one of the strongest advocates for C&A guests, but had never heard this is how the system works. I can't verify the story so it may be true or not, but it makes sense, fits with everything I have seen over the years, and explains a lot.

There are several showers in the afternoon after I am back on board the ship. Not the greatest day at Coco Cay, but good considering many ships have to pass on stopping here at all because the seas are too rough to tender.

When I return to my cabin I find a plate of cheese, crackers, and fruit along with another plate of small desert cakes. There is enough food to feed an army. I eat a little, and combined with 2 chicken wings in the Diamond lounge that will suffice as my formal night dinner.

I would estimate less than 50% of the men are wearing a jacket tonight, and many of them without a tie. Not surprising considering this being such a short cruise. Since I didn't even bring a coat and tie, I am in the majority.

The Production shows with the singers and dancers are tonight at 9:15 and 10:30. Having seen it many times in the past, and doubting I can stay awake that long, I listen to the guitar player at the piano bar until about 9:00 and then head to the cabin. My clock has gained another 2 hours, so I turn it away so I can't see it. Time for a replacement when I get home, and with another cruise coming up in about a week I can't even consider it a Christmas present.

During the night we travel about 75 miles to our next port, Nassau. The seas remain near perfectly calm as they have been since we left Port Canaveral.

There are 3 other ships in Nassau, Royal's Empress of the Seas, The Carnival Elation and NCL Breakaway. The Empress is smaller than the Majesty, originally owned by Royal as The Nordic Empress, eventually sold to Pullmantur, and then returned to Royal and extensively refurbished last year at a cost exceeding fifty million dollars.

There has been some heavy rain, many of the streets in Nassau are flooded with standing water, and it is cloudy and dreary with a temperature of about 70 at most. Initially I had intended to get off in Nassau, as I told my daughter, "to get a beer and a burger". Looking at the weather I decide otherwise. Many people stay on the ship. As the day progresses the skies improve to partly cloudy with the sun peaking through on occasion. The rain appears to be gone and there is a brisk breeze but temperatures remain too cool for the sun worshipers. Deck chairs become occupied but the pool empty.

All the ships leave about 5 while I am enjoying cocktails in the Diamond Lounge. The Elation leaves first with us and the Empress right behind. As the sun sets, the lighted ships head North to their next ports, the Majesty at a blistering 9 knots.

The Monarch never had a Johnny Rockets venue like most of the newer Royal ships, but it has been added to the Majesty during one of the refurbishments. I deliberately decide to go there for dinner tonight, which will enable me to get to the Crown and Anchor loyalty reception at 7:45. At 6:30 Johnny's is about half full, and I am promptly greeted and seated. The type is so small that I can barely read the menu, so instead I just tell my waiter what I want, a cheeseburger with American cheese, bacon, and nothing else.

Without exaggeration I can say the burger is the best I have ever had on any ship. Guaranteed better than shrimp or lobster that some passengers crave.

I have a few minutes to wait for the opening of the Crown and Anchor loyalty reception. The orchestra is playing music, and we are entertained with a few songs, not sung by one of the singers or someone on the entertainment staff, but by Lucy, a gal that works back stage. Her voice is excellent, but remember this is an opinion being offered by someone that can't carry a tune is a bushel basket.

There are the usual introductions and sales pitches. On this voyage there are about 140 diamond members, 40 diamond plus, and 6 pinnacle guests. The top 5 cruisers are introduced, photographed with the loyalty host and hotel director, and presented with a bottle of each guest's favorite beverage whether that be champagne, wine, vodka or fine whiskey. Another little detail that this hotel director does differently than what is done on some other ships.

I head to the theater to catch the headliner show "Michael James". A combination comedian, juggler, etc. I have never seen him before, and overall his show is good.

Tomorrow is a day at sea. The seas are expected to be under 6 feet throughout the night and all day tomorrow. The ship hardly moves, and unless you look outside you would think we are tied to the dock.

November 16, 2016

Nov 14, 2016 Majesty of The Seas

I sailed on The Monarch of The Seas, sister ship of the Majesty, many times before she was sold several years ago, and she became one of my favorite ships despite being the smallest and oldest in the Royal Caribbean fleet at the time. With The Majesty now sailing out of Port Canaveral I thought it only fitting to see how she compares to my memories of the Monarch.

Fortunately I have a parking reservation, as in the days just before our departure two of the worlds largest ships, The Oasis of the Seas and the Norwegian Epic boarded over 10,000 passengers at Port Canaveral. Reasonable off site parking is becoming scarce. The owner of the lot where I usually park has already purchased more land to expand his business.

Being only a 4 day cruise my suitcase is barely half full, and I decide to carry my own luggage onto the ship instead of turning it over to the baggage gorillas. They tried to intimidate me into leaving it with them by telling me security would turn me away and I would just have to bring the suitcase back to them. Never happened, the entire process was seamless and I was on the ship enjoying a sandwich for lunch an hour and forty five minutes after I left my house.

The physical structure of the Majesty is identical to the Monarch, but that is where the similarity ends. Cabins and all public spaces have been completely redone and updated. Instead of dark wood, colors are brighter and the furniture has been replaced and updated. Even many of the pool lounge chairs are new. Being a very old ship, the elevators are slow, and there are a few steps to go up and down when going from one end of the ship to the other because of the midship galley and dining room locations. Overall the ship is very clean and in good condition, much beter than I remember the Monarch being.

My cabin is small, but clean, very functional, and probably less than 50 feet from the forward elevators on deck 5. Everything is very accessible due to the small size of the ship.

Change is always happening. Instead of the package of factory made cookies and a bag of almonds I find a plate of fresh cookies in the cabin. Oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip. The first food I don't need.

Skies are cloudy with a few sprinkles of rain in the afternoon. Before departure the muster drill is conducted quickly and efficiently. I return to the cabin to change clothes for the evening. As we leave port we pass another Royal ship, The Grandeur of The Seas that is tied up close to the Port entrance. This is a port of call for her on her itinerary from Baltimore to Nassau and Coco Cay.

80% of the Crown Lounge is used for the Diamond Lounge cocktail hour from 5:00 to 8:30. It is full, but a few seats remain open. John Denton, our hotel director, spent about an hour greeting and socializing with his guests. He has recently returned to work after suffering a heart attack earlier this summer on a ship in England. He was evacuated to the US for surgery and has fully recovered, well fully being defined as recovered enough that he wants to be at work full time. A few non entitled guests try to get free drinks, but they were quickly spotted and asked to leave. The service and appetizers are as the top cruisers have learned to expect.

I decide to forgo the dining room and go to the Windjammer buffet for dinner. I was shocked, when 30 minutes after they opened the room was full. I have a small dinner with no dessert. After dinner I head to the Schooner bar and have an after dinner drink. I intended to attend the show, but never made it. Staying up late is just getting harder and harder. I will see the show on TV later in the week in my room.

Tomorrow we will be in Coco Cay for the day.

November 06, 2016

Return to Clermont

The Divina docks in Miami on time. Passengers begin disembarkation about an hour late. There is a system, but it is not as well orchestrated as on most ships. Fortunately I have priority disembarkation and am one of the first passengers waiting for luggage in the terminal. A very nice porter asks if I would like some help. Still feeling the effects of a cold, I accept his services. It takes about 20 minutes for my luggage to arrive. The porter has worked here for 19 years, and soon shares that many passengers are not very pleased with MSC. He helps me all the way to my car in the garage, and is well tipped for his service.

Just as I am paying my parking fee, the phone rings. Adrienne and Steve are ready to disembark The Harmony. I expect to be there in about 30 minutes. Just as I enter the security checkpoint at Port Everglades they call again. The ship is in sight, and my passengers and their luggage are quickly spotted.

Over the next four hours we share stories of our cruise.

Pictures of the MSC Divina are posted to my blog site. A week at home before I leave for a quick 4 day cruise on the Majesty of The Seas, the sister ship of The Monarch of the Seas, one of my most favorite ships that I sailed many times before her sale to Pullmantur.

November 04, 2016

Cozumel, Day at Sea, Nassau

We arrive in Cozumel under cloudy skies and light winds. The high for the day is expected to be in the high 70's. For the first time in years the ship I am on does not dock at the new international terminal, but at the old pier near downtown. There are several ships at the international terminal, but they are too distant for me to see.

MSC does many things differently than the other lines. Another is that all tours depart from the ship, not a meeting point on shore. This precludes doing any shopping on your own before a tour that may not leave until several hours after docking. On the plus side, it is less likely that a passenger will miss the meeting place or meeting time. Not good or bad, just different.

Several good items on the dinner menu tonight. I choose to have a steak. It is served hot! What a pleasant surprise. My table mates never arrive, so I am out of the dining room in time to catch the early show. All in all Sophie does a good job, but is severely handicapped by an inefficient system and lack of support. For example all the waiters have to go to one bar to get all drinks for the dining room, then she has to go back to the same bar to pay the check. Every other ship has figured out a better way.

The show tonight is just the singers and dancers. The show is enjoyable even though I don't understand the words of most of the songs. Barely made it through English in school not to mention ever attempting Italian, Spanish, etc.

The Eataly Steakhouse is supposed to be the best specialty restaurant on board. I walk past it many times a day, and tonight actually caught a couple dining there. The first time I have seen any passengers in the restaurant.

Tonight and tomorrow we sail towards Nassau, Bahamas. Presently the seas have slight chop and the ship has a little motion, but not much. We turn our clocks ahead 1 hour tonight in preparation for entering the next time zone to our East.

Our day at sea is perfect weather wise. Mostly sunny with temperatures in the high 70's. I have managed to catch a cold, and will avoid the dining room tonight. Actually I discover the one place that serves food that should be hot, actually hot. The sports bar. I have a bacon cheeseburger for dinner. Not the most healthy, but at least it tastes good. I find an isolated seat in the theater for the early show. What started early in the week as good entertainment is beginning to become rather boring. The gymnasts and acrobats do the same routines they have done every other night, with the only difference being their costumes. There are few public clocks on the ship, I did find one as I was walking around. I have no idea what time it is set to, it is 1 ½ hours different than ship's time.

We arrive in Nassau and passengers are allowed off the ship starting at 11:30. We are one of 5 ships in port today, the most Nassau can handle at one time. The temperature is near 80 with sunny skies and a light wind. Still pampering my cold, I elect to stay on the ship. Besides, I will be back here in 10 days.

As I near the end of my voyage I will share some of my opinions, I am sure a few of which you can anticipate from what I already have written. The MSC product is quite a bit different than what the other lines cruising out of Florida offer.

Even though they sell drink packages, alcohol sales are a much lower portion of their revenue stream. No dedicated beverage service in the dining room. Your wait staff can get you a beverage but be prepared for a long wait. "Long lines at the bar" is the nightly excuse. Beverages are not available at all in the theater. Limited service in other entertainment areas such as the piano bar, and reception area bar. It is not uncommon to have to wait 20 minutes or more for a server. There is a bar in the buffet, but no table service for beverages, just self service.

All the music in the theater is prerecorded, no orchestra. The piano bar never had a piano player, but they often did in the lobby bar. The specialty restaurants weren't special enough that many passengers used them.

Food presentation was good, but in the dining room and the buffet, food was supposed to be hot was usually cold. I just don't think they have the delivery system figured out yet. Obviously the food is hot when it is cooked, they just can't keep it hot until they get it to the guest. The most extensive buffet presentation was on boarding day. Dinner choices were very very limited at the buffet.

Cabins are comfortable with plenty of storage space. Don't expect a towel animal every night. They made me one about the third night and it still sits on top of nightstand lamp. Rooms are serviced twice a day, but vacuuming the carpet is not part of the daily service.

The ship itself is decorated in a very modern style. Lots of chrome and mirrors and black glass/plastic/marble. Many areas are dark and gloomy. Ceilings, even in the dining room, are low by modern ship standards. Getting around the ship is not intuitive or convenient, many passageways are narrow. Some elevators are hidden in corners and hard to locate. Hallways zig and zag back and forth. Floor levels go up and down, sometimes with steps, other times with a sloping ramp. My table in the dining room sits on a slightly sloped floor. In general the ship is not friendly towards anyone with any mobility issues. Only stairways between decks have railings. Where there are only a few steps, there are no railings. Only a handful of seats in the theater are accessible with a wheel chair. One must navigate up and down about 40 steps to sit in any of the first 15 rows, and there are no handrails.

Parts of the ship are restricted to certain suite customers, a practice becoming more prevalent in the industry. But even for them to reach their private dining room they must take two elevators and transverse the entire length of the ship.

The guest relations staff is quite extensive, and has a number of personnel dedicated to helping customers in their native language, not only at the desk, but throughout the ship. The entire staff is very friendly and staff is highly visible and intermingles with the guests quite often.

Common with many ships, the Internet is sporadic. Occasionally I am able to get and send an email, but often not.

I try the buffet for dinner this last night. The Pasta is cold and inedible. I leave my plate and head to the sports bar. Delicious BBQ chicken wings, delightful staff, and the food is served hot. I share a table with some first time cruisers from Virginia, they too are very disappointed in the food and have been coming to the sports bar for four days now. They learned faster than I did.

The ship has run out of strawberries, limes, strawberry daiquiri mix and sprite zero, and those are only the items I know of first hand.

Am I likely to book MSC again? Since I never say never, I will just says it is very unlikely. Time to pack. I'm am scheduled to be off the ship by 7:00, time will tell. My car is parked a couple of blocks away, and then off to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to pick up my daughter and her husband arriving on the Harmony of the Seas. I'll bet their cruise was much more enjoyable. We will share stories on the four hour drive home.

November 01, 2016

Ocho Rios and Grand Cayman

We arrive in Ocho Rios on time at about 9:30. We are the only ship here as I think the port is only capable of handling one ship at a time. The weather is perfect with temperatures expected to be in the middle 70's. There is a brisk breeze which makes being outside very comfortable.

I elect to stay on board and take some pictures around the ship, and check out the pools. I am surprised how few passengers stay on board. I doubt if there are 50 left on the ship. The pools don't work for me. They all require climbing down a ladder to enter the water I won't take the risk of a slip or fall. Additionally one of the main pools has a sign indicating the water temperature is 72 F. A little cool for my taste.

The crew has a life boat drill, and launches about half of the lifeboats. It may be done this way on other ships, but they use some of the staff to simulate a group of passengers moving from the muster stations to each appropriate life boat. The captain personally inspects each boat, and checks that the proper staff members are at their appropriate stations. Everything appears to go smoothly.

As to be expected, only half the buffet is open for lunch, but there is no signage indicating what is open or closed until you arrive at a particular food station and find it bare. What food is available has been sitting a long time. There are few passengers, and the food warmers under the serving pans don't work. (According to buffet manager.) Though the presentation is excellent, the food quality is very poor. The freshly cooked pizza slices are colder than the self service plates, the pasta dishes have been sitting for hours, and not a single prepackaged hamburger or hotdog has moved in the 30 minutes I sit nearby.

My table in the dining room is set for 6, but so far there have only been 4 of us each night. My three table mates are from England, and this is also their first time on MSC. So far they haven't been pleased, and have sent food back every single night, either because it is cold when served, or just wasn't cooked. I agree with them on the cold part, but have refrained from asking for a new plate.

One thing I haven't quite figured out yet. Like all cruise lines, they sell beverage packages to guests. I seldom do, but not getting free drinks during happy hour I purchase a small package that is good for a given number of drinks, ice cream, sodas, and maybe a few other options. I ordered online before boarding the ship to save about 35%. When I arrive on the ship, I am told to go to the casino bar to pickup my beverage package. I am then given a booklet of coupons which I would expect are to be used to for purchase. Well almost. At each purchase I give the server a coupon, my room key, and then have to sign the charge slip which has a balance due of zero. Now you might expect this is a way to give a tip to the service person, but there is no space for a gratuity, and several times passengers have been specifically told not to tip individuals.

The show tonight is the same performers, but a different show. Very appropriate for Halloween, "The Witches of Paris". Again very good and a definite step up from the entertainment on many ships. Parts of the ship are appropriately decorated, and late in the evening there is a Halloween party for those so inclined. It is scheduled past my bedtime.

We arrive at Georgetown, Grand Cayman at 8:30. The Freedom of the Seas and Disney Fantasia are moored nearby. There is no cruise ship dock here, and everyone tenders to shore. After finding a ham and egg sandwich cold, and a doughnut with frost in the center, I decide to go ashore to get a relatively tasty lunch. Unlike every other cruise line that stops here on a regular basis, MSC uses life boats for tenders instead of using the tenders from shore side. It takes over two hours to get all the passengers to shore for their excursions. Being a black level customer I am given priority boarding on a tender if I choose, but instead just wait to be one of the last to leave the ship.

The weather here is perfect. The high is expected to be 77, there is a brisk breeze, but with a possibility of a scattered showers later in the day.

As our tender ties up and I am waiting to go ashore, a harbor patrol boat approaches with flashing lights. Heated words are exchanged with the tender driver, I don't know what was said, but the harbor police were not happy. Was our tender driver speeding?

One of the closest food places I spot is the Hard Rock Cafe. I slowly find my way and go upstairs for lunch. I didn't think I would ever say a cheese burger from Hard Rock Cafe was good!

Back on the ship I catch up with writing this blog. At 5:00 there is a special reception for the "Black" level members of the Voyagers Club. It is being held at the piano bar. I will go if for no other reason than to see how many there are of us. Other benefits of being Black Level include: Expedited terminal check in; two fruit baskets in my cabin upon arrival; a bottle of wine, which I will carry home; a plate of chocolate dipped fruit; and discounts on stuff I never buy like spa treatments, jewelry, and tee shirts.

The piano bar area is like the jazz band area. Passengers have no choice but to walk thru the room. As I arrive, my name is checked off the list of about 100 passengers expected. We are offered drinks, and everyone is given a chocolate ship that weighs about a pound. I am going to try and get it home without melting in the car. Various staff members talk with everyone present, many are like myself, cruising with MSC for the first time but being a "Black" level because of their reciprocity program. Personally I think a smart marketing move to attract frequent cruisers. Many passengers voice feelings similar to my observations. Poor food quality and a very difficult ship for the physically challenged to move about.

We are told again about all the ships in the pipeline with one twist. They are all being purchased for cash in the bank, funds accumulated from from the revenue generated by the 500 freighters, tankers, and container ships the company owns. And yes the company is husband, wife, and several children.

My table mates are over 20 minutes late again tonight. I elect to not have an appetizer, and my entree arrives at the table before they even get their menu.

Skipping desert as I often do, I excuse myself when finished and take the opportunity to walk thru the buffet. It is surprisingly empty. 50 passengers at the most, with many eating pizza. The other selections are very limited. I will continue to endure the dining room.

I talk with a fellow passenger from Germany and learn the reason for so many Europeans on the ship. This is a Holiday week in much of Europe. Something I need to be conscious of in the future.

I finally run into a passenger I know. We think we met about 4 years ago on the Celebrity Equinox. He and his wife are in a suite and there is a special dining room just for suite guests. They experienced poor service and cold food and then tried one of the specialty restaurants and found it no better. I guess this is a common theme on the Divina, maybe the owner likes the food service this way.

I skip the main show tonight, "A vocal Presentation of Italian Classics". We arrive in Cozumel tomorrow morning at about 10:00.

Day at Sea

As we leave Miami, the wind is quite strong from the North West. There are periods of rain, and the ship exhibits a little motion throughout the night. We are headed South of Cuba and then West to Ocho Rios, Jamaica. During the day we can see Cuba off our starboard side. We are told that MSC will soon have a cruise ship berthed in Cuba, the first line to do so.

The weather is quite pleasant all day with a few clouds and the wind gradually decreasing. The seas subside to under 4 feet.

My cabin is adequate, and free of machinery noise. I'm on deck 12, the last inside cabin at the extreme aft of the ship. Storage space is good, and everything is clean. The shower is unique. On past cruises I have had showers with curtains, showers with a single hinged door, and showers with rolling circular doors. This shower has two hinged curved doors that swing both in and out of the shower. Unfortunately the doors don't meet properly, and no matter how I try the floor becomes flooded with water, as any water that hits the door runs to the outside of the shower. In addition the bottom lip around the shower is just placed on top of the ceramic tile in the bathroom. I suspect there are some cracks in the joints.

I spend much of the day exploring the ship. I soon have formed some opinions. The ship is what I would describe as modern elegant. I think MSC must have an interest in a glass company based on all the glass and mirrors throughout the ship.

Corridors zig and zag about the ship, the floor goes up and down, sometimes with a step, at other times with a sloped section. In general the passageways are quite narrow compared to other modern ships.

The main theater is quite large, and was designed without offending columns to obstruct anyone's view. However there are only a handful of seats that are accessible without climbing or descending stairs. Most people sitting in the balcony, unless they are very tall, have to look thru glass panels to see the performers on the stage. Some of them distort the view. Personally, being of shorter stature, not only do I have the glass panels to contend with, but two inch chrome bars right at eye level. I quickly learn the balcony is not for me.

Other venues throughout the ship have their own quirky characteristics. At the jazz bar traffic coming or going to the theater walk between the performers and the audience.

The piano bar primarily has sectional couch seating arranged in large semicircles. Each couch large enough to hold 20 people.

Seating near the Atrium is the most comfortable of any of the venues.

Late in the afternoon passengers that are cruise critic members meet with several of the staff. There are only 4 passengers and we have pleasant conversation with the purser and the assistant hotel director. They were prepared for a much larger crowd, and as a result we each could have had 20 drinks and there still would have been some left over. One tidbit of note, MSC has ordered a ship that will hold over 7500 passengers, 1 of 13 scheduled to be completed in the next six years.

At dinner, the menu is very limited for formal night. The "classic menu" items are not offered tonight. My earlier assumption is proven inaccurate. 4 of the 5 items contain fish or seafood. Had I checked the menu earlier, I probably would have gone to the buffet. I ask Sophia for the steak without the shrimp. She assures me they are not cooked together and she can do it. She also shares she is allergic to seafood herself, and clearly understands my concern.

While waiting for our food another waiter trips a few feet from our table where the tile on the floor is about half an inch higher than the adjoining carpet. It takes an hour before someone arrives with a broom and dustpan to clean up the broken glass. In the meantime they just covered the mess with a couple of chairs.

After dinner I listen to the jazz group for a little while on my way to the main show. Being formal night, during the first 20 minutes we are introduced to many of the officers. The captain also welcomes the passengers in about 15 different languages. He shares that the passengers come from 86 different countries. Only about 600 of the 3900 passengers are from the US and Canada, and I suspect many of them don't speak English. On my visits to foreign countries I always have heard more English spoken than I do here.

The show is very good, a combination of dance, singing, acrobatics, gymnastics, etc. The showroom is about 75% full, not unusual for the second show. I stop and listen to the jazz group for awhile after the show.

Tonight we set our clocks back and hour, and therefore will arrive in Ocho Rios an hour early tomorrow morning.

Boarding MSC Divina

It is Saturday October 29th. I actually packed yesterday as I need to drive to Miami to board the MSC for a week long cruise to the Western Caribbean. But I am getting ahead of myself. I need to start many months ago after my daughter Adrienne and her husband Steve told me they were taking a transatlantic repositioning cruise on the Harmony Of The Seas from Barcelona, Spain to Port Everglades. She approached me with a sincere idea. Since I am always looking for an excuse to cruise, why don't I book a cruise that arrives in Fort Lauderdale the same day, and we can ride together back to Clermont?

Yes, this is a good excuse for a cruise, and it will save her $50 or $100 in not having to rent a car. Now, never mind what my week cruise will cost to attain this saving. Pretty smart on her part.

Since this was over 18 months ago, I didn't get serious about finding a cruise for many months. When I did start I was at first surprised to learn the Harmony is the only major cruise ship arriving at Fort Lauderdale on November 5th. Despite my initial surprise, it does make sense. This is the arrival of a major new cruise ship to Port Everglades, and there will be many festivities to celebrate the occasion. Likewise, if I were a captain of a competitor cruise line I would enjoy disrupting the festivities by pulling into port right in front of the Harmony if I could. Ultimately this led me to look at the Port of Miami. The MSC Divina was my only choice. Several friends have been on the Divina and enjoyed it, I booked a week and after disembarking will drive to Port Everglades to find my passengers from the Harmony.

The drive to Miami seems very long even though it is only just over four hours. As everyone has experienced, my GPS took me into a dead end parking lot instead of to the Port. A little extra driving around downtown Miami and I arrive at the port parking garage. Empty spaces are abundant, I choose a spot on one of the upper floors near the elevator. It is only about a two block walk to the terminal. The facilities in Miami are much smaller and more compact than Lauderdale or Canaveral. This probably has led to being well staffed, and it is a near continuous walk for the entire process. I say near, as is usually the case my new body parts trip the metal detectors at security. A quick explanation and quick hand scan, and I am on my way.

I miss the line for priority check in, and go through the general boarding line. A little further to walk, but very little additional time. MSC is the only cruise line I know of that recognizes priority levels of competing lines, and enrolls new customers at the equivalent level in their rewards program. My first cruise with them, and I am at highest level, black.

The first spot of congestion is just inside the ship at the end of the gangway. There are about a dozen employees soliciting the boarding customers to buy drink packages. Now every cruise line does this, but usually not is such a way that it blocks entrance to the ship. I work my way to the elevators.

I don't expect my cabin to be ready for about an hour. I head to the ever present buffet for lunch. The choices are extensive. A carving station serving a round of beef, dozens of cold cuts and cheeses, many kinds of pizza, a complete salad bar, a pasta bar, and of course the ever present hamburgers, cheeseburgers and hotdogs, but not piled in a steam table pan but made up on a bun and either wrapped or in a cardboard serving container. I have a small serving of tortellini, while I wait for my cabin. The flavor is good, but it barely warm. An indication of things to come? Surprisingly I see a few empty tables available at all times, unlike many other ships on the day of embarkation where seating is scarce.

The cabin is spacious enough for me with plenty of storage for a weeks worth of clothes.

At about 4:45 we have our muster drill. Only passengers that have just boarded are requested to attend. If for some reason you can't attend, let them know and they will send someone to your stateroom to instruct you. Since we don't sail until 7:00, some passengers arrive too late for the muster drill and they are requested to attend a muster drill the next morning.

Again being an Italian line instead of an American line they do things different. We are asked to bring our life jackets with us. All muster station assembly areas are indoors. There is enough room for everyone, standing if not seated. Instructions are repeated in 5 languages which makes the process quite long. Even though we have our life jackets, we are not asked to put them on, but many passengers do. It is quite obvious that it is the first time many of the passengers have ever touched a life jacket. After about 45 minutes we are all dismissed, I wait for 5 minutes for the elevators to clear.

I am scheduled for early dining at 6:00. The server is anxious to take my order and get started, so my appetizer comes before my table mates even arrive at the table. Yes, they are late, having cruised only once before they didn't understand that a 6:00 PM dining time meant that they are expected at the dining room at 6:00, not anytime after 6:00.

The first night menu is more limited than what I experience on most other cruise lines, but the choices are good and my first nights dinner was edible if not great.

At one point the head waiter stops at the table and immediately begins to apologize for the service. He explains that much of his staff is new, and they haven't quite got it figured out yet. I had noticed but didn't say anything. Sometimes I am told I am too critical and will try to wait a few days before forming opinions.

Unlike most other cruise lines, the waiter is responsible for everything. Bar drinks, wine, bread, water, etc. She has an assistant that helps clear dishes. I think the menu is split into two parts like the other cruise lines, the "classic" section that is available every night, and the featured section that varies each day. I have to say "think" as the waiter shares no information with the passengers. More attuned to just doing her job than chatting with the guests.

At 8:00 PM there is the one show for all guests. The first 15 minutes is spent introducing some of the entertainers and the sales and entertainment team. This is followed by several numbers from the entertainers. Some of the songs are in Italian (I think). The show is short as many guest are due in the dining room at 8:30.

Off to the cabin about 9:00. Tomorrow is a day at sea.