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.