February 28, 2017

Turnaround And A Day At Sea

Saturday we are back in Tampa for what is called the turnaround day. Most of the passengers leave, the ship is prepared for thousands of new guests, the ship is refueled and re-provisioned, and any crew changes will occur today.

I am one of about 15 passengers staying on for another week in what is called a back to back cruise. The processing of back to back passengers is different than the regular passengers getting off the ship. I have done this a number of times, but the procedure is never the same. Essentially the cruise line tries to do everything they can to make the process quick and painless, but unfortunately it is the customs and border protection service that controls the process.

We gather on the ship having received our new sea pass cards the night before. We are escorted off as a group after all other passengers have left. Then the waiting begins. We wait in the terminal building before going downstairs. Once downstairs we wait to be processed by one of only two customs agents checking passports and declaration forms for the 2000 disembarking passengers.

Once our passport and declarations form are checked we wait as a group until eventually we go back upstairs and wait again. No one is allowed back on the ship until it is cleared by the port authorities. For some reason clearance is delayed and authorities are not allowing passengers to board. Eventually, about an hour and a half after starting the process, we are back on the ship.

This is the longest this process has ever taken me. The quickest was about 5 minutes several years ago when the customs agent came to the meeting point on the ship, collected our forms, said thank you, and we were on our way.

The weather is very nice today in Tampa. The pier is covered with tons of provisions to be loaded on board. The Solarium pool is closed for maintenance. Several broken tiles are being replaced. Overall, for being an older ship, Royal has done a good job of maintenance and there are few visible signs of her age. The seating in the theater is some of the most comfortable I have encountered.

On my way to the muster drill I run into several friends that I have known since my days on The Monarch of the Seas in 2012. The drill is efficiently completed and we set sail right behind the Brilliance of the Seas promptly at 4PM. In just over two hours we will be passing under the Sunshine bridge. This time I am committed to having my camera and capturing a few images. On previous cruises either the weather didn't co-operate or I was unprepared. Before heading to the Diamond lounge I grab my camera and decide where will be the best spot to take pictures of the bridge as we pass under.

The lounge is busier than last week. All the severs in both the Diamond Lounge and the Concierge lounge have been reassigned this week. Not an uncommon occurrence, but as a group they are disappointed. I would like to think we are their better tippers, and the job is easier as they don't need to deal with guest sea pass cards. Of course on the other hand, some of the most frequent cruisers are the cheapest cheapskates I have ever encountered.

The seas are only about 3 feet and sailing through the night is very calm. The next morning the temperatures are in the low 70's under sunny skies. Most passengers take advantage of the gorgeous weather and enjoy the pools. Yes, the Solarium pool repairs are completed and it is filled with fresh water.

There is a wedding in the Crown Lounge just after noon with about 50 guests. Often weddings on cruise ships are performed by the Captain, in this case the official performing the ceremony came with the wedding party. The bride was seen all around the ship in her white wedding gown, but walking barefoot. Something I would recommend that no one do as glasses are broken on the floors and carpets quite often.

During the day with mostly sunny skies the temperatures rise to the mid seventies, and the seas remain slight with about a 20mph wind out of the East.

No need for the destination talks this week. I sit in the shade by the pool for several hours, and walk back and forth on the port side of deck 5 outside where it is shady and there are no smokers. Part of the outside deck at the aft of the ship is blocked off for window washing, and on this ship the public walking area does not extend around the bow area as that space on deck 5 is where the mooring winches and lines are located.

A Coast Guard ship runs along side of us for a few hours as we pass just off the West tip of Cuba. Eventually she turns and heads back North towards the U.S. No other ships are in sight today.

Again this week I am avoiding the dining room. Of the eight of us that gathered in the Diamond Lounge for beverages, only two are going to the dining room, everyone else is also going to the Windjammer for dinner. After a quick bite, I catch the early production show with the singers and dancers.

Tomorrow we will be in Roatan, Honduras.

February 25, 2017

Cozumel and a Day at Sea

We move very slowly towards our scheduled arrival at Cozumel early in the morning. We are told that 9 ships are expected to be in port today. Our assigned pier is one of the old docks near the center of town instead of at the new International pier on the edge of town. The winds are quite brisk out of the West, rare for this area.

The Rhapsody is an older ship with conventional propellers instead of the newer azipod propulsion system. The Captain is uncomfortable with the motion of the ship and aborts his first docking attempt and heads back to open water. He tries again, and this time is successful.

The Hamburg which is right behind us makes three attempts before she is able to dock. Two other ships remain at sea and don't even attempt to dock. We are about an hour late in getting the ship cleared, so our departure is delayed by half an hour to compensate. Later the captain relates this was one of the most difficult conditions he has ever encountered in docking at Cozumel. Had the winds and current been any stronger we probably would have had to skip the port also.

I am off the ship before 10. On previous cruises I had heard about the No Name Bar, a favorite hangout for crew members of many cruise lines. I decide to make it a mission to find it and check it out.

After asking directions, twice, I learn it is only about a block from the pier. I head in the appropriate direction, and after walking right by it the first time, I spot the entrance. Probably the smallest entrance to any bar in Cozumel. Being quite honest, if I hadn't been told about it by others I wouldn't risk going inside, it looked a little too scary from the street.

After walking through a narrow dark passageway, the No Name Bar is actually pretty nice. There is a small beach, which is closed today because of the rough water, a nice pool, a bar, and many tables and chairs. There are hundreds of crew member name tags attached to the entrance walls, much like you would find business cards attached to bar walls in the US. Posted prices look reasonable, and of course there is free Internet.

There were only a handful of people there, but it was only about 10:30 in the morning, early even for sailors. At one table there were several of the servers from the Diamond lounge, and their manager, all using the free WiFi to talk to their families around the world. They were shocked to see me there. We chatted for a bit and then I left. Even though it was too early to order a drink, my mission was accomplished.

Ultimately I stop at Senor Frogs for free popcorn, my favorite snack food, a beer, and lunch.

I had spent several hours earlier in the week re-booking several cruises. I received the new confirmations and sent off an email to Kent, my trusted travel agent, to make the final changes. Disappointing, frustrating, and not surprising, what the Future Cruise Sales Manager said the travel agent could do turned out to not be possible.

After several emails to Royal's main office, and further communication with Kent, he accomplished what I needed, and at a price better than what Royal would give me directly. I have only booked direct with the cruise line a few times, and usually I am disappointed with the outcome. I will stick with my travel agent whenever possible.

The captain's Corner is attended by about 300 passengers, many many more than is usual. The questions were sincere and appropriate, and lasted over an hour. I found it to be surprising, but the captain revealed he prefers to steer the ship manually, forgoing the use of automatic systems. He admitted he doesn't trust the computers as well as his own instinct. Even more surprising in that he is a younger captain.

When I return to my cabin I find my clean laundry waiting for me. I now have enough clean clothes for the remainder of my journey, but will probably have them do one more batch early next week anyway.

The internet has been spotty, and several times when I have attempted to post the first several days to my blog I have been unsuccessful. I will keep trying. Obviously if you are reading this I was eventually successful.

I have spent several evenings with Deb and Tom in the Diamond Lounge. He dislikes air travel more than I do, but they also like to travel. Twice they have cruised the Mediterranean. Once by taking a repositioning cruise to Europe, and then returning by Cunard's QE2 to New York.

The second time they took the QE2 both ways to Europe, and are doing the same again in May. I have thought about such a trip, but haven't been diligent enough to figure out an itinerary that works. I'm now inspired to work at this a little harder. I definitely won't endure a plane flight across the Atlantic, and this is another alternative way to get there.

Their opinion was that while Cunard is still more formal than most American cruise lines it is not as "stuffy" as its reputation. Like all cruise lines the dress code has slipped from tuxedos every evening to just jackets.

This afternoon I tour backstage of the theater. Compared to the newer ships it is very small. There is no overhead room to "fly" sets, they must all be brought in from the wings. More significantly the time code equipment is broken and they are running all the shows with manual ques. From the audience you would never know the difference as every show appears to run smoothly.

Later in the day I tour the bridge, the captain joins us and chats with the small group. The bridge is very quiet, no traffic in sight and pretty calm seas. After nearly an hour a security officer arrives, interrupts the captain and asks us to leave. There is another tour waiting at the elevator lobby.

We are expected to enter the channel to Tampa at about 3:30 AM. The Radiance of The Seas will be in front of us and has to dock first as the she needs the space we dock in to turn around. Yes, the Tampa port is that small.

February 24, 2017

Roatan, Belize City and Costa Maya

We arrive in Roatan, Honduras precisely on time at 10 AM. The ship is cleared in about 10 minutes and passengers begin disembarking even before all the lines are secured.

Roatan is one of the smaller ports that cruise ships visit. There are just a handful of shops on the pier, including of course the ever present Diamonds International. Most passengers are off on tours, probably 700 stay on board. I get off and walk around for an hour or so. I have little interest in beaches, zip lines, or shopping.

There is another ship docked about 5 or 7 miles away at another port. Too far away to make out the cruise line.

Again the weather is ideal, but maybe a little deceiving for some guests. The temperatures are in the low 80's but there is a 25 mph wind making it feel much cooler. A perfect recipe for some good sunburns. The water is crystal clear, even right at the pier. Many small fish can be seen swimming in the water.

Tonight's show is a comedian and juggler that uses several members from the audience to help him. As often is the case, the audience participants steal the show.

It is a short overnight cruise to to Belize City. The seas are slight and the motion of the ship is minimal.

Belize is a tender port, and we anchor about 5 miles off shore. The Carnival Freedom is about a mile in front of us, and a small German ship, "Hamburg", is about 5 miles to our stern. I go ashore several hours before my tour. All the usual shops and a few local ones. "The Wet Lizard" grabs my attention so I enjoy a beer with some other passengers before getting on our "air conditioned" tour bus. Nearly all vehicles in Belize are old vehicles imported from the US. The poorer the condition, the less tax they have to pay when importing them. Looking at most vehicles on the roads, they avoid a lot of import tax.

Our guide shares a number of things that I hadn't remembered about Belize City. First of all, the city is actually two feet below sea level. New development is almost non existent, and most growth is in the interior of the country. Very few private residences have AC, only the homes of the very rich. Schools, stores, and medical facilities are not air conditioned. Today the temperature is mild, in the low 90's. During the summer the highs often reach 115, and the humidity is very high. Agriculture, primarily citrus crops, and tourism are the major contributors to the economy. The first cruise ship visited the country about 20 years ago. Today there are three here and tomorrow there will be four.

I return to the ship and change for cocktail hour. Right on schedule at 5:00 the captain applies power to the thrusters to turn the ship around. The vibration is a little more severe than usual in the Diamond Lounge, and after about 5 minutes a stack of about 25 plates vibrates to the floor in a thunderous crash. Without a doubt it is very clear, the Captain did it.

Sometimes I think there is payback, but I wouldn't wish this payback on anyone. One of the passengers that is amongst the most poorly dressed each night didn't have the sense to stay out of the sun or use sunscreen. Much of his face is badly blistered from sun burn. Probably the worst sunburn I have seen in years. He looks like he should be getting medical treatment he looks so bad, but I will guess that he does not have enough sense to do that either.

The next morning we arrive in Costa Maya. The weather is about the same with temperatures in the upper 80's on the ship with a nice breeze coming off the ocean. I decide to stay on the ship today and take care of some logistics. I gather my laundry. They say it will be back the next day, but I often find it takes 2 or 3 days. I connect to the internet and skim over my 123 new emails. There are only a few of any importance. I respond to those that are most important, some can wait until I am home, and many just get deleted.

I had a new experience the other day. Often there are various "gifts" in my cabin. Sometimes plates of cookies, bottles of wine, fruit and cheese plates etc. There was not one, but 2 plates. The first the usual chocolate covered strawberries and other desert items. I was a little perplexed that they would send two such plates to my cabin. I looked at the second. It contained shrimp, scallops and other deadly food! This is something the cruise lines are very careful about. They know of my allergies, but someone just made a mistake, or maybe it wasn't a mistake, maybe they are trying to tell me something. 

Rhapsody of the Seas

February 18, 2017 – I am off for two weeks on the Rhapsody of the Seas sailing from Tampa, Florida to Honduras, Belize , and Mexico. Actually I am doing a back to back and will be visiting each port of call twice, unless the captain diverts us to some other location.

Scott and Alyssa drive me to Tampa, and are spending the rest of their day at Busch Gardens.

This is definitely one of the fastest and easiest ship boardings I have ever encountered. Probably less than 20 minutes from stepping out of the car to being in the crown lounge on the ship. Of course this being a smaller ship makes the logistics much easier, but everything went smoothly, well for me anyway.

Entering the port building immediately in front of me was a couple with a big red wagon loaded with about 4 large suit cases and miscellaneous smaller items. I sure I saw a kitchen sink in the pile. Needless to say, security would not let them in. I have no guess what they expected to do with the wagon once on board. Fortunately I was able to just change lines and enter a different door.

The cabins were ready by 1:30, and I found my luggage in the hallway by a little after 2:00. To get the ship loaded as quickly as possible, luggage was initially just brought to the right section of the ship. A separate crew was slowly moving luggage to individual cabins, but most of it was just picked up from the hallways by the passengers.

By mid afternoon it began to rain, and I must assume it was also raining at Busch Gardens. Hopefully the kids were lucky, and inside at the time. After the usual muster drill, not "mustard" as many say, we left port promptly on time at 4:00 PM. The rain had stopped but it was very cloudy and overcast as we made our way under the Sunshine Bridge a little more than two hours after leaving Port. Tampa will never see any of the larger ships as they are just too tall to fit under the bridge, we clear with feet to spare.

The diamond lounge at most has about 40 guests during cocktail hour. I understand it is the first night, but the dress is what I would expect on Carnival. Armless tee shirts, shorts, swimsuits and ball caps. Not what is usually seen. I will see what happens tomorrow.

I am assigned late dining, as that is all that was available when I booked. Just one more reason I plan to eat at Park Cafe or the Windjammer.

The first night there is only one show. The comedian was good. I remember seeing him before, but don't remember the specifics of his routine. There are advantages to being able to forget.

As we head WSW towards Honduras, the seas are about 3 to 6 feet. Being a small ship we roll just enough so that if you think about it you realize you are on a ship.

Sunday is a sea day. The temperatures are in the mid to upper seventies, the skies are mostly sunny most of the day. Many passengers lounge in the sun or take dips in the pools. Unlike the larger ships there are plenty of deck chairs for everyone. A new detail I have noticed for the first time is that one of the pool staff stands on the platform of one of the hot tubs all day just watching over the pools. Not a lifeguard, but at least a set of eyes. There are some kids on board, but not a significant percentage. The cruise director tells us that the passenger manifest includes people from 21 countries, the majority being Americans followed by Canadians.

I spend an hour or so with future cruise sales re-booking some cruises. Because of changes in fares, and the fact that I now qualify for a discount on the single supplement I was able to save some dollars by re-booking.

By Monday evening the seas have picked up a little and a few passengers are beginning to complain about the ships motion. Every 20 of 30 minutes we hit a little larger wave that rattles throughout the ship. It's good to be able to hear and feel that I am actually on a ship and not just in a hotel somewhere.

The same improperly dressed guests are in the Diamond lounge again tonight. Even though it is formal night, they don't care. Yes, I had a private conversation with Alan the Diamond Lounge Concierge about the lack of proper dress. He doesn't seem to care any more than the offending guests.

Charlie is here, and fact he has been here for the last 7 weeks. I have said this before in earlier posts, but the only time I ever run into Charlie is on a Cruise ship even though he is one of my neighbors at home. I hope these two weeks turn out better, but his first four weeks were plagued with rain, high winds and generally unpleasant weather. They were diverted to different ports on several occasions, but that is just the way it is when dealing with mother nature.

Tonight's production show is with the singers and dancers. This being my first cruise on this ship, it is the first time I have seen this particular show. Because of the cost involved Royal very rarely will change a production show. They find it more advantageous to reposition ships to different markets every 3 to 5 years instead.

Tomorrow we are scheduled to be in Roatan, Honduras.

February 14, 2017

Two Sea Days and Home

The captain has altered his course back to Ft. Lauderdale to keep us in calmer water Saturday. Friday morning finds the seas calm with a brisk breeze across the open decks. The temperatures are probably in the low 70's. In the shade it feels cool, but out of the wind, in the sun, it is hot. Hot enough to turn unsuspecting passengers into looking like the lobsters that will be served for dinner tonight.

All of my children go ice skating this morning. Miraculously, considering all the other injuries on this trip, no one falls. Don't worry, I wouldn't consider ice skating. In fact I am not sure I would even feel safe walking on the ice. I may take risks traveling to unknown lands, but I really try to avoid any risk of a fall. I have heard that falls are the number one killer of the elderly, not that I consider myself in that category.

The cruise director told us this morning about several things to look for in the sky tonight. First just after sunset there will be a lunar eclipse lasting several hours and then later in the evening a passing meteor should be visible. At one point he said this hasn't happened in 1000 years, at another point 600. I'll leave it up to you to determine the accuracy of either statement. Since I certainly won't be around the next time this occurs, and I have seen tonight's show many times, I will probably wander to the upper most deck of the ship to take a look. If the skies are clear, viewing from a ship can be very good as there is no light pollution to contend with.

I had sent an email reminder to a friend that is into astronomy. He replied that it was going to be such a non-event, the astronomy club is doing nothing to attempt a viewing.

Obviously the amateur astronomers know more than a cruise director when it comes to eclipses and meteors. Even though we had clear skies, there was nothing about the moon that the untrained eye could observe, and the moon was so bright, even when in a partial shadow, no stars could be observed not to mention a faint meteor.

The seas remain calm, another cruise ship has been 5 to 10 miles in front of us all day, as we continue to head home.

Saturday morning finds the seas running about 6 feet. The ship is perfectly stable and the temperatures are again in the 70's with mostly clear skies.

There are now two ships traveling in our same direction, one off in the distance in front of us, and another behind us. This morning I take a tour behind the scenes of Studio B, the ice rink. A few tidbits that you may find interesting.

The ice rink floor is flexible. If it were more rigid, like the steel plates used to construct the rest of the ship, the ice would crack as the ship twists and flexes. The largest ice show production cost is the repair of lighting equipment. Because of the constant vibration, lamps have a very short life and mechanical fasteners often come loose requiring a high level of maintenance. I must mention that the Freedom was one the earlier ships to have an ice rink, and hopefully they have learned some lessons for the newer ships. In fact I think most lighting on the newer ships is LED instead of incandescent.

My cabin is just a little larger than the one I had on the Oasis, but what a difference in functionality. More than double the storage space, plenty of space around the bed, and nothing is broken. My cabin steward is very personable and we exchange greetings daily. In St Maarten he managed to get a few hours ashore to enjoy a local beer. If I had known, I would have treated.

The children spent time ice skating, rock climbing, and flow riding. Activities that I wouldn't even consider.

The customs and border protection department has instituted a new service in Ft Lauderdale for returning U.S. passengers disembarking ships.

Essentially you download an app, enter your personal data such as passport information, take a picture of yourself and answer a few questions about your trip. After you arrive at port, the data is sent to customs, and a bar code is sent to your device. The bar code, which is only valid for 4 hours, is then scanned and the agent only needs to check your passport. We will see how it works.

We will be some of the first passengers off the ship as the intent is to get Adrienne back to Orlando in time for her afternoon work shift. Time will tell. If disembarkation is as slow as it was for me two weeks ago, she will lucky to get home for her shift tomorrow.

By later afternoon there are three cruise ships in sight in addition to several freighters. We pass a lighthouse marking a shallow shoal about a mile to starboard. Of course I don't have my camera with me. Our last night in the diamond lounge. I have met some interesting passengers including a college student that is studying for her masters degree in computer science. She has spent at least eight hours each of the last three days in the crown lounge working on school work. And some people question the dedication of the younger generations.

Another couple is staying on the Freedom next week, and then will be with me on the Rhapsody for the following week.

And of course I met two new "Steve's". I think I now know enough Steves to staff a ship.

The final show is good, a combination of acrobatics and a comedian. I watch the second show which I later heard was better than the first.

The alarm is set for 5:30, something very ridiculous while being on a cruise. Our plan is to meet at 6:30 by the elevators on deck 8, and be some of the first passengers off the ship.

It takes about an hour to disembark the ship, clear customs, wait for the shuttle bus to the parking lot, pack the suitcases in the cars and be on our way. The new process for customs works for some passengers and does seem to be a little faster. Sunday morning traffic is very light and we make good time traveling home. Adrienne even has time to do the first load of laundry before going to work.

In 6 days, on Feb 18, I leave for two weeks on the Rhapsody of The Seas. A ship about 10 years older than the Freedom with a capacity of about half as many passengers. No ice show, mini golf, or flow rider, but she does have a rock climbing wall. As if I cared.

St Maarten and St Kitts

We continue to have gorgeous weather. The temperatures are a little more bearable than they often are in this area, and the breeze in St Maarten is quite brisk just making it more comfortable to be in the port.

Alyssa and Adrienne have booked a couple of dives in the morning. The seas are a little choppy for their small craft to the point that they have to sign extra waivers. Their dive is enjoyable and uneventful.

The big plan for the day is to meet at the Lazy Lizzard for a drink and some food. Adrienne and her husband Steve had met Nick and his wife, the owners, on a previous cruise and have been keeping in touch via facebook. I am the first to arrive, probably about and hour and half before our agreed upon time. It only takes a minute to find and meet Nick. I settle in and have some food and a drink. Over the next two hours I am joined by the other 10 cruisers in our group, and two crew member friends from The Harmony of The Seas. (The Harmony is docked next to us.)

It is very obvious why Nick is successful in his business. If you are ever in St Maarten, check out the Lazy Lizzard. Tell Nick that Steve sent you and you will be treated just like all his customers. With quality beverages and food in a friendly atmosphere, at fair prices.

Taking the water taxi, I am back on the ship in about 40 minutes. A cool shower, change of clothes, and I am ready for the evening. The show is a magician that I have never seen before. His show is good and well attended. I retire to my stateroom, answer a few e-mails, and try to catch up on my blog.

Overnight we travel to St Kitts for an early morning arrival. Early in the morning the skies look quite threatening, but so far no rain. I decide to stay on the ship today. There are only two other ships here, a princess ship sharing our dock, and the same AIDA ship we have seen the last several days.

Many in our group have arranged for a private tour with some time at one of the local beaches.

The next two days we will be at sea headed back to Ft. Lauderdale 1200 miles away.

February 09, 2017

Labadee and San Juan

The weather is near perfect in Labadee. The temperatures are in the upper 70's and there is a light wind. Unlike Coco Cay, Royal Caribbean's other private island, most of the walkways on Labadee are paved. With the weather so perfect I get off the ship and wander around the island. Royal has lots of very profitable things for guests to do here from riding a long zip-line to renting cabanas on the beach. The beach, swimming, and walking are free. Beverages may be purchased with your sea pass card, but cash is required for purchases in the small local market.

Food is brought from the ship to prepare a BBQ for lunch. I should more accurately say the food is prepared on the ship and brought to various locations on the island to be served.

About 4:00 pm we leave Labadee to head to our next port, San Juan. The weather remains very enjoyable. The winds are strong at times, but the 6 to 8 foot seas barely make the ship pitch or roll.

I have dinner in the Windjammer, and attend the Ice Show. Studio B is nearly identical to the ice rink on the Oasis, but this show has been playing for many years and not all the passengers bother to attend. There are probably 200 empty seats. I always enjoy the skills of skaters even though I have seen them before.

I briefly cross paths with most of the others in our group. The various injuries are confirmed to be minor and everyone is recovering. The swimming and snorkeling was good at Labadee, and there were some fish to be seen.

As we continue on our course to San Juan, the skies remain sunny with a brisk breeze. The pool deck is fairly busy, but not over crowded.

Our arrival in San Juan is scheduled for about 1:30 and it usually takes 30 minutes or so for local officials to clear the ship.

There is a very definite channel that must be followed to get into the harbor. From the decks of the ship there is an excellent view of the Fort as we pass by.

Again with the weather so nice and it not being too hot I get off the ship and walk around part of Old San Juan where our ship docks. On the way back to the ship I am stopped by a government employee randomly surveying passengers visiting San Juan. I oblige and answer her questions. They are surveying visitors to determine the financial impact of tourists on the local economy. My impact doesn't extend beyond the port fees paid by the cruise line to stop here. A good thing for the local economy that I am not "average".

The usual evening routine. Dinner in the Windjammer, the nightly show in the theater, and about an hour at the piano bar.

The pianist is good, but not as good as Kelly.

Tonight we are headed for St Maarten.

Freedom Of The Seas

I was home for less than a week, and it is now time for 8 days on The Freedom Of The Seas. I booked this cruise over a year ago and it is what has become known as "the family and friends" cruise. My children, their spouses, my former wife, and several friends will all be here. Since last year the Freedom has moved from Port Canaveral to Port Everglades making the drive more than twice as long.

Nine of us arrive at Adrienne's house at 7:00 AM to pack the cars with humans and luggage, two others are meeting us on the ship. With the largest vehicle I get five passengers and most of the luggage, and Adrienne takes four passengers and a few suit cases and a couple of hanging clothes bags. Since Adrienne and I are aware of the propensity for some of our fellow passengers to be late, they are told to be ready at 7:00 even though we have little intention of leaving before 7:30.

Driving across Clermont on the way to the toll road there is one very bad bump that will surely bottom out the springs and shocks if I try to pass over it at more than about 15 miles per hour, surprisingly I remember, and we are soon headed south on the Florida Turnpike.

My passengers sleep most of the way, I am not sure if this is because they just need some rest, or they close their eyes and try to sleep so they don't have to watch my driving. Adrienne and I take turns passing each other depending on who gets stuck behind the slow driver. After a few hours we reach our planned stop in Ft Pierce for a fuel and restroom break. This is an excellent stopping point as it is just over half way, has many competitive gas stations, and is where we choose to switch to I-95 instead of remaining on the Turnpike for the rest of the journey to Port Everglades.

We are shortly back on the road, and I think everyone nods off again. The traffic gets heavier the further south we go. There are some areas of construction, but traffic moves along very well.

After another hour or so, about 30 miles from the port, I find myself in the third lane from the right on a four lane road with very heavy traffic. A few cars are moving at less than 50, most about 70 and of course a few far in excess of 70. The car to my right is moving just a little slower than I am, my front bumper is about five feet behind his when he suddenly starts turning into my lane.

No panic, there isn't time for that. A dozen thoughts race through my mind, will a honk on the horn work? Probably not as that will not only require him to respond, but to respond quickly and correctly. Do I just slam on the brakes and hopefully slow down enough before he hits me? I'm not sure. Instinctively I check to my left again, a few seconds ago there were no vehicles there, but with some drivers speeding in excess of 99, I can't be sure until I look again.

The left looks clear and I decide my best evasive maneuver is a quick move one lane left, I turn the wheel deliberately but quickly, the van responds as intended, the luggage is packed in tight enough to remain in place. Probably a few of the seat belts are stretched as the passengers continue to go straight while the car moves left. Even though I jar all of my passengers into a high level of consciousness, I avoid contact with the other car. He is now in the lane where I was fractions of a second earlier.

I take a glaring glance towards to offending driver to my right. I can't see him, he has the drivers window covered with a sheet of plastic or white cardboard. Even if he tried, he can't see anything to his left. *#@&^$.

Excepting a few bruises, all of my passengers are OK. The rest of the drive to the Park-N-Go lot is uneventful. After a quick shuttle to the ship, the usual security check and boarding process, we are soon all on the ship.

The Freedom class ships carry about 30% less passengers than the Oasis class ships, and it is obvious. No lines for the Windjammer or elevators, and you can casually stroll the pool deck or the Promenade without fighting a mass of humanity.

It is a beautiful day in Ft Lauderdale. Hundreds of small craft are all around the harbor, and in the ocean just outside the harbor entrance. Pods of dolphins swim by the ship, several manatees are spotted. Just a short distance out in the ocean a submarine is spotted surfacing, running for awhile and the submerging and popping up again nearby. Eventually she submerges never to be seen again. The assumption is that it is one of ours.

The muster drill is brief. Of course on a day when the weather is perfect and there is no rain in sight, my assembly station is in the dining room instead of outside on deck in the weather.

After the muster drill we all meet on the pool deck for sailaway. An absolutely perfect day. Reasonable temperatures, clear skies, and a slight breeze. Just before we leave port, the local EMS team removes a passenger in an ambulance, and her spouse and luggage is taken to the nearby parking garage by the firemen. Whatever the emergency, better here than 24 hours from now in the middle of nowhere.

We are the last cruise liner to leave port at about 5:30. From the time we cast off our lines until after the harbor pilot has returned to shore we are shadowed by a small drone. I must guess that it is less than a couple of feet in diameter. The only thing visible are two bright red LED lights that appear to be aimed directly at our ship. We think we spot the civilian operator on that bank of the channel, but we are not sure. It could be harbor security, our military or ?.

After an excellent dinner of prime rib in the Windjammer buffet, I head to the diamond lounge. It is overcrowded but I find a seat with some of our group. Most of them are dining at 8:00, too late for me.

I head to the Schooner bar where a guitar player is playing this evening while the regular piano player has a night off. His playing is fine, and I recognize some of his songs, but he does not sing or utter a single word throughout his entire performance. Most of the audience leaves after a brief stay.

Tomorrow is a day at sea as we head south easterly to Royal's private island of Labadee, Haiti.

The weather is near perfect for a sea day with sunny skies, temperatures in the upper 70's and brisk wind behind us making the breeze across the decks quite light.

I listen to the Q&A at the captain's corner. Nothing significant. A nap is in order for the afternoon.

Many in the group has decided to go to Chops, the steak house specialty restaurant. Our reservation is for 6:30, and we meet in the Crown Lounge beforehand. This enables us to go into the Diamond Lounge to get free drinks, while having a place for all of us to sit, including those that are not eligible for the Lounge.

When I arrive, Alyssa has her knee packed in ice. A slight mishap on the flowrider, and Amy is nursing bruises from my evasive driving. Nine of us head to Chops. As we are going through the dining room headed to our table, Adrienne slips on the very slippery floor, smashing the glass of red wine she is carrying. Red wine from hair to toes, and 3 or 4 small cuts on her hand. One of the staff escorts her to the washroom where she rinses the wounds and applies several Royal blue band aids. This cruise is starting out to be accident prone. The meal is one of the best I have had in quite awhile.