Our Caribbean Cruise, March 2-9, 2014

Easy, convenient, smooth, affordable, this cruise ranks as one of our most enjoyable, even though we generally prefer a longer duration. Seven days whiz by so fast I can't even imagine cruises of three or four days. We joined our fellow residents of Hill Country Retreat, a Del Webb"over 55" community in San Antonio, filling two quiet and luxurious buses which wafted us safely and soundly to Galveston. To pass the time (four hours), we played bus bingo, for which the reusable bingo cards have tabbed numbers that can be bent back when called and then returned to starting position for the next game. Linda and I came close to winning on only one game, the "cover all." Oh, well.

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Navigator of the Seas
and tender (Grand Cayman)


Click photo to find Linda

Booksigning

Don't captains hate this!

Teal, the car and the color

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Spectacular dining room

Captain's table (rarely used)

Can you find the cruise ship?

The road into town that few use

Locals do a lot of wood carving

Seeing double?

Ah, checking our email


Is this really a ship?


The theater seats 1400 people


This is what we like the most

VIDEOS

This is new territory for me. I'm just getting into videos. Either my camera has no audio or I had the mute on, as there was no sound. So, I have voiced over the videos to explain what you are seeing. The links all go to YouTube. Click your "Back" arrow to return here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THREAT OF FOG

The night before departure, at 4:00 a.m., Royal Caribbean sent a text message to both of our cell phones, saying that fog may delay the arrival, and hence departure, of Navigator of the Seas. But that didn't happen. Visibility proved to be limited but adequate.

Our platinum status improved to Saphire on this trip, allowing us a few perks such as faster check-in, onboard events, and special discounts. Since we spread our patronage amongst numerous companies (we shamelessly seek out the best deals), it will take a while to reach a significant loyalty level for any one of them. We are highest on Royal Caribbean and Princess, with lower points on Holland America and Cunard. In April of this year, we will take our first cruise on Celebrity Cruise Line, spreading the largess even thinner.

Each time we go to the Galveston Cruise Port we look across the road at Old Town and tell ourselves we need to come a day earlier next time, so we can explore. From the heights of the ship's upper decks it all looks very interesting, with rustic buildings, classic old hotels and tempting restaurants. As in most coastal towns, the port was the first area inhabited and developed. Thanks to several destructive hurricanes through the years, Galveston has been redeveloped periodically. It now faces competition from the new cruise port in Houston which is finally getting some action after lying dormant for a couple of years.

I brought work with me, including some technology to learn (voice recognition dictation) and videos to watch (from Great Courses, on writing creative nonfiction), but never took it out of the drawer. Of the six traveling days, three were sea days and three port calls, namely Falmouth (Jamaica), George Town (Grand Cayman Island, West Indies, British Overseas Territory) and Cozumel (Mexico). We started with two sea days, going to the furthest southern point, followed by three port days in a row and ending with one last sea day.

NEWLY REFURBISHED

In February, our ship underwent an extensive renovation. Royal Caribbean's blog listed the improvements:

FlowRider surf simulator
Giovanni’s Table
Park Café
Izumi Asian Cuisine
Virtual Balconies for select interior staterooms
New panoramic oceanview staterooms – featuring full-length, floor-to-ceiling windows
Outdoor oversized movie screen overlooking the main pool
Royal Babies and Tots Nursery
New Diamond Lounges for suite and Crown & Anchor Society members
Cupcake Cupboard
WiFi throughout the ship
Flat-panel televisions in all staterooms
Interactive signage

They forgot to mention the other new dining venue: Sabor Modern Mexican. We ate at two of the specialty restaurants, Giovanni's Table and Sabor. Both were excellent. I would usually write detailed reviews, but I took it easy on this cruise. We hesitated to pay extra for Mexican food, since we find it so readily in San Antonio, but then we overheard someone say it was the best meal of the cruise. So on the last night we partook, and we were glad we did.

We found the dishes comparable to the best restaurants in Puerto Vallarta, where we spend two weeks every January. The guacamole, made fresh at tableside, was especially memorable. At the end, our waiter, Luis, brought us the dessert tray. As we looked to choose one or two, he put the tray in the center of our table, explaining they were ALL for us. Oh, sinful. We try to be good and not gain weight That surely didn't help, but we ate it all, didn't we.

A friend had an inside cabin with an experimental virtual balcony, which is a big window-like LED display with a live feed from outdoor cams. This will be feature on Quantum of the Seas when it becomes operational later this year. Royal Caribbean also added more cabins up on the Lido deck, above the bridge, shortening the walking track and blocking the front view.

All of the carpet and paint looked and smelled new. Everything looked very spiffy except we noticed that the wooden hand railing on our balcony was rather worn. Halfway through the cruise, the railing was sanded down and revarnished. I guess that means the refurbishment is an ongoing process. The same is true for painting, of course, as any object that remains in contact with salt water must fight a constant battle against corrosion and rust.

I'm saying refurbishment, but Royal Caribbean calls it revitalization. I like that. It hints at vitality, bringing the ship back to life.

DINING

Our balcony cabin was perfectly located on Deck Seven just steps away from the fore elevator (although we usually took the steps). Just two flights down we arrived at the Royal Promenade, a feature that makes Royal Caribbean ships my favorite design. Some five hundred feet long and four decks high, this public space is home to all of the shops, the 24-hour cafe, numerous events, musical performances, and parades.

Walking the length of the Royal Promendate took us to the top level of the dining room, where we ate most evenings. The three-level affair is dominated by a huge crystal chandalier. We ate elsewhere three of the nights, but on several occasions we enjoyed a table for two along the railing of the top tier -- ideal for taking photos of the people below.

I noticed a few areas in which Royal Caribbean has cut corners to save a few bucks, but the food didn't seem to be one of them. We were quite happy with it. Some dishes were served every day, including escargot in garlic butter with a delicious green foam on top. Several other dishes also had foam. It must be an in thing with chefs at the moment.

In addition to the dining room, we could choose to eat meals at several other venues, including the four extra-charge specialty restaurants, Cafe Promenade, and the Windjammer Buffet, which had an extensive but predictable selection. We ate most of our breakfasts and lunches there.

ACTIVITIES

From our stateroom, I climbed four decks (two stairs at a time, of course) to the fitness center. The best time to go is about 2 pm. By 4 pm the machines and the free weights get rather busy. I don't do the treadmill (we power walk around the deck each morning), so that wasn't an issue.

The men's locker room provides both a sauna and a steam room, big towels, and several showers. Pretty nice arrangement. I don't go in the hot tubs on ships, for sanitary reasons, so the sauna is a way to get some of the same health benefits from heat.

Every night we attended the show in the theater, which was a hot and miss proposition. We enjoyed one of the comedians and the Texas Tenors. Every night the cruise director (Mitch) would come out and ask if we had a good day, if we liked the food, if we were impressed by the ship, if we went on an excursion. Blah blah blah. Ho hum.

Alas, there were no dance lessons available. We listened to the piano man a few times, but he didn't inspire us like Ian West did on Voyager of the Seas (our first cruise together, in 2009).

Every morning offered a sudoku challenge -- a race to see who could finish the day's puzzle first. I'm a big sudoku player and often have contests with my brother. I did the challenge one time and came in second by 15 seconds. Bummer. All contestants got the same prize, win or lose: a Royal Caribbean keychain. La dee da! I didn't go back.

I want to teach sudoku on cruise ships. I think it's as popular as bridge, maybe more. First, I'm going to write a book called Cruise Ship Sudoku. My previous title was The Easy Brother's Guide to Senior Sudoku. Since the demographics for most cruises are toward the gray haired end of the scale, I think Cruise Ship Sudoku would have the same target audience.

BOOK SIGNINGS

The best part of the cruise for me were my two book signings, for Cruise of the Heart: Memoir of a Transatlantic Voyage. I had written Royal Caribbean in advance and gotten permission. Once onboard, I contacted Rob, the activities director. He was expecting me, and helped me schedule two different signings at a table in the Royal Promenade across from the cafe. Very visible.

Furthermore, they put the second one in the daily schedule, with a whole paragraph about it, and interviewed me on the morning show. Who could ask for more? Of the 33 books I brought along, I sold 27, gave away two, took one home, and lost track of three. Perhaps they were purloined from the signing table. I donated a book to the ship's minimal library.

The signing worked so well that I hope to arrange the same thing on our next cruise. Of course, if you calculate the actual profit (the store kept 30% and I kept 70%) of seven dollars per book, I might have made minimum wage, if lucky -- not enough to retire on. Oh wait, I'm already retired. The best form of advertising is to get copies into the hands of readers, who will then help spread the word. One man bought a book for his wife at the first signing and then bought another book at the second signing on her recommendation, for a friend. That's what I like to see.

Sitting in a well-trafficed area and talking to fellow passengers turned out to be quite entertaniing. So much so, in fact, that I began to take notes. Of course, many people walked by without even turning their heads to look in my direction. If you saw someone sitting at a table full of books, wouldn't you investigate, if only out of curiosity? A few times I just held the book high and pointed to it, upon which the passers by would just shake their head "no" and keep walking. Not interested. Maybe they didn't read books, or had a pressing engagement at one of the bars.

One woman said she was on her way to the casino and would come back and buy a book if she won. I responded, "This is a sure bet." I never saw her again. Often one party in a couple would stop and look, whereupon the other would say, "Come on, dear, we're late," and pull them away. Several people asked if they could buy CDs from me for the Texas Tenors. Sorry.

Two women stopped briefly and glanced at the books. As they walked away I heard one of them say, "Oh, I've heard of that book: Crisis of the Heart." Say again? Others showed little sense of humor. I would say, "They're going fast!" and they would just glower at me.

The key was always to start a conversation so they would stop and talk with me. I would usually say, "This is a memoir of a cruise from Rome to Galveston on Mariner of the Seas." Sometimes they would say they had also cruised on that ship. Some would ask the year we went (2011). Amazingly, I encountered four people who we one that very same cruise! Only two of them bought the book. Wouldn't you . . . oh, never mind.

Many people wished me luck. One bought a book just to help support a self-published author. I always felt like saying, "Hey folks, it's only ten bucks. You could afford this cruise. Come on, take a chance." When I spoke, some people had a blank, uncomprehending look, like I often get in France while trying to speak French. Then I realized, they probably didn't understand, whether they spoke a different language, were inebriated, hard of hearing, or just inattentive.

Then there was the woman who told the sad story of her boyfriend jilting her just before the planned cruise together. She was in no mood to read a happy love story. Another asked if my wife was along. I said she could be found down the promenade at the ten dollar sale. At the mention of a sale, the woman rushed off in that direction.

The first book signing had little notice, but the second was well publicized. At 10:00 am, the appointed hour, several people came with the express intent of buying the book. No spiel needed from me. I felt like President Clinton at Barnes & Noble, albeit on a smaller scale.

Noisy announcements over the public address system, roudy people at the adjacent Two Poets Pub, and crying children not withstanding, most of the time I was able to make good connections with people and look forward to doing book signings on future cruises.

PORTS OF CALL

Falmouth, Jamaica, features an extensive cruise port built in 2011 (partly financed by Royal Caribbean with consulting by Disney Cruises). Two ships straddle a central area of shops and restaurants and booths (totaling some 120,000 square feet, including the largest Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville restaurant). Promises to the town of Falmouth that they would benefit from all of the visitors has proved to be a disappointment. Suggestions that passengers would average spending $100 apiece may be true at the diamond shops at the pier, but the little homegrown shops in town are struggling for business.

This is a common situation for cruise tourism in Caribbean and Third World countries. Any financial windfall is distributed very unequally. The poorest residents receive almost no benefit, and perhaps just the opposite. The fact that cruise ships are an affordable way to travel doesn't happen in a vacuum. Prices are low because overhead is low, paying miniscule wages to crew members from the Philipines, Asia, and Eastern Europe. I see cruise ships rather like Downton Abbey, moving up the social scale with chefs and waiters and stewards attending to every need. Class distinctions are the elephant in the promenade, which everyone pretends to ignore.

Freedom of the Seas and Navigator of the Seas shared the port. I never fail to be impressed by how they tower over the buildings on land, some of which are substantial. I took many photos and videos. Linda and I went into town to find an internet cafe. We ordered some of the famous Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, which came watered down and weak tasting. "Yeah," said an American living in Falmouth, "They grow coffee here but they don't know how to make it." The mocha that I found so enjoyable turned out to be from one of those machines that you find in convenience stores. We bought a pound of coffee to take home with us. We'll see how our Keurig can do.

One of the most accessible local crafts is wood carviing. Numerous craftsmen display their wares while a few demonstrate their skill with chisel and mallet. Unfortunately for them, we are in downsizing mode with little interest in accumulating more trinkets or souvenirs. I did buy some barbecue sauce, however. We had lunch on the ship.

George Town, Grand Cayman Island, requires cruise ships to tender ashore, which involves climbing aboard locally provided double decker vessels for the short jump from ship to shore. As this is one of the Caribbean's most popular ports, a lack of pier space is puzzling. In port were Navigator of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas, and Disney Magic. Tat's a slow day here, where the main activity is shopping. Jewelry stores line the streets. Can they really sell that much? Do cruisers come here to buy diamonds? Really?

A friend picked us up and drove us around the island. She told us about the 600 banks and trust companies in Grand Cayman, including 43 of the 50 largest banks in the world. Banking, investments, and insurance predominate in the economy, resulting in a very high standard of living here. She pointed out the many mansions. In the past eighty years they have had only one major hurricane here, Ivan, ten years ago, which essentially covered the island and did extensive damage, some of which is still apparent.

We visited the new National Gallery art museum, including a concrete labyrinth installed by my company. Alas, I didn't come on the job, sending my number one foreman Chuck Hunner instead. (Need any labyrinth jewelry? See his website at www.goldenspirit.com.) I have a silver labyrinth belt buckle by Chuck that I have worn for years. More resently he gave us a wedding present of matching gold rings with a labyrinth pattern cast onto the flat face.

We visited the new Camana Bay condo and shopping center where we viewed the entire island from the four story observation tower. Then we had lunch at a wonderful restaurant called Bon Vivant Kitchen Studio. The highlight, however, was the adjacent gelato stand run by a family from Modesto, Italy. They didn't have a display case, because the light and air degrades the quality. Instead, they have a printed menu, which they serve by scooping from covered stainless steel containers. The temperature in the case varies from one end to the other, as different flavors taste better at different temperatures. It was creamy and not too sweet, loaded with coffee and chocolate flavor (my usual choices). We have never had a better gelato, even in Italy.

A British Overseas Territory (one of 14 around the globe),the Cayman Islands consist of three islands, of which this is the largest. The others are Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. Cayman’s Head of State is Queen Elizabeth II. Cars drive on the left side of the road. I don't think we could afford to live here, but frequent visits might be in order.

Cozumel, Mexico, was our last stop. Here, too, we discovered new piers for the cruise ships, with extensive new shops, through which you must walk in order to exit to the street. The same three ships in Cayman Island were alsotogether here. The dock is too far to walk comfortably to town, so taxis are in great demand.

We went across the street to a new shopping center where a very nice-looing cafe charged five dollars per device to do email. Sorry. I would have paid five for the two of us, but not five each. On our way out we wandered into the adjacent hotel complex which had spectacular landscaping and swimming pools. From the ship we could see the thatched pyramid-shaped roof of the lobby. We turned down an invitation to learn about their "all inclusive vacation program." I explained that we were perfectly happy with our timeshare in Puerto Vallarta.

We walked a short distance toward town and found a nice open air restaurant with free wi fi. We gave them our business (two smoothie fruit drinks), checked our email for thirty minutes, and then returned to the ship. Total cost? Only 70 pesos (a little less than six dollars). The weather was absolutely gorgeous, sunny, 80 degrees, with puffy white clouds. It's hard to imagine that this was once a sleepy little diving town. Many of the passengers went on tours or stayed at all-inclusive beach resorts. We are perfectly happy to take it easy. We don't get much value from such places.

ANOTHER FOG WARNING

Once again it appeared that fog would slow our arrival back in Galveston. As we wove our way through hundreds of off-shore oil rigs, the weather remained viable and we got to our destination on time. Debarkation was easy, and after a short wait, our buses arrived to whisk us back home. It's hard to imagine a more perfect week.