When you take a Caribbean cruise, you are assured there will be cargo shorts aplenty and you will have an almost certain encounter with the cast of “Cocoon”.
My wife, Lori and I recently took such a vacation aboard one of your better cruise lines. Not the one that seems to lose passengers overboard and create viruses that defy most antibiotics, but a good one. Our port of departure for this adventure was San Juan Puerto Rico.
Arriving at San Juan International Airport we claimed our luggage and made our way to a taxi stand, or shall I say THE taxi stand. It is best described as an area where couples go to bicker and black Samsonite luggage rolls into apologetic collisions. What appeared to be your garden-variety cluster fuck turned out to be a coordinated effort by the principals to yell out, “No, over HERE, please!”
Soon we were being whisked away in a taxi van to the San Juan Seaport, where we battled our way through cabin-class check-in, surrendered out luggage and followed a series of ramps to the ship.
Once we were aboard, we were happily greeted by crew members displaying the Aloha spirit minus the garlands of leis. The crew were quite keen to notify all boarding passengers that their cabins were being prepared by their stewards and access would not be available for a couple of hours. This is code for “we consider most cabins a crime scene; therefore give us a little time to wipe up the blood and clear the evidence”.
What to do?
Go to the buffet, of course.
A cruise ship buffet is the place where all faith in humanity goes to die. Simultaneous reaching for a fruit plate by different passengers could render the type of stares often reserved for gladiators in combat. There is no need for anger here; the supply of food is as abundant as a Duggar family picnic. You want roast beef carved to order? They’ve got it. You want a crab salad? They’ve got it. You want Penne Pasta Abbriata? They’ve got it. You want Chicken Marsala? They’ve got it. You want a burger, a pizza, a sundae, and tiramisu or shortbread cookies? They’ve got it. There was chocolate cake, banana cake and carrot cake too, but all the passengers behaved as it was the last food left on the planet.
The pledge that I made to myself while planning this cruise about taking it easy on the food just went out the window, or overboard, as it were. The food staff and the beverage servers eager to retrieve all things liquid had an air of knowing desperation. They understood that passengers have the food version of road rage, but seem powerless to avoid the dramatics, or as I came to understand it, meet the new passengers: same as the old passengers.
Soon after this gorge fest, a general announcement was made over the PA that all cabins were now open and we were free to expect the delivery of our luggage. Lori and I took a short stroll around the ship to get acquainted with our home for the next few days and found our way to our cabin suite. Immediately outside the door to our cabin was our luggage. With a quick swipe of our keycard, we opened the door and rolled our luggage in. We had splurged a bit for a suite and here we were in an area about the size of average quarters at La Quinta. In cruise ship terms, we had the Boom-Boom Room. The accompanying bathroom had two sink counters, a jetted tub, a roomy shower stall and a throne fit for a … well not a king, but perhaps an earl or a state rep. We deftly became familiar with the fine components of the suite and unlocked our patio door. Stepping out, we were now on our private balcony. It was a generous space equipped with two lounge chairs and a bistro set. Peering over the railing, we were treated to the sights of a busy crew loading supplies and luggage from the dock to the ship. It wasn’t a thrill, but it wasn’t repulsive; just maybe like watching a magician’s assistant taking a cigarette break.
Back inside, we busied ourselves by unpacking and storing our belongings in the dresser, hutch and closet spaces. During this process, there was a knock on the door from our personal butler. This differed from our previous cruising experiences. We were accustomed to cabin stewards and assistants, but here was a genuine butler with a formal tie and vest; ready to serve or be my best man.
He introduced himself as William and proceeded to give us his terms of service, such as: morning coffee at our discretion, towels for virtually any occasion, afternoon appetizers and just about anything else short of committing a felony. Eager to become familiar with William, we inquired about his backstory. He gave us a short bio of being raised in Costa Rica and of improving his education so that he would eventually ascend to the position he currently occupied. He gradually assimilated with the dozens of cultures that make up the ship’s enormous staff and considered the crew to be his family away from home.
Always inquisitive, I asked, “Okay, who are the biggest partiers in the crew? Is it the Russians?”
“No,” William replied, “it’s the crewmembers from India”.
“Really?” said Lori.
“Yes!” He said excitedly. “Down in the crew quarters, they bring their own booze, food and decorations. They drink, dance and laugh all night long. When morning comes, they are ready to go to work without a trace of a hangover. They’re unbelievable!”
With that, William bid us his farewell so that we could prepare for the upcoming muster drill.
For the uninitiated, maritime law requires that passengers attend an emergency muster drill before the ship is permitted to leave the port. The drill consists of several P.A. announcements to alert all passengers of the drill. Upon hearing the appropriate directive, passengers are required to “muster” at a designated location, typically a lounge area, dining area or theater in order to accommodate a large number of people. Once at this designated gathering place, instructions are dispensed as to how passengers should follow the Captain’s orders should the ship have an emergency situation.
As in every cruise we have ever experienced, only one word comes to every passenger’s mind; TITANIC.
This was certainly true at our muster drill. It was written all over everyone’s face. There was silence as the Captain reeled off the emergency procedures to the passengers from the P.A. system and as he demonstrated the sound of the emergency alarms. The eeriest moments occurred as he recited the words about how the crew would direct passengers to their predetermined lifeboats, should we be required to abandon ship.
I held very little hope for the survival of my fellow passengers in such an emergency; I had just witnessed their behavior at the buffet line, for crying out loud.
When the muster drill had concluded, we shuffled back to our suite to change for dinner. We would have plenty of time to dine at the first seating before the ship was set to sail.
The main dining room was a magnificent setting for all to enjoy the spectacle of plunging necklines, unbelievably high heels and their companion husbands and boyfriends; each satisfied in pleated pants and dress shirts. The hostess greeted Lori and I warmly, and with calculated steps, led us to a very romantic table for two. Within a few moments, our server approached us bearing two leather-bound menus and introduced herself as, Jillette. From the wording of her brass nametag, we became informed that she was from South Africa. Her bearing was warm, courteous and professional. Her assistant arrived shortly after and proceeded to fill our water glasses from a fresh bottle of San Pellegrino. Jillette encouraged us to relax and enjoy the dinner service. She then inquired about a drink order to start. Over the years, this situation had evolved into a little ritual between Lori and me. If Lori ordered an iced-tea, I felt obligated to do the same. However, should Lori decide to order a cocktail, you bet your ass I would follow with something that would knock down a small bear. I was in luck… Lori ordered a Balvenie Scotch. I hastily ordered a Sidecar and in a flash, Jillette disappeared.
This gave us time to explore the dinner menu; which consisted of two very distinctive pages. The left page contained standard, unadventurous fare such as Caesar Salad, Fried Calamari and Filet Mignon. (There was more, but if this is your pleasure, you may as well stay home). The page on the right contained the mastery of the chef. There were appetizers with rarely pared ingredients, fish I had never heard of and meats and poultry that may have included fresh game and perhaps the glands of an unidentified creature. As we contemplated our selections, one of the many sommeliers approached and introduced himself.
“My name is Thomas. Will you be having wine with your dinner?” he inquired.
This was also a ritual between Lori and me. The answer here was always the same. “Yes, Thomas. Yes we will” I answered.
As Thomas dispensed the wine menu, I noticed that his nametag indicated that he was from Costa Rica.
I said, “Our room butler is also from Costa Rica. Do you know William?”
Thomas burst into laughter and made me wonder if he thought, “Jeez, dipstick, do you think we all know each other?” Or, maybe, “Oh, that William sure likes to wander the ship at night without his pants”.
But instead, Thomas assured us with his perspective, “William is a fine fellow”.
Thomas left us to examine the wine menu and to evaluate the pros and cons of each course. Lori and I decided on having the fish we never heard of and placed our order with Jillette. Thomas returned and recommended a nifty pinot noir from the Williamette Valley.
Our dinner was superb. Jillette and Thomas returned to our table frequently and made us feel warm, welcome and let’s face it, kind of loopy. Soon it was time for us to depart and prepare for the ship’s launch from the San Juan Seaport.
With every cruise launch, there is a launch party, and that launch party is traditionally held on the pool deck. By the time Lori and I reached the pool deck, the party was in full swing. There was a band playing festive Caribbean music, complete with a steel-drum player. Cocktails were being served by an active and attentive staff. Passengers mingled and seemed to sway with the dreamy setting. As the band slowed things down to a casual beat, an MC popped up to join the band onstage. He nonchalantly whipped about with a wireless mic and introduced himself as “Carl” our cruise director. Carl was dressed in a blousy tropical shirt, seersucker jacket and ultra-baggy khakis. He had the air of an office party gigolo after having one too many banana daiquiris. He did not…I repeat, did not say, “Let’s get this fucker started”, but he was pretty close.
Lori and I had taken up a position on the railing and watched as the ship slowly began to pull away from the dock. The only possible thing that could ruin such a beautiful moment like this would be rain.
The rain began as light, delicate spray and minute by minute it began to pour. It appeared as if the steel-drum player was escalating the precipitation with the speed of his playing. Carl was not pleased. He kept staring at the damage the rain was incurring upon his seersucker jacket. The passengers began to flee the pool deck with the dispatch of a muster drill. Carl bid everyone farewell with his own version of, “Goodnight, Cleveland!”
Lori and I took this as a cue to vacate the area for the drier interior of the ship. As we descended the decks below into a large public area, we happened upon a standard feature of the cruise line; the Martini Bar.
Did we partake? Yes. Yes we did.
After our drinks, we made our way back to the suite. We dimmed the lights and stepped out onto our balcony. The rain had stopped and the ship was beginning to pick up speed. The stars came out from hiding behind the clouds and an enchanting breeze came sweeping by. We were moving further and further away from San Juan’s nightscape of lights. The ship was now passing Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the aging colonial fortress that stands silently at the tip of the shore. The sound of the parting waves along the ship achieved a relaxing and intoxicating rhythm. We surrendered to the dark companionship of the sea and went to bed.
Stay tuned for PART II, coming soon.