On my in-room TV, there are nine channels—the Channel Guide, Cruise Director Channel (a shallowly disguised way for them to interest you in shore excursions, shops and the like), the Shore Excursions Network (ditto), the Port & Shopping Channel (ditto), Travel Destination Network (ditto),, News Briefs, View from the Bridge (a live camera view of what the Captain is looking at), CNN and CNN Headlines. This morning, Thursday, we have docked in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, where the View From the Bridge is a gargantuan pile of sand the size of the Rose Bowl.
As any third-rate tourist knows, this 37-quare-mile island is divided into St. Maarten (the Dutch side) and St. Martin (the French side). We arrived at 7:00 a.m. and will be in port until 11:00 p.m. I’m planning on renting a car and touring the island to view as many of the top resorts as I can squeeze in.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, since I owe you a brief report on last night’s developments.
Pulse, the pre-dinner show featuring the Celebrity Dancers, started out with the cast banging garbage cans, garbage can lids and steel buckets and then devolved into an old-fashioned “revue” in which the singers and dancers performed a medley of 50s, rock, country, big band, soul and salsa songs. Not bad.
At dinner, you will recall, I was seated with a new group. There were Mel and Roberta from Boston; Mel is the author of five trivia books and hosts a radio show in Boston dealing with music, radio and TV trivia. Also, Diana, formerly from South Phily and now from San Jose; her claim to fame was that she was one of the originals on American Bandstand and knew all of the teens, as well as local stars such as Fabian, James Darren, Bobby Rydell and others. Then there was Steve and Cookie from Sarasota, formerly from a lot of places where Steve was in the real estate, costume jewelry (a lot of the stuff you see on that shoppers’ network is his) and apparel businesses; the significant detail here is that Steve is originally from Cincinnati, and more particularly from the Pleasant Ridge area, and was of course familiar with Beechview Circle, Nativity, the Monte Vista Theatre, Dandee’s hamburger joint and all the other details of my localized youth; furthermore, Steve’s last name is Kaddetz, which I instantly recognized as the name of the most famous Jewish deli in town, Izzy Kaddetz, one of my dad’s favorite places for lunch.
The maitre d’ must have thought I was Jewish, because this table was an all-Jewish crowd (well, Diana was half Italian), all non-drinkers, by the way, until the maitre d’ for whatever reason sent over two bottles of champagne to Steve and Cookie and then everyone had a glass. Cookie, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, kept steering the conversation to the Holocaust and all of the recent movies connected with that theme—not exactly an uplifting topic for dinner—so it became my job to broaden the discourse to include other movies (these people were all avid movie-goers), and of course, I had a great time reminiscing with Steve; he’s about six years younger than I so and we didn’t have any friends in common, but there was commonality concerning lots of Cincinnati institutions such as Losantiville Country Club (his family were members and he loved it that I was a caddy there) and Graeter’s and Ridge Chili Parlor. Ultimately the discussion moved to Mel’s trivia expertise, upon which he proceeded for the next hour and a half grilling us with trivia questions (e.g., what singer has sold more Christmas albums—albums, mind you, not single songs…we all knew that was Bing Crosby with “White Christmas”…in history? Answer later. Who was the first leading actor in “The Life of Riley?” No, not William Bendix, as we all guessed; it was Jackie Gleason). On and on it went, with Mel displaying the most incredible grasp of trivia you could imagine, and being a tough taskmaster—no hints, no softies. The evening that had started out with Auschwitz ended up with Perry Como and Mary Tyler Moore (top rated sitcom in the 70s; in the 80s it was The Cosby Show) and Barbara Stanwyk and “Wings” (winner of the first Academy Award for best picture) and an endless list of oh-yeah-now-I-remember names from the past.
Speaking of dinner, I don’t think I’ve commented on the overall quality of the food. I would grade it as okay to mediocre. The fish dishes taste pretty good because they’ve got them all breaded and spiced up and loaded with sauces. Chicken and beef dishes and burgers are uniformly overcooked. What they do to a steak is nothing short of criminal. In the final analysis, the item I’ve liked the best has been the white toast at breakfast, which I think says something, although the salads (Nicoise, Greek, Crab with veggies, Cobb) available at lunch are pretty good, too. I’ve tried two room service breakfasts and two in the special diinng room I qualify for because of my Aqua status, have eaten lunch at a poolside grill each day, and have tried the fancy dining room twice and the dining-room-for-the-masses twice. No real differences in overall quality among all of them. Bar drinks at first were skimpy, but now that I’m getting a reputation as a $1 tipper, they’re getting better.
So, on with Thursday’s activities. After breakfast, I read for a while, then went to the pool (no extensive activities because it’s a shore day) where we had a Hawaiian-style rainstorm—sunny for a half hour, torrential rain for ten minutes, then sunny again. Around noon I headed off the ship and down the pier to the car rental places, got my car and toured the island—no mean feat in a place where they don’t believe in legible signs.
The Dutch side of the island tends to be gritty and messy, whereas the French side is more tropical and bucolic by comparison. Not that any of these islands are truly wonderful. There’s a lot of ratty and ragged stuff everywhere…very Third-Worldish…and only selected enclaves where life looks desirable. It turned out that three of the four places I visited were on the French side.
First stop was La Samanna, the supposedly uber-luxury resort which was a big deal during the 80s when the celebrity crowd was going there. To its credit, it has beautiful grounds and a magnificent location, sitting about fifty feet above a perfect Caribbean cove with turquoise water and a sparkling sand beach. Nice outdoor pool area and dining areas. I stopped by Reception and told the guy that I was Leaders Club Access and an Orient Express Hotel customer and would like to see a deluxe double or junior suite. He said I would have to wait an hour until checkouts were final, so I went ahead a toured the facility on my own and peeked into rooms that were being cleaned by housekeeping. It was clear that this place has not been extensively updated in years. The fabrics were dull and the floors ugly and the rooms had little or no charm, despite having front-on ocean views. Unworthy of the sky-high prices La Samanna charges. Next I went to the top tip of the island to an area called Anse Marcel, which is actually a secluded cul de sac with dramatic peaks and tropical growth, where I stopped by a hotel with a great name, Le Domaine de Lonvilliers, but which was a disappointment. Big clumsy buildings clustered too tightly together. Next door, however, there was a pleasant surprise—a spanking new Radisson, which turned out to be a real sleeper. I don’t usually bother visiting chain or “box” hotels, but this thing made such a stunning visual impression that I parked and went inside. The rooms don’t appear to be anything special (typical motelish), but the pool and beach and a great seaside dining structure are were super impressive, right up there with La Samanna’s setting. I love finding hidden gems! I was unable to find another candidate on my list, a place called the Marquis, so I had to take a pass on that one. Last stop was in Dutch territory at the Westin Dawn Beach, which I included on my list mainly because it’s somewhat near a legendary “beach shack” restaurant named Mr. Busby’s…very sharp looking, with perfect atmosphere. The Westin turned out to be a huge blocky colossus built into a hillside with a distinctly cold and impersonal feel; if it ever goes out of business (it will), they can turn it into an Indian Casino.
Then it was back to the ship, where I’m getting ready for dinner—which presents me with a dilemma…which group do I sit with, the government people and Richard and Suzanne, or Mel and his crowd (Steve has already announced he and Cookie have to go to a dinner in honor of Cookie’s ancient mother)? Hmmm. I’ll decide after some type of rum cocktail.
And, oh yes, the answer to Mel’s Christmas album question: none other than The King himself. Elvis.