That’s the Spirit! Day 4

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 4: Tuesday, November 16

So, last evening our Silver Cloud Van Group of eleven reassembled on the outside deck of La Terrazza. Five couples– three English, two American– and the “eleventh wheel,” a/k/a me. I sat next to Susan and Rick from Hawaii. Rick’s a retired Navy Commander who recently served as CEO of the Honolulu bus company and Susan grew up in Southern California “near Pasadena.” Dinner was held in a near gale in which things were flying every which way, tablecloths flapping wildly, empty chairs literally being blown over. I made several suggestions that we move inside, but Rick merely replied with a quizzical smile, as if to say, “This is nothing, landlubber.” Very friendly crowd, even though you couldn’t hear anyone beyond your immediate seatmates because of the windstorm. Skipping the theater show, we all ended up at Stars, our jazz nightclub which is reminiscent of those 1930’s movies where people sat around tiny cocktail tables and danced to swing music.

Another early night, albeit not so early to sleep as, for the second straight night the people in the cabin next to me had a crowd over on their balcony and were causing a racket. Which meant I had to close my veranda door, which defeats the thing I like best about cruising—sleeping with it wide open and listening to the rush of the waves next to the ship. Another night or two of this and I’m going to have to talk to the front desk about a room change.

Morning in Antigua (“An-teeg-guh”).

Now the next door crowd is having 6:30 a.m. soirees for room service breakfast and coffee. Oh well, it forces me to get up and get going. So I head down to The Restaurant at 7:00 and am one of two tables among maybe 100. Eggs over easy, bacon crisp, hash browns, juice…takes over a half-hour for them to get the food to the table.

As I may have hinted early, I am being driven batty by the food service staff on the ship (not the food itself, which is darn good, but the service people). They take forever to perform the simplest task. Part of it is because of an idiotic system where one guy takes your order, hands it to another guy to take to the kitchen, ultimately to be delivered…a lonnnnnnng time later…by a third guy, while in the meantime another group of guys pesters you with good-mornings and coffee-sir? (for the 4th time, no thank you, I don’t drink coffee), tea-sir? Ahhhrrr! These are ones whom you want to do something, but can’t get them to do anything quickly.

Then there are the ones you DON’T want to do anything except leave you alone. I call them the gnats– the hordes of “service” people on this ship who buzz around the hallways, the pool deck, the restaurants and pepper you with conversation, unnecessary requests and things that beg to be responded to. If it sounds like I’ve started ranting, it’s because I’m being slowly driven nuts by these characters. Silversea likes to rave about its level of service. But my experience has been that so much of it is faux. What I call “Ritz-Carlton style-over-substance”. Vacuous bowing and scraping and smiling and chtatter, but little action or results when they’re called upon. Where they go through the good morning/ good afternoon/good evening/how are you motions, but don’t get anything done promptly when you ask them to do something. The gnats have obviously been trained to inquire of every blank face: do you want something to drink (NO! I’M TRYING TO READ!), would you like some coffee? (for the 5th time, I don’t drink coffee), how are you? (please, I beg of you, leave me alone).

Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’m feeling better.

The moment you’re off the pier in St. John (capital of Antigua and Barbuda) you run into a long string of jewelry stores—including some of the ones on our shopping consultant Philip’s “map.” Because I’m thinking of buying Lynn Conrad a diamond so that she’ll be induced to put my stationery job on the top of her pile, I pop into Diamonds International, where I’m spotted by Philip, who urges me to look at the 3.01 karat “Crown of Light” diamond he has been shown earlier. Sure, I’ll take a look at it. No, no, insists Philip, you must see it out in the light of day. The salesperson doesn’t even flinch as he grabs the stone and runs outside, waving it in and out of the sunshine and then in and out of his shadow, all of which was supposed to mean something. We go back in and Philip hails the store manager to give me the “manager’s price.” Mr. Manager fiddles around with his calculator and tells me he’ll give it to me for $53,000. Ordinarily, I’d take it, but I’m a little concerned about this Crown of Light stuff, a new cut that has 90 facets as compared to the traditional round cut’s 58 facets…according to Philip, much more brilliant, the newest thing, available exclusively in the Caribbean, not sold elsewhere, a must-have item, all the Silversea people, especially the Texans, are buying them. Is thjs for your wife for a special occasion? No, it’s for my stationery lady. Perfect gift, he swoons. Let me think about it.

Decades ago Alison and I knew a Chicago couple, Greg and Susie Thomas (he was once our bartender at Butch McGuire’s, then later a rising star at William Blair & Co. who sort of lorded his success over the fledgling banker and the newbie attorney). The Thomases regularly took trips to an island paradise, Curtain Bluff, in Antigua. They made it sound like heaven. Someday, I sighed, we’ll be as big-time as the Thomases. Once I even went to the extent of calling the owner to see if they could squeeze us in impromptu one February. “I have a room that just opened up!” he exclaimed, but for reasons I’ve forgotten (air fare, no vacation time, no money?) we couldn’t make the trip. Well, today I stopped a taxi in town and asked: How much for a ride to heaven and back?” “$50 U.S.” So I was off on a somewhat lengthy 19-mile drive out of town through the Antiguan countryside and alongside some of the prettiest aquamarine water and white sand beaches I have ever seen. At the Bluff, I met Sherrie, widow of the founder (the guy I had spoken to), who had her mid-40s assistant (boyfriend?) give me a tour. The verdict: very, very nice. All rooms (10-year-old décor, but bright and airy and cheery) having perfect views of the water, fancy tennis courts, great beach, etc. The only off-putting part was his insistence on dropping names of their regular guests—YoYo Ma, President of CBS, etc. “Everything included, all meals, all drinks, fishing boat, everything,” he said. A guy trying a little too hard. How much for a junior suite in high season? “$1,395 a night. Same price as our 5-star competitors, and they only give you breakfast,” he concluded. Let me think about it.

P.S. to Greg and Susie: It was really good, but not heaven.

Antigua is by far the nicest West Indian island we’ve visited so far. Hilly and green all over, ringed by clean, pretty beaches. Not a lot of opulence, but a reasonable degree of prosperity and tidiness. My taxi driver’s pride as he told me about the country was palpable. On the streets, there was none of the atmosphere of anger and frustration that travelers to this part of the world complain about. Good place. Unlike its predecessor, Domenica, which earned the big X, Antigua is awarded a Come-Back check mark.

Tomorrow the legendary St. Bart’s.

Next: That’s the Spirit! Day 5

That’s the Spirit! Day 3

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 3: Monday, November 15

Formal Night last evening was uneventful. Captain’s cocktail reception, followed by lobster dinner, followed by the Silver Spirit Singers and Dancers performing in Rocketman, a tribute to Elton John. This was a virtual all-tux and long gown crowd, and the cocktail hour was quite festive. At dinner I was joined by a contigent of Brits– the aforementioned Mary (talk, talk, talk) and the very nice Rachel, and a newcomer, Scottie*, a late-seventies Scotsman who is in the midst of a back-to-back-to-back-to-back 28-day cruise on the Spirit. In a Silver Suite, no less. Nice gentleman, except we had to repeat every morsel of the conversation twice. (Liz and Karen, whom we saw during the afternoon at Team Trivia…we’re “The Soloists” and came in 3rd…and Bingo…I was never in any of the games, but the good news is that they don’t charge for Bingo, unlike the Solstice…opted for Le Champagne, the $200/person surcharge restaurant.) The theatrical performance was fine—a bunch of young twenties wannabes singing and dancing their hearts out before a largely sexagenarian and septuagenarian audience nodding off at the end of a long day. I felt for them.

Another thing I did yesterday was attend the shore shopping seminar given by Philip, a slick, self-assured San Franciscan who assures us that we will find miraculous bargains on jewels and jewelry and watches in some of the upcoming islands by religiously following the “maps” of each island that he has handed out with the aid of his assistant Jolie (later to be seen as the lead jazz dancer in Rocketman). He gave example after example of previous passengers saving $1,000, $10,000, $30,000, etc. on purchases, and I have to admit he was doing a fabulous job of reeling the crowd in. The whole time I kept wondering: how is this guy compensated for directing patrons to all of these astounding bargains? Nobody asked during Q&A, so I went up to him after the presentation and posed the question, which he sluffed off, his glare saying “Just follow the maps, bud.”

As noted earlier, all or most of Martinique was closed on Sunday and I didn’t bother to go into town or do the island. So no rating given.

Now it’s Monday.

We’re at Roseau, Domenica (accent on the third syllable), self-proclaimed “Nature Island of the Caribbean.” Well, there’s plenty of nature, that’s for sure. The island is a plentiful collection of towering verdant mountains, with numerous scraggly settlements scattered around. The main burg, Roseau, is a forlorn, beat-up place with obviously a quite lax zoning code, as evidenced by the variety of colors the houses and buildings are painted—canary yellow, lime green, bubble-gum pink, fire engine red (or is that fuschia?). It was worth a half-hour.

My scheduled activity for the day—whale watching—was cancelled (apparently the last two groups on the ship went out for hours and didn’t see a whale and demanded refunds). I thought about replacing it with the “Volcano Tour”, until I learned that it entailed an actual mud bath in volcanic goo, and the other “garden/waterfall/fort” tours didn’t interest me.

What did interest me was the presence in port of another Silversea liner, the flagship Silver Cloud, 16 years old and only one-third the size of the Spirit. I signed up to be a Visitor on the Cloud (Silversea veterans call all of the ships by their last name—the Cloud, the Whisper, the Wind, the Shadow, etc.). What a disappointment. Our Spirit visitor group was given a complete tour of the ship, only to witness grungy old bathrooms (e.g., shower in tub, single sinks), tired old staterooms (ironically, the ones on the Cloud are actually larger than the ones on the Spirit…go figure…whereas the ones on the Cloud a shorter and wider, the ones on the Spirit are long and narrow, which has prompted lots of complaints from couples whose husbands can’t squeeze by the wives at the make-up table), and a cacophony of bilious colors and styles that look like something out of Vegas in the 50’s. Yeccchhh. I would caution anyone about signing up for an expensive cruise on that thing. (Special note to AW: because the Cloud is only a third the size of the Spirit, and thus about a tenth the size of the Solstice ships, there was a very noticeable “roll and sway” all during our tour—and this was when the ship was tied up at port on a reasonably calm day. Definitely not the vessel for you.) The positive side is that I met a vanful of nice people, all couples, mostly English, and we’re all getting together for a group dinner tonight.**

Now a word about the food on the Spirit. I thought I’d wait a few days before opining on the subject so that I would have a chance to sample the various offerings. I’ve tried The Restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner, La Terrazza (Italian) for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the Pool Deck Grill for lunch. I’ll give them credit: they’re trying hard, offering an amazing variety of dishes at every meal, most of which sound very appealing and make for hard choices. Aside from the snail- slow service that everybody is complaining about, it’s basically banquet quality food…not really all that surprising since they are feeding 450 people at a crack. That being said, I have found the food to be very good. The liquor selection is top notch, with all premium brands (except no Chopin, Alison) available; ditto with the wine selections, all very tasty, with lots of alternatives if you don’t love the selection of the day/evening. And it’s a true delight to step up to any bar and order whatever you want and not have to wait for a check or have ticky-tacky service charges assessed. Now THAT is a feature that gives this cruise line a thumbs-up in comparison to the next tier. No tabs. No tips. As General Patton said about war, “Oh, how I love it so.”

More Trivia and Bingo this afternoon, then Informal (coat, no tie) Night in the restaurants, then those Silver Spirit Singers and Dancers are at it again in Jazz a la Carte.

You’ll hear all about it.

  • CORRECTIONS: Had a drink with Scottie at the bar and it turns out he’s Australian, not Scottish. Also, his trip on the Spirit is for 65 days, not 28. (Last year he did 70.)
  • AM I CRAZY OR ARE THEY DEPT. Almost everybody I’ve talked with about the Silver Cloud say they LOVED it…”so intimate…”, “very nice…”, etc.

Next: That’s the Spirit! Day 4

That’s the Spirit! Day 2

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 2: Sunday, November 14

Okay, so all the solo travelers get together at a cocktail gathering last evening at the Panorama Lounge.

Preceding me into the room is a young (maybe 23) girl, who edges into the lounge and spots the “Solo” group—all 25-50 years her senior—sitting in a cluster around a coffee table. She takes one “Whoa no!” look and skirts back out the door.

But I’m a social guy, so I head on over. As it turns out, only six of us end up at the gathering…five women and yours truly. Introductions all around, chit-chat about nothing…seems like a friendly group. Eventually, our shipboard “International hostess” Isabelita, suggests that we all have dinner together and before I know it we are off to The Restaurant, where upon our approach the maitre d’ smells TROUBLE (mainly in the person of one member of our party, the infamous Liz…see later) and seats us in the farthest corner of the room, where none of the other guests can see us and none of the staff can even find us and of course the service is glacially slow. The dinner drags on for two hours, where the six of us mainly listen to two speakers—Liz and Mary (not me for a change)—regale us with stories, complaints, jokes and seagoing tales and where the six of us get to know a little about each other. Here’s the lineup, with names, approximate ages by my estimation, and domiciles.

Liz (48), a buxom babe from Houston, on her 10th Silversea cruise, LOUD and (her words) “crude and rude,”, but actually pretty funny in a bawdy and outrageous way, repeatedly describing herself as a hotelier (French pronunciation, please) and bragging about her world travels and her dinners with such luminaries as Joel Rubichon and Gordon Ramsey (when teased about her obvious crush on him, assures all of us…her words again…“no, I didn’t f— him”).

Karen (65), widow from San Diego, a professional singer who gave up her career to raise a family. She’s Liz’s regular cruise buddy who laughs hysterically at all of Liz’s antics. (Although the two of them are tight as thieves, she at least has the smarts to get her own private stateroom. One can only imagine what nine days and nights in a room with Liz would do to someone.) She’s all geared up for the karaoke night, and if they don’t have one, she’s going to create one.

Rachel (44), from Yorkshire in England, executive with a British version of an S&L.   Married with two kids, but travels solo four times a year. Nice gal.

Wendy (74), widow, pharmacist from Wales. A pleasant woman who continually smiles and laughs at everyone’s stories, but barely says a word herself the entire night.

Mary (114), widow, a retired and very wrinkled lawyer from Northern Ireland, who was very witty at first, telling us all about all the important cases she has handled and important people she has met, before it got sort of tiresome. She’s doing a “back-to-back,” having completed a week on this ship before starting on our 9-day’er. She asks us all if we wanted to find a beach and go swimming on Martinique. The mental image of her in a bathing suit immediately gives me indigestion.

Me.

Since fate has thrown us together, I guess I’ll be seeing a lot of them. Isabelita has already planned a dinner for the group of us on Thursday, and tonight our sixsome has been entered in Team Trivia.

First night, and I actually live up to my promise to get to bed early. I head back to my room, where Harry has stocked my fridge with Miller Lite, have a cold one on the veranda, then tuck in. Ah, nothing like sleeping with the gentle sway of the ship and the veranda door open with the sound of the waves and the ship cutting through the Caribbean waters.

Sunday morning.

Got up early and went up to the Observation Lounge on the 11th deck to watch our entrance into Martinique harbor. Now this is more like it. The Observation Lounge is a beautiful space with an English clubby décor and a cozy library, floor-to-ceiling picture windows and a comfortable deck that offers a head-on view of everything. Absolutely first rate. I can’t imagine anything prettier on any other cruise ship.

The Spirit sails past a line of picturesque piton-like mountains and glides to the pier. Hey, looks like a pretty nice town. I say to Harry: maybe I’ll walk into town, or better still, rent a car and drive around the island. Un-uh, says Harry. Rental car agencies closed on Sunday. Shops closed, too. Which leaves me what option? Beach time with Mary? Looks like I’ll spend the day aboard ship and go sit by the pool. Un-uh, says Harry. Rain today. Oh. “Go explore the facilities,” he says.

After breakfast on the outside terrace (nice), the sun makes an appearance and I end up going to the pool for a hour. Observation time. So how does the crowd on this luxury ship stack up against my former mates on the Solstice, which you may recall was packed with government bureaucrats, wackos, beer guts and tattoos? Well, for most part it’s a much fitter group. And a tad older. They look a little richer, the women especially. Only two tattoos spotted so far. People from all over. Mostly Americans, of course, but also Germans (detectable by their Speedos), Brits (lots), Australians (a whole, whole lot), and Irish. As far as I can tell, only two kids on the entire boat.

Today will be a reading day. Until, that is, it’s time for activities: Port Shopping Talk With Philip, followed by Italian lessons with International hostess Carla, followed by Team Trivia, then my perennial favorite: Bingo! Tonight is Formal Night. I can only wonder what adventures await Tuxedo Joe tonight.

Next: That’s the Spirit! Day 3

That’s the Spirit! Day 1

Aboard the Silver Spirit. Day 1: Saturday, November 13.

Ahoy!

A complimentary mojito sits before me on my veranda table as I prepare to embark on a 9-day Caribbean voyage on the Silver Spirit that I hope will be an interesting counterpoint to my 2009 experience aboard the Celebrity Solstice as I report on my itinerary, the foibles and quirks of my fellow passengers and the positives and negatives of the journey.

To start off, some basic nuts-and-bolts facts about this tub. The Silver Spirit is uber-luxury Silversea Cruises’ newest (and largest) vessel, yet still is a member of the “small ships” category. In comparison to the gargantuan Solstice (2,850 passengers, 122,000 tons, 1,033-foot length), the Silver Spirit is an “intimate” vessel– 36,000 tons, a mere 542 feet long, transporting 540 guests, weighing. And unlike the massive Solstice that at sea resembled a skyscraper hotel afloat on its side and in the harbor lorded over every other ship like an NBA tackle, the Silver Spirit is sleek and tailored. Not exactly yacht-like, but a lot smaller.

95% of the ship’s cabins feature private verandas. The distinctive aspect of Silversea cruises is that they are all-inclusive…well, sort of all-inclusive. While meals, beverages (including liquor and wine), entertainment and all gratuities are freebies, the good folks in Silversea’s management ranks have come up with clever little ways to pry additional revenue out of us patrons—the ones I’ve noticed so far are a “premier” wine list, a couple of “specialty” restaurants (more on those later), a casino, a half-a-deck’s worth of el clippo boutiques and pricey shore excursions. On my journey, I will be served by a crew of 376 crew members (most notably Harry, my butler), many of whom I have already found to be pesky can-I-help-you-can-I-bring-you-anything-sir types who won’t leave me alone. A guy I met on the Pool Deck, Kenneth, a ballet dancer from Australia, who’s been on Silversea three previous times, says they eventually sort out who wants to be cowtowed to and who wants to be left alone. We’ll see.

The ship itself? Hmmm, some first impressions. The funny thing about it is that this is a brand new vessel, less than a year in service, but it doesn’t look sparkling new. It looks a little “used,” a little worn. The public rooms…lounges, bars, theater, dining rooms etc. Magnificently elegant? Utterly luxurious? Sad to say, not really. In fact, the overall décor is quite underwhelming, sort of bland in fact. When I mentioned this to the aforementioned Kenneth, he smiled and said: ”Isn’t it wonderful? It’s so understated.”

Well, it may be “understated” in comparison to some gaudy Carnival ship, but I think they could have used a decorator with fresher, brighter taste.

My cabin? Reasonably spacious, nicely equipped (two flat screen TVs are hidden behind the mirrors in the bedroom and “living room”). Excellent bathroom (separate bathtub, walk-in shower, spacious sink and tabletop, plenty of storage). Decent veranda (albeit sort of boxy). All in all, nice, but not exceptional– not nearly as nice, in fact, as the Aqua Class staterooms on the Solstice.

Bottom line: they had the chance to build the most splendid ship in the world, and instead they built one that looks a lot like a lot of others. All this having been said, I’m going to keep an open mind and see if the food and the service and the crowd makes up for these initially perceived imperfections.

On to today’s preparatory experience. Flew down on American from JFK to Bridgetown, Barbados, where I was fortunate enough to talk my way into an upgrade to (flatbed) Business Class. Arriving in Barbados was a messy affair in which the Silversea arrivees at the airport were being asked for “vouchers” for the motorcoach transfer to the Deep Water port. Most of us didn’t have any idea what vouchers they were talking about, after which we were all told we’d have to take $50( U.S.) taxis; after a small rebellion brewed, we were finally allowed to board the buses for the 35-minute journey through this sadsack island, strictly Third World. Throughout my trip I intend to evaluate each destination and give it a check (think seriously about coming back) or an X (off the list). The Big B got a quick X.

About the upcoming itinerary. No sooner had I stepped onboard than I was handed a revised itinerary. Sunday’s planned port of call, St. Lucia, apparently was flattened by Hurricane Tomas and all cruise lines have cancelled their stops there. Replacing it will be Martinique, about which I know nothing. Any way, we will be sailing to Fort France, Martinique, then Roseau, Dominica, then St. John’s, Antigua, then Gustavia, St. Bart’s, then, Philipsburg, St. Maarten, then Road Town, Tortola, B.V.I.—a string of islands that form a big apostrophe to the outermost Eastern boundary of the Caribbean.

Coming up: our safety drill, an early evening cocktail party, a “Solo Travelers” get-together, and dinner tonight before setting sail at 10:00 p.m., all of which I’ll be reporting on. So it’s off for the evening, about which you’ll hear in my next missive.

 

 

Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi

Wasn’t able to get off a dispatch yesterday because my hotel, which was charging me $625/night, had an $18 internet charge and I refused to pay it (well at least the $18 was more reasonable than the proposed $6 breakfast charge, which I also declined).

The institution which was trying to assess these usurious charges was the Dhara Dhevi Mandarin Oriental, a rather astounding 60-acre Disneyesque recreation of a Thai royal village, complete with a palace, various temples, rice fields. Colonial-style buildings and 68 two-story Thai-style villas, each of which features upper and lower decks, all kinds of frou-frou decorating touches, a hot tub and a private pool. I know all this since I arrived with my Colonial room reservation and was advised that I had been upgraded to Villa 1. It was the one time when I sort of wished I had a camera to take a few pictures.

More to tell, but my time on my computer is running out. Will continue tomorrow.

——————————–

So…was the opulent “most ambitious hotel ever built in Asia” the greatest experience of Joe’s life? Not exactly. Sure the Thai house villa was remarkable for both its authenticity and luxury, and the ceremonial buildings throughout the site were awesomely impressive, etc., but it wasn’t a comfortable place. Knowing as you do how I like to case a place and move around, imagine how frustrated I was to see how ridiculously spread out the complex was (e.g., some villas more than a quarter mile from the lobby) and then to learn that the only ways to get around the labirynth were (a) to call for a buggy and driver…15-20 minutes wait, (b) to walk around this massve facility in 100 degree heat, or (c) to ride a bike around the property in the same 100 degree heat. I of course chose Door No. 3 and heated every minute of it, invariable arriving at the lobby or the shops or the snack bar or the pool area dripping with perspiration. After which I’d have to bike back to my villa and take a half hour or more to cool down. Compounding the problem was the the rearot was many miles out of town, which meant you could either pony up for a taxi or wait for the every-three-hour shuttle. All in all, not the ideal scenario for Joe.

Yesterday (Saturday here) I flew down from Chaing Mai to Siem Reap, Cambodia, where, for a definite change of pace, I’m staying at a B&B that I heard about through Wendy Perring in Conde Nast Traveler. Went into town last night. Downtown SR is a steamy, dusty, smoky, tacky, honky-tonk place packed with Westerners frequenting the bars and downtown restaurants, as well as having foot massages performed by fishes in huge tanks and other similarly refined activities. My B&B landlords Andrea and Brandon Ross sent me to their favorite in-town place, the Khmer Kitchen, where the food was good and the prices incredibly low ($3.00 entrees, accompanied by $.75 and $1.00 beers all over town). After being in Japan where I saw hardly any Westerners, even at historic temples and palaces in Kyoto, Siem Reap is teeming with tourists. Went out this morning with a private driver and guide arranged by Andrea to see the first batch of temples on the must-see list (where I was given waaaaaay too much information) and the crowds reminded me of the ones at the Pyramids and Taj Mahal. I’m about to leave for the second half of the Grand Tour and am having dinner tonight in town with Andrea and Brandon…no, it’s not that they think I’m the most fascinating guest they’ve ever had, it’s because I offered to pay.

Oooops, my driver Mr. Lieng and my guide Mr. Sina have arrived and I’m off to Ankhor Wat, which Mr. Sina insists is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I must say, the temples I’ve seen are very, very good, but we’ll have to wait and see whether it attains that accolade. More when I get a chance.

Solstice: Part 5

Back to the Start: Solstice Part 1

This will be the final entry in the Solstice log. I have appreciated all your positive reactions and it’s been fun attempting to share the journey with you.

Dinner last night was totally uneventful, followed by “Ghost Light” (in case you are unaware, a ghost light is the bare-bulb light theatres traditionally leave on stage at night to ward off “ghosts” from past performances), the ship’s homage to Broadway. Very impressive sets (as I indicated they spent a small fortune on the physical aspects of the entertainment venue). Songs and dances from Hairspray, Chorus Line, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Wicked, Chicago, Miss Saigon and one other (what are “If I loved you” and “You’ll never walk alone” from?). Show not as impressive as the sets (as I also indicated, the buzz around the ship is that they ran out of Entertainment money and had to hire the cheapest talent available). I sort of feel for the performers. They’re all so young and enthusiastic. They’re just not all that talented.

Today (Saturday) at mid-morning we had a real storm at sea. The ship was rocking like never before and the New Yorkers scurried from the pool area like rats and proceeded to seize all the good inside seats on the ship, including those in the Library and card room. I tell ya, they’re a competitive bunch. The bad weather hung on until mad-afternoon (it’s now early evening…sunset, in fact…and the sky in clear and bright), so I spent the bulk of my time on my veranda…me and the Obstruction. Incidentally, I’m still waiting to hear about “reparations” for that. I made my reservation through a Toronto travel agent whom Wendy Perrin (who in my book is to travel what Joe Morgenstern is to movies) of Conde Nast Traveler ranks as No. 1 in the cruise area; I sent them an email about the problem and they replied that they’re communicating with Celebrity corporate. I’ll probably just end up taking the $250 credit. I’ve taken a picture of the monster with my phone camera; when I get home I’ll have someone show me how to download the picture.

I previously remarked how impressed I’ve been with the bathroom in my cabin. Very spacious and well designed, with lots of little drawers and shelves to put stuff. For any of you thinking about new bathrooms, there is one feature you should keep in mind. As I mentioned, my shower is a walk-in with rounded sliding glass doors. In addition to the shower head, there is a small console beneath the shower handle with five “nozzles.” You can shower using just the shower head, or alternatively, with the shower head and the five nozzles blasting. Really nice.

And today is Tip Day. To insure that I didn’t forget, my faithful stateroom attendant Paz has provided me with little envelopes addressed to: (a) her and her assistant, Rolando (those two were great, and I hit ‘em with double the Tip Recommendations in the little Celebrity booklet and in the tip notice outside my door and in Celebrity Today and everywhere else you look), (b) the “Assistant Chief Housekeeper” (who’s that?!), (c) my waiter (I’ve had several since I keep flip-flopping around different tables, and I made the rounds last night), (d) the waiter assistant, and (e) my Assistant Maitre d’ (this is the guy who keeps helping me find new tables and I gave him a super tip last night).

And as Bill Christian alerted me, today they held the big Bingo finale when they gave away the big money. Here you have two choices: the traditional paper squares except that instead of marking “hits”, you punch them through with your finger, or an electronic machine that keeps the tally automatically and alerts you when you’re one number away and then when you have a bingo; in order to get an electronic machine, you had to line up at noon for a special reservations process…when I went down there, the line was sixty feet long… because the machines sell out. The price? Oh no, not the $29 I referenced earlier in my missives. For today, the big date, the machine price is $69! (For that you get 36 cards in each game. The alternative was 72 cards per game for $99.) Good thing I had a little house money to play with.

So, the experience is now winding to a close. There was a moment yesterday when I was a little wistful about that, thinking I might like a few more days. But by today I’m ready to call it a cruise. A final night at the Grand Epernay (the main restaurant) with Mel and Roberta and Diana…Roberta stopped me at the Bingo room and asked me to join them…hopefully it won’t be a repeat of the other night’s fiasco…and the Farewell Variety Showtime extravaganza in the theatre, about which there will be no review since this report is going to press now; you’ll just have to sail the Solstice yourself to determine how good it was. Afterwards, a nightcap at Michael’s Piano Bar, then off to bed, because I’m among the first group disembarking in the A.M. NO MORE CASINO TIME!

And how does my Solstice experience grade out? (Remember, I’m a tough grader.) The ship? It’s a behemoth, and it’s a wonder…well designed, well equipped, a treat for the eyes…it gets an A. My stateroom? As good and stylish as a deluxe hotel room…much more compact, of course, but very well thought out and furnished and decorated, and then there’s that super bathroom…another A. Staff? Pretty good, some (bartenders, especially) better than others; overall they appear to be well trained (all, of course, are veterans of other Celebrity ships and for the most part they’re attentive and cordial; saw little or no surliness, which is remarkable considering the crowd they have to deal with (e.g., at the table next to me last night, a guy went ballistic because they had given him a menu from last week’s cruise…it offered an “Intermezzo” course, which has been now been eliminated…cost-saving considerations, for sure…and he demanded he be served what appeared on his menu)…about a B. Food? It’s taken me five or six days to figure out the things they know how to cook pretty well and which stuff to avoid; still nothing can change the fact that at lunch it’s a madhouse, with all 2800 people trying to grab food and more importantly, trying to find a table to sit at, and at dinner it’s faux elegant and you’re dealing with what amounts to hotel banquet food… a C-. Entertainment? Sorry, kids…D+. The crowd? No grade assigned…sort of unseemly to be grading people; still, I’m going with Crystal or Silversea next time. Overall? B, I guess.

Lest I forget, today’s Bingo results: No, I didn’t win the big one ($3,880 on the fill-your-whole-card game), but I did share a win on one the prelim games and pocketed another $140. Is there such a thing as Professional Bingo?

The next time you hear from me, I’ll be on terra firma. So long from the Solstice.

Solstice: Part 4

Sometimes comedy turns into tragedy. I saw it last night in a sad way. While I was deciding which table to join for dinner, Mel stopped me in the hall and asked if I was going to be dining at their table. I didn’t know, I told him, Please do, he said, it’s Diana’s birthday and nobody’s going to be at the table except Roberta and me. We need more bodies, the more the merrier, and so on. Sure, I said. It wasn’t going to make any difference to me which table I sat at.

It all started out fine. Mel and Roberta and Diana and I were sitting at the table when the maitre d’ led a new couple, Joe and Mary Anne, from Fort Lee, New Jersey, to the table. They had missed the water taxi back from St. Maarten and didn’t make the early seating, so they’d be joining us for tonight. Great, I’m sure Mel was thinking…the more the merrier, right? Joe looked prototypical Jersey…you know, thinning pompadour, wise-guy sneer, street-smart swagger. He and Mary Anne were middle to late fifties and I figured they were probably familiar with American Bandstand, so during the initial intros I mentioned that Diana was a former regular on the show. Joe exclaimed: “I was on Bandstand too.” Diana gave him a dubious look and to test his authenticity began to ask him whether he knew other regulars on the show…Carol Scaldaferri?…Justine Carelli?…Arlene Sullivan? “That’s who I used to go to Bandstand with…Arlene Sullivan!” he said, and then the two of them began bantering names back and forth, and, having a hunch that this situation might be breeding future comedy material, I’m jotting all of these names down…Joe Venuti…Penny Rossi…Joe Clayton…Jimmy Joe Fesco…Jerry Blavett…Bob Horn. And of course, Dick Clark, who at the time wasn’t a lot older than a teenager himself. “Everybody hated Dick Clark,” Joe bellowed, and Diana, acting like someone whose mother has just been insulted, sprung to the defense. “That’s not true,” she said, “all of the real regulars loved Dick. You weren’t a real regular. I don’t even recognize you. What’s your name?”

Some people are perfectly named. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock was well named. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge was very well named. And in this earthly realm, Joe is perfectly named.

“Joe Sasso,” he responded. “Never heard of you,” Diana sniffed, leading to an entire soup-and-salad course of back-and-forth sniping as Mel and Roberta and I, and even Joe’s wife Mary Anne, tried to settle things down. Joe then exploded: “I hate this ship! I hate the people on it! I hate the service, I hate the food, I hate the whole damn ship!” Okaaaaaaay, the rest of us mused. “ And as if to establish his bona fides, Joe turned to Diana: “I DATED Carol Scaldaferri!” To which she replied with a non sequitur: “Carol Scaldaferri is my cousin!” To which Joe added a non sequitur of his own: ”But I never had sex with her.” “Too much information,” Roberta screamed, and changed the subject, and so we moved on through the dinner with Joe sulking and everybody else bummed out…so bummed out that Mel refused to do any of his trivia quiz at dessert, which meant the WHOLE dinner was now wrecked. When Diana’s specially ordered key lime pie arrived for dessert, Joe refused to eat it. The way things ended, Mel thought it best if everybody left Diana alone, her birthday celebration wrecked, and so he and Roberta went to the Solstice Theatre for the xylophone concert. My last vision of Diana was of a woman, divorced, lonely, disenfranchised, sitting alone in a glitzy cruise ship restaurant in front of a slice of half-eaten key lime pie. Disconsolate. All by herself. Probably dreaming past dreams about things that may or may not have ever been. I went to the casino.

Which is where the tone of this tale turns dramatically. Ah, the casino. Where… where…where…the finest 75-year-old woman I have ever met in my life decided to pick up the dice for the first time in her life and throw a 40-minute roll. “Don’t jinx me,” she kept saying as I progressively told her how great she was doing, “Shhhhhh,” she implored. I told her I would never utter another word in my life if she would just keep hitting those points, which she did over and over and over. I didn’t make all the money in the world, but I did walk our nearly $400 in the black.

Then came Friday (today), a day at sea as will be the next (and last) tomorrow. I like the sea days better than the port days because it seems a more authentic experience. But there are definitely downsides. On port days you have the pool area (more important, the pool chairs, which those New Yorkers are experts at saving early in the morning and hoarding all day) and restaurants all to yourself and the ship has a wonderful uncrowded atmosphere. After three port days this week, we are now at sea, which means that this full ship is teeming with people everywhere. Which means that rather than fight the crowds, I try to hit the pool and the restaurants at off times and spend a lot of time in the Library or the card room reading. When commenting on the ship’s features, I forgot to say anything about these. This ship has a twelve-floor open atrium at mid-ship (with glass elevators, naturally…slow glass elevators). Down on the 3rd level, there’s even a full-grown (real) tree that, to the dismay of the residents down there, constantly shed leaves. At the 9th, 10th and 11th floor levels, a beautifully furnished card room and a two-storey Library are cantilevered out into the atrium so that each of these rooms have one open-air side. Almost nobody uses them, so I’ve adopted them as my private spaces.

All week I’ve been hearing raves about the Belgian waffles at breakfast in the buffet restaurant…they come out piping hot and are delicious, according to ship lore. So I tried them this morning. Nah, the white toast is better. Skipped Foxtrot Dance Class, stopped in at Guess That Tune trivia, then went to Jackpot Bingo, where I didn’t hit the jackpot, but I did share the win on the finale, the fill-in-all-the-squares game, earning a cool $121. I tell you, with two good casino nights, my Bingo score and the front desk now offering me a $250 onboard credit for my obstruction problems (I’m holding out for a true rate adjustment), what recession???!!!

The rest of today will be a take-it-easy day. None of the afternoon activities were particularly enthralling (“Relief From Arthritis” anyone? Hey, Alison, here’s one for you: “Line Dance Class”). It’s Formal Night tonight. For dinner, I’m going back to the government people and Richard and Suzanne and a more soothing experience, then I’m going to bed early for once. I sleep each night with the door open to my veranda and the sea. The swishing hush of he ocean, the rush of water, and the hum of the ship’s engines put me in a very good place.

Until tomorrow.

Next: Solstice Part 5

Solstice: Part 3

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.

Next: Solstice Part 4

Solstice: Part 2

So, where was I? Oh yeah, I was about to head off for Monday (second night) dinner and the faux Cirque du Soleil performance.

First, dinner. My tablemates from Table No. 1 evaporated. The accountant and the couple from Alberta defected to the early seating, and Dizzy from Atlanta indicated she was going to dine in the specialty restaurants the rest of the trip, and the No-Shows still didn’t show up—which left me as the sole diner at a table for seven. So I went to the maitre d’ and had him switch me to another table where there was an empty eighth chair. My new dinnermates were Kent (an ex-IRS agent) and Lana, taking their 27th cruise, and their friends Tom (also a federal government employee, he with the EPA) and Jody (celebrating her birthday), this being their 53rd(!) cruise in 22 years of marriage, plus Lana’s 91-year-old father Les who recently appeared on an NBC reality show, along with Richard (a flamboyant antique car dealer from Dallas) and Suzanne, a flashy couple in their late 30s. When I got to the table, Richard and Suzanne hadn’t yet arrived. I was warmly welcomed, but not too subtly warned that the rest of the table were dreading the appearance of the talkative, bragadocious Texas couple. It was Formal Night and Richard arrived wearing an open-shirted tux with a scarf draped around his shoulders in lieu of a tie, whereas Suzanne’s dress featured an open front even more dramatic than Richard’s get-up. While Kent and Tom and Les and I stared at Suzanne, Lana and Jody kept their eyes glued to their plates the entire meal. Suzanne related that she had once been married to Richard’s best friend, but that eight days after her divorce she took up with Richard and flew to Las Vegas, where they were married, Suzanne calling home to her parents in Crystal Lake, IL to give them the news, the kicker being that they had never once heard of this guy who was now their son-in-law.

On the subject of multiple cruises, you quickly realize that a whole lot of your fellow travelers are cruise repeaters. It’s no at all uncommon to hear people tell of their membership in the Captain’s Club or their “Diamond” status (25 cruises or more on the same cruise line). Another frequent occurrence is travelers excitedly greeting bartenders and waiters they have met on previous cruises. The friendliness is reciprocated: I’ve only been on this tub three days and already I’m “Mr. Joe” to all my waiters and my stateroom attendant (and several bartenders, since I’m the only person on this ship who adds a buck in the “Additional Gratuity” space on the checks one is constantly signing).

The show, which didn’t begin until 11:15 (on a night when we had to move our clocks ahead an hour to accommodate a time-zone change), was, to put it kindly, an embarrassment. It’s as though they spent so much money on the theatre and the special effects stuff that they didn’t have any money left for skilled performers, the result being that the attempts at thematic sophistication and mystery atmosphere were laughable. E.g., the first guy to make a dramatic swing around the theatre ceiling lost his weird headgear.

The next morning, Tuesday, I got on the daily treadmill…no, not the one in the spa, but the activity treadmill as listed in Celebrity Today, the ship’s daily newspaper. The sequence of activities included the Broadway musical trivia competition, followed by time observing the Texas Hold ‘em tournament, then the glass blowing demonstration up on the Lawn, then lunch by the pool, then up to the Sky Observatory Lounge to watch our arrival in San Juan, then disembarkment for a few hours in Old San Juan (ugh!), then back to the Solstice for a nap, followed by a call from Guest Relations saying they now had a room for me to switch to (worth the trouble? After 3 days? packing and unpacking…account getting mixed up, etc….is it worth it? I don’t think so at this point). Ten it was off to dinner, but first a stop at the Passport Bar. Now, if you want to hang out with the real oldsters, the Passport is the place to be. After the guy with the steel drum finishes, the piano player swings into action and the dance floor is open! About twenty or thirty super seniors proceeded to showcase all of the steps learned in that morning’s Ballroom Dancing lessons, the most prominent number being a ten-minute version of “The Lady is a Tramp.”

Dinner again with the new gang, except Richard and Suzanne didn’t show up. Nice pleasant evening listening to cruise lore, followed by a couple of hours at the tables…where I got scorched for $140. (I recalled a guy at the Martini Bar before dinner who, when I commented that I’d had a good night the first night out, said “Oh, everybody wins the first two nights,” leaving unspoken the corollary that after the fish have been hooked, news sets of dice and decks of cards come out on the subsequent nights to reel in the catch. The end result of these activities each day from early morning to late at night is that I’m exhausted.

Wednesday marked our arrival in St. Kitts. St. Kitts and Nevis together comprise the newest and smallest country in North America, St. Kitts being the “industrial/commercial/developed” member, Nevis being the supposed island paradise. Upon arrival I took the 45-minute ferry (Alison, you wouldn’t have fared well on this little trip) to Nevis and hired a taxi to take me around the island, with special emphasis placed on the Four Seasons Nevis, which has been closed for months following a hurricane (the real reason: insurance dispute), where I talked my way in the gate and looked around, then the Montpelier Plantation Inn, a way-up-high-on-a-big-hill old sugar plantation recently featured in Conde Naste Traveler. The Four Seasons was impressive, but nice in a conventional “this-hotel-could-be-anywhere”…Hawaii, Florida, Southern California…sort of way. The Montpelier Plantation was much more West Indies authentic, if not as deluxe. Back to the ship for some pool time, and once again, a true highlight of this cruise has been the excellence of the poolside entertainment…a 70’s/80s group the first day, a rock band the second, a folk/rock guitarist/singer the third. All very, very good. Tonight we have a “pre-dinner” show called Pulse, and (once again) I’m being assigned to a new table for the night since Kent et al. are going to the Tuscan Steakhouse. A chance to make still more friends!

To be continued.

Next: Solstice Part 3

Solstice: Part 1

Let me start with the conclusion: bringing you along on this journey would have probably ranked near the top of the list of blunders.

The Ship: It’s the Solstice, the newest ship in the Celebrity fleet, maybe the newest ship in anyone’s fleet. You can look it up at Celebrity.com and get pictures. It’s a gorgeous vessel. The Solstice is what’s known as a supership—228,000 tons (or something like that), 2800 passengers, three crew members (or so it seems when you need anything that’s free…no, let me correct that, there’s must be about a thousand crew members, because that’s how many people are around trying to sell you stuff…drinks everywhere, jewelry, art auctions, shore excursions, reservations at the ship’s specialty restaurants etc.—and when I say selling, I mean SELLING…like pesky gnats that you can’t swat away). The ship is an absolute monster, albeit a quite pretty monster, tastefully decorated for the most part, with good-looking decks and bars and restaurants. If only they would let you just reach the foregoing conclusion by yourself. There is endless patter among the crew, even P.A. announcements, proclaiming her “the most beautiful ship in the world.” I started off the cruise by taking a comprehensive tour of the ship with Activities Staff member Joe, which ended up being sort of a cloaked infomercial showing everyone where they could spend more money. Having now cased the ship, I can move about with customary aplomb. One of the ship’s highlights is a top deck featuring a gigantic lawn…very attractive, in reasonably good shape, and totally pleasant. It’s my favorite place on the ship.

My Room: Excuse me, stateroom. Darn nice. Reasonably spacious…the bathroom, which features a clean modern look and a rounded walk-in shower with sliding glass doors, is the star of the show…done with light woods and a beigish overall tone. I have a nice double bed (comfortable!), a couch large enough to take a nap on, a desk, big flat-screen TVn a veranda with two stylish “mesh” lounge chairs and a table. I’m located on the “hump” of the ship, which means my veranda is extra-large, about nine feet wide and 11 feet long. Sounds great, huh? It is. Except for “The Obstruction” (more on that later).

The Crowd: Well, let me start with a statistic. My stateroom attendant, Paz, a delightful gal whose favor I curried early on, told me there were 150 wheelchairs rolled onboard at embarkation. I’ll tell ya, it’s an ollllllllllld crowd I’m traveling with. Half of one’s day is spent waiting for creaky people to get in and out of elevators, climb stairs ahead of you, or asking staff to repeat things. Those who are ambulatory have a common denominator: girth. Very few Camp Technique grads among this group. Lots of New Yorkers…Queens and Brooklyn accents abound, and no trouble hearing them anywhere on the ship, as these folks talk LOUD. At dinner I’m seated at a table for seven—a couple from Alberta (she in a wheelchair), a dizzy blonde from Atlanta who sailed on this ship last week as well, an accountant from Richmond, me, and two people whom we’ve never seen since they’ve been no shows at every meal…probably fell prey to the hawkers who’ve been touting the extra-charge specialty restaurants. The food’s okay…banquet quality. The service is weak.

Shiplife So Far:   After my introductory tour with Joe, my next stop was the Customer Relations Desk (aka Purser’s Office) to accomplish…what else?…a room change because of The Obstruction (supra). I’m at the late seating,so I had a chance to sample a few of the bars and hit the early show—a musical review. To give you an idea of what century this ship is sailing in, the opening number was the “Theme Song from Peter Gunn.” A British Frank Sinatra wannabe opened things up, gave way to a string quartet who first played Vivaldi (the audience ooooed) and then “Don’t Be Cruel”…they were simply awful. Next came an a capella quarter who did some barbershop and then some songs from the Broadway musical, “The (sic) Jersey Boys”. I left early and went to the much ballyhooed Martini Bar, where they are bringing in a bottle of Chopin for me when we get to San Juan, before going to dinner. After the feast, I of course hit the casino, bright and airy and No Smoking, where I proceeded to earn a profit of $208 playing craps and Three Card Poker.

Today I had breakfast on my veranda, went to bingo ($29!), then hit the pool for an hour (where they had a truly great pop song band), went to a lecture on the Southern Cross which we’ll see from our deck tonight, went to an art auction (bought you some nice things—keep some space open on the staircase!), and took a nap. As I sit here, I’m awaiting Formal Night at the restaurant (I’m wearing blazer and slacks—an astounding number of people, especially the early seating crowd, are wearing tuxedos and very formal gowns). Tonight’s entertainment (starting at 11:00!) is a knock-off of Cirque du Soleil, which should be worth a laugh. I’ll keep you advised of future developments.

The Obstruction: When I booked this cruise, I went on Cruise Critic to hear what people have said about the Solstice and noticed several warnings about obstructions…windows “tinted” with part of the Celebrity’s “X” logo, lifeboats, etc. I sent an email directing that I wanted a room with NO OBSTRUCTIONS and received a confirming email back from the cruise line that Room 1547 had no obstructions. When I got to my stateroom, I walked out on my veranda only to be greeted on my left with a big square steel monstrosity that looked like a cross between a fire escape and a construction crane. It turns out that this is the ship’s window washing equipment which has a permanent home outside my room and few neighboring ones. At Customer Service I showed them a copy of my email and their reply and said I wanted a new room. Reply: the ship is full. Today they told me there’s a chance a room might open up tomorrow—a couple who missed the sailing in Fort Lauderdale and would have to go to San Juan to catch the cruise, from whom the ship had received no communication. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m sending this to you as an attachment since internet service here is about 50 cents a minute. Drinks are $10 plus mandatory 15% tip. The specialty restaurants are an extra $25.

When you mention the word “all-inclusive” or “included” (e.g., at dinner, “Is wine included with the meal?”) they look at you funny.

Next: Solstice Part 2