Anthem of the Seas: Part 2

anthem

Back to the Start: Anthem of the Seas Part 1

In this segment of the blog I’ll cover some of the miscellaneous factors about the Anthem cruise.

Destinations? I knew from the outset that the weakest aspect of this cruise was fated to be the ports of call where we would be calling, and indeed they were truly weak. Because they don’t deserve a lot of time, I’ll briefly summarize:

  • Port Canaveral, FL: A desolate place where I rented a Hertz car and drove to the Kennedy Space Center for the whole-enchilada tour…viewing historic launch pads, going inside the operations control center, watching dramatic film presentation about Apollo 1 (tragic fire) and moon landing, viewing of full-size Saturn rocket hung from the ceiling of gigantic hanger. Verdict: Tired old place in need of a makeover, special effects not very special. Recommendation: start over, keep the Saturn. My visit was spiced up by the fact that upon my return to Hertz, I found the office CLOSED, with a note on the window to call a guy named Jon Minor who picks up renters after hours. Sure enough, Jon came by and picked me up, but on the way back to the ship, we were sitting on a bridge-up drawbridge when his car conked out (“Durn,” he said, “that’s the second time this week.”) In panic I jumped out of his van and raced over to a taxi full of people waiting for the drawbridge to go down and begged for a ride, which was mercifully granted. Made it back in time.
  • Nassau, Bahamas: Approaching the island, the turquoise water and white sand beaches were stunningly beautiful, but Nassau itself is just another beat-up town in the Caribbean filled with glitzy jewelry stores and straw markets and hawkers and crummy shops and bars, the premier venue being Senor Frog. I took a walk out of the tourist area into the center of the regular town to find once-classic colonial hotels with boarded-up windows, filthy alleys and beat-up cars and pick-up trucks. (Didn’t try to go “over the bridge” to the enormous Atlantis resort because all the word-of-mouth on Cruise Critic and on the ship was that the place is a waste of time.) Verdict: A dump.
  • Coco Cay, Cayman Islands: One of those “private” islands the   cruise lines have developed to give their passengers a chance to have a “day at the beach”. This one was horrible…a ratty, scraggly atoll jammed with the passengers from two of Royal Caribbean’s monster ships and accessible only by means of overcrowded tenders that resembled those migrant boats in the Mediterranean. Verdict: Godawful.

In each instance coming back to the Anthem was like going to heaven.

The food on the Anthem? Predictably, as a mass-feeding operation the food is essentially banquet quality in most of the restaurants, the only exceptions being (as you might expect) the ones that you pay $30-$40 extra for. Throughout the ship, soups and salads are pretty good; stir-fry is as good as you’ll find anywhere; the pizza is awful, breakfasts are weak, lunch ends up being the best food with delicious hand-carved roast beef sandwiches on salted Kaiser rolls (a Buffalo specialty called “Wecks”) and paninis and a wide variety of salads; at dinner, starters are surprisingly tasty, main courses almost universally blah.

I have scoped out the majority of the dining rooms and restaurants on board, with the main lessons being learned: (a) if you wait to eat late, be prepared to be served food that was prepared hours earlier and then zapped up to lukewarm, (b) DON’T ORDER THE LOBSTER, an item offered on virtually every menu as Surf & Turf or Broiled Lobster Tail, because it’s not like “lobster” as you know it , (c) don’t try to be sophisticated and order seafood; stick with chicken or pasta, (d) don’t even THINK about ordering the Huevos Rancheros at breakfast, (e) forget about steak unless you’re paying the additional $39 at Chops, (f) for God’s sake, if you like Chinese food, don’t eat at the Chinese restaurant, (g) order the escargot*, because you won’t find it on any menu printed after 1959.

*When I asked about the escargot at Grande, the “formal” restaurant, the waiter said, “It’s only good because of the garlic and butter. The snails aren’t from France…they’re from Indonesia….out of a can.” I ordered it anyway and the garlic and butter were delicious.

Theater entertainment? The featured musical was “We Will Rock You”, the Queen-inspired show that was pretty much of a flop in London a couple of decades ago, not improved since. “Spectra”, sort of a Cirque du Soleil knock-off that the Anthem theater-going audience (read aged) found a little too weird. “The Gift” a fantasy musical that was about…well, I never could figure out what it was about. I previously mentioned the wide variety of other Anthem performers who were invariably excellent. All group activities and theatrical performances on the ship were emcee’d by our Cruise Director Abe, a peripatetic showman—“hip” when he was with the young crowds, “distinguished” when addressing the age-olders– obviously auditioning for s job as a TV game show host.

Fitness Dept.: Spa looked okay, not spectacular…didn’t use it because (a) I hate spas, and (b) they charged a lot . Cardiologist Gary Conrad would have loved the 1/3-mile running track that circumnavigates the 15th deck featuring two “lanes”…one for running, one for walking, with spectacular views. I dutifully walked one lap a day, augmented by my hundreds of trips between ship events, restaurants, bars, theaters and the library, often taking the stairs for several floors because the elevators were usually crowded.

Activities…a brief rundown on what I did (and didn’t) do…

  • FlowRide Surfing…didn’t do it…it looked entirely too hard…the only people who were able to stand or even kneel on the surfboards and boogie boards looked like they were lifelong residents of Huntington Beach.
  • Casino…did it, and ending up donating 140 of my favorite dollars playing craps and Three Card Poker…not bad when you consider all the time (80% of it watching) that I spent in that smoky, smelly joint during the weeklong cruise.
  • North Star capsule…didn’t do it…it involved a 2-1/2 hour wait and I overheard one guy saying “all you can see is more water”.
  • Bingo…did it twice at $32 a session and won zilch. When I think of the drinks I could have bought with that $64, it makes me want to cry.
  • Art lecture on “the masters of the art world”…did it…was surprised to learn that so many of them were exhibited right here on the Anthem.
  • “Quest”…did it…a scavenger-hunt kind of group game for 300 where I won the affection of my team by coming up with a piece of currency with a picture of the White House on it ($50 bill). Other members of the team contributed far more, such as pants, bras and thongs. They were young, thank goodness.
  • RipCord by IFLY…the simulated flying thing where you are suspended in a big tube of air…didn’t do it… the people who did it said it hurt.
  • Bumper Cars…did it…as you might expect, emphasis is on safety, safety, safety…thus, cars are slow and ride is short…waste of time.
  • Glow Party…did it…basically a disco party with everybody wearing flashing lights..eyeglasses, necklaces, etc. I’m too old for this stuff.
  • And yes, TRIVIA! After a few instances of merely walking up to strangers and asking to join them, I happened to sit with a foursome at a shared table at breakfast and they asked me to join them at trivia and we’ve been a trivia team fivesome ever since. We’ve got Nevin and Heather from Canada, Mike and Audrey from New Jersey. (Nevin is a composer from Toronto and at one session was able to identify 17 out of 20 Elvis hits on the first or second note!) I held my own over numerous sessions (e.g., Hey, I was the only one in the room who knew the meaning of hippopotamus and could identify an obscure Jane Austen novel).

Flops? No. 1 on the list was the robotic Bionic Bar, basically a one-trick pony that people would watch for twenty minutes or so as it went through its herky-jerky snatch-and-go drink-mixing motions and which actual users complained made the drinks too sweet and/or spilled too much.

Conclusion at the end of the trip: This cruise left me with a little bit of a funny feeling…a feeling that I was a little disappointed at the fact that I’m NOT disappointed. I had signed on this cruise thinking it was going to be a hoot filled with a collection of wacky characters who would go on a cruise like this and hokey events. Yet in the end it turned out to be just a fairly pleasant trip on a beautiful well-designed, tastefully decorated vessel , crowds not too bad at all, weather very good, food okay, events sort of fun, My favorite moments: sleeping at night with my veranda door open, listening to the whoosh of the ocean rushing by and feeling the sway of the ship (even on a ship this big!). One night was had a major storm-at-sea and it reminded me of the stormy Midwestern nights when I was a little boy and felt warm and safe under the covers listening to the rolling thunder outside me window. Those were some of the best times of my life, but this night on the Anthem was close.

Until the next adventure…

Anthem of the Seas: Part 1

anthem

Travel is flight and pursuit in equal parts.

– Paul Theroux

I am sailing on the Anthem of the Seas, Royal Caribbean’s newest Quantum Class sea-going colossus, on my way to the Bahamas.

Why, you might ask, would any sane person want to go on a leisure cruise on a vessel with (a) a capacity (passengers and crew) of SIX THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED AND FIVE, (b) a departure from Port of Liberty, NJ (aka Bayonne, New Jersey) in winter weather, (c) a totally mediocre itinerary, and (d) a thousands of New Yorkers and New Jerseyites clawing for bar stools, deck chairs and restaurant and event reservations?

I hope to answer that existential question over the course of my journey.

But first, let’s deal with some essential stats about the Anthem:

She is 347.8 meters long…longer than an aircraft carrier, longer than the QE2, much, much longer than the Titanic (and yet astoundingly, not AS LONG as her sister ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet, the Oasis). She took six million hours to build.

She has 2,090 cabins, including a unique category that lured me … namely, a solo passenger “studio stateroom with veranda”…as far as I know, the first of its type in the cruising world. Inside staterooms on the Anthem feature “virtual balconies”…floor-to-ceiling ultra-HD screens with real-time views of the ocean and destinations.

She has 17 restaurants and 7 bars and lounges, including another first…the Bionic Bar where your beverages are prepared by robots. Of the restaurants, four are the traditional mass-feeding operations, eleven others are “specialty” restaurants, some complimentary, some charging extra. I intend to try as many as I can.

She has 15 stories of glass and steel that make her look like a flopped-over high-rise office building.

She has two spectacular theaters and three pools (I’m sure I’ll at least get a pool chair upon our departure from Bayonne, particularly if it’s snowing), bumper cars, roller skating, FlowRider surfing and flying trapeze lessons. She has a skydiving simulator and something called “North Star”, a capsule that rises 300 feet above sea level.

She has her own satellite that provides more bandwidths than are available on all other cruise ships in the world combined. She has the “Royal Esplanade”, an indoor shopping world that’s a cross between the Mall of America and the lobby of a Disney World hotel.

And she has your faithful correspondent on board, ready to “meet and mingle.”

And so it begins…

…with an effortless boarding process and an awaiting luncheon at the ship’s Windjammer buffet, a spread equal to a Wynn Las Vegas or Bellagio with remarkable variety and food quality. Before entering the buffet, all guests are required to pass through a little tunnel with five “Wash Your Hands” stations…nice idea.

Now I head to my stateroom, the aforementioned single studio with veranda, a one-of-a-kind creature in today’s cruise world (unless you count Norwegian’s 100 sq. ft. inside studios that resemble prison cells more that guest accommodations). At first glance, there’s a moment of shock. I take pause…this is a very, very, very small room, made so because the designers had to allow for my quite generous balcony with a nice ocean exposure and a spacious little bathroom with walk-in shower. Very tight closet and drawer space, no chair (an ottoman-like stool takes its place), a 2’X2’ “desk”, and a double bed that eats up two-thirds of the room. But, you know, once I unpack and get everything into its place, it becomes quickly livable.

It’s the first day and I’m a little lost. I do a cursory tour of the ship’s public areas and settle for my first activity: a trivia contest. Unlike most vessels that have one trivia event a day, the Anthem has five per day…is this place heaven, or what? I follow it up with the requisite nap, then have an early dinner at one of the ship’s hot spots, the Mongolian Corner, where the faithful line up for Mongolian stir-fry that hits the spot. Off I go to the Music Hall to listen to some good-and-bad karaoke, followed by a performance of a Journey tribute band called Resurrection who are nothing short of terrific. (I like them so much I go to their 10:30-12:00 performances three nights in a row.) Besides the rockers, we have a Disco DJ who performs to a jam packed dance floor, a salsa group, a Caribbean steel drum band and three piano players, one a Woody Allen type, one a crazy Bette Midler type and the other a kid who looks about 16.

I came on this cruise expecting to find atrociously garish décor and trumped-up events and a ship full of misfits in our society…only to find a beautiful architectural creation, with a bright, fresh feel and expansive floor-to-ceiling ocean views, beautiful sweeping staircases, nice hallways, two impressive theaters, attractive carpeting, and a pretty normal group of people. In keeping with the season, there’s even a very tasteful Christmas tree with ornaments the size of cannon balls and poinsettias all up and down the hallways of the Royal Esplanade.

The crowd on the Anthem? Well, they’re “the public.” They’re not the obviously affluent cruisers you find on Seabourn or Silversea, but more like the everyday folks you’d find at a ball game or shopping mall or a Fourth of July parade. Some a little rough-hewn, but nice people. By the way, no need for any Diversity Task Force on the Anthem. We’ve got 150-200 of EVERYBODY on this voyage (did you know that the Amish go on cruises?). Every continent except Antarctica, every ethnic group, every nationality, every language is heavily represented. Comporting with the complaint most often voiced about cruising, i.e., “just a bunch of old people”, this passenger list is indeed weighed quite heavily in favor of the ancient set, especially the New York and New Jersey attendees, whose wheel chairs, walkers, crutches, canes and limps clog the thoroughfares, and whose heavy accents permeate the atmosphere. Hey, they make me feel young. There are a very substantial number of cruisers in their twenties and thirties, most of the ready to party hearty (the nighclubs and music venues are packed every night), although quite a few were dumb enough to bring along their little kids whom they have to drag or carry up and down the lonnnnnnng corridors of the Anthem. Also, a surprising number of 5-12-year-old kids, and I mean hundreds… what are they doing here? As for the ultimate fact…number of tattoos? Actually, not that many.

Even though there are 4,900 passengers on board, only five show up for the Solo Travelers’ “Meet & Mingle”…Caroline, who heads the Selective Service (yes, it still exists) in Delaware, Jo, a Navy “mustang” who has just been promoted to Commander, John, an elderly guy from New Jersey who interrupts every topic with “Where’s that?”, Lee, a young guy in his twenties who clearly doesn’t want to hang with this crew of oldsters, and me. We chat for a while and agree to gather at a future trivia to form a team.

By the way, it is important to note that Royal Caribbean ships are not “all inclusive,” meaning that you pay extra for everything, including drinks (even soft drinks and water), internet, shore excursions and some specialty restaurants, all of which results in hundreds of dollars being added to your cruise bill. They offer a range of beverage packages, but at the “Meet & Mingle” I go through the economics with Caroline and Jo and we conclude we would have to have a daily intake of seven glasses of wine, in their case, or nine beers in my case, to make the beverage deal pay. I’m going a la carte.

The first thing I realize is that my dining strategy (more on the culinary experience later) is going to have to be altered. Instead of having a group of Solo Traveler “buddies” to meet for group dinners, I am going to go with Plan B, which is to tell the host or hostess at any given restaurant that I want to be seated at a “sharing” table. I end up doing this at sit-down breakfast and dinners and the results are mixed:

Day 2 breakfast – I meet Matthias, a German guy who reviews cruises and has a show on German TV. Interesting guy.

Day 3 breakfast – I dine with Staten Island Donna who doesn’t approve of anything in the world and lets you know it, and Philadelphia Susan whose husband has had Alzheimers for the past nine years. Very uplifting.

Day 3 dinner – I’m at a shared table with Don and Mary from Pennsylvania, whom I suspect are Amish even though they don’t wear the garb. They don’t drink, don’t go to any of the ship’s entertainment, don’t really do anything, in fact, except eat…they were thinking about going on the North Star capsule, but were rejected because each of them weighs 19 pounds over the 300 lb. limit.

Day 4 breakfast – Share table with a couple from Long Island on their 63rd cruise, another couple from Baltimore on their 20th or so who complain that the Anthem doesn’t have a re-created Central Park like the Oasis does, and a sanitary engineer from Indiana on his 20th or so whose main interest in coming on this cruise is to take the behind-the scenes tour of the ship’s plumbing and power system (for which he’s willing to pay $200 extra).

Haven’t done any casino time yet. I’m too scared to. The table minimums are $10 and $25—as many of you know, I’m strictly a $5 table guy—and my $$100-$200 bankroll will be blown away in one sitting at those rates. Still, I’ve taken an opportunity to peek in. This is no ordinary cruise ship casino. I would estimate the slot machine count as somewhere in the 300 range, and the room is four or five times bigger than the standard box assigned to the casino on most ships. Besides the slots, they offer one craps table where I will probably donate my money, a Three Card Poker table (where is John Winter, the king of Three Card, when I need him?), two roulette tables and maybe 8-10 blackjack tables. Worse than gambling losses will be my cleaning bill, as the Casino Royale gladly allows smoking and the place is totally unventilated as far as I can determine. As usual, the casino staff is largely made up of Russians and former residents of the various “-Stans” who conduct their trade with cold stares and phony smiles. I’ll get there eventually.

But, you say, I’ve heard there are some really tacky events on these types of cruises? There surely are.

The Art Auction would definitely qualify. During my morning dead period I stop by the Art Auction on the Royal Esplanade where the auctioneer’s opening quote goes as follows: “Ladies and gentlemen, on Royal Caribbean we have people who cruise exclusively to collect art.” Uh- huh. The first painting offers is a “unique” Peter Max creation which our host claims has a retail value of $41,000, after which he starts the bidding at $36,500. Stone silence throughout the room of about 150. He quickly announces “Pass,” and proceeds to bring out something more moderate, a Thomas Kincaid (“Look at the light in this work!” he croons) print where the bidding starts at $25 (yes, $25), although with his frenetic urging the saps in the room actually bid it up to $400. Now that he has them in the mood, he goes back up the ladder to a copycat Matisse-esque print by some Israeli artist supposedly worth $11,000, but where the bidding would start at $9,000. Silence, then one hand goes up. “Sold” comes the call as the hammer instantaneously slams down. And so forth, as he parades out a host of paintings and begs for bids, most often resorting to the refrain “Pass!” then going on to the next one. This is all followed by the “Mystery Auction” in which the works of art are hung backwards to the bidders. It is all too complicated to explain, but it ends with a row of eight unseen paintings being sold to people in the audience. I have to cut my visit short because it’s time for trivia. (I think the Kincaid will look perfect in our dining room.

The other qualifier is the “$10 Sale” in which dozens of boxes of goods–all covered by red sheets– are piled on tables in the center of the Royal Esplanade, everything to be sold for $10 per item (five for $40). At the opening bell, the sheets come off, revealing hundreds of scarves, shawls, sunglasses, watches, handbags, etc., and the three-deep crowd surges toward that cornucopia, jostling each other out of the way, tossing favorite items across the room to their friends, trying on hats and scarves. The New Yorker standing next to me calls out to his wife: ”Honey, don’t pay $10 for a $3 watch!”, but to no avail as she forges on. Fortunately I am able to score some nice Christmas gifts at the sale.

Finally, I am witness poolside to the first International Belly Flop contest (use your imagination), filmed and scheduled to be shown on ESPN and won by 325 lb. Steve from Ireland, a thrilling result in the mind of Cruise Director Abe because that makes the competition truly “international”. Steve’s water displacement was impressive.

All the while I do my best to keep up with the NFL, my emails and the Republican debates.

To be continued…

Next: Anthem of the Seas Part 2

That’s the Spirit! Day 9

Back to the Start: That’s the Spirit! Day 1

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 9: Sunday, November 21

Sorry to say it, folks, but I’m out of gas.

I’m tired of these people, and I’m tired of these same old bars and restaurants, and I’m tired of the routine. So as far as the daily report is concerned, I’m taking the day off.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t offer some concluding comments on the entire Silversea experience. The Spirit is one fine and handsome ship, even if the décor seems slightly dull and uninspired to me. The room and bath amenities are quite good, and the butlers and room attendants do a fine job. My fellow passengers onboard are as nice as you’ll find anywhere in a gathering of strangers. The management staff knock themselves out for you. The food offerings and food quality have been way above average. The entertainment has been fine. The free drinks, free wine, tips-included features are fantastic. Negatives? The physical fitness facility and spa are fairly weak– not a big deal to me, but it could be to others. The bars’ and restaurants’ ambiance are just okay. As you have no doubt detected from various tirades, I think the food and beverage service staff is mainly comprised of robots of below-average mentality, and they are the slowest human beings afoot on the planet. And there is a legitimate question, raised by some I have met, as to whether Silversea is worth the very serious premium prices it charges compared to cruise lines one notch down.

So, in toto, what is the verdict? Would I do it again (preferably with AW, even more preferably with AW and friends or family)? If you’d asked me on the first or second day, I probably would have said no way. But the overall quality of this operation grows on you. Over time you see how much effort and planning goes into the daily operation of this ship, and you hear from your fellow passengers that this doesn’t always happen on other cruise lines. So, I guess I will answer that key question with a definite maybe. They had a tough and cynical critic aboard this voyage, and by gosh they may have actually begun to win him over.

Tomorrow, Ft. Lauderdale, then onward to L.A. and Pasadena. Thanks for listening. Over and out.

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Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 9: Appendix to Report for Sunday, November 21 (and Monday, November 22)

Even though I previously declared my intent to forego a report for the last day(s), I decided to include a few musings about the final events.

Sorry to say that the final day (Sunday) was, in fact, pretty uneventful. Slept in for the first time on the trip, hit the pool, went to a special cocktail party for all the Team Trivia participants, then we had our final Team Trivia event (came in third again…I tell ya, these other guys are tough). Why they put the cocktails before the contest is beyond me, as one of our best players, Liz—she may be a social barbarian, but she’s an ace trivia contestant—was half loaded and rather ineffective. The question that broke our back was: What 80’s band’s name was inspired by the movie Barbarella? We guessed Sex Pistols, which was wrong. Correct answer below. See what I mean? All week we dealt with some impossibly tough questions.

Wound up at dinner with Tom and Joan from Chicago and Lake Forest, IL (for the uninitiated, considered by many to be the very top suburb in Chicagoland). Met Tom when he was a fellow grinder on the regatta, then later one night on my lone Casino visit. A mid-40’s guy with a cherubic countenance, he previously s served as General Counsel for pharmaceutical giant Shering-Plough (sp?) (lost that job when they merged with Merck). He presently has the very super-duper job of General Counsel of United Airlines, although his job is ending at the close of 2010 due to the United/Continental merger in which the Continental G.C. got the nod for the position with the combined entity. Don’t feel sorry for him. Like my old roomie Terry Martin, he departs all these primo jobs with golden parachutes and other goodies. For example, one of his severance benefits from United will be a lifetime pass on the airline….oooooh, how I would give anything for that. Originally from Connecticut (went to Wesleyan, same as Bonnie Harrison), he and Joan (no kids) have lived in New Jersey, California and Illinois (the latter four times).

Earlier in the week Tom and Joan, very proper country club types, had had a well-noticed brouhaha poolside with a bald New Yorker that Joan has dubbed “The Plaintiff’s Lawyer.” The PL is part of a NY foursome who yell across the pool and generally are loud and gaudy and inconsiderate and obnoxious. Joan bristles at their showiness (e.g., their wives bringing $15,000 purses to the pool). At any rate, the tiff resulted from fact that, on the first Sea Day– when the pool area was the most crowded and chairs were at a premium– the PL and his gang commandeered four chairs on BOTH sides of the pool so that they could change locations as the sun moved across the sky. Tom objected to this maneuver, and the two of them proceeded to have a little trans-pool discussion, which had to be settled (in Tom and Joan’s favor) by the ship’s Pool Manager, a stout gal who wears a white outfit that looks like a nurse’s uniform. Believe me, all heads poolside popped up from their reclining positions to witness the dust-up, the most excitement we had all week.

Monday morning was disembarkation day in Fort Lauderdale, which ended up costing Silversea some future business, I’m sure. A whole lot of us had signed up to disembark at 8:30 a.m., plenty of time for me to get my rental car at Fort Lauderdale airport and drive to Miami airport to catch my 11:51 flight to Chicago. Because they are going to be on my same flight, Tom and Joan are going with me (I’m trying to be as nice as I can to this guy in the hope that he’ll get me one of those lifetime passes). Well, somebody at Silversea was asleep at the switch. Since this is the first time the Silver Spirit has ever visited a U.S. port (up to this time it had been sailing in Europe and across the Atlantic), it’s necessary for the U.S. Coast Guard to board the ship and give it a complete inspection. Coast Guard uniforms are scurrying all over the ship and 8:30 comes and goes, and people are beginning to get worried. 9:30, and they still aren’t done with the inspection. All around, people are moaning about certain missed flights and a completely messed-up day. Finally, at 9:50, we’re told we can disembark…IN THE ORDER OF THE COLOR OF YOUR LUGGAGE TAG. The first color called: Red. Who are among the few with the red tags? The Plaintiff’s Lawyer and his entourage, which of course completely infuriates Joan. Anyway, our color was next, and we ran off the ship at 10:00, then had to go through Immigration and Customs, where there was one—count him: ONE) U.S. Customs guy on duty for the crowd of 480. The Silversea elite are mad as hornets, laying it on the Silversea port attendants who had nothing to do with the problem and were trying to soothe frayed nerves and tempers. Luckily the three of us were among the early ones off the Spirit, but we still didn’t exit the terminal until 10:15…for a 11:51 flight out of Miami! Long story short, we grabbed a taxi to Hertz at the airport, grabbed our car, drove wildly to Miami and get there with 15-20 minutes to spare. I kept saying to Tom: “Maybe you ought to give someone a call.” He’d just shake his head and give me a look that said that’s not how it works, my friend. Made the flight. And all was well that ended well.

As this is being composed, I sit on United 123 on my way to LAX.

Thus endeth the Saga of the Spirit.

 

(Answer to trivia question: Duran Duran. I have no idea whatsoever what the connection is with Barbarella.)

That’s the Spirit! Day 8

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 8: Saturday, November 20

We’re “At Sea” for the next two days, which everyone agrees will be a welcome respite from the daily go-onshore rat race, although the veterans tell me that pool chairs will hereafter be at a premium. This morning we are being given a chance to view some of the large suites on the ship and invariably receive a sales pitch about signing up for future cruises (as a Venetian Club member, I’m entitled to a 5% discount). Then I’m going up and fight for one of those pool chairs.

Of course, now that we’re all packed together they’ve upped the onboard offerings so that there’s something you can attend literally every half-hour if you want to. E.g., ballroom dancing (no), wine tasting (no), Introduction to Botox (?), arts & crafts (no), water volleyball (maybe), ab class (don’t need it), shuffleboard (no), Bingo (no…been a disappointment), Team Trivia (definitely), dozens of others, and my absolute favorite: Blackjack Tournament, which according to our activities sheet urges one to, and I quote, “put your skills at stake against other BJ aficionados.,” the morning line favorites being the gay guys on board.

Speaking of which, I should mention another daily activity listed in the newsletter each day: “5:00 – Friends of Bill meet.” All, or at least most, the Americans know what this is, but the Europeans have no idea. Yesterday afternoon at the Pool deck bar one of the English gay guys (a bunch of very nice guys, by the way, a lot of them flight attendants with British Airways) came up to me, drink in hand, and clearly supposing this meeting was designed for him and his buddies, mentioned that he was thinking of giving the FOB meeting a try. When I explained that old Bill was the founder of AA and that walking in there with a cocktail might not be the most PC thing, he almost dropped his drink.

Report on the Silver Suite and Owner’s Suite: both a lot larger than I had anticipated, with lots of unnecessary sinks and closets and doors, but not much of an improvement décor-wise. I had expected really nice colors and fabrics Nope. Same old drab monochromatic stuff that’s in all of the rooms. Worth it? Here with a family, maybe. Here as a solo or couple, nah.

Chose as my activities this afternoon (a) to be a spectator at the blackjack tournament, which produced a turnout of about 14 hard-nosed players who weren’t fooling around; you pay only $20 to play, they give you $300 worth of “tournament” ships and play off against six other competitors per table for seven hands of blackjack, until they get to the final seven, who then play off until there is a winner; was great to watch and I’m signing on tomorrow now that I’ve had a chance to observe the winning strategies; (b) Team Trivia where the Soloists came in second against seven other teams, all of which are comprised of very, VERY tough trivia players; and (c) galley tour with the ship’s executive chef, who took us through the kitchens, dishwashing areas, etc.– pretty impressive.

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Whoa!!! What’s going on here? All of a sudden our sunny, balmy day and calm seas have been replaced in short order by a dome of clouds and very rough waters. In the fore and aft parts of the ship, it’s pitching and rolling so hard that it’s actually difficult to stand. The talk everywhere is about queasy stomachs and the availability of Dramamine (which I have, but haven’t taken because while I feel a little disoriented, I don’t feel ill. Matter of fact, I’m ready for a drink pretty soon.) People are walking down the halls, swaying and stumbling like drunken sailors. It’s not raining and according to the Captain, it’s not threatening to do so, but our dinner tonight is a barbeque on the Pool Deck and sweaters are advised.

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Because of the weather, which isn’t conducive to late night bar time, I’m back early from the night’s activities, so I’ve decided to go ahead and compose my report now (please excuse misspellings, grammatical and syntax errors).

The Soloists group reunion dinner was held this evening at the deck barbeque. Except for a Team Trivia or two, we hadn’t gotten together since Day 2. Dinner was windy and cool and rocky, but fun and interesting. Wildwoman Liz was much subdued (and slightly under the weather because of the rough seas), but her sidekick, Karen, whose boisterous, window-cracking cackle has become a topic of conversation around the ship and among the staff (during cocktails one night, hostess Isabelita actually came over with a microphone and asked Karen to give the room a sample; Karen looked like she wanted to kill her), was her old self. English gal Rachel said we hadn’t seen much of her because she’s been suffering all week from a sunburned back incurred while snorkeling the second day. Blabbermouth centenarian Mary was at it again, having decided that the topics of the evening would be (a) the history of English royalty, about which she is an expert, having attended Oxford on a scholarship, and (b) her late husband Basil, whom I suspect willed himself to death so he wouldn’t have to listen to her any longer. Quiet Wendy was the same. And we were joined at the table by shopping huckster Philip and personable Cruise Director Mike, who unfailingly remembers the name of everyone on the ship, here on Silversea following a several-year stint as “CD” aboard a Disney ship (can you imagine that job?).

Tonight was also karaoke night, which ended up being completely dominated by the Soloists (excluding me…please!), as former professional singer Karen led off with a remarkably fine version of “Over The Rainbow” and Liz did “Hotel California” and Rachel did a couple of great numbers (forget the titles) and one of Rachel’s buddies from England sang “Sweet Caroline.” The only person not intimidated by this lineup of ringers was a Mexican doctor who ran up and butchered a song, leaving the audience embarrassed and causing the pool of potential performers to dry up, forcing our Ship D.J. David to come up and do an Elvis number and CD Mike to do a Billy Joel song he claimed he had never done before, but which had been clearly rehearsed (e.g., during the song’s Interlude, he had a fancy little dance number all ready to go).

Good night.

Next: That’s the Spirit! Day 9

That’s the Spirit! Day 7

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 7: Friday, November 19

I never did quite figure out why the staff invited me for dinner last night (Thursday). They didn’t probe my views on the cruise, so I concluded they merely took pity on me since I’m the only male solo traveler (other than Scottie, who has a visual impairment and dines in his cabin). Since they weren’t doing any probing, I did, trying to get them to tell juicy war stories about the cruise world. This didn’t work out so well, as C.D. Mike responded with a lengthy discussion of how the cruise line he was with at the time handled the 9/11 emergency and losses suffered by passengers and crew, etc., which set a maudlin tone and put a bit of a damper on the evening. It was nice of them to ask me, but I would have been better off dining with passengers.

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Today (Friday) we are docked in Road Town, Tortola , British Virgin Islands, afloat next to a huge German liner, the Aria Luna (as I learned last night, in Cruise-ese the correct expression is “We’re in with the Luna”), an ugly ship with a blue and yellow color scheme and a huge pair of smiling lips painted on its bow.

Tortola is the most populated of the BVIs, and Road Town has to be its most prosperous town. The hillsides above the town are filled with large, pretty homes, and the commercial district is lined with bank after bank after bank, along with handsome colonial buildings sporting names such as “BCQX International” and “ATC Trustees (B.V.I.) Ltd.”. For the life of me, can’t figure out what business they’re in.

Walked off the ship to do my day’s exploring when I realized: you idiot, you’re on the wrong island! The places you want to see aren’t on Tortola; they’re on Virgin Gorda. Hopped over to the ferry terminal for the 40-minute ride to V.G., entertained on the way by a Nicholas Cage movie about an MIT professor with knowledge of impending disasters before they occur. Just when it was getting interesting, we arrive. (Never did get the title, but I was really getting into it.)

I hired a taxi driver to take me around the island, first to the famous Little Dix Bay resort, then to the island’s No. 1 attraction, The Baths, then give me a quick drive around Spanishtown, the island’s nerve center (kidding).

Little Dix, now owned and operated by Rosewood Hotels (owners of such prestige properties as the Bel-Air in L.A., the Carlyle in NY, the Lanesborough in London), was one of the original Rockresorts along with Mauna Kea and Kapalua Bay in Hawaii and Caneel Bay in the Caribbean. At one time…especially back in the 70s…it was a go-to destination for the rich and famous. Not anymore. Like its former sisters, it is graced with a huge, gorgeous half-moon beach and lovely grounds. But the hotel’s physical assets are a mess. Rooms are old and cheap-looking. The spa and physical fitness and sports facilities are second-rate. The restaurants are uninspired (and empty). In short, the place is worn out.

On to The Baths. The Baths, you ask? I’d never heard of them either, but there were 200 people (including 40 Spiriteers) in line to see the place when I arrived. The Baths are a collection of, I’m guessing, about 100 enormous boulders that have been eaten away by wind and water and now sit as hulking pitted sentries a few feet offshore. They supposedly trap water in some unique way and then allow it to pour over the heads of the people underneath. It requires a walk of 500 or so steps down a steep hill to get there, where you see something that’s okay at best. At the bottom you are also given the option of going through a rock tunnel—crawling at times—and walking through treehouses to see beautiful Devil’s Bay. That one will have to exist as beautiful in my imagination. All in all, a waste of time.

My driver, Ivan, was eager to show me his native island, and since I had 45 minutes until the ferry back, I consented, riding with a forced smile as he drove me around a woeful town and a generally scraggly island. It was so sad I tipped him an extra $10.

On the Joe ratings, Virgin Gorda gets a lowly X. Rating withheld for Tortola since I never gave it a fair viewing. (As far as I know, they don’t have any luxury resorts here, so the issue might be moot.)

On the ferry ride back, the Nick Cage movie had re-reeled and I got to watch the next 45 minutes, but we landed with the good part still ahead. Back on Tortola I walked through Road Town meandering through a outdoor Caribbean barbecue and craft show in a public park, realizing as I strolled back to the Spirit that this would be the last time I would touch foreign soil on this trip. Next stop Ft. Lauderdale.

Returned to the ship for lunch at the Pool Grill, my favorite haunt these days. Limited menu of good burgers and delicious grilled dogs, plus pizza and salads and things they call “Tongue Twisters”. Among the latter is the Guacamole Tumbler, a martini glass filled with shredded lettuce, guacamole and crabmeat with lime mayo…mmmm, mmmm, mmmm. Today, being in an all-crab mood, I’m having the GT along with a Thai Crab Burger with Asian slaw and spicy dip.

They have another great restaurant-concept here called Hot Rocks, where you cook your own entrée (steak, veal chops, fish) on these hot rocks they provide at your outdoor table on a deck above the Pool Grill. Supposed to be fun, but (a) it’s not something that would be fun to do alone and (b) it’s booked for the entire cruise except the next tuxedo night, so I’ve been hoping to glom on with some other people who have reservations and who have an empty chair. No luck so far. When, as frequently happens, I subtly or not so subtly join people at their tables at cocktail hour, one of the first questions I ask is: been to Hot Rocks?, and the answer I inevitably get is, Yeah, we were there last night. Oh well, I’ll live. (Anyway, I’ve looked at the “raw materials” they provide and the N.Y. steaks are 100% marble-less, so maybe I’m not missing anything of note.)

Formal night, and I sit with John and Sandy from Linton in the north of England. John’s in the furniture business, which must be doing okay since I noticed that one of Sandy’s fingers is graced by a brand new Crown of Light diamond ring. (I know it’s not the 3.01 stone because I bought that one for Lynn, but this one’s right up there in the same league.) After dinner, he and I head off to the Casino. Amazing. Seven nights here and this is the first time I’ve placed a wager in the Casino. Passed by it once or twice, but never bothered to go in. About thirty slots, all or most of which sit unused. No craps table. Three blackjack tables, one roulette, and—saving grace—a Three Card Poker table. Which, of course, becomes my game of choice under the circumstances. My dealer, Olga, has a cold Russian demeanor, a look that as much as says she just as soon slit your throat as deal another hand of this stupid game. But deal she does. My luck ebbs back and forth, up and down, and I end up $60 in the red. I still have $140 of my $200 stake. They’re going to have to wait until tomorrow to get that.

Next: That’s the Spirit! Day 8

That’s the Spirit! Day 6

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 6: Thursday, November 18

Last night’s (Wednesday’s) dinner was “California Night” with Jim and wife Barbara from La Mirada, sister Barbara from San Diego, and “Mother” from Montecito. Last names unknown (around here nobody has last names). We start off with the usual chit-chat…is this your first time on Silversea? Are you a regular cruiser? What other cruise lines have you been on? To be honest, this meal ends up being a pretty boring situation, with the conversation ranging from spa hours to Euro/Dollar exchange rates to the weather, although I probably shouldn’t blame them since it’s hard to find new things to talk about after six days. Every five minutes Mother tells me I have to try Crystal. Yes, I’d like to. They have cruises out of Los Angeles. (She’s one of those old-line 3rd– or 4th generation Angelinos who, like former Mayor Sam Yorty, prefers the Anglicization of the city’s name and call it “Los Angle-ess”.) Yes, I think I knew that. You really should go. Yes, I hope I get the chance one day. They have cruises out of Los Angle-ess. Yes, Mother. I begin to wonder: is she an undercover gnat the front desk has sent to drive me crazy…payback for my complaining about the noise from the next-door veranda? Tough night. Nothing much going on so I go to the nightclub and listen to the blues/jazz singer for a half-hour, then tuck in early.

Today, Thursday, we’re in St. Maarten, and this is the day for the America’s Cup Regatta. (I checked the activities desk and it’s actually going to happen!) As noted in yesterday’s report, the monstrous Celebrity Solstice sits outside my veranda, from which I watch an anthill of Solstice’s 2,850 passengers file down their gangplank onto the pier. Looks like it might be a crowded day here in Philipsburg. Next to the Solstice sits the giant MSC Poesia, and word has it we may soon be joined by Royal Caribbean’s colossal Oasis of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship carrying FIVE THOUSAND passengers.

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Wow is all I can say. Just got back from a most thrilling experience: the activity billed as the America’s Cup Regatta. Here’s what they do. 28 passengers are divided into two groups and assigned to one of two boats, each of which competed in past America’s Cup races—the Stars & Stripes (which won it a few years back) and the Canada II (my boat)—to engage in a five-mile race. Among each boat’s crew were three professional sailors, several very experienced competition sailors in our company and some neophytes like me. All the elements were there for a terrific competition: a nice windy day, two sleek boats and two crack crews. I volunteered for an “active” crew role and served as one of the four Primary Grinders, whose job it was crank this apparatus that helps with the turns (I think). I mean, most of us have been out in sailboats, but I at least hadn’t ever seen anything like these boats—a pair of speed merchants with no frills and no fat designed to literally fly through the water.

At the risk of boring you with the details of the regatta (it’s sort of like recounting a golf game stroke by stroke, but I’m going to do it anyway), here’s how it went. A little warm-up and we were off to a running start, side by side with the Stars & Stripes. We’d be flying along a straightaway when the time would come to tack around a red flag, which was when the real work and the racing strategy really began. My fellow grinders and I—Main and Primary— and the team of mainsail trimmers would spring into action as the Canada II surged into a turn, the wind blasting us in the face, the keel leaning half-way over, the Skipper calling out “Rail in the water!”, which essentially means that you’re going really, really fast. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it—thirteen “teammates” and I pulling together in a frenetic effort in pursuit of the Stars & Stripes, which had jumped out to an early lead and held it doggedly for four miles. Finally, as we were preparing to tack around our final flag, the Skipper makes the decision to tack to starboard instead of port—an all or nothing gamble which meant were going to swing wide right and hope to catch a miraculous blast of wind. Precisely what happened. As the crews on both boats hurled catcalls at one another, the two crafts spun around the flag in opposite directions and flew toward the finish in a V formation, the S&S far to the left and C2 far to the right. Our Skipper surveyed the churning waters and smiled: “Better wind for us than for them!” The came a mile of tense racing, like two champion racehorses barreling head-to-head down the stretch, as the Canada II inched closer and closer, then even, then ahead, and crossed the finish, winning by maybe 30-50 meters. We all looked at one another. We just beat the America’s Cup winner! Morgan congratulated us heartily and told us it was traditional to gloat over a victory like this, also reminding us it was customary to tip the pros on board, returning us to reality.

So, there it was—an experience that in and of itself has gone a long way toward making this whole cruise memorable and worthwhile. Things like that always make me wonder why I didn’t try them earlier in life, when I could have allowed the thrill to grow into a passion. Oh well, I guess I’ll just take it as it comes.

Tonight (Thursday) I’m the guest of International hostesses Isabelita and Carla and Cruise Director Mike (one of my mates on the Canada II today) at dinner. Just the four of us. When I came back from breakfast this morning, out of the blue appeared a written invitation on the ship’s stationery. Not really sure why me (maybe they’re pumping me for my impressions of the Spirit), but I think it will be fun.

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It’s just after sunset and our neighbor, the Solstice, is blowing its air horns in preparation for its departure from St. Maarten. Camera flashes popping, passengers along the decks and verandas of both vessels are lined up to watch the spectacle of this massive creature being untied at the dock and then pushing off unassisted into the harbor and out to sea. You stare and wonder how it’s even possible to budge such a beast, how incredible the task was to build such a thing. Above the growl of its engines can be heard the shouts of crewmen going through their checklists. The lights from the Captain’s bridge on the 13th deck flash red and blue, giving it the appearance of a nightclub. A line of spotlights illuminates the waters, giving them a teal hue. The Solstice rumbles and pushes off sideways from shore, pauses, then begins its forward thrust. Quite a sight.

Now it’s the Spirit’s turn to rumble as she prepares to depart for Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

Next: That’s the Spirit! Day 7

That’s the Spirit! Day 5

Aboard the Silver Spirit, Day 5: Wednesday, November 17

Kenneth and the Australians sounds like a 60’s pop band that would have opened for Herman and the Hermits, but it’s actually the people I had dinner with Tuesday night. I happened to meet the eponymous Kenneth the first hour I was aboard ship last Saturday when we were both looking for an afternoon snack and arrived at the Pool Grill at the same time. Kenneth is probably mid-40’s, a nice looking guy with a haircut that slightly resembles a porcupine’s, and he’s got the engaging upbeat quality that makes Australians so engaging. He and his entourage– frequent Silversea’ers all– are coming off a trip to Cuba where they attended an international ballet festival. Last night he was kind enough to take mercy on me as I was sitting alone in the Observation Lounge and invited me to join them. I guess I may not have noticed in the past, but Australian accents become harder to understand the more you (or they) drink, so a good portion of the time I felt as though I were listening to Russians. Anyway, they were a nice group of charming people and we passed the evening pleasantly.

In a recent email, Alison comments that my missives don’t say a whole lot about activities. That’s because the Events people have cancelled my first two planned activities—Whale Watching on Day 2 and a “Fun ‘n Fast Boat” to circumnavigate the island on Day 4— not informing me of the cancellations until the morning of the planned event, and then the activities that still had room didn’t appeal. (I’ve got one to go, a sailing outing on the America’s Cup boat Regatta in St. Maarten.) So, I’ve had to improvise with self-designed tours of the destinations, mixed in with a nice amount of reading and a little pool time. All in all, not necessarily “active” enough for the peripatetic me, but okay.

Not that it’s all fun and games. I have rather grueling a Italian lesson each day from 4:00 to 4:30 with Professora Carla, a stickler on correct Italian pronunciation despite the fact that she’s Brazilian. Lesson One dealt with pronunciation (Roll those R’s! Let’s all pretend we’re sitting on our Harley Davidsons. Rrrrrrrmmm, rrrrrmmm, rrrrmmm!) and all the “must know” words and phrases (Hello.. goodbye…etc.), Lesson Two with concepts like big/small, open/closed, et al.. (I cut Lesson Three, but she gives us make-up lessons if we want.) Happy to report that, according to Carla, whom I saw at Bingo, in comparison to my lackluster classmates I’m nearly fluent.

And Alison asks if I’m having fun. Well, yeah, I am. Not raucous, side-splitting fun, because the people on the Spirit are a more homogenous group of well-heeled country club types whose lives don’t seem to be as full of the idiosyncracies and jaw-dropping quirks as the Solstice crowd. It’s a tamer, saner group. So, as noted above, this is a “pleasant” fun. My favorite time of day is morning as we coast into a new port, where the pleasure is the anticipation of a new place to explore and a new serving of corned beef hash (one of the best dishes on the ship) for breakfast. The experience has been very enjoyable, albeit maybe a tad lengthy. I don’t know if I’m cut out for anything longer than a seven-day cruise, as the repetitiveness and the sameness of the venues begins to get to me. But I’m doing fine.

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And then (today, Wednesday) came St, Bart’s, which ended up being one of my best days ever. Anytime. Anywhere.

For years and years and years I’ve heard about St. Bart’s. I’d heard about it from an old bon vivant college friend named Tim Bouscaren (a faux Frenchman who used to claim that his family spoke French around the house), who came here every year. And from our Sharon, CT pals Graham Klemm and Matt Lynn, who jetset the world and make it an annual stop. I must not have been paying close enough attention, because this place was never on my radar as a “must”. Big mistake.

This is a stunning place, a gorgeous place, a spectacular place…the prettiest island I’ve ever been to. Devoid of the junky shacks and tenements that scar so many Caribbean islands, it’s an almost Disneyesque version of what the perfect place should look like, sort of a Caribbean version of Maui, La Jolla, Cap Ferrat. Hundreds and hundreds of beautiful villas dot the tall hillsides that trundle down to a ring of perfect beaches.

People who know me make fun of my use of superlatives, especially in connection with recent discoveries, but I state here and now that St. Bart’s has to be ranked among the top five places in the world.

At this island we are required to anchor off shore—a real benefit since the distance “frames” the island– and use tenders to the mainland. Today I rented a car from Cool Auto Rental (they pick you up at a currency exchange in town and drive you to the parking lot of a KFC to pick up your car), which provided me with a tiny little Kia Picanto (French for “little hottie”?) with a Toro lawnmower engine, which I used to tour the island extensively and visit some of St. Bart’s renowned 5-star resorts, among them Guanahani, Le Toiny, Eden Roc, and the newest and my personal recommendation, the most spectacular hotel here—the Il de France. This is a gorgeous property set smack dab on a private beach and featuring fresh, bright and airy rooms and an overall ultra-luxury atmosphere. I also had time during my grand tour to make stops at two of the beautiful public beaches on the island; not usually a “beach guy,” I really enjoyed them. Adding to the adventure was the presence of hundreds of crazy French drivers racing along the rough, narrow roads at breakneck speeds, driving on sidewalks (saw it twice), and tailgaiting so brutally I had to pull over about two dozen times.

THE place to eat in St. Bart’s is Maya’s, famous for its creative seafood dishes (to put this into perspective, it happens to be P Diddy’s favorite restaurant in the Caribbean). Although Maya only works her magic at night., she does, however, operate an informal little picnicky roadside café called Maya’s To Go, misnamed because practically everyone eats right on the tables and wooden benches outside, where I had a delicious lunch consisting of lime-marinate shrimp skewer and a cold cucumber-with-pepper-with-octopus salad.. Perhaps more important, St. Bart’s is the exclusive home to the one-and-only JoJo Burger, where a cheeseburger comparable to a Wendy’s is priced at 12 Euros (about $15…ouch!)

A triple check mark for St. Bart’s, which will definitely become a return destination.

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SPECIAL POSTSCRIPT

As you may have discerned, I write these entries late afternoon at poolside, recapitulating the events of the night before and then continuing on with that day’s activities (in the interest of coherence, I don’t write anything after cocktail hour), then send it out to you the next morning. Editing, but not adding to the report.

But today (Day 6 now) merits a special early morning exception. I awoke early to watch us sail into port in Philipsburg, St. Maarten, only to look out my veranda door and discover that we are docked next to…you won’t believe this…THE SOLSTICE!!! I walk out onto the veranda and look over at my old friend, a veritable leviathan parked next to our relatively shark-size Spirit. Mirabile dictu, up on the top deck of the Solstice, I spot the Captain and crew waving at me and yelling, “Come back, Joe! We miss you!” I can only smile and call back to them: “Sorry, fellas, next time!”

Next: That’s the Spirit! Day 6

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