Cruises: love them, hate them. They're certainly perfect for those "intersection of the life stories of ten people" movies. Our good friend and budding travel agent Malcolm arranged for us to join him and some of his college buddies on a cruise through the Western Caribbean. Crystal and I are not huge cruise people, but we love traveling with Pam and Malcolm and the decision to join in was made after a few glasses of wine, so there you go. Plus, the itinerary included diving at Grand Cayman--a bucket list-worthy activity. So, in early April we found ourselves meeting up with our BFF's for the week at the San Jose Airport, as we headed to Houston and then Galveston to start the cruise. What follows are my notes, for your enjoyment and amusement.
The cast of characters:
- Connie and Bob, from Malcolm's Cal Poly San Luis Obispo days
- Greg and Leona, also from Malcolm's Cal Poly days
- Pam and Malcolm, our partners in crime
- Crystal and Dan, your humble narrators
Day One: San Jose/Houston/Galveston
Our plane to Houston is two hours late taking off, since the crew hasn't shown up. It has to with United/Continental flying different planes and not being able to swap crews. Malcolm's head is going to explode. Connie tells the gate agent: "You WILL be taking care of this… either get us there on time or fly us to Jamaica and put us up in a hotel until the ship arrives." Malcolm happens to be approaching, with all papers at the ready. Connie sends him away. Perfect good cop/bad cop routine.
Houston. Magically, our bags are the first off the plane. Our driver gets us to Galveston with minutes to spare. He is a Texas gentleman all the way, but pushes the limits of what Texas State Troopers will allow with respect to speed.
The nice thing about arriving so late: no lines at check-in. Could this be the new trend?
My first thought on arrival in Galveston: the smell of hydrocarbons. It takes me back to high school and visiting an oil refinery as part of our Chemistry class. I'm pretty sure breathing this stuff isn't healthy.
On board the cruise ship. First up: mandatory safety drill. Due to intercom problems, it sounds like a Peanuts cartoon: "wah wah wah.. Wah wah, wah wah wah wah. I get the essentials about how to put on the life jacket. I'm looking around for Rose and Jack.
On to our room, then to the Two Poets bar to meet up with our other traveling companions, Greg and Leona. Despite having purchased the cruise line's all-you-can-drink pass, I stop at two Manhattans. A man's got to know his limits. Our traveling companions carry on, until our dinner at 9. I'm definitely not going to be able to keep up with these people. A tough thing for an Irishman to admit.
Dinner at the resident steak house. Lots of fantastic wine. Stuck my finger on the wrong Italian wine description when ordering wine, cost me an extra $40. You only live once--if you're lucky.
Great dinner, much conviviality. But eating meat late at night--not such a good idea. In to bed for a full nine hours of sleep. Considering I never went to bed before we left for the cruise, I'm improving my average quickly.
Day Two: At Sea
Coffee on the mini-deck, watching the ocean go by. No worries here.
Into the gym for some self-imposed penance. That felt good. FitBit was happy. Plus, now it's lunch time. Out on the pool deck (in the shade, let's be sensible) and on to sample the drink of the day. It's got blue Curacao in it, and you know what I think about what blue in nature means--pain.
Don't tell anyone… but it turns out they do have Wi-Fi on the ship (at exorbitant rates, of course). I'm going to pretend I didn't know that.
Day 3: At Sea
Best sighting of the day: a T-shirt reading "Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles." This addresses a favorite pet peeve of mine regarding that other baseball team based in Southern California.
As this is our second day at sea, today definitely qualifies as an "OMG, I wish I didn't get sunburned yesterday!" kind of day.
Day 4: Falmouth, Jamaica
Finally, land! I can't wait to get off the ship. Malcolm has arranged for a tour of the Appleton Estate rum distillery. Since it's in the interior of the island and we have limited time, he has arranged for a driver and tour guide. This leads to an immediate immersion in the language and culture of Jamaica. For instance, our tour guide says "ting" instead of "thing", "hear" instead of "year" and "Otre Rios" instead of "Ocho Rios."
Our first stop, by the side of the highway, is to point out the high school where Usain Bolt graduated. Our tour guide is clearly proud of what Bolt has done for the country. She points out that he purchased a school bus for the high school. I marvel at the fact that the track is just dirt covered with a little bit of grass. No wonder these guys are fast, if these are the training conditions!
We're on a two-lane road up and over the mountain to a high mountain valley where the Appleton distillery is located. With one lane each way, Orville, our drivers, is doing a lot of passing and then jamming back into our lane to avoid head-on collisions. I did not realize a thrill ride was included in the tour! Could this be the origin of the reggae song, "we be jammin'?"
Going through the countryside, we see lots of small shacks, with wood or cinder block construction. Other houses are simply shipping containers with cutouts for windows and doors. It seems like every town has its bar and jerk take out place. At the distillery we learn that Appleton makes an over-proof rum, called Jamaica's Best. Most of it never leaves the island, and given all the bars advertising it along the way, I can see why that would be the case.
Back in the van, as we have to hoof it to our next stop for my request: jerk barbeque. After asking several Jamaicans for a recommendation, we settle on the most popular choice--Scotchies. This is exactly what I was looking for in a jerk place. It's flimsy, made from concrete blocks, corrugated metal and palm fronds. It's sooty from all the barbeque, with great aromas. There are guys cooking chicken and pork on top of pimiento logs placed over the wood coals, with pieces of corrugated tin roof used to hold the smoke in. The food is fantastic--jerk chicken with a side of grilled breadfruit. And the heat means that the Red Stripe beer goes down easily.
We learned at the Appleton estate that the Pimiento tree provides the berries that we call allspice, which provides jerk's unique flavor. Our tour guide says they crush the berries and use them for jerk seasoning, and use the leaves to flavor other dishes, including something called bammy.
After getting our jerk, we head over to a gift shop that is primed for our arrival. We're whisked away by sales clerks offering us all sorts of stuff. Most of our group opt for the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. I go for the package of jerk spice. Greg, waiting outside the shop, is offered ganga by one of the locals. Greg gives him his, "you do realize I used to be a prison guard, yes?" look and respectfully declines the offer.
Day 5: George Town, Grand Cayman
Crystal can't dive today, due to a sinus blockage; that's a shame. So she's off with some of our group to go see sting rays and dolphins. That turned out to be super fun. Our dive group is walking around George Town, killing time before our dive boat leaves. There are lots of backyard chickens. Since George Town is a cruise ship port of call, we start noticing that it seems like every port has a Margaritaville, KFC, Burger King and Domino's Pizza. And there is always lots of shopping for jewelry and cheap T-shirts.
Our first dive is a wall dive, across from the Great House. The water is beautiful and clear, with at least 60-80 feet visibility. I'm a little more "buoyant" (ahem) than I used to be and have some trouble getting down to the bottom. We're at 80 feet, and the wall drops off to… nothing. We learn that it's 3,500 feet to the bottom. Between my struggles getting down and swimming against a strong current, I'm using air like crazy. In no time at all I'm back on the anchor line of the dive boat, slowly ascending. Even so, I saw lots of beautiful corals and sponges, in all kinds of colors. I also saw a turtle munching on something.
Our second dive is on the wreck of the Oro Verde. There are many stories about how the ship met its demise. I like the story of the captain who tried to smuggle marijuana along with the bananas and got tossed overboard when he wouldn't share with the crew. The dive book says something else entirely--that the ship was sunk on purpose--but where's the fun in that story?
Either way the ship is all broken up, scattered across the sea floor. There are a couple of bikes down there for good measure, which many of the divers attempt to ride. We see more wildlife on this dive: lobster, a nurse shark, an arrowhead crab, and lots of corals and sponges. I do a much better job managing my air consumption.
Day 6: Cozumel, Mexico
Today's agenda includes a trip to the Tulum archeological site and Mayan ruins. Tulum is actually located in Playa del Carmen, about 20 miles south of Cozumel. But there's a reef that runs along Playa del Carmen that protects the coastline from hurricanes. So we have to dock in Cozumel and take a tender (think big, smelly water taxi) down the coast, then disembark and take a bus to Tulum.
We heard the story of one city that carved a break in the reef to allow cruise ships to enter and dock. The city was later wiped out by Hurricane Gilbert. That will teach you to mess with Mother Nature!
Armando and Julian are our tour guides. They're both Mayan, and clearly proud of their heritage. They claim that Mayans are probably descended from the Chinese, owing to similar body types. The physical anthropologist in me objects. It's also clear they're still ticked off at the Spanish for that whole Conquistador thing. Armando and Julian tell us that the temple is aligned to capture sunlight from the summer solstice. The engineering is pretty amazing.
There are iguanas all over the grounds--lots of iguanas. Armando says they're "like backyard chickens." I am not pleased.
In suggesting explanations for the disappearance of the Mayan civilization, our tour guides point to poor resource management. They say there were more than 5,000 cities, and it took 20,000 trees to build each temple and city. The Mayans stripped the land of its resources and died out as a consequence. Another morality tale!
Despite being on the Gulf coast, it's very hot when the wind stops blowing. Cold beer never tasted so good.
We're back on the tender for the trip to Cozumel. They're selling blankets and other trinkets. Talk about a captive audience!
Day 7: At Sea
I fall asleep on our stateroom couch last night. I guess I just like sleeping on couches. I slept in--until 8:30 AM. After that, I put in a nice long workout in the gym. Those Margaritas won't go away by themselves.
Later that evening, it's NCAA Final Four time! Both games were very exciting. It was fun to be in the bar with the Florida Gator fans, who were whooping it up early on, but ended up skulking away once their team fell behind to UConn.
We had a great dinner at Sabor, an upscale Mexican restaurant on board. There were very arts-fartsy margaritas (that were nonetheless very good) as well as guacamole made table-side.
Day 8: Galveston
Hurry up and wait is the order of the day. Our bags were packed and left outside the door the night before. Now it's up for one more breakfast on the ship. We have to come to grips with the fact that tomorrow we'll be clearing our own dishes and making up our bed--and not every day.
After breakfast it's down to the assembly areas to wait for our turn to disembark. Things drag a bit owing to the time needed to get through customs and immigration.
Off the ship and back in Houston, we drop Greg and Leona off and have some time to kill. We decide to go to the Johnston Space Center. It was a very cool experience, especially if 1) you're a technology geek and 2) you lived through the era. Seeing the Saturn V rocket up close (Connie estimated it at 510 feet long) as well as some of the capsules really brought the times to life. The Mercury capsule looked a lot like a garbage can mounted on top of a rocket. And as Malcolm said, just remember you're strapped to a rocket provided by the lowest bidder.
Next we're off to the airport for a reasonably relaxed time through baggage check and ticketing. One or two more beers and we're on our way back home. It will be nice to get back home and the 542 messages I no doubt have waiting for me.
Would We Do It Again?
Our travel style is a little more toward the hang-with-the-locals approach, and we generally would rather stay longer in one place than see several places for just a few hours at a time. That said, we couldn't beat the company on this cruise, and have made some new friends that we're already meeting with on other adventures. So while we generally opt for other vacation formats than "cruising," it certainly works if you go with the right people.
- Flotsam and Jetsam--where'd that term come from?
- A boat is still a boat. I don't care how big the cruise ship is, when it's in the ocean it feels like a boat.
- It's interesting to see how people get all competitive at the start of a cruise. Parents are rushing to get in line for towels, deck chairs, a spot by the window… Fortunately, after a bit people start to relax and realize there's enough of everything to go around.
- Stairs are a life saver for staying in shape on the ship. Walk up and down several flights of stairs each day and you'll get a workout without noticing.
- The "port of call" culture is interesting. It seems like every stop featured the same chain restaurants, along with a jewelry store, maybe an art store and some place where you can buy an "I'm With Stupid" T-shirt.
- With all the bad press about people getting Norovirus on cruises, it was interesting to see what the cruise line had done. Purel hand sanitizer stands were everywhere, and you were encouraged to clean your hands before and after every meal.
Been on a cruise lately? Let me know what you think!