Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Trip - Cruise Day 4 - St Maarten

My friend's whole family had signed up to spend the day at a beach resort in St. Maarten, and I thought that sounded like a nice change from city tours. But my mom, who actually has that condition Michael Jackson claims is turning him white (where you lose all the pigmentation in your skin), can't spend that much time in the sun. So she decided to stay on board the ship for a lazy day to herself, and I joined my friends on the beach.

They put us in passenger vans and drove us out to the Divi Little Bay Resort (seen here) to the beach on the far side of the peninsula.

On the way from the resort entrance to our stretch of the beach, we passed one of the resident parrots, who showed dreadful manners by biting at his toes at the table.

Our resort helpers were Noël (the man), Dondra (another woman not pictured), and this woman whose name I can't remember. I asked Noël if we were on the Dutch part of the island, and he corrected me that we were on the "Dutch side, not the Dutch part." My mistake. (I still don't get it.) He also told us about the ruins of Fort Amsterdam, which was "a five-minute walk" up the hill. My friend, her daughter (FD) and I decided to hike up there and see what was left.

It took longer than five minutes, but it was a nice hike. We found grass and ruins, though I don't think this house was part of the original fort.

The fort was well-placed on the highest piece of ground in the area. Here's the view from atop a cannon, looking out to sea.

From the bay side of the hill, the view down showed us some good snorkeling waters, so we walked back down to the resort and rented some snorkeling gear.

My friend was hesitant to snorkel, because she's not a strong swimmer. Or floater. But her daughter and I encouraged her, and armed with a life jacket and flotation belt, she overcame her fear and came to love snorkeling.

On the way to the snorkel-gear rental booth, I spotted this brain coral and snapped its picture. It's a good thing I did, because even though my little camera was safe and snug inside a borrowed waterproof camera-pouch, I had trouble with it while we snorkeled.

The one time we saw a couple brain corals attached to a rock, by the time I got my camera ready, I had drifted on the tide and couldn't see them anymore. And somewhere along the way, I must have bumped the settings button on my camera the wrong way, because it started taking pictures on a 2-second delay, which I didn't notice for a while. And then there was the fact that my camera didn't seem to understand it was under water, so it didn't compensate very well for the murky wetness around it. This was my best underwater photo, of some scary-looking sea urchins with 4-inch spines.

And this is looking back toward the resort from the water. I think we got even farther out than this before we returned to the beach.

You can see all the blue beach umbrellas on the right half of the beach. Those were not ours. That part of the beach was for the guests of the resort. Our group was off just to the left of the picture, where we could rent a beach umbrella if we really needed one. It felt like a serious case of the Haves and the Have Nots (though I must admit that the Haves forked over some serious money for the privilege of lying on the umbrella side of the beach).

We swam back, just using our flippers, but my friend was intimidated by the distance we had to cover. FD started singing Dory's song from Finding Nemo: "Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming..." Really, what other option did we have? But the flippers made it easy, and we got back without incident just in time to catch the last bit of what was left of lunch and to use our two drink tickets at the bar.

I got a Rum Punch to try and a bottle of water. My first sip of the punch tasted pretty nasty (must have been the rum), so I tried another sip just in case I was mistaken about it. I wasn't. That's when I switched to my water. And then it was time to go back to the ship.

This picture of the pier is pretty typical of our three ports. People set up booths as close as they can get to the ships, selling souvenirs, jewelry, and the local specialty hard drinks, all the while promising that you can't get it for less downtown. Since I don't shop, I can't prove or disprove their pricing claims.

Tonight was our second formal-dress night of the cruise. FD, who has a portrait photography business, found a nice spot where there wasn't already a ship's photographer and took a bunch of picures. This is the one that everyone else but me liked the best (I'm not so crazy about how squinty my eyes get), because they said that smile is how I normally look. So here you have it: The real me (except for the top, which is more daring than normal) (and except for the sunburn, which is even more rare).

Roman, our cabin steward, used my mom's sunglasses for tonight's towel folding. I'm not sure what it's supposed to be. I called it Groucho Marx.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Trip - Cruise Day 3 - US Virgin Islands

Today we were up bright and early for our excursions in the US Virgin Islands. The ship pulled into port in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, right on time. They like their pirate ships around here.

My mom and FM signed up for a handicapped-accessible tour of St. Thomas, and my friend and I were signed up for the Best of St. Thomas tour, but she and her mom stayed up late last night partying, so they cancelled their morning tours. My mom and I split up for our tours.

This was my tour guide and driver, Campbell. He explained a few things right at the start, especially that they drive on the left, because England once owned the islands, and when America got them, nobody bothered to switch. But if we liked, he could single-handedly change to driving on the right for us. We said no, stay on the left.

He did. And he used another technique common to the islands because of their steepness. He honked the horn at every blind turn, and they were all over the place. The road makes hairpin turns that climb up the side of the mountain at the same time. We kept our mouths shut about it and made sure we didn't fall out of the open-air bus.

Partway up the hill we stopped to look around and got a view back over the Caribbean side of St. Thomas and the harbor, where our ship patiently waited for us.

At this stop a man played the steel drum for us, and a scruffy-looking man had his scruffier-looking donkey dressed in a dreadfully tacky outfit, hoping we would pay him to let us pose for a picture with the poor beast. We didn't.

Instead, I posed with the island, and Campbell took my picture.

Campbell said that the US Virgin Islands are made up of 43 islands, only 5 of which are inhabited. The most populated are St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John. St. Croix has most of the industry, and St. John doesn't even have an airport, so access there is by ferry boat.

Our next stop was overlooking Magens Bay on the Atlantic side of the island.

Campbell said that the water was churned up some, and that made the National Park Service cancel the beach tours over on St. John. We were signed up for an afternoon island (not beach) tour on St. John, so we weren't cancelled.

I got to talking with three ladies on our bus, and they said they're from Indiana, and when I pressed for specifics, they said Muncie. I told them a good friend of mine is from there, well actually, Yorktown. Then they really perked up, because that's where they live. It turns out that not only do they know my friend's parents, but her mom does their taxes. What a small world!

On our way back down the mountain, Campbell told us about home construction. They have to bring in heavy equipment to flatten the owner's piece of hillside enough to fit a house on it. Then the next order of business is to build a cistern, about 20,000 gallons, to hold rainwater. There isn't fresh water on the islands, so they have to catch the water when it rains. When they have a dry year, they either have to get some from the desalinization plant (which burns oil or coal) or they have to import it. The old wives' tale is that if they get a lot of rain over the first twelve days of the year, then the year will give them enough rain. This year, they had more than enough by the 12th of January, so they should be good to go.

Campbell got us back to the pier in time to reboard the ship, grab a sandwich from the coffee shop in the mall (The Royal Promenade), and get back out to the pier for our St. John tour. We caught the Island Girl ferry and settled in a shaded seat to watch the islands go by. This bird, a booby of some sort but not the blue-footed sort, stayed with the ferry most of the way to St. John.

We passed the part-time homes of the rich and famous: Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson (his house is pale purple), Alan Alda, and Madonna (who has cheap plastic patio furniture on her beach). Plus we passed Kevin Costner's place. He orignially had it as a vacation home, but it was destroyed by Hurricane Marilyn, so he rebuilt it as a resort you can stay at for only $10,000 a night. Such a bargain.

At St. John, our driver/tour guide was Chris, a more imposing figure than Campbell. He also explained about the driving on the left side of the road and told us to leave it to him to keep us safe. Then he gave us his expectations of what we were to say:

CHRIS: What time is it?

US: Time to go.

CHRIS: Where are we going?

US: Forward!

We went forward. And upward. And looked down over the harbor.

And down at the beaches.

And when we got down to beach level, we looked across at the beach.

Chris told us that St. John has to import everything, even water when there's not enough rain (the desalinization plant is on St. Thomas). And they export only one thing: garbage, which they ship to a landfill on St. Thomas. So house prices for a cheap dump down in town start at around $500,000. No bargains on St. John, but it sure is pretty.

The booby was back with us on our ferry ride over to St. Thomas, and the wind whipped our hair into a frenzy. It was a great day.

Tonight we got an elephant. He didn't even break the bed he was sitting on.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Trip - Cruise Day 2 - Puerto Rico

We weren't scheduled to dock in San Juan until 3:00pm on our second day, so that gave us the whole morning for hanging out on the ship. I took a lot of pictures of the water. The wind was stiff, and it showed in the ocean's surface. This one is toward the sun.

This one is away from the sun.

On the Sports Deck I found The Wall, seen here being conquered masterfully by this young woman.

Finally, I went hunting for the Fitness Center and found it on Deck 14. The treadmills look out beyond the bow of the ship.

I put my camera back in my room, changed, and went back to the Fitness Center for one of those treadmills. I was expecting to look out over the ocean, but the little TV screen took up the center of my view, and there was no way to fold it down. Sometimes I leaned to the right or the left to see the water better, but each time I did, I started to fall over, so I had to give up on the idea of getting more than a peripheral view of the water.

We sailed into port at San Juan, Puerto Rico, just before 3:00, past this old Spanish fort that reminded my mom and me of the Castillo in St. Augustine.

When we got the all-clear announcement, we left the ship to the organized chaos on the pier. My friend and I were on the Walking Tour, and my mom and my friend's mom (FM) were taking a bus tour of Old and New San Juan, so we went our separate ways, finding the person holding the sign with our tour name on it.

Our tour guide was Carlos, who loaded us on a bus and explained that we'd be riding to the top of the hill where the fort sits, and then we'd walk our way two miles downhill toward the pier. It sounded like a good plan to us.

At the fort, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Carlos started the history lesson.

Christopher Columbus discovered Puerto Rico on his second voyage, in 1493, and named it San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) as a way of currying favor with King Ferdinand (the King's son was named Juan). But the name was changed over time, and now only the city retains the name.

After some more information about Puerto Rico and the fort, Carlos gave us some time to explore the fort on our own. The interior walls are painted...

... and the exterior is left to the elements.

I climbed up to the highest level and looked down as the sun was dropping closer to the horizon.

Carlos gathered us back together again, and we set off away from the fort near sunset.

The wind got even stronger, whipping our hair as well as the palm fronds.

Carlos took us to a building that was originally the barracks for the Spanish, but was turned into a US Naval Hospital and kept in use as recently as World War II. He told us that on a few of his previous tours, people told him they were born here, and a couple of them said they had worked here when it was a hospital. It's now a museum.

By the time we finished at the hospital, it was dark and the picture-taking got difficult. As we walked down the cobbled streets of Old San Juan, a frantic fluttering caught my eye, and I stopped to investigate. This is what I found.

I thought the dove was stuck in the wire mesh, but right after I got this photo, the dove flew down to the windowsill opposite the cat, who kept staring at the bird without attacking.

My friend did a little shopping after the tour ended (she actually has the shopping gene that I seem to be missing), and I went with her. My feet felt as though they'd been pounded relentlessly for weeks, and I couldn't get back on the ship soon enough.

We managed to get back in time for dinner, which was a delectable pork chop with cranberries and a potato-cheese bake. Dessert was chocolate mousse, and I ate it without taking its picture.

We didn't stay up late, because tomorrow we dock in St. Thomas at 8:00 in the morning. There was a scorpion in our room to greet us at bedtime.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Trip - Cruise Sea Day 1

It takes a long time for a cruise ship, even one as big as ours (currently the biggest cruise ship in the world), to get to the Eastern Caribbean, so our first full day of cruising was a Sea Day. We walked the corridors to the Aft elevators, just to the left of the teal carpet.

It didn't take long to recognize the artwork that told us we were getting close to our cabins. The mosaic of paintings of different breeds of dogs in the glass case on the left. The photo of a cow sticking out her tongue. The Black & White photo of the toad looking in a mirror, and we were just about there.

Deck 11 was one of the decks that made it easy to get from Forward to Aft. It's the deck with all the pools and half of the deck chairs. The sides are protected by glass, which cuts a lot of the wind that blows unchecked across the sea.

As you work your way Forward on Deck 11, the first set of pools is for the kids. Brightly colored sculptures pose amid fountains and sprays and splashes and waterfalls.

Beyond these are more sedate yet family-friendly pools, and the adult-only pools are the farthest forward. The atmosphere around the adult pools reminds me of snooty society people who sniff and turn away from the unsightliness of children. But that could simply be my imagination. Mostly, the people just lounged in chairs silently reading books.

Near the pools are places to buy drinks to refresh yourself as you toast in the sun. The only drinks included in the cruise price are the non-alcoholic, non-carbonated drinks served at meals. You pay a bundle for all the other drinks. Like these:

I just kept refilling my water bottle from the sink in my room. (Note: The ship is equipped with desalinization equipment to supply the thousands of gallons of fresh water needed on board every day.)

One of the cool features on the Freedom is the set of matching hot tubs that extend twelve feet beyond the sides of the ship (one port, one starboard), suspending soakers way above the sea. They're very popular.

The Fitness Center is behind the reflective windows, up on Deck 14.

The ocean never ceased to change. This was one of the calm moments when no whitecaps dotted the surface. But the lowering of the sun in the sky signaled the coming of our first formal-dress dinner, so we had to go below and get ready.

Our dining room extended up three decks, though each deck had a separate name, so diners knew which deck they ate on. We were on Deck 3 (Leonardo's), the lowest deck of the dining room.

Our Waiter and the Head Waiter are from the Philippines, and our Assistant Waiter (a real sweetheart) is from Jamaica. They treated us like their favorite people in the world, letting us have two appetizers when we couldn't decide between them. My friend, who has fallen in love with cruising, was just on a week-long cruise to Mexico about six weeks ago, and she said the menu looks identical to the one from her Mexico cruise. She said that every night they'll have a cold fruit soup, and all of them are wonderful.

The strolling photographer came by and took a picture that both my mom and I liked well enough. The one she took of me the night before was horrible. I looked half-asleep (or drugged) and angry, and everyone in our group agreed that the picture should be destroyed. Not so with this one.

Photo credit: Royal Caribbean photographer

After dinner, when we returned to our rooms, we found our first folded-towel animal. A swan.

We're really cruising now!