With eight inches of snow on the ground, we boarded a plane to paradise island. Islands, actually. This second cruise would take Melissa and I to four exotic locations in the Southern Caribbean: Aruba, Curacaõ, St. Maarten, and St. Thomas/St. John. It was even more spectacular than our first visit. The ship was larger, the weather was better, and our table mates spoke English! It would not have been difficult to remain marooned anywhere down there. With the possible exception of Curacaõ!
But when we boarded the charter flight on Miami Air International (MAI) at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport the early morning of December 13, 1997, it appeared other than the dream we anticipated. Disorganization ruled as we sat for what seemed an interminable amount of time waiting for the aircraft to depart. Once airborne however, the crew modeled good spirits helping to relieve some tension. We were fortunate that someone had decided that there was enough fuel to make the trip non-stop rather than land in Charleston, NC spending even more time to refuel. Wasting more precious vacation time would not sit well with any of the passengers. The time in the air seemed to pass rapidly and after about 4 hours or so we stepped into the air conditioned San Juan airport just as we had one year ago.
Once on the ground and in the hands of the Royal Caribbean International staff, things actually went quite smoothly. Not however, for our luggage which received very rough handling as evidenced by a missing support leg, bent frames, and missing pieces of plastic. On our return trip we witnessed local transport workers giving luggage the old "heave ho" and are sure that RCI wasn't to blame for our damage except to have hired such bazookas. By 2:30 PM or so on a deliriously gorgeous afternoon we were at the docks, in line for processing to board the Rhapsody of the Seas, the third largest cruise ship operational at that time. At 75,000 tons it will have been eclipsed only in about a year by other ships on order with RCI that will boast up to 150,000 tons! Unfathomable! It was an inspiring site to see her berthed beside a gleaming brand new terminal. After a short and well-organized registration, we walked the gangplank amidst passengers taking pictures of passengers boarding the vessel. With brilliantly sunny skies, temperatures in the mid 80s, it was a spectacular occasion. By 3:30 PM we were guided to our stateroom and we made ourselves very much at home. First we had to walk out onto our veranda, 7 stories above the water, well above the roof of the terminal, with a beautiful Old San Juan fortress clearly seen just inland and up the hill; it seemed like a dream. Can it get any better than this, we wondered? Not by much, as it remained spectacular throughout the entire trip.
Since it was only mid afternoon, we had plenty of time to explore the huge craft, and after changing from mid-winter garb to an appropriate "islands" costume (T-shirt and shorts), we wandered around from deck to deck, lounge to lounge, pool to pool, as if in a movie. And after expending a sufficient amount of energy we decided to don our swim suits and enjoy the pool, and the warm sunshine. It wasn't long before we were on "island time" -- relaxation ruled!
We were assigned (by request) the second seating for dinner, 8:30 p.m., and the first night being "open seating," we were ushered to a table and seated next to two older Puerto Rican women who were sisters. They could speak a modicum of English as they had American husbands (deceased) and had lived in the U.S. for some years. As widows they enjoyed a cruise every few months it seemed, and they regaled us with their stories. It was amusing and delightful entertainment, if not some work deciphering the dialect. When we dined the next night at our assigned table (122) we found ourselves in the company of genuine English speaking Americans. The Swanson family from Virginia, not of frozen TV-dinner fame, consisting of parents and two lively and lovely college age daughters. We had little trouble communicating with these table mates, as in fact we would find ourselves encountering each other accidentally or on purpose on several of the up coming island excursions. Who was following whom?
The ship was a gorgeous vessel, not a year old, and looking very regal. Soft aqua and coral tones in wood, leather, fabrics, and marble were everywhere. It is astounding to experience the construction of courtyards, ballrooms, theaters, pools, and the Centrum with all its marble and art and glitter, and wonder that the vessel really floats. And in spite of 75,000 tons it did float. The seas were by no means rough, only the minimum 1 to 4 meters. This gave the ship a very easy roll, gentle enough to rock you to sleep at night, but not enough to be distracting. It was a motion very easy to get used to and very difficult to do without when we left. The artwork on the ship gave us the sense of living in a museum. There were paintings of every medium, and blown glass, fabric art, drawings, sculptures; it lent an exquisitely elegant air to the experience.
There were plenty of things to do on board if one wanted to keep busy and I won't detail them. We were not of that busy mind, as relaxing at the pool during daylight hours was as taxing as we cared to get. The ship's staff even kept that area occupied with games for all who dared participate. Surprising myself, even I joined in one of the organized games, pitting a team of men against women to see which team could arrange themselves in an ordered line to "spell" a 6 figured number by holding the placard overhead. I was given the number 4, and found it amusing trying to weave in and out of our group to get in the right order. The spectators were judges and we men found ourselves more fleet of foot than the women on more occasions than they, and we claimed our prize of a Royal Caribbean Beach towel. Woo hoo! Very useful at 4 feet by 1 foot! More of a banner than a towel, really. It was the thrill of victory though, and the spirit of teamwork that was the real reward (guffaw!). I retired to give the rest of the passengers opportunity to participate in these entertainments, not wanting to hog the show. I only wish Melissa, who had been laying on the deck chair beside me when my spur of the moment decision flared up could have arisen and caught my act on video tape. I probably should have nudged her as I left for the scene. But I am getting slightly ahead of myself.
After leaving the port of San Juan that initial Saturday nigh we made our way west along the north shore of the island. At 11:30 p.m. standing on our private balcony I was treated to the exceptional sight of the Geminid meteor shower which was at peak that night. The full moon was high enough in the sky as to be hidden behind some structure of the ship overhead. Seated comfortable in a chair I had an unobstructed view of the whole dark cloudless southern sky with Orion center stage, poised, arrow drawn, as if commanding and commandeering the rest of the constellations. In the 45 minutes I kept watch, approximately 8 nice sized meteors flamed out brilliantly across the inky blackness, as if to put fiery exclamation points on our first magnificent day. What a dream.
The first day after leaving port was spent at sea, as we steamed almost due south toward the tiny island of Aruba. In the middle of enchantingly blue seas, stunningly blue skies the horizon of which was occasionally dotted with tiny island clouds, we settled into the life we were born to lead, but not to live. Away from all cares, concerns, phones, and demanding customers, cranky bosses, we surprised ourselves at how easy we let it all drop away. Surely Heaven must be a place such as this: plenty to do but released from worry and care. Swim, rest, eat, play. Not a bad way to occupy one's time. No pressing engagements save the dinner bell. We had 2 of these days-at-sea: Monday and also Thursday, after we left Curacaõ. It turned out I would need that second day as I came down Wednesday evening with a 24 hour stomach flue. Got sick as a dog just before dinner. After Melissa talked me out of attempting to get to the Dining Room, I went to bed. After a troubled night I did get up for a light breakfast the next morning. I kept fairly immobile that day as we sailed northeast to St. Maarten. Thankfully it turned out to be just a one-day bug, and I was fine for the rest of the trip.
Our excursions on the islands were mainly used for snorkeling. On Aruba we took a catamaran to one of the beaches on the northwest shore and anchored 30 yards off shore. In spite of snorkeling in what can be described as rush-hour style, almost shoulder to shoulder, still there were immense schools of fish trying to ignore us all. After a while in the water, and moving away from the madding crowd, a peaceful time of fish gazing was available. Fabulous colors and markings, enjoyed in about 12 to 15 feet of water. It was not a dull time. After about an hour we boarded the cat and headed back to the ship, in time to take a shower and head into town, Oranjestad, to enjoy the high temperatures and humidity. Melissa finally had enjoyed as much as she could safely handle, and escaped back to the ship to leave me to hunt for Christmas gifts on my own. Accomplishing that task and taking the requisite amount of video, I made my way back to a more moderate clime, the outdoor air being cooler 10 stories above street level as one stands on the ship's Sun Deck.
Curacaõ was our next stop the following morning, the 16th of December, and we pulled up to the dock near 7:30 am. The capital city of Willemstad proved more a disappointment than any port we yet encountered. It was the one-day we didn't arrange an excursion, planning on just walking around town site-seeing and shopping. Surprisingly, the port is a major refinery and shipping point. The docking site was smelly, oily, foul and dirty. We found it much more enjoyable to return to the ship than remain in town. But not before Melissa again abandoned me and I walked around for more video shooting and T-shirt buying. There were some few individuals who reported enjoying the excursions offered, but the overwhelming consensus was that another port should be substituted for that of Curacaõ. We left the harbor around 6 o'clock that night relieved to leave the oil-slicked docks. St. Maarten here we come.
The following day at sea found me recuperating from the temporary aforementioned bug. This allowed me the excuse to do nothing but lay around on deck all day as if one needed an excuse. We were entertained for a while by "pool games" like a men's Belly Flop contest (the more painful, the higher the score), and a women's Fill Your Bathing Suit With Floating Fruit. In this particular game , which was the hands-down most entertaining, each type of fruit was assigned points and the most "points" pulled out of the swim suit defined the winner. The contestants and fruit were combined in the pool and a scramble ensued to be the one who could, with as much dignity as each could bear, escape the pool laden with oranges, melons, pineapple, bananas, etc. Each was tabulated as contestants pulled them from their one-piece suits. The spectators witnessed the display with great amusement and incredulity. I managed to capture excerpts of this innocent amusement on tape for the benefit of the skeptical.
We arrived at St. Maarten early Thursday morning, at Philipsburg, the Dutch side capital. We selected a Beach Rendezvous excursion to occupy a few hours. By "air conditioned" bus which wasn't, we were transported to the French side of the island, to Orient Beach Resorts, and the Wai ki ki beach. While wandering around pointing my camera at the magnificent colors and scenery, I stumbled upon the Swanson's, our table mates, who came to that location to refresh their sunburns. As Melissa and I spent 6 sessions visiting a tanning booth prior to our vacation, we had little fear in this regard. There were plenty of others who were not as fortunate.
In any event, encountering the Swanson family brought about another opportunity to snorkel, as Ron, the dad, also sought to do the same. He found a proprietor of one of the beach huts which offered ($20) equipment and jet ski transportation to nearby Pinel Island where Ron and I got our fill of fish watching, and some mouthfuls of saltwater as well. The waves were not what you would call calm. It was extraordinary anyway. Fish were plentiful, if not overabundant, and after about 35 minutes of constant floating and fish following we returned to our respective mates. I found Melissa waiting by the bus to take us back to Philipsburg, and the ship. The bus ride back was much easier on the lungs than the trip out as we occupied a different bus. The former spewing diesel fumes for the benefit of those sitting in the last few rows, and spitting air conditioning condensation on the unsuspecting; treats we were determined to do without on the return ride.
The busses came courtesy of a local tour company, and a guide shared well-memorized patter relating island history and custom. We recalled similar musings from the same excursion on a previous visit, but it was enjoyable none the less to hear the old stories about salt farming and the Friendly Island's graciousness. We finished the afternoon traipsing about the Dutch capital, resuming our Christmas shopping duties. Melissa abandoned me on schedule succumbing to the heat, but I needed a few more moments to scout about. We found the requisite T-shirts and even a couple a wonderful prints in a frame shop. Unfortunately Melissa was subjected to another dose of diesel poisoning sitting aboard the aft of the tender as it conveyed passengers back to the Rhapsody. And it was too crowded to move away from the exhaust to find relief. Surviving that, she met me back in our stateroom to rest and recover for another dose of sunning pool side waiting for the dinner bell.
The last day (Friday) would find us snorkeling again, this time off shore of a beach on St. John, along a national park, called Trunk Bay. Since the previous November we had seen as much as we cared to of St. Thomas. Having enjoyed at that time a mid-day excursion to Megan's Bay, we presently sought the more secluded island of St. John, which I had never seen before So we spent just another day of witnessing the fabulous under water world. The brilliant colors, luminescent and surreal, and fantastic marking many of the fish displayed were beyond words. And I had no underwater camera to document this, though all who have snorkeled will understand the limitation of words. I even spotted a moray eel, but was unable to ascertain its length because one end or the other was always concealed by coral. I didn't know the names of many of the fish, not that it diminished in any way the wonder I experienced, but found the most fascinating to me was the Traffic Parrot fish and the Trumpet fish. The former quite large and pearlescent, the latter long, thin and very barracuda-like. I resolved to acquire my own snorkel gear next time, to assure better fit and function. A steamed up and leaky mask does tend to distract from the glorious scene.
The Rhapsody of the Seas is to be highly recommended for cruise fans, finding little to detract from the feeling of luxury and pampering. The food was very good if not fantastic, the staff and stewards helpful in the extreme and quite friendly. The ship entertainment was, however, typical ship entertainment. Broadway style music and dance, and the obligatory comedian mixing a few genuinely funny jokes with more "adult" material (read bathroom humor). I maintain the theory that they are on a cruise ship for a good reason, and that is if they really were worthwhile entertainers they wouldn't be relegated to the cruise ship circuit. The Gauchos Diablos (the Devil's Cowboys) however were one unusual exception to this theory, as these two individuals demonstrated the most amazing tricks one could perform with what I can only describe as a pair of yo-yo's! Twirling two in the air at a time, one in each hand, they danced around the stage screaming and yelling, the props hitting the stage in syncopation to foot stamping, as well as being illuminated at times with strobe lights, even igniting the yo-yo's strings at one point, the duo mixed a comic sense of athleticism with deftly exquisite timing. I had not seen the likes it before, nor would I even have dreamed up such a form of entertainment! Keep your eye out for this pair, so you can see it for yourselves.
By the morning of Sunday, December 21, we found ourselves back at San Juan. Reluctant to disembark we mustered the courage and forced ourselves to walk back down the gangplank. A two-week cruise suggested itself in loud plaintive but unmistakable voices all that morning long. But to no avail. We just had to get back to reality. The world was waiting for us! Responsibilities were demanding it. And in just that short a time it was over. But not for long. Was there a third Caribbean cruise in the wings waiting for us? Stay tuned!