Monday, March 14, 2011

Thomas Wolfe Was a Dope

Saturday, March 12, 2011
Two years ago, when we took a different version of this cruise, we had to rent a car and return to the house to retrieve a suitcase the driver had forgotten to put in the limo. This year, the start of our “grand” vacation was almost boring.

We left home a little past 10:30 in the morning and were at Port Everglades before 11:45. Great! We expected to walk right on and put our carry-on bags in the room before lunch. Wrong! Although there was an entrance to the check-in area reserved for 4-Star cruisers [those who have spent 200 or more days on Holland America], it had degenerated into a mob. People were waiting mostly patiently to trickle into the building, but there was neither order nor organization. To make it worse, passengers who were not 4-Star had been directed to the same entrance. It was slow times three. Everyone survived; no fights broke out; and eventually we all got checked in and on board.

The cabins had been ready since 11:30 even if the terminal staff was not, so we dropped off the bags and went to the main dining room for lunch around 12:45. We passed the time chatting with a couple from Stockton CA swapping travel and family stories. After lunch we checked out the spa for information about manicures; the gym for information about the equipment they have [or don’t]; and the internet area to find out about purchasing computer time.

Our larger luggage trickled in and by 3:30 we had everything unpacked and stowed away. The walk-in closet in the room is a godsend and we actually have more room than we need. In addition to clothes, we also brought snacks and 54 cans of diet cream soda which the ship does not stock. Each cabin has a refrigerator, so we will be able to keep the soda cold.

Grand Cruises are different from the regular ones. They are, of course, longer – this one is 62 days – and the ship has extra personnel to make sure everything runs smoothly. The ports can be more exotic, the itinerary including some otherwise-unfamiliar places. The staff is usually hand-picked and, on the Prinsendam, many of the staffers seem to stay for years. So it wasn’t a surprise to be greeted by people who remembered us from our two previous cruises, especially Kevin, the assistant Cruise Director. Dining room supervisors and Cruise Staff went out of their way to say hello. Unfortunately, some of the people we had hoped to see again [Syarif, the dining room manager; Richard in Guest Relations; Roger the Beverage Manager] had moved on to other ships or gone home. The best of all, though, was that our waiter this year is the same one we had in July and August. Not only did Eko greet us warmly, he asked about the others with whom we traveled last year. Take that, Thomas Wolfe!

Grand Cruises also come with some perks. Because we booked early, we will not have to pay the $11 per day per person “hotel” charge [read: mandatory tip] that is included on most other cruises. Do the math and you will see that this is a not inconsiderable amount. There will be presents left in our cabin throughout the trip, usually on formal nights; on-board credit for booking the whole cruise; a bottle of cheap champagne which can be traded for slightly better wine at dinner; and so on. Then there are the goodies from Ted our travel agent [who is reading this so I have to be nice]. Thanks, Ted, for the champagne and the flowers and, we assume, a massive amount of ship board credit. If that wasn’t you, take the credit while you can.

Anyway, we spent time waiting to sail out of Port Everglades in the Crow’s Nest lounge looking out of the panoramic windows. The captain announced that we would not be sailing at 5:00 as scheduled because not all of the supplies had been loaded onboard. Instead of being first out of the gate, we were the last to leave port [around 7:15 as it turned out]. We watched as a parade of gigantic cruise ships made their way out of the harbor – they represented Carnival, Celebrity, Princess, Holland America, Regent and Royal Caribbean. One of the Royal Caribbean ships was the Oasis of the Seas which is the size of Delaware, the largest cruise ship afloat holding around 6000 passengers. It measures fuel efficiency in centimeters per gallon of fuel. We changed for dinner [vegetarian/prime rib], talked a bit with the couple at the adjoining table and played the “Do you remember them” game as familiar faces walked by.

There is a tremendous loyalty to the Prinsendam. It is small, quirky and somewhat bedraggled. It does not have the fancy activities and bars of the newer ships, but it holds fewer than 900 passengers. It is intimate which might explain why this is our third cruise on her in two years. Many others feel the same way we do, so we have seen and talked with a number of people from previous trips. Full disclosure: Some we saw and hid from. Still, it is like returning to the old neighborhood, full of idealized memories and hopes for the next 9 weeks.

One other note – when the map of our itinerary was posted in January, God was in His holy temple and all was right with the world. Since then, obviously, things in the Mid-East have gone to Hell in a hand basket. We received semi-official [but not final] word today that we will probably not get to Cairo; instead, we may spend a day in Dubrovnik and an additional day in Ashdod, Israel. These will be nice places but they are definitely not the Pyramids or the Sphinx. Ah, well, better safe than not.

Tomorrow is a sea day; the first Cruise Critic meet-and-greet; and the beginning of Team Trivia.
Busy, busy, busy.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Day at Sea

Today was the first of two sea days before we land in Gustavia, St. Barths. The pattern we established today will probably be followed on the rest of the sea days until we return in May. We did practically nothing.

We were up earlier than expected and went to breakfast in the MDR [main dining room] where we shared a table with a boisterous bunch of biddies. We’ve met worse. The dining room manager always asks us if we prefer a table for two or a larger table with others. The larger tables allow us to meet more people, but sometimes we opt for a two-top.

The first Cruise Critic meeting was this morning at 10 so, naturally, we were there at 9:30. There were already people there including Bob and Judy [known as voorn on CC] who had made very professional name badges for all of the members. They also made new ones for latecomers and lurkers who had not signed up on line. In years past, HAL has provided coffee and cookies; this year, at MA’s suggestion, we asked for fruit as well. Not only did HAL supply fresh fruit skewers, they also sent fresh veggies and dip. For the next meeting we hope they will send plates as well – dipping veggies is not easy when all you have is paper napkins.

The meeting went well. People sat and talked, comparing cruising stories and experiences. Eventually Lois [SlotL] started the not-so-formal meeting and we introduced ourselves even though quite a number of us knew each other from previous cruises. We laughed and joked as the introductions were made and then Thom Faulkner, the Cruise Director, came to say “hi.” Most of us have sailed with Thom before, so once again we all joked with him. The captain also stopped by for a few minutes and somehow the conversation turned to toilet paper [Actually, we were late leaving Florida yesterday while pallets of t.p. were loaded on the Prinsendam]. We had almost 50 people in attendance and it looks like a good group.

The meeting broke up around 11 in plenty of time for Trivia. MA went to snag a table for us while D gathered names of newcomers for a members’ list. The worst part of the morning came when one of the CC’ers asked D if he had received an e-mail in which this fellow canceled his reservation for an excursion in Rabat. The e-mail had never arrived [if, indeed, it was ever really sent] and suddenly we were left with two spaces on a prepaid trip. We will try to find replacements among the new people; otherwise we might take a $200 hit if the agency will not refund the money. Stay tuned for more later in the week.

On the Grand Med in 2009 we met Linda and Dave from Miami. We got along well enough that she asked if were interested in taking the World Cruise with them in 2010. We appreciated the suggestion but were not interested. Now they are with us again and Linda joined us and another CC’er at Trivia this morning. Kevin, the assistant Cruise Director, always emphasizes that it’s supposed to be fun trivia, not cutthroat and lived up to his standard. We had fun even though we were a distant fifth in the scoring. We hope our team of four will stay small until Ed and Roxanne board next month in Venice.

After Trivia, D tried to get a list printed by the Front office, the internet manager and even the Future Cruise Consultant [who is Thom’s wife]. Alas, they no longer will print anything from a memory/USB stick because of fleet-wide virus infections. Frustrated, D rejoined the waiting MA for lunch. At a table for two. We were both tired and by 2:30 were snug in our bed for an early nap.

Tonight was the first of NINE formal nights. After D dressed in his Swiss banker costume, he went to get help from the internet manager who, for unexplained reasons, had not shown up for his 7:00 pm shift by 7:20. There being priorities, D went back to the cabin and he and MA went to the Ocean bar for a refreshment before dinner [mushrooms for her/rack of lamb for him]. We chatted with the couple at the next table during dinner and had and enjoyable time despite MA’s not liking her entrĂ©e.

After dinner we went back to the room to retrieve the laptop and then went off to see the internet guy. This time he was at his post. He suggested that the quickest and least expensive way to get the documents to print was to e-mail from the laptop and then print them from the ship’s desktop computers. It was an elegant solution to what could have been a tedious problem and we were done in time to get to the show.

Prior to the show, the Captain introduced key officers and crew, a tradition on HAL ships. And the drinks were free. The show itself was a three-man group called Horizon who did a 45-minute tribute to the Motown sound. They recreated many of the classic Motown hits by groups like Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Temptations. Their voices blended well and the choreography was reminiscent of Bandstand performances – the backups on each number not only singing but dancing in synch with each other. It was one of the better shows we’ve seen in several years. Even D sang along, a little.

Off to bed so MA could read her Kindle and D could recap the day for posterity. Tomorrow will be even quieter than today. That’s a good thing.

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