Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cruise '09 H

("...It was then that the mythology evolved...")

1/12, 3:30 pm

Alas, we're back on the ship after our final day, awaiting only supper tonight and a good night's sleep before disembarking tomorrow morning in Ft. Lauderdale. Just like that, 10 fabulous days are past and we'll spend all of tomorrow getting back home.

Today's stop was at Half Moon Cay, a Bahaman island a portion of which is leased to Holland America, which has set up a little cruise ship paradise here. There is a mock village with (thankfully) minimal shopping, a huge outdoor cafeteria surrounded by a bunch of open-air shelters with picnic tables for eating, all flanking a couple miles of the silkiest white sand imaginable. I don't know if it's the coral base or what, but the sand here is almost like flour, it's so incredibly fine and soft. The water, like the ambient temps, are a touch cooler than what we encountered down South (think 80° rather than 85°), but this is the most astoundingly clear water I've ever seen. One can see effortlessly down as far out as you care to swim, and the sunlight refracted thru the water plays off the bottom in the most glorious fashion. For the first 10 feet or so the water appears perfectly clear, taking on a faint blue tint that becomes a glowing aqua the further out one goes. It is from these waters that our stereotypical sense of the blue ocean comes. Susan and I must have said incredulously a hundred times today "it's a paradise!" They're incredibly lucky to have found and procured the place.

There was another of Holland America's Vista class ships, the Westerdam, at anchor along with us today, so we had potentially a couple thousand people on the beach (I'd guess that something approaching half the ships' complements remained on board for the day), and while one did not feel isolated, neither was the beach over-crowded. The lines were a bit long at lunch--there were four separate grills fired up in the cafeteria, each serving a limited complement of beach-y foods (burgers & dogs & brats, fruit, chips, pasta & potato salads, desserts) but they processed us pretty quickly, and the food was, as always, great.

(Our Oosterdam to the left; Westerdam to the right.)

Holland America have done quite a bit of work to the island. In addition to the mock village and lunch facilities, they've improved a narrow channel that leads to an inland mini-marina for tender docking (a necessity if one wants to dock in rougher weather--there is no pier, so visits to the island are always a tendering affair), and there are a bunch of rental cabanas and other facilities. In all, we remember it as being one of our favorite stops from our first cruise four or five years ago, and so it remains after today. We both decided to leave our shirts on when swimming today, and we plunked our beach chairs in as shady an area as we could find, so that we escaped (we hope) with minimal extra sun exposure.

And so it ends. One more night aboard before an early-ish rising tomorrow for breakfast and disembarkation. We're assigned a time to disembark, 8:15-8:30, which is early. They color-code our baggage, which must be outside the cabin door no later than 1:am, and the bags will be pulled off and organized on the same schedule as our own disembarkation. After our $100 cab ride from MIA to FLL, we decided to pay $30 each for the MIA bus transfer. Our flight is around 1:pm, and we're scheduled to get back to GRB at, I think, 8:05 pm.

I see how this mode of vacation is not held in esteem for a more vigorous or adventurous crowd; it's a pretty passive way to vacation. There's just a lot of time involved where strenuous activity is not available. In that vein, it drives me crazy for the company to deem people who have cruised before to be "mariners," as though sitting on one's ass while the ship does its thing magically confers upon one some expertise (like a twist on those Holiday Inn Select adverts, one imagines an emergency where a crewmember frantically shouts "Is there a ship captain in the audience?!" to which I could answer "No, but I have slept 32 nights aboard a ship..."). It's not wrong, I guess, for the company to find a way to acknowledge that some of these people have handed over a pile of money to HAL--one couple with whom we played Trivia had been on 38 cruises prior to this one, and many people we talked to had well exceeded our four cruises.

I think the key is for a person to know their limitations. This is not primarily a way to see the world, to mingle with the world's cultures and get to know adherents of other ways of thinking and of seeing and being. At its worst (or most limiting), cruising is like TV with scent-o-rama: one sits in one's comfy place and watches stuff happen in front of one. But looked at another way, it's an excellent way to relax and unwind, and one can take a fair degree of activity upon oneself as the cruise progresses. We didn't do especially much on any of the days ashore here, but honestly we wouldn't have done much differently had we flown into the islands--our mid-winter vacation is a recuperative affair. We would just have had more time to do it.

We only took a tour out of the port area on Dominica, which was very interesting indeed. On the other four islands, St. Thomas, Grenada, Martinique and St. Maarten, we contented ourselves with a walk around the town areas surrounding the marina. A tour of any of the rest of these islands would surely have been gratifying; if we'd had a couple days there is much we might have done in the way of sightseeing and hiking and so on. But with only a partial day in each place, it seemed as good an option to get in our daily walk and see the towns immediately surrounding the ships' landing.

I think we both rated Martinique the least interesting place we saw. It seemed the least accommodating to visitors, and the least Caribbean of the stops we made. Our favorites were Dominica for raw, unspoiled beauty (maybe not coincidentally, it's the only place we headed off into nature), and Grenada and St. Maarten for beaches and island flavor. Both these latter two would seem suitable for a vacation on their own. We liked St. Thomas, maybe not least because you're effectively still in the US and your phone and money and so on all work normally. But we heard a number of other passengers here disparaging it as being "un-Caribbean" and squalid. Much of what we saw was the main shopping district. This, plus the attendant restaurants and bars, was the island's main draw. But it looks beautiful and I'd be happy to come back and explore further.

Maybe that's the one criticism of our approach: the experiences which have cropped up for the cruise ships do not give any kind of honest account of the islands' substance. We're getting the Disney version if we don't leave the beaten path. Well, I could see us doing the same cruise again in the future, and I think we'd do things differently ashore for having seen what we did this time.

But for me, the star of the whole endeavor is the ship itself; it's its own reason to cruise, almost regardless of route or destinations. Maybe this is just the hopeless machinery geek in me, but it's the primary reason I have such difficulty with the idea of an all-inclusive resort: it's like a ship without the ship! It's the same passive experience without the machinery and the high seas and the changing scenery and the centuries of tradition. I'm not sure if there's a lesson in there or not, but personally I would rather spend a week on even a grungy freighter in open water than a week in a beautiful resort with nothing to do after the first day but drink (especially bad for a teetotaler). My wife's preferences would run exactly opposite, and that seems to be why this particular brand of cruising works so well for us. She would not want to spend a week crossing the Atlantic to Europe, but she's happy on the ship if it makes regular stops in fun places. Me, I just love the ship. This year we got three of our ten days at sea, which is more than with past cruises. The ship is so large that it's no great challenge keeping busy for those days, and it made for a nice mixture of active days and quieter ones.

So there it is.

(A shore tender for Half Moon Cay--this time, not one of HAL's lifeboats.)

(Can't I just stay here?)

(An early-morning docking in Ft. Lauderdale.)

(Cruising in a nutshell--towel animals and endless desserts!)

(Fresh-baked White Folk.)


Jon said...

All in all, sounds like another great trip. I do think, however, that an all inclusive trip would also be fun, if there were side trips that could be had to be able to branch out. Like you, I can only sit for so long. Kyle on the other hand would love a week on the beach. Time will tell.

wunelle said...

Susan chides me for not TRYING the all-inclusive; so I've told her I'd give it a crack.

So maybe we all ought to look into some place?