September 11, 2004
Having never in my life so much as considered a cruise vacation, I found September's ride on the Glory in that most familiar of locations-between a rock and a hard place. My wife and son discovered cruising about a year ago, and quickly adopted it as a virtual lifestyle. They were going; I could come along. Or not. I did.
The adventure started before the ship left port. Hurricane Frances. My mother was named Frances. (May she rest in peace.) She had a way of complicating things. She still does. Despite her, we left Port Canaveral as scheduled, on time. The trip had a Western Carribean itinerary. Hurricane Ivan. (No family connection.) We headed southeast, on the Eastern Carribean itinerary. Tropical Storm Jeanne. (My sister's name. She and Frances used to conspired to complicate things. They still do.) St. Thomas was cancelled. If you sail the Atlantic and Carribean during the height of hurricane season, you take your chances. Even Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne could not spoil the fact that I was away from my office, away from the phone, away from clients.
I do not enjoy silly games, bingo, group activities, comedy shows, etc. You know-the things people do on cruises. I like solitude, mountain biking, golf, etc.-- the things people don't do on cruises. My friends told me I was not a good candidate for a cruise. I agreed. Then I went. Here's what I remember:
WAITING: You wait to get on the ship, and wait to get off. We waited a good two hours to get on. It's a big ship. A lot of rooms have to be cleaned and a lot of people have to be cleared to board. We waited nearly that long to get off the ship. If you are impatient and have to have everything right now, don't go. The long waits are bookends to your vacation; it is what is between that counts. Enjoy the people around you-you are all in it together..
ACCOMMODATIONS: Ours were in the form of a balcony stateroom, in which three of us (two adults and an adult-sized thirteen-year old) would live for the next seven days. We could not pass one another going from one side of the room to the other; once we were in place we were comfortable. The balcony was the highlight of the trip. Private enough that one could use it at any level of modesty, the balcony became a refuge from the constant activity found in the interior of the ship. I spent a lot of time there-reading, reflecting, watching the waves, not being at my office. I don't think I would have enjoyed an interior room. But if you like the goings on, rather than the quiet of your own stateroom, a lesser stateroom assignment would probably be just fine. The bathroom was one person only, and don't plan on too many showers with your significant other-the shower is one small person at a time. Love the suction toilet, but the paper roll was for right-handers. The natural motion a left handed person (like myself) uses to tear the paper causes the roll to slide off onto the floor. The room is so small it doesn't have far to travel. The ship itself was awkward to maneuver about, and I never felt completely at home in the lounges. The Atrium was uninviting- like a waiting room. When I sat there I felt as though I was waiting for the doctor or the personnel director. Something about the interior architecture just didn't "click."
CARNIVAL EMPLOYEES: They were efficient and pleasant, if not always terribly friendly or outgoing. Our attendants in the main dining room deserve the highest compliments for their performance and their demeanor. They were outstanding attendants and wonderful people. It is a shame that they occupy such a small part of our lives. Generally, the bar attendants and buffet staff were less energetic. A notable exception was a young woman named Katrina, who worked the Amber Lounge and treated our son as though he were part of her own family. Very sweet.
An aside: The staff was a fascinating study. Many are from the Third World, former Communist dictatorships, or from war-torn Balkan nations. I saw, just beneath the surface a certain sadness in many, that escaped through their eyes. One could easily see that they missed their families, their homes, their former lives. I don't think they dislike what they are doing, but I think many long for something missing. Engaging them in conversation about their lives brings out the personalities of sincere, caring people. Their stories are rich. These people want to talk about home. Talk to them.
The musicians and dancers on the Glory were tops. I did not like all of the shows; but even the ones I did not personally care for were performed spectacularly. There was a jazz trio that I followed around all week; the last night, some of the stage band sat in for an improv session that was as good and lively as any I have heard in a long time. The music director has put together a staff of accomplished professionals who enjoy their work. The show producers and choreographers are as good as any in the business. Add to that a young, energetic group of singers and dancers, and the entertainment alone was worth the price of the trip.
I don't know where to begin when describing the cruise director/raconteur, John Heald. His lavish servings of ham on wry, along with his masterful displays of experience and poise, added up to seven days of side splitting entertainment. John's natural, spontaneous sense of humor, coupled with his well-polished repertoire made of 16 years' worth of stories and jokes kept the spirits high throughout the week.. A fond tip of the sailor cap to the [sadly] retiring Mr. Heald.
THE PORTS: (The ones we visited. Thank you Frances, Ivan, Jeanne.) . The approach to St. Maarten was stunning. Viewing the island at a distance was like living the opening scene of South Pacific. The madhouse world, for just an instant, dissolved. After a brief visit to Phillipsburg (on the Dutch side of the island) for the required shopping, then lunch back on board the ship, my wife and I [our son wanted to stay back at the ship] took off in a cab for Orient Beach, on the French side. Not our day. By the time our [early] cab ride back to the pier reached its end, it was raining UP. One day we will go to St. Martin (the French side) for a week or so. Maybe not during hurricane season. St. Thomas never had a chance. (Tropical Storm Jeanne.) I don't really care. St. Thomas is a tropical shopping mall.
An extra day at sea, before Nassau. We signed on for four ports in the Western Carribean, we were getting two ports on the Eastern Carribean route. We were also getting rocked by the storm. Little white bags (you know what they are for) were taped to the walls in the elevator lobbies. What a ride. I loved the adventure. Others were not so pleased.
THE FOOD: It was good, but not remarkable. The breakfast buffet was strictly college dining hall cuisine, right down to the mealy pancakes every other day. I liked the 24-hour pizza bar, the free frozen yogurt, and the fish & chips. (Unfortunately the f & c counter was understaffed, so the line was, at times more than I wanted to deal with.) The formal dining room was good; the soups were outstanding. Our table attendants, Bernard and Ana, were a genuine pleasure. I just don't like having to run on a schedule during vacation. (I'm hard to please.) The deli sandwiches were pretty good-worth the short wait in line. B plus to A minus on the food. All you can eat... included in the price of the trip... someone cleans up after you... It's getting better all the time.
THE DOWN SIDE: I hate smoke. It was everywhere. My clothes smelled bad, and my nose got stuffy. Bring back the Paradise. The Internet Café was behind the cigar bar-you had to wade through cigar smoke to get to it. Bad idea.
The Internet Café was poorly managed. The [expensive] time kept running while people were trying to log onto computers that were down for one reason or another; and not very much was done to restore the lost time. The manager was rarely where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there, and he was the recipient of a fair number of hastily scribbled notes from unhappy passengers, left on his [vacant] chair. This service needs a lot of work.
I did a lot of research as to what kind of exercise bikes [clearly shown in some of Carnival's promotional photographs] are in the health club. I took my cycling shoes and shorts so that I could maintain my fitness while on the ship. The spinning cycles may only be used during spinning classes, which cost $10.00 and are held either early in the morning or when they conflict with dinner. The health club staff was unaccommodating; the best they could come up with was, "if we let you use the cycles, then everyone will want to use the cycles." Give me a break.
WHERE I COULD BE FOUND: My room. Reading, sleeping, sitting on the balcony.* The "adults only" sun deck. No kids, no pandemonium-relaxed, out of the way. A great place to escape for an hour or so. * The frozen yogurt machine. * The pizza bar. * Anywhere the jazz was being played * The Amber Lounge for occasional shows or Big Band sessions.
MY INSIDE ADVICE: Note where the staff and crew hang out during their "off" time. They know the best places on the ship. If the staff hangs out in a certain lounge or on a certain deck, chances are it's the best place to be.
OVER ALL: Carnival had its hands full dealing with disgruntled passengers. (Again, thanks to Ivan and Jeanne.) The circumstance was handled well-some people will never be happy with anything. Everyone got a $50.00 on board credit, which was entirely appropriate, and entirely unnecessary. A case could have been made for "let the [hurricane season] buyer beware." Too many people want something for nothing. We had a good rate for the trip, an upgrade to a balcony, the full seven scheduled days... I could have been at work. I was sitting on a balcony in the middle of the ocean reading a book. I should get more? I spent seven days with my wife and son, I was away from my office, I ate and slept when I wanted, and I came home completely relaxed. A Glory cruise involves over 2000 passengers, and over 1000 staff living for a week in a self-contained floating city. Carnival makes it routine. This is a company that knows its business. I will go again-on Carnival-- during hurricane season. I can deal with the disappointment if the trip is affected by a storm. The element of unpredictability just adds to the experience. The end result is that a hard-to-please person got everything he needed from a vacation. How many people can say that? If Carnival can keep me happy, it can keep anyone happy.