by Alan Rettig
December 3, 2001
We flew to Ft. Lauderdale two days early. I had procrastinated on the airline reservations and this time it paid off. JetBlue offered $49 one-way flights from Washington to Ft. Lauderdale, so my wife and I got to the ship and back for just under $200 total.
We rented a car and spent our time in Florida mostly visiting relatives. On Monday morning we slept in, took the car back to the airport at about 11:30, and boarded the car rental transfer bus for Port Everglades. The busses do go directly to the piers on cruise days, and this is a nice convenience. We'd heard that traffic into the port was a mess since the added security was put in place, but we had no problem. A military guard sniffed around the bus for a few seconds but caused no real delay, and we were at the pier within about 12 minutes of leaving the rental car lot. However, after our cruise we noted an extraordinary traffic tie-up entering the port as we were leaving at about 9:30. This was apparently caused by incoming passengers jumping the gun and arriving much too early, while debarkation was still in full swing. A good arrival time for our cruise (4:30 departure) was around noon.
Our Captain's Club card got us directly to a check-in counter literally within seconds of walking into the building. Check-in was completely uneventful, and despite several added passport checks and the few moments it took for the digital security photos, we were in our room within 15 minutes of arriving in front of the terminal. There was plenty of time for lunch, for exploring, for making Normandie reservations, and for a drink on the balcony before the parade of the orange monsters to the lifeboat drill.
We had booked a 2C guarantee, and were upgraded to a 1A well before the cruise, cabin 9051. We thought that the much-maligned "overhang" of deck 10 was wonderful, since it kept us out of direct sunlight, which neither of us tolerates very well. And despite the noise problems others have noted, we had virtually none. This may be because we were under the AquaSpa, which is a pretty sedate place. It did occur to me that the overhang might be annoying in Alaska, where so much of what's beautiful is above you at a pretty steep angle. The room itself was exactly what we expected, since we were on the Millennium last year in Europe in the same category. I think these ships have some of the most thoughtfully designed cabins afloat, and the design features make it easy to keep the room ship-shape.
The Big Flood
On the morning of our first sea day, we slept in late. At about nine I was vaguely aware of a knock at the door, and thought it was our steward, the always-attentive Desmond. I grunted that we'd be in the room for a while longer, but this served to get me up and moving around. A bit later we discovered that the knock wasn't Desmond, but our traveling companions (my wife's cousin and his wife), who had been in the cabin two doors forward of us. Well, I had slept through it all, but evidently a glitch in the automatic steering system had caused the ship to make a sudden and severe turn to port. Some people were thrown out of bed and apparently some crockery was smashed around the ship. Our cousins, unfortunately, were awakened by copious amounts of saltwater pouring down on them from the ceiling of their room. Now, you've got to admit that if you're on the 9th deck of a ship, and you wake up being drenched in saltwater, it would give you good reason to pray quick and pray hard. However, the problem was actually the AquaSpa pool just above, which had been partially emptied by the sudden turn. Some sort of drainage fault had caused lots of water to pour into this one cabin through the light fixtures, audio speaker, etc.
Desmond was on the scene within seconds of being called, and with some help from his friends had everybody and everything moved to another room a few doors aft within a few minutes. Before we knew what was going on, it was all over, and our cousins were laughing and making the obligatory "wet dream" jokes. A bottle of champagne, delivered to their room that evening was a nice touch. It was fortunate that the flood was confined to only one room, and that no real harm was done to anybody or anything.
First of all, I'm a New Yorker born and bred. I was born in the shadow of LaGuardia airport and grew up just across the Hudson in New Jersey. In my mid-50's now, I still consider New York my town in many ways, and have been back to visit twice in the few months since September 11, to pay my respects and to visit relatives. I love New Yorkers, and I think I understand them and appreciate them better than most.
But I must say that something bizarre happens to them after they retire to Florida, then descend on cruise ships en masse. Our cruise was absolutely teeming with them. Many reminded me of the very funny impressions that Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld do of their aging relatives. You know you're cruising with senior New York/Floridians when they call the first seating the "early bird special."Many were consistently unable to find their way around the ship. The elevators provided ample material for a standup comedy routine (in fact one joke from the on-board comic was, "have you hung around the elevators to hear the conversations? "'What floor is deck 3 on?'") But the reality was a lot funnier, or sadder, depending on your mood at the moment.
The unprecedented parade of wheelchairs, electric carts, walkers and canes sometimes made the ship feel like a nursing home. And I did occasionally wonder if the sheer number of them would create special problems in the case of a real shipboard emergency. There were a number of medical problems, beginning with a woman who collapsed on deck before we even left Fort Lauderdale. And at least twice I saw ambulances waiting to carry away the fallen as we pulled into ports. The good news is that it's really wonderful that the new ships are so accessible to the disabled. We even found out that you can rent an electric cart before your cruise, and it will be waiting for you in your wide-doored room. And watching the wheelchairs go by I realized how great it is that there are no longer raised sills at the waterproof doors in the corridors or at the deck entrances.
Unfortunately, it's also quite true that many of the elderly passengers (not all of them) were utterly and disgustingly rude. There are anecdotes, but I won't write them down. "Please" and "thank you" were not in most vocabularies. Boorishness was the norm. And virtually everything was cause for whining complaints. Most of the time you can simply sidle away from people who behave this way, but on this cruise you were likely to just bump into another one. Whether consciously or not, we managed to frequent the parts of the ship that didn't appeal to these folks. Places like the martini bar, the Cova Cafe, the Normandie restaurant and the late-night spots, along with our balcony, provided pretty reliable refuge.
We have decided not to take any more cruises out of Florida, even though the Caribbean in the wintertime has its charms.
We really didn't take this cruise for the ports. We enjoyed the Millennium so much last year on a port-intensive itinerary in the Mediterranean that we wanted to spend some time on a Millie class ship without worrying too much about "missing something" ashore. We did take two ship tours: the canal boat "eco-tour" from Puerto Limon, and the "Coast to Coast" rail trip in Panama. They were both very, very good. The guide on the canal boat was top-notch, and pointed out wildlife that we would never have noticed without his sharp eyes. We were glad we brought our binoculars, and advise you to do the same, along with the longest lens you've got for your camera. The railroad ride along the Panama Canal is wonderful, made more pleasant by the stunningly restored Pullman rail cars, with beautiful rosewood paneling and spacious leather seats. It was fun to see the canal locks from shore, having gone through them a few years ago on Galaxy.
At the other ports we simply shopped, walked around, beached, or drank copious amounts of alcoholic concoctions at Carlos 'n' Charlie's. We didn't get off the ship at Cartagena since we've been there before.
We really felt that the food overall was somewhat better than last year on the Millennium. This could be due to US vs. European provisioning, or maybe things have just gotten better. But we didn't have anything close to a mediocre meal. Our dining room staff, maitre d' Eric, waiter Arif, and assistant Satish, along with sommelier extraordinare Rynee, were about as fine as you could hope for anywhere on land or sea. Rynee, a classy, funny Lebanese/Croatian lady by way of Australia (wow!), kept us well supplied with good recommendations, good wine and good cheer ("no worries!"). And she presided over the informative wine tasting session during the cruise. Maitre d' Eric came by for a visit just about every night. He calls Poland home, and that gave my Polish wife and her cousin a lot to chat with him about (some of which I couldn't understand). Bemoaning the fact that he couldn't supply the classic Polish pierogi, Eric nevertheless sent us special orders of ravioli one night as "the next best thing." He's also very funny, and a real pro. Arif and Satish, both from the Indian subcontinent, couldn't have been more efficient or more helpful. Arif would occasionally steer us away from a dish that had not been well received at the first seating. An amateur magician, he had us in hysterics on several nights over coffee, practicing his magic to a gullible and appreciative table. Overall, the best food and the best, warmest, friendliest service we've ever had in a main dining room on any cruise.
After being blown away last year by the Olympic on the Millennium, we looked forward eagerly to our evening at the Normandie, and we weren't disappointed. The Olympic's Edwardian paneling is a historic treasure and absolutely gorgeous, but I think the Normandie works better as a unified and coordinated room. I'm also a drop-dead sucker for art deco, so I fell in love with the room the moment I saw it. And once again, the food and the staff more than lived up to the billing. If you sail the Summit, just go. Order anything that appeals to you, and rest assured it will be wonderful. The staff exhibits the perfect combination of formality to suit the room, and casual friendliness to make you comfortable. There's not a trace of stuffiness, there is genuine pride in the establishment, and there's some very good food and wine on the table.
After a long and wonderful meal, we had a quiet chat with assistant maitre d' Pedro. He told us that the restaurant is not as popular as the Olympic was in Europe last year, where we had first met. Apparently many of the Florida retirees aboard don't book tables, partly because they object to paying $25, partly because it isn't a place that appeals to them, and partly because many of them never discover it is there (or simply can't find it). Pedro was a little melancholy about this, because he is so proud of the restaurant and really wants to share it. But the fact is that you could have gotten a table most any night, even on short notice. It's a sure thing we'll be back on our next Summit cruise. And I think when the ship's itinerary draws passengers who are a bit younger and a bit more diverse, tables will be in short supply.
The Waterfall Cafe buffet restaurant was always reliable for breakfast and lunch (don't miss the daily pasta special at separate stations near the stern on both sides), and the little buffet line in the AquaSpa is a hidden treasure for a wonderful light lunch. The pizza on deck was good for "emergency" food after a day ashore. Finally, we were never more than five minutes away from a very serviceable plate of cheese and fruit, delivered to the room by Desmond, to accompany evening cocktails.
If you like the ubiquitous production shows that are the staples of cruise ship entertainment, those on the Summit are as good as any I've seen. We're not fans of these prepackaged extravaganzas, although we're great lovers of musical theater. Unfortunately, as the theaters aboard the newer ships become more technically sophisticated, these shows emphasize creative production values over creative content. To some extent this is happening in New York and London as well, but it's not our cup of tea. The stagecraft is great, the performers are OK at worst, excellent at best, but the shows are still flat and predictable. I know I'm in the minority and that most people love them, so if you do, go by all means. The show band is really very good.
The individual acts in the theater were not as strong as I've seen, but they change all the time so specific reviews don't do much good. I will say that comedians should get combat pay on the Florida runs. I can only imagine what it must be like to work your heart out and have hundreds of gray heads just stare back at you. Comedian Noodles fought the good fight on our cruise, and actually got a few laughs (which I think surprised him). I tend to laugh out loud easily, but I found myself being self conscious about it when nobody else around us was so much as cracking a smile. He did occasionally actually thank people individually for laughing, which seemed to be sort of an inside joke.
The pool band, Onyx, really deserves its stellar reputation. From time to time I would go out on deck specifically to listen to them. They're good players and singers, but they've obviously worked very hard to come up with really fine arrangements, and that's what sets them apart. Their Christmas set was a knockout, and their arrangement of Elvis' "Can't Help Falling In Love" is a lot of fun. They've also now thrown in "America the Beautiful," with a nod to the Ray Charles arrangement. Many have commented about their trademark song called "Conquest of Paradise." It isn't one of my "Top 10," but for those who like it and don't know, it's from 1492 (the movie, not the year), and you can hear a clip by going to the CD Now site and searching on 1492.
The other musicians around the ship were also enjoyable.
What we'd really love to see are some good cabarets in the Deck 11 lounge, with talented individual performers who can hold a stage and an audience with minimal lights and production. That would be a real treat.
This went very smoothly. For those who haven't cruised recently, there's a new wrinkle that requires everyone to report for a passport check before the ship can be cleared. They send you a letter with staggered reporting times to prevent a big mob scene. I got to the theater entrance promptly at 7:45 as requested, and found that the line extended well back into the casino. When I got to the end, I encountered one of the Florida contingent complaining long and loud about the line, and what an imposition it was, and how "they should have more people." Well, by then I'd about had it. I wheeled on her and explained that a) this was being done for the good of us all; that b) it was being done by the Immigration Service, not the cruise line; and that c) the Immigration folks were probably doing it with the same staffing levels as pre-September 11, and that these people have been working their brains out and didn't need grief from her.
Sorry about that, but it did shut her up. In spite of the long line it was exactly 17 minutes from my arrival on deck 4 to my entering the Waterfall Cafe upstairs for breakfast. And that included a stop in back of the theater for a quick cup of coffee, which was thoughtfully provided at that point. The immigration officer who checked my passport did a genuine double take when I thanked him for helping keep us safe.
We were off the ship shortly after breakfast and on our way to the airport. Surprisingly few people there, but then we realized that the bulk of the cruisers were local and were not flying. We were home and opening our tub of accumulated mail by dusk.
Despite some of our fellow passengers, the cruise experience overall was terrific. It was good to see Cruise Director Jim Cannon and Social Hostess Amanda Reid again, who are old friends now and who were much-needed bastions of civility on this run.
Late in the cruise the Pentagon released the long-awaited videotape of Osama bin Laden bragging about his vile deeds. Later, our room steward Desmond apologized to our cousin Bernie for being away for a little while; he said he was watching the tape. When Bernie mentioned how nice it was to have an international staff, and how they obviously all got along so well, Desmond paused.
"Yes," he finally replied. "I wish the world was like a cruise ship."
We look forward eagerly to more cruises, but with departures far from the state of Florida.