Monday, January 21, 2008

January 3-14, 2008 – Cruisin’ by Cruise Ship

It was sometime back in October-November -- shortly after the several great grandparenting outings we had after our return from Fiji yet well before the holiday season was more than a glimmer on our social horizon -- when we got seduced into a booking a cruise. Tiffany was very gung ho about her association with YTB Travel and the money-making potential of her YTB Travel Website, so when an opportunity to book a short 4-day cruise to Cozumel at a big savings came up, we were easily persuaded that it would not only be a great family outing, but a sensible broadening of Tiffany's experience – cruises being the most lucrative travel to book.

By the time January rolled around – after a long holiday season, taxing both physically and financially -- we were somewhat less enthusiastic. Plus, we were booked on a Carnival Cruise. Carnival's slogan is "the Fun Ships", and while they have a reputation as good for families with kids, they also have a bit of a reputation as the cheap cruise line. So, as we headed south to Tampa to board our first every cruise, suffice it to say that our expectations for our "great deal" and slid hand in hand with our enthusiasm.

That said…we had a ball! From start to finish we can't say enough about the smooth organization of the operation out of the Port of Tampa or of the friendly international crew aboard the Carnival Inspiration. It may be that all cruise operations are this efficient. They would pretty much have to be, I suppose. Our cabin was far nicer than I imagined: a king-sized bed (with incredibly comfortable bedding!), in an attractive cheery room with a vanity/desk, TV, plenty of closet and drawer space, and very a nice bath and shower unit. As far as we could tell, even being down on the bottom deck back towards the stern was no compromise. In fact, we kind of enjoyed "doing watch' out our window the first and last nights as the pilot boat powered alongside.

Being neophytes in this sort of thing, we had a lot to learn about cruise-ship cruising. As the ship left port we wandered all the outside decks, checking out the pool and hot tubs (smaller than we'd imagined), the walking track and putt-putt course (with a driving cage for golf lessons with the pro) on the top deck forward, and the huge waterslides and park on the aft deck. Aft of the pool deck was a dance stage with a terrific calypso band (reggae by any other name) playing tunes that had us all grooving while lubricated by several of the departure cocktail specials. Tampa's skyline at sunset made for fine vistas, and Don and I were on the forward top observation deck as the ship drove under the Sunshine Skyway after dusk. Of course, all that exploring, dancing and back-seat driving caused us to miss our early dinner seating (hell, we'd only just had lunch!). It seemed like no loss as there were bountiful options available at the cafeteria style-Brasserie Restaurant. However, after catching dinner the next night, with gourmet menus and the attentive service (we had our own table!), we were sorry we'd missed even one meal in the Carnivale dining room!

Inside the ship were even more entertainment options. There were several bars, most with live music of some kind or another, a sushi bar, a coffee and pastry bar, a disco, a teen-only disco, a jazz nook, and of course the large lounge/theater for special Vegas-type extravaganzas. There was a library and a busy Casino we never set foot in. Likewise there was a Camp Carnival for little kids in which we registered Kai but of which never made use, plus a spa and a gym equally ignored. There was a game room in which Kai and Derek spent a lot of time (surpassed only by the putt-putt course and water park), and the peaceful Serenity Deck mid way up the stern that attracted Tiffany, Don and me. A major activity on board is the taking of portraits, not only at events, but against maybe a dozen prepared backdrops! All these photos are magically printed up and displayed for purchase, although with no obligation to buy, by far the majority are wasted. We only bought two, one of Kai alone against a backdrop of the ship and one of us all posed with a "Mayan Indian" as we exited the ship in Cozumel.

Our weather was perfect, with the exception of some wind the first evening and some sprinkles the last afternoon. Our Friday day at sea was hot and sunny and drew most everybody aboard out to one of the multiple decks to take some sun. That day was the most aware we were of the mass of humanity traveling with us on the ship. Somehow, the rest of the time it never seemed all that crowded. I suppose in part it is that half the passengers take their pleasure predominantly during the night hours.

We all four did make the two revues: one Friday night and one Sunday night. Kai was agog at the pulchritudinous dancers bedecked with spangles and feathers dancing and singing their hearts out. The first show featured a rock & roll theme and started with a cute motorcycle routine that caught his (and his grandparents') eye, and ended an hour or so later with a stunning modern dance with laser light by a Russian couple achieving unbelievable lifts and poses. It's hard not to wonder how they manage it when there is any sea running. The second revue, the last night, had a Latina theme which was fun but in my view, despite my fondness for Latin music, didn't measure up to the first. As international as the crew was, the cancers were pretty white bread (but for one very tall guy of some Asian extraction!)

As for our day in Cozumel the ship offered dozens of excursions that ranged from snorkeling and diving, to jeep expeditions to dolphin encounters to tours of Mayan ruins. They had a trip to a golf course, parasailing and even a treasure hunt and of course they had shopping. With a three-year-old in our five-some, we elected not to commit to anything. Quite honestly, never setting foot off the ship would have been fine with us, and, except for an early morning stroll through town to the Mercado, that's pretty much the option Kai and his Daddy elected. Stirred up by the incredibly clear water, I lobbied to take a snorkel trip we were able to book from the dock on which Don and Tiffany gamely joined me. Fortunately, we got a good price booking ourselves, because however you booked it, if snorkeling was your actual objective it was an utter waste of money. I should know better. Between heavy tourist traffic and recent hurricanes the chance of living coral existing at a depth accessible by snorkelers within reach of a day boat is totally unrealistic. To people with our experience, what we were shown was practically criminal! BUT, that said, the water was crystal clear and warm, and there were a few fish to see drawn by the leaders feeding them, PLUS the boat crew brought along iced Coronas and Tequila shots to create the mood (and cloud the mind?). By the time we got back to the dock, everybody was happy enough! And you KNOW that any afternoon on the water is better than almost anything else in the world.

After a quick shower and change, Don, Tiffer and I went back to town on the hunt for authentic tacos. Our lead from the snorkel crew took us to a nice restaurant that had everything but tacos; we made do good ceviche and excellent margaritas. From there we followed another lead for tacos to another restaurant (all names lost in the tequila haze). We three have a tradition of bonding over margaritas (see Bonaire 2000 & Puerto Vallarta 2003!), so if nothing else we had some good family time! Plus I got to exercise my Spanish which rose to the occasion with only a few French words sprinkled in, and Don found a deal on some black boots for Harley riding

The major activity of our return day at sea was the afternoon football match between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Diego Chargers. The ship was nicely equipped with large screen TVs distributed among its many bars on which the satellite pictures were distinctly better than on the TVs in the cabins. Don had previously zeroed in on the ship's Chopin Cigar Bar as his venue of choice and had bought himself a couple of Romeo & Julietta Cubans while ashore to go along with a bucket of cold beer. So he was all set up to watch the Colts victory. Unfortunately the team let him down. Losing is never fun, but by unfortunate chance the Chopin Bar had also drawn several obnoxious fans, a Greek from Boston who philosophized that Don had only to choose whether he wanted his team to lose this week or next because the Patriots were fated by the Gods to go all the way undefeated this year. This is a perfectly appropriate view for a loyal fan, but not over and over every few minutes! Then there was the loud group behind us generally cheering against the Colts, but bad-mouthing every body, every play and every call. Don was not in a good mood by the end. The chief redeeming development of the day was the victory by the Giants, Derek and Kai's team. Derek is a die-hard Giants fan, even though he rarely actually WATCHES!

By first light Monday morning, the Inspiration was back on the dock in Tampa. I can't in all honesty say that we woke up on the dock as the pilot boat at 0200 and the thrusters around 0500 did wake us. The kids ignored it all better than we did and were still snoozing when we went up for coffee. Of course since everybody had to be off the ship by 1000 so they could start taking on passengers for the next cruise by 1100, the captain was not likely to feel too bad about disturbing anyone's sleep that last morning! Still there was plenty of time for a last breakfast together before self-disembarking around 0930, at which time we all breezed through customs out to the parking garage and out of the Port of Tampa without any delays whatsoever.

Not a bad way to spend a long weekend!

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Friday, January 18, 2008

November 8, 2007 - January 3, 2008 - The Holidays

It happens to me every year. As the holidays bear down with the calendar packed with doings, I panic and abandon all attempts to keep up the website. It seems ironic because, of course, there is so much going on to write about, at least for family and close friends. This is all pretty gushy family stuff, so if you aren't into that, skip this entry!

Our first event of the extended holiday season was a midday Thanksgiving feast at Kai’s pre-school. Here we got to see Kai and his class on stage singing “A turkey is a funny bird, his head goes wobble wobble, he only says one funny word, and that is ‘gobble gobble.’” This, the first of a long line of such performances, is the stuff of grandparents’ dreams. Kai’s grin was a show stopper.

The following Monday we drove up to Florence, South Carolina to spend the actual Thanksgiving holiday at my nephew’s. Since marrying into the Wilson clan and since my sister has stopped choreographing the elaborate Hamlin family Christmases, I have been feeling that my connections to my own family have been getting a little thin. So I was very pleased to be invited for the holiday. John & Gay win the award for the best residential campsite. From the street their neighborhood appears a tightly-packed, brick-faced suburban front with no place for a bulky RV. Yet, when we back the coach up the driveway, we can just keep on rolling into a huge tree-studded back yard! John & Gay’s kids truly appreciate the RV, and not only relished showing it off to friends, but Karen slept aboard with us every night we were there, despite temps plummeting into the thirties!

John and Gay put on a perfect family gathering, with my sister and her husband in attendance as well as Gay’s brother and his wife. Instead of a single sit-down meal, turkey day (and the day after) was one continuous graze from sun-up to sun down. Gay’s brother Mark works for Lego, so he brought a Lego engineering project that kept family members engrossed for hours, while my sister, currently an aspiring poet and I (currently an aspiring magazine writer) compared writing projects. We also made a family outing out of a matinée showing of Enchanted, Disney’s semi-animated spoof of its own famous fairy tales as well as an afternoon game of Risk, where Tom looked primed to take over the world from the rest of us. Among many other things, Tom plays piano and guitar, just earned a brown belt in karate, and carries a school schedule of advanced subjects, while Karen has taken up the flute and piano, takes horseback lessons, loves to cook, and carries her own challenging school sked. These kids hadn’t seen us for two years, and yet they welcomed us as if it were yesterday! John and Gay and Tom and Karen demonstrate very clearly that one can raise a bright well-balanced family in this trying age, and I LOVED feeling a part of it.

From Florence we drove to Hilton Head to rendezvous with our great friends Dennis and Lisa of Lady Galadriel, who were southbound on the ICW. Dennis and Lisa had spent a whole year working in Annapolis on the boat and at West Marine. Then this past summer they cruised north up to New England as far as Maine, before turning southward for the Bahamas. We had thought to meet up with them at the SSCA Gam in Melbourne (see last entry), but like many cruisers’ their progress had been delayed, so this was our second shot. What luck that we were able to find an RV park with its own marina! We caught up over an expansive seafood feast at Crabby Bills, and then were able to run them around on errands the next day. Again, it was instant rapport, like we hadn’t been apart for years.

No sooner than we got back parked in Crystal River, than Don took off on the Harley for boys time, stopping first with Bill Church for a night to help with some two-man bot projects on Bill's Endeavor 37 Geodesic II and then with old friends of his from Indiana – two retired state troopers known as the two Toms – down for a fishing vacation in Sarasota. This gave me the chance to join a gym, take a yoga class, and catch up on my writing.

The day after Don got back from Sarasota, we turned around and drove down to Tampa with our friends Diane and Alex for dinner at Colombia’s, a famous Latin restaurant in Tampa’s Ybor City followed by a night at the Tampa Performing Arts Center for "The Nutcracker." For so many years, the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker was an annual highlight of the spectacular family Christmases my sister orchestrated before they moved to North Carolina. It had been about five years, I think, since my last Nutcracker, and I was in withdrawal. In fact, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve attended ANY cultural performance, so I was really looking forward to breaking the ice here in Florida. The Tampa performance, unfortunately, was not in the same league as the Boston Ballet’s, particularly the fun first act, nor did the theater itself hold a candle to the opulently-renovated Wang, with its sell-out audience of adorably dressed-up yuppie children. But then, for years I did not think Boston was in the same league as American Ballet Theater with Baryshnikov at Lincoln Center. Eventually, I came to find witnessing the Boston company’s growth exciting, so perhaps the same will happen here. It’s tough when you start out at the top!

On December 7th, Don and I celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary at a new Thai restaurant in Crystal River called Thaipoon. God knows how this jewel dropped into our back yard – land of fried chicken and BBQ, but it is outstanding! The trick will be finding people to take there; our neighbors do not demonstrate much gourmand interest. Thank goodness Diane and Alex will drive for a good meal!

The Wilson early-Christmas plan in Indiana came extra early this year thanks to the 2007 calendar. We flew up with Tiffany and Kai on the 11th and were back in Florida by the 17th! Last year the Wilson clan had enjoyed their traditional Saturday night gathering in the house Don’s nephew’s family had been in but weeks. This year we were able to truly appreciate a year’s worth of improvements, including a roaring fireplace in the new basement family room and Sam Adams ale on tap! Plus it snowed just enough so that Kai could have his first snowball fight, make his first snowman with his cousins, and even get a little sliding in on a shared flying saucer. Unfortunately, the snow kept some of the family from making the trip into town, and also cut the numbers back at Aunt Margaret’s Shelbyville family Christmas the next day. Still, for Floridians a little snow does add atmosphere.

After Indiana, we had four days to catch our breath in Crystal River, before it was time to move the RV to its slot between the kids' and Cindy’s houses for our Florida Christmas celebrations in Clearwater. With Kai’s birthday just two days after Christmas, the holiday gets seriously extended. This year started with a shared birthday party with Kai’s best friend Tovar and all their schoolmates on the 22nd in a park over in Safety Harbor. Tiffany and Tovar’s Mom, with some major culinary input from Cindy, put together a great spread for the kids and their parents. Don and I did our best to contribute with schlep and decorating. A highlight of the party was a visit by a real fire truck from the station down the block, since that was Tovar’s theme. Kai’s theme was “Jeff Gordon” and though there were plenty of Gordon plates and NASCAR party favors, our side was unable to recruit a race car driver to make an appearance.

After the party, Don and I went to cement the deal on Kai’s big B-day present: a big boy bed. For those of you too old to remember, the abandonment of the crib is a huge step in a kid’s life…and in his parents’ lives, as well. There is the worry whether or not he will like it, the worry that he will fall out, and the worry that it will fit in his room. I’m proud to say that we scored big in all departments with a bare wood trundle-type bed with six drawers underneath it, bedding in a sports motif, and a safety rail to prevent the falling-out. Kai likes it so well that he has betaken himself in for naps on his own accord, AND better yet, he has slowed up on the early morning visits to Mom & Dad’s bed.

Christmas itself was as festive as it can be in a place with palm trees and no snow. Both Tiffer and Cindy had lovely Christmas trees and decorations, while we bedecked the coach with bows and wreaths and lighted garlands. Dinners were highlights, what with not one, not two, but three culinary-minded women. I took care up the lead up dinners; Cindy made a Christmas eve feast of shrimp, mussels and crab legs; and on Christmas Day Tiffer’s kitchen produced a rare roast beef, mashed potatoes and pear, pecan and blue cheese salad. Fortunately, this year the sweets got cut back substantially!

The big boy bed actually arrived on Boxing Day, but the Family celebration of Kai’s third birthday party still took place with cake and ice cream on the 27th. You might think that heralded the end of all the family doings, but nay, nay…we’re not done yet. On Boxing Day we got a call from Don’s brother Greg, who called to ask how we’d feel about a visit. Of course, we said, "Great, when were you thinking?" He said, “Tomorrow!” So, while the seconds on the cake and ice cream were being served, we made a late trip to the airport to pick up Little Brother.

Greg stayed with us a week, got to ride the Harley, hiked the back forty, picked around the green veggies I insisted in putting on his plate, read novels on the deck and generally relaxed. Greg’s ailing father-in-law has recently moved in with them, and I guess, with school out (Greg is an elementary school principal) and the blizzards blowing, he just needed a break. His timing was good as the senior Wilsons pulled in with their RV on Sunday to spend a few days with us, too. More big family eating opportunities, including a New Year’s cookout with a bunch of our neighbors and biking buddies.

So not until all the Wilsons were departed – Jim and Ginny south to Ft. Meyers and Greg back to the frigid north of Indiana – did the ping-pong match of our holiday season finally roll to a stop. Which left us a week before our cruise to Cozumel.

…Our what???!!!!

6 November – 11 -- The SSCA Gam in Melbourne

The annual convention of the Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA), across the state in Melbourne, once again followed hard on the heels of the St. Pete Boat Show. After we wound up our extended stay at the St. Pete Pier, we found ourselves with just two days to kill before our reservation in Melbourne, so instead of heading home to Crystal River, we made the dangerous decision to spend them at Lazy Days RV Center’s Rally Park.

Lazy Days Temptation

Stopping at Lazy Days is always a risky decision because not only do they have the world’s largest selection of RVs, but they surely have the world’s most polished sales force. Our interest this time was their previously-owned units, our curiosity sparked by several other RVers we met at the St. Pete boat show. A couple of the guys we’d met last year had traded up to used 40’ units since we'd seen them, plus we’d made friends with another couple Bill and DeDe who’d pulled into the show grounds pulling a 27’ coffee and ice cream concession trailer behind their 42’ Monaco. Bill and DeDe pursue quite the retirement career building and selling these concession trailers in between working them at special events in whatever part of the country they have the itch to be! With our “new” split identity as part-time stateside residents raising our living costs, Don was intrigued with the idea of Bill and DeDe's successful-while-mobile business.

To make a long story short, we did NOT buy a new coach at Lazy Days…which is not to say were weren’t seriously tempted, because in fact, after we sat down and gave our salesman the item-by-item description of desired amenities, features and décor, damned if he didn’t come up with one that seemed near perfect – a 2006 Monaco Camelot with a cherry interior and a bath and a half layout The most amazing (and frightening) thing about RV shopping is how easily you can persuade yourself that six-digit numbers are a good deal! Hah! Fortunately, reason prevailed…this time at least. Well, actually we were saved when someone else bought the coach out from under us. We’ll never know what might have happened otherwise, but I can tell you the relief was unanimous!

However we did enjoy a full 24-hour day as temporary Crowne Club members. Lazy Days is well known for providing free hot dogs and burgers to any RVer or wannabe that stops by. The Crowne Club takes that another step UP. It is Lazy Days’ upscale social center for its high-end coach owners, providing with free drinks and gourmet buffets several times a day in a country club style atmosphere. Like proper cruisers, we made used every hour of our pass before slipping out and continuing on our way. It is a seductive amenity.


Every year Don and I seem to have more invested in the Seven Seas Cruising Association's annual Melbourne Gam – seminars we are participating in, speakers we want to hear, friends we want to rendezvous with. This year I had also contributed to SSCA’s big membership and attendance drive by writing an article on the organization for the November issue of Latitudes and Attitudes. Unfortunately, with hurricane season seeming to linger later and later every year, many of the southbound ICW (Intracoastal Waterway ) cruisers were held up farther north by requirements of their insurance companies, so despite all the efforts at the shows and in the press, overall attendance was lighter than hoped. The good news is, it was probably balanced out somewhat by a great turnout at the smaller Annapolis Gam in October.

This year Kathy Parsons, Pam Wall and I were invited to bring the "Women & Cruising" seminar we do at the boat shows to the Gam. On Friday morning, we conducted a “forum” in our usual format in the large seminar room, while on Saturday Kathy and I continued with a more informal roundtable gathering. Both were fully attended, with great questions and exchanges. I’m not quite sure why our seminar is always so successful, over others that try to do much the same thing. I think it is because there are the three of us, with our different backgrounds and resumes. We make a visually and intellectually interesting dog-and-pony show, plus we have put together some very nice handouts. While at the boat shows, most attendees are neophytes, at the Gam, of course, many of the women sitting in are at least as experienced as we are, if not more so! It was a very rewarding exchange, and I was able to recruit several more Admirals to contribute to my Admiral’s Angle column.

I also had been invited to be on a panel called “Working Your Boat Offshore” where I was the sole woman panelist with august speakers like Jim Corenman, Dave Abbott and David Lynn. The moderator, SSCA board member Jack Tyler, had chosen to focus on four main topics – watch standing and collision avoidance, MOB prevention and general safety, avoiding and dealing with illness offshore, and preparing for and managing heavy weather. Each of us led off on one of the topics, while the rest of us followed up with our comments. Jack’s format was a lot more controlled than the open forum we usually pursue in Women & Cruising and I was afraid that it might end up more stilted, but in fact I think it ended up quite informative. I know I picked up a lot of ideas for my column.

Meanwhile Don had another good turnout for his hand-on roundtable about watermakers, once again with the help of Dick Murray of Murray Marine who again brought up a working demo model of one of Spectra’s popular units. Don also got recruited to man the booth selling Clamp-Tite tools in the vendor’s hall by company owner Sonora. Since Don was given his first Clamp-Tite four or five years ago, he has been an avid promoter of this handy gizmo, so it was natural for him to become an actual salesman. My only complaint about all the time he spent selling Clamp-Tites was that he missed attending some of the other lectures with me, like the Abbot family’s “Circumnavigating aboard a Catamaran” (the Abbots, in addition to Donna’s being one of my Admirals, are friends of our friends Tom and Bette Lee aboard Quantum Leap.) and “Using Your (Offshore) Medical Kit with More Confidence.” Wow, that one was an eye-opener!

As usual, one of the best parts of the Gam is the chance to socialize with friends cruising in other parts of the world. The Gam’s official social events are the Friday Cocktail party and the Saturday BBQ. The cocktail party was a good time this year, with a chance to meet lots of new people. The BBQ night however was too damn chilly to be relaxing. Fortunately, our friends Dave and Sherry of Soggy Paws made November their month to visit Stateside from the Rio Dulce, so Friday after the cocktail party we were able to have dinner with them and fellow CSY owners Ed and Daisy of Siesta up from the Keys, as well as get to the annual CSY owners breakfast Sunday morning attended by probably a dozen CSY fellows. Sunday evening after the Gam packed up we enjoyed a laid-back evening at the RV with Kathy and her partner Bill over grilled steaks and football. Kathy and Bill are taking off for six weeks in Argentina while they consider swapping Bill’s Hale Kai for a catamaran! Kathy’s and my friendship takes place almost exclusively via email and Skype, with our paths rarely crossing other than during the seminars. God, cruisers make for such interesting and flexible friendships!