||Some sneer at cruising around the oceans and seas on vast ships. Why? Sure, it’s more authentic to book passage on a rusty freighter, hop off at strange ports with your duffel bag over your shoulder, a guitar in one hand, then work as a dishwasher while you learn the local ways before striking off alone through the jungle to learn secrets of a Toad Cult from some wizened man in a shack, but it’s also authentic to expire of dengue fever or spend a shuddering night evacuating your body into the ditch because you ate really bad fish or really good peppers. Authenticity is nice but clean sheets are nice, too.
I had the opportunity not only to take a cruise in the Caribbean but sing for my supper: my friend Hugh Hewitt, radio pundit and law professor and lawyer-type guy, hosts these cruises here and there with like-minded souls, and he invited me to come along and give speeches. I could bring wife and child, too. So the hiatus was a working vacation of a sorts, although if you call closing the cigar bar every night after a day of touching dolphins or ooh-ahhing at rain forests work, then you have lived a life of unimaginable ease. I just call it “heaven.”
We flew out the day before, because I could just imagine a killer snowstorm pounding and grounding all planes. Landed in Ft. Lauderdale, which has its charms. Lovely beachfront. We ate by the ocean and when we were done walked out on the sand and watched the water paw the coast with loud theatrical greed. Sorry, waves; you can eat as much of Florida as you wish, but if you’re thinking you’ll be tasting Kansas any time soon you can forget it. But by all means, keep it up. The next morning we went to the huge passenger terminal - three million people come through the city to board ships, the brochure said, and I’d imagine an equal number get off - and right away I could tell this was different from the cattle-call that began our voyage a few years ago on another line. For one thing, there’s the ship itself:
The ship: is the Navigator of the Regent Line. Thirty-three thousand tons, top speed 20 knots; crew compliment of 400, 350 passengers. Destination: Cayman Islands, my beloved Cozumel, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala. We’ve “cruised” before, but that was chilly Alaska on a vessel of such gargantuan proportions the staircases were designed to accommodate 500 people hell-bent on making the 2 PM buffet before 2:59, when they struck the tables and set up the 3 PM buffet which was TOTALLY DIFFERENT, because the deep-fried shrimp had lemon wedges instead of limes. This ship has no food deck. I repeat: no food deck. What does it have?
Oh my. The room:
This was a standard cabin. Walk-in closet, big bathroom with a shower and a tub. But no toilet! Odd. No, it had one, complete with a sign warning you not to put anything into it except, well, you know. The sign had an illustration that showed someone throwing a bottle into the toilet. In a way, I understood; on this vessel, you were king, and if you wanted to throw a champagne bottle into the toilet then BY GUM you could do so, and one of the servants would appear from nowhere and knock it to shards with a small gold hammer, wrap the glass in a flannel blanket and back out, bowing, apologizing.
Wife and child are with me, and poor Natalie is one of three kids on board. A much younger girl and an older boy. Natalie balked at this, of course: I’ll be the only kid on the ship! No you won’t. Well if I make a friend they’ll be older or younger! No they won’t. So my reassurances were revealed as a lie early on, but she was mollified by several details:
The food. I showed her the menu, and informed her that she can have anything from room service whenever the mood strikes. Do they have macaroni and cheese? Alas, no, but the menu does have “Cheese and macaroni.” Hot chocolate late at night? But of course. It’s all included. Adult-wise, holy crow: this is the first minibar I’ve ever seen where you can take anything and not worry about a nine-dollar charge for a bottle of water. Fully stocked, all your
What of the bars? you ask. There were four. One by the pool, Galileo at the stern, Stars Lounge in the middle - it opened into the theater - and a piano bar with a cigar-room next to it. Drinks are free. If you’re thinking rotgut barpour, no: Maker’s Mark was the standard bourbon pour; MacAllan 12 was standard. If you wanted Johnny Walker Blue, you had to pay. The house vodka? He shrugged. “It depends. Belvedere, Chopin, Ketel One, Absolut.” He paused. “There are no vodkas that cost money here.”
As I would learn over the next week, this dapper fellow was A) the world’s best bartender, and B) Maltese.
(BTW, When we got to our room there was a bottle of champagne on ice and a card that said we could, if we so desired, order up to two bottles of liquor on our trip, no charge. So this is devoted entirely to cheerfully enabling functioning alcoholics, is that it? I would have been amazed to find that one bottle of Coke was free, but two bottles of Chopin vodka?
Which led to another thought: if that’s how freely they pour the firejuice, what will dinner be like? As I found out later: truffles stuffed with fois gras.)
The entertainment. In the previous ship, we had a teeny TV in the corner of the room that showed flickery pictures. This one has a 27” flatscreen hooked up to an on-board library of 200 films.
“Is there internet?” she asked. “You said there would be internet.” I noted with dismay that it cost money - in my world, internet is free but good vodka costs money - but at the end of the day we got an envelope informing us we had a rather substantial amount of onboard credit, too. At this point I expected to be informed a Rolls-Royce automobile would be ours when we disembarked.
The Ship. It's gorgeous. Here’s the stern on the top deck, and this is half the area:
That’s the smoking area in the stern. That’s where you watch the sunset. That’s where you get an espresso and read. Because yes, yes, right by the pool a deck below there’s a machine that runs at all ours, dispensing the finest coffee I’ve ever had in my life.
The piano bar / library / internet room:
After we’d gotten into our cabin I made another tour, just vibrating with the fun of it all, and ran across my co-lecturer: David Allen White, former Shakespeare instructor for the naval academy. Think: Falstaff’s Smarter Brother. We’d met once before, years ago, and now here we were, a team. He’s done this a few times, and had his lectures in hand. Me, I had no idea. But since Hugh wouldn’t be joining us on the first day we would run the welcoming cocktail party and give the first talks the next day.
But we hadn't left yet. We had to have Boat Drill first. It's always slightly unnerving - just as airplane safety drills would be different if you put on the O2 masks and stood on the wing of the plane. At least you don’t hear the phrase “in the unlikely event of a water landing” on a ship. But airplane safety drills seem so remote and strange because you figure: if we need to do any of this, we are dead. With ships it’s different. My favorite moment came when a comely Aussie lass described how to jump off the ship. Grab this side with one hand, cover your mouth thus, and step off the edge of the boat. Do not jump; walk off the edge, and into eternity.
We got underway at five. We stood on our balcony and watched the land fall away. A Coast Guard vessel bounced alongside, the crew waving; then they saw a fishing boat coming in, angling towards us, heading at a course best described as “stupid,” and the Coast Guard veered away to gesture at the fishing boat with some maritime-specific gestures that meant “You. Idiot.”
The hard earth sank behind us, and all was water. Night fell; the swells rose and the ship knifed through the ancient sea; we went inside, and considered the question that has faced every mariner.
Steak? Or the fish?
t's the next day now. I don't even know what day it is, and I don't know where we are. This is off to a marvellous start.
The reception was wonderful; the people are smart and funny. We had a gargantuan meal down at the Compass Rose restaurant, where there are courses between courses, more plates than you'd see on an old Ed Sullivan circus act, and dessert in between dessert courses. I had the tuna appetizer, the salad, the pasta course, the steak, and a red wine so could it could heal lepers just by describing the label.
Woke to wind, and the slight creaks of the ship. Threw open the curtains, stepped out on the balcony:
I mean, cold. Cold and windy and wet. Most of the first day at sea, which I’d hoped to spend luxuriating in the sun with a cold beverage and a good book, was spent indoors. Wind, the clouds’ handmaiden in the task of despoiling vacations, added to the amusement with a choppy sea. Well, this just meant we'd have a full house for the lecture. I talked about the media, David talked about recent scholarship that unlocked the mystery of a Shakespeare poem. I felt right at home - it's been a long time since I've spoken extemporaneously without notes for an hour, but it felt good.
Went to afternoon tea with Natalie - it's an excuse for dessert at 4 PM - but the boat was really rocking, and her stomach was trending urp-wise. Took her back to the cabin, where I am now; wife is also green. The trip is off to a rather theatrical start.
Then came the puking and the groaning and the urping, but not for me. Not yet, anyway - as I write this we’re three hours into the whee-ha up-and-down, and wife and child are down, drawn, pale, staring at the horizon. Me, I have an appetite. Perhaps I inherited sea legs from my father.
Hah! The captain, who always sounds nervous and unhappy when he comes on, has informed us that this craptacular weather, destined now to continue for “a nautical eternity,” means we are skipping the Grand Caymans entirely, as it’s not safe to tender there. We are proceeding directly to Cozumel, where we will stay for two days. Fine by me; I love Coz, but the amusing part is this: we were supposed to pick up Hewitt in the Grand Caymans tomorrow; he may be there now. Will he make it to the boat at all?
The swells are getting worse; the ship continues to heave and creak. I am looking forward to a good meal and a good drink.
The Next Day After the Storm of the Ages
Oh my. Well. The tea with my daughter was the last time she was able to stand; after that she gave herself over entirely to the sofa, and my wife was flat in bed, and I was carting out bags every few minutes. Grim business. After they were spent and unconscious - or just feigning it so I would leave, and take my lack of infirmities with me - I went to dinner with the Executive Concierge, the Fetching Mrs. Hewitt and a sweet retired couple. The husband portion was with GE for decades, spent many years working out the problems of automatic ice machines. A grateful nation knows not his name; an unsung hero.
In the middle of the meal there was a horrendous crash - a stack of dishes had gone over, and in the same hideous lurch half the wine on board that wasn’t secured was lost as well. The swells got higher and higher; the boat ploughed up and down, lifted high, smashed low. After dinner I went up to the top lounge, only to find it deserted. The other lounge: empty. Everyone was in their rooms, puking, or up on deck practicing “Nearer My God to Thee” in case the lifeboats needed the traditional accompaniment. On the way back to my room I passed the piano bar, and heard someone shout “Webber stole that from the Adagio of Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony!” and I suspected it might be my co-lecturer, David Allen White. And so it was! He was doing “Name that tune” with some other hardy souls, and I sat down to play. In addition to being the Shakespeare instructor at the Naval Academy, he had significant experience in musical theater, and knew the answer to everything, to the dismay of the other tables playing along. But it was all in good fun, and everyone drank like the booze was free and the ship was in peril and we had one chance to enjoy ourselves before the prow snapped and we thundered down into the depths. It’s moments like those you find the measure of yourself as a man, and realize that you’re playing show tunes trivia, and wonder how it came to this.
We closed the bar, and I made it back to my cabin bouncing off the wall, lifted in air, slammed against the other wall. Horrible creaks came from behind doors marked CREW ONLY - we’re talking Titanic-strength creaks. I laid down, closed my eyes, and rose and fell with the ship, thinking: it’s been a good day. A good life, yes, but also a good day.
In the morn: All was clear. The sun was out. The sea was glass. I was back home, in Cozumel.