They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it; for it is money they have and peace they lack.
  -James Earl Jones "Field of Dreams"
and don't go mistaking paradise for that home across the road
  -Bob Dylan "Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest"

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Downtown Phoenix Videos

Phoenix is planning a new park called Civic Space. It will be between Central Avenue and 1st Avenue, between Central Station and the old Post Office. ASU Downtown is across Central from it. The City Council has tentatively approved a controversial piece of art by Boston artist Janet Echelman. Here is a video on a similar piece in Portugal.

A couple of blocks south, 44 Monroe, a new high rise condo development at First Avenue and Monroe, is about to open. Here is a video promoting 44 Monroe.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Willo article

The following article appeared on a travel website called Great Escapes.

Phoenix's Willo District is a cottage industry

PHOENIX -- The ceiling beams were hewn by hand in 1922, and Jeff Cirulla points to the chisel marks as he stands in the living room of this Spanish colonial treasure. He appreciates the workmanship all the more, he says, now that the painstaking task of removing layers of purple latex paint has been completed.

Elsewhere in the neighborhood, residents proudly show off leaded-glass windows, murals on backyard walls and scored concrete floors. In a cozy California bungalow, Jeremy and Denise Staley indicate the newly installed hexagonal tile in the kitchen; a classic touch.

"We took out the granite countertops," Denise says.

These are the people of Phoenix's Willo Historic District, and this is their annual home tour. Held during the winter (the next one is Feb. 10), about 15 homeowners open up their storybook cottages, most built in the 1920s and '30s in such styles as English Cotswold, Spanish mission and French provincial.

The homes were designed long before the imperative for entertainment centers, walk-in closets and a separate bedroom for each and every child. But, for the sake of abundant charm, the residents make adjustments.

"A substantial majority have a storage facility somewhere, for the winter clothes," Bob Cannon, president of the neighborhood association, said with a chuckle. "The lack of storage and a garage is a challenge for some of the (newly arrived) suburbans to handle."

A historic district in Phoenix? Well, you have to stretch the concept a bit -- and New Englanders would split their sides with laughter -- but it is, after all, a young city. The Willo gained protection as a special conservation district in the 1980s, which spared it the distressing trend of so many of Southern California's quaint postwar neighborhoods; no mansionization is allowed here.

(Willo, by the way, is not a careless misspelling of the tree. It's a merger of two original voting precincts here, Wilshire and Los Olivos.)

The cultural sophistication of the neighborhood's residents has also spawned a number of similarly minded businesses. An embryonic antiques row has formed along the neighborhood's southern edge, on McDowell Road. Nearby, a tiny bakery is turning out marvelous breads and rolls, and is also affiliated with (and is supplying the baked goods for) a respectable adjacent cafe, housed in a former flower shop.

A funky women's-wear shop and a garden store are making a go of it in the northwest corner of the neighborhood. And a playful boutique hotel has opened nearby.

The Phoenix tourist is the beneficiary of all this. The neighborhood, directly west of Central Avenue in the midtown area, is also convenient to both the incomparable Heard Museum, home to an astonishing collection of historic Southwest Indian art and crafts, and the Phoenix Art Museum.

Visitors intrigued by the cottages may simply drive into the neighborhood, park, and stroll along the sidewalks. They'll likely find plenty of company. Unlike most of urban Arizona, where people huddle in walled housing developments and dash to air-conditioned vehicles, the Willo district has more the feel of "Father Knows Best."

The homes have benches, porch swings, Adirondack chairs and fire rings out front. Residents walk their dogs on sidewalks shaded by parkway trees. Kids ride their bikes in the streets. And Phoenix's notoriously manic surface-street traffic is cooled off by traffic circles, speed bumps and artificially created dead-end streets (steel gates installed on east-west streets prevent through traffic to Central).

Antique merchants who appreciate the sensibilities of the neighborhood are beginning to sprout along West McDowell Road at the neighborhood's southern extremity. The rents are cheap, because this business district is still a bit rough around the edges.

"It's not like Melrose Avenue or Santa Monica Boulevard yet," said Cannon, "but it's going to get there. We have a Jack-in-the-Box, which is an eyesore."

Indeed. Also, directly across from a funky little coffee place called Willow House (they didn't get the memo about the spelling), there is a huge pawn shop with a sign that advertises "jewelry, guns, music, tools, coins."

Sage is one of the better antique shops here. It specializes in European salvage -- iron gates that can be mounted on walls as decor, chandeliers and other weathered Old World finds. A clerk noted that owner Kendra Vermeer has a buyer based in Europe, and makes regular treks to the Port of Long Beach to meet the container ships.

Blue Crate Findings has some beautiful glassware, as well as distressed-wood furniture, and, from China, wooden gates, screens and painted boxes.

For furnishings of a much more recent vintage, there is D.A.'s Modern, carrying such midcentury indulgences as pole lamps, spindly dinette chairs and bright-colored dishware.

But it's evident that antique commerce is a chancy proposition along here. In February, Kismet was one of the more intriguing shops on McDowell, but when I swung by on a return visit in September, it was gone, replaced by Willo Antiques. Another big antique store up the street had gone out of business, its windows defenseless against graffiti vandals.

In another corner of the neighborhood, on North 15th Avenue, the Purple Lizard carries funky and flamboyant women's clothing, including what it describes as "wearable tie dye treasures." Also for sale are local art and body products -- perhaps a bottle of lemon thyme oatmeal and rice bath salts?

Sharing the same building is Southwest Gardener, with its metal garden sculptures, inlaid-tile tables and chairs, and large, ceramic-pot fountains that are positively musical when they're all running at once.

When it's time to restore your strength with a bite to eat, head no farther than the Willo Grocery, a neighborhood bakery and deli that is worth a visit if only to savor the rich scents emanating from the ovens. The fresh loaves of bread laid out on a display table might include -- as they did on my visit -- currant walnut, cranberry hazelnut, onion rye, raisin challah and apricot almond.

The grocery is affiliated with a restaurant next door, one that adheres to the neighborhood's spirit of preservation. The building was a flower shop back in the 1940s, and a classic neon sign on the roof reads "My Florist." Rather than tearing that down and making the place over, the owners kept it and simply called the place My Florist Cafe.

Inside, there are exposed steel beams and a concrete floor on which thousands of vases undoubtedly dripped over the years. The decor is otherwise stylish, with bands of purple lighting, green walls and potted palms. The picture windows, which once showcased the flower arrangements, now contribute to the sunny, airy interior.

My Florist Cafe is a very popular lunch spot. So popular that, well, they serve the same menu of salads and sandwiches at dinnertime. Fortunately, it's possible to make a substantial nighttime meal of the big salads and perhaps the daily soup. The effort is earnest, though the service and the kitchen seem to suffer occasional lapses.

On the plus side, all the baked goods are from the bakery next door, and the wine selection is respectable. If the heat of Phoenix provokes a thirst for beer, order up the Four Peaks Kilt Lifter, a Scottish-style ale from a microbrewery in nearby Tempe.

A neighborhood with an emerging sense of style can use a boutique hotel to match, and the Willo has one nearby in the Clarendon, which lies just off its northern edge.

The boxy building has been spiced up with white paint and bold, vertical blue stripes. The pool deck is also a shocking blue color. At night, a courtyard wall becomes an ever-changing light show of pink, blue and green floodlights.

The rooms have high-end beds, linens and toiletries, and also some clever design touches. There is a sun shade over each window, but on the wall next to it is a sheet of plywood painted with a watercolor image and mounted on rails. This can be slid across the window for greater privacy and total darkness -- yet with artsy flair rather than the sterility of a drapery.

The staff is very friendly, and the inclusive perks are free phone calls (local and long distance) and chauffeur service. Providing the latter might be something of a public service, given the Clarendon's popularity with young business travelers fond of the clubs.

Directly west of the Willo neighborhood is a real municipal treasure, 80-acre Encanto Park. Among its offerings are a golf course, a kids' amusement park with a 1948 carousel, and a lagoon where paddleboats can be rented for a gentle float among the ducks and geese. Fishing is even permitted, for trout, channel catfish, sunfish and grass carp.

It's a relaxing retreat in a city that seems to be in a perpetual rush. Don't be surprised if you encounter a few Willo residents here, too. After a few days in a cozy cottage, Encanto Park's wide-open spaces can be therapeutic for them, too.


WHERE: The Willo neighborhood is in Phoenix's midtown area, directly west of Central Avenue (which, be warned, has been a nightmare of construction for months). It is bordered on the south by McDowell Road, on the west by 15th Avenue, on the north by Thomas Road.

HOME TOUR: Next year's Historic Willo Home Tour will be held Feb. 10. Tickets cost $12.75 if purchased online in advance, $15 on the day of the event. Generally, about 15 homes are open on the tour. Information: www.

RETAIL: Blue Crate Findings, 137 W. McDowell Road, (602) 548-8280; D.A.'s Modern, 527-B W. McDowell Road, (602) 252-0001; Purple Lizard Boutique, 2827 N. 15th Ave., (602) 728-0980; Sage, 335 W. McDowell Road, (602) 258-3033; Southwest Gardener, 2809 N. 15th Ave., (602) 279-9510,; Willo Antiques, 133 W. McDowell Road, (602) 266-0939.

MUSEUMS: Heard Museum, 2301 N. Central Ave.,, (602) 252-8848; Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 N. Central Ave.,, (602) 257-1222.

DINING: My Florist Cafe, 534 W. McDowell Road, (602) 254-0333,; Willo Grocery, 530 W. McDowell Road, (602) 441-5450; Willow House, 149 W. McDowell Road, (602) 252-0272.

LODGING: Clarendon Hotel and Suites, 401 W. Clarendon Ave. Room rates from $99., (602) 252-7363.

INFORMATION: Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau:, (877) 225-5749.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


I got done with class early today, and after going back to the hotel to do email, etc., headed north up 7th Ave. I went past Penn Station/Madison Square Garden, then headed east on 34th St. (as in Miracle on...) and walked past Macy's, turned north on Broadway at Herald Square, walked through Times Square, up to the Ed Sullivan Theatre. I found Rupert Jee's Hello Deli but it was closed. Letterman is on tape this week so maybe Rupert took the week off... Continued up to 56th Street where Patsy's is halfway between Broadway and 8th Ave. Took the picture but it was only 4:30 and since I wanted to eat there, I headed on to kill some time. I turned north on 8th Ave. and went on to Columbus Circle. I walked around the outside of the circle, saw the entrance to Central Park, and then went to the middle of the circle and sat on a bench for a while and watched some skateboard kids. Finally headed back to Patsy's. I was concerned that they would not be serving dinner that early (a little after 5) but they were and there were several people eating. Patsy's is on two levels, there are about 18 tables on the main floor and another 25 or so upstairs. I got a table downstairs. There are pictures of the wall of famous people who have eaten there and signed their pictures (Danny Thomas, Mickey Mantle, Lyndon Johnson, etc.) I think I saw Larry David's picture. The waiters and maitre'd were mostly older (apparently) Italian men. I had a bottle of San Pelegrino, the spaghetti and meatballs and an espresso afterwards. The sauce was great, as was the bread on the table. The meatballs were large (I think there were 3 or 4). They were tasty and a little more bready than I expected. An elderly couple from Huntington Beach who really wanted to chat were at the table next to me. The man cooked a lot an he had discovered Patsy's in a gourmet magazine and this was there first time there too. After they left, a new couple was seated. It took me a minute to figure it out, but the man was Willard Scott (Today Show guy). It was confirmed when the waiter greeted with "Good to see you again, Mr. Scott." Patsy's was a lot of fun and has great food. I look forward to going back there next year with Susan. After dinner I went back to Broadway and retrace my steps back to the hotel. Times Square was really jumping by then. The city is much more walkable than you would think. One of the weirdest experiences is crossing the street in a crowd. You will be standing with about 100 people waiting to cross. About 50 locals will all start up before the light changes, then the light will change, then 50 tourists will start. If you start to get he hang of it, there is both the danger of getting rear-ended by the locals AND the danger of running into a tourist.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

NLCS plans

This ended up being more complicated than you would think. Skipping how it got there, I am going to Game 1 (Thursday, 10/11, 5:37) with Ron. Then on Friday night, Susan and I will go to Game 2 at 7:18. For Game 6, if it is necessary, I will be coming back from New York and will miss it, but I traded away the tickets that I had for it (that is how I got the Game 2 tickets). I then have tickets for Game 7, if necessary, on Saturday 10/20 (time TBD).

Monday, October 08, 2007



From: Hall, Derrick []
Sent: Monday, October 08, 2007 12:45 PM
Subject: RE: TBS-HD and Cox

I'll try. Thanks for t
he update. I have DirecTV and was unaware of Cox.

Derrick M. Hall
Arizona Diamondbacks

-----Original Message-----
From: Paul Benjamin []
Sent: Monday, October 08, 2007 12:43 PM US Mountain Standard Time
To: Hall, Derrick
Subject: TBS-HD and Cox


Congratulations on the latest success. This is a wonderful time to be a Diamondbacks fan.

Do you have any insight into what is keeping Cox from making the TBS-HD games available to its subscribers? They appear to have a national agreement in p
lace as many other Cox markets have added it. They should not have any sort of bandwidth constraint as they recently added and then later removed the NFL Network HD when there were preseason games in HD.

With the Dbacks in the playoffs, Cox certainly has antagonized a lot of people (and DirecTV has added it). If you have any leverage with these folks....

Keep on winning,

Paul Benjamin


From: Hall, Derrick []
Sent: Monday, October 08, 2007 5:35 PM
To: Paul Benjamin
Subject: RE: TBS-HD and Cox

You and I get things done Paul!!!

-----Original Message-----
From: Paul Benjamin []
Sent: Monday, October 08, 2007 5:26 PM
To: Hall, Derrick
Subject: RE: TBS-HD and Cox

Wow, that's great, thanks.

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Hall, Derrick []
> Sent: Monday, October 08, 2007 4:33 PM
> To:
> Subject: RE: TBS-HD and Cox
> They will now convert the Mojo Channel for these games. Just go to
> Channel 721. Way to go!
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Paul Benjamin []
> Sent: Monday, October 08, 2007 12:43 PM
> To: Hall, Derrick
> Subject: TBS-HD and Cox
> Derrick,
> Congratulations on the latest success. This is a wonderful time to be

> a Diamondbacks fan.
> Do you have any insight into what is keeping Cox from making the
> TBS-HD games available to its subscribers? They appear to have a
> national agreement in place as many other Cox markets have added it.
> They should
> not have any sort of bandwidth constraint as they recently added and
> then later removed the NFL Network HD when there were preseason games
> in HD.
> With the Dbacks in the playoffs, Cox certainly has antagonized a lot
> of people (and DirecTV has added it). If you have any leverage with
> these folks....
> Keep on winning,
> Paul
> --
> Paul Benjamin

Saturday, October 06, 2007


Diamondbacks sweep the Cubs, taking game 3, 5-1. Liván Hernández is shown here doing his best José Valverde imitation after one of 4 Diamondbacks double plays. The National League Championship starts Thursday at Chase Field against Colorado, Francis against Webb. Looks like a 5:00 game. We have tickets to Games 1, 6 and 7. I will be on a plane coming back from New York during Game 6 so I have to figure out what to do with the tickets. If they advance to the World Series I have to hope that the NLCS does not end in 6 games. We only have WS tickets if the NLCS goes 4, 5 or 7 games.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

I think it might have been us that won this game

The Diamondbacks won Game 1 of the National League Division Series tonight, beating the Chicago Cubs 3-1. This was typical 2007 Dbacks. They looked awful at times. I was yelling at Mark Reynolds (who eventually got the go-ahead home run) on multiple occasions. Eric Byrnes accomplished nothing at the plate. Brandon Webb gave up a key hit to the Cubs starting pitcher and later loaded the bases primarily on walks. Chris Snyder hit into a double play when we really needed some offense. But somehow, inexplicably, they won.

This was going to be Wrigley West, we were told. The Cubs fans would dominate and take over our house. Frankly I have seen both Dodgers and Red Sox fans be more vocal this year than the blue-clad morons in attendance at tonight's game. Every time they tried to start a "Let's go Cubbies" chant they were quickly drowned out. Usually I wish that this bunch would simply pack up and move back to Chicago if they liked it so well there. Tonight, though, it was kind of fun to have them around, to see them shouted down by the sea of Sedona Red fans and disappointed by the play on the field. I think that the big difference in tonight's game was the crowd. I have never seen, except in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, more cheering, more standing in key situations, more acting like actual baseball fans, than I saw from tonight's sellout crowd. When they do the Cheers and Jeers in tomorrow's paper, I think that we were the "player of the game".

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Playoffs in SD

The Baseball playoffs start in 13 days. All but two of the games of the National League Division Series and the American League Division Series will be on TBS (the other two will be on sister station TNT). All of the National League Championship Series will be on TBS. TBS has rolled out a new High Definition channel (TBS-HD) just in time for the playoffs. All games will be in HD on TBS-HD. As of this writing, DirecTV would appear to be the only place to get this channel. Comcast cable has announced that it will start carrying TBS-HD October 1. People are assuming that Time Warner Cable, whose parent company owns TBS, will also have it. There has been no word on any plan from Cox Cable. The deal between MLB and TBS was announced a year ago. There was plenty of time to work out agreements, but as it stands today, absent some sort of surprise, the Diamondbacks might have to make it to Fox's coverage of the World Series before we seem them in HD in the post-season. There would actually be an outside chance of a TNT-HD game in game 4 of the NLDS on Sunday 10/7. Cox goes out of their way to make sure that exhibition games on the NFL Network are carried in HD but they can't seem to work this one out. The galling thing is that they just announced that they will soon add HD versions of Discovery Channel, TLC, Animal Planet and The Science Channel. (They already carry Discovery HD Theatre, a separate channel.) And they will of course have TBS-HD eventually, just probably not in time for the playoffs.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Thanks, Paul, for the feedback. There continue to be major differences
between us and any other talk stations. I appreciate the email.


Russ Hill
Director of News & Sports Programming
FM News/Talk 92.3 KTAR, Sports 620 KTAR
Bonneville International, Phoenix 602.200.2660

> From: Paul Benjamin
> Date: Tue, 18 Sep 2007 15:30:57 -0700
> To: ,
> Subject: New format
> I tuned in to listen to the news yesterday during afternoon drive time and
> instead of Ted Simons I got right wing drivel. I had to check to make sure
> I had the right button. If I wanted KFYI I would listen to it. I have
> listened to your station since the 1970s. I will continue to listen in the
> morning but you have lost a long time listener in the afternoon. I want
> unbiased news, not far right "opinion".
> --
> Paul Benjamin

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Desk Arrived

When we went to the beach in July, we drove up to Valencia to visit a store that we had found online. We ordered a desk and chair. Solid oak, the desk is 82" wide. It is exactly what we wanted and is beautiful. I bought a new 19" HP wide screen LCD monitor, which doesn't end up taking up any more space that the old 15" because it has builtin speakers. The chair should arrive in a couple of weeks.

Friday, September 14, 2007


Katie is leaving us today, I have to take her to the vet one last time at 5:15. She is 13 years old. She was acquired as a kitten from the humane society, our second choice but vaulted into first place when the guy ahead of her turned out to be, well, a guy. I have had 5 cats in my lifetime and she has lived much longer than any of them. She has been a good friend to us for a long time. She always favored Susan and Mike over me but there were enough times when she would sit in my lap or purr when I petted her that I know she liked me too. A relatively small cat, declawed when she was very young, she still was a fierce defender of her turf. We are going to miss her a lot. We have known that this would happen for a couple of weeks now. She has a heart condition that cannot be treated. The last several days have been hard, but she has gotten to go outside a few more times, to sit with Susan, to be brushed, to eat some tuna, and we have had a chance to appreciate her and to say goodbye.

She is a great cat and despite the pain I am glad that we brought her home and that she spent all of this time with us.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Current status of my 7:30 San Francisco flight.

This was supposed to show the flight time, which was about 2.5 hours late. You CAN see that it is going to Oakland instead of SFO.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Talk to a Human Being

I recently ordered a book from Amazon, one that was technical in nature. I had a book on the subject but I ordered this one specifically because it was current, a November 2006 edition. Imagine my unhappiness when I received a UPS package containing a 2003 printing of the book, about the same vintage as the book that I already had. This is a subject that is fairly dynamic and a 2003 edition is about as useful as last month's newspapers. So I went to their website and looked all over the place for a phone number but ended up begrudgingly doing the return via the website. The closest reason-for-returning in the dropdown list was that the product was defective. There was, however, a second box that popped up allowing me to explain what was wrong. I packed the thing up and finally had a chance to visit a post office this morning. (I didn't know if the book and package was over 13 oz. If it was you could not drop it in a mailbox.) About two hours ago UPS showed up with another copy of the 2003 edition of the book.


Then I found this website, a great list of how to talk to a human being at a huge list of companies. Bookmark this thing, it is invaluable.

I think I got Amazon straight. The nice lady in India that I spoke to said that they were going to stop selling this book until they got it straight, that I should check back in 10 days and if it was back on the website it would be safe to order. Meanwhile, I will get a refund but will have to visit the post office once again.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Two Great Pictures

These two guys were the story as the D-backs won today's game against the Cubs 5-4, taking the series 2-1 and the season series 4-2. Chris Young (I just think this picture of Young patrolling Centerfield looks sort of artsy) got two home runs that accounted for 4 of the 5 runs. José Valverde got the save, one scary affair that was resolve by a strike-em-out-throw-em-out (at third!) double play and then a 3-1 force out at first after a difficult grab by Tony Clark. The picture shows Valverde's reaction. I wish I had a picture of the coaches going nuts in the bullpen. Lead in the NL West returns to 3 games as the Padres get clobbered by Philadelphia.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Currently Reading (Freaky Deaky)

This is one of his best. It is the late 80s and the characters were all in Ann Arbor in the late 60s and early 70s.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Four Enthusiastic Thumbs Up

As I drove home from work on Thursday, I was stopped at the light at 3rd Ave and McDowell, next to the Willow House. In a car behind me was a young woman, maybe 17 and what I assumed was her younger brother, probably about 14. They looked like they would have been comfortable hanging out at the Willow House. The girl, who was driving, suddenly started smiling and pointing at my right rear bumper. Soon her brother was smiling and laughing as well. I gave a thumbs up gesture and they both returned the signal with both hands, smiling broadly. They had been looking at my bumper sticker that says 01.20.09 - Bush's Last Day.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

30 years ago

Yesterday was our 30th wedding anniversary. Wikipedia says the median length of a marriage in the US today is 11 years. The month we were married, Elvis died, Son of Sam was captured, and Radio Shack introduced the TRS-80 computer. The number one record that year was Tonight's the Night by Rod Stewart. Jimmy Carter was in the first year of his term, but the Soviets had not yet invaded Afghanistan. The Academy Award for Best Picture (along with Best Director and Best Actress) went to Annie Hall. The Yankees beat the LA Dodgers in the World Series. Earlier in the year Marquette beat North Carolina in the NCAA basketball championship but I missed it because I was working nights and the hotel blew my wakeup call. Later in the year, Elvis Costello and the Attractions made their first US TV appearance (on Saturday Night Live). Minimum wage was $2.30. Regular gas cost about 65 cents a gallon.

Getting it right for once

Nick Piecoro
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 7, 2007 09:00 AM

In a surprising turn of events, the Diamondbacks and outfielder Eric Byrnes have reached agreement on a three-year extension worth in the neighborhood of $30 million, a deal that comes less than three weeks after the sides broke off contract talks.

A press conference will be held at 1:30 p.m. today at Chase Field.

After the Diamondbacks offered a deal in the range of three years and $22.5 million, the sides announced they had broken off talks on July 19 while the club was in Milwaukee.

But the Diamondbacks reengaged talks sometime during last week’s series against Atlanta, and the sides quickly came to an agreement on a contract that will run through 2010.

The outfielder is in the midst of a career year, hitting .303 with 17 home runs and 28 stolen bases.

The extension almost certainly means outfielder Carlos Quentin’s days in Arizona are numbered. The club was shopping Quentin prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Fascination Review

In the summer of 1996, Susan, Mike, John and I went on a cruise. I spent a lot of time researching the cruise and exchanging information in online forums. After the cruise I wrote a review for one or more of those forums. Again, so it does not get lost, here it is.

My family and I just returned from the June 22 sailing of Carnival’s M/S Fascination. This is a review of that trip. This was my (our) first cruise. My wife and I are in our 40s and we were traveling with our two sons, aged 16 and 13. We chose a cruise over other vacation options since our boys were not interested in a lot of sightseeing. We figured that they could be busy on the ship while we checked out the ports. We chose Carnival over other cruise lines because of the informality, the emphasis on youth activities, the price and the size of the cabins. We chose the Fascination because of the itinerary. We had investigated a European cruise and ruled it out due to cost. At least with the Fascination stopping in Venezuela, we could set foot on another continent.

We wanted two cabins, this we knew. We looked at various combinations and settled on a category 11 and a category 7, together on the Verandah deck. The Fascination (and all of its Fantasy-class sister ships) has 4 main passenger decks, below the public rooms (from the bottom: Riviera, Upper, Main and Empress). Above them, the Atlantic deck (dining, shops, main show lounge), the Promenade deck (casino, bars) and the Lido deck (pool and the restaurant for breakfast and lunch buffets). The Verandah deck is above that with a small number of cabins, more open decking and a smaller pool. Still higher is the Sports deck (spa, exercise room) and the Sun deck (shuffleboard, track). We reserved cabins V10 and V12. V10 is a demi-suite with a small private verandah, V12 is an inside cabin. We paid brochure price for these in exchange for specifying the cabin. Some of the demi-suites have lifeboats in front of their verandahs.

Since we would be flying from Phoenix, Arizona, we chose to fly a day early and stay one night in a hotel. The choices were the Caribe Hilton, the El San Juan and the Sands. The Hilton is at Condado, fairly close to the pier, while the other two are at Isla Verde which is near the airport. We picked the Sands because it was the least expensive and because a tourbook gave me to believe that all rooms were oceanfront. We booked everything (flight, hotel, transfers) through Carnival. We requested late seating for dinner, reasoning that we would want time after the day’s activities before going down to dinner.

I did a lot of research, became fairly obsessed with the whole thing. I read all of the cruise tourbooks that I could find. I recommend, in particular, Fodor’s (which I bought) and Fielding’s (the 96 edition). I have little use for the Frommer’s book. I checked daily with and America Online’s cruise boards. I would like to thank all of the people who contribute to these groups, in particular to the people who answered my questions.

One issue that I spent time on was the Caracas stop. There are three ship-sponsored excursions in Venezuela, all of which are 8 hour trips. One goes into Caracas, one is a 4 wheeler trip into the interior and yet another visits colonial Tovar, a German village. We wanted to go into Caracas, but the thought of participating in a fleet of buses and being herded about was not appealing. Still, we heard horror stories of people being mugged outside the port, being dumped in the jungle by bandito cab drivers, etc. and did not know what to do. Ultimately we lucked into a unique situation where one of my wife’s employees had a relative in Caracas who was a tour guide. Along the way, though we learned that there are companies with whom you can contract a smaller tour, in a van with a few other people. At least one of them has an 800 number that you can call before you go. I did see a booth in the La Guaira pier/terminal where you could arrange such a tour as well.

Another issue was passports. Carnival said that you did not need them. However, since we were not planning the ship’s excursion in Venezuela, I feared a hassle and had the travel agent query the Venezuelan embassy. They said that we would need one. We got them and didn’t need them, although they were handy forms of identification, particularly for our younger son who had no other picture ID.

When the tickets finally arrived, there was a surprise. The ship was to leave on Saturday 6/22 and we had 2 hotel rooms booked for the night of 6/21. I assumed that we would leave early on 6/21. When the tickets arrived we learned that we would leave at 10:50 p.m. on the night of 6/20, change planes in Atlanta at 6 in the morning and arrive in San Juan at roughly 10:30 am on 6/21. It was all on Delta and of course there were no seat assignments. I called our travel agent and asked her to ask the hotel if we could get in early, whether we could get seat assignments, whether we could upgrade to first class with frequent flyer miles, etc. It took over a week and all we got out of her was seats on the Atlanta-San Juan leg and a maybe on getting in the rooms early. This travel agent was the only real negative of the trip. It seems that the agent that did all the legwork for us up front got promoted and our trip was handed off to this other person. My suspicion is that the first one got the commission and the second one had no motivation to help us.

We got to the airport early so that we could get reasonable seats and we were successful. After they started calling rows for boarding they announced that there was an equipment change and that everyone would have to wait through an interminable line to get new boarding passes. Grumble. I rarely have good luck with Delta. It worked out though and the plane was only half full. No food, movie was ‘Just Like Dad’, just awful from what I could see. Tried to sleep, couldn’t, landed in Atlanta on time. The next flight was full to the brim. Breakfast, ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’, saw it at the theater. Dosed a little bit, landed in San Juan on schedule. Gray Line was there to grab luggage, take us to hotel. The bus stopped at El San Juan first, looked a bit nicer than the Sands turned out to be.

Got out at the Sands, got our rooms, they faced the street, not the ocean. The desk would fix this problem for $40 a room. Didn’t seem worth it. Disappointing though. The Sands was a nice place with beachfront, pool, swim up bar, fake waterfalls, etc. It was a little past its prime but it added to the charm. One curious item was that one of its restaurants was Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, which is a chain that has two locations in Phoenix. Isla Verde is an area of a few hotels, a lot of high rise apartments. Walking on the street was not real interesting once you go used to the fact that San Juan was full of Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, etc. We did find one interesting (to us) place, an open air streetfront restaurant that was frequented primarily by locals and served pizza. What made it appealing is that it served cubanos, a flat Cuban sandwich which I had only found in South Florida prior to this. We ended up in this place three times and it was quite enjoyable. Back at the hotel, we spent time at the pool, enjoying some tropical drinks. The surf was quite mild here. I am told that there is surfing in Puerto Rico, but not here. So much for the fantasy of renting a boogie board and taking some waves.

There was a supermarket across the street, got some fruit and juice for breakfast. An English language San Juan newspaper was the last I saw of an up to date newspaper for the remainder of the trip. We had to check out at noon, with Gray Line due to pick us up at 2:00. Gave our bags to the bellman, went back to our restaurant for another taste of cubanos. The bus came to take us to the ship. Drove through some very depressing slums, arrived at the ship before 3:00. It was huge, towering over the terminal. Relieved to learn that we did not have to claim our luggage, that it would go straight to the cabins. Pretty hectic in the terminal. Got valid boarding passes, keys and then our picture taken. The entry was up a flight of wooden stairs to the entry on the Riviera deck. From there, forward through the ship to the elevators that would take us to the Verandah deck.

Got to our cabins, some bags already there. The cabins were as expected. The inside cabin (for the boys) was orange in decor. Our cabin was a combination of gray, dark wood/Formica and mirrors. While larger by 25 square feet, it was actually more cramped than the standard cabins. It had a queen-sized bed, a small couch, chair and coffee table, just a little more furniture than it could support. It also had a mini-bar which consisted of an array of glasses of different varieties, and a refrigerator. I was relieved to find the fridge empty, i.e. not full of stuff that they wanted to sell me. The cabinetry also included a TV and VCR. The sign and sail cards were in the cabins. We were met almost immediately by our steward, Jesus, a genial and efficient Dominican who made our stay very enjoyable and was very useful in providing reports of sightings of our kids. I set out to find out what our dinner seating was, to find out about the teen orientation meeting/party and to see if there were videos to check out. This was all disappointing. The seating was noted on the sail and sign card. We had the early seating. I went to the Beverly Hills bar to get it changed, only to find a long line. I went to the Teen Disco to find it closed for renovations. The counselor in the Camp Carnival kids’ room told me that the Diamonds are Forever Disco would be used for most teen activities. She gave me a sheet of teen activities that made me realize that many of the teen activities were during the late dinner seating, so I decided to stay with the early seating. I learned that the VCR was only for playing back your camcorder tapes or in case you had brought any tapes.

The early seating changed the afternoon plans since we had planned on going out to see Old San Juan and to pick up some pops, beer and liquor for the cruise. There was now not enough time. Old San Juan would have to wait for another trip and the supplies could be obtained in St. Thomas. We spent some time exploring the ship, playing Ping-Pong and shuffleboard. My wife and I had a drink at a bar on the Promenade deck. Tonight was informal for dinner. There were three levels of formality for dinner. The first and last nights, given the indeterminate state of one’s baggage, were the most informal. The two formal nights were Monday and Thursday, the other three were in between. Still, there were policies about no shorts, tank tops, etc. Nobody paid any attention to this the first night. This was the first of many hassles with the kids about what we thought that they should wear vs. what everybody else did. When we got to the open seating dinner we were seated at a table for ten with 6 (apparently Puerto Rican) Hispanic teenagers. While they were very polite and did speak some English, we were not who they wanted to talk to. This was the first indication of what became obvious as the cruise progressed. About half of our fellow passengers were Hispanic. I had no problem with this but it did cut down on the number of folks you could talk to. My younger son was not pleased with the menu and worried that he would not find anything that he liked on the dinner menus, but this would change. The meal was fairly good, the service less so. Since it is open seating, the waiter and busboy are not the ones that you would tip…

After dinner, the boys got back in their shorts and headed down to the orientation party in the Diamonds are Forever Disco. About 15 minutes later we strolled by to see the younger one sitting at a table of boys his own age, having a fine time. No sign of the older one. I went back to the cabins to find him there. He had stopped in, found only younger kids and bailed out. He was heading back to see if anything changed. We snooped again about 20 minutes later. The older boy was leaving the Disco in a group of teenagers of mixed gender. The younger one was busily telling the DJ what to play. Success! We would not worry about them having a good time for the rest of the trip. If you are a teenager, or have teenagers, be aware that the orientation party is the key to whole thing. Don’t miss it! It turned out that the Teen Disco being closed was probably a blessing. The facilities that they used were much larger, more accessible to nosy parents and without the video games that would have cost us a small fortune.

This may have been our favorite night on the ship. There was a creditable calypso/reggae band that played primarily in the daytime by the pool. But tonight they were doing a night-time poolside party. Being out in the night air on deck, dancing, drinking, etc. was a lot of fun. Unfortunately there was very little on-deck activity at night during the rest of the cruise. When it came time for the ship to leave San Juan we went out on our private deck. Then we went back to the party. At one point we were dancing and the music changed to something called the Electric Slide, which my wife knew about but I didn’t. I backed off while the revelers did their thing. My wife’s performance was (briefly) captured by the Video Diary folks. Suddenly, in the middle of this song, people started pushing past me. A buffet had opened behind me! I was nearly trampled but gathered my wife and we sampled some food. This was the only easy access to a late night buffet that we were to experience.

Before I go on I should explain that we live in Phoenix where a lot of people come to visit. They typically do day trips to places like Sedona, the Grand Canyon, etc. One of the places that people go is Nogales, a town on the Mexican border. It is a typical border town with tacky gift shops, panhandlers, hustlers, etc. The conventional wisdom here is that you should never go to Nogales. You go through Nogales and drive a 100 miles or so until you reach the real Mexico. What I learned on this cruise is that a cruise is a good way to visit several iterations of Nogales.

I didn’t have real high hopes for St. Thomas. I had visited St. Croix in the mid 70’s and had not been impressed. It was just too American and commercial for my tastes. The people didn’t seem particularly charming or friendly. The plan for St. Thomas was to get off in the morning, do some shopping, and get back on the ship. We had resolved not to try to visit and see everything on this trip, in order to enjoy the ship itself. This seemed like a good place to try that out. The main feature of St. Thomas, one is told, is the shopping. Great bargains, variety, etc. When you leave the ship you enter Havensight Mall, which is a series of buildings housing outlets of the major shops in Charlotte Amalie. The Fascination stops here on Sunday. This means that many stores are not open at all and the ones that are, typically close at 12 or 1. Havensight Mall was pretty dead. My younger son came with us into the mall area, checking a CD store, then went back on the ship. We caught a cab ($2.50 per person) to town. Upon arrival we were immediately accosted by people selling tours and by cab drivers wanting to take us back to the ship. Several of the stores we had hoped to visit, including the Ralph Lauren factory store, were closed on Sunday. We had neglected to measure our dining room table so our idea of buying a tablecloth went away. The prices on jewelry, perfume, Mont Blanc pens, etc., did not excite us. Liquor was cheap. We did find a crystal/china place that had good variety and prices. Throughout our journey we encountered people trying to steer us into shops, pushy tourists, cab drivers trying to take us back to the ship, etc. We bought a china figurine, some souvenir gifts for friends, and a Hard Rock Café St. Thomas tee-shirt. Finding a cab back to the ship was no challenge. After lunch I returned to Havensight Mall, bought some soda pop in a grocery store ($2.99/six pack) and a bottle of Haitian Rum (Barbancourt) in a liquor store. Despite the warnings that all liquor would be confiscated and returned at the end of the cruise, I had no problem getting the rum on the ship.

This was definitely a trip to Nogales. In retrospect, now knowing the disappointing state of shopping opportunities, I would recommend either staying on the ship or doing something that gets you past Charlotte Amalie. I have a basic aversion to ship-sponsored excursions but this might be the place for one. This day was the one instance of one of our kids being bored as well. My younger son found nobody to hang out with this afternoon since so many of his buds were out on excursions with their families. I offered to take him on an excursion in Guadeloupe the next day, however, and he decided to pass. This boredom never returned.

At dinner we were led to a table for 8 by a window. Our table mates were a couple from Atlanta, with their two sons, aged 17 and 9. Carnival had done a good job in matching us up. The four boys became friends throughout the cruise. Our waiter was Valerian, from India, and the busboy was Mauro, from the Philippines. They both did a very good job of taking care of us. Mauro, in particular, was a joy to know. One negative, we immediately inquired about getting a cocktail, asked a couple of times, but had no luck. When 20 minutes had passed I went to the front of the dining room and spoke with the Maitre D. He apologized, and within a minute or so we were met by the guy with the drinks. At each subsequent dinner, he was there immediately. He did not have any sort of sense of humor about this situation, however, and did not crack a smile until the final night, when we insisted on taking his picture. He was Finnish.

Food. The dinners in the dining room were excellent. There were a few things that were not perfect, e.g. the escargot were basic rubber with garlic butter, but most was excellent. The rest of the food on the cruise was not that memorable. The lunch in the Coconut Grove restaurant (or on deck) was the same every day. Burgers, some kind of pasta, mediocre cole slaw and potato salad, a salad bar, soft serve ice cream, iced tea, and that was about it. I would have enjoyed more variety. There was an open seating buffet in the dining rooms for lunch that I did not try, probably should have. Breakfast was the same drill, steam table scrambled eggs, undercooked hash browns, bacon, toast, pastries, juice, coffee. We did do breakfast in the dining room a couple of times and it was much better. The late night buffets were a joke. Interminably long lines for forgettable food. On a couple of occasions my wife sent me out from our cabin for something only to have fallen asleep by the time I got back.

Lines. One must resist the temptation to suggest that the next Fantasy class ship will be called the Regimentation. Most lines could be avoided however. There is absolutely no point in standing in line for dinner when you have an assigned table. Come 10 minutes later and there is no line. I already talked about the late night buffets, not worth the trouble in my estimation. Other lines are encountered in getting into the shows, and getting on and off the ship. The show lines can be dealt with. There are upper and lower entrances and also two instances of the shows. My older son got front row seats at the second seating show by entering (on the upper level) when the first seating was leaving. There always seem to be seats if you are not picky about location. Other than in Puerto Rico, all shore access is from the 3rd deck, which is below the Riviera deck. There is one little area at the base of the forward elevators where the gangway (or access to the tenders in Grenada) is. I was twice caught in a claustrophobic situation in this area, once while waiting for a tender in Grenada and another while getting off the ship in La Guaira. The line from hell was the one getting off the ship in San Juan at the end of the cruise, but I’ll get to that later.

Shows. I did not have high hopes for the shows. I have never been to a show in Las Vegas, and only planned to attend a show or two because they were free and for the experience. We caught a few minutes of the second night show, which consisted of the Cruise Director (John Heald – very good at what he does) putting a group of passengers through some antics. It was pretty good, but not something that we would stay for. We did go to the third night show, after the first formal dinner, which was a revue of Broadway show tunes. It was very professionally done, lots of high-tech stuff, good dancers, etc. The singing was OK, the male lead in particular had a good voice, although he was a double for Lionel Richie which put me off a bit. All in all, though, I am more comfortable at an R.E.M. concert than this sort of thing. We tried the second major show, which had a Hollywood motif, but left in the middle.

Seasickness. This ship moved a LOT. I knew that my wife had a tendency towards seasickness and I had bought her a pair of the wristbands that I had heard about. Unfortunately she couldn’t find them when it came time to pack. On Monday afternoon, after we left Guadeloupe, she started having problems. We were dressing for the first formal dinner and she had to lay down. I got Dramamine from Jesus and by this time the younger son had the problem too. There was the captain’s party in the Palace Lounge with free drinks and hors d’oeuvres prior to dinner. We missed most of it but she felt better towards the end and we went down to it. We had no sooner sat down and got drinks when she observed the curtain on the stage swaying back and forth dramatically. Had to move on. There were several times over the remainder of the cruise when Dramamine was employed. Our cabin location, high in the ship and at the very front, added to the problem. I do not know if this was a typical cruise in terms of the motion.

Port/Starboard. If you have an outside cabin you might be wondering what the optimum side of the ship is in terms of where the ship faces when in port. In San Juan, the starboard side has a slight edge. Neither side is particularly scenic, though. The port side looks at the terminal and beyond it to other ships in port. From our verandah we could see a Cunard ship and one of the Windstar or Star Clipper style ships. The starboard side faced some open water beyond which is the shoreline. The port side wins in St. Thomas, facing the harbor beyond which is Charlotte Amalie, while the starboard side looked at Havensight Mall and some scrub trees. In Guadeloupe the port side faced right into Pointe-a-Pitre. In Grenada we were at anchor and twisted a bit but the starboard side tended to face land. The port side faced the shoreline and green mountains in La Guaira. Again, in Aruba, the port side faced shore. Overall, the port side, which our cabin was on, was the winner. This was biased by the view from the Verandah deck, but the view from the lower decks should be similar.

Pressure to buy: There were a couple of areas where Carnival should lighten up a bit. The single worst thing was the constant pressure to buy drinks while on deck. It was damn near impossible to go for more than a minute or two in a deck chair without being accosted by someone trying to sell you an overpriced cocktail. If you are trying to nap or read a book or do anything else remotely relaxing this is downright irritating. Ironically, there are other times, like in the Cocoanut Grove restaurant for lunch, where you can’t find someone to sell you a drink. If you don’t want iced tea you have to go find someone to sell you a Coke or a beer. Another annoyance is the inevitable guy who DOES approach your lunch table and tries to do an advance sale on wine for your dinner. There was also some heavy-handedness in the sale of excursions. They nearly implied that you would not be allowed to leave the ship in Venezuela if you didn’t purchase an excursion.

On to the remaining ports:

Guadeloupe. This was our favorite port. This was the least like Nogales of the islands anyway (Caracas being in a different category). Guadeloupe relies less on tourism than the other islands, I am told. The people seemed to go on about their business in spite of the large group of passengers ashore. Very little hustling. It was much in the French style, a little like Paris, a little like Marseilles, a little like New Orleans. There was a great open air market about 5 blocks from the pier, with people selling artwork, spices, vegetables, etc. It was the first indication of having entered the third world. And yet, when I was short of cash to buy the painting I liked, I was able to cross the street and use an ATM. As in France, the people seemed pleased at one’s attempt to converse in French. After an initial standoff-ishness, the people were genuinely friendly.

Grenada. This was just plain awful, in my estimation. I had been to Barbados a couple of times and expected a similar experience, given the heritage and location. This was nothing like Barbados. They were surrounding the tenders out in the harbor with rowboats trying to sell conch shells and elicit quarters to dive for. Once ashore there was a barrage of taxi offers. If you got past there you found an uninvited tour guide or six who ultimately wants $40 for his time. A long walk around the bay (the Careenage) and a climb up a hill takes you to a business center with a square containing a market which on the surface looks like the one in Pointe-a-Pitre but sells a lot of tee-shirt junk in addition to spices, etc. Never for more than 60 seconds did I manage not to get approached about something. I did climb a hill to where the police station was and got a nice view of the city. This was an annoying, dirty port. I bought some nice little spice baskets (6 for $10) at a booth near the pier. At a side door of the fire station near the pier there is an immigration office where they were nice enough to stamp my passport on request. This was the shortest stop on the cruise, and it was long enough. Still, if you have never been in such a place, the stop was worth the experience. Just not worth repeating.

Caracas. To me, this was the highlight. This is a major city with over 5 million people. We were a little concerned that our arranged tourguide would not materialize. While the hordes waited in the public rooms of the ship for their prospective excursions to leave, we were down on the third deck waiting for the gangway to open. Most of the people waiting with us were Hispanic and presumably knew more about what they were doing than we did. There were continued warnings over the loudspeakers in the last 24 hours to stick with the ship’s excursions. There was a shuttlebus from the ship to the terminal building. I was apprehensive about this because I did know if we were supposed to wait at the ship for our guide or take the shuttle to the terminal building. As the gangway finally opened, we made our way out and there was somebody with a sign with our names on it. It was indeed the aunt of my wife’s friend. She was immediately apologetic that she did not have the van, that we would hook up with it in Caracas, she had her own car. But because it was a private car she had been able to drive right up to the ship which helped avoid the confusion about where to meet her. We piled into her Toyota and were whisked away. The drive to where the pier building is takes about 10 minutes and then you are out on the streets of La Guaira. La Guaira is a industrial looking port city with a fair amount of evident poverty. There is an historical section but we did not see it. We were soon on the freeway heading over the mountains to Caracas. The drive was quite scenic, green mountains, great views, etc. There were 3 or 4 tunnels along the way. She mentioned that the weekend traffic on this route was intense, with everyone trying to get to the beach. The tunnels were not well ventilated and I got an awful image of what it must be like when traffic backs up in there. Traditionally, gasoline has been ridiculously cheap in Venezuela, and as a result they seem to have a lot of 1960s vintage large American vehicles in service. In the city itself, we headed for the Hilton where she would park her car. From there we got on the Metro, very modern and clean, built by the French. We went then to the Plaza where most tourists are taken. We saw various historic buildings, a Cathedral, the capitol, etc. We could not go in the capitol because they were getting ready for their Independence Day (July 5) celebration. We saw some of fellow cruise passengers being herded about. At this plaza was the one place that we saw vendors selling t-shirts and the like. My wife went into a shoe store and we quickly learned that there were some real bargains to be had in this country. Their devastating inflation worked in our favor. After an hour or so in the Plaza area we were met by the van and went off to a church where the remains of various revolutionary heroes reside. From there we went to a mall, yes we asked to do this, always anxious to see how other people live. The mall had a grocery store where we perused the aisles, bought some Polar beer for the ship and some flour that is used to make arepas, a local delicacy that we would later sample. The flour was a gift for the tourguide’s niece back in Phoenix. Out in the mall, one of my sons bought a CD, a recent Porno for Pyros that worked out to about $8. My wife found a reasonably priced purse (leather goods are an attraction here). I looked at men’s clothing but the prices were pretty normal. Suits looked reasonable but I didn’t have the time or the inclination. By this time it was close to 1 and the stores were closing down. We got back in the van and headed to a restaurant for lunch. The place we went to had various awards on the wall from local publications. It was a tiny bit touristy, we were greeted in English by the proprietor, but most of the folks eating there were local. We had a “typical plate”, that consisted of black beans, shredded beef, rice and fried banana. This was one of the tastiest meals that I have ever had. The folks from the ship were having a banquet lunch at the Hilton about this time. After lunch we drove around for a quite a while, saw the major baseball and soccer stadiums. Baseball is a bigger deal than soccer in Venezuela. In the Copa Mundial they tend to root for Brazil, Italy and whoever is playing Colombia. We went up mountains and looked down on the city, one vantage point was just above the new US Embassy. We drove through a really expensive neighborhood that reminded us of Beverly Hills. We drove into a military compound where we saw teenagers drilling in preparation for the Independence Day activities. While a democracy for some years now, the military and police remain a big presence. Eventually it came time to head back and the drive through the mountains went very quickly. We enjoyed asking 1000 questions about life in Venezuela. Our guide had lived in Mexicali, California for 2 years in the 70s and had many questions about the US. Her daughter had just graduated from high school in Caracas and was leaving in a month or so to spend a year in the Phoenix area, living with relatives, repeating her senior year and honing her English skills. We were very fortunate to have had Maria as our tourguide. Now in a van, we had to be left off at the terminal and take the shuttle back. We said our goodbyes piled into the bus for the trip across the pier area. This was a thoroughly satisfying visit.

Aruba. This place reminds me of Laguna Beach, I’m afraid. One’s reaction to Aruba goes to the heart of what you are looking for. As we looked at it from the ship, my younger son, who had once said that he was most interested in visiting St. Thomas because it was the most American (“I like American, Dad”) had done a 180. Fresh from experiences in Guadeloupe, Grenada and Caracas, he decided that Aruba looked TOO American and he declined to leave the ship. Our tablemates, who had been horrified at Grenada and stayed on the ship in Venezuela, thought that Aruba looked like their kind of place. The next day we saw the ultimate Aruba momento, a T-shirt that said “Dunkin’ Donuts, Aruba, it was worth the trip”. I had signed my older son and I up for a beginners’ SCUBA excursion, our only ship-sponsored venture. The van took us about 5 miles up the coast to the Holiday Inn, that was on a gorgeous stretch of beach lined with glittering hotels. The Hyatt Regency looked like quite a place. We got outfitted with equipment, did a drill in the pool, then boarded a boat which took us maybe ½ mile out, to where there was a the submerged wreckage of a cargo ship. With much trepidation, I went down. Once there, it was wonderful. I hadn’t done this before. The diving was maybe 30 minutes long. The whole excursion was about 3 hours. Once back on shore, you had to find your own way back to the ship. This meant either catching a municipal bus or hanging out for a while and drying off before catching a cab. The cabbies won’t let you in if you are wet. After lunch on the ship my wife and I ventured out into Oranjestaad, the port city. It was clean, ordered, appealing, downright American. I had little use for the place. The prices were outrageous in the shops. We walked around a while and went back to the ship. Bought a Scuba Aruba T-shirt and a local license plate. If what you want out of an island vacation is a place to lie on the beach and drink rum punches this is a good place. If you want history and local culture, though, this is not it. One gets the impression that there was little here before they built all the shops, hotels and casinos. Again, maybe I missed something. Maybe this was a glittering Nogales. I did want to rent a jeep and check the island out on my own, something that got derailed by the SCUBA diving.

Summary of ports: Our favorite places were Guadeloupe and Caracas. If I did this cruise again, I’d probably go to a beach in St. Thomas (or St. John), stay on the ship in Grenada and rent a jeep in Aruba.

Cabin note. We really liked the cabin arrangement. The only thing that we would change is to stay a couple of cabins farther back on the same side. We were directly below the edge of the exercise room which once or twice yielded some excess noise. V16 might just be perfect.

Disembarkation. This is by definition a bad thing. You don’t want it to end, you

have to waste time packing. You have to say goodbye to the people that you met. The first real hassle was a money hassle. I had used the ATM next to the casino with no problem midway through the cruise. When I went to it on Friday to extract my tip money it was not working. I had no money for tips. The purser would be glad to do a cash advance on my credit card for $13 on the first hundred and 10% after that. To get the $210 in tip money that the guidelines suggested, it was going to cost me $24. Fortunately, they would cash a check if you had an AmEx card. I located a check and did so. It cost me two trips through the purser’s line on a day that I would have rather spent by the pool, though. The rest went fairly smoothly, other than the part about getting the kids to pack, etc. You put your bags out in the hallway after 9 PM or so on the night before you get there. Then you and your carry-ons must be out of your cabin by 9 AM. We and our table-mates managed to grab one of the large circular couch thingies in the Palace Lounge and sat there and waited for our deck to be called. As we had hoped, after the folks doing ship-sponsored excursions in Puerto Rico got off, Verandah, along with half of some other deck, was called first. We quickly got down the elevator to the Riviera deck, only to find an awful crush in the elevator area, which led to a hallway that I seriously questioned whether I could go into, that was the length of the ship and solid people and luggage. Somehow, and this was a credit to the intelligence and community spirit of our fellow passengers, we made it up this hallway from hell and got off the ship. What we and others did was consciously create breaks in the line up the passageway so that we didn’t all suffocate. The bad news was that when we finally got to the gangway we realized that other people had been going through the ship on other decks and come down the stairs adjacent to the gangway and were getting off without the long wait. By this time they had started calling other decks so these folks were actually getting off ahead of us. We did get off though, did wave off 1000 porters, did get our bags, did get through customs, did give our bags to Delta and board the bus to the airport. Contrary to the nice speech by John Heald the day before, though, Delta was NOT prepared to do boarding passes there. We had to do that at the airport, and they could only do it for the Atlanta leg, had to do it AGAIN in Atlanta. Still, we made it onto the plane and got home.

Would I do this again? Absolutely. This was probably the only opportunity to cruise with the boys. The next time we go on a cruise it will be by ourselves and I think that I would try one of the more upscale lines. I AM hooked on having a cabin with a verandah. Was I satisfied with Carnival? For the most part, yes. This was pretty much what I signed up for. Without my kids, I might have wanted a quieter, more sophisticated, more genteel crowd, but with them it would have been a disaster.