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, 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 CafĂ© 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.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Beach Pictures

I posted some pictures from the beach along with a couple of new Kaelyn pictures on Mike's website.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Currently Reading (Nature Girl)

It took me a long time to get through the Tim Dorsey book. Maybe I am losing interest in either Serge Storms or reading in general at the moment.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I don't know who reads this stuff, probably nobody who doesn't know what is going on anyway, but it is not a generally good idea to announce in a publicly accessible place that you will be vacating your house for a week. So I didn't mention that we were going to the beach for a week. We rented a Chevy Trailblazer to carry all of our stuff, which included my bicycle, two boogie boards, sheets, pillows, towels, etc., and headed to Newport Beach on the morning of Saturday the 30th of June. This would be our 10th stay at the beach, starting in 1987 and going every two years, missing only 2005, when we had spent over a week in the Bay Area for John's graduation. This was the first time that Susan and I had gone by ourselves. We had taken both Mike and John with us the first 6 times, and John had come with us for the 99, 01 and 03 trips. The trip there had become pretty formulaic. Get up early, head west, stop for lunch at In-n-Out Burger at the Ramon Road exit off I-10 near Palm Springs, get gas after lunch, then get back on the road to CA-60 near Beaumont, then CA-91 south at Riverside to CA-55 which eventually stops being freeway and takes you up the Balboa peninsula to where we stay. This would be a little less pressure as the rental company would be open until 5. Most close much earlier and threaten to leave the key in a mailbox or something. The only things that were much different this time is that the area west of Phoenix is growing like crazy and much of what used to be desert is now full of tacky little houses, Wal-Mart superstores and suchwhat. I have no earthly idea why anyone would live there. The other weirdness was that there was construction on the interchange of the Moreno Valley and Riverside Freeways and we lost about 30-40 minutes fighting with exceptionally rude drivers, including the pilot of a Winnebago who suddenly decided that he would enter the space occupied by our vehicle and was very reluctant to back off once I called him on it, although he ultimately did. So we arrive at the beach, get the keys and go to the rental. The garage, sadly was about a foot wider than the SUV we had. I managed to shoehorn it in but ended up not using it much as I scraped the fenders on two different occasions getting in and out. Fortunately Avis did not notice. The place was wonderful. Huge private patio on the boardwalk with umbrella table and chairs, natural gas barbecue and some folding chairs. The house itself was rather small, two bedrooms and one bathroom, but a big living room and kitchen, nicely furnished and very clean. The first week of July is typically the first week of weekly rentals and that can sometimes be a good thing.

We were on the corner of 14th Street and Oceanfront. Across 14th Street is the elementary school, and facing it is a playground. This makes it a fairly busy area, but no obnoxiously so. A block west (conceptually north, towards LA) is 15th Street, where there is a public bath house, the Stuffed Surfer Cafe, the 15th Street Surf Shop and a small convenience store called Fry's Market. Another 6 blocks down, at the 21st St. alignment, is the Newport Pier. 5 of our previous 9 stays had been spent in the range of 28th Street to 35th Street. That area is much busier, but one advantage is easy access to what was formerly a Lucky Store, now an Albertson's, is about two blocks off the beach at 31st Street. Going east from our rental, about 16 blocks, is the Balboa Pier.

We were able to see all of the places in which we previously stayed, with one exception. 1614 W. Oceanfront, just up the street a couple of blocks, had been torn down, along with its neighbor to the east, and replaced by a glass and chrome monstrosity that looked like it might be the mothership for an alien invasion. The others, including the apartment from 1989, which was on the corner by the Surf Shop and the site of the Mark McGwire encounter, were intact, although the '89 apartment and the '87 Balboa shack were no both now longer term rentals and the 95-97 place at 3310 W. Oceanfront was no longer a rental at all.

Many things were the same, most of the businesses like Blackie's, Charlie's Chili, the donut shop, the seashell shop, etc. were still in place. The Burger King was now some off brand equivalent. Surfside Sports, where we used to pump our bicycle tires, had lost their lease (it now cost a dollar at on the other bike rentals).

This was the first time since the early apartments that we could cook and eat on the patio, which was very cool. I rode my bike a lot. The surf was disappointing, though. The area by our rental is prone to rip-tides, it turns out, and the only time I attempted boogie boarding (with John on Thursday) was interrupted by the lifeguard on a bullhorn telling us not to. The plan was to go up to the other side of the pier on Friday but I got a sunburn that more or less killed that idea.

John and Agnieszka came in around 11:30 on Wednesday and stayed the rest of the week. Pat and Suzanne came later in the day, as did Jeff. Wednesday was the 4th of July, which turns the boardwalk into a zoo, populated by drunken 20somethings on bicycles that they should not have been operating. Other than the company, this was my least favorite day at the beach.

It was a good stay, too short as usual, and the sunburn at the end was a bummer, but this was probably the nicest place we have rented (and a little cheaper than the last two). If I have it to do over again I will figure out how to take a smaller vehicle and do something about getting a bike, then just plan a couple of walks up the boardwalk for boogieboarding.