Sunday, December 18, 2011

Welcome Aboard the Oceans Eleven

"They were built as labyrinths, to keep people in."*

Our recently-concluded five-night voyage in the western Caribbean was relaxing, energizing and enlightening. As a first cruise, it answered many of the questions we had, and several we didn't. For example:

It's easier to get on than to get off.

Research prior to departure (Cruise Critic member reviews, among others) suggested several things about embarkation - frustrating, slow, chaotic. Your bags don't arrive at your stateroom for hours (pack a carry-on carefully). In fact, your room which might not even be ready after the laborious, irritating boarding process. Don't even think about going to the buffet to kill some time - everyone else is doing the same thing!

Wrong, on all accounts. The hotel shuttle-bus driver, a delightful Cool Runnings sort, assured us that he had everything under control.  Our properly-tagged luggage, sitting outside the full-sized rig, would find us aboard, "No problem, mon." He kept up a running commentary while expertly negotiating chaotic dockside loops, even treating us to a bit of Jamaican pique ("What's this, Rasta?") when his favorite parking spot was taken.

The line into the departure building was short and moved quickly; I've stood in longer, slower lines at the baseball stadium getting a hotdog. Affable security officers seemed to understand the drill - we were allowed to bring two bottles of water aboard, supposedly a Royal Caribbean no-no. Maybe we didn't look like the smuggling-white-Rum types. The cruise line guide told us what to have handy, we did, and within twenty minutes of being dropped off we were walking onto the Liberty of the Seas, two hours earlier than our published boarding time. A brief stop in our stateroom (more about that later) and off we went to the forbidden buffet.

No problem, mon. While the food was about three star (for the whole voyage), the view was breathtaking - a stern view from Deck 11 - and plenty of open tables greeted us. A delightful fellow with a tray of attractive pina coladas kiddingly tried to sell his wares - no takers, but he took it in stride.

Almost six charming days later, it was time to leave. Getting off the damn boat took hours! A laborious, pedantic process was blamed on "Immigration." After all, the harried young lady explained, we'd visited Belize and all of the luggage had to be searched.

Seriously?! They hadn't told anyone we were going there until we got back? It seemed a thin excuse for their own disorganization, made more unacceptable when the shipboard announcements and in-person briefings became wildly contradictory. Just who was the woman screaming at on her walkie-talkie?

Finally - and apparently erroneously - released to depart, an hours-long line awaited. When we got to the front an especially surly Customs guy hardly gave us a glance, tossed our passports back at us and left. Our return to the "States" was a far cry from the greeting we got in 2000, upon our return from Cabo San Lucas. A serious, uniformed officer thanked my wife for having a passport, scolded me for not having one, asked how the trip had been (fantastic) and earnestly remarked, "Welcome home." Or the time we sheepishly admitted to an extra bottle of tequila snagged in Playa Del Carmen - the Customs guy laughed at us and waved us through. Maybe 9/11 has made everyone cranky. But, I digress.

The end of a great voyage shouldn't be any more frustrating than it has to be - who wants to go back to the cold and snow and ice at home? If they wanted us to stay so badly, why didn't they just take another quick lap, maybe a side trip to Key West?

Channel 42 is your Friend

Channel 42 offered several bits of important information. Sea depth, ship's position and speed, and...wind direction. By looking at the wind arrow, we could tell what the weather decks would be like. An arrow pointing toward the stern? They had helpfully done the math for us - seventeen knots of headway and thirty knot winds? Correct - 47! I think it peaked in the low fifties, right when we decided to take a walk to work off some lunch. We had the jogging track to ourselves, that was one positive. I didn't feel like the King of the Frickin' World, because I had to take off my sunglasses to keep them from blowing over the side. I had to hold onto the railing to keep me from blowing over the side.

But, we had to try it, just for fun.

Next - Captain Jack!

*Danny Ocean (George Clooney), Oceans Eleven, 2001

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