Showing posts with label Caribbean Cruise. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Caribbean Cruise. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Ringing in the New Year with the Past

Five years ago we celebrated my 70th birthday on a ship. Needless to say, seems like yesterday.  I was not even thinking that we could do it again.  But the past became the future. Although, looking at the pictures, I see the change, in us, in our “kids.” 

So, for my 75th birthday we managed to enjoy another Caribbean cruise, this time on the Celebrity Silhouette (now considered a mid-sized ship, but, still, about the largest we’d go on – meticulously maintained though, and the meals were surprisingly good with excellent service). This was a destination onto itself, the ports, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and St. Kitts being ones we visited before and, now, the first two still bearing the devastation of Hurricane Maria.  But the point was to be together, our little family, which very happily now includes our daughter-in-law to be, Tracie.

It was an opportunity to get to know her.  Jonathan is a lucky man to be marrying such a lovely woman, intelligent and loving.  She is a pediatric gastroenterologist, with harrowing stories about kids doing what kids will do, like swallowing nails.  Thankfully, there are caring specialized physicians such as Tracie to cope with those events.  I’ve always regretted not having a daughter in addition to our two sons.  It is a dream soon to be realized.

My actual birthday itself was celebrated a couple of days before we left with friends pictured left to right, Harry, Susan, my wife Ann, Lois, John, and the birthday “boy” himself now working on his last quarter century, grateful for whatever of that time the fates allow.

Unfortunately, when we left for the cruise I had a sinus infection which morphed into a chest cold, loading up on a Z pack while on the ship and all the over the counter medications necessary to control my cough.  Never had a fever though so didn’t consider myself contagious and washed my hands scrupulously to spare fellow passengers.  Not exactly the way I envisioned an active cruise.  So it became a relaxed one, leaving the ship only once in St. Kitts.    But as I said, the point was for our family to be together.  Their work schedules had to be arranged almost a year in advance, so we were lucky to coordinate a birthday celebration redux.

We didn’t “do” shows or games or other activities on the ship but instead hung out at the spa where there are not teeming crowds. They served light lunches there, and it was a place where Ann, Jon, and Tracie could play Scrabble (in addition to playing on our Verandah).  Chris and I read mostly. 

Ann and I retired after dinner to our stateroom to read.  Or to view a late sunset.

My main read turned out to be my own “book” a PDF retrospective of my Dramaworks blog commentary over the years, which I published with a preface in my prior entry

But I also managed to fit in several one act plays by the late Sam Shepard, one of our most important and enigmatic playwrights and engaging actors.  I had bought this collection for my iPad for the trip only months before his recent death.  Many of these plays were written in his early years, some appearing first at Café La Mama where I occasionally went in the 1960s.  It’s possible I could have seen some of them there.  Who remembers?  Theatre of the Absurd was on the rise and the European influence on Shepard is clear.  But he was one of a kind, bringing in his Western sensibilities too.

The first play in the collection, though, is one of his more recent ones, “Ages of the Moon.”  It is about two old “friends” who at long last see each other on the porch of one of their homes in some unnamed countryside, two displaced characters who have the past to chew on and to view the eclipse of the moon.  Dark and funny, it captures the passage of time, the regrets, the hurts, and what time really means: decline.  Best of all is the cadence of Shepard’s dialogue. 

I’m not finished with the collection, about half way through, but that gives you an idea of what one might find in Fifteen One-Act Plays by Sam Shepard (2012)

The first stop on the cruise was the Port of San Juan and approaching the Port, one passes the massive Castillo San Cristóbal and from this prospective one would hardly be aware of Maria’s devastation.  This brief video may not play on all devices.

Chris took a bike tour of part of the island and said that the destruction was much evident, trash and remnants of homes, utility lines still down.  Heartbreaking.

The last stop on the cruise was St. Kitts, the island most spared by Hurricane Maria. While Ann enjoyed a hot stone massage at the ship’s Canyon Range Spa, Chris and I took a walk, past the touristy shops and then into Basseterre, the capital of Saint Kitts and Nevis, a place I’ve been before, and always an opportunity for some idiosyncratic photos.  Their Independence Square has a beautiful Italian-inspired fountain.

Unfortunately, two cruise ships in port put a damper on things, depriving us of the opportunity to really mingle with the Island’s people.  They were outnumbered. 

Finally, back to Ft. Lauderdale and the sunrise.

So, 2018 begins, after blowing out the candles of 2017.  Tempus Fugit.  A Happy and Healthy New Year to All. 

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Cruising and Reading Redux

We are inveterate boaters so perhaps it was only natural that we would become seasoned cruisers as well.  Life on the sea is incomparable to other forms of leisure activity, not that other activity is of lesser value.  We do what we like to do.  Some people would find life on the high seas confining, even unbearable.   Traveling on our own boats became a natural transition to ocean cruising, although our very first ocean crossing on the QE2 in 1977 predates when we actually began boating.  So we have seen the development of the cruise industry over decades. 

The QE2 was built for transportation – a fast crossing of the ocean, less than five days at almost 30 knots.  She was not built for the leisurely port intensive cruising of today and she was a holdover from earlier transatlantic ships where there was a clearly-defined class system, each with their own separate dining rooms.  One dressed the part, as one would have dressed to board an airliner in earlier days, suit and tie, or if in first class aboard the QE2, formal wear every night for dinner.

Fast forward to today’s ships, bigger, beamier, many more passengers, with, now, some of the larger ships boasting bumper cars, rock climbing, water sliding, grass and tree-filled parks, and I could go on and on about the changes.  The cruise industry has definitely singled out “everyman” as its marketing target.  One might as well go to a mall where they have multiple restaurants and lots of shopping, with an amusement park next door.  And dress in a state of undress if you want!

Ann and I still like the older, smaller ships, and some are still made that way by liners such as Oceania.  Nonetheless, there are some larger ships that we’ve been on (never more than 3,000 passengers though) and I suppose Celebrity’s Solstice class is among the best of those, trying to maintain some of the more traditional values, fine food, less honky-tonk, and accommodating their manifest with some elbow room (if you avoid the main pool area).  We’ve taken many Caribbean cruises, perhaps because it’s so simple from where we live, no flights or hotels involved, drive to Port Everglades and park.  When there isn’t a school holiday, such cruises are relatively inexpensive and tranquil.
We made an exception this year – going on a cruise over the Christmas holidays as that was the only time we could be joined by our son, Jonathan, and his lovely girlfriend, Anna.  It was fun being with them, sharing nearly every meal. Port time was limited to St. Maarten and St. Kitts on this particular cruise as the M/S Silhouette has had propulsion problems and had to eliminate San Juan PR from its itinerary (fine with me, been there, done that).  Instead we enjoyed a 2,300 nautical mile trip to just one little cluster of islands, only 45 miles from each other.

But even these new mid-size ships have to make compromises for “modern life” so there are some 12 specialty restaurants (not worth the additional expense), high volume, sometimes bombastic shows (although their concluding “circus” night was enjoyable), the frivolous casino, the needless shops, the omnipresent “music” in hallways.  But we went about our business, some swimming in the spa pool (tranquil, no children allowed), going to the main dining room (really impressed by the quality of the food), and then, in the afternoon, we’d split up, Ann, Jon, and Anna going to play competitive Mah Jongg, and my retiring to some out of the way spot (usually on our balcony) to read, one of my favorite things to do on sea days. 

This particular cruise had very tranquil seas so sitting on the balcony while everyone was otherwise engaged in the ship’s activities was the ideal place, listening to slight undulations lapping against the moving ship.

While Jon and Anna went snorkeling in St. Maarten, Ann and I tried to go to the famous pristine Orient Bay Beach, but alas, winds had brought the Sargasso Sea to the shores of the beach and although there is no harm swimming in this form of seaweed, we understood the shores and shallow water was covered with it.  So we hightailed it back to the ship which we had practically to ourselves and alternated between the hot tub and reading. 

Ironically, Jon and Anna’s snorkeling adventure was off of a catamaran named ‘Swept Away’ the same name as we’ve christened our last five boats, including the one we currently live on in the summer, albeit ours have always been power boats.

St. Kitts is a depressing port to me.  Right outside the docks are those “elegant” “ship approved” stores, just like a mall, Diamonds International, etc. So, that’s bad enough.  At the further reaches are a few stalls that are rented by natives, selling merchandise but mostly made in China.  

Once you go into town, you are in a rundown area, but this is where the people live and I find it more interesting than the other “approved” venues.  It was Christmas Day when we were there and we briefly attended a church service and heard Christmas carols with a native flair.

Back to the ship then and our “regular routine.”  And, as I said, for me it was reading, and I managed to read “nearly” three books on the cruise (finishing the last one when we returned), all compulsively readable, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, and W. Bruce Cameron’s A Dog’s Purpose. So I went from a very serious work of literature, to a serious one, to sort of a parable, but serious in its own way.  If I were to discuss all three in this blog entry, along with the trip, it probably would be too long for one entry, so I will cover the last two in another entry.

I had raved about Stegner’s Angle of Repose, his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, written earlier in his career. I had hoped to read more by him, but which one of his many works?  I was led to this one by Julie Schumacher’s article in the Wall Street Journal “On Writing about Writers.”

It was strange to segue from what I recently read, Stoner, to Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner, the first one a very dark view of academic life and the other an uplifting one although academic politics and anxiety still lurk in the novel, but it was a minor theme.  .   Crossing to Safety is Stegner’s last novel, the work of a mature writer, with its philosophical underpinnings and its beautiful effortless flow. 

To me, perhaps this should have been his prize-winning novel, but perhaps I am biased as he wrote this when he wasn’t much older than I am now, and I closely identify with many of the themes

The story over four decades unfolds mostly between Madison, Wisconsin and Battell Pond, a small Vermont town “out of a Hudson River School painting, uniting the philosophical-contemplative with the pastoral-picturesque.”  Two couples meet at the University in Madison, Sid Lang and his wife Charity, and Larry Morgan and his wife Sally.  The two men are instructors hoping to move up the ladder to tenured professorship.  Sid and Charity are wealthy and “well-bred” while Larry and Sally are church mice, struggling to stay financially afloat.  Sid is a poet and although a competent teacher, Larry is the writer, the one with talent, but one who realizes that teaching might be the only way for he and his wife Sally to survive.  Writing would have to be delegated to part time. One would think the two men are being set up by Stegner as competitive gladiators early in the story, but it is quite the opposite.  The two couples fall head over heels in Platonic love with each other and each couple “serve a purpose” to the other, Sid and Charity sharing their compound at Battell Pond each summer with them (so Larry can write), and their benefactors having (in return) the close companionship of the author and his wife.

The story, naturally, is told by Larry, covering the gamut of the Zeniths and the Nadirs of their relationship but the latter is rare and it is a friendship unlike most friendships today.  The characters are finely drawn by Stegner (aka Larry), and in particular Charity.  If I were filming this book decades ago, Katherine Hepburn would have been my choice to play Charity.

But as Julie Schumacher said, this book has writing as one of its central themes.  It’s always fascinating when great authors actually write about the craft as it is so revealing.  To be a meaningful writer, one must have a philosophical premise, and in the first few pages Stegner reveals his:

In fact, if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe that time is circular and not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving. Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be buried and eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creatures of later eras. Seen in either geological or biological terms, we don't warrant attention as individuals. One of us doesn't differ that much from another, each generation repeats its parents, the works we build to outlast us are not much more enduring than anthills, and much less so than coral reefs. Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.

In fact there is a heavy dose of Thomas Hardy in Stegner’s novel, along with the role of chance and fatalism.  Larry even brings up Hardy and then launches into his own interpretation:
Thomas Hardy, whom I had recently been teaching to Wisconsin high school teachers, might have guessed that the President of the Immortals had other sport in mind for us. My own view is less theatrical. Order is indeed the dream of man, but chaos, which is only another word for dumb, blind, witless chance, is still the law of nature. You can plan all you want to. You can lie in your morning bed and fill whole notebooks with schemes and intentions. But within a single afternoon, within hours or minutes, everything you plan and everything you have fought to make yourself can be undone as a slug is undone when salt is poured on him. And right up to the moment when you find yourself dissolving into foam you can still believe you are doing fine.

That last sentence merits reading over and over again.  But in the Hardy universe a “slug” can become a writer, by the same fluke of chance:
Talent lies around in us like kindling waiting for a match, but some people, just as gifted as others, are less lucky.  Fate never drops a match on them. The times are wrong, or their health is poor, or their energy low, or their obligations too many. 

At one point Larry thinks about writing a novel about the two couples (ironically, Stegner, aka Larry, is doing that very thing):
Human lives seldom conform to the conventions of fiction. Chekhov says that it is in the beginnings and endings of stories that we are most tempted to lie. I know what he means, and I agree. But we are sometimes tempted to lie elsewhere, too. I could probably be tempted to lie just here. This is a crucial place for the dropping of hints and the planting of clues, the crucial moment for hiding behind the piano or in the bookcase the revelations that later, to the reader's gratified satisfaction, I will triumphantly discover, If I am after drama.  Drama demands the reversal of expectation, but in such a way that the first surprise is followed by an immediate recognition of inevitability.  And inevitability takes careful pin-setting. Since this story is about a friendship, drama expects friendship to be overturned.  Something, the novelist in me whispers, is going to break up our cozy foursome.

Writing about Sid and Charity not only might have to “break up our cozy foursome” but there is also the problem of the nature of their lives.  Contemporary literature is littered with sex and violence, and the charred remains of unsatisfied lives.  So how does Larry take that into account if he “were” to write a novel about this unique relationship?
How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?  Where are the things that novelists seize upon and readers expect?  Where is the high life, the conspicuous waste, the violence, the kinky sex, the death wish? Where are the suburban infidelities, the promiscuities, the convulsive divorces, the alcohol, the drugs, the lost weekends? Where are the hatreds, the political ambitions, the lust for power? Where are speed, noise, ugliness, everything that makes us who we are and makes us recognize ourselves in fiction?

The people we are talking about are hangovers from a quieter time. They have been able to buy quiet, and distance themselves from industrial ugliness. They live behind university walls part of the year, and in a green garden the rest of it. Their intelligence and their civilized tradition protect them from most of the temptations, indiscretions, vulgarities, and passionate errors that pester and perturb most of us. They fascinate their children because they are so decent, so gracious, so compassionate and understanding and cultivated and well-meaning. They baffle their children because in spite of all they have and are, in spite of being to most eyes an ideal couple, they are remote, unreliable, even harsh. And they have missed something, and show it.

Why? Because they are who they are. Why are they so helplessly who they are? Unanswered question, perhaps unanswerable.  In nearly forty years, neither has been able to change the other by much as a punctuation mark.

Friendship is the bond of this novel.  But what is friendship, especially such a unique one? 
It is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking.  It is therefore rare. To Sally and me, focused on each other and on the problems of getting on in a rough world, it happened unexpectedly; and in all our lives it has happened so thoroughly only once.

But friendship is a two way street.  If Larry and Sally were “rescued” by their friendship with Sid and Charity, what do the benefactors get out of it?  Larry wants to “repay” Sid and Charity, but Charity sees it another way:

As for repaying," she said to me in rebuke, "friends don't have to repay anything. Friendship is the most selfish thing there is. Here are Sid and I just licking our chops. We got everything out of you that we wanted." So they did. They also got, though that they would never have permitted to figure in our relations, our lifelong gratitude. There is a revisionist theory, one of those depth-psychology distortions or half-truths that crop up like toadstools whenever the emotions get infected by the mind, that says we hate worst those who have done the most for us. According to this belittling and demeaning theory, gratitude is a festering sore. Maybe it is, if it's insisted on. But instead of insisting on gratitude, the Langs insisted that their generosity was selfish, so how could we dislike them for it?

Another theme driving the novel is ambition.  Sid is a poet (and sometimes chided by Charity for not working harder to write academic treatises instead, the old “publish or perish” route to academic success).  But his ambition is not the high test blend that fuels Larry, who comes from nothing and knows that unless he works and works some more, he and Sally would not make it. In some ways it reminds me of my own salad days, having come from parents who survived the depression and doing nothing more than the barely-expected parental things for me as I grew up, with little encouragement, or expectations to pursue any kind of academic life. 

I nonetheless left their house for college and never looked back, expecting nothing from them (and in the end getting nothing as well).  It was all on my back and I took my responsibility seriously, perhaps too seriously, my work ethic knowing no bounds (post high school; before that I was under my parent’s emotional baggage and rebelled).  I loved my work (publishing) and Ann and I raised our family while I was totally immersed in my work, perhaps too much so, with too much anxiety about the future.  But I am who I am, an overachiever, who tried to make do with what talent I did have. As Larry so aptly puts it, “ambition is a path, not a destination…”

I was your basic overachiever, a workaholic, a pathological beaver of a boy who chewed continually because his teeth kept growing. Nobody could have sustained my schedule for long without a breakdown, and I learned my limitations eventually.  Yet when I hear the contemporary disparagement of ambition and the work ethic, I bristle. I can't help it.

I overdid, I punished us both. But I was anxious about the coming baby and uncertain about my job. I had learned something about deprivation, and I wanted to guarantee the future as much as effort could guarantee it. And I had been given … intimations that I had a gift. Thinking about it now, I am struck by how modest my aims were. I didn't expect to hit any jackpots. I had no definite goal. I merely wanted to do well what my inclinations and training led me to do, and I suppose I assumed that somehow, far off, some good might flow from it. I had no idea what. I respected literature and its vague addiction to truth at least as much as tycoons are supposed to respect money and power, but I never had time to sit down and consider why I respected it.

Ambition is a path, not a destination, and it is essentially the same path for everybody. No matter what the goal is, the path leads through Pilgrim’s Progress regions of motivation, hard work, persistence, stubbornness, and resilience under disappointment. Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else - pathway to the stars, maybe.

I suspect that what makes hedonists so angry when they think about overachievers is that the overachievers, without drugs or orgies, have more fun

Indeed, I hope I didn’t turn my ambition into a vice, but I did have fun working hard, and it was indeed “without drugs or orgies.”

There were several deaths that touched Stegner’s life at about the time he wrote the novel, all from cancer.  These impacted the novel as well. As I mentioned, he was a few years older than I am now when he wrote Crossing, and indeed in your 70’s one thinks more about “purpose” in life, especially given the inexplicable transitory nature of it all.  As was voiced in Ionesco's Exit the King, "Why was I born if it wasn't forever?"  No, our heaven or hell is right here, right now.  And how does one die, accepting it, experiencing it?   Heavy questions, voiced by Charity:
"There's no decent literature on how to die. There ought to be, but there isn't. Only a lot of religious gobbledygook about being gathered in to God, and a lot of biological talk about returning your elements to the earth. The biological talk is all right, I believe it, but it doesn't say anything about what religion is talking about, the essential you, the conscious part of you, and it doesn't teach you anything about how to make the transition from being to not-being. They say there's a moment, when death is certain and close, when we lose our fear of it. I've read that every death, at the end, is peaceful. Even an antelope that's been caught by a lion or cheetah seems not to struggle at the end. I guess there's a big shot of some sedative chemical, the way there's a big shot of adrenaline to help it leap away when it's scared. Well, a shot will do for quick deaths. The problem is to get that same resignation to last through the weeks or months of a slow one, when everything is just as certain but can't be taken care of with some natural hypo. I’ve talked to my oncologist about it a lot.  He has to deal with death every day…But he can’t tell me how to do it, or give me any reference in medical literature that will help….So I’m having to find out my own way.“

The novel’s title, Crossing to Safety, comes from a Robert Frost poem, “I Could Give All to Time.”  Not surprising, as Stegner and Frost were friends, with Frost becoming his mentor to a degree.  They had met at a writer’s conference in Vermont, not far from the setting of much of this story.  Sense of place is strong in both of their writings, as well as love of nature.  The final stanza of Robert Frost’s poem became Stegner’s prologue to the novel:

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held.  But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There
And what I would not part with I have kept.
Robert Frost

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Relaxing Cruise

Several months ago Ann said she'd like to participate in a Mah Jongg tournament that is being held on a one week Caribbean cruise, great prices with the group rate, so would I like to go?  We did this a few years before with our friends Harry and Susan, and as I did not want to "be on my own" while she played her games, I said, sure, if Susan goes, and Harry agrees, I'd love to, otherwise, please room with another participant and I'll stay home.  Harry and I had shared some fun times on the last cruise, so he readily agreed and therefore on Jan. 11 we departed on the Holland America's 'Westerdam' from Ft. Lauderdale and have just recently returned.

We've done many cruises in the past, so easy from neighboring Ft. Lauderdale, no planes to catch, just drive there and leave the car until we return.  And with group pricing, a nice, warm Caribbean cruise is so inviting.

Naturally things have changed drastically in the 14 years that we've been cruising  and I figure that we've spent nearly a year at sea, with several Atlantic crossings as well as one Pacific crossing, and a river cruise.  During those years, the cruise industry has been morphing from a select market to a mass market "product."  I don't mean to be elitist, but our tastes in theatre and traveling have been refined over the years and more and more they seem to come in conflict with the experience many cruise lines are now offering, mostly in an attempt to draw larger audiences, with each person a mini-profit center to whom they can sell drinks, services, tours, shopping, so-called art (at "auction"), cocktails and wine, and drinks (did I mention drinks?).  And of course there is the omnipresent casino to relieve passengers of any loose change left after the foregoing (although one of the Mah Jongg ladies at our table put a few quarters in a slot machine and won more than $1,000!).

To achieve their objectives, cruise lines are building their ships larger and larger -- Royal Caribbean International's 'Allure of The Seas' and 'Oasis of The Seas' topping out at about 225,000 gross tonnage, accommodating up to 6,200 people.  Other, larger ships are being built in the race for more passengers.  These are now small cities and their mere size makes them Disneyland kinds of destinations onto themselves.  Not every port can handle them, and tendering has to be a nightmare.

There is probably a direct correlation between the size of the ship and the nature of the services offered, one of the reasons we try to choose smaller ships, preferably under 2,000 passengers.  These now tend to be the older ships (old in the cruising business is anything nearing 10 years in service).  Oceania is now our choice cruising line, but some of the Holland America, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity ships can be found in the smaller vintage.

And that is one of the reasons I agreed to this trip as it was on the classic Holland America 'Westerdam' and although some of the photos might make it look leviathan, compare its "mere" 85,000 gross tonnage and 1,800 passengers to the large ships being built today.  It is still stately, and Holland America does make an effort to maintain some of the traditional aspects of cruising and ship architecture.  I particularly appreciate the Promenade deck, harking back to the days of swift ocean crossing vessels, which makes for a perfect, unobstructed place for a morning power-walk, it's teak deck usually wet from morning dew or heavy seas.  Three walks around the deck equals one statue mile and as I usually walked very early in the morning, I normally had the entire deck to myself, or occasionally just a few others, fairly remarkable considering the number of passengers on board, most sleeping in due to their nighttime activities.

Nonetheless, there is the inevitable feeling that you are always being marketed to, and later in the day it is sometimes hard to find a quiet corner.  For us, one of the big negative aspects of Holland America is that they still allow smoking on the verandah balcony, including cigar smoking, so if you are a non-smoker (and militant non-smokers as we are  -- Lady, can't you read the sign, smoking kills!), and you have a balcony, you are left to the vagaries of who might be next to you or over or under you if you want to step out and enjoy your own balcony.

For this reason, we now only book ocean view (no balcony) on Holland America, the irony being, on this particular trip, our stateroom was (unknown to us after much research) under the specialty restaurant kitchen and for some reason they'd be banging away, perhaps throwing pots and pans into the dishwasher, in the middle of the night.  After four nights of being awakened, and complaining, HA finally moved us to another stateroom, our friends Susan and Harry also moving with us to an adjoining stateroom.  We had assurances that those next to us did not smoke and therefore we accepted these verandah rooms as compromise, despite the inconvenience of moving.

Ironically, our one meal in that same specialty restaurant was a disaster.  My halibut completely dry and inedible, the shrimp cocktail served lukewarm, the maitre d insisting that that's how it's served at really fine restaurants!  Harry's porterhouse was tough and the coffee undrinkable. The main dining room on the other hand was consistently fine, food quality and variety, and in addition we enjoyed getting to know our table mates from Michigan.

We had been to all the ports on this cruise -- Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, Half Moon Cay -- but there was one new one for us, Grand Turk.  The latter and Half Moon Cay have great beaches, and what else to do in the Caribbean?  Grand Turk is a fairly deserted island, perhaps best known for when John Glenn's 1962 Friendship 7 Mercury spacecraft landed in the vicinity.  I remember anxiously following the flight in my college dormitory and Grand Turk meant nothing to me, a remote part of the world I would surely never see.  And here I was merely 52 years later. 

St. Maarten was a sea of humanity -- and that is how the newer cruise ships are impacting the cruising experience, even if you are not on one of the megaships.  There were seven ships at the dock in St. Maarten and one at anchor.  The ENTIRE island's population is about 70,000 and the day we were there those ships were delivering 24,000 tourists!  Imagine the lines and lack of facilities.  What's the sense?  After a brief walk, we returned to the ship for peace and quiet.

Puerto Rico's Old Town is always a fun place to walk around.  

Meanwhile, days at sea there were some 60 women engaged in Mah Jongg battle, including Susan and   Frankly, being with our friends, and being able to relax and read were the high points of the trip for me.  Poor Susan and Ann returned each afternoon slightly frustrated by the Mah Jongg games, Ann in particular who said she never played more horribly.  I don't understand the game, have no intention of doing so (actually, I don't play any games, too little time), but from what I do understand it is like most of them, a mix of luck and skill.  I think Chess -- which I used to play -- is the only game where pure skill prevails.  Any game that involves luck doesn't seem to be worth playing (it's too much like life!).  And Mah Jongg tournaments are intense, emotions running high, accusations of cheating, cat fights galore! (Again, too much like life!)
Ann, while Harry and I had to "endure" the hot tub, conversation with some of the other passengers (when they were awake) and then reading.

It appeared that Susan, with a very high score at the end, had a good chance of winning some tournament prize money, and we all had her hopes up, but it turns out someone incorrectly tallied her score and in the end, she dropped out of contention.  Meanwhile, Ann was in the running for the booby prize but at least escaped with her dignity.. On the very last night of the cruise, with suitcases mostly packed, she was invited to play in another "mini tournament" (these organized for the women who just did not get enough MJ during the day).  It turns out, she was on fire and came out not only the top money winner but with a final score higher than anyone had achieved so far.  Needless to say, she skipped back to our cabin with her $60 as happy a winner as anyone ever saw! 

All in all, it was a very relaxing and fun cruise, remarkably covering some 2,221 nautical miles in a week.  That's a lot of cruising and overall Holland America did a fine job providing enjoyable meals and excellent services.  I love being at sea when I have some time to read, and although there was a lot to do, I did manage to finish two books.  More on those in the next entry