We just got back from another cruise, again with Arno's Bear Cruises
. This one was the Eastern Caribbean, with stops in the Bahamas, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten, sailing out of Fort Lauderdale. Here is my very long writeup of the trip...
First, the host hotel in Fort Lauderdale was sub-par. They did have a nice pool area with live music and a good bar (from all reports), but our small stuffy room smelled of rug shampoo, and the ceiling above the tub dripped water into the tub and along the doorjamb. I'm going to have to make sure that Arno knows we think he should avoid that hotel in the future.Saturday
Getting to the port was a breeze thanks to the buses that Arno arranged. The terminal was spacious, and we got there early enough that we had to wait to board. Thankfully they provided an acre of chairs to cool our heels (airport-style seating). When it was our turn, we boarded the ship and headed up to the sky bar to wait for our rooms to be ready, as expected. We started meeting some of our fellow travelers, including several we've sailed with before. Lunch at the overly-crowded buffet (WindJammer Marketplace), then to our rooms to drop of our carry-ons and use the facilities. Our luggage arrived earlier than anticipated (yay!) so we unpacked and then wandered around the ship.
The ship was the Oasis of the Seas
, one of a the largest cruise ships on the seas. We sailed on her sister ship, the Allure of the Seas, in September, so we were pretty familiar with the layout. This ship is indeed huge. Fifteen passenger-accessible decks, 5400 passengers, 10 dining facilities, innumerable bars/nightclubs, ice rink, mini-golf course, zip-line, flow-riders, a bar that moves from deck to deck, etc., etc. It really is a floating resort. It's kind of fun in an over-indulgent way.
The first night featured a "Welcome Aboard Meet & Greet" party in the ship's disco lounge. It was good seeing familiar faces and reconnecting with friends we've made on previous cruises. I don't personally enjoy being surrounded by so many people in such a small space, but I made do. There were some schedule changes announced, but nothing big. Unlike the last cruise, we had no memorials for cruise mates who had died since the previous time we'd all gotten together. After drinks, it was time for all of us to head to the Silk, one of the three floors of the main dining room, for dinner. Dinner offerings were pretty much what we've come to expect from Royal Caribbean's main dining room (decent quality, but not outstanding, smaller portion sizes, a mix of daily specials and daily standards), and we got to know the people assigned to our table. As per usual with Arno's cruises, we are asked to sit at our assigned tables the first night, but are free to choose a table from our section of the dining room on subsequent nights.
Nothing else planned for that evening, as I recall, so we wound up in the hot tubs in the Solarium, hanging out with the cute men. The upper area of the Solarium started hosting a VERY LOUD party, so when our hot tub was inevitably closed for cleaning, we headed back to the cabin and went to bed.Sunday
When we woke up we were docked at Nassau, Bahamas. We grabbed a quick breakfast at our favorite breakfast place on that class of ship, the Park Cafe. It's generally much less crowded than other breakfast eateries, and has good breakfast fare (bagels with toppings, breakfast sandwiches, fruit, oatmeal, etc.).
Then we got off the ship and headed into town. The weather wasn't great; it was cool (lower 60s), windy, and on the verge of raining. The walk from the ship to town went along a couple pedestrian causeways. The wind was whipping the water of the bay up and occasionally spraying the walkway. We got sprayed a couple of times on our way into town. We did not have any set destination in mind, though we were hoping to find some local art (we try to pick up a couple pieces of locally-produced art from wherever we travel), so we walked along the main streets of the tourist area poking our noses into the various shops. We did take the tour of the "Pirates of Nassau
" museum (recommended!), hiked up to Government House (pretty but not really tourist friendly), and bought some lovely ceramic art made by craftspeople in the Bahamas. Then back to the ship.
That afternoon we gathered for the group photo at the Aqua Theater (with the obligatory shirt-less pictures), treated ourselves to cupcakes and ice cream at "Cups and Scoops" on the BoardWalk, had dinner at Silk, and then attended the Bear Pool Party up in the Solarium. Some interesting drama with one of the ship's contracted dancers occurred (which resulted in the dancer in question being left behind at our next port of call). I spent far too long in the hot tub there.Monday
Our first "at sea" day, I was feeling burnt out on socializing so I spent a majority of my time that day alone, with my books and my computer. (Yes, I got chided about it later, oh well.) We did have tickets to their Aqua Theater spectacular, "Oasis of Dreams", which was enjoyable if too much a Cirque du Soleil clone. It was "Formal Night" in the main dining room, so I believe we just went to the buffet (I don't enjoy dressing up as much as some of the other bears, and don't enjoy feeling like the ugly duck next to the peacocks).
After dinner, Arno had suggested we all attend the "Love & Marriage" game in the main theater, but that wasn't particularly appealing to me. I think we just went back up to the hot tubs for a soak and then back to the cabin to sleep.Tuesday
Our next destination was the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Unlike Nassau, the sky was sunny and the temps were warm. One notable thing that would cause confusion for much of the rest of the trip is that Royal Caribbean does not change their ship's clocks as we cross time zones. They maintain "ship's time" which, when we hit St. Thomas, was an hour later than local time. Of course, our smart phones (and associated watches) all automatically changed time appropriately. Since I always have a bit of trouble with things like that, I often was working off bad time assumptions. Whee. Also, I had forgotten good headwear, so we did a quick shopping trip to the touristy "shopping village" at the port.
This was the stop where Arno had arranged an excursion for us. One hundred twenty eight bears and friends climbed aboard a catamaran (with a capacity for one hundred and thirty passengers), and headed out to a place where there were coral reefs and sea turtles. I had forgotten to acquire a prescription-lensed snorkeling mask, so since I knew I wouldn't be able to see anything, I refrained from snorkeling with the group, though Michael went and took the underwater camera. I watched from onboard the catamaran and took pictures of the frolicking bears. After that, the catamaran crew started serving boozy drinks and we headed to a beach where we were served a nice lunch (chicken, ribs, salad, rolls, drinks) and swam in the ocean. Well, mainly floated and socialized. At one point, Arno gathered us all for a group photo which turned into a (pre-arranged) marriage proposal. It was very sweet.
When it was time to go, we all climbed back onto the catamaran to head back to the ship. That's when the crew discovered that they had gotten fouled in the line that separated the anchorage area from the swimming area. Oops. They had a bunch of us get off the boat while they worked to free it. Ah, well, the water was nice and warm, so I didn't mind much. It was somewhat amusing to see all of the bears trying to push the ship to safety even after being warned that they were too close to the propeller blades. After a little while we were on our way back to the ship.
That evening Arno had planned a private disco party, and since it was Fat Tuesday, it had a Mardi Gras theme. That's not my scene so I spent time in my cabin reading while Michael went out to party. He apparently had a good time based on the pictures I've seen since.Wednesday
Next up was Philipsburg, on the island of Sint Maarten. We took a water taxi to the town from the cruise dock. What a LOVELY looking city. It really is a pretty place. It didn't hurt that it was sunny and warm there as well. We had nothing planned so decided to walk around the main touristy areas to see what we could. (Many of the others in the group went off to various beaches, including one right under the main approach to the island's airport, and of course the local nude beach. Having never been to St. Maarten, we opted to visit the city.)
We found a lovely walking plaza called "Old Street" with shops from local merchants. We purchased some lovely pieces of dichromatic glass jewelry, some gifts for family members, some tasty locally-made jams, and a few art prints from a lovely Dutch woman, Tessel Verheij, who lived on the island. Find her work at Art Craft Cafe
. After that we wandered some more, and found a gelateria (Gelateria Milano
) and had some tasty ice cream. Then, we ran into some friends (and fellow cruisers) at Blanc du Nil
, and having heard of the place from our friend, decided to check it out. Dangerous place! Well, dangerous to our bank account, at least.
After that, we wandered some more, but were losing steam and getting hungry, so we headed back to the ship and had lunch at Park Cafe where they were serving these little roast beef sandwiches called "kummelweck" that had amazing flavor. Seriously tasty!
That evening, Arno had suggested two shows (one on either side of dinner). The first was "Come Fly with Me," a high-tech dance and acrobatics show centered around the theme of vintage air travel. There was no real story, but the music was good, the acrobatics were at times astounding, and the theatercraft was mostly enjoyable.
After dinner, we headed down to the ice rink (no, I was not kidding) for a show called "Frozen in Time" which turned out to be vignettes representing various stories from Hans Christian Andersen. It was cute, but nothing really spectacular. However, at one point, they brought out this odd table, and a gentleman in a tuxedo stood behind it. They then projected a top-down view of the table onto the screen behind the ice. The table was a light table with sand on it. Then man then proceeded to draw in the sand and otherwise manipulate it to tell the story of the "Tin Woodsman". It was honestly spellbinding, and the man had enormous talent at making simple gestures that would create amazing effects with the sand. I'm not doing it justice here. It was beautiful. (A poorly made video is available on YouTube
.)Thursday and Friday
After that we had two "at sea" days. Honestly they mostly blurred together for me. I recall waking up late, spending time reading at various locations around the ship, avoiding the second "formal night" on Thursday, and so on.
Thursday evening there were two planned events. The first was something called "Quest" in the ice rink area. I skipped it, but Michael went, and reported it was an adult in-place scavenger hunt. The audience was broken up into teams by where they were seated, and each team had to appoint a male and female "captain". Then the emcee would state a challenge. The first team to complete the challenge got the most points, the second team get less points, and so on. Challenges included the female "captain" standing up wearing six belts from the men in the team, the male captain showing several bras no-longer being worn, showing a picture of the White House (it's on the twenty dollar bill), and stuff like that. The final challenge was for the male lead to dress up in various parts of women's clothing (bra, skirt, shoes, purse, etc.) and strut along the stage like they were on a fashion runway. I've seen video, it's absolutely terrifying. I've heard that Arno's team has won the game each time they've played, and he's gotten a reputation on Royal Caribbean for being a cutthroat player.
The second was the "White Party" at the another of the ship's discos. I skipped it, but Michael went (and stayed out till 3AM!)
Friday there was a Farewell party at one of the ship's bars, and Michael and I had reservations at one of the upscale (additional cost) dining facilities, "Chops Grill". We've eaten at Chops on the Allure and very much enjoyed it, and were looking forward to dining there on the Oasis.
Unfortunately, as we were packing (it was the last night of the cruise, and you have to have your bags out in the hallway by 11PM), Michael started experiencing a sharp pain in his side. It got bad enough that he was pretty immobilized. We eventually decided at about 7:30 (after the Farewell party had started) to head to the ship's infirmary. They had closed at 7, but were willing to see people on an emergency basis (for an extra fee, of course). After several tests, they had pretty much ruled everything scary out. They filled him up with pain killers and sent him back to the cabin with instructions to return if it didn't get better. (It did get better after the shot, thankfully.) We got our luggage out on time then turned in.Saturday
By the time our alarm went off at 6AM, we were docked at Fort Lauderdale, the hallways had been emptied of luggage (actually that seemed to happen by 1AM according to Michael who got up and wandered for a bit not being able to sleep), and there were already people getting ready to disembark. We showered and dressed, packed up our carry-ons, and went over the cabin several times to make sure we got everything. Then breakfast at Park Cafe again. And then we went through the lengthy disembarkation process. With a ship that big, long lines are inevitable, and these were some long-ass lines. We had taken advantage of Royal Caribbean's "Luggage Valet" service to send our bags on to the airport, so we didn't have to pick our bags up at the terminal, but we did have to wait in line to get through Customs. That was tedious.
After that, we had a huge block of free time since it was only 9:30AM and our flight didn't board until 6:30PM. Thankfully Michael had been in contact with a friend of his he's known since they were both college-aged, who agreed to pick us up at the port, lend us his car while he put a couple of hours in at the office, and then take us to lunch. We wound up finding a local comics and games store (surprise!) and then spent time at a nearby Barnes & Noble, before heading back to his office. We had lunch at a colorful "Key West" themed casual eatery where he and Michael caught up on their lives. Then back to the airport (listening to surreal "songs" that they and their friends made in someone's basement) where we got through security with a minimal amount of fuss and then found seats to wait for our flight. Friends from the cruise found us waiting, and joined us, helping the time fly by as we chatted. Eventually it was time to board the airplane (which we almost missed because our boarding passes had the wrong gate listed) and fly back home. We got back to the house at around 3AM (Florida time, midnight local time) and promptly fell into bed.
It was a good vacation for the most part. There were some bumpy bits, and the medical scare Friday wasn't fun, but as we were parting from our friends, we all agreed we were looking forward to next February when we'd all get together again. I'm already counting the days...