Monday, December 26, 2011

Caribbean Cruise

The Cruise: Anna recently learned that she passed her comprehensive exams for her Ph.D. program. To celebrate this milestone, she wanted to take a cruise (before dissertation writing begins in January). She found a Carnival ship that was going to four ports we had never visited. In our 11 years together, it would be my tenth cruise, and my first with Carnival. It was Anna’s eleventh cruise—having sailed her first time on Carnival back in the ‘90s before we knew each other. I am glad that she convinced me on the merits of cruising.

Getting there: Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, now has a low-cost direct flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida with Spirit Airlines. In less than two hours, they fly an Airbus jet (not a commuter, but more like a 737) from CRW to FLL. Spirit Airlines is one of the new no-frills low-budget airlines, and while the fares were very attractive, some of the on-line reviews I found about the overall airline itself made me a bit concerned. Fortunately, I knew Rick A., the manager of Yeager Airport, from our days as students at the University of Charleston. I contacted the “Yeager-Meister” via Facebook, and he assured me that Spirit had a good record with this WV to FL run.

We decided to try it, and we were glad we did. While there are no complimentary snacks or drinks (everything requires a credit card), and although the seats are packed close together and are upholstered in a heavy duty, battleship gray, vinyl covering, it was not that bad! I suppose if you are a regular business traveler accustomed to the accoutrements of the traditional airlines, it might seem like a step down, but it served our purposes well! For a reasonable price (less than $150 each for a round-trip ticket, after all the charges—except for the $63 long-term parking charge, which is a steal compared to bigger airports), we got to Florida very quickly and easily.

By the way, while checking in at Yeager Airport, I encountered another UC alum who works there. Although we hadn’t seen each other in a long time, Jeff R. (John R’s younger brother) recognized me as I went through the security checkpoint. He is also a “fed”—working for the Department of Homeland Security at Yeager. It is always nice to unexpectedly run into someone you know while traveling!

The Ship: We sailed on the Carnival Miracle, which was a very nice ship, with a theme of fictional characters dominating its decorations. In addition to the normal theater area (where we especially enjoyed their tribute to the Beatles show), there was also a separate stand-up comedy theater. It featured four different comedians, including one who was a finalist on “Last Comic Standing.” All of them were pretty good!

There was a nice piano bar, featuring a talented pianist who led sing-alongs of popular songs (he noticed Anna’s shirt said something about Mountaineers, and broke into “Country Roads” which everyone sang along with us). Many ships run free movies on their TV network, but this was something we found disappointing. Of the movies we caught, there were only two I was impressed with—“The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Arthur.” The food was plentiful and decent, as on most ships. We met some interesting people and made some new friends. Overall, it was a good cruise.

Grand Turk: Our first stop was on Grand Turk, part of the country of islands called the Turks and Caicos. This island played a part in the NASA space program, with John Glenn landing nearby after his famous flight, and spending his first days back on the island at a military base we once had there (the next Mercury mission with Scott Carpenter also splashed down near Grand Turk). As a former NASA employee, I was pleased to see the little park they had built commemorating their island’s “moments in the spotlight” with the Mercury program nearly 50 years ago (can it really be that long ago?). Besides visiting this park, we also enjoyed a nice walk on the beach before it was time for our excursion.

We signed up to go kayaking (in clear bottom boats) in an estuary lined with mangroves. We saw egrets, osprey, and other birds. Our guide taught us about the mangrove trees, and showed us various forms of wildlife. We beached the kayaks for a quick hike, allowing him to explain some of the vegetation that grows in the area. Returning to the shallows where we had beached the kayaks, he had us wade over to his “aquarium.” He had set up about a 4 foot ring of rocks at a depth of about a foot or so. Within this ring of rocks, he had placed sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and conchs. Although they were not confined by the ring of rocks, other colorful fish seemed attracted to the area, and kept swimming in and out of the area. He explained these different creatures, allowing us to hold each of them. He then showed us how to open a conch shell and proceeded to cut up the meat for us to eat. It was very good! When we got back to the dock, there was a whole collection of large conch shells for us to take as a souvenir. It was a great experience (and the bus ride over and back was interesting as well).

Aruba: We were signed up to sail on a “pirate ship” that would take us to a couple of really good snorkeling areas, including a German freighter sunk in shallow waters. Unfortunately, the morning of our arrival we were informed that the seas were too rough for any of the snorkeling or scuba excursions. However, there were now spots available on the 4x4 tour—so we switched to that outing (a friend who had previously visited Aruba had recommended this excursion to us).

This company had outfitted LandRovers to seat four people on each side of the pickup bed (the seatbelts were a necessity). Their crazy drivers loved to splash through the mudholes during our off-road adventures. We visited the lighthouse on the north end of the island, a Catholic church originally built in the 1700s, an ostrich farm, the ruins of a Dutch fortress, a couple of the natural bridges along the shoreline, and other interesting spots around the island. Our driver’s conversations gave us a good sense of the island of Aruba.

Since the next island was so close, the ship stayed in port until 11:00 PM, giving us time to explore the nightlife on Aruba (it is rare to be in a port after dark). After cleaning up and eating dinner on the ship, we headed back out to walk around the town and the yacht basin. It was interesting to see all the Christmas lights and decorations on a tropical island. We ended up at a popular nightspot called “Iguana Joe’s” where we purchased each other a souvenir shirt to commemorate our evening there.

Curacao: This Dutch island was a big surprise to me. Besides being the original home of the curacao liquor (made from sun-dried orange peels), it also houses a huge shipping port, as well as a major oil refinery, plus a large number of financial activities (banking, auditing, etc.). It has one of the most robust economies of all the Caribbean islands we have visited. This is not to say that there is not any poverty, but I was amazed at the commercial activity on this small island. It is also very beautiful, since most of the buildings are painted quite colorfully.

The excursion we chose was an all-day bus tour, with an hour-long break for lunch back on the ship. We explored the northwestern part of the island primarily, with a charming tour guide who taught us much about the island. We made a variety of stops, including at several beach areas, and at a few museums, including one dedicated to a slave revolt on the island. We saw flamingos, tropical orioles, and parakeets (big colorful ones, not the little ones that G.C. Murphy’s used to sell).

We also got to tour the distillery where the original curacao liquor was made, and is still produced today. I tried the free samples of their original orange flavor, as well as their chocolate and rum raisin varieties, but I passed on the coffee-flavored version (I think the original version was the best). I wish we had had enough time to go across the pontoon bridge into the main part of downtown, but maybe we will return someday to explore that area.

La Romana: This is a large city on the southwestern coast of the Dominican Republic. This country shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. We had never been on a cruise ship that stopped on this island, and even though Haiti is far worse off than the Dominican Republic, we knew that poverty was a big problem there. Anna and I thought that maybe we could find some sort of volunteer program that we could help out for the day that we would be spending there, instead of a typical excursion.

We were not able to find anything, but with less than a week to go before our departure, I decided to contact the Peace Corps office in the Dominion Republic to see if we could meet with any of their volunteers. We were contacted by a Brian and Kristy H., a wonderful young husband and wife team from the Seattle area who are working on the outskirts of La Romana. We arranged to meet and buy them lunch at a restaurant they recommended near the central park downtown.

After our initial food and conversation, they took us by bus to their “barrio” to see how they live. This was not the nice tour buses they use for picking up tourists at the cruise port—this was one of the unmarked, beat-up Mitsubishi vans that runs with the sliding door open at all times, transporting the locals around town. They took us to their apartment (where their mosquito netting was demonstrated), and we enjoyed a long conversation there about their work with the Peace Corps. It was an adventure we never could have done without Brian and Kristy’s expertise. It provided a real life overview of bustling metropolis of La Romana.

Even though we had only communicated through a few quick e-mails prior to boarding the ship, the hours we spent with Brian and Kristy that day were filled with a non-stop conversation. We also provided them with a “care package” we had created for them (carried in a WVU Mountaineers drawstring backpack, of course). It was very interesting to see the “real” La Romana that few tourists ever see. We eventually boarded another van for the return trip, and then accompanied Brian and Kristy to the “Jumbo” store, which is kind of like a Wal-Mart in downtown La Romana, before finally saying our goodbyes.

The H's, like all the other Peace Corps volunteers I have known, make wonderful ambassadors from America to these less fortunate lands. I applaud their efforts to help the locals and to make the United States look better to those outside our country. I’m glad we reached out to try something different than a typical excursion—it was probably the most memorable stop of the entire trip.

Chess: One of my favorite memories of this cruise will be from our last full day, spent at sea heading back to Florida. This ship had a special circular deck (the highest in the stern area) that was only about 25 feet around. It had a giant chess board in the middle, with weighted chess pieces that were about two feet high.

Anna and I have a history of playing chess, although more so in our early years—we seemed to have drifted away from it. In fact, we played a lot of chess when we were first getting to know each other a decade ago, and I admit she beat me most of the time. Besides being on the Midland Trail High School basketball team, Anna also played on their high school chess team.

While on the ship, we had tried to play the giant chess game several times during the week, only to find it being used by others. Finally, on the last evening, it was available. As the ship headed northwest along the coast of Cuba, the sun was setting above the Cuban mountains. It was a back-and-forth game with an absolutely beautiful sunset-at-sea view! [I especially enjoyed it since I ended up defeating the former West Virginia girls’ state chess champion!] A perfect final night of a wonderful vacation!

The Return: The flight back was an uneventful one hour and fifty-three minutes, with a smooth landing at Charleston. We decided to eat dinner before leaving the capitol city and driving back to Parkersburg. I had recently seen an article in the Charleston newspapers about the re-opening of the historic Quarrier Street Diner, an old art deco restaurant in the downtown. I had eaten there during my college days. Anna was familiar with it because it was a place her grandfather often spoke fondly about from his days in Charleston. We enjoyed our meal there, especially since I lucked into meeting an old friend there. My fellow UC alum Kim S. K. was there with her son Trey (who looks very much like his late father and fellow UC oarsman, Norm K). As I mentioned near the start of this story, it is always nice to unexpectedly run into someone you know while traveling!

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