Introductory Note: By my calendar, it has been two months since my last post. I have several orphaned blogs that have suffered similar fates. There is no real good excuse, but some interesting reasons … well, interesting to me, anyway. However, I will update this blog more regularly. There was a two-week period, however, when I had no access to internet, email, or phone. At the end of February, my wife, Kate, and I got to go on a Caribbean cruise. When I was a kid, I went on a cruise in Hawaii, but cruise ships today are nothing like the Pacific Princess cruiser we were on back then. Here is a picture of that cruise ship now:
And here is a view of the ship we were on, the Norwegian Gem, which was elegant and carries about 2500 passengers:
The following picture essay is short on theological reflection, but it is long on an interesting and fun experience. Enjoy!
On St. Maarten
On February 16th, we drove down to Boston and spent the night at a hotel which allows people to also keep their cars there for up to two weeks. Then we took the shuttle to South Station to catch the 11:15 train to New York City.
On the way to the train station in Boston
We love traveling by train. Every year there is a rumor that Amtrak is going to extend their DownEaster run all the way up to Rockland, which would mean we could catch the train a mile from our house, but it never happens. Otherwise we would be taking the train to Boston and NYC all the time.
The outskirts of NYC
We walked from Penn Station, past Times Square to our room in Hell’s Kitchen, which was a little over a mile. We were pretty tired, but our little hotel room looked out over a classic Hell’s Kitchen scene. I expected to see DareDevil or Spiderman show up in the alleyways.
At the Skyline Hotel in Hell’s Kitchen Hell’s Kitchen from our hotel window
Our hotel was only 2 blocks away from Pier 88, which is where Norwegian Cruise Lines stations itself. We had a boarding time of 12 noon, so we left about an hour ahead of time. In NYC, the blocks between Avenues is almost twice as long as between Streets. We walked from 10th Avenue, where our hotel was, to 12th Avenue, which runs along the waterfront. Less than halfway there, we could see the ship. The Norwegian Gem is huge, but about a third smaller than the megaships that are so popular now.
This is 2 blocks away. The ship is the largest building.
From this moment on, everyday was comprised of how to navigate large crowds of people.
After going through security checks, room key photos and creation, and navigating the maze of sales for massage packages, drink packages, restaurant packages, and down payments for your next cruise, we went through the enclosed gangplank to arrive on the Promenade level and were led right into the Atrium of the ship. Which is elegant and spectacular.
Here is a link to a short movie of the light sculpture in action
We left port at about 4pm. At about 3:45, our rooms were ready. They are small, but with plenty of space. Here is Kate looking at the schedule of things to do as I take a picture from the balcony. With a bonus picture of Kate with her personal life preserver.
Kate was very happy for all the security and safety things that were present on the ship. Of course, no amount of reassurance that cruise liners are one of the safest ways to travel assuaged her concerns initially.
The Norwegian Gem has six diesel engines, which power multi-directional propulsion systems. At full speed it burns through about 3000 gallons of diesel fuel an hour. I tried not to think about the several tens of thousands of gallons of fuel deep in the hull of the ship once I found this out. Nonetheless, those engines are highly refined pieces of machinery which allow for tight maneuverability. We backed out of port and executed a very nice 90 degree turn in the river and then headed toward the sea. Also? It was cold.
The Norwegian Gem is registered in the Bahamas, and I believe every ship that is not registered in the US must be escorted out of the port by police or Coast Guard. We had a police helicopter escort us out.
We watched from the Sun Deck, along with a lot of other people.
It was moving and powerful to see Ellis Island as the sun went down, knowing relatives likely passed through there many years ago. And the Statue of Liberty at sunset is an image that has stayed with me since I saw it.
And then, we were out into the open sea, the North Atlantic.
We were at sea for 3 days going out and coming back. The first night, we – Kate and I, and our friends, Rodney and Jeni, with whom we took the cruise – explored the ship. This is the swimming pool area, which has a bar at one end, a buffet and bar at the other end, four hot tubs and two swimming pools, along with a water slide.
For the entire trip, I woke with the rising sun, which meant I was up before the vast majority of the our other 2400 fellow travelers, but not the 1000 crew members.
Kate and I made it a point to always use the stairs and walked the Promenade Deck often during our time at sea. Our room was on the 10th deck, and the Promenade was on the 7th. The buffet, pool, and sun decks were all on the 12th and 13th decks, so we walked several flights of stairs several times a day. If a person walked around the Promenade 2 ⅔ times, it was a mile. The Norwegian Gem is about 950 feet long, so once around the Promenade is a little more than a third of a mile. It is a huge ship.
The Grand Pacific dining room was at the aft of the ship. They served breakfast, lunch and dinner, and both the service and the food were excellent. The Norwegian Gem went through a major upgrade and remodel 2 and a half years ago and they went full-on Art Deco for the dining room. We were some of the first people to be seated for breakfast on the first morning, so we had a seat right above the port-side engines.
Here is the hallway leading away from our room. We were toward the forward of the ship, with a portside room (left, facing forward). This is facing aft (toward the rear). You can tell because the fish on the carpet always swim to the front of the ship, which was helpful because it was very easy to get turned around on the stairwells.
We were in room 10536. Jongi was our steward and was an excellent host for our cruise. For that matter, every staff member we interacted with was friendly, talkative, and helpful. The diversity was refreshing and wonderful to be around. Jongi was from China. Morgan, down the hall, was from India. Ghana, Croatia, Argentina, Spain, Peru, Cameroon, Norway, Philippines, Italy, France, South Africa, Russia, Taiwan, and many more were all on board. Kate and I, and our friends, Rodney and Jeni, made it a point to get to know the staff wherever we were on the ship. Lots of people complained about lots of things while on the cruise, but this being my first cruise experience as an adult, neither Kate nor I, nor our friends, could find a single thing to complain about at any point on the trip.
The seas were calm going down to San Juan. It started getting warm once we were off the coast of North Carolina. At sunset on the first day, we were down around northern Georgia, about 140 miles off shore.
Those first three days, we spent a lot of time at the outdoor cafe at the aft of the ship.
Also, I have about 400 pictures of waves and the wake of the ship.
The Norwegian Gem had 8 complimentary restaurants, 4 upcharge restaurants, and 3 buffet centers. You could, if you so desired, eat from 7am until 6:59am the next morning. O’Sheehans Pub, which overlooks the Atrium, is open 24 hours. The pub has a lot of sports memorabilia on the walls, and I was thrilled to find a great picture of The Greatest, Muhammed Ali, gracefully dodging a haymaker thrown from Joe Frazier.
By the time we were down around Florida, the water started turning a beautiful deep blue. The weather was warm and people began to swarm the pool area. Apparently, people “reserve” lounge chairs by putting their towels on the chairs, then leaving and doing whatever it is they are doing. Neither Kate or I have the patience or the desire to sit still long enough to get a tan by laying out in the sun. Also, my father used to be a dermatologist, and laying out in the sun has rooted itself as a deep and profound taboo in my psyche.
The water gets bluer the warmer it gets; and the pool gets crowded
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Our first port was San Juan, PR. It is a modern city which reminded me a lot of Detroit – many places that are thriving and active, with pockets of abandonment. All the white SUVs and buses are for tours from the cruise ships coming into the port. It is a strange and unusual business, and from my research it is not clear if having 4 cruise ships every other day coming into your town is actually helpful to the local economy or not. I suspect most of the money spent on excursions, aside from port fees (which can be as little as $8 to as much as $25 per person), ends up back with the cruise line.
While in San Juan, we went on a tour of the El Yunque National Rainforest. The forest has been a long-term conservation project for Puerto Rico, and often people with neighboring land will donate or will the land to the park, so it keeps growing. It is incredibly lush, being a rainforest and all. As a rainforest, it rains everyday, several times a day. It is a beautiful place.
When we got back to the pier, I was able to get an advertising shot of our ship, and watch the Royal Caribbean ship come in. The Eurodam was there as well. Last year, 21 million people went on cruises. It is a $40 billion a year industry. The line we were on, Norwegian Cruise Line, is bringing 4 new ships out in the next 3 years. There are issues with all of this, of course.
The Norwegian Gem and a Royal Caribbean cruise ship coming into port with us
Royal Caribbean and Holland America’s Eurodam as we leave San Juan
St. Thomas, VI
I think it is important, before I say anything about the Virgin Islands, that you know the stewards on NCL cruises are trained in the fine art of creating towel animals. Here is a sauropod our steward, Jongi, made for us:
I was in the Virgin Islands when I was an early teen, so my memory of it was not clear. I remembered it as far less populated, and it probably was less populated then. But I did remember the very blue waters and the beautiful way the trees spilled into the water from the islands. All of it looks warm, lush, and inviting.
This picture was taken at about 6:45am. It rained almost every morning in all the island ports. The rain would come in over the hills and across the water, beautiful sheet falling over the land and the water. Here, the clouds are moving off into the ocean as the sun comes up over the islands.
One of the places we went when I was there as a kid was Trunk Bay on St. John’s, VI. So the excursion we signed up for was a Trunk Bay Snorkeling and Beach day. We took a boat from the ship pier to St John’s, then got on a bus to Trunk Bay,which is in Virgin Islands National Park.
The ocean was crystal clear, but the waves were big the day we were at Trunk Bay, so the coral reef off the little cay, which was about 50 yards out from the beach, was covered with sand. Also, the beach was much more crowded than what I remembered. All that is to say that I didn’t get to see a lot of color or any fish at all snorkeling around the island. Rightfully, Trunk Bay is considered one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world.
The next morning we ended up at Sint Maarten, which is an island divided in half. Half is Dutch, and the other, more populated, half is French. We docked on the Dutch side.
St. Maarten is a large island, but our bus to Maho Beach didn’t leave until 10am or so. It gave Kate and I a chance to wander down the pier and get some pictures.
Unbelievably, there is yet another cruise ship on the other side of the Royal Caribbean liner to the left of the picture. Also, if you look closely, you will see a little cart driving down the pier. The cart is driving down the pier toward Kate and I because people are not supposed to be down on the pier where we are. Of course, there were no signs that told us such a thing. But I got a good tourist pic of my lovely wife.
Maho Beach is in a bay on the far side of the island. It was here that Kate and I, and our friends with whom we were on the cruise with, decided the entire cruise scene is basically a travelling spectacle. Cruising, and the destinations one ends up in, is not travel in any true sense of the word. As someone who has some experience with travel, I think of travel as being willing to go to a place you don’t know, to learn about and experience things you want to know and do, and finding out about where those things are by talking to people you don’t know. Cruising is more like a moving vacation away from everything than travel.
Anyway, Maho Beach is a small beach with a whole lot of people. The primary attraction is that the beach is beautifully blue, which you can find all over the island. The main difference here are the airplanes that land right past the beach. The planes come in right over the top of the beach. Click for a YouTube video of planes landing. It is kind of crazy.
By the time we arrived at Tortola early the next morning, we were pretty overwhelmed by the crowds and the herding from place to place and the noise. At the same time, we were aware that Tortola may be the most interesting of the islands on our trip. Even if we wanted to do something, though, the departure time was 1PM, so we just got off the ship and wandered around the town a little bit.
Kate and I went to this strange car park on the water and took some pictures, waded through the shops outside the pier, and then got back on the ship to people watch and enjoy the incredible weather – it was about 84 degrees and humid everywhere we went in the Caribbean, which was a nice break from the cold in Maine.
The aft deck overlooking the Tortola pier – Tortola in the morning
One thing I discovered about cruising is that much of the experience is always in comparison to other cruise ships and past cruises. When the Oasis of the Seas pulled up next to us, I noticed, “Hey, wait a minute…they have TWO climbing walls. And a giant LED movie screen by the pool area! What the…”
The Tui Discovery, which hails from New Zealand had a pink llama as a mascot. I liked the pink llama and thought our Norwegian Gem ship should have a mascot – maybe a reindeer or a lundehund.
Here is the Tui Discovery’s Llama And here is the Gem with a Lundehund
We left Tortola – home of pirates and nefarious transfers of goods and humans alike – at 1pm. We took 3 days to get down to the Caribbean, and it would take a little less than that, but not much less to get back to NYC. Leaving Tortola was fantastically beautiful.
When we entered into international waters, the swells started to come in diagonally, and they were large, but relatively gentle. A lot of people on the ship didn’t handle it well, but we did.
It appeared to me that everyone on the ship knew they were headed back to cold weather, so they did whatever they could to take advantage of the time left to them to hang out in the sun and around the pool.
Sunsets were spectacular on the ocean. We didn’t get to see the green flash that happens when the sun hits the horizon at sunset when you are nearer to the equator, since it was cloudy every evening. But cloudy evenings led to moments like these.
The ship has something going on every moment of every waking hour. Most of the shows were musical reviews or comedy shows. We did go to one show with a couple of acrobats who were very impressive. What made it even more impressive was the performers were doing their ribbon and acrobatic routine on a considerably rocking ship. They did not appear to care. The theater that the performance was held was beautiful and could seat up to 1200 people. I couldn’t take pictures of the performance, but I did take a picture of the stage.
The ship was beautiful and all the lighting was just at the edge of being overwhelming, but the blue and purple and greys and the softened tones are clearly designed to calm people and draw them in.
This was a karaoke night in the Atrium featuring the crew of the ship. There were some very talented people who sang, but I was keenly aware of the penchant for ‘70s pop and soft rock.
The last couple days, Kate and our friends and I began to seek places that weren’t as crowded. However, if you choose to go on a cruise, there are people everywhere and there is no “quiet space”. Even the library was crowded. I suppose it was quiet in there, but so many people being quiet in a small space seemed more difficult to me than Calypso and Reggae bands playing by the pool.
After 10 days on the Norwegian Gem, it was time to leave the ship. Cruising is a weird way to travel. It is like a floating city that travels to different places, but you see the same things everyone else sees when you go to those places. Instead of a house, you have a room where the bed is always made for you and someone cleans your bathroom for you and leaves towel animals for you.
Instead of having to worry about meals, you can choose to eat from your choice of a bunch of good to great restaurants, or just go to the buffet and eat as healthy or as unhealthy as you like. Instead of 128 channels with nothing on, there are musicians around the ship or a show in the theater or games in various lounges.
There is a lot that is attractive to all this and there are actually people who have both the income and the temperament to essentially live on a cruise ship all the time – as a passenger.
None of the above would be possible without the exceptional work of the international crew that makes all of this happen. The cooks, stewards, restaurant attendants and waiters, customer service agents, photographers, the captain and chief officers all make the experience seem unencumbered and relaxed. The amount of work to make this happen for 2400 passengers is almost inconceivable, and yet they remain friendly and attentive. Having done customer service work for many years before ministry, I can say this attitude is very hard to maintain.
But it was time to leave the ship, and we were excited to get home to our dogs and our house. We came into New York at sunrise.
By 8:45 we were off the ship. Here is a secret for you: Easy Disembarkation from the ship is when everyone leaves the ship. It is supposed to be an organized affair, but leaving the ship all at once is a herding event that is very uncomfortable.
And then, we were back on the streets of New York City.
Having been away from the ship for a month now, I can honestly say I would do this
whole thing again in a minute. Even with all the herding, all the people, the constant ‘70s pop music, it is unlike anything else. The danger is to join the Cruise Cult. Every cruise should be like your first cruise – unexpected, unknown, and completely new.
Kate and I had many conversations about the nature of leisure and vacations and work while on the Norwegian Gem and I will be updating the blog with some of those insights. One insight, however, that I will end with here is this:
Gratitude for those who make things possible for our enjoyment and leisure is easily overlooked. To make gratitude to those who make our vacations possible is a personal responsibility while traveling. Things go very well when, in our case, the staff and crew know you will be gracious for the things they do and the things you ask for. Once we engage gratitude, it flows. It flows from the vacation and the people helping make it possible, to the people you are traveling with, to the work you do to make the financial aspects possible, to the gifts given that help you travel, to God, for the incredibly beautiful places, creatures, and people in this world. So on your next vacation, say “Thank you” often. Start a conversation with your waiter. Thank the management or owner or captain. Look for the people who never get thanked, and thank them. Often. It will change everything, because we are changed when we are grateful.