One of the most memorable parts of our quick weekend getaway to Bermuda last April was a visit to the Royal Naval Dockyard where a Princess ship, I think it was, happened to be berthed.
Looking at the ship, my husband, Gil, and I experienced an "Aha!" moment at precisely the same time: Why not cruise to Bermuda next time, instead of fly? It would probably be cheaper -- and the duration of our mini-holiday longer.
We tested the theory in October. Sure enough, our roundtrip five-night sail from Baltimore to Bermuda on Royal Caribbean's Grandeur of the Seas cost $1,557 compared to $1,086 in airfare for our two-night respite. And the latter, of course, didn't include lodging or meals.
Not only that but there's a value-add in not having to fly; it's a short flight from the Mid-Atlantic but an international one nonetheless, so it comes with all the attendant stressors. Meanwhile, our zippity-doo-dah drive from our house on Maryland's Eastern Shore to the Maryland Cruise Terminal in Baltimore, some 65 miles, was a cinch. Like those ubiquitous real estate signs say: "If you lived here, you'd be home." We were "home." Or, as they say in Baltimore: We were home, Hon.
A Homeport Advantage
It was fun viewing Baltimore from a new perch. Gil and I both lived in the city for years, but we had never seen it topside from a passenger ship. The Legg Mason tower, the Baltimore Ravens football stadium, even our old neighborhood were all visible from the top deck. There's something nice about a familiarity factor like that.
The homeport advantage extends, as well, to the embarkation process. Just consider the parking lot, filled not surprisingly with cars from the Mid-Atlantic region. We arrived several hours in advance of our 5:15 p.m. departure, and the parking attendant whisked us through to an area where we quickly off-loaded our luggage, then parked. The cost of parking: $10 a day.
The Maryland Cruise Terminal is not only handsome, but it's also efficient. It took us just 15 minutes to board. Again, the ease of it all was astonishing: just two hours door to door -- from my front porch to Cabin 3544. Over the last couple of years, we have flown to Italy, France, Fort Lauderdale and Anchorage to catch cruise ships, so this was something to celebrate.
After dumping the hand luggage in our oceanview cabin, we explored our new digs. Grandeur, launched in 1996, is one of Royal Caribbean's older vessels, but its sleek public spaces are still sharp: the Centrum, a sweeping six-story atrium; the glitzy Palladium Theater; and a grand Art Deco-inspired dining room. Some of the spaces feel quite up-to-the-minute, in fact: conference space for business meetings, for example, and Cafe Latte-tudes, which sells Seattle's Best Coffee products and Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
As we prepared to set sail, a lot of passengers -- us included -- paid homage to Baltimore with Grandeur's drink of the day: the Baltimore Sunrise. Sadly, by the time we gathered for the muster drill, a number of passengers were obviously tipsy and so loud it was difficult to hear the crew give instructions. Too many Sunrises? I confess it made me uncomfortable, and by the end of the voyage, I had a new theory to test: Do shorter cruises -- in this case, one with a single port of call and no real scholarship component -- attract more of a party crowd? That's another story, alas, for another day.
Early that evening, just as it was getting dark, Grandeur passed the mouth of the Chester River and glided under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.
Our First Sea Day: Wind, Chop, Action
That first morning, we woke up to rolling seas -- definitely, time to grab the Sea Bands.
Here's what CNN tells us: A tropical depression called Noel, now a tropical storm, is positioned over Haiti, threatening 30 inches of rain there and heading north. Here's what our captain reports at noon: We're just off Cape Hatteras and, on the open decks, the wind is blowing a serious 45 knots. What's more, the winds aren't expected to die down until late tonight or early tomorrow morning. Here's what I'm thinking: Glad we didn't splurge on a balcony.
Facing a hurricane while cruising to Bermuda is more common than you'd think (and occurs less often than you'd fear), but it's important to note that Bermuda lies in the hurricane zone, and cruises there mostly sail during the hurricane season. Just be forewarned.
Noel, that spoiler, resulted in the cancellation of many of the day's events. No belly flop contest because the pool is closed. No rock wall climbing competition. No men's adorable legs contest. (No loss.) Some people are wearing parkas, others shorts. Some of the most interesting action, oddly enough, is taking place in the ship's handsome card room where 21 bridge players -- the Sharp Minds Bridge Club from West Virginia -- have convened. They play twice a day, party bridge and duplicate, and this is their third time out with Royal Caribbean. As one woman put it, "The only way I can get a vacation is if I let my husband play bridge."
On days like this, with little else to do, meals command the clock. At 7 a.m., we are in the multi-level Windjammer Cafe, well designed with a lot of two- and four-top tables, which give it more of a restaurant-like feel than your typical all-you-can-eat buffet. No quarrels with breakfast either, which offers a "baker's dozen" bread bar, waffles and pancakes, fruits, cheese, numerous egg and pork options, and a made-to-order egg station.
By noon, we were checking out lunch in the formal Great Gatsby dining room. Unlike a lot of newer ships, there are no alternative restaurants on Grandeur, so we were lucky Great Gatsby performed well overall at both lunch (14 selections, imagine) and dinner, which excelled particularly in the area of seafood.
We were also delighted with our dinner-time tablemates: a family of three from Baltimore and a retired couple from the Eastern Shore. All of us had cruised before and, chatting about the ship, we were all mystified by the fundamentals Grandeur didn't offer: toiletries, for instance. Unless you book a suite, there is no lotion and no conditioner (pack your own). I asked for a shower cap and lotion and was told those "amenities" didn't come with our cabin class. Our stateroom also had no fridge -- even though the literature makes mention of a mini-bar. Some of the cabins on Grandeur are showing signs of wear and tear, and it didn't help that ours wasn't completely clean when we boarded. Call me cranky, but I've stayed in budget motels that have done better.
Last time we visited Bermuda, we flew in for a weekend to visit family. On that trip, we had spent a wonderful afternoon at the Royal Naval Dockyard, where Grandeur -- after a blessedly calm sail up the channel to our pier at King's Wharf -- was now docked. The pesky Noel had, fortunately, bypassed Bermuda.
For the first time since we'd left Baltimore, the sun managed to find us -- although the wind, compliments of Noel, was bracing. Off the ship, we were reminded all over again why we had enjoyed the Dockyard so much. The 24-acre preserve, the largest of Bermuda's fortifications, is a hive of activity with a rum cake factory, craft and art glass shops, a working boatyard, a dolphin park, a beach, and, best yet, the Bermuda Maritime Museum. As the island's largest and most visited museum, this archive holds everything you need to know about storied Bermuda: its history as a Mid-Atlantic British naval base; a legacy of slavery; the influence of Portuguese immigrants, who have had a lasting impact; the development of tourism; and historical collections of maps, maritime art and watercraft.
A couple of Dockyard dining tips: Bone Fish Bar & Grill serves local favorites such as traditional fish chowder, Portuguese bean soup and a chorizo sausage wrap. Frog & Onion Pub, located in an old cooperage, offers great pub fare (fish and chips, Cornish pasties, shepherd's pie and Bermuda-style curry mussel pie) along with samplers of Bermuda drafts brewed on site.
Bermuda is only 20 square miles, a speck in the middle of the ocean known for its pink sandy beaches, turquoise sea and a laid-back sensibility that has attracted tourists like Mark Twain, Georgia O'Keefe, Winslow Homer, John Lennon and Oprah Winfrey. Even though the Dockyard -- home to all manner of cruise ships during the April to November season -- is on the island's westernmost point, it's easy to get from A to B, even for tourists (who, by the way, are not permitted to rent cars.)
First, there's excellent bus service that links the Dockyard with the capital "city" of Hamilton, the colorful waterfront town that is home to Bermuda's booming offshore financial services community, museums, restaurants and shops. The one-hour ride is a great way to experience the lay of the land. There's also ferry service between the Dockyard and both Hamilton and St. George, a World Heritage Site settled in the early 1600's that drives home Bermuda's rich past.
After our Dockyards reunion, we took a "Famous Homes & Hideaways" shore excursion on a sightseeing boat with "Captain Ronnie." The water was extremely choppy motoring into Hamilton, but I tried to ignore it by focusing on the captain's color commentary. Who knew, for example, that the land closest to us was the Carolinas, nearly 600 miles away? Or that Bermuda actually consists of over 300 tiny islands? If there's a rock with a tree on it, it's apparently classified as an island. Our boat, Consort Bermuda, maneuvered nicely through tiny inlets and passageways, giving us a close look at some of Bermuda's priciest real estate. The priciest sight of all was Octopus, one of the world's largest megayachts, passing time outside the Hamilton harbor. Built for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen at a cost of $250 million, the yacht has two helicopters and a crew of 60.
And ka-ching. It's a familiar refrain here. Bermuda is not an island that is associated with deals. It's easy to spend $75 on lunch, and lodging routinely costs hundreds of dollars a night. Without doubt, we decided, cruising is the most economical way to visit Bermuda, albeit briefly.
Cruising the Rail Trail
On our second day, we tried a different approach to Bermuda. While the sightseeing boat trip gave us a peek at Millionaire's Row, we got an inside look at Bermuda -- backyards, a cricket field, cottages, beaches and panoramic seascapes -- by bicycling on the Bermuda Railway Trail, which runs most of the length of the 21-mile island.
With just one other couple, our guide Nigel led us across more than a third of the old train route, which closed in 1948. One noteworthy stop: a climb up to Fort Scaur, part of a ring of fortifications built in the 19th century with a commanding view of Great Sound and, in the distance, Grandeur of the Seas.
After sharing a rum swizzle with Nigel, we grabbed lunch at Frog & Onion then returned to the ship -- where, with pleasant 75-degree temperatures, it was beginning to feel like a ship that had taken its happy pills. Late that afternoon, we set sail for Baltimore, the open ocean one hour away.
Our Last Sea Day
Definitely, passengers are amped: The Centrum is standing-room-only for a cooking demo of jumbo prawns in curry coconut sauce with the executive chef. In the pool deck area, throbbing to music, 43 people prove they can all touch the same beach towel at the same time. And in a Palladium Theater sit-down with the talented and high-energy Royal Caribbean singers and dancers, Gil and I learn these had been the rockiest weather conditions they had performed under in six months. They were terrific, nonetheless.
Fortunately, today is warm and calm -- with little more to do than dive into a book. At noon, Grandeur's captain reports that we are just 180 miles from Cape Hatteras. By midnight, we would enter the Chesapeake Bay.
This is the part I want to forget.
We had signed up for self-assisted disembarkation, which means we would walk our bags off ourselves. Efficient, right?
We are back to a bracing breeze with temperatures in the 40s. Due to winds, the ship arrives in Baltimore one hour late. Gil and I sit in the Palladium Theater for close to two hours waiting -- and waiting -- for a disembarkation announcement. It wasn't just us who weren't getting the call. No one was. Meanwhile, we heard what -- 50, 60 times -- a CNN Headline News report on a frozen pizza recall, a clip on Britney Spears's salary (she makes $737,000 a month) and a piece on the bounty hunter Duane Dog Chapman, who had unleashed a racist rant on his son. Not terribly cheerful and not, to be honest, the best ending to the cruise.
We were so happy when our group was called that we all but fled.
A little over a week later, on a Sunday evening driving across the Bay Bridge, we spied Grandeur sailing below us magically illuminated in the night sky. That's the memory I'll keep for my goodbye.
--By Ellen Uzelac, a Cruise Critic contributor who writes about travel and finance from Maryland's Eastern Shore