My Solo Conquest of the Caribbean
Day 1... Sunday
I left home early, 5:30ish, due to concerns about construction delays on IH 45. None were to be found and I had a pleasant enough four hour ten minute ride to Galveston from San Antonio. Some four miles from the cruise terminal the world famous Farcus Funnel atop the Conquest came into view and a twinge of excitement ran though me.
I wandered about Galveston for several minutes attempting to find EZ Cruise Parking only to discover that I had driven up to the gate twice and failed to recognize it for what it was. After all, it just looked like a parking lot. I had expected something a bit grander, but then again, how grand should a parking lot be? Surrounded by sturdy fence and double razor wire, the lot was more than secure enough. The guys at EZ Cruise were great, as expected, and less than 15 minutes later I was at the cruise terminal. My driver gave me a thorough brief on were to find the return shuttle a week hence.
Embark was OK. Slightly slow would be the best way to describe it. There were three or four groups and one wedding that needed to board before general boarding could begin so things dragged a bit. I was aboard at about 12:30 and all was right with the world.
A quick pass by the Lido Deck proved that Carnival wasn't about to let anyone starve. The pizzeria was cranking as was the burger bar and, of course, the buffet. Killer burgers. The fries out Mc Donalded Mc Donald's famous shoe string fries. I don't even like fries but these were PERFECT; more than al dente and with just the right amount of salt. The felt crunch when bitten into gave no doubt about the quality. It's improbable that a better fry could be found anywhere.
A visit to the Atrium and a stop at the bar there resulted in a Scotch and soda that could make a good man weep. This lovely Lithuanian girl, Deima, poured Scotch like she didn't have a stake in it. My drink was the color of well steeped tea but with MUCH more bang. I'm going back tomorrow.
My cabin was available shortly before lifeboat drill although my checked luggage was still successfully evading the porters. Neat as a pin, spotlessly clean and without a trace of cigarette smoke, the cabin was exactly as I had expected it to be. The balcony was large enough and the perfect perch for observing the sail away.
Just as we made our way out of the harbor it was time to satisfy the legal requirement for the lifeboat exercise. Just as sure as death and taxes, SOMETHING had to mar my first hours on board and here it was. During the drill I was buried deep in the lines of hopeful, sweat drenched evacuees. A magnificently inebriated hillbilly type toppled backward into me like a six hundred year old Oak felled by a hurricane. From that point forward I smelled much like what you would expect from a mostly drained, two day old black and white can labeled: BEER. Such is life.
The next hour or so was spent exploring the ship and hoping that people didn't think that the odd order was me. The layout is easy to master and seemed quite logical. Some say that Joe Farcus designs are over done. To my eye, they're a blend of images and styles compiled to elicit a murmur of excitement. Not the level of excitement that would keep you awake at night but the type that keeps you ready, keeps you prepared for the inevitable surprise waiting around the next door or corner.
My bags were winning at Hide and Seek until moments before my scheduled dinner time, 5:45, in the Monet dining room. I rapidly changed my stale beer shirt and headed for the dinner. Yeah, I know, the seating was too early. Consider this; my table is on the EXACT centerline of the ship and at the exact aft position. Sex on the water is the best way to describe the view from my table each evening as the sun melted its way into the sea.
As I approached my assigned table a slight man with a grin of remarkable proportions approached me. He gave my hand a sound pump up and down and led me to my seat. As he draped the napkin on my lap he said: 'Welcome home, Sir.'
The menu wasn't remarkable but well rounded. I opted for the shrimp cocktail (perfect, crisp, slightly sweet shrimp with a nicely done cocktail sauce) and the Gazpacho. Silky, thick and with a lovely texture that mimicked cream made this little starter a winner.
My sirloin steak, requested rare, much to the shocked horror of my waiter Bagus (pronounced Bah-goo), arrived kind of medium rare, sort of... The three pepper corn sauce nearly made me forget about the excessive heat applied to my beef. It was AMAZING. End of discussion. I want a bottle of it to use as an IV drip. The potato wedges... wow... just wow...
Somehow, the Caesar Salad that I ordered had vanished in the hubbub and to be honest, I didn't even notice.
I'm not a guy for sweets and almost never eat dessert but I had promised a friend that I would try the famous Chocolate Melting Cake. Uhhhh... uhhhh... I think I'm in chocolate shock. That dessert should be under scrutiny by the Department of Homeland Security as a weapon of mass destruction. I ate about a third of it before my brain started to rebel. OVERLOAD!!!!!!!!!! Delicious but brutal. Wow... Now I know what everyone raves about. Had I been able to eat the remainder without my head exploding I surely would have!
Have you ever had one of those diners where individual parts weren't quite what you expected but the overall result was wonderful? Well, this was one of those occasions. A fine start to the week, indeed.
I was rather amazed by Bagus' genuine disappointment when I mentioned that I was dining at the supper club the next evening. This little gem of a guy is truly pleased to see his charges show up each evening. His huge grin draws a return smile from even the most jaded diner.
By the way, the Bombay Sapphire martinis were killer. I couldn't have done better myself. Hart, my bar waiter, greeted me with a Sahara dry bullet every evening with no prompting on my part.
The evening wound down in the Tahiti Casino offering up a few bucks to the slot gods and casually chatting with fellow Conquistadors.
It had been a long day. I was a bit worn and 10:30 felt like a good time to call it quits. As so many folks have reported in the past, the bed was comfortable, sufficiently firm and kind to the flesh. In short order it was lights out until the sun peeked 'round the curtains at about seven AM.
Day 2... first full day at sea
Today started out gray and a bit damp. An unorganized system of showers and thunderstorms were passing (or we were passing it...) to the East. Breakfast was breakfast. Warm, buttery and filling, much as one might expect. The Eggs Benedict were quite good but had been left sitting just a bit too long as the Hollandaise sauce had dried out a bit. Other than that, all went well. The service was very good, attentive and happy with large smiles gracing faces from so many different countries that you'd get a headache trying to figure them all out.
I spent a bit of time quietly marching about the ship, once again taking in the whimsical architecture of Joe Farcus. Eclectic and oddly right for the ship is the best way to describe the dEcor. The more you pay attention to the surroundings the more right it seems.
Upon my return to my cabin my wonderful little Cabin Steward, Miguel, was apologetically busy taking care of my room. I had parked a soft sided cooler in my bathroom with a note (and twenty dollars) attached to it. Miguel was cramming as much ice into the cooler as physics would allow. The guy is a gem. I never saw him without a broad grin on his face and a great attitude in his heart. I couldn't ask for better.
I spent the rest of the morning at in the Toulouse Lautrec Lounge listening to the briefing about the best way to enjoy the days in port. I've been to all of our ports several times before but I wanted to take in the entire experience of this ship and the ports briefing is a part. Butch Begovich, the Cruise Director, was high energy, funny and informative. He did a great job with the first time cruisers, a group that made up a remarkable percentage of the passenger population. Butch is very much a people person, as you might imagine, and he goes out of his way to make everyone he comes in contact with feel welcome.
I returned to my cabin to find it spotless. Miguel had been doing his thing. A short moment later and much to my amazement, my phone rang. Who would be calling me? Oddly enough it was Butch Begovich. He told me that he had gotten a call from John Heald on Saturday. John had asked that he afford me whatever he could to make my sailing memorable. He invited me to a VIP reception on Thursday and asked if it was alright to send some gifts to my cabin. I told him that I greatly appreciated the offer, as though I would refuse!! We spoke for about five minutes and I promised to stop him and introduce myself should I see him out and about.
The rest of the day was spent being blissfully lazy. The weather cleared around 1 PM and both the sea and the sky were 'Caribbean Blue', thank you Enya. An occasional jaunt about the ship, some window shopping and a bit of grazing was the plan de Jour. The plan was perfect. I spoke with a number of other passengers, had a chance to chat with quite a few crew members and simply enjoy a lovely day at sea. I think that on my next cruise I'll ask if I can have my cabin co-located at Sur Mer. I would save me a lot of walking. The fair was a delicious departure from the norm. Sur Mer provides cruisers with made to order and nicely presented dishes that you won't find on the menu at most common sea food restaurants.
I dressed for the Captain's reception and wandered aft. The Degas lounge was reserved for the occasion but the turnout was more than expected and the two adjacent lounges were opened to accommodate the numbers. The hors d'oeuvres were excellent, the cocktail meatballs in particular. I momentarily considered stuffing my jacket pockets with them.
While leaving the Degas Lounge I happened upon Butch and Captain Marino. I introduced myself and was greeted by a strong enthusiastic hand shake. Butch introduced me to Captain Massimo, a thin, distinguished gentleman of about five feet ten or perhaps five feet eleven inches in height, who exuded confidence. Just the variety of man one would want to command a vessel such as this.
A quick trip to the cabin to freshen up just a bit and ready myself for diner at the Point. Nothing I could have done, however, could have prepared me for what was to come. I expected good food and good service but I was way wrong.
After being greeted by a perfectly lovely young lady with an Eastern European accent, reminiscent of a Bond movie, I spent a moment reviewing the menu and placed my order. I couldn't resist the Onion Soup as a starter. Everyone reading this; take my advice GET THE SOUP!!!! Velvety, buttery, rich and heady with white wine this soup was perfect. The onions melted in my mouth. The cheese graced the croûton with melted elegance. The serving of soup was large enough to be a meal in itself but this is vacation and one of the requirements seems to be a bit of gluttony so I pressed on.
The Caesar Salad, prepared at my table, was a treat. Bold with garlic, the dressing was wonderful without any attempt to hide the participation of the anchovies. Crisp and delicious, a must-do for any fan of Caesar, the salad was delightful.
Shortly later the fork lift arrived with my Porterhouse steak. I had ordered the beast rare and it was cooked perfectly. The meat was properly rested prior to being presented at my table. Well, beef lovers, this is the prize. Twenty four ounces of the most tender, most delectable cow that one could imagine graced my plate. Fork tender (literally!!!) and delectably deep brown from the grill this thing was a work of art. My first bite caused me to melt into my chair. It was heaven. Fleeting thoughts of locking it in my room safe gave way to the moment and the sheer enjoyment of finding something so magnificent on my dinner plate. My lovely waitperson offered a grind of pepper but the thought was near abhorrent. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could be done to improve this piece of brilliance. Sadly, the entrEe got the best of me and I was unable to completely conquer it. Be assured I put up a tremendous fight but in the end the sheer size of the thing led to my defeat. I have never been so sad to have to leave food behind as I was that evening.
After turning down an offer of desert and thanking the staff for a wonderful dinner I waddled quietly away determined to do a few laps around the boat in hope of preventing the amazing richness of the meal from making a permanent home in some major artery.
A rather successful thirty minutes in the Tahiti Casino preceded the evening show in the forward lounge. Anyone who is disappointed by the entertainment on this vessel must live on Broadway or spend an inordinate amount of time in Vegas. The choreography was excellent, the dancers elegant and the entire show as perfect for the venue, the very cabaret-ish Toulouse Lautrec Lounge. Yes, the costumes were a bit scanty but quite a bit more modest than what I saw earlier in the day at the pool on the Lido deck. My kudos to the entertainment folks, they do a fantastic job.
Shortly after midnight I decided to call it quits. It had been a wonderful day full of new friends, delicious foods and plenty of hearty laughs. The Carnival Comfort Sleeping System was calling and I couldn't resist.
Day 3... second sea day
I elected to be a slug and sleep in a bit and began stirring at about 7 AM. Cracking open my balcony door I was rewarded by a cruiser's delight. Another gorgeous day graced by that magnificent blue sea. I need to copyright that color. Every time I see that incredible, indescribable color I am amazed. What wonders has God wrought.
After another filling breakfast I made my way to the Lido Deck to see what the more rowdy crowd was up to. Every crew member I happened upon had that patented Carnival smile gracing their faces. How can one not be left in a good mood after encountering such friendly folks?
A quick glance around deck 9 proved that the water slide was getting a workout as were the out sized chess pieces. The bar was already hopping at 10 AM. Impressive. I've never seen a more complete collection of cast iron livers in my life. It's vacation. They deserve to have fun.
The trivia game was in full swing when I arrived at the Toulouse Lautrec Lounge. As normal, the game was rigged; rigged to prevent the folks who couldn't score from suffering any embarrassment. Great fun and tons of belly laughs at the expense of some of the willing guests.
By the way, for those of you familiar with the Red, White, Blue team thing, I'm on the White Team and we suck. Everyone else is 400 or 500 points ahead of us and this is only Tuesday!!!
Lunch was at Sur Mer. Sadly, Sur Mer is no longer the secret it once was. I had to stand in line for about twelve or fourteen minutes prior to being served. The wait was worth it. The Fish and Chips, fried oysters and Ahi were remarkable. I wanted to get back in line for seconds of the marinated Ahi but I needed to drop down to one of the lower decks to be able to get my laptop online.
Should you be interested, WIFI is available on decks 3, 4, 5 and 9 on the Conquest. The pricing schedule remains as has been discussed in this forum on several occasions.
After a quick post to let let you fine folks know that I was still alive and had successfully fended off the Pirates of the Caribbean I returned to the Lido Deck drawn by the thought of one of those killer cheese burgers. Well, cheeseburgers and bikini clad bodies. Yeah, I know, lunch #2 but I couldn't resist. The burger was wonderful, just as I had come to expect, as were the bikini clad bodies!
As I was making my way back to my cabin I was waylaid by a delightful little girl from the Checz Republic with a beverage cart. I had run into her several times since arriving on board. She has an uncanny ability to draw sympathy out of the gentlemen on the ship and did the same to me. Wandering away as the proud owner of a bucket of Miller Lites, I elected to head back to my cabin to assess my situation.
Again, the Lido deck beckons!
It's still fairly early in the afternoon and the Lido Deck always seems the place to be. Great tunes. Sadly, I never got the name of the group but I did get a heck of a kick out of watching these oriental folks belting out tunes like they grew up in MoTown.
Noise and silliness ensued for the remainder of the afternoon. The hairy man contest seemed to be a favorite. It was obvious that pretty much everyone was having a great time.
The past guest reception is this evening so I went back to my cabin to shower, shave and dress for the event. Much as might be predicted, the history of Carnival movie along with Cheerleader Butch's encouraging had the crowd fairly whipped up into a frenzy. The arrival of Captain Marino and his staff nearly tore the roof off the Degas Lounge. I'm not sure what was in the cocktails they were serving but the room was ROCKIN'!!!!
The appetizers at the reception were great once again. The spicy salmon mousse on toast points, in particular, was a highlight. Delicious. Having done my part to relieve the kitchen staff of as many of these delightful little treats as I could I figure I had done sufficient damage. So, I wandered off to dinner. Yeah... I thought the same thing. Why not just put a trough out in front of me and let me stick my piggy snout in it and do it right!
Approaching my table Bagus dashed up to me, grabbing my hand before I even had an opportunity to reach out. His huge grin is always a welcome sight.
My much beloved Bombay Sapphire martini led things off quickly followed by another delightful Black Tiger Shrimp cocktail. A Caesar salad was in close trail and just as nicely done as it was the first time it was served. Jerked pork in a rich, creamy brown sauce appeared as my entrEe. Just cooked through, it was juicy and tender. I imagine the fairly mild spice used with the pork was a concession to the majority of diners who would prefer to not have to tote a fire extinguisher with them to the loo. Nonetheless, it was rather satisfying.
Always the glutton, I took Bagus' suggestion of strawberry cheesecake for dessert. My mistake. Although it was sinfully rich and creamy it was also the straw that broke this camel's back. I had gone from being pleasantly full to being miserable. It was time for a couple laps around the ship to help relocate some portion of the mountain of food that I had consumed in the past four hours.
Come to find out, the laps weren't necessary, welcome but not necessary, as it was Mardi Gras night! Being so far behind in the points race seems to have its perks as Butch elected to take charge of us himself. The lame, the weak and the stupid all gathered at Henri's Lounge at the appointed hour. Since I fit all of the three previously mentioned categories I couldn't resist. Butch was already bouncing off the walls, building a totally inappropriate, but hilarious, level of excitement for what was forthcoming. Chants of 'Go Go White Team Go Go!!!' reverberated throughout the Atlantic Deck. One hapless member of the Red Team wandered by only to be shouted down by the assembled crowd of White Team terrorists. I think he's still swimming toward Jamaica at this point.
Those of you who have participated in Mardi Gras madness understand what transpired for the remainder or the evening. A twisting, chanting, singing-at-the-top-of-our-lungs, painted faces Conga line, that would have deserved an R rating in any movie theatre, wound it's way about the ship. Of course, we weren't alone. Another six or seven hundred red and blue tinted crazies were doing the same either ahead of us or behind us.
True to form, we White Team guys got smoked by the other two teams. Despite pulling off a coup and remaining dead last in the standings, at about 2:30 AM with no voice left at all, points were the least of my concern. Bed. BED was my concern. Bed and aspirin. Yep. Bed and aspirin.
I wanted to take a few minutes to talk a bit about the ship. Most of what I've written so far has dealt with activities and food more than anything else.
The Carnival Conquest is a beautiful ship. It's been a while since she's been in dry dock but as you look at the ship from the inside you wouldn't know it. Minor wear and tear is evident, particularly around the most heavily used areas, the bars! The carpeting is perfect as are the walls and art work in every area of the ship. The impression that you get is of a very well cared for vessel.
Although there are several smoking areas on board the only one with a lingering aroma is Alfred's Lounge, the cigar bar. The scent isn't obtrusive there, either. Case in point, on Thursday, afternoon tea was moved from it's usual venue to Alfred's because the ladies were complaining about the location near the Casino!
The teak decks are perfect. No stains, no damaged wood, just perfectly sun aged teak. The same holds true for the teak on the balconies. I had the opportunity to visit several balconies other than my own and they were all in excellent condition.
I didn't see a single piece of damaged upholstery on the ship. That, in itself, is amazing. The thousands of people who make the ship their temporary home week in week out should make SOME impact but none was visible.
I wrote a bit about the architecture on board the Conquest and allow me to expand. Passengers who ignore the interior appointments of the ship are missing out. Whether or not you enjoy the art of Degas, Monet, Renoir etc makes little difference. One can quietly meander about and marvel at the quality of everything that your gaze rests on. The ship is a riot of color and form that fits and fits perfectly. Many areas are restful and calm. So many other areas are the opposite, a visual feast of form, tones and energy. As I said, it fits, it all fits.
Separating the ship from the crew is impossible. Early on in the week I had a conversation with the cruise director, Butch Begovich. I complimented him on the beauty of the ship and it's energy. He responded thusly: 'This ship is special. It has a kind of life, a kind of magic.' He's right. The magic is the crew. Everyone I encountered went above and beyond. From the Captain to the folks cleaning the halls, they were all treasures.
From the moment I met Butch and Captain Marino they went out of their way to stop and say hello, even when I wasn't aware they were there! These are the two most accessible senior staff members I have ever encountered.
A ship is made of steel, wood, engines, electronic, hydraulics, etc. The heart of the ship, it's spirit are the people. Her crew makes the Carnival Conquest a fantasy of smiles and wishes fulfilled.
My congratulations and thanks to each and every one of them.
Day 4... Jamaica!!!
After a 'refreshing' three hours or so shut eye I visited the balcony to find the outline of the Jamaican mountains gracing the slowly brightening sky. It's going be a good day.
I elected to stand in the shower for about 30 minutes to see if crazy and stupid wash off. They don't.
After dressing, a visit to the Cezanne Restaurant proved that EVERYONE on deck had the same thought as I did. Undaunted, I returned to my cabin to peruse the Room Service menu. Ya' know, roast turkey with Brie on a baguette isn't nearly as bad for breakfast as one might think it would be.
Exiting the ship was dead easy; down to Deck 0, swipe my Sail and Sign card and wooosh... gone!
Upon setting foot on Jamaican soil for the first time in a few years strains of 'Come back, come back, back to Jamaica' floated through my rather foggy brain. It was a lovely morning if a bit humid (shocker, eh???). A short wait in line later and thirty or so of us were happily bouncing over 'sleeping policemen' and headed east toward the Hip Strip. For a moment we were headed east. It seems as though road construction is the newest game played by the government of the island to foil the intentions of the tourists. We couldn't get there from here. For that matter, we pretty much couldn't get anywhere from here.
The one place that we could get to was Margaritaville. Our happy tour guide announced that we had an entire thirty minutes to enjoy ourselves before being led away to the shopping district. That and we were going to be served fruit punch. Fruit what? Yep, fruit punch at one of the five best party bars in the world. Uhh, no. Thirty minutes after having arrived at Jimmy's place the others on the tour marched sheep-like back onto the bus. Not this little black duck. The driver parked the bus directly in front of the door and wore out the horn button trying to get my attention. Eventually, they sent in the troops to attempt to rescue me from myself. I ended up signing some variety of waiver that indemnified the tour company from me being more stupid than normal and off they went.
To say that it was fun would be like saying the sun in the Sahara is warm. In short order the place was rocking. Warm bodies shooting out from the water slide into the pale blue water were accompanied by screams of delight/terror. The howls of the slide riders were barely audible over the volume of the audio system that blasted out an eclectic mix of reggae, blues, country and hip hop.
The club had not changed a wit from my last visit. Why mess with a good thing? The DJ was a riot, cracking jokes, calling folks up to the booth, passing out rum shots and pumping out enough energy to light a small city, all done with that unmistakable West Indies accent. Ya, mon!!! It was all Irie.
Three lovely ladies from the ship befriended me, took me in hand to make sure that I didn't do anything excessively stupid, or at least no more stupid than what they did. It was a great afternoon, spectacular azure water, blue sky and warm tropical breezes. The combination of the venue, the environment and the companionship was unbeatable. One for the books.
About 2 PM I decided that it was probably well past time to leave, promised to see my new friends on ship and went for a walk in search of some treasures to mark my visit. Headed east along the Strip I visited some shops that had been my favorites several years previously and found them with 'no problem, mon'. I spoke to a few tourists as I made my way. Everyone was full of praise for the island and its residents. Treasures secured, I hailed a cab, negotiated a reasonable price and made my way back to the terminal. Please note that I was never offered dope or hassled by the locals. Perhaps I look too boring to bother with. Whatever the case, I had a totally wonderful day and revived my love affair with Jamaica.
Upon returning to the Conquest I paid a visit to the Lido deck to locate a snack. Pizza was quick and easy. I wandered back to my room, two slices of pizza in hand and I settled down to sort out plans for the evening.
The good Miguel had been up to his normal magic and my cabin was spotless, papers stacked in an orderly pile on the table top and ice brimming over the top of the cooler.
Dinner was excellent. I had no problems deciding on my entrEe. It had to be the Beef Wellington. The pastry crust was a golden brown and the fillet inside was a beautiful medium rare. The duxelles... wow... perfectly seasoned and sautEed, they were better than I have ever been able to manage and I thought mine were pretty good. So, suffice it to say, I was a happy camper. No dessert. I had learned my lesson!
Wednesday evening was the 70s and 80s party at Vincent's. Despite good intentions, I didn't make it. I ran into some of the folks from Margaritaville, chatted with them and subsequently wandered to Alfred's to enjoy a good single malt scotch, a cigar and some jazz.
The jazz was nearly as smoky and smooth as my scotch. The number of people appreciating the efforts of the trio surprised me. It's gratifying to know that artful music still has a lot of life.
Totally satisfied by the day I elected to make my way back to my cabin. I parked myself on the balcony, luxuriated in the breeze and marveled at the contrast between the white foam generated by this beautiful vessel and the now inky blue of the sea.
The moon was pleased by it's miles long reflection on the surface. I could tell by the look on it's face.
It was a good day, a very good day.
Day 5... Grand Cayman
Early risers tend to reap rewards. At least that's what my mom would tell me when she would drag my lazy butt from bed on a Saturday morning. I never doubted my mom with the exception of this one point. Much as I suspected, she was right.
Some time before five AM I stepped out onto the balcony to something I have never witnessed before; a totally flat sea. Now, the weather had been great but nothing like this. It appeared as though the Conquest had been transported from sea to skating rink. There wasn't a ripple on the water that was thousands of feet deep. Like a polished black mirror, the sea reflected everything. I was mesmerized. I understood how this happens, no wind, but I couldn't believe that it had happened.
The lights of Georgetown glowed yellow on the horizon and looked deceptively close.
It was hours later that the Conquest actually arrived near the island. For those who aren't familiar with Georgetown, there is no cruise ship terminal on the island. Due to the determination to keep the glorious reefs that surround the island pristine, cruise ships drop anchor a mile or so from shore. Passengers arrive via vessels called 'tenders.' These boats are forty to seventy feet long and bring passengers ashore. The transfer to the tender is very simple and very safe.
As the hundreds of passengers gathered on the dock folks were able to queue up next to signs that represented their tour; Hell, Turtle Farm, Seven Mile Beach Break and dozens more. I located the 'Atlantis Submarine Adventure' sign and waited... and waited... The tour was well over an hour off and there were perhaps fifteen of us, sweat dripping off our noses, slowly roasting in the morning Cayman sun.
Mercifully, someone finally wandered by and formed us up, two by two and marched us to a gate. For my money, it could have been the gates of Hell but I knew that Hell was well east of here.
Dripping and shuffling feet, thirty plus folks awaited something. No one was quite sure what but we were prepared. A tender arrives with the Atlantis logo emblazoned on its side. We, the shuffling and dripping, shuffled and dripped onto the boat. As we made way out into the bay people sighed with relief thanks to the motion created wind. It crossed my mind that being trapped in a small submarine with thirty folks who smelled kinda like me might not be the most pleasant adventure one could imagine.
The expected odor never materialized. I've got to get the name of the body scrub that's dispensed in the shower on board ship. We backed our way down ladders descending into the interior of the sub. It was very much as I recalled from my previous visit.
Large portholes greeted each occupant. Sergeant Major fish swam by in formation as if expecting the passengers to salute the black and white stripes on their flanks.
Shortly, the hatches were closed and clearance was given to submerge. There is something slightly unnerving and yet thrilling about seeing the surface draw away from the vessel you're in. In moments we were forty feet beneath the waves. The sub is certified to 180 feet but is limited by the Government of the Caymans to 100 feet or so in an effort to protect the perfect reef environment.
Blue fish, yellow tail fish, parrot fish, eels, sea cucumbers, groupers and a myriad of others had jaws dropping uniformly in the submarine. Massive barrel sponges, brain corals and fan corals covered the majority of the sea floor. Our narrator patiently explained that coral are actually animals, not plants, regardless of appearance.
Moving slowly and methodically we visited a ship wreck and a bronze seven foot mermaid placed on the bottom by a local dive club.
Now we headed down. The Cayman wall lay off our side. The thousands of feet of water below the hull of the sub left the view inky dark. The trench ultimately reaches tens of thousands of feet below the surface, some of the deepest water in the world.
'Wow's and 'oooohs' were the primary comments that people offered as we neophyte submariners were fascinated by what the sea held below the surface. Forty five minutes of whining thrusters and skillful navigation returned us to the surface abeam the tender. Few people ever get an opportunity to view the sea as we had and I highly recommend this tour.
A bit of window shopping preceded my arrival at Margaritaville, Cayman. A vastly newer structure than the facility in Montego Bay I expected to be regaled in much the same way as in Jamaica but perhaps with better audio. Nope. Someone had apparently had too much fun the previous evening and left none for the rest of us.
Not that the facility wasn't nice enough but it was BORING. I've seen more excitement at Arby's. A couple of eleven dollar margaritas later and a waitress and I declared the place dead.
A pass through the obligatory (and HUGE) collection of Buffet trinkets gave me a chance to pass off a bit more money to Jimmy, who no doubt would have to turn the lights off had it not been for the sixty or seventy bucks I spent.
I tendered back to the ship at about 1:30 or 2 PM. The shower in my cabin beckoned me. A few minutes of cool water fixed all of my problems, actual and perceived.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon, prior to the VIP reception at Blues, watching the antics on the Lido Deck and enjoying a cigar at Alfred's.
Dinner first. Bagus' familiar greeting had become a pleasant norm by now and always elicited a smile from me. My starters were fairly predictable; I had to have the Black Tiger Shrimp Cocktail and the Caesar Salad. Spending time reviewing the entrees wasn't necessary. The Chateaubriand called to me. Well, it didn't call, it SCREAMED!! Let me tell you, it was brilliant.
At Bagus' suggestion (bad Bagus, bad!) I partook in dessert. This time the weapon was Amaretto Cake. Now, my friends, this is a very dense cake. I believe I saw Super Man peering at it quizzically. Make no mistake, it was d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s. I believe it was designed to trap those who successfully escaped the Chocolate Melting Cake. One way or another they're gonna get ya'!
Captain Marino and Butch greeted me as I reached the double doors at Blues. I never got over how approachable both of these gentlemen were. Always open to questions, they were quite a remarkable pair. The constantly wired Butch and the consistently subdued Captain were polar opposites and complimented each other perfectly. Anyone who sails on the Conquest has to make the effort to meet both of them.
The hour at Blues was spent in wonderful conversation with a couple I had met on our first day on board. We spoke of everything from their collection of porcelain miniature houses to politics. The drinks, of course, were on the Captain. Such generosity leads to prolonged conversation. I suspect there is a method to their madness!
As I left Blues and passed through the Tahiti Casino I happened upon the Margaritaville trio playing penny slots. They asked me to meet them at Blues later in the evening for the sing along piano player. Sounded like a plan.
It was a plan, just not necessarily the RIGHT plan! I had a fantastic time. Singing, dancing, and doing a little bit of imbibing burnt away the night like a meteor made of marshmallow would vanish entering the atmosphere.
Around midnight Butch, the Captain and about 15 of the entertainment staff arrived at Blues. The Captain drank Diet Coke. Butch started the same way but somewhere along the line he elected for something a bit more stout.
The party merrily rattled its way to a close at around 2 AM when the piano player called it quits. The fact that this guy could sing for five hours with only one break still amazes me. Like everyone else, this crew member went over the top for us. Jason Dean is his name. Should you find yourself on the Conquest or any other ship where he is entertaining you must go.
Cozumel would come soon and there wasn't enough night left so I made my way to bed. Did I tell you that I LOVE this bed?
Day 6... Cozumel
Once again I elected to rise early to greet the shore. At 5:30 AM yellow orbs glowed subtly on a distant shore. From the direction the ship was traveling in I had to be looking at the mainland.
Totally oblivious to the tropical storm/hurricane brewing in the Bay of Campeche I marveled at how perfect the sea had been for the entire cruise. Seas were still running less than four feet, sufficiently low that the Conquest took them without note.
Scheduled time to make port was 9 AM and my body was still begging for recovery time. Recovery was spelled 'prone' this morning so I returned to the luxurious cocoon of my bed.
The trusty mp3 player in my Treo 650 sent quietly the sultry sounds of Enya through the battery powered speaker set I had brought along. The dark, the exotic music and silky smoothness of the bed soon led me back to sleep.
The plan for Cozumel was simple. Walk. Shop. Drink.
I left the ship at about 10 AM and was assaulted by the same kind of heat I had become used to in the Mojave. Yep, it was warm.
The shopping list was short and I was sure that it would be knocked out in no time. Cuban cigars, a few mementos and a couple t-shirts would round out the hunt.
Did I mention it was hot? Good.
After winding through the maze of shops that are designed to trap tourist dollars I arrived on the main drag. There is no denying that Cozumel is gorgeous and you have to give all the credit in the world to these people for being able to recover from a major hurricane in record time.
The smallest Hard Rock in the world was about a mile or so down the road. By the time the sign hove into view I was ready to look for a rescue station. If I forgot to tell you, it was hot.
You know you're in trouble when the sign reads 'Hard Rock upstairs'. Now, 'upstairs' in Mexico seems to be a relative term. The sign should have read 'Hard Rock up a BUTT LOAD of stairs.' On the second landing I enlisted the aid of a Sherpa guide and a Yak. In no time at all, in celestial terms, I made it to the Hard Rock.
Thanking the guide and patting the Yak on the butt I found a seat at the bar. Focusing on the task at hand required all the attention I could manage. The bar menu was printed in a dark gold color on a black background. One might suspect that the guys from 'American Chopper' designed the menu.
I ordered a Long Island Tea and contemplated the limited possibility that anyone here actually knows where Long Island is. It was cold, mercifully cold, and tasted quite a bit like a Long Island Ice Tea. Waves of relief washed over me as my core body temperature dropped below 160 degrees.
Stretching the drink out as long as I could was my goal and I would have succeeded had it not been for something odd that caught my eye. Prices. All the prices, everywhere, were in Pesos. Math. The last thing I wanted to be faced with was math. The price of the drink was either 28 Pesos or 2800 Pesos. I wasn't really sure as decimal points didn't appear to be an available option when the menu was printed. Ya' can't go wrong with a Benjamin. No way the drink could cost a hundred bucks. So, I was wrong again. You CAN go wrong with a Benjamin. Thirty one minutes later I got change. To this day I have no idea what that drink cost me. It was cold, end of discussion.
The search for Cuban gold resumed. Should you find yourself walking back to the Conquest from the Hard Rock NEVER turn left.
With all the instincts of a homing toad I managed to find the dustiest, hottest section of the island. Padding through inches of some substance that resembled moon dust I made an important observation: it was hot.
One might reasonably expect that you can correct a left turn with a right turn. Nope. One more trip down the rabbit hole.
About thirty minutes later and looking much like mud I emerged back on the main drag. Using my razor keen senses I was able to determine the proper direction of travel. The position of the sun, shadows, the breeze and that great big red, white and blue ship at the dock assured me I was correct.
Habanos. It was like discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls. Cuban cigars. There before me was a small store front emblazoned with the words I had sought. As the door knob twisted and groaned in my hand visions of Fidel and myself laughing and puffing on gloriously large stogies danced through my heat soaked brain.
Faced once again by the Peso dilemma and math I opted for a couple of Montecristos, paid with another Benjamin and pressed forth into the Saharan heat.
Before departing the cigar shop I asked where Margaritaville was. The fella behind the desk pointed left and said 'three blocks.' Wow, I was closer than I thought.
Apparently blocks on Cozumel are measured in miles or hectares or leagues or some arcane measurement used only by the ancient Mayans. Twenty five torturous minutes later the House of Jimmy stood on my right. Like a dying man in the desert, I rubbed my eyes to make sure that it wasn't a mirage.
I had arrived! Inside was cool and resplendent in greens and yellows. Trays of golden green libation floated past me destined for someone else.
Motioned to a table near the windows facing the sea I gladly obliged, settled into a chair and ordered 'one of those'. 'One of those' turned out to be quite stout with a delightful pucker factor. And it was cold. Shortly, I needed another 'one of those' and my lovely waitress returned in no time.
Soon silliness ensued as a conga line of sorts formed and we limbo'd under below a constant stream of red rum. My 'one of those' seemed to work well with the red rum and momentarily all was right with the world, so right, in fact, that I knew that if I failed to leave I would probably become a resident.
The walk back to the ship wasn't nearly as bad as the previous walks had been. Perhaps it had something to do what the attitude adjustment recently received.
Sweat soaked, caked with dust and with a silly grin on my face I returned to my cabin to stow my prized cigars.
The next order of business, a shower. You'd be amazed how much dust one can collect marching about construction areas on Cozumel. No matter as it soon was exiting down the drain. I felt nearly human again or at least less ape-like.
Somewhere around 5 PM we sailed back into that gorgeous blue sea, a course set for the last leg of our journey.
Dinner was, once again, at The Point. Opening the door the lovely eastern European Bond girl greeted me by name and escorted me to my table. I won't bore you with all the details but the quality of the Fillet Mignon, and the Wasabi Horseradish Mashed Potatoes was only exceeded by the service. Phenomenal. You MUST do the supper club.
The remainder of the evening was spent in conversation with quite a few of my fellow cruisers. They happily recalled days in port, the quiet days around the pool on the Lido Deck, the laughs shared in the lounges and universal feeling that every crewmember was priceless.
I got a text message from my bed. It missed me. By midnight I was sound asleep.
Day 7... last day at sea
Having enjoyed a wonderfully restful night it was time to look at one last sunrise at sea. Sol slowly struggled his way out of the deep blue of the Gulf of Mexico and tinted the sky an amazing array of oranges, yellows and reds. Glorious, simply glorious. From time to time the simplest things in life are the most spectacular.
The sea still graced us with swells of less than four feet producing a ride that would normally only be found on a lazy river.
The next hour or so was spent firmly ensconced on the balcony glorying in the drama of the sunrise and wrapped cuddly in a robe. Life doesn't get much better.
Eventually, the thought of breakfast drew me to the Lido Deck and the Restaurant Cezanne. The lines were quite short this morning. The previous night must have taken its toll on many of the guests. My balcony still called and, breakfast tray in hand, I answered. The sea had traded its blue black for that wonderful rich royal blue that was so familiar and I settled down to pick at my choices from the buffet.
One might ask what passed through my mind as I sat quietly and ate. Nothing, not a thing. It was one of those moments that didn't require any mental effort to fully enjoy. It was bliss.
The morning passed pleasantly as I wandered the ship taking in more of the details that Joe Farcus had woven into the tapestry of the vessel. She really is remarkable. The textures, hues and moods that divide the various areas, stem to stern, blend like milk in coffee.
Around 10ish I was chatting with a bartender at one of the Lido Deck pools bars. This gentleman had been with Carnival for the last 17 years doing much the same job. Did he enjoy himself? The 'Ya mon' response left little doubt to his native land. This cheery Jamaican said he wouldn't trade working for Carnival for anything. 'Looka all dis, mon! Where else can a mon work surrounded by dis?' as he gestured grandly at the ship. The truth of his statement showed in his smile and attitude. A great many of the crew that I chatted with felt the same way. None were disgruntled with CCL. A few missed home and friends, understandably so. Seven continuous months on any job might get a little wearing.
Boxes started appearing behind the pool bar and I inquired as to the contents. Two of the boxes were torn open. One was chock full of those rubbery bands that people are so fond of wearing on their wrists and the other was billowing t-shirts; t-shirts with pink ribbons neatly silk screened on the chest. It was preparation for 'On Deck for the Cure', a one mile walk on deck to raise money to fund research for a cure for breast cancer. There could be few things on a cruise more worthwhile than doing something for such a great cause. I lost my mother to breast cancer many years ago. My heart goes out to all those women and their families who have had to struggle with this terrible affliction. My t-shirt hangs neatly in my closet at this moment and a pink rubber thingy adorns my right wrist.
If you ever get an opportunity to participate in 'On Deck for the Cure' please do.
The remainder of the afternoon was fairly quiet, some casino time, some time spent chatting with friends I had made along the way and a bit of time for reflection. A twinge in my soul brought home the realization that I was soon to lose newly found friends and family, at least for a period of time.
I shook off the mantle of blue that shrouded my mind and prepared for one last dinner in the Monet Restaurant. Greeted by the always effervescent Bagus I sat in my ever so comfortable chair, examined the menu with slightly misty eyes and ordered. My Bombay Sapphire martini arrived accompanied by Hart, another bright star on the Conquest crew.
Dinner was, as always, excellent. Black Tiger Shrimp cocktail, Caesar Salad, and Chateaubriand... ahhh... the Chateaubriand! I suspect much like the wine at the wedding feast, they saved the best for last. It was perfect. There is no other way to describe it. Seasoned exactly right, cooked to a T and gorgeously sauced it couldn't have been better.
I acquiesced to Bagus' demand that I have dessert one last time. I ordered the Amaretto Cake. Remember the Chocolate Melting Cake? Yep, remarkable in its similar effect. This was a dense, rich, dramatically deep brown cake rampant with chocolate and almond slivers. This time the dessert was not to get the best of me. It took some time but I ate the entire serving.
I stayed for the final dining room entertainment. After the requisite gyrating on table top by members of the wait staff they sang 'Leavin' on a Jet Plane' or at least that's what I convinced myself it was. The lyrics were a bit difficult to ken due to the melding of accents from some 57 different countries. None the less, it was touching.
Finding myself in Alfred's with a Cuban cigar in my jacket pocket I acquired a nicely full glass of single malt scotch and settled down in one of the massive chairs. I was the sole occupant of what had normally been a reasonably busy locale. Rich clouds from Fidel's best rose to the ceiling like helium filled marshmallows. The scotch warmed my insides like this last day had warmed my heart. As both the cigar and scotch reached the end of their useful lives the Casino had come to life.
I happened upon some folks I met on the EZ Cruise shuttle coming to the terminal. We swapped experiences, laughed at each others foibles and roundly agreed that the ship and crew were amazing. Our discussion circle grew from 3 to a dozen or more and all were of the same opinion.
It was now nearing 11 o'clock and, as the master of procrastination that I am, it was time to pack for our arrival in Galveston.
Perhaps a fork lift would have been a more efficient method of packing but not by much. Clothes that until moments before had hung neatly in my closets were now rapidly disappearing into a bundle in my cases. All the space I was sure I would have freed up by disposing of my elicit treasures had not appeared. Nope. Have you seen those comedy sketches of folks bouncing up and down on a suit case to close it? I was pretty close to that. Eventually, my cases swallowed everything save for what I needed for debark.
I made one last trip to the pizzeria on the Lido Deck for a slice of Rustica and a beer. I watched as everyone spent the last moments of the last evening in their own way. Some were deep into the final party and others were walking the decks silently taking in all the sights that had become so familiar over the past week.
Returning to my cabin I knew that despite the wonderfully comfortable bed I would sleep fitfully. I was right.
Day 8... debark
Although I was quite weary when I climbed into bed I knew it was going to be one of those nights. My eyes popped open like I had been hit with a cattle prod. The time was 2:28 AM.
Standing in the doorway to the balcony I could see the basketball orange glow of oil rigs in nearly all directions. Some distant, some close and one that we passed at a distance of just several hundred yards.
Gone was the exotic, clean horizon that marked the separation between the sea and the black sky. Gone was the excitement that I felt in the pit of my stomach each time I looked at the water.
For nearly an hour I sat and watched the platforms pass by hoping for my eyelids to become heavy and sleep to take me again. It wasn't to be.
Curling up in bed I watched Butch Begovich host the 'Newly Wed, Not So Newly Wed' game for the sixth or seventh time.
I never thought time could pass so slowly on a cruise ship.
My intention was to be awake when we docked in Galveston. Having watched the Conquest arrive on numerous occasions I wanted to witness the pirouette and gentle dance to the dock first hand.
No worries about being awake.
Forward motion eventually stopped and moments later the bow and stern thrusters activated and the lovely ship began to pivot gracefully. I watched as the world rotated about the Conquest and our cruise terminal came into view. We closed ever so slowly on the pillow-like bags that would absorb the pressure of the ship as she nestled up against the dock. The dance was over in perhaps seven or eight minutes. Bow and stern lines were drawn tight and my cruise had come to an end.
At around 7:15 I headed to Cezanne for a bite of breakfast. It was going to be a long day. Shortly thereafter Butch made the first of a number of announcements regarding debark. Self debark came first, of course, by area of the ship. They cleared quite quickly.
The customs officials had begun clearing luggage and the first three zones were called to the Lobby deck to proceed to customs. And so it went, zone by zone, until my zone was called at about 9:30 AM.
As one might expect, the crowds around the elevators were huge. The stairs were the only reasonable option. As my carry on banged down stair after stair I was surprised to hear people call out to me, wave and wish me well.
Once I exited the ship and wound down the gangway into the terminal I was faced by a fascinating sight. There before me were about 2000 people forming a human snake. The time was 9:40.
Nothing moves quickly during debark. I believe I saw snails blowing by several of the folks in front of me. Shortly later the cattle moved forward enough to me to be able to attempt to locate my bag in the sea of black luggage. Not being one to break with tradition, my bag was black as well. If nothing else, it was well camouflaged.
Ultimately, I located my bag. It, my carry on, my laptop and I moved haltingly forward, and then back, then forward. While I was digging in my carry on for something, I forget just what, I was surprised by a hug coming from behind me. I turned to find one of the women I had met on board along with her husband. She wanted to thank me for helping make their journey so pleasant. For the life of me, I can't think of what I might have done to generate that but I thanked her politely, gave her a hug back and shook her husband's outstretched hand. How nice, I thought to myself as they dashed back to their spot in the line across the hall from me. Some people are just plain good, others not so much.
From behind me I could hear a rather loud lady demanding that she be allowed to proceed to Customs NOW. Surely, the 1100 people in front of her would probably have something to say about that. Nonetheless, she believed that it was her God given right to make those around her miserable. I said a short prayer for her husband as I was sure that he was either dead or soon to be dead from being pecked at mercilessly by this one particular hen.
At 10:45 I presented myself and my credentials to the Customs Official. A two minute chat later and the ordeal was over.
Outside the terminal I could look up at the Conquest the same as I had a week previous. This time the anticipation and excitement was replaced by memories and the warmth of new friendships.
It was time to go home. I felt good, very good.