After falling into a deep sleep under our light down comforter (no major challenge there), I was awakened by our doorbell seemingly a mere instant after putting my head down on the soft feather pillow (firm pillows are available on request). Looking over at my clock revealed the dreaded numbers 4:30 -- and no good ever comes from visitors or phone calls before 6:00 a.m. Wide awake now, I realized that the sound was actually the wine glasses clinking together in our liquor cabinet, agitated by a major vibration akin to that experienced when maneuvering or docking. While an older ship's vibration is typical right over the propeller shafts, Mariner is a pod-propulsion vessel, and, except for getting in and out of port, our accommodations were remarkably vibration-free. But, now awake, I opened the drapes in the bedroom just in time to see a channel marker buoy glide by. Curiouser and curiouser.
Stepping out onto the balcony I saw that we were being escorted by a harbor pilot and two small Coast Guard boats toward what clearly were the lights of some community. Tuning the in-suite TV to the Navigation Channel brought up the GPS display of our progress. Instead of being where we should have been (halfway between Florida and Cuba), we were instead just off the coast of Key West, and steaming directly toward the harbor. Two scenarios popped to mind. One was that there was some sort of mechanical problem with one of the engines (not an illogical conclusion as the floor of our suite was thumping and bumping like the dance floor at a flamenco class for sumo wrestlers); the second alternative was that a serious medical emergency required putting a passenger ashore for treatment (also not illogical given the typical age range on Mariner, and especially for a two-week Panama Canal cruise).
As we found out later, the latter case proved to be true. The passenger was transferred to the Coast Guard boat at first light, and, happily, after being tested at a hospital in Key West, his prognosis was good. And, since that meant that Mariner's mechanical systems were also fit as a fiddle, we could expect to be able to complete our itinerary, and with minimal disruption. Reporting from the bridge at 9:00 a.m., Captain Guillou announced that our port call in Grand Cayman would only be delayed by about two hours.
By the time all the excitement had died down it was time to think about breakfast. After having given the matter a full 15 seconds of serious thought, off we went to La Veranda, the buffet on Deck 11. La Veranda is nicely designed, with seating inside, and outside both forward (in the pool area) and behind it (on the open fantail). The fantail seating is an aspect of the retro spin given consistently to the decor of the ship, a decor which echoes nautical elements and the gracious style of the bygone era of the great liners, a healthy portion of which coincided with the heyday of Art Deco, which, as mentioned in yesterday's report, is the stylistic keynote throughout the ship.
Though La Veranda's choices are not a great deal more extensive than buffets on other ships, the preparation, freshness and small touches set it apart. For one thing, each day there are a different variety of cheeses offered, many of which are anything but run-of-the-mill. Pastries -- bread included -- continued to be highlights; there are even freshly made raised donuts each morning. And, for the health aficionado, there is a juicer, with bowls of freshly cut celery, carrots, grapefruit, mango, and other fruits and vegetables to create custom-made juices.
Trays are unnecessary; each table is set up in advance with silverware, coffee cups, glassware and linen napkins, so all that needs to be carried to the table are those heaped plates. Nonetheless, stewards are waiting at the ready to assist with even that small burden.
Over breakfast we had time to review Passages, the daily program. Interestingly enough, there were, for a sea day, a surprisingly limited number of scheduled activities. Before lunch there were two enrichment lectures, one on the Panama Canal, one on travel photography. Then, with the exception of a handful of deck game competitions (shuffleboard, ring toss, golf chipping, etc.), there was nothing scheduled (other than the usual: art auctions, fitness classes and the like) till late afternoon. At 4:30 each afternoon the ship combines the regular tea time with a trivia game, a nice touch since it increases the participation level (free food has a way of doing that).
Tea service today was quite extensive with major buffet spreads of sandwiches on one wall, and a central sweets and pastries table in the room's center. One interesting approach to games and contests is that, instead of bringing a bag of trinkets -- you know the ones, ball point pens, Frisbees, key chains, ball caps, visors, fanny packs, totes -- all with the cruise line logo, on Mariner the cruise staff issues "tokens," little plastic chips, to the winners. These chips are awarded for all sorts of competitions onboard, both physical and mental. Then, at the end of the cruise they can be redeemed for prizes -- the more chips, the bigger the prize.
Right after trivia the cruise staff segued right into bingo, which, keeping with the retro tradition, was played on those cardboard cards with the little red plastic sliders -- once a staple of cruise ship bingo, long ago replaced on most ships with paper punch through or even electronic cards. Bingo fans should note that Mariner only offers bingo on sea days.
This night was the first formal evening, and the Captain's welcome reception. Most passengers, especially the women, dressed at the formal end of the spectrum. Rather than hosting the reception in the show lounge, as is the norm on most ships, on Mariner the atrium area on the two primary public decks (Five and Six) was turned into a multi-level cocktail party, with numerous waiters passing hors d'oeuvres. Photos with the captain were taken in an area pushed off to the side, which could be utilized by those who wanted their pictures taken and avoided by those usually frustrated by the bottleneck of passengers funneling past the captain and photographers to reach the actual party.
After the reception we went to the Compass Rose for dinner and enjoyed another excellent meal. I was happy to note that the serving staff appeared to have gotten past their "turn-around day funk," and seemed warm, friendly and enthusiastic. One other aspect it occurs to me to bring up is that, though the basis of the ship's cuisine is classic French, there is much that comes from the more contemporary nouvelle style. Many Americans will be surprised at the small size of most portions. However, there are numerous courses offered at each meal, and by the second day passengers lose their shyness about ordering from every course on the menu.
After dinner we went to see the cruise's first production show in the Constellation Theater. Titled "Beyond Imagination," this revue was a loosely strung together series of numbers from different styles and genres. What was most notable was that its musical roots were planted in types of music that normally aren't the fodder for shipboard productions, especially on the first night out. Specifically, this show drew its material from classical music, Celtic music and even Gilbert and Sullivan, sometimes juxtaposing styles in an unusual manner (such as performing the familiar "Vittoria" from Aida in the style of Cirque du Soleil, or melding the old chantey, "What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?" into a medley from Gilbert and Sullivan's "H.M.S. Pinafore.") The whole production culminated in a respectable execution of "Riverdance."