The weather has been gradually improving since our departure from Port Everglades two days ago. Not that it's been inclement, but we started from Florida under gloomy skies, somewhat chilly 60-ish temperatures and a fairly constant misting or mild drizzle. On the second day the clouds began to break and temperatures climbed, though not dramatically, especially given the 30-knot wind from the north following us. Today, though, we woke to a mostly clear sky with balmy breezes and early morning temperatures already in the mid-70s, a perfect day to enjoy a breakfast out on the fantail. From that vantage point it was apparent that, even though the winds had abated, they had left us with extremely large north swells, and I was impressed with the smoothness and stability of Mariner's ride, as there was little perceptible motion.
After breakfast it was off to the gym for a brief workout before our port call at Grand Cayman. Mariner's small gym is tilted heavily toward cardio and aerobic exercises; though there are free weights, and one or two muscle-building machines, the major lineup is treadmills and stair steppers. This emphasis is not surprising for a vessel with demographics toward the upper end of the age spectrum. There is also a large room for organized exercises: yoga, stretching, aerobics, etc. Jacquie, the fitness instructor, conducts the classes, but is quick to point out that though there is no individual personal training per se, she is so attentive that, even in a group situation, it seems as if she was one-on-one with each participant.
Judging from the rapid-fire series of public address announcements from our cruise director regarding tendering procedures for our upcoming Cayman port call, there was still a modicum of confusion and a bit of disorganization left in the wake of our unscheduled stop in Key West, and the resulting schedule changes. First, he announced that all passengers, whether on tour or not, would need to get tender tickets from Mariner Lounge. No more than a minute later, he returned to the microphone stating that the previous announcement was in error, and that only tours departing before noon would need tickets, and, no more than a minute later, a somewhat exasperated-sounding announcement cancelled the previous one, stating that no tour-booked guests would need tender tickets under any circumstances. There may have been one more amendment, but, being booked on a tour (Stingray City/Sandbar), by that point I tuned it out.
Sandbar is a location frequented by a tremendous number of southern brown stingrays -- the Atlantic and Caribbean's most common species. There you can stand in waist- to chest-deep water while scores of these gentle animals rub up against you like cats or eat from your hand. Consider it a watery petting zoo. Though I usually recommend booking this trip independently with one of the ubiquitous operators standing around the tender terminal, I wanted to see the quality of tour offered by this ship.
Because of our revised arrival time our tour departure was rescheduled for 12:30 p.m., which, in turn, would require boarding the tender by 12:15. On some ships a tour departure that close to lunchtime would pose a potential time conflict, but one thing we liked a lot about this ship is that there is almost always food available. Outside the library there is a 24-hour self-serve coffee/cappuccino/latte-maker, and most times of the day there are trays of assorted mini-sandwiches displayed there. A few of these tasty little sandwiches were a perfect substitute for a sit-down lunch.
Arriving ashore at the south tender terminal (the north terminal is still out of commission due to hurricane damage), we were led across the street to a parking lot where a pair of vintage old school buses awaited. From the pier it was a 20-minute drive to a dock on a canal behind George Town's Hyatt Regency. During that drive we saw the vast extent of hurricane damage still visible. Whole groves of mangrove trees are totally stripped of their leaves. Most roofs -- especially tiled roofs -- show open gaps or missing tiles. On other houses the entire roofs are missing. Along the sea shore and the canal banks numerous sunken boats lie rotting, succumbing to the onslaught of algae, tide and barnacles.
The boat we boarded was operated by Dive Cayman. A broad, flat, barge-like platform, it made slow progress out to the Stingray City sandbar, taking a full 45 minutes to make the trip. During the passage our tour leader, Reed, sounding totally bored, provided a completely memorized spiel with canned "ad libs," and seemed resentful if anyone asked a question. I've been on Stingray City tours with a number of operators, and normally the trip down the canals would have lent itself well to a bit of sightseeing info -- who owns the luxury canal-side houses, how much they cost, etc. On today's trip, they could have mentioned something of even more interest, and beneficial to the Cayman Islands as well: the challenges of recovering from the devastation of the hurricane, illustrated by specific evidence of damage. None of this was forthcoming.
Stingray City is a curious experience of extremes. Some people get in the water exhilarated right from the start and comfortable around the critters; at the other extreme some have a serious anxiety reaction the first time one rubs up against them. I've seen the gamut, from near catatonia to a human stampede. I think it boils down to the images the name "stingray" conjures up. The image of cavorting around 40-pound bees comes to mind. Maybe if they changed the name to something like "sea puppies..."
In any case, for those who choose, Stingray City guides provide small pieces of chopped squid that you can hold in your hand underwater, the escaping juices acting as an attractant. After a bit you can open your hand and the nearest ray will be delighted to suck it right off your palm.
Returning to the ship we arrived just in time to rinse off and hoof it up back to Horizon Lounge for tea and trivia.
After trivia we got ready for our dinner in Latitudes, our first meal in one of Mariner's alternative restaurants. Latitudes is described by Mariner's onboard materials as "a striking compilation of tastes that mirrors the globe-spanning itineraries of Regent Seven Seas Cruises." In point of fact, the cuisine is much closer to what would be expected based on the decor of the room and choices in tableware; it is by and large pan-Asian, combining bits of Chinese, Thai and Japanese recipes. Though I wouldn't characterize our response to Latitudes as disappointment, it did not stand out, and instead of outshining the main dining room, as is typical of the alternative restaurants on most ships, to our palate it palled in comparison to the cuisine in Compass Rose.
Tomorrow is described as a port call at San Andres Island, though in truth it will be another sea day. San Andres is what is referred to as a "technical call," required because of some of the more arcane provisions of the Jones Act, which normally only applies to foreign-flagged ships having to call at a foreign port if they are sailing between two U.S. ports. How it applies in this case is so totally unclear that each person I asked for an explanation had a different answer.
Oh well. Suffice to say, except for anchoring for two hours at 4:00 p.m. to file some paperwork, tomorrow will be another relaxing day at sea.