En route to San Andres Island and a two-hour port call solely for the purpose of filing paperwork to comply with a bit of convoluted maritime law, we had reached that stage of a cruise where impressions begin to solidify and areas of strength and weakness start sorting themselves out.
At this point in the cruise, our favorite element of the ship and voyage is the food. It has been consistently interesting, beautifully presented, tastily prepared and promptly brought to the table piping hot.
Our biggest disappointment is the Internet cafe. In filing stories electronically from ships for seven years or more, I have sat down at the keyboards of Internet cafes of every stripe on a wide variety of ships and lines, all the way from Windows 95 laptops connected to cell phones (on a Yangtze River cruise in China) to broadband/satellite hookups (in Digital Seas installations) that are every bit as fast as my home-based DSL connection. Mariner's connection is not the slowest I've encountered, but darn close to it, and, at $0.75 per minute, at the upper extreme of price. Fortunately, those rates are based on minutes spent actually uploading or downloading data, not time you spend watching the little hourglass spin end over end. Nonetheless, waiting for five minutes minimum from the time you click on the button to time your mailbox actually appears on the screen gets old fast.
The best surprise: the quality of the production entertainment.
The pet peeve we weren't expecting: the paucity of hanging art, save for samples of pieces from Park West's auction inventory.
Our favorite little detail: the ship's library area. Not only are the shelves unlocked (for books, video or games) 24 hours a day, but in the hallway alongside the library are a pair of jigsaw puzzles. At embarkation they are nothing but a pile of disconnected pieces, but as people walk by they put in a piece or two, and, as a community effort in the course of three or four days, the puzzles get completed.
The detail we missed the most: there is no "pool band" on the ship. Though the itinerary is not, strictly speaking, purely a Caribbean jaunt, and therefore a Soca or Reggae band would only be on-target for the first half of the trip, there should be some combo with both a Latin and island flavor for sailaways and poolside music. Mariner uses their five-piece show band from the Constellation Theater -- when they have any poolside music at all -- and it just doesn't quite fit.
As with most sea days, today featured two enrichment lectures in the Constellation Theater. The one we attended was on coral reefs conducted by Estelle Davies, a naturalist with Jean-Michel Cousteau's Oceans Futures Society, which has partnered in projects with Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Estelle's lecture likened coral reefs to ecologically enlightened cities, powered by solar energy, with creatures who take on all the roles of city maintenance, from dealing with refuse to harvesting food to providing healing. Her presentation was not without a few commercial plugs for Cousteau's upcoming PBS television series, but it was still very well received.
After the lecture we decided to try lunch in the Compass Rose. The menu for the open seating restaurant included many of the items available at La Veranda Buffet upstairs, but there were a number of other offerings as well, including sandwiches, salads, seafood and pasta selections, all served to order. My wife and I both ordered a lentil soup with sausage, which she followed with a Cajun chicken breast sandwich with some of the best crispy little French fries I can recall. I went for a mixed seafood salad on sliced avocados and mixed greens. Both meals were excellent.
After lunch we visited Mariner's small casino, where we played for a while at one of the room's three black jack tables. The room is much less glitzy than the typical cruise ship casino, which seemed to promote a quieter, more civilized ambience. Dealers were friendly, but the cards weren't, so we packed it in until afternoon when we watched the low-slung San Andres Island loom over the horizon, looking very much like one of the smaller Bahamas -- low elevation, lots of palm trees, and beautiful turquoise-hued shallow water surrounding sandy beaches backed by thickets. We heard the anchor descending and the engines shut down, but by the time we had showered for dinner we were already on our way again, bound for the Panama Canal.
After another dinner in Compass Rose we went to check out Chris Pendleton, the comedienne who had already performed the first night. We listened to about 20 minutes of her act, but when the jokes reverted to the typical fodder for cruise ships -- toilets, overeating at buffets, etc. -- we decided to hit the hay, planning on an early start to catch the first moments of our entry in to the Canal's Gatun locks.