After dinner last night, Jesse went off to find the 25-and-over singles party at the America Bar next to the casino, but no one else had shown up. He found me playing a nickel slot machine, which I was only too happy to abandon in order to spend some time with him. My mother had been tired so had gone off to bed; Jesse wanted to take advantage of the promised nightlife onboard, but there wasn't much going on. Rex Disco? Empty. Leonardo Lounge? Ditto. How about up on deck? No one there. No singles party? He said that even the 18-and-up party had no attendees. I found this highly unusual for a Carnival ship; I hoped it was just "first-night fatigue."
When I was helping my mom with her cruise choice and booking, I thought that Jesse would still be in a cast, still using crutches after his leg surgery. Since I know this ship, I recommended a stateroom near the aft elevators, which I find extremely convenient since it's a straight shot up to the Paris Restaurant (24-hour coffee!), the Lido Deck pool and hot tubs, and the Destiny dining room. And then, when I booked myself as a "tagalong," I too wanted an aft cabin so I could be near them.
Several years ago I was lucky enough to get an over-the-stern balcony cabin on Carnival Victory. They weren't yet popular back then, and since I rarely book early, I doubt that I'd ever be that lucky again. But here I am, on Paradise, booked in an over-the-stern window cabin, sans balcony of course, but still with the sweeping view of where we had just been.
OK, maybe not so sweeping. Because of the configuration of the ship's aft end, the windows are somewhat hooded, the aft bulkhead angling up and out, away from the window. It makes the cabin a bit darker than side-view outsides, but the benefits are still numerous. It's awesome to watch the stern wake, and -- this is my favorite part -- the windows are inset about 24 inches, the perfect depth to perch a cup of coffee, a plate with a bagel and a nice book. The two center cabins (I have one of them) of the six that span the aft are about a foot longer than regular cabins, and by pushing my king bed up against the desk, I have room to put my chair under the window, have my coffee, munch my bagel and read. It's not a balcony, but it proved a terrific way to start my day.
At dinner, we had discuessed shore excursion options for Santa Catalina Island. Located "26 miles across the sea," as the Beach Boys sang it, it's the only developed piece of land in the Channel Islands, which stretch from near Santa Barbara to near San Diego. Catalina is privately owned by the Wrigley family, of gum and baseball-stadium fame. The town of Avalon was a getaway haven for the rich and famous back in the 1920's. Now it's a charming little village attracting day-trippers who come via hydrofoil from San Pedro or Newport Beach, boat owners, romantics who hole up in one of the many bed and breakfasts or teeny hotels, and of course, cruise guests. It's tropical, nautical, naturally beautiful and ecologically diverse. During the winter months, migrating humpback whales frolic in the surf surrounding the island, but even now, during the summer, it isn't unusual to see blue or finback whales -- the largest and second largest mammals on earth, respectively -- coming in so close to land that they are visible from the shore. Bald eagles, some shark species, sea lions and dolphins can be seen all year round as well.
After much debate, Jesse and I managed to talk my mom out of the bus tour of the interior of the island and into the eco-raft tour, aboard a large Zodiac (a rubber raft-like boat). It turned out to be an excellent choice, certainly one of the best shore excursions I have ever taken. We didn't see any blue or fin whales, the sharks were hiding, and the bald eagles must have been napping, but when we went offshore a couple of miles, we were literally surrounded by pods and pods and pods of dolphins. They leapt and breeched, dove and surfaced, rolled and slapped, as though the gods had sent them out for the sole purpose of entertaining us. While I was busy with the camera on one side of the Zodiac, my mom was tugging at my arm to see the activity on the other. "I've never seen anything like it!" she said, as delighted as a kid on Santa's knee. These were big animals, much bigger than the dolphins that follow the bow wake while at sea, it seemed. If you didn't know that they were dolphins, it would have been easy to mistake them for small whales.
Sunburned and sea-splashed (those Zodiacs can make for a wet ride), and with achy backs (it's hard to sit on a backless bench for two hours, no matter how compelling the show), we wandered around Avalon village for awhile before stopping for lunch. Seafood is the specialty on Catalina, with swordfish taking center stage. There's a well-known fish and chips spot right on the pier, but we wanted a nice sit-down locale and ambled over to Armstrong's, where we sat on the patio overlooking the harbor. Jesse chose calamari steaks, my mom an oyster platter, and -- because I found the menu typo so funny -- I opted for the "blue cheesebruger." Our view included Paradise in the distance and families kayaking and using the peddle boats available for rent, surrounded by little dinghies at anchor bouncing in the midday sun.
With one shared beer, all the sun and fresh sea air, and seafood and burgers, we could barely drag ourselves back to the tender and onto the ship for a nap before dressing up for formal night and the Captain's Cocktail Party. It was a perfect day out, perfect for all three generations.
At dinner the night before, Jesse had said, "I'm not going to do formal night." I could feel the blood drain from my face. "You're kidding, right?" I asked him. "Jesse, it's one of Grandma's favorite things, formal night dinner."
My mom had said, "On this trip we'll all 'do our own thing,' whatever we want to do." We had agreed, however, to dine together on each of the four nights. If it had been just me and Jesse, I would have been happy with room service or the Sea View Bistro, the name given to the Paris Cafe buffet line when it serves as a casual dining alternative. I'm not a big fan of formal nights -- mascara makes my eyes run and pantyhose are itchy, but my mom really likes the traditions of formal dining, and I couldn't see disappointing her.
Jesse had traveled to California with the intent of hanging out, and -- once his cast was off -- surfing with his buddies. Formal dinner on a cruiseliner was not on his planned list of activities, so he didn't bring dressy clothing with him when he traveled from his home in D.C. What he had taken onboard was a pair of Docker-type pants and a pair of topsider-type shoes and a nice long-sleeved shirt -- but no tie, no jacket. Our server assured him that he'd be fine in those duds; my mom took him to the $10-for-everything Bijoux Terner shop onboard and got him a terrific silk tie, at the same time purchasing, for herself, a lime-green shawl to go over her pale blue dress. We were all set for the evening. Jesse and my mother had a formal portrait taken before dinner, and it is gorgeous, stunning. Just looking at it makes me want to weep; it's a happy photo, a perfect snapshot of the grandma-grandson bonding trip that my mother had planned.
The Captain's Party was lovely, and really well-attended. Elaborate hors d'oeuvres (hot!) were served with a really wide selection of both bar drinks and non-alcoholic beverages. The dancing and entertainment was fun, and the guests were well-dressed and on their best behavior.
After dinner (gigantic lobster tails, perfect prime rib), Jesse went off to win a small fortune playing blackjack. I wandered around to check out the entertainment; my mom decided that she had had enough excitement and went off to bed with her book.
I sat for a few minutes in the Rotterdam Bar watching the action at the two Texas Hold 'Em poker tables. Just beyond them is the Queen Mary Lounge, the ship's karaoke spot. An entire family got up and bravely tackled Charlie Daniels' "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," and did a pretty credible job of it. It seemed that one kid was assigned to say "YEE HAW" at strategic times and while it might not win an America's Got Talent award, it was fun to watch. The next singer was a young woman who had obviously enjoyed too many Drink of the Day specials. She staggered onto the stage, took the microphone, and with arms flailing, began to sing Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." She moved the mic away from her mouth with each flailing movement so it was like the aural equivalent of a strobe light. As if that weren't bad enough, she was also hideously out of tune.
A well-dressed young couple stood at the door for a few seconds watching this travesty. The woman turned to the man and said "I cannot believe how bad this is. I just cannot believe it. How can someone this bad get hired?" The man stared at the woman for a couple of seconds, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. He finally spoke: "It's KARAOKE, you ass!"