First of a three-part series
July 14, 2002 – Many years ago I received a telephone call asking if I would be interested in an inexpensive and interesting cruise experience on a real sailing ship. A new sailing cruise ship had sold a block of cabins to a European firm, which was forced to cancel at the last moment. If my wife and I could get ourselves to Sint Maartin and back, we could have one of the cabins at a deeply discounted rate. We immediately booked our flights on LIAT.
For a glorious week we sailed the Caribbean on the Star Clipper, the largest full-sail cruising boat registered by Lloyd's. The food was superb, our fellow passengers were sophisticated, and the crew was gracious and eager. The owner was aboard, his private art collection hung on the walls, and everyone we met was some kind of celebrity. We figured we could never match this experience and put cruising aside. When you've sailed the best, don't sweat the rest.
Time passed, we retired, and I got tired of hearing endless stories about cruise food, entertainment, food, interesting people and more food.
We tried a steamboat cruise on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. It was almost a cult experience, memorable for the calliope lessons, our next-door neighbor who looked like Santa Claus in steamboat suspenders, and a lady on her 68th steamboat cruise. Did we enjoy it? Very much so. But, when I totaled the costs, it was very expensive.
Last summer, surfing the Internet one day, I came across a 16-day cruise from Vacations To Go. Miami to Valparaiso, Chile, via Belize City; Roatan; the Panama Canal; Manta, Ecuador; Lima, Peru; and Arica, Iquique, and Coquimbo, Chile. The price was $999 all-inclusive onboard Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Dream, which worked out to $62.50 a day for transportation, room, board and entertainment.
Selling points: the price and the places
Three things drew us to this particular cruise: the price, the Panama Canal and the ports of call. Web sites often have great listings of cruises at discounted prices. The prices get better and better, then disappear. The trick is balancing your desire to take the cruise with your willingness to pay the price. We found many people had paid several times what we did for similar or even less-desirable accommodations.
As I got into this thing, however, I learned that a cruise can be like the old razor: They give it away so you will buy the blades.
Let's start with transportation to the cruise ship and from the cruise ship. Being well matured, I was able to reach Miami with an American Airlines Senior Citizen Coupon. Coming home, however, was a different kettle of fish, as senior coupons are good only for travel within the United States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Looking for deals, I tried my three standbys Qixo, Orbitz and another search engine for which I participated in beta testing.
Orbitz gave me a one-way fare of $540 from Santiago, Chile, to Orlando, Florida, on Copa Airlines, a Panama carrier affiliated with Continental. Combined with another senior coupon ($169 plus $16 tax) from Orlando back to St. Thomas, this resulted in a one-way fare of $725. Contacting American Airlines direct, I was quoted a one-way price of $1,100 Santiago to Orlando with advance purchase, and $1,700 Santiago to St. Thomas. This reserach was carried out before September.
In September, the round-trip price Orlando to Santiago fell for a while to $580, while the one-way price remained firm at twice as much. You figure. Unfortunately, buying the round-trip ticket would not work, as you cannot throw away the front portion. If you fail to fly the initial leg, the airline cancels your entire itinerary.
We went with the Copa option. The next decision we were faced with was the offer of an upgrade on the cruise ship. We agreed to upgrade to a restricted view exterior room from our inside cabin for an additional $100. It was one of our best investments. Upgrading at the time we did earned us a great picture window view on Deck 6 out of 12 and a comfortable cabin. Our total expense had become $2,049 each for airfare and cruise.
And in December, we found ourselves embarking on the cruise.
We received our cruise tickets, luggage labels, ship information, and activities request about 10 days before our boarding date. We learned that many experienced cruisers arrive at the port of embarkation at least a day in advance. I chose to arrive the morning of boarding, but I understand the felt need to have plenty of time. If you are traveling on your own and you arrive late, it is your responsibility to catch up with the ship.
Getting there can be fun — for those watching
The information on where our ship would be docked read simply "Dodge Island, Port of Miami." Miami has a big port and the traffic, once you are committed to the island, is awful. Although our ship was several hours late leaving Miami, one passenger missed the departure and the next full day at sea. Because our ship had departed Miami very late, the captain decided late that first day at sea to divert from Belize to Cozumel, as he did not have ship speed to reach Belize for a full day and the shipping line owned a dock in Cozumel.
Fortunately, somebody did tell this to the passenger left behind in Miami. He didn't reach Cozumel in time for the sailing but was able to hire a Jet Ski operator who reached the pilot boat before it went alongside the departing cruise ship to take off the pilot. It was a great show, and no one missed the ship from then on, as far as I know. Plan ahead, arrive early and be flexible.
Several of the passengers we met had arrived in Miami days before departure in order to play tourist there. They had enjoyed the beaches, Bayside (the waterfront activity center), museums such as Viscaya, and the amenities of their hotels.
We packed a liter of good St. Thomas scotch in our baggage. When we boarded the ship, we found the shipboard store held your liquor purchases until you disembarked. Furthermore, you evidently sign away your rights to bring liquor aboard in the fine print on your ticket agreement, and ordinary drinks onboard ran around $5 with a mandatory 15 percent gratuity. However, our St. Thomas bottle made it to our cabin without incident.
The new regulations since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks make life easier for the cruise lines in enforcing the take-aboard ban, as they can — and do — search your carry-ons at each port for "security" reasons.
At our first port of call, I was able to purchase an excellent bottle of pre-mixed Brandy Alexanders along with another bottle of brandy. I didn't know about the rule at the time, and the X-ray monitor apparently didn't recognize the bottles for what they were. At the next port, we happened to use the entry way which did not have the X-ray machine, and the security officer doing the hand search found a bottle in bag of the passenger in front of us. It was labeled as his possession and put in bond.
With some lines, you can get around this hassle by purchasing an "Owner's Suite" for many thousands of dollars. "Owners" are presented with three bottles of liquor in their room and may purchase liquor on board to be delivered to their room. Word to the wise: Make friends with an "Owner" at the earliest opportunity.
The cheapest, often best, shore option: Do it yourself
Our 16-day cruise had seven ports of call and some 30 opportunities for shore excursions, from simple bus tours of the cities with stops at a landmark or two, to a three-day jaunt to Machu Picchu. A half-day bus tour ran $40 to $60. The Machu Picchu extravaganza was $1,550. A bus trip to a museum or two plus lunch could run $150.
At most stops, we rented a taxi for $5 to $10 an hour, paid the entry fees to the museums, and ate with the driver or on the stree
t. And we shared the experience with another couple, which made it more fun and half price.
The shipmates who became our favorite traveling companions were a Chicago dinner boat owner/skipper and his new wife. He had visited several of the ports before and took great joy showing us his favorite haunts. We found six to seven hours adequate to see everything we wanted to see and it cost us from $10 to $20 each including transportation, fees, beer and food.
At one stop, the cruise director informed us that a special bus had been provided to take passengers downtown for a fee of $10 each way. Town turned out to be about 200 yards beyond the port gate that was about 600 yards (I tend to measure in football fields) from the ship. I walked and gladly spent $20 for a nice lightweight alpaca sweater for travel north that I found in town, while my wife walked and bought a beautiful shawl. We needed the exercise, anyway, and had dessert that night to restore the spent calories.
The second and third parts of this series will get into onboard experiences and descriptions of the canal transit and the ports of call.
By way of introduction, here's a final bit of advice: For after the cruise, give yourself a day or two to get sorted out before you jump into a new activity — including flying home, if it's from a far-away place. But as soon as possible, confirm that next activity. We got distracted and failed to confirm our return flight, which was booked on Christmas day.
Arriving at the Chile airport at 2:30 a.m. for our 4 a.m. flight to Orlando, we found two other couples from our cruise engaged in a big discussion with security guards who did not speak English. About an hour later, we found an English speaker who informed us that our airline had decided not to operate on Christmas day and had called to advise all of its booked passengers beginning Dec. 7 — the day we had boarded our cruise ship.
One couple paid about $4,000 for Lan Chile business class seats so they could reach their family in time for Christmas dinner. The other couple paid about $1,200 each to fly home in coach class on Lan Chile. My wife and I went back into our hotel for another night at $50, and flew home the next day on American Airlines on tickets signed over by Copa Airlines.
Next: the Dream life

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