Second of a three-part series
We began our cruise vacation flying to Miami on American Airlines and engaging a taxi to take us to the cruise ship pier. So much for the easy part. As we approached the pier, traffic was jammed four lanes wide for about a mile. Two lanes were trucks and trailers waiting for clearance to the cargo docks. They were being inspected with a fine-tooth comb and moving like molasses in winter.
Unfortunately, the dock area does not have location signs. One of the first cruise ships we saw looked like ours, Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Dream. After getting out of the main feeder road, we approached the dock only to find we were mistaken. We had to fight our way through two lanes of stalled truck traffic to get back to the auto lanes. As soon as a hole would appear in one lane, a 16-wheeler would close the gap. Trust me, in truck and trailer traffic, a four-door taxi is absolutely insignificant.
When we found our ship, we had to work our way through busloads of fellow cruisers to get through the double doors into the check-in area. The Norwegian Dream is not one of today's bigger ships being only 754 feet long and 30 yards wide. But it has 874 staterooms with a double occupancy potential of 1,748 passengers, and this takes a lot of checking in. Fortunately, those in charge are good at it. Word to the wise, however: Arrive very early. You can relax onboard.
The check-in area had one X-ray machine for passenger carry-on luggage with a line snaking around the area for several hundred feet. Once past the security check, we encountered another line waiting to register to go aboard. While there were about a dozen agents, at least a third of them were dedicated to the cruise line's frequent cruiser club. To qualify as a member, you had to have made at least one previous cruise with the line. We, alas, had not.
Once registered, passengers had to go up a couple of flights of stairs to an overhead walkway across about a hundred yards to the ship. Cruising is not for the faint of heart.
Our stateroom was on the outside on the fifth deck. The room included a bathroom just big enough, a queen-size bed and a sofa that could be used as a second bed for children. There was just enough closet for the contents of two good sized bags, and the bags themselves fit under the bed. The 13-inch television set had a couple of movie channels, several news channels, a ship's information channel, a stationary camera view from the ship's bow, and a channel with information on shore excursions.
How much cruise time is eaten up by eating
The ship had a pizzeria with acceptable pizza and killer macadamia nut cookies. Unfortunately, it was on the same deck as the Owners' Suites (see Part 1), and every now and then a passenger would emerge from a suite, grab a plate and clean out the macadamia nut cookies.
There was an ice cream bar that dispensed several flavors of ice cream made on the ship, including a great macadamia nut. Next to the ice cream bar were two hot tubs frequently filled with passengers either sipping beer or slurping ice cream. There was a barbecue spread each noon on the pool deck. A sports bar on the 12th deck in the stern was open almost all hours serving cafeteria food that could be enjoyed at some outside tables.
Service in the main dining room was buffet style for breakfast and a la carte for lunch and dinner. In the stern was another restaurant with a la carte breakfast, lunch and dinner. Alternative eateries were an Italian specialty restaurant which suffered from slow service and a supposedly intimate gourmet bistro. Our ship employed the free seating arrangement, with passengers eating wherever they desired on a first-come, first-served bases except for the bistro, which required reservations. It also required semiformal dress and imposed a $10 per person surcharge.
While some passengers were disturbed at not being assigned a table so they could get to know their fellow diners and be comforted with the familiar; I looked forward to meeting new and different people each day. We did develop some favorite companions and sat together when it was convenient, but variety had its place.
The food on board was of good quality, and there appeared to be something for everyone regardless of one's tastes. The bistro food was a step above the rest, but the limited menu was the same for the entire 16 days. The desserts left a lot to be desired; I never did find a pie worth more than a couple of bites. The cakes were okay, and we learned to go for the ice cream. Spending at least two hours a day exercising and doing maximum walking on shore, we managed to come away only a few pounds heavier.
It is not true you spend all your time eating on a cruise ship. Breakfast takes only about an hour or so; lunch, another hour or so; figure 30 minutes for an afternoon pizza, cookie and fruit break; maybe 10 minutes for your afternoon ice cream cone and an hour and a half for dinner. Oh, yes, and that evening snack before turning in, about 45 minutes. That adds up to only about 5 hours eating out of the 16 when we weren't asleep — less than a third of the total time!
The spa, the sporting life, playing the odds
One of the heavily touted activities aboard the ship was the spa. It was staffed by two diminutive young Asian women and a small male person with heavy French-type accent. They offered several types of massage, which appeared to consist of rubbing warm, scented oil into your body. They also were big on nail care and hot waxing.
If Midwestern men only realized how much their women would enjoy the attention and would rub warm, scented oil on their bodies periodically, contentment would surely ensue. On the other hand, there is probably something to be said for having a young person rub you down with scented oil. According to the ship, this experience is worth at least $100 per treatment. The spa had a steam room and a sauna, too, but they were more trouble than they were worth.
The most popular activity was collecting activity tickets for a "free" T-shirt bearing the cruise ship's name. You needed 30 tickets for the shirt and could earn one ticket for making four circuits around the ship — just over a mile — on the jogging deck You also could earn tickets at daily special events such as putting a golf ball into a trap placed on the floor of a bar lounge, attempting to shoot a basket on the court, hitting a golf ball on the driving range, and participating in the morning exercise class that lasted 30 to 45 minutes. After 15 days, at least 50 people got their shirts.
Gambling is a big activity among the older set, and most of us aboard fit that bill. (When I cruised the pool area, I was constantly on the lookout for our two young ladies able and willing to wear thong bikinis. That is two out of 1,597 fellow passengers.) The first thing you were supposed to do upon boarding the ship was go to the casino and register your credit card(s) or post a bond for shipboard charges. That way, they also got to introduce you to the casino.
The slot machines and table games plus the daily bingo games in the main entertainment hall are prime moneymakers for a cruise line. One of the big prizes on this one was a "free" cruise that would bring you back on board to spend more time in the casino.
Show time, not to be overly confused with dinner time
A major activity is the nightly show. During a one-week cruise, highly professional entertainers treat you to a good mix of stage entertainment. When the playbill is stretched to two weeks, the cruise director steps in with a couple evenings of nonsense. You usually have your choice of early and late shows, which poses a bit of a dilemma. Many of the passengers tend to fall asleep after 9 o'clock, but if you opt for the early show, that puts a lot of pressure you to finish dinner on a deadline.
Our first evening out, we decided to eat as soon as the dining room opened and take in the first show. We were being served our main co
urse as the show started.
We quickly learned that those wanting front seats for the early show ate afterward in whatever restaurant was still open — usually the sports bar with its cafeteria food. People would begin occupying seats in the theater at least an hour before show time — with reading glasses and a good book.
Although there were announcements in every daily news sheet and regularly over the speaker system for the stage asking passengers not to save seats, there were an amazing amount of men and women with multiple spouses. The spouses evidently hung out in a bar or restroom for extremely long periods, only to appear at show time, quite often with another member of the immediate family.
We actually got seats for the late show in the second row one evening. We walked in through the stage door just after the early show had ended and managed to catch two seats from passengers who were satisfied with seeing it only once. After the wait staff and the passengers settled down to a routine, we were able to eat when the dining room opened and make the second show sitting in the second section, which was perfectly fine.
A word about the library: Upon boarding the ship, I did a walkabout for orientation. When I visited the library, I was surprised to find a relatively extensive collection of hardback books, all behind locked glass — but no paperbacks for trading. If you want to trade books, you need to talk to your tablemates and the front-row holders at the first evening show.
In my initial inspection of the locked-up library books, I found several I wanted to read. On my first visit, I arrived about 15 minutes after the posted opening hour. As I walked the final stretch toward the library, I encountered a line of passengers coming my way carrying three and four books apiece. When I got to the library, I found whole shelves almost bare and the books I had coveted long gone. For the next 14 days, I kept checking back, to no avail.
Would we do a cruise again? It all depends. If the price is right, the ports of call are interesting, the ship is appealing, the airfare to and fro is not prohibitive, and the timing is right; you betcha.
After the first couple days, every time we went ashore then came back to the ship, we had this warm rush of contentment. We couldn't wait to see if there were any macadamia nut cookies available and if macadamia nut ice cream was available. After a chapter or so in our paperback books, we were off to do penance for the macadamia goodies, followed by a shower and a nap.
When we awoke, it was shower again, get dressed for dinner and head up to the dining room for the night's grand concoctions (for which we never had to wash a dish) and then on to the show. If I took another short nap during the show, no big deal. It was simply a sign of contentment.
Next: the ports of call
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