The last time I was on board a boat out of Miami, it was a 12-foot Sunfish, property of a fellow Miami Herald employee named Dave Finley. It was my first adventure on a sailboat, and it ended with the Sunfish on its side in the Atlantic off Key Biscayne and Finley and I thrashing around trying to right it as a Coast Guard Albatross circled overhead. We finally got it upright, clambered aboard, and returned to the safety of Biscayne Bay.
The Jewel of the Seas is a bit more of a boat – a cruise ship of the Royal Caribbean line, a gleaming, massive party vessel with a full casino, a theater, several restaurants and bars, two swimming pools, a library, resident acts ranging from magic to musical, and, not to be discounted, two ping-pong tables.
The passengers, headed for Harwich, England, with stops in Bermuda, Lisbon, and Bruges, numbered about 3,000. Judging from their destination-tagged T-shirts and tote bags, they were a well-traveled bunch: All the expected Caribbean locations, plus the Falklands, Cape Horn, K2 Pakistan, the Black Sea. When a destination is featured on a T-shirt, it’s no longer remote no matter how far away it may seem.
The British seemed to be in the majority, many headed home after South Florida vacations. Out of Miami, weather hot and humid, the outdoor pool was popular, tanners catching the rays. The poolside tableau – several decades younger – could have starred in an R. Crumb fantasy.
The first few days, before we headed north into cooler weather, the pool was the center of activity, with line-dance lessons, bean-bag toss, a putting contest, and the World Male Belly-Flop Championship. The last garnered much attention when a female, helped by libations from the Pool Bar, insisted on entering, fully clothed. She competed, but lost out to a big-bellied Scotsman.
My dining tablemates – Peggy, Sandy, and Rosary – were all cruise veterans and, natives of the New Orleans area, not easily fooled when it comes to eats. Even as we critiqued what Royal Caribbean was serving up, we were talking about the best of the Crescent City. I learned to always insist on unwashed oysters (saltier and tastier); that in real Italian households, tomato sauce is called “red gravy;” and that the best bread pudding is found at the Red Maple in Gretna.
On Mother’s Day, we hit Bermuda, though many were disappointed because downtown Hamilton and its shopping was closed, it being Sunday.
After eight hours ashore, it was back at sea – five days until Lisbon. As we were farther north, it was generally too chilly for poolside activity, though the solarium pool was still available for the serious water sportsmen. So the two ping-pong tables, wind-protected in the verandah, started drawing crowds. When I would be taking my morning tea at 7:30, I could watch ping-pong. There were even formal-wear games. (Several evenings were designated for formal wear – I did not participate, but was startled one night by a huge Scotsman in tux and kilt, a sight not soon forgotten.)
One of the appeals of a cruise is that it can be an escape. You are among folks that you never have to see again; you can participate in belly-flop competitions in anonymity; you can spend hours in the casino without anyone (except your banker) knowing about it; you can take the stage on amateur night and pretend you’re on American Idol.
And, like the man in the kilt, dress however you want.
One Brit, bald and in his 50s, favored an all-red outfit. His sleeveless shirt, mid-calf pants (they used to be called pedal-pushers), and matching Keds wouldn’t be acceptable in any London office, even on casual Friday.
Finally, Lisbon loomed. I signed up for a shore excursion, to a national park and fishing village south of the city. There was a stop at the Fonseca winery, where I discovered that one of their products is an old undergraduate favorite, Lancers. On the tour, Most-Obnoxious title went to a couple who insisted on loudly arguing with each other in the middle of our guide’s commentary.
The coastal scenery was spectacular, wildflowers in bloom, blue sea below. The tortuous cliffside roads made me think I would be included in one of those short States-side news stories: 56 die when bus plunges down Portuguese mountainside. Fortunately, our driver was experienced, his bus in top shape.
Back on board, next stop Bruges. I hadn’t been there, but I have spent a lot of time in Brussels and am way too familiar with Belgian chocolate, so I was looking forward to laying in a supply to get me across Europe.
And I wanted to see the Michelangelo sculpture housed in the Church of Our Lady. The sculpture, Madonna at Bruges, is reason enough to visit Belgium. Because it’s in a church and not a museum, there was no crowd; I could spend as much time as I wanted admiring the work of a master.
There was also success on the chocolate front – I picked up a kilo (I would have gotten more but I knew it would melt before I got to Greece), and headed back to the ship. Our next stop was Harwich, then a short train ride to London, a taxi trip across the city to St. Pancras Station for the EuroStar, the luxurious “Chunnel” train that connects London and Paris in less than two hours.
Another taxi-ride, this time across Paris, Gare de Nord to Gare de Bercy, and an overnight train to Milano. As I’ve done in the past, I woke up in the middle of the night and peered out the window at the quiet Brig train station at the Simplon Pass before continuing on into Italy. A few hours later, I was awakened by the conductor announcing Milano.