Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Good Luck With That Cruise

Well I had shaken off my cruise sickness just in time for us to depart to St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. Our first order of business was to gather up all of our things and report to a bar on the ship which would be serving as an impromptu customs office. Two Homeland Security employees were sitting in a brightly colored cruise ship lounge trying to still look official. I assume a scene like this one takes place every time the ship docks, because I believe the cruise employees are allowed to take their leave wherever they choose, and they need to go through the awkward-questioning-and-passport-stamping immigration process we all know and love.

Well because the line was only a few people long, the DHS guys could really savor the experience of asking us weird questions and digging in our luggage. Of course the whole search thing was silly, because we didn't leave the ship directly afterwards, and could have easily gone back to our room and filled our bags with the contraband tiger paws and blood diamonds we'd purchased in Nassau. The DHS guy was pretty perplexed as to why we were leaving the cruise midway, and even asked our Carnival employee escort if we were a "security risk". Insult to injury: I asked if he would stamp my passport with his cool US Virgin Island stamp, and he said no.

Amusingly the most dangerous part of visiting the Virgin Islands that I could find is that if you are in the US Virgin Islands, you can use your cellphone just like you are in the continental US. If, however, you stray too far east, then your phone may pick up a signal from a cell tower located in the British Virgin Islands and you'd have to pay international roaming rates. Scary stuff.

Land ho!

We got off the ship in the same tidal wave of people just as with the Bahamas stop. Only this time, we had all of our luggage with us. We got several sideways looks from the other cruisegoers, wondering why we were abandoning their floating paradise. One little girl even asked her mom why we were leaving. It was a little embarrassing. When we got off the ship they even deactivated our cruise ID cards. Good riddance to us. 

The shuttle van that Carnival had arranged to take us to the airport had a license plate that read "US Virgin Islands-America's Caribbean". I thought that was pretty cool.

This weird picture is conclusive proof that we are living in The Matrix.

We made it back to St. Louis in time for a New Years toast with our friends.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Cruising Towards St. Thomas

Well our hard won "extra" day at sea turned out to be pretty tame. I was extremely sick the entire day. I either ate something bad the night before (the only thing we didn't share was the sushi so very possible) or I just got a bug. Norovirus seems to be the chic disease to get on a cruise these days, and the symptoms are the same. Let's just say it's a good thing the toilet and the sink were so close together.

Another factor not helping me out at all was the ship's movements. I'd heard that cruise ships are so large that they don't sway much with the waves. This is false. I don't know if we just hit unusually choppy seas on our cruise or what, but on a good day it left you feeling a little stumbly or drunk, and on a bad day it was bumping into people all the time.

My understanding is that Lydia used the time to read and lay out, but the day was so sunny that everyone had that idea, and it was hard for her to find a vacant deck chair.

Lydia got some selfies taken care of while I was bedridden. Shouldn't she look a little less happy?

A plus for the whole cruise experience for some must be the implied child care. Many people seemed to just let their kids run wild, thinking that they couldn't get in that much trouble in such a contained area. That gave the ship a slight Chuck E. Cheese birthday party feel which I could understand getting on some people's nerves. There was an adults only area, which was pretty magical. It was like a secret garden of serenity where we could read or hang out in a hot tub without fighting for space or getting splashed.

Despite my all-day sickness, I realized I was pretty lucky in terms of when it hit me. A day earlier, and I wouldn't have been able to enjoy the Bahamas, and a day later and getting off the ship in the Virgin Islands would have been impossible.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Bahamas: Operation Cruise Quitter

While I was fast asleep in my Carnival Chinese pastel cabin, the ship was chugging along on it's journey to Nassau, Bahamas. We pulled in to port at about 8am, and were treated to quite a view.

If I was going to be a negative Nancy, I might say that the presence of several other cruise ships and their fat tourist cargo made Nassau feel less picturesque or authentic. I don't think I really felt that way though. They just added a little something different to the skyline. I wasn't expecting a virgin deserted isle. 

This was a nice opportunity to get a good look at the Dream from the outside. It was so large I had trouble fitting it in the frame. Having my giant floating hotel nearby was a reassuring experience. There weren't many tall buildings on the island, so we could see the ship just about wherever we were. How much trouble could we possibly get into?

I'm a crazy person, so our very first order of business after setting foot on land was to find the customs office and get our passports stamped. I think you may be able to leave your passport at the ship's front desk and they will try to get it stamped for you, but I wasn't having any of that. 

We only had about 5 hours before we needed to get back on the ship, so we really needed to get the lead out. I'm pretty pleased with what we were able to do and see in the time we had. The dock was in a surprisingly central location, and we stepped right into the thick of things. The buildings were bright pastel, and there were shops all around. The plan was to move in the direction of the Atlantis Paradise Island Hotel/Casino/Waterpark/Resort/Lost City, and to see as much as we could along the way.

Mapless, we convinced ourselves that this was the famous Queen's Staircase. (It's not.)

Eventually we moseyed our way all the way to Potter's Cay, which is nestled under the bridge to Paradise Island. The place is known for its seafood. So we ordered some.

We just had to order some conch fritters. According to what I read conch is a staple food in the Bahamas. Little bits of conch fried up in dough balls was a nice safe introduction. Being a silly tourist I could not resist ordering a Bahama mamma. It's just plain fun to say. Lydia and I also split a piece of rum cake for desert.

Seeing this guy in a diver's suit steer his little boat full of fresh caught conchs added to the fun.

Our first purchase was an easy one because the Bahamian dollar is pegged to the US dollar 1:1, and everyone accepts them both interchangeably.

The Bahamas have a street parade/festival called Junkanoo, which occurs on Boxing Day (December 26) and then again on New Year's Day. December 29th put us tantalizingly close to both occasions but were only able to catch a whiff of what it was all about. It looks similar to Carnival, with lavish costumes and dancing.

I tried to engage our waitress in some delightful and culturally insightful conversation, but she was a tough nut to crack:

Me: "So, do you have any plans for Junkanoo?" 
Waitress: "What?" 
"Oh, sorry. (My pronunciation must be poor.) JUNkanoo?" 
"Come again?" 
"Oh! Junkanoo. No, nothing special, just going to the parade."
"Oh cool. Good talk."

My beer label collecting days are largely behind me, but I couldn't resist saving this one.

I thought since our waitress and I had had such deep conversation that we had surely reached some sort of an understanding. So I figured we could trust her with finding us a ride over the bridge we were eating under in order to see the Atlantis Hotel. The very strange man who showed up in a shoddy van not only charged us 10 dollars for about 1 minute of driving, but he made us pay the one dollar bridge toll. Junkanoo my butt.

Well the cab guy got us where we were going anyway: to the Atlantis Paradise Island. (Fun fact, Paradise Island was previously known as Hog Island. Marketing.) The Atlantis was pretty cool, but in the end it didn't take our breath away. Especially since we went to Vegas just last July. Part of it was only open to guests of the hotel as well... It was confusing. Anyway, we poked around a bit and then headed out to the beach.

The hotel had several of the requisite Chihuly glass sculptures that Vegas is brimming with. Yawn :) 

After scoping out the beach a bit we cabbed it back to town to squeeze the last touristy goodness out of our allotted time.

A conch and starfish salesman.

We saw what looked to be the remains of a Junkanoo parade float sitting in the street.

After another good trek through some neighborhoods, we arrived at our final destination: John Watling's distillery.

Not only was there the usual information about how the distilling/barreling process works, but there was a museum part that told the story of the Bahamas.

I liked these posters a whole lot. I am fascinated that subjects could be convinced to volunteer to fight a war thousands of miles away to defend their imperial overlord. B.W.I.R. stands for British West Indies Regiment.

We had a few frozen rummy drinks then headed back to the ship.

Hog Island Lighthouse with the Atlantis in the distance.

We waved goodbye to Nassau and then were back on the open ocean. This was when things got a bit complicated. You see, we had signed up for a 7 day cruise, and this was day 2. But we were satisfied, and were ready to conclude our vacation. Well, we simply marched to the guest services desk and said we would like to get off the ship. I think the representative thought I was joking, but after some back and forth she gave in and began the process on her computer. The scene was especially funny standing next to a large window showing us plowing through the waves, clearly not at a dock. Her next statement gave me a little shot of adrenaline: "you do realize you won't be compensated for this right?" She had just entered a world of wrongness.

You see, Carnival unveiled its new Carnival Great Vacation Guarantee on September 12, 2013, to try to recover some business after the dreaded "poop cruise" incident. It reads:

"The Carnival Great Vacation Guarantee™ is the greatest guarantee you’ll never need to use. If you’re not happy with any 3–8 day Carnival vacation you take to The Bahamas, the Caribbean, the Mexican Riviera, Canada/New England or Alaska, just let us know within 24 hours of your departure. We’ll refund 110% of your fare and our Guest Services will get you back to your home, free of charge. With no hassles and no questions asked.  

Vacation days are precious. If you decide spending them on a Carnival cruise isn’t for you, you don’t have to. Our Guest Services team will make all the arrangements to get you off the ship as quickly as we can, and fly you to either your home airport if you flew in, or back to your point of embarkation if you drove to the ship.

If you decide within 24 hours of the start of your cruise that it’s not for you, simply notify Carnival’s onboard Guest Services desk. We’ll take it from there. And if you decide later that you want to give Carnival another try, we’ll even give a $100 per stateroom onboard credit to any guest in your party who exercised the guarantee and, within a year, books another Carnival cruise.

Applies to U.S. and Canadian residents only. Due to a U.S. Government requirement, guests must be in possession of a valid passport to return to the U.S. by air from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Caribbean, The Bahamas and Bermuda."

Well I coincidentally happened to have a paper copy of the guarantee with me, which was good because our service desk representative seemed to genuinely have no idea what I was talking about. After a bit more awkward discussion we were able to speak to a manager and eventually everything got sorted out. So we got our money back from the cruise plus 10%, they booked us flights back to St. Louis, and they even gave us a room credit if we book another cruise. So generous.

The fact remained that we were in the middle of the ocean, so we got another day at sea, and then disembarked on the next port, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

I built up a hearty hunger after all that negotiating, so we had a nice dinner before retiring for the evening.