Diary of a Caribbean Cruise – Part Six
Last Ports of Call
Thursday, January 27, 2011
after a day near St. Thomas – U.S. Virgin Islands
With a thump, the boat’s bow hits an onrushing wave. Salt spray flies back, the vessel crests, then crashes down into the next wave. You hold on to one of the stays, testing your sea legs as the deck regularly rises and drops away beneath you. The glittering sea races by, and the song of the wind and the splash of the waves drown out all other sound.
The captain shouts over the wind, “You can take the wheel for a while.”
“Sure! You’ll be fine. Just keep us pointing to the windward of that spit of land.”
And so I did.
No, I was not at the helm of the Grand Princess – that would be like driving a large building. I was on an ocean-going catamaran, skimming along under sail, close to the waves in a moderate sea, with a bunch of people who, minutes before, had been swimming and snorkeling on a secluded beach and reef near the island of St. Thomas. The young captain regularly gives the helm to guests that seem interested in the sailing aspect of the trip. Was I interested? You bet I was. I was having the time of my life.
Like our trip to the Harrison Cave in Barbados, this was an official “tour” organized by the cruise line. Brochures promised a half day of sailing and snorkeling and complimentary champagne, all for $79.00 a person. Mary and Werner and I signed up. Heather, for whom neither sailing nor snorkeling holds much attraction, stayed on board the ship (besides, she hardly has what you might call “land legs,” let alone “sea legs”).
For me, it was wonderful and exhilarating. While snorkeling 15 on the reef, I even saw a sting-ray!
Photos (top & right): Werner Schulz
I think the above pictures tell the story of this day just as well as I can.
However, a word about the boat’s crew would be appropriate. There were three young men in charge of the vessel: Colin, Ben and Joe. Colin is captain, the other two help run the boat and manage the guests. In a way, these guys are the nautical version of “surfer dudes” or “ski bums.” They are young, extremely good looking, tanned, fit, and smart (I might even say a little smart-mouthed!) – and they have the enviable job of sailing the Caribbean every day, with the only proviso being that they take a bunch of old people along with them and point out where the good snorkeling is. They were very good at what they do, and they certainly made my day. When Colin allowed me to steer, I felt like a six year old! It was unforgettable.
We returned to the ship just after noon, and, when Mary with her characteristic high energy wanted to go out again and explore the shops, Heather was all for it, so off they went together. Thus, by the time the Grand Princess set sail around 3:45 PM, we can safely say that a good day was had by all.
January 28, 2011
... after a day in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic
When the ship came into Santo Domingo this morning, I was quite surprised to see a truly large and modern city. My total knowledge of the Dominican Republic until that moment was that it shared the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
Haiti is no one’s idea of a fun place to visit, and I wasn’t altogether sure that I wanted to visit its nearest neighbour. True, there are some wonderful all-inclusive resorts in the Dominican Republic, but my impression of them is that the guest is wise to stay within the confines of the resort. Step over some invisible perimeter line and I imagined you would find yourself in a lawless, dangerous, and impoverished place where it would be quite possible to be knocked on the head for a dollar or a watch.
I did not expect a modern city. Still, my assumptions about poverty and the dangers that await an unsuspecting tourist remained.
On-board guide sheets said that Santo Domingo has some extremely old architecture (structures built as early as 1498, shortly after Columbus stumbled upon the place), and I could even see some from the ship, so when (as usual) Heather, Mary and Werner wanted to disembark and go exploring, I thought that visiting the old colonial city might be quite worthwhile. Still, I couldn’t help wondering what dangers we might meet.
The cruise terminal is far enough from the old city that there were regular and reliable busses running back and forth throughout the day.
Once the four of us were on a bus, however, and it had filled up with other passengers, a local man jumped on board and raised his voice to get everyone’s attention. Introducing himself as “Peter,” he told us that it would just be better if we stuck together and used him as a guide in the Old City. In his pitch, he repeatedly said, “Santo Domingo is not dangerous,” which naturally confirmed my suspicion that the opposite is, in fact, the case.
The oldest European city in Western Hemisphere
A police car follows our tour group
everywhere we looked: a police presence
Peter – I suspect his name was really Pedro, but he used the English form, and answered to it – helped to keep our fears alive when a couple of young men on a small motorbike passed our group. He shouted, “Be careful when a motorbike comes close to you. Hold on to your purse, your camera, or anything valuable that they could grab.”
Perhaps he was deliberately stoking our fears in order to ensure himself a profitable tour business. Well, if that was his purpose, it worked! I wanted to go with him. So did everybody else.
Ruins of a monastery-run hospital, built in 1503
– deliberately burned down to get rid of plague
There was one point when Werner and Mary got separated from the group, and Heather and I had a choice: leave the group and try to find our friends; or remain in the protection of Peter’s “flock.” and assume that Werner and Mary had happily set off on their own. Then and there I knew that taking a slowly-moving wife, whose every step hurts her, through this strange city on my own, was more than I felt capable of doing. I called out to Peter that we were missing two people, and he did stop the group and wait; at which point Werner and Mary came roaring out of the last building we had been in (they were looking for Heather, who they thought was behind them) and so we all moved forward once more.
We saw more ruins, some old but still functioning churches, several statues, and all sorts of historical buildings. But we were also led into more shops, until a number of us spoke up: “Peter! No more stores! Please!” Peter complied, and we got our sightseeing done.
In a plaza by the cathedral, a troop of naval cadets resplendent in brilliant white uniforms were being marched into busses – probably having just had compulsory church attendance. The Roman Catholic church is still strong and vital in the Dominican Republic. The enormous cathedral was in excellent repair, with modern furnishing and recently-created stained glass. It is the formal seat of Cardinal López Rodríguez, 16 Primate of the Americas.
Finally, we passed a fort that was built around 1500, making it the first fort I have ever seen that is structured along Medieval lines (as opposed to numerous extant North American and Caribbean fortresses, built according eighteenth century [ie: post-firearms] military principles).
I loved the fort, but Peter had taken us by it almost as an afterthought, and had no intention of letting us go inside and poke around. It was time for his flock to return to the ship.
Like many other tour operators we have met on this trip, Peter was not ashamed to solicit tips, but I noticed that he did so before we came in sight of the bus terminal that employed him. People willingly popped $5 bills into his hands then and there; but, as we got off the bus later, at the cruise terminal, his hand was out again. Heather supposes that this second request for tips had to be shared with the bus drivers.
I was glad to get back to our stateroom.
January 29, 2011
Despite my bad experience with “Scholarship at Sea,” today I tried another lecture in the theatre. In this case, the ship’s Third Officer was to speak about the history of navigation: from the “dead reckoning” of earliest days, to the modern satellite and electronically assisted navigation of the Grand Princess.
Our lecturer, a young man in a crisp white uniform with black epaulettes, is more qualified to drive the ship than he is to give lectures, but he did have excellent PowerPoint visuals. As well, he covered more aspects of how the ship works than just navigation. There were pictures of the bridge, the engines, and of the underneath of the boat (taken in dry dock). We learned that there are wings that extend out from the hull below the waterline, to increase stability in rough seas. And he gave us data and pictures about the lifeboat system (there are enough lifeboat spaces for 4,500 people, and the ship’s maximum occupancy – 4,200 guests and staff – is less than that).
He gave a fascinating account of an incident many years ago when two people actually fell overboard, 17 and their absence was not discovered until hours later. The Grand Princess turned around, and with the small speedboat and the tenders moving back and forth in a grid around the line that the boat had travelled, they eventually discovered both people alive.
The young officer made himself available for questions, one-on-one, after the presentation, and I quietly put to him the problem that has been bugging me the most: what happens to the raw sewage created on board? To my great distress, the answer is: at a specified minimum distance from shore it is dumped into the sea. Only oily wastewater is kept for disposal on land. Oh dear.
January 30, 2011
... after a day in Princess Cays, The Bahamas
We attended “church” this morning, in the “Vista Lounge” on board ship. The service was conducted by the Assistant Cruise Director, who is only known to me as John.
John conducted a prayer and praise service with considerable dignity and faithfulness. It was very simple: hymn, prayer, hymn, prayer, hymn, sermon, hymn, dismissal. What was noticeable about it, though, was the Anglican influence. On the worship folder (intended to be used for multiple services) the hymns included “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Praise, my Soul the King of Heaven,” and “Eternal Father Strong to Save” – all Anglican standards. Printed prayers included the General Confession and the General Thanksgiving, both lifted straight out of the 450 year old Anglican Book of Common Prayer!
At one point we sang Eternal Father..., and doing so created a bit of a paradox for me. Each verse ends by asking God to protect “...those in peril on the sea.” You may not be aware, but Eternal Father is the ultimate traditional Christian hymn of English speaking navies. However, it speaks so intensely about maritime danger 18 that it was really strange to sing it on a ship that feels as stable as a rock! I also noted that while the congregation of sixty or so sang “How Great Thou Art,” and “Amazing Grace,” and even “Holy Holy Holy” with considerable gusto, they clearly did not know – or perhaps they did not care to sing – about those in peril on the sea!
But overall, John led a very respectful and reverent service, and I’m glad that we went.
After the church service Heather and I changed into swimming gear and got ready to go to the Princess Cays beach.
The cruise line owns an entire island in The Bahamas. It consists almost entirely of white sand beaches, and the company has fitted out the shore with beach shelters, barbecue pits, deck chairs and the sort of gear that is useful for waterside recreation. The island is a day’s journey from Ft. Lauderdale, so the Cays is used as a last stop, a place to swim and play and have one last day of fun in the sun, before returning to the everyday humdrum world.
But there is no deep harbour. The ship anchors out in the bay, and the ship’s lifeboats shuttle people in and out.
As the Grand Princess came to a stop this morning, there was considerable thumping and shouting from the decks below us, which turned out to be sailors launching the lifeboats. Each boat is winched away from the ship, then dropped slowly down to the sea, with three or four men on board. One starts the engines, and the other two detach the lowering cables, and put up flags on top the roof. Given that the tender is a totally enclosed vessel, these fellows actually bobbed around on its roof to do their duties. It was slow, and very precarious-looking.
A lady leaning over the balcony next to ours commented, “I’d hate to think of them doing this in a real emergency. The ship would have sunk before the lifeboats were ready!” She had a point.
At any rate, after church Heather and I went down to the gangway and were soon taken ashore on one of these watercraft, then spent the next several hours on the beach. Heather actually had a swim! She went into the water until it was almost up to her shoulders, then floated about for a bit. This was a great moment, because going through surf on a sandy beach can be very stressful on aging and fragile knees and legs. She did it, and was most happy with the whole thing.
I accompanied her – partly to assist due to those legs, but partly also to keep her company, since I really am very fond of her. I resolved that once she had finished I would go over to the nearby reef and do some snorkeling.
I carried out my plan, staying with her until she went back on shore to wander off and see what was in the little shops. Then I betook myself to the place where the maps said there was a reef. It wasn’t much of a reef, but it was definitely a reef, and at one point I was actually swimming with a large school of silvery fish who showed little fear of this great white monster in their midst. It was a very enjoyable and satisfying time, and a perfect way to bring this cruise to a close.
Now we’re packing, and tomorrow morning early we shall be on our way to Canada.
16 See the Wikipedia article on Cardinal López_Rodríguez, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicolás_de_Jesús_López_Rodríguez Click here to get back to the narrative.
17 Falling overboard from the Grand Princess is pretty hard to do! We wondered what on earth those two people could have been up to that they were able to accomplish this unusual feat. However, that information was not provided.
18 For example, consider verse 3 of the hymn: