We flew down on Southwest on Thursday, and spent three days with my mother. Our baggage got misdirected, and came several hours late, so Herb Callahan gets another letter, and hopefully we get another free flight (as this one already was). We stayed at the Shore View Inn in Hollywood, where we stayed last year--right on the water, gorgeous beach, lovely suite, small, quiet, clean, $65/night.
Our first stop was at Big Irv's fruit stand, where we bought 7 pink grapefruit for a dollar. Each one divine ambrosia.
We picked up Bess at her condo. Her WebTv was hooked up by a kind neighbor, so she was very happy. She looks quite well and relaxed, more so than she did in Boston. This place is good for her. She took us out to Martha's. I had 4 jumbo stone crab claws. In my opinion, stone crabs are the very best food in the world. Firm, sweet, nutty, flavorful, mild, complex, easy to get out of the shell, which comes smashed with a hammer. You eat them cold, dipped in mustard-lemon sauce. These were excellent. The wine was a Grgich Fume Blanc 1993. For dessert, Bananas Foster. Nice table on the intercoastal waterway.
Friday, we brought bagels to Bess's for breakfast. She had excellent lox, sable, chive cheese, plum tomatos, whitefish salad. Carol and Bess played Scrabble, and Carol won, for the third time in history. I swam in the pool, taking care to shower first in full public view, so as not to run afoul of the Condo Commandos. In the afternoon, I went out to buy a new TV for my mother that had a bigger and sharper screen. I got a great deal, but, unfortunately, after lugging it upstairs and into the bedroom, and after spending the better part of two hours trying to make the WebTv work on it, I discovered that the two units were incompatible. Fortunately, I was able to convince the manager of Circuit City to pick it up and deliver another that weekend.
That night, we went to La Paloma, in Miami. This is one of the world's great restaurants. It is decorated in high farklempt, with curved booths along the wall, upholstered in plush tea roses, crystal and gold chandeliers, a piano bar with the stools built around the piano, waiters with continental accent and flair. We all had stupendous meals. I had an appetizer of two jumbo stone crab claws, which were better than the night before. Carol had trout with capers, Bess had trout amandine, and I had a veal chop with morels, better than any I have had in Providence. The wine was a Trimbach gewurtztraminer, the dessert, fruits flambe, prepared at the table.
Saturday morning we went to Wolfie's Rascal House for breakfast. We were joined by Ruth Rand, one of Bess's friends in the condo, an 89 year old hot shit. She has auditioned for ads for Nike and V-8 juice. At Wolfie's, they begin you with baskets of rolls--crescents with dill and salt, mini-challah rolls, seeded bulkies, slices of cissel bread, pumpernickel, coffee rolls, prune and cheese danish--if you just order coffee for a dollar, you have a good deal. But I had the whitefish appetizer (excellent, but not as good as Barney Greenglass) and Carol had the pickled lox (excellent, but not as good as Murray the Sturgeon King). Bess had French Toast that was so loaded with eggs that it tasted like custard. Ruth had lox, eggs, and onions (LEO).
Then we dropped off our rental car at the airport and took a cab to the Port. The ship is incredible. It is like a huge people factory. Check-in was incredibly fast and smooth. 10 decks. Two pools (surprisingly small). It takes five minutes to walk from one end to the other. Casino. Several dining rooms. Bars every 100 yards. Shops. Trapshooting, golf driving, basketball, shuffleboard, a jogging track, a fitness center, hot tubs, a spa with facials, aromatherapy, and six different kinds of massage. This is Blues week, so the entertainers include Ruth Brown, Gatemouth Brown, Queen Ida and the her Zydeco band, and several others that are probably famous, whom I never heard of. There are lots of African Americans on this cruise. The room is spacious, with a TV. You can watch movies, CNN, or see the view from the bridge. You have your own cabin steward, and you can eat in your room. There is phone and an electrical outlet, so I can do e-mail or check messages at home (for $3.95/minute). You never have to leave the room for the entire cruise.
What amazes us is how we have been able to find peace and quiet and solitude on this leviathan. Our cabin is absolutely quiet. The ship rolls more than I would have thought, a gentle roll, but you stagger sometimes. It is soothing. We watched "At Sea," a movie with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, in our room. Very funny. We had dinner in Le Bistro, a quiet private dining room that was nearly empty. The service was impeccable. The food was good, but not great. The wine, a Benziger Pinot Noir, was very good, and all the wines are reasonably priced. If you don't finish a bottle, you can bring the bottle to your room, or the sommelier will hold it for you for lunch or dinner the following day. We went for a walk after dinner, exploring the ship. We dropped by a couple of the shows, including Little Eddie, but the highlight was Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a skinny black guy who must be 70, who plays a mean blues guitar and sings. He has an all-white band backing him up, with a virtuoso saxophone player weighing 350 lbs., and a down and dirty keyboard artist with a pony tail, who looks a mean as Robert De Niro. Here again, he was the main draw, and there was plenty of room in the main theatre. We sat in the front row of the balcony. At midnight, we went to the Asian Fusion buffet, just so we could say we had eaten four times since 2 PM. There are many fat people on this cruise--we are talking at least 20 300+ pounders, and lots of rugs (on the head, I mean). There was a huge line waiting to enter the dining room, and mounds of food--ceviche, smoked salmon, satay, spicy peanut salad,massaman curried beef, fresh fruit, and mounds of desserts. None of it, except the fresh fruit was outstanding. Instead of sitting at a table in the huge dining room, we took our plates and sat on the sun deck, where there was no one but us and the sky. Then, we stopped at the outdoor restaurant for some mint and camomile tea before bed. When we returned to our room, our steward, Herigoogoo (or something like that) had turned down our beds, left a chocolate on the pillows, and left fresh ice. And so, good night.
Sunday: Up at 9:00 AM and off to...you guessed it--the dining room. They have kept the old dining room of the France intact, so it is quite glamorous. Breakfast is good. Service is excellent. But it's a big mob scene. Then down to the Roman Spa to look over the facials, hydrotherapy, massage, aromatherapy, and electronic exercise machines. Then, up to the lounge to learn the meringue from the Darnells, an aging trim English couple. We have pictures. Then, up to the sun deck for some rays,a pina colada, a dip in the hot tub and a swim in the pool. Then lunch in the sun, a buffet--again tons of different food, but only the fruit was terrific. Carol, by the way, is having a very difficult time on this cruise. She is not used to being waited on, and tries to clear the plates from the dining room table after we eat and to make the beds and vacuum the rugs in our stateroom. I plead with her to allow Harrigoogoo and Eby (our waiter) to make a living, and she relents reluctantly. Then on to the theatre to watch and listen to Marva Wright sing gospel. Again, virtuoso musicians, especially the piano player. It's interesting to be among African Americans at a gospel concert. They stand up and wave, and shake, and shout, and dance. We, the white bread, try to clap our hands. Then back to the room, where I took a nap and Carol graded papers while watching "My Best Friend's Wedding." I awoke for the denouement--horribiloso. Then back to the deck for a hot tub and pina colada as the sun set. We dress for the captain's reception. The ship's program says "formal," so we wear the best we've brought--Carol in a two-piece crinkly rayon dress with a Japanese-inspired colorful patchwork jacket, and beach clogs (which she claims are $200 shoes she got on sale), and me in a blazer and gray pants, with a very wrinkled white shirt and tie and black Rockports. When we arrive at the reception, everyone else is in neatly pressed tuxedos and evening gowns. I grovel before the captain, who is wearing his dress whites, and apologize profusely for our slovenly appearance. He smiles, shakes our hands, and says, "Ja, is very nice meeting." Free champagne and hors d'oeuvres (smoked salmon, of course). Dinner in the dining room. Noisy, poor service, food OK...nothing great (escaragots, Norwegian smoked salmon, lobster bisque, Beef Wellington, grilled mahi-mahi, grilled shrimp, cherries jubilee, a 1997 Rosemount Chardonnay). After dinner, Ruth Brown, a jazz singer who is 70 and looks like a female impersonator. Very good backup musicians. There is a midnight chocoholic buffet, but we'll pass. Good night.
Monday. Still at sea. Breakfast buffet on the outdoor deck. Good danish and coffeerolls. Down to the pool deck to read in the sun and dip in the pool. Up to the athletic club for bicycle machine, stepmaster, and weight machines. A very excellent fitness center. Carol did the stretchercise class. I did some trapshooting. You stand on the fantail of the ship, and one of the ship's officers hands you a loaded shotgun. I ask him, "Is this trapshooting or skeetshooting?" He smiles, and answers, "Ja, I do at home a lot." A Filipino steward loads the trap. I yell, "Pull!" and a clay disc shoots out. I fire and miss. I ask the officer, "Was I high or low?" He smiles and answers, "Ja, is very good." Back to the deck chair for some more rays. The DOD (drink of the day) is a Blue Hawaii. Blue Curacao, rum, pineapple juice, lemon juice--it looks like a freezer popsicle stick in cellophane that you buy for 5-year old kids. It is vile. A walk through the shops. "Jaaaaacckkk! Buy me gold!!!!!!" Back to the room to read the NY Times Fax and keep the journal up to date. Lunch in the formal dining room, but in bathing suits and t-shirts (I am wearing my "Postal" T-shirt with "Running With Scissors" on the back. Best meal yet. Bufffalo wings, clam chowder, dried out blackened redfish, great Cobb salad, rice pudding with cherries jubilee. Back to the room for some writing. Carol returns to the gym for a heavy workout. Then up to the hot tub to watch the sunset. We saw the "green flash" for the first time in our lives. And we had nothing to drink. As the very last tiny dot of the sun was just about to disappear, it irridescent green, and then it was gone, leaving behind a green afterimage that lasted about a second. We celebrated in a quiet bar, with some guacamole, salsa and chips, a pina colada, and a Campari and soda. We called home to pick up messages, but the modem wouldn't connect to the ship's phone. Dinner was quite good: scallop & tuna ceviche on pineapple, shrimp consomme, a salad with pineapple and honey yoghurt dressing, duck with red cabbage, orange peel, and plantains, grouper, cheeses, a bottle of Alsatian gewurztraminer. But the high point of dinner was the entrance of the flamng Babaloo cakes. About 30 waiters entered in a hip-swinging conga line, with calypso music blaring, waving platters of flaming babaloo cake (a mish-mash of fruits, rum, whipped cream, and yellow cake with two different frostings. I should mention the other two couples at our table. Stuart and Louise are 86, live in Coral Gables, are very with it, and love to drink. He is an accountant who worked for Burdines, and they live in Coral Gables. Louie and Regina live in Sunrise, Florida. They are in their 60's. He has a thick accent that I couldn't place. I thought he was from Italy. But he was born in Minsk and came here after many years in Havana. He is in "business." Regina is a member of my 300+ club and always orders two different entrees and desserts. She drinks iced tea with Sweet and Low, however. After dinner, we went to the lounge to hear Queen Ida and her Bon Temps Zydeco Band. She is a little bitty thing, in her 60's, as are most of the stars, full of energy, who doesn't say anything. She just plays her squeezebox and sings non-stop. It's an interesting mix of cajun and black rhythm and blues: "Tyrone, reviens toi chez moi!!" All her instrumentalists are superb. And so, good night.
Tuesday morning. A quick breakfast as we dock in St. Maarten. We line up down 5 flights of stairs to board the shore boats. Each holds about 500 people. The harbor is filled with cruise ships. The shops are waiting. We spend a couple of hours looking at baubles at H. Stern. Then we get on a big trimaran which sails to an isolated island off the French side. The crew shtups you with rum punch, mimosas, rum and coke or beer. The crew issues snorkeling equipment (we have our own masks). We land on a lovely beach. There are a few Frenchies there in the buff, so I say, "Pourquoi non?" It's a first for me, snorkeling naked. Il faut prendre gard quand on nage pres des oursins. The snorkeling is OK, not great. Big parrotfish, a few blue angels, and lots of sergeant-majors. A few nice pieces of fan coral. We stagger ashore, and I exclaim, "What an adventure!" Carol responds, "If you think that showing off a tiny shriveled penis and a white wrinkled tush is an adventure, then I feel sorry for you. I put on my bathing suit. There are many Wisonsinites on our boat, Jonathan, all nice people. Oh, yeh. Dat's fur sure. One guy, around 35, from Dallas, (he looked like Judge Reinhold and his girlfriend looked like a wornout Pamela Anderson) was really, really drunk. And he was a good drunk. Very funny and outgoing. He tried speaking with a non-English speaking couple, with little success, e.g., "Hablo espagnola?" I explained to him that they spoke French. He smiled and said, "Ah kin speak French," looked at the couple and asked, "Parlez-fuckin-vous Francais?" We boarded the shore boat again. It was driven by the same officer who "helped" me with my trapshooting. He forgot to disengage one of the ropes from the dock, and tore off a nice piece of the dock as he backed away. Back in our room, we watched the end of Face Off (I still think it was a great movie) and wrote postcards. Dinner was Tex-Mex, and the best yet: smoked trout, good salad, shrimp-beef consomme, salmon, barbequed pork chop. Louie, in all seriousness, announced: "Dis pork chop is ok, but it voss nahtink like a real tick Jewish porkchop like mein butcher at home gives me." At which point, the Queen of the Jews, sitting across from me exclaims in horror: "Jewish porkchop?! What are you talking about? Do you know what you are talking about?" Louie, embarrassed, says, "Oi, did I say porkchop? I meant lemm chop." For dessert, incongruously, crepes suzette, made at the table and delicious. Then a show in the theatre. We had never seen anything quite like it. I guess it's what they have in Las Vegas. "And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Van Ryan dancers are proud to present........drum roll........"Sea Legs on Broadway!!!!" Da-dah!hhhhhhh! And lines of dancing showgirls and guys, with glitter and ostrich feathers, overmiked, oversmiled, oversung. "One.....singular sensation....every move that she makes...." Marjorie does a good imitation of this. The stars were a body builder Nuryeyev who lifted his steel-bunned flesh-colored body suited partner over his head with one hand. I alternated between hysterical laughter and revulsion. And so, goodnight.
Wednesday morning. Workout in the gym, focusing on arms and upper body, in preparation for the afternoon. Morning tender into Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas. We have been here before. It's a zoo. A shopper's paradise. There must be 10,000 stores in half a square mile. We bought a few tchatchkes for future gifts. Then to a far-off lagoon, a nature reserve where they take all the island's boats in case of a hurricane. We kayaked for about a mile and a half each way, in two-person sea kayaks, out to the shore. We were totally alone. A few pelicans. We snorkeled at the shore. There about 15 kayaks, and three tour guides, who explained the ecology of the place. We had a great time. On the tender back to the ship, I noticed that the members of the 300+ club had grown to at least 60. We do believe that some people take cruises because every meal is all-you-can-eat. We sat with a Mormon family from Salt Lake City. The couple brought four of their six children and were all quite lovely people. They reminded us of the Mormons who saved our lives on Mt. Sinai, but that's another story. Two of their sons were off on missionary service. They were rich. The wife belonged to the 300+ club. The oldest daughter was flirting with a young guy behind her, and they were talking about their experiences gambling on the ship. She said, "I lost $25 last night, but the night before, I won $50." Watched "G.I. Jane" in the room. The only good part was when Viggo Mortensen beat up Demi Moore and then she beat him up and then he beat her up. Dinner was French tonight. Hors d'oeuvres, potage froid de creme de sorrel, asperges blancs vinaigrette, salade, beouf roti, cote d'agneau, saumon poche, creme caramel. Not great. The wine was a 1987 Rioja Gran Reserva for only $26, but it was corked and spoiled, and I sent it back--the second time I've ever done that in my life. We ordered a bottle of Dry Creek Zinfandel 1994 instead. It tasted like it was a good wine once, but it, too, was a little oxidized. I was too embarrassed to send it back, but clearly they keep their white wines in the refrigerator and their red wines in the hot part of the hold. It was 50's night tonight, and people dressed up in 50's outfits for dinner. It's amazing. People bring country and western clothing for country and western night, tuxedos, evening gowns--they really get into these cruises. The show tonight was "Crazy for You" by the Gershwins. It has "I've Got Rhythm," and "Embraceable You." Every number was a show stopper. More glitter and glitz than last night. A leading man who sang, and tap danced and had a smile like Wink Martindale (really really genuine), and sweated like a pig; and a leading lady who took a full 6 seconds to slide up to the correct pitch. We sat in the front row, and it was nauseating. Speaking of which, we are in the midst of a storm, and the biggest ship on the seas is pitching about like a bathtub toy. So good ni............urgggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Thursday. At sea. Workout in the gym. Breakfast on the pool deck. A striking thing about these cruises is that unlike 50 years ago, when there was First Class for the rich and steerage for the immigrants, today there are people from all walks of life, all races, religions, and ethnic background, and you can't tell who has money and who is living on his credit cards. All mixed together at dinner, in the casino, in the shows. Only in the fancy jewelry shops ashore can you tell who has real bucks. The membership of the 300+ club grows daily. We're up to 100 now. Many of them have kids, who joined as Junior Fressers, and will become full members at age 21. Up to the hot tub and a deck chair on the sun deck. I brought my laptop and will now write a long overdue book review. Halfway through, it starts to rain, so I finish in a quiet bar. Lunch in the dining room. Eh. Good gumbo, though. Then to a dance class to learn the waltz, so we'll look good for Marjorie's wedding. We'll look bad. We stop by the daily Art Auction in Checkers Bar, where an unctuous auctioneer, bored to tears, and angry that no one is buying, shows a hideoso Walter Keanish painting: "All right, maybe this will please one of you. The appraised value of this magnificent work is $3500. You can have it today for an opening bid of $200. Do I hear $200? Anyone? Last chance. All right, what do you wanna see? Anything? Nothing, right? You just came to look. All right, let's get this over with." Up again to the sun deck to finish my book review with the assistance of a pina colada, while Carol, intent on winning her seven coupons for a free T-shirt, attends yet another exercise class. She is really strong now. Sunset in the hot tub with a gin and tonic and Campari and soda. Watched "That Old Feeling" on the TV. We skipped the mass interdenominational marriage vow renewal. Dinner was the "Formal Gala Captain's Farewell." Once again we debased ourselves: me in blue blazer and white pants with a flashy tie, and Carol in a green cotton blouse and skirt. Dinner was the best ever: Crab Louis, smoked duck breast, endive salad, lobster thermidor, and for dessert, the Parade of Flaming Baked Alaskas. Imagine the lights dimmed, and 40 waiters in white jackets and black bowties parading in to a mambo, waving trays of flaming baked Alaskas over their heads, lining up on the staircase, as a banner reading "We Are The World" unfurls over their heads, as they sing, "Vee are da vereld!" Then to Checkers Lounge to hear The Holmes Brothers sing the blues, and good night.
Friday at sea. Last day. Morning workout. Carol won a T-shirt because of the excellence of her quads and pecs. Breakfast on the pool deck. Morning briefing about debarkation and today's island. Then by tender to the island, owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines. It has a gorgeous palm-lined beach, but no beach is really big enough for 2000 people. I went to take out snorkel fins, as we had our own prescription masks. The guy lending the fins asked me, "Do you have any heart trouble?" I answered, "No." He pointed to the scar on my chest, "And what is that?" Sensing trouble, I answered, "I had some surgery, but not the kind you think, and I'm just fine." He refused to lend me fins, so I had to take a size 11 for Carol. Another couple took out a pair of size 8 fins for me. After all that, the snorkeling wasn't magnificent, but not bad, and the water was crystal clear, and there were abundant fish that swarmed around you if you dropped anything, even an empty shell, from your hand. The only bad thing about meeting the other couple was finding out that they got a great deal through their travel agent, and got a penthouse suite with a private veranda for less than we paid for our one room with two porthholes 4 decks down.A barbeque lunch on the beach, a visit to the t-shirt and tchatchke vendors on the beach, another swim out to snorkel, a giant bahamamama and pina colada in souvenir straw tumblers, and it was time to return. We missed Sabbath eve services in the Fjord Lounge, but we sang L'cha Dodi on the Sun Deck to a beautiful sunset, with another cruise ship in the foreground. We now think that cruising is the way to see the Caribbean. You get all the beach you want, you can shop, you can tour lots of different islands, sail, get better food than you do in most of the Caribbean, have someone make up your room twice a day, have plenty of towallas, hot tub, and it costs much less than renting a hotel room or condo and eating out. Not all would agree, particularly Louie, who said tonight at dinner, "Mein foist mistake vass ven I got on dis boat. I shoulda stayed in mein beeyotifull fife-bedroom houze in Sunrise." Dinner tonight was Italian, nothing special, with the waiters dressed as gondolieri. By dinner's end there were over 100 members of the 300+ club. A final glitzy gala with tinsel, "A Salute to Broadway," Back to the room to pack, for we disembark in the morning.
Saturday: Disembarkation goes as smoothly as getting on. We just go down the stairs. The customs man takes our card. No lines. Our luggage is at the curb, as is a rental car. Off to Hallandale to spend a couple of days with my mother.
Forgive me for singing the same old song, but it's so good to be alive and to be able to do things like this, and to have friends and family to share them with.