Friday, March 23, 2012

Day 6 at Sea: A Variety of Experiences and Beers

Our sixth day at sea aboard Carnival Glory began with a wonderful dose of the unexpected, brought us to the Island of Grand Turk for a day full of EXACTLY what each and every one of us wanted to do, and ended with an appreciation for the many different interests of many different passengers, for how our ship and shore-based businesses cater to those interests … and for the variety of Caribbean beers and rums.

I'm an early riser, even when on vacation, and my luggage usually includes some reading material and a notebook computer, brought for use during those morning hours as I’m lingering over breakfast, and the rest of the family is catching up on one or two months’ worth of sack time lost while living and working ‘back there’ in the real world. Our cruise ship’s galley presents an incredible breakfast, served buffet style in the dining area. As light as a cup of coffee or a glass of juice, or as heavy as you want – with all the usual offerings, plus a few that may not have made it to menu, yet, at your favorite diner back home. There’s even a member of the crew wheeling a cart through the dining area, ready to mix and serve some ‘hair of the dog’ to those who may have over-imbibed the night before.

Meanwhile, the view out the window is another inducement to linger, a step - or seven! - up from what one usually sees out the window of that diner back home.

This morning’s offerings included an unexpected feast for the eyes … whales! During the last few miles into our port at Grand Turk, we were accompanied by a pod of humpbacks swimming parallel to our ship for a while. It’s not something I’d seen live before, and I was soaking it up. Usually on a cruise, my camera is permanently fixed to my shoulder … but I didn't have it with me that morning … and I’m still kicking myself over that.

They went their way, I went mine, and it wasn’t long before it was time for us (the people) to go ashore …

… or not … it’s up to you. And the cruise line is ready to accommodate you. Sure, most of the passengers will take a chance to go ashore … but some don’t … and the ship’s selection of on-board services – food and drink, entertainment and activities, all of the above or none of the above - continues unabated, even while in port. And that’s fine … I can think of worse ways to spend your day than lounging in a deck chair, sipping something colorful from a tall glass with a little paper umbrella, cool breezes in your hair, enjoying a a first-rate view of clear blue water and sea turtles, palm trees and colorful cottages, and incredibly white, pristine beaches with row after row of chairs lined up, waiting for us.

For those that go ashore, there are still a variety of options … you can remain in the small cruise village south of Cockburn Town where you come ashore, or enjoy a stroll down the beach to the legendary Jack's Shack. You canhead into town, or venture further afield … on foot, by bus, by dune buggy, by boat, you name it. Today, we stayed close by, renting a cabana in a beautiful, almost park-like setting for the day … shaded by clusters of palm trees, close to paths and a large pool - or to that beach I mentioned, and an even larger ocean. There’s quiet, air conditioned comfort indoors for those who prefer, or you can enjoy a sit on the porch outside, and the music coming from the pool area. In either case, we also had room service from the Maragaritaville next door.

Maragaritaville has plenty of large, well-known American brands on tap or on the shelf. But they also serve local brands predominant in that area … which in this case turned out to be Turk’s Head Beer and Bambarra Rum. Had both, liked both, and planned to purchase some of both at the duty-free store on my way back to the ship.

You know, it won’t be all THAT long before I need to start thinking seriously about my senior years, and perhaps making the move to a retirement, assisted living community … Grand Turk in general – and the cruise village at Cockburn Town in particular - would suit me just fine! Now, if I could just get Medicare to agree with me!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Day 5 at Sea: Andrew Likes ‘em, and So Do I

We’re heading out to sea after an all-too-brief visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico. A lot of us are clustered on the starboard side of the ship, enjoying some great shots of Castilio de San Moro, one of the iconic images of this city and of Puerto Rico. It’s an opportunity for some great photos with an offshore perspective of the old battlements.

But it’s also a reminder that I have to get back here again, someday … and when I do, to plan on staying longer. Today’s visit really WAS all-too-brief, and I had barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do in this city, not to mention other parts of this island.

A short day … but it got off to a GREAT start, with a walk uphill into the heart of Old San Juan, and breakfast at a century-old restaurant and pastry shop I learned about from a television show.

That show was Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel. Host Andrew Zimmern started his visit to San Juan with a stop at La Bombanera, and I was following his lead. Many know Zimmern for his forays into cuisines - both the foods and the preparations - that might give the average American palette more than a little pause.

But he also finds a place at tables serving foods that would make us feel right at home. And such was the case for La Bombanera. I was there for the coffee and the mallorcas. That’s what has made this eatery a breakfast-before-work staple with local residents since 1902, and what has gained the attention of food and travel programming on television, and the attention of tourists such as myself.

The staff was welcoming, and took good care of us The orange juice was fresh-squeezed, and refreshing after our walk up the streets. The coffee was dark-roasted and strong, and prepared - then topped with foam - from an espresso service that was probably as old as I am.

And the mallorcas? Imagine a large, fresh-made Danish, served with butter, or sliced open and filled with any combination of egg and ham, cheese and bacon … all of them topped off with a generous dusting of powdered sugar.

Andrew likes ‘em ... and do do I.

And that was just the start of the day. There was also a ferry trip across the harbor, a tour of the Bacardi distillery, and a quick visit to one of the colonial fortresses that are a significant part of Old San Juan.
At the end of day, we boarded the ship with plenty of pleasant memories, some photos and some souvenirs. But there was also the knowledge that we had barely scratched the surface of all there is to see and do … heck, we’d barely scratched the surface of scratching-the-surface.

Sigh .. someday.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Day 4 at Sea: Docking Near the 1%

Our fourth day at sea aboard the Carnival Glory brought us to the U.S Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John's, a place where we enjoyed wonderful sailing across incredibly blue waters, some reasonably-priced bottles of some reasonably-good beer, and a chance to admire one of the largest private motor yachts in the world ... talk about something for everyone!

I had never been to the Virgin Islands before, so everything was new for me. We pass by some smaller islands, in our approach to St. Thomas, and we are accompanied by a number of seabirds, while here and there small fishing boats are already out plying their craft. Some beautiful natural scenery - of course! But there seems little else to recommend the island of St. Thomas from a distance. That changes dramatically, though, as you draw closer, as large and prosperous communities come into view, and you see parks devoted to the remains of Colonial-era structures. A variety of commercial and private aircraft pass overhead en route to or from the airport, and as you hove into sight of the main harbor, you see an impressive gathering of cruise ships already anchored for the day, or waiting their turn to depart for their next destination. In another part of the harbor, a LOT of small, private vessels of all shapes and sizes and means of propulsion.

A lot of attractions and a lot of people visiting to enjoy said attractions, a lot of traffic of all kinds coming and going, and a lot of commerce. Plenty of hustle and bustle around the port and the city ... but also many different ways to escape that hustle and bustle, to get out and enjoy one's self where it's a little more quiet, a little more remote and even more beautiful. That was the course we pursued when we signed-up for one of the umpteen-zillion excursions offered (for an additional fee) to our cruise's passengers ... a catamaran excursion to a national park on the neighboring island of St. John's, then relaxing on a pristine white beach and snorkeling in waters that are so very clear and so very blue ... the likes of which a landlubber such as myself doesn't see from the banks of the Rio Grande or the Susquehanna.

The return trip featured island music and PLENTY of rum punch and champagne, and we got back to the port with plenty of time for me to belly-up to a seaside bar and sample the local brews ... if this was even remotely close to a day-in-the-life in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I'd be scanning the classifieds there, looking for job openings at a local community college!

At other times the excursion seemed like one of the 'Hollywood homes of the stars' tours as our guide noted homes on St. John's belonging to well-known figures such as Barbara Streisand, Kenny Chesney, Alan Alda, Kelsey Grammar (a hometown boy), Michael Jordan and many others. I've read on cruise discussion boards, posts by people asking the best times/places to bump into celebrities ... and I find myself agreeing with some of the respondents, those noting that the celebrities - like us - are trying to 'get away from it all' for a little while, and maybe we should respect that.

Okay, that's cool ... I'm not much of a celebrity hound, anyway. But how about celebrities' conveyances? Well that's a different matter ... and as it turned out, we didn't bump into one ... our crusise ship docked less than a hundred yards from one, and the balcony of our cabin offered the perfect vantage point for admiring that conveyance and others like it.

'Googling' the words Lürssen and Rising Sun, I learned that we were docked next to the Rising Sun, a motor yacht built by the Lürssen company. According to the boat's Wikipedia page, "it was originally purchased by Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corporation, and is currently owned by David Geffen. The yacht is the 8th largest in the world with a length of almost 138 metres (453 ft). It reportedly cost over US $200 million to build."


That page goes on to list of variety of the ship's specifications ... but I'm tempted to log-into Wikipedia, edit that page, and and one more spec ... it really is a very, VERY beautiful craft. And that was an added and unexpected attraction to our fourth day at sea ... to my list of first-time experiences such as catamaran-cruising, snorkeling and Virgin Island beer-drinking, I could now also include 'docking near the 1%.'

All-in-all, a good day ... a great day, really.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Day 3 at Sea: The Journey of Junior Steeler

The first port o’ call on our cruise, bright and early on a Tuesday morning, was the city of Nassau, in the Bahamas. Our first port o’ call, but also the last stop on our journey for the fourth-and-a-half member of our company, Junior Steeler.

This was not my first visit. It was three years ago, and while the wife and kids were enjoying an excursion to the nearby Atlantis Resort, I was enjoying a walk about town, guidebook in one hand, camera hanging from my shoulder, traversing the hills overlooking the town, and the port where my cruise ship was docked. It had been a long morning and part of an afternoon, with plenty of historical/cultural points of interest and a LOT of photos .. and I was more than ready for some lunch

I was working my way back towards the coast road - still a few blocks from the clusters of bars and eateries that cater to visitors - when a yellow placard on a sidewalk caught my attention, informing me that the Bahamian Kitchen was just inside the door. That suited me since I was ready for a taste of the local cuisine, so in I went …

… to be greeted by a street sign that designated reserved parking for Pittsburgh Steeler fans. The walls of the bar and dining room were a colorful mixture of junkaroo masks, posters for the local Kalik beer, and Steeler banners and bumper stickers. I was in the unofficial Steeler Nastion consulate of the Bahamas … I’d come home.

Good beer, great food and our fellow citizenship in the Steeler Nation made for a wonderful meal, and a wonderful memory of my all-too-brief time in the Bahamas.

And now were on our way back, and I was determined to re-visit Bahamian Kitchen, catch up with Mike Brice and Tom Kessler, and maybe bring them a special Steeler tribute … like an old bobble-head, maybe?

Our journey with Junior Steeler was all-too-brief. But in the course of that journey - from Midland to Houston, Houston to Miami, Miami to Nassau - we saw some neat sites and met some great people, many of whom paused to have their photo taken with my perpetually-smiling, perpetually-nodding little friend, and become a part of his journey

Nassau at last! Bahamian Kitchen didn’t open until lunch, so I had some free time to do a little souvenir shopping, and to spend some time at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Kirch and catch-up on Lenten devotionals I had missed during Sunday’s hectic rush of embarkation. Having enriched the local economy, and my soul, I proceeded to lunch …

... and saw from the start that there had been some changes made The junkaroo masks were still their, and the Kalik posters … but all of the Steeler memorabilia was gone, as were the one-time proprietors of Bahamian Kitchen. Tom, a splendid old gentleman from Ohio, had passed away last year. And Mike, a local man with excellent taste in American football, was now working elsewhere in Nassau. The kitchen staff was much the same, and the old woman who ran the kitchen was as charming - and as skilled a chef! - as I remembered. Another wonderful meal, and another wonderful time .. this one with new friends and new experiences - including one of the locals leading us in the singing of a number of old-school American country western songs such as “Crying Time” and “Streets of El Paso.“

It was there, on the streets of Nassau, that Junior Steeler and I parted ways. The new proprietor, Rudy, knew Mike well, and promised to take Junior on the next leg of his journey, while I embarked once again for the next leg of my journey. Part of me already misses the little guy, but I am comforted by the knowledge that he will be in good company.

And I am also comforted by the knowledge that, wherever we go, it will be - as the locals here say - ‘no problem, man … is alright.’ Also comforting … wherever we go, we take the Steeler Nation with us.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Day 2 at Sea: Seascpaes and Sea Breezes

Maybe it’s the years I’ve now spent away from the coast, but a broad ocean vista has a tremendous appeal for me. Our ship will be entirely at sea today, en route from yesterday’s port to tomorrow’s. So from first light to last, there is nothing out there but the sea and the sky and the straight line dividing the two … and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

In some way, it is comfortingly familiar. My part of Texas is different from the rest - with a different look and a different ‘feel’ from those parts of the Lone Star State that make it into film or television It’s flat out in West Texas, and in parts of North Texas. They also have the winds, and those cause the mature grains to ripple, to create land-borne waves. Looking across this seascape right now, I can’t help but think … “add a couple of grain silos and a Dairy Queen, and I’d feel like I’m back in the Panhandle.”

Similar in some ways, and different in others. There are no grain silos, and no DQ anywhere to be seen. It takes the definition of ‘remote’ that one learns in West Texas, and takes it to a whole ‘nother level Occasionally another ship will pass nearby (this is a relatively well-traveled sea lane), but other than that we appear to be completely alone in this world defined by the limits of our vision.

And the winds. Again, we have them in West Texas … but there is nothing comforting about them, hot and dry and dust-filled as they can be. Here, the winds that blow across our deck are a cool, moist caress that refreshes me … though some old salts sharing our journey (including one who has sailed the Straits of Magellan) have told me just how punishing those caresses can be. My father, a thirty-year career Marine, would share similar stories of gales in the North Atlantic and typhoons in the South Pacific.

A sobering thought, really. I have experienced tornadoes in Texas, and I’m pretty sure I would NOT care to experience a severe storm at sea. Right here? Right now? No need to worry. During the summer, though? When hurricane season approaches? That’s a different matter, experienced cruisers tell me, and the reason cruise lines will divert some of their fleets to the northeastern U.S., and to Europe.

But here and now, it’s just me … ‘the old man and the sea’ … and the sky … and the breeze … and some colorful ‘rum-punchy’ kind of drink with a little paper umbrella.

Not bad … pretty good, actually.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Day 1 at Sea: Safety First

Each year, as we move into March, a common topic of discussion around the workplace and around town is some variation of ... "so, you got plans for Spring Break?" This is usually followed by some analysis of what we are doing, what we could be doing, what we should be doing, and so on.

This year, though, our announced plans to take a cruise are followed by some analysis of safety issues, whether we are concerned about going out to sea, and the difficulties that could arise therefrom.

Easy to understand their analysis, really. Earlier this year, there was the story of the cruise ship Costa Concordia, its tragic accident off the coast of Italy, the lives that were lost in that accident, and what is still being revealed in the ensuing investigation. With this story on their minds, more news outlets have been keeping an eye on the wires, looking for more cruise ship-related stories to share with their readers viewers ... in the U.S., a number of passengers becoming sick on two consecutive cruises of a single ship; at sea in the Indian Ocean, a cruise ship loses power and has to be towed to port; in Mexico, there is the armed robbery of a busload of passengers ashore for a cruise ship sponsored excursion.

There was another story from the U.S., and this also shapes my answers to to those concerned about my family's safety aboard Carnival Glory this week. According to this story from the wires, the departure of another Florida-based cruise ship was delayed to allow a passenger to be removed from the ship. Reportedly, the passenger declined to participate in the ship's mandatory safety briefing and muster drill, and the cruise line was within its right to remove him from the ship.

According to our briefing today. ships of this class/function are required by international law to have this briefing/drill within 24 hours of departure. In my experience - all with Carnival, all departing the U.S. - we have these before the ship is set in motion. And we are warned that failure to participate will result in our debarkation.

And that proved to be the case this time around, as well. We experienced the alarm system - a combination of the shi[ps horn, and very loud tones from speakers in our rooms and in public areas. We didn't have to retrieve and don our life jackets, but we did learn where they were stowed in our rooms. Directions to our muster station were delivered by the overhead speakers, and reinforced by crew members all along the way.

Something different this time around - once we reached our muster station, everyone was asked to please be quiet during the briefing ... and that was fine, it didn't take that long, and even I was able to be quiet for its duration. And that was it. The ship blasted its horn, and we were off.

And I was headed for one of the bars on deck, to enjoy watching the City of Miami passing by, and a cold beer with a sandwich from the ship's deli. Let the vacation begin ... I'm safe and satisfied.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Two Outta Three Ain’t Bad

One look at me, and it’s obvious that food is a big - perhaps TOO big - part of my enjoyment of life. That includes my time on the move, traveling, which I’m preparing to do later this month. Looking at our itinerary, I’m already looking forward to making a couple of stops at places I’ve seen on the Travel Channel.

TC has three shows on their prime time lineup devoted largely to food at various locations around the country and around the world. Two of them - Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” and Andrew Zimmern’s “Bizarre Foods” - are really, really good, and encourage me to set my feet and my palate along the paths they have followed. Then there’s then there’s Adam Richman’s “Man vs. Food” … oh, well - two outta three ain’t bad.

In some ways, all three are alike .. each has a camera-friendly host inviting the audience to join them on their personal journey of culinary discovery. None of them forget us here, on the other end of the camera lens, and there are more than a few asides to us - winks and nods, arched eyebrows and sotto voce comments.

But there are other, significant ways that Bourdain’s and Zimmern’s shows differ from Richman’s. And that’s where I part company with fans of “Man vs. Food.” Bourdain and Zimmern, for all their personality and all their camera time, manage to keep the focus on the food, while Richman manages to keep the focus on himself. For Bourdain and Zimmern, food - and what they can learn from its preparation and service - is the real star of their show, while for Richman, the real star is him and how much food he can cram down. For Bourdain and Zimmern, food is celebration, while for Richman it is a competitive event. For Bourdain and Zimmern, food is a practice in discovery and hospitality, while for Zimmern it is a practice in gluttony.

I enjoy the cutaways on Bourdain’s and Zimmern’s shows, with quick shots of some interested locals watching the proceedings. I find the pre-arranged crowds on Richman’s show with their forced (cued?) yee-HAW’ing and woo-HOO’ing less than appetizing.

When all is said and done, I find myself wanting to visit the locations Bourdain and Zimmern visited … so far, I have found their recommendation and observations to have been spot-on. Not so with Richman … at least not yet. During one episode of his show, he visited a place that had been a campus hangout of mine during my college years, where I had spent many, MANY hours drinking coffee, eating one of their famous sweet rolls, catching up on reading assignments and cramming for exams - I hardly recognized the place from its portrayal on television as a Mecca for enthusiasts of huge, belly-busting entrees.

But you know what the neat thing is? Television viewing is a matter of personal choice. I an turn it off, I can turn it on, I can change the channel, I can read a book, and I can get the heck off the couch and get out of the house. For now, at least, I still look forward to my next serving of “No Reservations” and “Bizarre Foods.” “Man vs. Food?” I’ll pass, thanks.

Friday, March 02, 2012

A Yankee's Toast to Texas ... 2012

These are thoughts I've addressed before ... but somehow they gained a new relevance for me, a new perspective after Rick Perry - our state's governor - tossed his hat into the ring, seeking the Republican party's nomination for President of the United States. And while that candidacy has long since come and gone, some of its impact still resonates within me. More than once Governor Perry used the states rights (some would say 'secessionist') rhetoric that has endeared him to so many here in the Lone Star State, encouraging that 'Austin versus Washington' or 'Texas versus the rest of you guys' attitude that still has its staunch defenders.

And that's fine ... at least for them. For me, I remain a 'dang Yankee from back-east' ... not much I can do about that. Yet Texas is my home ... the place where I have now spent more years than any of the other states where I have resided these last fifty-some years ... a place where I have enjoyed new and exciting experiences that I had not attempted elsewhere ... and I place I truly love. And while I have a skewered and way-below-average view of it all, I still celebrate Texas independence and I honor the ideals that inspired it, and those who made it possible. And THAT's something Rick Perry will NEVER be able to take from me.

“To Texas . . .
Joyous and sparkling,
Evergreen when it rains,
enduring in drought,
Timeless, endless in boundaries, exciting,
Home to the adventurous of yesterday and today,
With shrines from the past, and space and spirit for the future.
To Texas.
Everlasting in the hearts of your people!”

I've told this story before ... it was back in the 90s when, as editor of the Fort Stockton Pioneer, I was handed a letter from one of our readers, for publication in the next issue ... a letter admonishing our paper for not devoting adequate space to Texas Independence Day. She may have been DRT (I honestly don't remember for certain), but she was certainly something of a Lone Star zealot ... a perception of mine that was reinforced by her comment as she handed me the letter ... "You probably won't realize the importance of this, not being from around here."

Well, actually, I do, and so do a lot of dang Yankees from back east, such as myself. True, I am someone who - to borrow the old saying - wasn't born in Texas, but got here as fast as I could. And the same could be said for Stephen Austin, William Travis, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Mirabeau Lamar and Sam Houston.

Don't get me wrong! I do NOT equate myself with them. But it doesn't hurt to remember that, with the exception of Juan Seguin and his company of Tejanos, there wasn't a 'native Texan' to be found on the Texas side of the revolution.

And the Keystone Stater in me would like to point out that there were an estimated 13 Pennsylvanians defending the walls of the Alamo, and offering up their lives for the revolution and the ideals it represented. And well they should. Because it was something that had been important to them, their parents and their grandparents for more than half-a-century.

Maybe that's what bugged me about the woman's remark ... the fact that, 'not being from around here,' I would be unable to understand what was being decided in the Texas revolution. To my mind, it was something that all free-thinking people know ..... or should know.
You see, it wasn't just men that came to Texas ..... the ideals adopted at Washington on the Brazos had been conceived many years before, in Philadelphia ..... and the determination to defend those ideals in Goliad and Gonzales, San Antonio and San Jacinto, had been inspired - again, many years before - by what took place at Bunker Hill and Valley Forge, Lexington, Concord and Cowpens.

And the material needed to pursue that defense came from all over the United States, from the decision by Alabama to strip its state arsenal of muskets and send them west, to the Twin Sisters -- a pair of canons donated by the 'People of Cincinnati, Ohio' and arriving just in time to blast a hole in the Mexicans' makeshift breastworks at San Jacinto.

And so, I lift my glass, and I will join the toast heard statewide today ... but mine will be a private affair ... and while I may follow closely the words printed near the top of this post, I will deviate on one point, and replace the word 'Texas' with 'America' ... God Bless It!