Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The S/S Norway and Us

Our first visit to St. Thomas, aboard the S/S Norway in May of 1992 was an exciting, romantic adventure, far more than than the second time we stopped by this popular Caribbean port of call in the U.S. Virgin Islands twelve years later. 

The S/S Norway at anchor, St Thomas, US VI, May, 1992

The tenders on board the S/S Norway

Charlotte Amalie, the bustling little island city capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands hadn't changed between our two visits, the difference was simply our perception of the popular tourist port-of-call because of the ship we first arrived on, the romantic S/S Norway, and how we went ashore. 

At over 1000 feet long, designed for trans-Atlantic crossings, the S/S Norway drew thirty-five feet of water. Many of her Caribbean ports of call couldn't handle her deep draft, including the harbor at Charlotte Amalie. The harbor was far too shallow for the ocean-going SS Norway. She anchored off-shore at St. Maarten as well as St. Thomas, and used self-contained tenders to ferry passengers ashore. The tenders were smaller motor vessels carried on the forecastle on the Viking deck that acted as water taxis to ferry passengers from the ship to the docks.

Our first visit there was far more exciting than twelve years later on the M/S Star Princess when we woke up one morning and found we had docked quietly and quite undramatically just a few feet from the Havensight Mall.

The memory of watching the Norway outside the harbor, waiting for our return is still vivid. The Norway's distinctive, beautiful line and the ocean-blue hull were her trademarks. She stood out in every port of call.

Ilse on the bow of the tender returning to the S/S Norway, St. Thomas

The S/S Norway wasn't designed for basin cruising, so when Norwegian Cruise Lines acquired her in 1979, they removed two of her four engines.  She no longer needed to maintain the 35 knots she displayed on her sea trials and on her trans-Atlantic crossings as the S/S France. Toodling around the Caribbean at 11 to 15 knots would be more in line with the new requirements. Besides, the newly mandated incinerators would fit nicely where the two, no longer needed engines were located. The Norway continually received upgrades and modifications to keep her abreast of the expanding cruising market. Time however, was her biggest enemy. As money squeezing became more of a science than an art form in the cruising industry, the Norway became an anachronism. The new ships carried more passengers and did so more cheaply.  Plus, they could visit ports the Norway couldn't without the expensive tenders.

S/S Norway at anchor, St Maarten, 1992, with a tender alongside.
The Norway docked at the Port of Miami's Dodge Island every Saturday. She came in with the first light of day, and sailed again by 4:30pm or so, on yet another seven day cruise of the Caribbean. She discharged and took on just under 2000 passengers in that short time. By today's standards, that is not even worthy of mention, but in those pioneering days, it was quite a feat. 

She was the biggest cruise ship in the world when we cruised on her, and one of the finest.  She didn't have the balconies of today's massive cruisers, but she had full width windows on the ocean-view staterooms that had been added by the early '90's.  The hall carpets had a subtle pattern that pointed toward the bow in case you got confused in the interior of the ship. The two dining rooms, the Windward and the Leeward, were exceptional, I have not seen any on the ships we have cruised on since to rival them.

The Promenade on the S/S Norway

We watched the Norway for many years before we finally sailed on her. We saw the beautiful, blue-hulled epitome of leisure cruising every Saturday during the 1980's as my daughter, Monica, sailed at the Miami Yacht Club, just the other side of the thin ribbon of asphalt known as MacArthur Causeway from Dodge Island terminal where the Norway was moored. We were there from 12:30pm to dusk every Saturday as Monica practiced sailing her Clearwater Optimist Pram, and eventually, her Laser Radial sailboat.

Monica practices in her COPCA pram at the Miami Yacht Club, 1984, with the S/S Norway at anchor at Dodge Island

Every Saturday evening we watched the magnificent SS Norway sail out Government Cut, headed for unknown exotic ports of call.  It was Monica's first major Laser regatta on a blustery, windy day in early December, 1985, that made an indelible impression with us about the Norway.

I was assigned to drive a chase boat for the Miami Yacht Club along with Joe Zibelli, whose son, Tony, was also sailing a Laser Radial in the annual Mid-Winter Youth Regatta.   Fourteen Laser Radials started the first race of the regatta, a special round-the-islands race that had become a tradition for the young Laser sailors at the MYC regattas.  The race was not only extraordinarily long, but included a long section down busy Government Cut, all the way from the Coast Guard Station at one end to the turning basin at the other end where the huge cruise ships turn around for their departures from Miami. Our young teen-aged sailors not only shared the Cut with commercial vessels of all sorts, but also Chalk's seaplanes and private powerboats.  Not to mention the cruise ships!   Because of its special length and conditions, the race counted as two races in the regatta schedule. Whoever scored highly here had an outstanding lead for the remaining four races.

Monica practices in her Laser Radial with her trademark “Flamingo” sail, MYC, 1986

The start of the race had one windward mark, then led off east past Hibiscus Island toward Monument Island, where the fleet headed right around Star Island toward the Coast Guard Station on Government Cut.  This leg is about two and a half miles by itself, and is a true test of sailing skills. Joe and I were assigned to trail the fleet and assist those in distress.

As the fleet took the starting gun, it became clear there were eight or nine sailors who had the situation under control and were racing their hearts out. Some of the younger sailors, those who not ventured beyond the realm of recreational Saturday sailing, soon needed encouragement.  One young girl gave up completely by Monument Island and needed a tow.  We counted the sails in front of us as they headed toward the first turn and the reach through Meloy Channel.  

Busy Government Cut, Miami, from the deck of the Norway on a typical Saturday morning.

Thirteen sails! We had one in tow so all was well.  As soon as they hit Government Cut, the Laser sails went full out as they had a dead run down the Cut, headed directly toward the huge cruise ships that lined the entire south bank of the cut.  As Joe and I slowly followed the two or three stragglers who had not yet made the downwind turn, we lost sight of the leaders streaming away from us.  As we slowly made the turn into choppy Government cut with our fledgling racers some five minutes later, dodging the ferries carrying cars and trucks to Fisher Island, Joe, who had the binoculars, said, "George, we have a problem! There are only twelve sails!”

A quick count verified that indeed, we were missing a boat! We immediately did a quick sail-number check and my heart stopped, it was up in my throat: The missing boat was my daughter.

We didn't have radios to ask for help, so the only recourse was to verify the tail-enders were in no trouble. We told them to stick together, hug the starboard side of the cut and head for the basin as planned, they would have to help each other, at least for the time being. Joe and I powered off in search of Monica who was nowhere to be seen. As we raced down Government Cut in the 18 foot Boston Whaler, frantically searching for any sign of an overturned boat, or at worst a life jacket in the water, Joe yelled, “Over there, by the Norway! There's a red suit on the water, waving!” 

By this time we were two thirds of the way down the cut and had already passed one or two cruise ships on the terminal side. There at the water line, just a few feet away from the massive blue hull of the Norway, was an overturned Laser with its red suited skipper standing on the bobbing hull, waving her arms overhead to get our attention.
The Norway at anchor, St. Thomas, USVI. A required ship lifeboat lowering drill is in progress.

My fourteen year old daughter was as mad as I have ever seen her! As we finally drew near the huge blue wall of steel, she yelled, “The stupid mast broke! 
I couldn't help it” 

I'm sure she couldn't see the relief in my eyes as we maneuvered the chase boat to pick her up and grab her painter, the line tied to the bow of her upside down, half submerged sailboat. 

Monica climbed aboard the chase boat and after a quick, wet hug, helped pull in the remaining lines trailing in the water.  We hauled the broken mast with the sail still attached into the boat. We struggled to right the overturned laser so we could tow it behind our chase boat. Three or four stories above us a door magically opened in the hull of the Norway and two white-uniformed ship's officers looked down at us in wonder. We were so close to the Norway we prepared to fend off to keep from bumping into her. 

Monica sat dejectedly in the back of the chase boat as we got under way, quietly looking back at the Norway and her disabled laser being towed behind us. I knew she was thinking she would not be able to overcome a double DNF, Did Not Finish.

Every time I saw the Norway after that, I thought of the broken mast and the tiny, red-suited sailor waving her arms over her head, standing on a half-submerged sailboat just a few yards away from the largest cruise ship in the world. An image I'll always remember. 

Monica at the pre-race Skipper's meeting,
 MYC, December 1985
Her competitors had sailed on, leaving her alone to rely on her wits and her training in the middle of the busy, turbulent Miami Government Cut. Not only was I relieved as we towed her boat slowly back around the island, I was also very proud of her. 

I was fortunate enough to work on the Norway upgrading on-board computer systems and communication wiring several years later.  Every time I boarded the Norway, I thought of my daughter standing on her upside-down laser sailboat up against the giant cruise ship.  I once walked to the lowest deck of the ship where I could look over the port side of the bow to look down at the water where she had been stranded.  It was a long, long way to the water!   

The Norway is history now, cut up in 2008 on the beaches in Alang, India, where the salvagers found all the magnificent original art work and even the grand piano from the ballroom still on board. Only a small section of the famous blue bow was returned to France to commemorate her original christening as the SS France in 1960.  Poor maintenance and upkeep were blamed for an explosion in the ship's boiler room that killed eight crewmen and finally forced the ship out of service in 2003.

The Norway was, and remains our very favorite cruise ship.   I still have one of the rolled-up blueprints of the Norway we used for re-wiring the ship.  I'll have it framed someday, if I can find a shop that can handle the length. 

[Author's note: 4/7/2018 - I added a recent VHS to digital transfer from a trip returning from Bimini to Miami via Chalks seaplane. We landed alongside the SS Norway as she was departing Government Cut. The video is mine, taken from a passenger seat in the seaplane. A departing view of our favorite cruise ship
https://youtu.be/m4QwNJVJ1jw ]

George Mindling  © 2012, 2016
All photos by George Mindling © 2012, 2017 All Rights Reserved 

Our latest, and quite possibly last, cruise, 

[Thanks to http://www.captainsvoyage.com/norwegian-cruise-line/ss-norway/ss-norway---little-norway.html hosted by Jan-Olav Storli, for the corrected location onboard the S/S Norway]

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Cruise to Aruba - Home Again

Thursday is a great day at sea. The faint, white smoke from the funnels drifts slowly upward as it dissipates in the amazingly clear blue sky, staying almost directly over the ship. We are making 11 knots with a trailing wind and a following sea, the sun is shining and Mother Nature is at peace with the marketing arm of Princess Cruises. Everything is as advertised.

 A really nice way to wrap up a cruise. We do all the touristy things we think will interest us, from touring the galley (at least the tour is still free, but they are hawking a $29 Chef's cook book. Yes, I bought one) and attending free health maintenance seminars. We tour the ship to see if we've missed any decks or crannies that are unique, and we head back to the library to check out one last book. Or was that Friday? No, it had to be Thursday because we turned the books back in on Friday. That's what's great about cruising when all goes well: you lose track of time and that is the whole idea. 

Thursday is the Captain's Cocktail Party, followed by the last of the two formal dinners. Lobster tonight! Must be Thursday! We take in the show in the ship's theater, “What a Swell Party,” a tribute to Cole Porter, but the strain of constantly being on is showing on the the dancers and performers. The show is a canned, prerecorded production but it is still a pleasure to watch the entertainers do their best, even when the cruise is about to wrap up. They do two shows a night so it isn't a cakewalk by any means. 

Friday is another laid-back, enjoy-the-cruise day. Weather is perfect and we head for the theater at 10:30 am for a Chef's culinary demonstration, followed by the Galley tour. OK, so the galley tour was on Friday! Award winning Executive Chef Giuseppe de Gennaro and his comedic side kick, Maitre d' Nicola Furlan, put on a memorable demonstration of cooking pasta, including the over-the-shoulder pasta fling to see if it sticks on the wall. If it does, it is ready! It did, to the delight of the audience. 

Some last minute shopping from the ship's stores, and spending an hour or so standing on deck seven forward watching the flying fish as they skip away from the ships' bow wave and one last lunch in the buffet. Tonight the luggage is picked up from outside your stateroom for transfer to the dock as soon as we land. Everything you have left goes in your carry-one luggage or bags. The last call for placing your luggage in the hall way is 11:00 pm, so we have plenty of time to change after we eat and lay out the clothes for the trip home.

We eat dinner one last time, and once again we get to hear Buster Poindexter.

One of the few traditions that seems to be carried on every Caribbean cruise regardless of ship or cruise line is the dessert on the night of the final dinner, and how it is served. Our German friends were somewhat startled when the lights in the glamorous dining went down after dinner and “Hot, Hot, Hot” began to play on the dining room speakers. The conga line of servers and waiters still wind their way around the darkened dining room carrying Baked Alaska on their heads, singing and generally having a good time as they have done on every cruise we have sailed on. The lights finally came back up and everyone took photos of their by-now-famous desert. I have never seen so many different sizes and types of digital cameras! They came out of nowhere. I think were pulled out of thin air. Everybody seemed to have at least one!  

 As our waitress held out the Baked Alaska we were to be served so we could photograph it, I realized the rum flambe on top has been replaced with an LED candle. Ahh, progress! Actually, safety is the reason for the change and it doesn't affect most the people who could care less anyway. Just another point of nostalgia for us old cruisers who still remember the good old days.

As we finally say goodnight and turn in, we reflect on what has been a pretty good cruise, especially considering the rough weather of the second and third days. Tomorrow we will be back in Port Everglades to disembark.

Will we be back? Oh, I'm sure we will, we just don't know when or which cruise ports we want to visit. Only one thing is absolutely certain: It won't be on the Oasis of the Seas. Having two thousand passengers on a ship is more than enough for me.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Cruise to Aruba - The Duel

A quick thrust met by a beautifully timed, under-the-arm deflection, the encounter was heating up! The old woman pulled her hand back, her gaze fierce. The young, immaculately dressed server, a Filipino girl in her early twenties, waited a moment, then once again graciously stooped before her seated guest to once again offer a canape. The determined adversary paused, then shot her wrinkled hand out yet again to grab the delectable morsel she wanted directly off the serving tray. She had no need for decorum or manners, she only wanted that little sandwich. And once again, youthful reflexes and intense training prevailed as the young server swiftly bolted upright, lifting the heavy tray out of reach while using the tongs in her other hand to deftly deflect the old woman's outreached hand before it could touch any of the Hors d'oeuvres on the serving tray.

This was more than a test of skill versus determination, this was right versus wrong, good versus evil, professional against amateur. This was training and etiquette defiantly defending protocol against ignorance and bad manners.  Even worse, this was a battle between two women.

The young server's eyes were now half shut in contempt as she held the treasure-filled tray far out of the woman's reach. She waited for several moments, gauged the old woman's next move and shifted her weight in anticipation of the woman's next attempt to snatch one of the offered canapes with her bare hands. This would be the fourth attempt. 

The server had already asked for the woman's plate to place her selected canape on, but the woman obviously had never been served before and simply expected to stick her hand in and grab whatever she wanted. The young hostess was determined to serve her guest whichever item she selected, but only properly with the serving tongs. The seated woman was an attendee of the Captains Cocktail Party. That made her a Captain's Circle member, a gold card member, a passenger who had sailed previously on Princes Cruises, and should know better manners. However, she still had not acquired any command of basic courtesy. She sat with her empty serving plate across a low cocktail table from her husband who simply sat quietly and watched. All she wanted was that little sandwich!

She withdrew her arms all the way to her side, appearing to hold her hands in her lap. She waited until her husband offhandedly distracted the server with an inane question, and with lightning speed, shot her arm toward the silver serving tray. With the deftness of a matador fighting a charging bull, the server spun and once again lifted the tray out of the reach of the seated aggressor as if they were an avant-garde play.

Finally, after what seemed like an embarrassingly long, glaring put-down, from a distance well beyond the reach of her seated antagonist, the server rather dramatically pointed with the tongs at the assumed target. The gray-haired woman started to point, then tried once again to pick up the treat she wanted, but this time the serving tongs firmly grabbed the canape and thrust it toward her. She had no choice but withdraw meekly, looking at her prize waiting in mid-air. When the old woman took it with her bare hand instead of allowing the morsel to be placed on her plate, the expression on the server's face first showed contempt, then finally the smirk of victory over a far-lesser foe. Youth and training had prevailed over age and determination, not to mention a complete lack of grace and social training.

As the server turned and moved to the next table, the old woman once again glared at her. I think she wanted seconds.

Next: Home again - Sailing to Ft Lauderdale

The Cruise to Aruba - Headed Back

Aruba looks like a place we'd like to come back to visit.  Even if we took as many excursion tours as possible from the ship, eight hours wouldn't be sufficient time to see the highlights of the city or the island. We look at maps and books before we arrive in any city for the first time, and then usually strike off on our own. Wandering around in Willemstad and Oranjestad was just fine for what we wanted. We have done excursions in Grand Cayman, Ocho Rios, Jamaica and in Tulum, Mexico, and the only one that I couldn't have done on my own was the tour of the Mayan ruins at Tulum. There are advantages and disadvantages to every excursion, and we felt we would do better in both Curaçao and Aruba on our own. Now we know better what to expect when we come back, and whether we want to come back at all. We aren't into gambling and partying like there's no tomorrow, so most of the “active” resorts aren't what we're looking for.  Still, the weather is great and the water is just about perfect. Right now, however, we are back on board. Time to just kick back and relax.

As I look sleepily at the hazy horizon from our balcony, I realize there are huge oil tankers everywhere. They seem to be motionless, but all headed south toward nearby Venezuela. I count ten scattered across the ocean in front of me, most near the horizon or at least several miles offshore. They all appear to be motionless. Oddly, none are headed in the other direction. By the time I head up top for departure, I count sixteen tankers, all patiently waiting.  The huge tankers just fade away over the horizon only to be continually replaced by new arrivals.  It doesn't take a genius to figure out the oil business is not going to go away anytime soon.

As I head toward the bow, the pointy end of the ship, an airliner passes in front of us about a half-mile away, headed toward the airport in Oranjestad. He may be well away from us, but I don't have to look up to watch him on his landing approach. Passengers on the airliner must be surprised to come in off the ocean and pass by a cruise ship at almost eye level. 
The 950 foot long Crown Princess made the channel turn with ease.
I watch as the mooring lines are hauled aboard and the ship's thrusters gently move us away from the dock. If you aren't watching, you can't tell the giant ship is moving. Slowly, the ship begins to move forward toward the port channel marker. The starboard channel marker is so close I might lose sight of it as the we proceed out the incredibly narrow channel. Without fanfare or attention, the Crown Princess gently pushes her bow to starboard as we move forward and we neatly turn between the last two markers headed for the open sea. The pilot boat picks up the pilot a little after 5:15pm and we swing around to head northwest toward Port Everglades, some two days away.

My wife and I and our German friends head to the Botticelli Dining room for our 6:00pm seating and another great meal. There are 533 crew members in the food service and dining staff alone, and we are thrilled with our waiter, Antonio, and the assistant maitre d' Alphonse. Antonio and Alphonse have served together for eighteen years, and their relationship is unique. They are the pinnacle of dining professionalism in the cruise industry, and certainly make dining one of the highlights of this cruise.

Our cabin is on the same deck as the pools, just in the forward part of the ship, so walking through the pool area is something we do every chance we get. When we are being serious about walking through the ship, we take one of the four elevators in the stateroom area and bypass the pools., but tonight we are leisurely enjoying the music and the great, warm evening on deck after a great dinner.

A typical Caribbean 5-piece band plays standard cruising party music, like Dexter Poindexter's classic “Hot Hot Hot,” which you get to hear at least once on every cruise, from the mini-deck above the pool deck. At least this time we're not suffering from 30 different choruses of “Red, Red Wine,” or “Yellow Bird,” which I now often hear in my sleep. During a moment of crowd revitalization, the lead singer screams out for responses to the different nationalities he calls out. He starts, of course, with U.S.A. The response is loud and boisterous, yelling, whistling and clapping from all over the pool deck. Next he calls out United Kingdom! There are enough responses to make a polite, almost subdued noise that soon fades away. He then called out Canada! The response is thunderous! No doubt the Canadians make up the majority of the revelers on the pool deck! They are one of the few nationalities that get even less vacation time than Americans, so they must pack a great time in a shorter schedule. They do love to have a great time.

We take in a late show in the ship's theater and are treated to an unexpected performance by one of the ship's regular crew. The Crown Princess does a “Crew Show,” where talented members of the crew who aren't members of the regular show cast get to display their talents in the ship's theater. Some were interesting, a few were obviously amateurish, but one young Indonesian steward gave an outstanding drum performance, including a nine minute solo, that brought the house down. The party on the pool deck had subsided by the time we walked back up, so we watched the stars for a while, enjoying the cruise with the wind and waves at our backs for a change.  Makes for more fun that way.

When we enter our stateroom, not only do we not find the bed turned down as usual with the accompanying mints, but also a White and Blue, formal looking envelope lying perfectly aligned on the bed. We have been invited to the Captain's cocktail party at 5:15pm on Thursday, formal attire required. The invitations to the Captain's Cocktail Party are reserved for those who have sailed before with Princess Cruises and are a way of recognizing and appreciating your past business. We immediately have a problem. We both have reservations about going because neither of us brought real “formal” wear on this cruise, although my wife is far better prepared than I. I didn't even bring a suit, just a blue blazer and one long sleeved shirt that I can get away with in the dining room. I did stuff a couple of ties into the jacket pocket, old habits die slowly, but to consider this “formal” attire for the Captain's Party was a stretch. We decided, “What difference does it make now, what are they going to do, ask us to leave?” 

So, on Thursday, at the appointed time and place, we got in line with 1700 other passengers who have also sailed previously with Princess Cruises. So much for the dress code. They actually had to have three separate Captain's Parties to accommodate everyone! The Captain was a busy man that afternoon, and I'm sure he didn't care how I was dressed. He did give an award to a British lady who had the most time at sea with Princess, a record 727 days. That's over two years at sea! I know Navy men who don't have that much sea time!

There were over 1,200 who were on their second Princess cruise, over 400 who were on their third or fourth cruise, and 84 people who were on their fifth or higher cruise! The official passenger count for this cruise was 3,224, so over half of the passengers were veterans of Princess Cruises. Quite a remarkable feat.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Cruise to Aruba - The Freewinds

While we were wandering around Oranjestad looking for a drugstore, another ship docked near the M/S Crown Princess. She immediately caught my eye as we walked back toward the cruise terminal. She looked vaguely familiar. She's now named the M/S Freewinds but she was obviously from a long-ago past generation of cruise ships. As I looked at her twin funnels, I realized she was one of the originals. I wondered what she was called back then.

I watched Kloster's original M/S Sunward and Admiral's M/S Emerald Seas and several others years ago when they sailed out of Miami back in the 70's, one of the benefits of working in downtown Miami for years. They sailed from the modern terminals that were built on Dodge Island to accommodate the new cruise ships, directly across Government Cut from Watson Island where the Goodyear blimp base and the adjacent Chalk's seaplane terminal were located. 

A Chalks seaplane takes off in Government cut alongside the M/S Starward, the late 70's

Norwegian Cruise Line's M/S Sunward 1969

I looked at those ships in awe, thinking perhaps when we retired, we too, would cruise the Caribbean. We made sure we took all our northern, out-of-town visitors to Watson Island on Saturdays to watch the cruise ships. They were impressive then, even more so now. The comparison between the old and the new cruisers is simply astonishing. The M/S Freewinds looks like a toy, barely noticeable in the shadow of the towering M/S Crown Princess.

The M/S Crown Princess towers over the M/S Freewinds at dock in Aruba
I researched the M/S Freewinds when I got back to the Internet and found she is indeed one of the original basin-cruisers out of Miami, but she's not one I'm familiar with. She's the former M/S Bohème which sailed out of Miami for Commodore Cruise lines back in the late '60's. She was famous for starting the seven day Caribbean cruises and the first cruise ship to regularly visit St. Thomas. Today, she is more infamous than famous, as she is now owned by an arm of the Church of Scientology and has been the subject of several scandals, including kidnapping and forced servitude for crew members. 

While the M/S Emerald Seas and the beautiful S/S Norway, the former S/S France, were cut apart for scrap on the beaches in Alang, and the original M/S Sunward has cruised into historical oblivion, at least the M/S Freewinds still looks the role of a cruiser from days gone by. 

[My blog about our odd relationship with the SS Norway is at 

All photos by George Mindling, © 2015, 2017 all rights reserved 

The Cruise to Aruba - Oranjestad, Aruba

The approach to Oranjestad, Aruba
We slept with the balcony door open and the air conditioning off. Really nice to wake up to nothing but cool, ocean air. I dressed and headed up top to watch the sunrise and the approach to Aruba, and was fortunate to catch one of those golden sunrises you see in travel brochures just as we approached the city of Oranjestad, Aruba.
The narrowness of the channel is obvious:  The Crown Princess is berthed at Aruba.

I was dumbfounded by the narrowness of the channel as we approached the dock and the angle of the approach to it. This pilot was going to earn his money or we were going to look like the Costa Concordia. The Paardenbaai Channel is only 270 meters wide, about 885 feet. In other words, the ship couldn't possibly turn around in the channel because the Crown Princess, at 953 feet, is considerably longer the channel is wide! And the channel has a bend in the middle to boot! Fascinated, I watched as the Crown Princess confidently sailed right up to the wharf where the ship's thrusters took over and pushed us up gently against the bumpers. If you weren't watching, you would have no idea we had arrived and docked. By 7:57am, we were secured at Cruise Terminal “C” in Oranjestad.

The welcome terminal in Oranjestad, Aruba
As soon as the announcement was made about disembarking, we went to breakfast. We used the forward gang-plank after eating at the open buffet, and after checking out of the ship with our room cards, walked to the welcome center that everyone passes through to access the buses and taxis waiting to hustle people anywhere they want to go. The sign hanging over the exit to the buses says, “Welcome to Aruba, One Happy Island.” I thought to myself, “We'll soon see!”

As best we can tell, the sign was right. Again, the people we met were warm, friendly and easy going. Not everyone we met in town spoke English, but there was no problem as someone spoke the language or its close approximation in just about every store we stopped. Doesn't matter, smiles and a little courtesy do wonders here. Our first serious stop was the Kong Hing Supermercado grocery store to pick up water and munchies to sustain us as we wandered around side streets and local shops before heading back to the main vendor areas along the waterfront. After fantasy stops at Diesel and other European outlets, and one pharmacy, we slowly headed back toward the port.

There are lots of typical bars that appeal to the carefully maintained image of Caribbean abandon and lack of sobriety that appeals to the sunshine and alcohol deprived vacationers from up north. These places must look better in the dark. We stopped at one for about three minutes before moving on to one that was closer to the water and further from the greasy kitchen odors. Pigeons wandered around the floor of the restaurant we finally selected and yellow finches freely flew through the outside seating area, landing to serenade patrons from the power lines strung for the lights. The Heineken beer I had was three dollars cheaper than the Budweiser I had on the ship back on day one.

 There is one side trip here I would like to do, so perhaps someday we'll return just to take the submarine trip, if nothing else. Atlantis submarines offers underwater tours in a real, Coast Guard approved submarine just off shore from Oranjestad. Kind of a real glass bottomed boat tour, well, glass sided boat tour anyway. We saw the submarine as it was being towed into position to accept guests and it appeared to be a well done operation. Just something to think about for next time.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Cruise to Aruba - On to Aruba

From Part Five - http://piddlepaddler.blogspot.com/2012/03/cruise-to-aruba-willemstad-city.html

Punda, the heart of the old city is gaily lighted with reds, blues, and greens as dusk settles over Willemstad, Curaçao. We ate another marvelous dinner on the ship and decided to just relax on the ship and not go back into town.  We later stood on the top deck taking in one last view of the pretty city before going to the ship's theater and watching another one of the great shows, the ship's company version of “Motor City.”  This time the dancers had a flat, level stage to perform on! I still don't see how they do it in heavy seas!

We headed back up top after the show to catch our last glimpse of Willemstad as we cast off and headed toward our morning arrival in near-by Aruba. This departure was quite different from our last port departure on a Princess ship when we left San Juan on the Star Princess some eight years before. On that trip, we were adjacent to a Carnival Cruise lines ship that blared party music almost non-stop. The Star Princess was comatose by comparison. When we finally slid out of our berth late that night, it was if the Star Princess was trying to slip out of a party without being noticed. While the revelers next door waved goodbye, we slipped silently and morosely out into the dark harbor. We nick-named that cruise the “Geritol Cruise.”

This one was different. We think it was the work of an energetic young woman we met back on day one when I stopped her on a staircase and asked some inane question about the ship, like, where could I get writing material. She cheerfully helped as much as possible, and before being swept away by the throngs that surrounded her. It turned out to be Lisa Ball, the ship's cruise director. The “company” part of the cruise was really enjoyable because of her. 

 To me there are two main parts to cruising: the “natural” part, ie, ocean, sky, weather, the enjoyment that comes without any outside influence, and the “company” part, which includes music, dancing, dining, and entertainment, the part that is supplied or created by the ship. On the Star Princess, the “natural” part was outstanding, the “company” part left a lot to be desired. Not so on the Crown Princess, we enjoyed all parts of the cruise, and even really didn't mind the rocking and rolling of the heavy seas. Part of the experience.

The good news was we enjoyed the “company” part of the cruise this time as well, and the departure from Willemstad was a showcase for Lisa Ball's efforts. A huge banner was hung across the top railings of the pool deck that proclaimed “The Ultimate Deck Party,” which usually is a warning for poor, loud music, and confused drinkers who aimlessly wander around looking for something that vaguely looks like a party. This one was a model for how to throw a deck party properly. 

When Lisa took the microphone on the deck below us (we stayed one deck above the pool deck) and enthusiastically welcomed everyone to the world's greatest deck party, we realized the group of young, good looking people behind her were the ship's dancers who had changed into casual clothes. Lisa started the dancing by encouraging everyone around her to follow her lead. Soon the whole side of the pool she was on was dancing in rhythm, clapping their hands and really getting into the spirit of the party. As more and more passengers joined in the dancing, more of the ship's dancers faded away, and soon, the whole pool deck was a mass of dancing passengers. 

Great stuff, lead by the assistant cruise staff who had stepped in as lead dancers for the entire deck. By the time they got to the conga line, by now with a live band, there were well over several hundred passengers enjoying themselves. A great wrap up to a great day. My wife and I ended up in a piano bar listening to really good jazz and a great vocalist, the very things we missed on our last trip. You couldn't tell we were under way as we quietly sailed northward at 11 knots with trailing wind and a following sea. It is only 100 miles or so to Aruba.  No rush, we would be there by 8:00am.

Both parts of the cruise were in harmony.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Cruise to Aruba - Willemstad - The City

From Part Five - http://piddlepaddler.blogspot.com/2012/03/trip-to-aruba-willemstad-curacao.html

Ah, A writing pad! One of those old-fashioned lined ones from days of yore, you know, high school! A kind, but somewhat bewildered saleslady with a limited knowledge of English, dug out an old white pad from a stack of paper products near the cash register in a Willemstad dime store. She looked at me as if I were trying to pull a fast one, but, took my FL 2.90, about $1.70, without question and cautiously closed the cash register drawer. 

Now, to catch up. I actually started scribbling while we were having one of our rare soft drinks in a sidewalk cafe, oddly enough across the street from a McDonald’s. We had crossed the Queen Emma pontoon bridge over into Punda, the original section of the city, and spent several hours poking into shops and stores, generally looking around acting like tourists when we decided to take a rest break. We were sitting in the shade, chatting and watching the crowd of tourists that shuffled aimlessly along, not like us, of course.  We were joking about the McDonalds across the street when a police car rushed up, quickly parked and blocked the street. Two uniformed officers got out and headed toward the restaurant. We joked, “Man, they must be hungry!” but it turned out to be a business call. 

They met an agitated, concerned young woman wearing the traditional McDonald's management-type uniform on the sidewalk outside the store. We watched idly as they all disappeared inside. Soon, they all reappeared on the sidewalk with three young, clean cut, muscular looking young white men in tow. The tallest of the three had on a red T-shirt with “Guantanamo Fire Department” emblazoned across the back. He was obviously not happy, taking photos of both police officers, their car, the license plates, the manager, and anything else he thought would intimidate the police officers who simply ignored him.  The two police officers addressed the other two men who stood with their arms folded across their chests.  We could only imagine the confrontation inside the restaurant.

We finished our drinks and headed back toward the ship, and as we crossed the street we heard one of the police officers say rather firmly, “No one is going anywhere until the U.S. consul arrives!” A good time to speak German.

We asked a woman we stopped on the street if, by chance, she knew where the Numismatic Museum is located, the one attraction we all wanted to visit.  That is the coin and money museum run by the Bank of the Netherlands.  The lady walked us a complete block out of her way, saying hello to friends as she went, even stopping to caress a baby of a friend, just to point to the building several blocks away. We walked right past it coming in and didn't see the sign. We thanked her and slowly headed in that direction, but got sidetracked once again, this time by the huge open air vegetable market we could see down a side street. By the time we reached where the Queen Emma bridge should be, we realize we have missed the museum once again. Oh well, something to see next time!

Waiting on the Queen Emma pontoon bridge.

The Queen Emma bridge wasn't there. It was completely on the other side of St. Anna Bay. We joined the throngs patiently waiting for a tug boat to tow an ocean-going freighter slowly up the bay, taking photos as we waited for the floating pontoon bridge to chug across the river and reattach to the landing. The bridge is self powered, and within minutes of the freighter passing, the bridge reopened and hordes of pedestrians crossed the bridge in both directions.

We finally bought our goodies at the shops we knew to have the lowest prices, we never buy going in to town, only coming out after we know prices, and we picked up a bottle of blue Curaçao liqueur for a friend. Of course we bought the prerequisite trinkets and mementos, stuff that always ends up in a junk drawer somewhere, but, hey, that's one reason we're here. 

Time to head for the ship and another great dinner.