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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Bon Voyage!

For most of my life, I've had a negative outlook towards crusies. I've always felt like I wouldn't want to be on a boat all day long, because I'd be limited to whatever the boat had to offer. My dad has tried on several occasions to get me and my sister to go on a cruise with his wife and her kids. I kept declining, based on my close-minded ideas.

I want to say that I was completely wrong in my thoughts, just so I could say that I put my guard down and reaped the rewards of an awakening. I want to say that, but I can't.

My wife's parents took us on a cruise which ended just two days ago. We set sail on Monday, February 19th after driving from Merced, CA to San Pedro (near Los Angeles) where the ships are docked. It was a long drive and we were all excited to get there and board our ship. It was named Monarch of the Seas and, by size alone, lived up to its name. To stand at the base of the ship and gawk at it from all angles, side to side, up and down, is amazing. Upon arriving, we presented our credentials, such as passport and check in paperwork.

Passengers are given a "Sea Pass" which is your ticket on and off the ship at ports and what you use to purchase anything beyond the dining room and buffets. If you want some ice cream from Ben and Jerry's, it's charged to your card. The same goes for alcohol of any kind, or any shopping on the ship. There are tax free, duty free shops where you can buy alcohol and cigarettes in large amounts and save a lot of money. For instance, normally a large bottle of Absolut Vodka will cost you around 18-20 dollars depending on the store. In the shops, it's two bottles for 21 dollars. Of course, there is a limit to how much you can buy to prevent purchasing for resale.

We got on the ship and the lobby area was swirling with music and welcoming services everywhere. Not even 10 feet from the door was a table setup with drinks of many varieties for those who like to start drinking as early as possible. The ship makes its money from the alcohol and gambling in the casino, no doubt. Our first dining experience was in the dining room, which was nice. Our whole gang dined together the first night. Our head waitress was from South Africa. We learned quickly that most or all of the staff onboard, were from outside of the U.S. The menu was setup in courses, giving you the impression of a very expensive restaurant you'd go to on the mainland. Kacy's mom and I got Scallop risotto for our starter and both were quite impressed. It turns out that it was the best thing I ate all week on the ship, and my opinion of the food otherwise declined each day after.

Now, I doubt anyone goes on a cruise just to eat so I'll get on with the stops along the way. First stop, where we arrived on the first morning of our cruise, was San Diego. Along with my first time on a cruise, this was my first visit to San Diego. We walked from the port to Seaport Village, a seaside shopping community with everything from custom made tiles to Harley Davidson merchandise and a Wyland gallery. Along the way, we stopped to admire the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier parked at port there. The carrier was massive and there was a large assortment of aircraft parked on deck. Along with a few helicopters, there was an F-14, which was made popular from "Top Gun" as the plane flown by Maverick and Goose. There were a few others, but I'm not an expert on navy aircraft so I won't make bad guesses. For Kacy's uncle that was the highlight of the trip. We did some shopping, had a local brewed beer, and headed back to the ship.

That night, Kacy and I tried the buffet while her parents returned to the dining room in formal attire for the nights theme. There was a split in dining preferences between my wife's parents and her aunt and uncle. I just wanted to go where the food was best, so that night in the buffet was the only night we didn't eat in the dining room. It could be said that my expectation of the food onboard could have set me up for disappointment. However, all I hear is how great the food is on these cruises and you can eat morning, noon, night and all hours in between if you desire. So, I think I've been setup by others' praise rather than my own expectations.

The next morning, we arrived at Catalina Island. The ship could not dock there, because there was not a port large enough to hold the beast that was our cruise ship. We took a smaller boat from our ship to the shore, which they call "tenders". Our time in Catalina Island started with a guided tour on a trolley around the island's main attractions. The guide was very animated and entertaining and we got some knowledge and good laughs out of it. He mentioned that the Wrigleys were the first full-time residents on the island. If you thought of spearmint gum all of a sudden, you're on the right track. However, you must also include Wrigley field and the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs would play spring baseball on the island and there is a resort on the island which used to be their clubhouse.

So, after our tour we set foot to the main drag of shopping. I got a great shirt and the girls got a few things as well. After Kacy's aunt and uncle headed back to the ship, the rest of us had lunch at a place on the water. I'm a sucker for clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl and I wasn't disappointed this time. After lunch, we wandered for a while and got back to our ship. Kacy and I weren't quite satisfied so we made a trip to the buffet. We spent some time on the deck two levels atop the pool deck so we were nearly at the highest point on the ship. We were laid out on some lounge chairs reading and taking in the fresh air. I must note that I am not fond of high places, so I was quite impressed with myself for being up there with no apprehension.

Our afternoon reading session moved to cocktail hour followed by dinner in the dining room. At this point, we have a bit of a relationship with the staff which made it nice. We had talked with a man up in the bar atop the ship about what his experience working on the ship is like. He was from India, and early into his time onboard. The staff spends 6 months working non-stop on the ship, with a couple months off after that. Some staff get a day off here and there depending on their station. Other staff, like our head waiter I mentioned before, work 7 days a week for dinner along with lunch or breakfast service. She explained that she didn't mind because she was there to make money, not to have days off. They all live on the ship in special quarters. She mentioned that the captain has "an apartment" onboard and is only there for 2 months at a time. While the food isn't as impressive as the overall appearance of the dining area, the experience is what people go for. The staff treats everyone like royalty. They are all very professional and make sure throughout your whole evening in the dining room that you are well taken care of. After dinner each night in the dining room, some entertainment followed. Usually, the entire staff would form a circle around the center of the room and sing. Sometimes, they'd put something on their heads and dance around. No matter what, a night in the dining room was always more than just eating dinner. Kacy and I ended the evening with a routine trip to Ben and Jerry's before shutting down for the evening.

Our last stop on the cruise was Ensenada, Mexico.
For anyone who thinks of white sand beaches and turquoise blue water, this isn't it. Ensenada is a very poor town, filthy in appearance and surviving only from tourism and business from the cruise ships. Women walk the streets with one or two children in tow, holding up their empty cups waiting for passersby to toss in a coin or two. Personally, I think the use of children is for sympathy but it still didn't seem to work as most of their cups were all empty. You cannot avoid being solicited by the street vendors which line the streets with their suitcases of jewelry and other products. Children are everywhere selling homemade items, along with the others.
We took a small bus into town from the ship and our guide gave us the shopping do's and don'ts for making our purchases. One thing he mentioned which I still haven't fully accepted is that the Black Pearl from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, is docked in Ensenada after being purchased by a couple and put there for tourism. The ship looks very close in resemblance so a part of me is ready to accept it as fact. He said that they planned on having tours of the ship at some point. I would have thought that Disney wouldn't sell such a huge relic to be docked in a run-down port to sit and rot. Moving on............

We walked up and down a street or two before stopping at "Mango Mango" which is across the street from Papa's and Beer. From what I read, Papas and Beer owns MM. We had some chips and salsa along with a few drinks. A few of our group had to take advantage of the "no-strings" margarita offered to cruise ship guests. We walked around a little more but it didn't take much time before we headed for our ship. On the pool deck, we all enjoyed a drink in comfort and agreed that Ensenada was not on our schedule if we did this cruise again. For our last night on the boat, we all spent some time in the casino. Kacy and I barely played, because we don't have the luck or the money to play very much. Before bed, we packed up our bags and set them out for the porters to take. You have to do this so they can get the luggage in place to pick up when you depart the boat.

We woke up, had a quick breakfast and got in the longest line I've ever been in. The line was to get off the ship and we thought we were done. The second we cleared the ramp getting off the ship, it was an even longer line to go through customs. Like a herd of cattle, we slowly moved closer to the doors going into customs. We got to our cars, and started the long journey back home.

So, returning back to my opening statement, I wish I could say that my original thoughts of cruises was wrong. We enjoyed our ports and spending some time together on a trip. This was actually the first real trip we had all taken together so it was worth it just for that. I didn't like the schedules everyone had to follow, but I did get used to it after the first day. If we decide to cruise again, I would favor an Alaskan cruise with a different cruise line. On our first day back home, we saw a commercial for Princess Cruises in Alaska and a waiter is bringing out huge lobster tails to a couple by the pool. That is something I could definitely get excited about! Of course, getting off the boat and fishing for some monster would be the ultimate goal of that cruise.

All in all, I have to say that while I was not impressed with many aspects of cruising, I am now willing to consider it again with an open mind.

1 comment:

Pamm said...

First off - I LOVE San Diego. Go back down there for a weekend. It's the best place ever.

I'm sorry the cruise wasn't all you expected. I've never been on one so I can't say one way or another.

Now that I'm up in Alaska, you can always take that Princess Cruise you mentioned! :) I have heard that it's absolutely beautiful. My mom is considering taking one this summer to visit me so if I DON'T kill her while she's here, I'll find out how it was and let you know.

Glad you and Kacy were able to at least get out of town for awhile!