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If It's Thursday, This Must Be Mexico
By Mitch Traphagen
Apr 12, 2007, 22:05

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My wife Michelle waves to passengers on another cruise ship from our balcony as we sail out of Miami for seven days. Mitch Traphagen Photo
- It was well after dark in the middle of nowhere when the blip appeared on radar.  We were on a 32-foot sailboat plowing through the ocean swells sailing to Mayaguana, the farthest of the Bahamian Out Islands lying in the deep water of the Atlantic.  The wind was picking up and we had too much sail on but I had little motivation to make my way up the dark, wet deck to wrestle down the big jib. 

The radar blip soon identified itself in the form of a brightly lit cruise ship on the horizon.  We called the watch commander via radio and chatted for a few moments.  We were hoping to sail the remaining sixty miles to the island by morning.  In that same time, the cruise ship would cover four times that distance.

As we watched the ship sail out of view, we thought of the speed and comfort with which they were traveling – thoughts made all the more poignant by the increasingly bumpy conditions and saltwater spray we were taking in the cockpit of our small boat during the dead of night.

“They can go get a brownie anytime they’d like,” I jealously told my wife, referring to the passengers on the ship.

It was then I knew that someday I would sail aboard a cruise ship.

Seven Years Later

On a ship with more than three-thousand passengers, Nestor Mutuc of the Philippines is a busy man.  All day long he stands outside the Windjammer Café greeting people as they come in for the seemingly endless choices of food at the large buffet.  Some of the passengers don’t seem to understand what he says, but given the broad smile on his face and the tone of his voice, none doubt his sincerity.  He makes a point of greeting each person, making eye contact and saying, “Good morning, lady!” or “OK!  Good morning!  All right!”

For my wife and me, the word for the day is “Wow!”  The backup word is “Cool.”  Stepping aboard Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas for the first time is an experience in sensory overload.  As we watch the glass elevators whisk people up and down the ship’s 14 decks, I point out that we don’t have an elevator on our sailboat.

Nor did we have a shopping promenade, nor a café where snacks and desserts were available just for the asking, and we definitely did not have an ice skating rink and a rock climbing wall, all of which we found on Navigator.  In fact, there was so much, we were still discovering new places on our last day of the voyage.

Now This Is Traveling

There is no dignity left in flying.  Even in aviation’s romantic era, it was mostly just good P.R., with dashing playboy pilots and ravishing stewardesses.  The romance, however, was short-lived.  Today flying is almost dehumanizing, with a certain fear factor thrown in for good measure.  The ever-shrinking seat-space of a modern airplane conjures up images of riding in a cattle car.

Cruising aboard a ship, however, is a most human way to travel.  You can actually see and experience the world through which you are traveling.  There is still romance, and there is tradition that reaches back to our distant forebears.  All of that, perhaps, is what draws some people to cruising.

Boarding could not have been easier.  We gave our bags to a porter, checked in with our passports and walked aboard the ship.  Years of watching “The Love Boat,” however, created a deep-seated anxiety in me – I was fully expecting that an overly perky cruise director would jump us as we left the gangway and sign us up for all kinds of activities in which we had no interest.  Reading cruising bulletin boards on the Web didn’t necessarily help either, as many posts were left by hyperactive people talking about how they were kept busy for days on end.

The Haitian island of Tortuga comes into view under a setting sun from the fourth deck of the Navigator of the Seas. Even on a cruise ship with more than 3,000 passengers, solitude is there for those who seek it. Mitch Traphagen Photo
Rather than all that, I wanted peace.  I wanted quiet.  I found both – and much more.

No one jumped us when we boarded.  Instead, we took an elevator to our stateroom and found fresh-cut flowers and a bottle of champagne on ice.  We also found a balcony from which we could watch the world go by.  It was heaven.  To be certain, there were more activities on this ship than even the most hyperactive could hope to sample – but it was all by your choice whether to participate.  There were rock bands and piano bars and activities for children. There was a teenage dream scene where the girls checked out the boys and the boys tried to be cool, and there was a huge array of shopping.  We could attend the shows (the ice show drew rave reviews) and party in the bars or we could sip fine wine on the top deck of the ship. Or, we could bask in the solitude of our own balcony.

Somehow Royal Caribbean has managed to capture the fine art of being human.  The crew members, without exception, were friendly and proud of their ship.  There were no long lines anywhere – in fact, you could barely tell that the ship was fully booked.  They came from all over the world but worked together on a common mission – to provide the best possible service for the passengers.  As a veteran of numerous hotels in various parts of the world, I have never stayed in one, regardless of cost, that compared with this ship on the level of service – and none could compare in terms of value.

It is often referred to as a floating hotel, but with twenty-two-hundred pieces of art valued at more than $5 million, the similarity is weak, at best.  That is especially true when you consider the thoughtful architecture within the definite confines of space and shape, and that there is no long extension cord running from shore to power the seemingly infinite array of lights.

A word of warning, however:  Your cell phone may continue to function as Royal Caribbean has contracted with major wireless companies to provide service at sea.  I learned of this when my Blackberry continued to happily chirp with new emails even well offshore.  At least it did until I shut it off.

Traditions of the Sea

The romance of cruising is alive on the fourth deck.  The muster stations and lifeboats are on this deck – as are life rings and steel ladders and metal pipes – all of which line a wide deckway bordered on the other side by a steel rail offering a close-up view of the passing sea.  On a ship filled with the latest in technology, this deck is a throwback to a simpler age.  With a little imagination you can almost visualize couples walking arm in arm, wearing the black chiffon dresses and heavy wool tuxedos from early in the last century.  On this deck is a feeling of discovery and adventure.  It is simple, romantic and beautiful.

On the first of two formal dining nights, Captain Rick Sullivan hosted 10 guests at his table in the center of the elaborate dining room.  It was an evening of tradition and good conversation with an impressive host.

Captain Rick Sullivan and the bridge crew keep an eye on the coast shortly before leaving port in Grand Cayman. Mitch Traphagen Photo
After dinner, we were each given a commemorative photograph.  My eyes were immediately drawn to my wife, who, among a group of fairly serious people, had a huge smile on her face and a fair amount of leg showing.  The realization of that elicited an “Oh my!” from her – but I told her not to worry, it could well be one of the few dinner pictures the ship’s captain would keep.

The captain is on duty continuously for 10 weeks and is then allowed 10 weeks of vacation.  Captain Sullivan mentioned that when home, there is always a long list of things to do around the house.  “It’s better to be the captain,” he said with a smile.

Tradition and respect still play a role in modern seafaring.  That could clearly be seen on the bridge of the 1020-foot vessel, an area that is awesome and immaculate and works like a finely tuned watch.  There is technology beyond imagination but also traditional nautical charts on paper – just in case.  There are numerous electronic eyes in the radar systems but also an officer who continuously walks the wide expanse of the bridge with his eyes locked on the sea.  All the officers on the bridge were efficient, educated and polite in a way that seems to be in short supply today.

The respect was also apparent in the crew. 

Isha Green has never visited the bridge in her six years of working for the company, but that’s not something she worries about – she has complete faith in those who work there.  Twice each day she makes up the staterooms in her area – once early, to make the bed and generally straighten things up, and once during the dinner hours, to again straighten up and turn back the bed.  She also leaves little animals made from hand towels – animals that often have eyes in the form of small chocolates. 

Most passengers never see her come or go – but she is there, always doing her job.  She works very long hours and, in truth, doesn’t get a day off, but she loves what she does and it shows.  A dedication beyond money alone is required to work such hours for six straight months.  According to Isha, at least some of her dedication comes from the fact that the company respects her – it goes well beyond a simple paycheck.  It is apparent that a happy crew makes for happy passengers.

Also almost invisible is the wait staff in the Windjammer Café.  Nestor Mutuc is there to greet everyone, but most people who dine in the café are preoccupied with new adventures on the boat or in port.  Yet there are dozens of men and women silently clearing tables and providing beverages without so much as disturbing a conversation. 

Here You Were as Family

Although the Windjammer serves well for a quick breakfast or lunch, culinary artistry can be found in the dining room at the evening meal.  Aboard the Navigator, it is not a cafeteria-style experience; it is five-star quality served to three thousand people each evening.  The chef on board is a celebrity among the passengers, and the dining room crew members are like old, distinguished friends.  And despite the incredible presentation and quality of the meals, dinner is more than just food – it is an incomparable event.  It was, at least, at Table 256 in the Nutcracker Dining Room.

The chef and crew members of the main dining room were virtual celebrities amongst the passengers. Somehow they also worked a certain magic transforming a table of strangers into friends. Mitch Traphagen Photo
At that table, passengers who had never before met shared stories and laughter along with a fine meal.  The waiter, George Manoj, was distinguished and formal but still somehow had the warmth and manner of a longtime friend.  When asked, he shared stories – and he never failed to pull out a chair for a lady.  When the meal arrived, he would stand up perfectly straight and say, “Ladies and gentleman, I hope you enjoy your dinner.”  He remained until the last guest left, never in hurry, and despite the late hour, joined in on the conversation when invited.

All together Manoj, assistant waiter Rosanno Cajipe and headwaiter Lalit Upadhyaya seemed to orchestrate a certain magic that transformed a table of strangers into friends sharing lives and conversation with a warmth that capped off a day aboard this ship.  Among the exotic ports, the glittering promenade and the romance of deck four, the evening meal was an event like no other.  Everywhere else you could see “stuff” or buy “stuff” but here you were as family.

Saying Goodbye

The Navigator of the Seas visited four countries in four days, beginning in Haiti on Tuesday and ending in Cozumel, Mexico, on Thursday.  It was a whirlwind that moved at the relatively slow pace of nineteen knots – but still fast enough to make it difficult for the vacationing travelers to remember what day of the week it was.  To solve that problem, a removable carpet panel on the floor of each elevator car announced the day.  Too soon, the panel on the floor said Friday – the last full day of the cruise.

During dinner, Adelle, a passenger from Ft. Lauderdale, looked up at our waiter and said, “So, George, tell us about dinner tomorrow.”  On prior nights George would close with details about the next evening’s meal.  But on this night, there would be no next dinner for us on the ship.  Adelle was simply hoping for a tomorrow night when all of us at Table 256 would again share stories and laughter and delight in the things George would bring.

But instead, it ended with a sharing of addresses, handshakes and hugs.  Reality was just a few hours away, waiting at a pier in Miami.

I awoke in the predawn hours and stepped out on the balcony to see the incredible cityscape of South Florida on the horizon.  It was unusually cold for April, so I quickly jumped back into bed, seeking refuge under the thick comforter.  Sadly I realized the stunning vista outside the balcony signaled the end of our cruise.

As a sailor, I had turned up my nose at the thought of traveling on a cruise ship – thinking, perhaps, that adventure could be found only through suffering and endurance.  But I was wrong.  I discovered that adventure and comfort do indeed mix.  I discovered that peace and tranquility could be found on a ship with more than three thousand passengers.  I discovered that good feelings and great times could be found where you least expect them.  And somewhere in the Caribbean Sea, I noticed the weight of life’s baggage had been lifted from my shoulders.

Pictured off the island of Grand Cayman, the 1,020-foot ship remains in position through use of the ship’s computer and global positioning system rather than an anchor -- a feat performed to protect the undersea environment. Mitch Traphagen Photo
By six-thirty a.m., the ship was docked and the cruise was over.  Proving that traveling by cruise ship is indeed dignified, passengers were invited to visit the Windjammer Café for breakfast before disembarking.  And, as on every other day of the cruise, Nestor Mutuc was there to greet everyone.

“Have a nice day!  Have a nice day, everyone!  See you again, huh?” he said cheerfully.

Yes, Nestor, you can count on it.

Journalist’s Note:  It turns out that Nestor will indeed see us again.  Much to our surprise, my wife and I loved cruising.  It seems that cruising aboard a big ship was much like cruising aboard our own little boat – except that  on the ship, we’re the people who could get brownies anytime we felt like it.  I thought about that as we caught glimpses of sailboats on the horizon. In the end, we liked it too much to just walk off the ship – so we booked another cruise, this time a transatlantic passage when Navigator of the Seas returns to Florida after a summer in Europe.  I’ll be sure to let you know how things go.

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© Copyright 2007 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing Company, Inc.

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