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The point of embarkation

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image The Carnival Legend cruise ship dwarfs the Channelside shopping center while in port on Sunday. Mitch Traphagen Photos

At Channelside, the point of embarkation makes all of the difference.

By Mitch Traphagen

TAMPA — A man preached the word of God, along with some fire and brimstone, as more than two thousand people streamed off an enormous ship that dominated the skyline at Channelside in Tampa. The human traffic of mostly sunburned tourists was almost exclusively outbound. Laden with luggage and souvenirs, they made their way alongside the shopping area at Channelside, but only a rare few ventured half a block down the street into the inconspicuous entrance to the shopping courtyard.

Most of the people were probably sad their vacations are over, but were then eager to get home. The only noticeable economic impact from the horde of tourists disembarking from the Carnival Legend cruise ship was on the taxi drivers, shuttle buses and the municipal parking lot across the street. Early on a Sunday morning, the Channelside District is packed with people but few of them are where they need to be for the business owners inside the shopping courtyard just a short distance away.

At 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, the chocolate shop was open, but not many others — even with thousands of people coming off a large cruise ship. Unquestionably, a sizable population (no pun intended) no doubt believes it is never too early for chocolate, but for the rest of us, the shop had breakfast sandwiches and coffee to supplement the display cases of incredible chocolate treats. Most of their customers appeared to be the ship’s crewmembers, many of whom were focused on their laptop computers and smartphones, catching up on email with family and friends.

While people still poured off the ship, early arrivals for the next cruise, which was to depart in just six hours, trickled into the courtyard toting luggage and herding children. Before long, the ice cream shop opened along with a sandwich shop. But with visions of near infinite buffets of food and the beaches of Mexico, Belize and Roatán dancing in their heads, most simply sauntered off to wait for the boarding line to open.

A lone musician began setting up his equipment in the courtyard, next to a bar serving boat drinks to a few people who had just walked in. If the crowd remained small in the courtyard, at least the boarding passengers on the starboard side of the ship tied to the pier at Channelside could enjoy his talents.

Before long, even the small trickle of incoming passengers slowed to a stop when the gates opened to board the ship. The shopping courtyard was empty save for some tourists buzzing about on rented Seqways and the occasional family walking up to gawk at the 973-foot long cruise ship that towered over the open waterfront end of the shopping area.

Within a matter of hours on a Sunday morning, more than 4,000 people crowded into Channelside, yet few of them discovered the courtyard of bars and restaurants just a short distance away. Instead, the line of people waiting to board, baking in the July sun, stretched out along the street. There, a group of young children with entrepreneurial streaks displayed necklaces and bracelets outside of a shop. While their business could not have been described as brisk, they did have customers opening their wallets. Unlike the restaurants inside the courtyard, the children and their wares were visible to the cruise ship passengers, as were other shops facing Channelside Drive.

At Channelside, the point of embarkation makes all of the difference. Businesses have long come and gone in the shopping area and much has been made of the failures. But with only seemingly minor changes, perhaps those thousands of passengers could be routed through the courtyard rather than around it. As it stands today, the arriving and departing cruise ship passengers may not be a boon to the shops inside Channelside, but the courtyard is certainly good advertising for the cruise ships. By noon, the restaurants started opening and just-arrived passengers could be seen excitedly checking out their balconies and the upper decks of the ship. A few more visitors sauntered in and my wife and I walked into the quiet and air conditioned comfort of the highly regarded Stumps BBQ Supper Club and were immediately given a table. Over lunch, we decided that an escape from life for a week sounded pretty darn good — and the means for doing so was just 20 yards away on the Carnival Legend tied up outside of the restaurant.

When I was young and foolish I would laugh at the thought of being on a cruise ship with thousands of other tourists. I wanted to conquer the seas from the deck of my own boat. My attitude changed, however, one dark and gusty night on the Atlantic Ocean far from land. Sixty or so miles from Mayaguana, the furthest of the Bahamian out islands, Michelle and I were rocking and rolling in deep water waves in our 32-foot sailboat when we saw the brightly lit cruise ship just after it appeared as a large blip on our radar screen.

Mitch Traphagen PhotoThe ocean can be a lonely place at night so, on a lark, we called out on our VHF radio to see if we could raise the ship. A pleasant sounding voice with a British accent responded to our call and we had a nice chat for a few minutes. As we watched the ship steam over the dark horizon, we considered just how much fun those passengers must have been having with no worries about navigation, having too much sail up, or bumping into something in the night. And the food! The Oreo cookies we had stocked up on before leaving the Bahamas suddenly seemed paltry in comparison to what our imaginations could envision was provided on that ship.

After now having been on two cruises, I am aware that there is no better way to escape the world and forget about life for a while than on a cruise ship. Once you are aboard, there is nothing further to do, nothing further to worry about. If you left bills on your desk, there they will remain until you return. The same goes for deadlines. While wifi and cell phone reception is available on most cruise ships today, I have found it best to consider the invisible tether (or, perhaps, the chain) that binds you to the real world as severed when the ship leaves the dock. Unlike almost any other vacation, your every need is catered to and your concerns are left in the ship’s wake on a cruise. As Michelle and I enjoyed our lunch, we concluded that we could really use a week like that.

After cutting through the line of people waiting to board, the travel agent at the cruise ship port didn’t laugh when Michelle asked if there were any balcony cabins available on the ship. Yes, the one leaving in three hours. The ship, however, was booked and that was probably a good thing because had there been a cabin, we would have scurried back to our car talking in rapid, marginally coherent sentences about just how we would get back home to pack, make arrangements with a dog sitter and get back to Tampa before the ship left. And, of course, there was the small matter of our jobs and the fact that we had not taken leave.

But still, it would have been fun — a lot of fun. Perhaps we’ll try again next week when the Carnival Legend returns and the new passengers we saw board the ship become the old, with a fresh crowd waiting. If so, I’ll stop by the chocolate shop for a breakfast sandwich on our way to the ship. Channelside is a Bay Area gem, and I’m happy to support it. Even if you can’t board a ship, it’s a great place to pick up on some dreams over lunch or a boat drink.

For more information, visit Channelside on the web at www.channelsidebayplaza.com.

If you can’t escape the world aboard a cruise ship, the Channelside Cinemas offers a great way to escape for at least a few hours. For more information, visit www.channelsidecinemas10.com.

Information about Carnival Cruise Lines is available at www.carnival.com.

071212 Channelside - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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