Friday, January 26, 2007
Day 1: Raleigh
Nicole arrived from Los Angeles. I got up early to pick her up at the airport around 7. Because we had a ton of driving ahead of us (we ended up going over 1800 miles!) we went straight to the tire place so I could get an alignment, and we had breakfast at the restaurant next door. Next up, we came back to my apartment to open Christmas presents. Among other things, we both gave each other the same exact thing: the game Scene It: Friends Edition. That is my all-time favorite show! Then we went and got pedicures to make our toes pretty for the tropical weather. We also saw a movie, The Holiday. Instantly one of my favorites. Perfect in nearly every way. Cute, funny, romantic, touching, and just all around a pleasant bit of cinema. Then we drove to my office to pick up my laptop so that I could take it on the cruise to use as a portable DVD player (to play Scene It, of course!) and then met my parents at The Cheesecake Factory for dinner. The wait wasn't too bad because it was only 4:30 in the afternoon. (!) We of course ordered my favorite appetizer, the Avocado Egg Rolls. Then Nicole and I split the Chicken Madeira and the Southwest Corn Cakes. Yum, yum, yum! Afterwards it was back home to relax.
Day 2: Driving and Savannah
We made good time to Savannah (even though I don't speed anymore!). It was an easy drive, just straight down the 95 almost the whole way. I think we got there around 3-ish, and we checked in to the hotel then walked down River Street. The guide book I'd gotten said this was the happening place, but it wasn't all that fabulous, I have to say. The view of the water is pretty,
and there are lots of shops, but not much of great interest. I did buy a silver ring at this little outdoor market area that was kind of cool.
While we were walking, Nicole got a call from her roommate Debby asking when we were supposed to be in Miami. Apparently the authorities had locked down the port there because some guy tried to get through security a) without a pass, b) after lying about his cargo, and c) after lying about being alone (they found 2 Iraqis in the back of his truck). This was cause for slight concern, but we figured surely it would all be resolved by the next day.
River St. didn't take us very long to finish, so we went south a couple blocks and walked around to see some of the pretty squares. The trees were huge and very picturesque.
There were lots of statues and monuments too. We stumbled upon City Market, which was another nice area, but since it was Sunday night, a lot of the places were closing up. We found a cool gelateria but we hadn't had dinner yet so we had to pass. For dinner we ended up at Vinnie Van Go Go's pizzeria because when we walked by it we saw the pizzas and they looked fabulous. We sat on the sidewalk across the street from one of the squares and watched the sunset as we ate. Delightful! We went back to our hotel room to decide if we were going to do anything else, and we ended up going to Target. I wanted to look for an outfit for the dressy dinner on the cruise. No luck in the clothes arena, but we both ended up getting hats
and small wallets so we wouldn't have to carry around our usual big ones on the trip.
Day 3: Driving and Port of Miami
We got up super early so we could get to Miami in time to board the ship. It was a very looooong drive. I'd never been to Florida, so I was happy to check another state off my list. Ironically, my photo of the Sunshine State's welcome sign was taken through a rainy windshield, but we stopped at the visitor's center for a minute to get a better pic.
The rain was relentless. It was really quite bad in spots, but we were both of the mindset, let it rain now so it doesn't rain during our cruise. When we got to Miami it was beautiful. We dropped our luggage off at the appointed area and then went to check in. The door was locked. Hmm. Maybe it's this door over here? The security guard said, "I need you to stand over there, ma'am." Um, okay. What's going on? So after about 10 minutes of gleaning things from others' conversations, and observing what was going on around us, we found out that they had temporarily halted boarding of the ship for security reasons. There were several helicopters flying above, as well as news trucks driving up, and the line of people to check in kept getting longer and longer. They sent out a Royal Caribbean employee to watch over us but she didn't do much except stand there. Given what had been going on the day before, I called my mom and asked if she knew anything. Sure enough, it was on the news channels. This time, apparently while they were loading up the ship, the scanner detected C4 explosives. Nice. So no one could get on the boat until they had resolved this. However they did not evacuate the boat. While we were standing there (in the sticky heat) we saw people up on the deck of the ship hanging around. So close, and yet so far!
Eventually they made us move further away from the lobby door, and then they moved us a second time even farther. Nicole and I had to use the restroom so we went to a nearby administrative building. As we were walking out, we noticed that everyone had been moved across the street from the lobby by now, and then we heard a small explosion, which of course caused a buzz in the crowd. Come to find out (there was a letter in our stateroom later that evening) it was a harmless box of pipe clamps that they had blown up. Who knows why the sensor detected explosives. But, shortly after the explosion we were allowed into the lobby to check in. The next night the captain joked that this was "the cruise that began with a bang!"
Right after we got to our stateroom, we had to go to the muster drill, which is where you put on your lifejacket and assemble as if you were all getting on lifeboats to escape. Not long after that was complete, we had dinner. We met two of the couples at our five-couple table: Steve and Sheri from Minnesota, and Luisa and Luigi from Columbia and Italy, respectively. We joked that except for me and Nicole, we were the "matchy matchy" table. (To top it off, the next night we met Dan and Dana from New York!) S&S were very pleasant to talk to. They had college-age kids and I think this was an anniversary cruise. L&L were a riot. Luigi spoke not a word of English, and Luisa spoke 5 languages, so she translated for him the entire cruise. Dinner was great, of course. I mean, one of the main reasons to take a cruise is for the food. Of course I took pictures of most of the dishes, but for once I didn't feel like too much of a dork because Dana did the same thing! On this cruise I had my first ever caviar (salty fish flavored gook--eh) and escargot (drowning in butter and garlic--yum!).
Day 4: Nassau, Bahamas
We decided to forego any of the excursions and go it alone. After breakfast at the buffet, we headed for Ardastra Gardens. We thought it would be a good idea to walk, so we could see more of the island. Ha! Good idea in Paris, not so good of an idea in the Bahamas. There wasn't much to see except the busy street full of cars driving on the wrong side of the road and spewing nasty smoke (we are so lucky to have emissions laws!). We finally made it there, though, just in time to catch the marching flamigoes (which we kept calling the marching penguins 'cuz of the movie). The marching was not what I'd expected--it was more like chasing--but it was still cool to see a bunch of flamingoes all running in the same direction. The rest of the park was amazing, too. You know me, always with the animals.
You can check out all the photos I took in my Flickr album. My favorite was probably feeding the lorries, because you actually got to go into the cage and hold out an apple slice, and the birds would land on you to get the snack.
They were so colorful! And they ate that apple down to its peel, let me tell you!
For our next diversion, we contemplated several options, and ultimately decided the best use of our time and money would be Crystal Cay, which we'd read about in my guide book. They had a tower that you could go down in to see the fish underwater, and then go up in to get a view of the island. So, using the map from the guide book as well as a map we picked up when we first got on the island, we hiked out to Crystal Cay. Now, most people would have turned around after the first few minutes of walking down an isolated back road with only dump trucks full of gravel driving by.
But no. We pressed on. We thought maybe it was just around the bend and that we would find this great hidden gem that no one else on the ship would have gone to. Well, we did see a part of the island that probably no one else saw. Granted, it was the putrid industrial underbelly. We finally reached a lovely sign that said Crystal Cay...only problem was, it also said Private Property, No Tresspassing. We boldly ignored that and soldiered on. There was a lovely landscaped path leading up to a nice bridge, so we thought this must be it. And out in the water we saw what must be the big tower--although it seemed a little, um, unkempt.
We got three quarters of the way across the bridge and decided to turn around. It looked like a private neighborhood of homes. We started walking back when we heard a guy shouting at us. He turned out to be a nice guy, who I guess was the security guard for the bungalows on the small island. He offered to give us a tour of the island, but we declined, because a) he was just this random guy and we are two vulnerable women, and b) he had a giant loogie on his tshirt. Yes, you read that right. He must have turned his head and coughed, or something, but it was there, big as day, and it was gross! It was hard not to look at it when we were talking to him. He did inform us, however, that the Crystal Cay tower had been damaged in a hurricane some years ago, and was closed. So much for my 2003 guide book!!! We trekked back to civilization and took a cab the rest of the way back into town. We were talking to the cabbie about conch, which is a very popular food on the island. He said the best is to pick out your own from the water, and have them boil it fresh. He said a fair price for a good one is $4, and that it is illegal to take advantage of tourists. All the while, the meter on the cab is not running, and he ended up charging us $10 for what should have been a $5 cab ride. Yeah. Oh well. We ended up having some conch fritters for lunch, which were basically like hush puppies with bits of rubbery shellfish interspersed throughout. Not bad overall, but not spectacular. Nicole ordered two refills on her soda, and then when the bill came, she found out that refills are not free! Ouch. While we were sitting in the restaurant, it rained for about five minutes, but that was it. After lunch we did a little souvenir shopping on the main street, which was Bay Street. We also went to the Straw Market, which is a blog entry in itself. Picture row upon row upon row of the same stuff over and over again.
Straw purses, wood boxes, cheap key rings and magnets, and fake designer handbags. And every three feet, another woman saying to you, "What can I get for you, honey?" "What do you like, sweetheart?" "Everything is on sale just for you today, dear." You could not just walk by and ignore them, either, because then they would say with somewhat of an attitude, "Hello?" I had to say about a million times, "Just looking, thanks." Some accepted that, and then others were super pushy and I had to defend myself further. It was really quite awful. I felt sorry for them, because this is how they make a living, and everyone has the same stuff, so the competition is fierce. Eventually I saw a Kate Spade knockoff that I liked so I bargained down from $40 to $25. I know I should have gone lower but again, I felt sorry for them. I also got a straw bookmark for $1. I was tempted by a small straw bag with a bright orange straw Nemo on the front, but seriously, it would just collect dust. Of course, so will my bookmark, but $1 for a dust collector is okay.
Strangely, our ship was staying in Nassau until midnight, which we found odd because there wasn't much to do there and I certainly would not want to be there at night. So we played Scene It in our stateroom until the captain's reception, where I partook of a free Bahama Mama and hors'deurves. The captain was a nice fellow, but he delivered some sad news. Due to the weather, our next port of call (the private island Coco Cay) would have to be cancelled. There is no dock at Coco Cay; the ship anchors at sea and you have to take a tender (a small boat) to the island. Apparently the waters were too rough for the tender rides to be safe. Everyone let out an audible sigh of disappointment, which immediately turned into satisfaction when he announced we would be going to Grand Bahama Island instead. Little did everyone know...
Dinner that night was once again delicious, of course. Each night we had the second seating, which was not until 8:30, but by 5 we were always starving, so we went to the pizza place for a couple slices. Hey, man, they're giving it away, so why not?! With dinner not ending until after 10 pm, we usually just ended up back in our staterooms getting ready for bed. But not before our nightly portraits. Man, the cruise line milks that for all it's worth.
Day 5: Freeport, Grand Bahama Island
There were no planned excursions for this port of call, since it was a last-minute change. Apparently they did plan some hastily, but since no one knew about them, they did not make the minimum numbers and had to be cancelled. I knew from reading in my guide book that Freeport is not much to look at from the dock. You must take a 15-minute cab ride to get into anything resembling a town. As soon as you get off the ship, there's someone there asking if you need a cab ride. So we piled into a van with some other people, and then waited for even more people to cram in. I think there were 11 of us total in the end. The driver was not very kind to someone who asked where we were being taken. Some of us wanted to go to the International Bazaar, which is a shopping place where every store represents a different country. Others wanted to go to Port Lucaya where the beach is. After he got on the road, he said that the Bazaar was not open due to the hurricane, which also, by the way, destroyed most of the island. Great. (I'm assuming it was the same hurricane that hit Nassau, but who knows?) We arrived at what I assume is the Tourist Drop-Off Point, and were faced with more of the same straw stuff from the day before, only this time we had the added guilt of knowing these people were having a harder time trying to recover from the devastating storm. Now, I'm a sympathetic person, and I really felt sorry for these people, but I was kind of put off that this is where we were taken instead of a non-destroyed private island. Anyway, we had lunch at a little restaurant--this time, deep fried conch, which tasted like any other deep fried shellfish--where the waiter was also somewhat rude. He later apologized, saying to Nicole, "You have an offensive face," meaning (I hope), "You have an offended look on your face." After we finished eating, we made our way to the beach, which was quite pretty, I must say. The water was beautiful, so we took some pictures and stuck our feet in for a while.
That night at dinner we discussed with our table mates what they did, and most just hung out on the beach all day. Kind of a letdown, especially after all the fun things we were looking forward to on Coco Cay. Oh well.
Day 6: Key West
Never have I been so grateful to be back in the United States! Everyone had to pass through immigration by 10 am, and the line was long, but looking out from the ship it was a beautiful sight so I didn't mind waiting. Key West is great for cruisers because everything is within walking distance of the dock. Well, walking distance if you have all day to walk. Nicole and I decided to go to the Southernmost Point of the United States, and take our picture next to the buoy.
It was kind of a long walk, especially because I had not worn the best walking shoes. But it was an enjoyable walk, because the whole way there were lovely little shops and inns and restaurants and houses. And unlike the shops in the Bahamas, I actually wanted to go in all of these! But there was no time, since we had to be back at the ship for our excursion at 12:45. After the Southernmost Point (which, by the way, is not really the southernmost point--the real southernmost point is on a military base on the island) we passed by the Butterfly Conservatory and decided to go in for a quick peek. It was incredible! I wish we had so much more time there, because it is a photographer's dream. Butterflies everywhere!
All different kinds, and tons of lush plants and colorful flowers. So cool. We took a taxi back to the ship so we could make it on time and got in line for our snorkeling excursion. This was the one excursion I had really wanted to go on, so I was excited. We boarded our Fury catamaran and began the gorgeous ride out to the reef. Seriously, the color of the water is just amazing.
It is the most incredible shade of blue. Unfortunately, since we had gone to the butterfly place, we hadn't had time to eat luch, and I was starving. The weak kind of starving when your blood sugar drops. And there was no food on the boat, only alcohol, which would be given out free on the return trip--a key incentive for many of the passengers, I'm sure. I was bummed because I wanted to have a lot of energy to snorkel. But I figured once I got in the water, adrenaline would take over. The ride to the reef was about 30 minutes, if I recall. For about half of that we were being instructed on how to snorkel.
When we finally got there, we had a choice: jump off the side of the boat, or take the "Stairway to the Sea" where you basically walk into the water. We opted for the stairway. Alas, the sea was so choppy that day, you couldn't really walk into the water. You had to go down the stairs on your butt, and then kind of belly flop into the water. Graceful. By the time it was Nicole's and my turn to go in, there were already people coming out, which was not a good sign. When I finally got in the water, I knew instantly why the others got out so quickly. The water was just so rough, it tossed you around willy nilly and water would get in your snorkel so you couldn't breathe. I tried to relax and just go with the flow, but on more than one occasion, I took a breathe and got water, which of course instinctively makes you try to breathe through your nose, which you can't do with a mask on, so then you panic because you can't breathe at all. I basically ripped my snorkel out of my mouth on more than one occasion so I could breathe, but I was unable to avoid getting mouthfuls of the saltiest water on earth. Man, it was nasty. It made me gag! I really, really wanted to see some fish, and take some photos with the disposable waterproof camera I'd bought specially for this occasion. I managed to look down in the water two or three times, and all I saw was a big white piece of coral, but no fish whatsoever. I finally asked myself, why am I torturing myself, and decided to bail. I could not find Nicole (I'd seen her once since entering the water) but decided to get out and then look for her. Turns out she saw me getting out and was heading in the same direction anyway. Amazingly, some people managed to stay in the water for quite some time. They are more valiant than I. While we were catching our breath Nicole noticed my lip was bleeding. I guess I'd cut it with my own fingernail when I ripped the snorkel out of my mouth to breathe.
The trip back was also a challenge. The water had been rough going out, but we didn't feel it much. Heading back, however, we had the added bonus of a headwind, and the boat's motion was exaggerated. Many people got seasick. In addition, water was constantly splashing over the sides and spraying everyone, our skin was covered in scratchy salt, there was extremely loud music playing the whole time, and we were freezing from being wet and the wind blowing on us. All that adds up to a generally miserable return trip, despite the beer and wine that a few people had the stamina to imbibe. One very cool thing about it, though: the pelicans that flew alongside us for a portion of the way.
That was awesome to see. Once we got back to Key West, I was never in my life so happy to take a shower, and dear, dear Nicole went and got us some slices of pizza, which I'm surprised I could even taste given how fast I wolfed them down. In the future, I still want to snorkel, but only in a calm lagoon setting, thank you very much.
After our pizza and quick showers, we ran back onto Key West to buy and write some postcards. One thing that's funny about Key West is all the roosters everywhere.
One of the local traditions is gathering on Mallory Square to watch the sunset every night. We did not have time to do that, but it was gearing up to be a beauty:
Honestly, I would much rather have had the ship stay at Key West until midnight rather than Nassau till midnight, but no, the ship left Key West at 5:30! We were the 14th- and 15th-to-last passengers to get back on the ship, but we made it! Key West was definitely a place I could see myself spending a long weekend. It very much reminded me of Marina Del Rey and Santa Barbara crossed with Pismo Beach.
Since dinner wasn't till 8:30 we decided to walk around the ship a little. As we were walking by this one window, I looked in and saw an ice sculpture. I had noted earlier in the cruise that there were no watermelon sculptures at breakfast like there had been on our cruise to Ensenada. We decided to go in. Lo and behold: more hors'deurves! Some were the same from the other night, and some were different, including egg rolls and chocolate covered strawberries. We looked around and it appeared that there was a mix of people, so we decided to help ourselves. As we sat down, however, we noticed that they were giving away champagne, which was most certainly a sign that this was not an event open to everyone. We also noticed that there were several uniformed people standing at the front entrance. No one seemed to mind us being there, though, so we just finished our food and then left through the same door we entered through. I think that might have been some sort of reception for frequent cruisers or something, but hey, the door was open and no one stopped us, so how were we to know? Melissa and Nicole, party crashers!
Day 7: Port of Miami, Driving, and Hilton Head Island
Everyone had to be out of their rooms by 7 am, and we were among the first group called to disembark. We were on the road to Hilton Head by like 7:30 or 8, I think. It was another long driving day, and it was a struggle to stay awake. We got to Hilton Head around 4, I think. It is a very nice area that kind of seems like a suburb (tons of big box stores) but with lots of golf courses. There wasn't much to do in the evening, even though it was a Friday night. So we just caught up on our TV shows--that week's Grey's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives were rerunning that night.
Day 8: Driving and Home
We slept in since we didn't have a huge drive ahead of us, and we had planned to meet up with some friends in Columbia, SC. Erin and David, the ones whose wedding I went to in California this summer, moved to SC and this was a perfect chance to see them. We met at a Smoky Bones restaurant (great food!) and talked for a few hours. I figured we'd be taking the 85 back home, but the Garmin had other ideas, and we actually ended up stopping by my parents' house on the way home because it was practically on the way.
Day 9: Raleigh
Nicole and I went to lunch at Lonestar Steakhouse and then went to see Charlotte's Web (very cute but soooo sad at the end--kind of a weird note to end our trip on). I took Nicole to the airport that evening and we said our goodbyes. Another fun vacation for the bestest travel buddies ever!!