Cruising the Caribbean on a Tipsy Boat

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Sunset from the balcony

Just before New Year’s, I joined a large group taking off for the Caribbean. I knew prior to boarding our majestic Royal Caribbean cruise, Freedom of the Seas, that the trip would not go quite as planned. We’d booked excursions in advance–something I’d recommend to anyone on a cruise–but learned a few days before leaving that our port times had been cut back. There were engine problems on the boat, for the second time in a row. One of the propellers had been taken out of commission, leaving the Freedom slowed.

I was soon distracted by the glitz on board. As a first-time cruiser, it was fun to roam the halls of themed bars, shops, and restaurants, and savor the view from my stateroom balcony. Christmas decorations in royal tones lingered a few days after Christmas. I could feel rocking underfoot, which my cruise companions said was atypical. Must have been the motor.

A cruise is a solipsistic way to travel. You sample just enough of different locales to satisfy some of that “let’s-see-what’s-out-there” curiosity, and experience too little (sometimes just the beach) to get a sense of what life is like there. You visit places far from home, snap an album of great pictures, and subsist on American food. Then you’re back to your self-enclosed floating city, entertained by trivia nights and sipping endless mojitos.

A Bahamian coral reef

A Bahamian coral reef

Our first port, Cococay, was one of many private islands in the Bahamas, owned in this case by the cruise line. Its perfect white sand and palm-strewn beaches were dotted with loudly colored huts for showers, shopping, and everything else–someone’s hilarious idea of a tropical paradise aesthetic. I availed myself of a glass-bottomed boat tour to find out what lived in the clear water. Not only did we get to see schools of fish through the floor; we also had the chance to pass around native sea creatures like conches, starfish, and a massive, slimy sea cucumber as memorable as the expression on my face.

In Montego Bay, Jamaica, we were herded out in groups to buses parked so close to each other they were practically rubbing hubcaps. Our air conditioner was broken, and it took our unanimous vote for the tour guide to open the windows. During the two hours’ drive to our dolphin riding destination, our guide, like those we’d meet in the Cayman Islands and Mexico, delighted in pointing out every American fast food restaurant. We were soon coaxed into a Jamaican rendition of that classic bus-ride song, “If you’re happy and you know it, say ‘Ya Mon’!”

View from a Jamaican beach

View from a Jamaican beach

The dolphin swim took place in the sea, where our life-jacketed group met baby Arby. We took turns riding his belly for a few feet, grabbing onto his flippers on either side. His father, the pod’s stud, did tricks and let us stroke his rubbery skin. Those of us quick to finish lunch on the beach got to enjoy the nature trail, basically an outdoor zoo in the lush jungle, with a mongoose, iguanas, parakeets that landed on your head, and incongruously, rabbits. Then on to Dunn’s River Falls, at once a natural wonder and a tourist hub. Guides extended the 600-foot climb by encouraging us to do cannonballs in the water and mug for the video camera. By the end, their group chants had grown on me.

There’s plenty to do on days at sea, from ice shows to cupcake decorating, from surfing simulations to spas. When the weather is decent, and it usually is in the Caribbean, most cruise denizens lounge around the pools on the top deck. Kids splash around fantasmagorical fountains and get to meet Shrek. Adults can hit up the casino or participate in game shows. Some of us–read: me–get lured into talks on diamond shopping by the promise of free tanzanite earrings, only to discover that receiving the earrings requires going to a store at port, and with our curtailed schedule, who knows if there’ll be time? There’s certainly time to explore the ship’s five or so dining options. The Italian restaurant, Portofino, is the standout, with its sizzling skewer-tower of seafood and its tiramisu in a tulip-shaped chocolate bowl. There’s also time to join in the New Year’s festivities, when the bridge of the ship is jammed with people tooting party blowers and drinking free champagne. To bed shortly after midnight, then up at 5 am. Our next excursion’s time was changed because we all left Jamaica behind schedule. A cruise is a sort of carnival.

The landscape of Hell

The landscape of Hell

We started our visit to the Cayman Islands in the Town of Hell, named for its columns of black coral that looked like something out of an apocalypse movie. At the Hell Gift Shop, a friendly horned greeter asked visitors, “Where the hell are you from?” and hawked an impressive array of infernal gewgaws. Another island landmark was the Tortuga Rum Cake Factory–delicious–but I’d come for the turtles themselves, source of the islands’ earlier name. I expected the Cayman Turtle Farm to be a dinky tourist attraction with a few dinky reptiles, and was pleasantly surprised to discover a serious preservation effort. 300 Green Sea Turtles, some close to 500 pounds, were busily reproducing in the Genesis Pond. The fruits of their labor swam around in touch tanks, where we could hold them. When my year-old baby flailed its flippers in turtlish anxiety, I was instructed to stroke its chin to calm it.

A visit to “Stingray City” was the final stop on our turtle and stingray adventure. That turned out to be a sandbar at sea, where the rough waves surprised our ferry’s veteran stingray finders. Those of us who left the boat spent most of the time jumping to avoid getting swept under, and the rest of the time getting pictures with an enormous stingray that a wizened old worker lured with food. We had a chance to feed it calimari–some report it sucked the bits up like a vacuum, others that it nibbled with tiny teeth.

On our way to see the Mayan ruins in Cozumel, Mexico, our personable guide cracked jokes about being short–like most islanders, he’s of Mayan descent. “In Mexico, we say mi casa es su casa,” he quipped, “but mi tequila is mine!” While there are no towering pyramids in Cozumel, the site played an important historic role for women. Upon getting their first period, Mayan women came out to this site to express devotion to Ixchel, the fertility goddess, and be paired with a husband. “No sacrifices here,” our guide explained. “This place is about life, not death.” Ixchel herself is a wizened figure, representing respect for the wisdom of elders rather than idealization of the vigor and good looks of youth. We learned that for the sake of beauty, Mayan girls were trained to be cross-eyed, while Mayan boys had boards tied to their foreheads to make them slope back. We passed temple ruins, platforms, and the great stone road where the Mayans walked by moonlight, when the temperature was cooler.

Mayan ruins in Cozumel, Mexico

Mayan ruins in Cozumel, Mexico

Following the ruins, we were treated to a brief history of chocolate at the Cozumel Chocolate Factory, where we mixed some Mayan-recipe cocoa drink with sugar and spices of our choosing. Then on to the lookout point, another place clearly designed for tourists. A beautiful outcropping of rock over waves hosted a Mexican flag and a drink stand. I took a large coconut back to the bus with me, sipping the milk through a straw.

That evening, the boat lurched viciously. I’m not particularly prone to motion sickness, but I found it hard to get through my Johnny Rockets meal. The captain’s report on TV mentioned a “little wind” and sounded much more reassuring than the vessel felt. At 4 am, I woke up sick. I chalked it up to the motion, which was bad both because of the churning waves and because the one-propeller-shy boat was so slow. “Ginger ale,” prescribed the helpful stateroom attendant, and he brought me several gulps’ worth. Standard motion sickness tricks did nothing, so I was brought to the clinic. The verdict: stomach flu. I was quarantined to my stateroom, my sea pass deactivated so I couldn’t leave. I was offered free movies and as much room service as I wanted, but the person on the phone turned down my request for chicken: “That’s not in your diet,” meaning not BRAT-friendly. That’s how I spent my last day on board.

Thanks to some plain Tylenol, I felt nearly normal when we docked the next morning. A pair of customs agents escorted me off of the ship before any of the other passengers, supposedly to avoid infection. Then I was placed on the same airport bus as some of my ship-mates. Someone grumbled about wanted their money back–this had been their worst cruise ever. I was happy to have my feet on solid ground again, yet grateful to have had a chance to explore the Caribbean. Next time, I’m bringing my own Tylenol!

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