CONFESSIONS OF A NEOPHYTE CRUISER
I’m on a dock in Jamaica’s Montego Bay, gazing open-mouthed at the cruise ship which is to be my floating hotel for the next week. To a newbie cruiser like myself, the Marella Discovery 2 with its eleven decks seems like a mammoth sized vessel, but a fellow passenger hearing my gasp of amazement, says, “I’ve seen bigger!” and shrugs. I’m impressed, nonetheless.
I check in at the reception desk where several floors spiral dizzily above me and a buzz of conversation overlays piped-in muzak. Key in hand, I walk a seemingly endless corridor to my cabin. It’s cozy, but comfortable enough. My room attendant—young, vivacious and eager to please—is from Yugoslavia.
Having settled in, cocktail hour beckons, and my Mai Tai has just the right mix of spiced rum, and fruit juices (drinks are complimentary) and I relax in a lounge area where a pianist is playing popular stage-show tunes. I am surrounded by accents ranging from musical Welsh intonations to Irish brogues and London’s cockney slang. Not surprising; the Marella Discovery 2 originates in Britain where most of the passengers have embarked.
Food is the highlight of many cruises and this one is no exception. Hearty breakfast buffets and a pleasing variety of dinner and lunch selections are on offer in the ship’s several dining rooms. At the ‘Islands’ buffet, a lavish high tea includes light-as-air cream puffs, dainty salmon or egg-and-dill sandwiches, flaky pastries and, of course, warm scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream.
Georgetown in the Cayman Islands is our first stop and a balmy sea breeze wafts over the tourist-thronged sea front. Souvenir shops with the usual tacky T-shirts, fridge magnets and key chains are easily ignored, but a boxed display of spiced rum-n-raisin cakes is irresistible. I stock up on a few to take home with me.
Cuba has long been on my bucket list. I stand on the sidewalk bordering a cobbled street in old Havana, and the scene before me is like a 50’s classic movie come to life: vintage tail-finned cars painted hot pink, pillar-box red and lime green crank and groan past me; yellow three-wheel auto-cars putter along the street and horse drawn buggies filled with bemused tourists clop by.
Using my Cuban convertible pesos, I board a hop-on-hop-off bus. The equivalent of US$10 earns me a ninety-minute commentated ride around the city and outskirts of Havana. Along the Malecón, the ocean pounds the seawall, throwing shawls of spray over the sidewalk; beyond the city centre, we pass residential buildings painted canary yellow, ice-cream pink or sky blue. These were once palatial homes, but today they wear a look of faded glory with peeling paint, crumbling pilasters and mildewed walls. Communist Cuba provides a basic living wage to all its citizens—house renos, however, are an unaffordable luxury.
In the mellow tropical evening, I linger in the Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, stroll past street musicians strumming guitars, and dodge kids kicking a football. As dusk falls I walk through a narrow cobbled lane, to catch bursts of laughter and applause from a bistro where a cabaret performance is in progress. I glance at my watch and in the navy-blue night, as street lights dance on rippled waters at the quay, I reluctantly head back to the ship.
Tonight is an event that, as an inexperienced cruiser, I am hopelessly unprepared for. It’s the Captain’s Night where everyone goes formal: the women in splendid evening gowns, all a-glitter with jewelry, the men, penguin-like in black ties and dinner jackets. I slink into the dining room wearing a cotton blouse and flower-printed skirt—the only alternative to jeans and T-shirts among my travel outfits. The waiter showing me to my requested single table is too well trained to smirk.
Cozumel greets us with a mariachi band going full blast on the quay. We are docked beside a gargantuan Norwegian cruise ship, that makes the Marella look shrimp-sized. It is hot, the sun reflecting blindingly off the sidewalks, the air languid and dusty. On the tourist shopping drag, I am lured into buying a Mexican handcrafted bracelet.
Our final stop is Montego Bay, and a bus tour of the town and surrounding areas takes me along undulating heat-shimmered roads, and past houses dozing in the afternoon sun. From high on a hilltop, the azure Caribbean sea unfurls to the horizon.
A day later, I’m back in Vancouver under a weepy sky. Time to check out another tropical cruise. Panama maybe.
IF YOU GO:
PHOTOS by Margaret Deefholts
1. Marella Discovery 2
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