First-time Cruisers

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First-time Cruisers
by Rocco Satullo

When we decided to take our first cruise, I couldn’t help but think of the horror stories. There was the guy I knew that spent the week puking more than his body weight. There was the ship that infected half its passengers with a virus. How about the vessel that tipped over or the one that lost all power out at sea?

My wife and I were going to celebrate our 20-year anniversary and suburban peer pressure said dinner and a movie wasn’t going to cut it. Besides, you could get real bargains for cruises. So I went to Triple-A and initially, it seemed we could do both a cruise and a family vacation this year.

Do you want a balcony or interior cabin? Balcony. Food plan, drink plan, tips prepaid – yes, yes, yes. After all of the extras we threw in with the excuse, “It’s our anniversary,” the family vacation got axed from the annual budget. A cruise meant updating my summer wardrobe. Something I don’t do very often. Add that to my wife’s clothing bounty and the expense grew deeper while we were still shoveling snow at home in Ohio.

The possibility of bad flying weather had us plan a night in Ft. Lauderdale prior to the launch of our cruise. My best friend from the Army whom I roomed with in Germany lived just up the Florida coast. This enabled us to reunite after 20 years. The last time I saw him was when I drove to Florida for spring break during my college years. Anyway, our flight out of Ohio was set for early Sunday morning. With the recommendation to get to the airport two hours before boarding, we scrambled out of the house at 2:00 a.m., leaving the kids with their grandparents.

When we arrived at the park and ride lot, one of the shuttle buses got in an accident.

Our driver sighed and said, “This is his first day on the job, too.”

I half-jokingly asked if it would be his last day. She said, yes. We all felt bad for the guy.

Once we were inside the airport, my wife cracked, “Whew, good thing we got here when we did.”

Instead of a cricket chirping an old guy on top of his floor sweeper slowly hummed in a circle pattern nearby. Every ticketing terminal was lifeless. The workers hadn’t even clocked in yet.

After a long layover in Washington D.C., we arrived in Florida. That’s when my worst fear came true. All that crap we bought for the trip – two suitcases full – was nowhere in sight. The baggage claim had one last bag circling round and round and it wasn’t ours! We asked an airport employee what we should do now and he pointed us to an office.

When we approached the door, my wife gasped, “Our bags!”

We grabbed them (one had a torn handle) and headed for the shuttle. It was a long walk and then a long wait as we just missed our hotel’s bus. The next one came and went when we allowed some older people to fill it. Then, we really waited a long time. But our wait was sort of fun because we hit it off with a lady traveling from Maine to partake on a cruise for Insanity workout gurus. We laughed about their having to get up at the crack of dawn every morning for a group workout.

Our paths crossed again with our chipper Insanity travel friend. We had all walked to a nearby drug store to restock some things that were confiscated at the outbound airport such as a tube of toothpaste which was in a bag that we didn’t intend to be a carry-on. Plus, we heard you could bring a couple bottles of wine onto the cruise so we bought some cheap stuff. The following morning, we joked about our bad wine to the customs guy and he smiled and said there’s no such thing. But that’s jumping ahead.

The night before we sailed meant being reunited with my best friend from the Army and his dear wife – a Canadian girl – that we had befriended in Germany. The four of us ate dinner and then grabbed more drinks at a place we remembered partying at 20 years earlier. As it grew deeper into the night, the historic beach town grew rowdier. Police were sent to our niche club to settle down some people getting out of hand. We took it as our middle-aged queue to leave. Entering our parking garage were some real hellions. We knew of a side door to the basement where we had to park. It enabled us to get ahead of them. But as we got to the car, we heard them coming our way. The hellions kicked out a headlight on a parked car just before we slowly rolled by them. It seemed fitting to have a bit of an abnormal night with my old partner in crime, so-to-speak.

Once we boarded the cruise ship, I felt a bit claustrophobic. My wife suggested we explore each deck. Soon thereafter, we learned to bypass the casino because by the time you reached the other side, your eyes were red and your hair and clothes smelled like an ashtray. Anyway, moving out onto the open air decks is what I needed to acclimate my sea legs. I couldn’t believe the size of the ship and all that was on it. There were several pools, bars and restaurants galore, stages and other entertainment areas, a grand theatre, you-name-it. The passengers were a nice variety of all ages.

Quickly, I realized why so many people cruised regularly. For an entire week, you are treated like royalty. The friendly service is second to nowhere. In fact, the total passenger to staff ratio was 2 to 1 and the food services staff alone was a 3 to 1 ratio.

My wife had done a tremendous amount of research online, for fun, about our ship well in advance. She revealed a little known fact just as we were shoving off. On a certain floor, in the bow – front – of the ship, there was an open air deck that almost nobody knew about. Even I was hesitant to go through the door at the end of the hall just beyond where the interior hall bends. Although unmarked, it whispered, you aren’t supposed to be here. But it was unmarked. Nothing said we couldn’t use it, so we did.

And it was exactly as billed. What a find! Nobody was there. Every other deck was 10 people deep with passengers waiving and snapping photos as the ship left port. And there we were with a private deck to ourselves. I wandered around it and up to a balcony but my wife stayed close to the door. Her good girl instincts said that despite what she read, this was not right. After I moseyed against a metal railing that seemed way more old-school than the rest of the decks, I paused to look at the decks above. I was in full sight of the glass walled gym, and other decks with a full and probably puzzling view of me! That’s when I decided to retreat before security got to me. Besides, by that point I realized I wouldn’t be able to coax my wife to reenact the “I’m the king of the world” scene from the movie Titanic.

We signed up for a dinner plan that had us eat at a set time each night in a designated dining room. This meant no waiting but you had to be on time. Oh, and you sat at a table with other people who would be your dinner company every night. It could be anyone so in looking at some of the passengers, I started to rethink the pros vs. cons. Fortunately, our dinner companions couldn’t have been better. Hopefully they felt the same. Every evening with them was filled with laughs and enjoyable conversation.

Every other day, we landed at an island to explore. On two of them, we had booked special excursions. One included a mishap while horseback riding and on the other we stood out as THAT couple while on a dune buggy ride. More about those incidents in a moment.

Our days and nights on board were filled with activities. From sunrises at sea to walking several laps around the ship on the Promenade deck, we digested breakfasts so large I never thought I’d move again. Afternoon pizza and drinks out on the sun decks with regular entertainment kept us busy all day. In fact, just about anywhere at any given hour, there were activities, contests or entertainment of some sort. It was like Las Vegas on a boat.

The best part was the nighttime headlining acts. Come early enough and you could get the best seats in the house. We saw a first-rate comedian, a magician that finished highest ever on America’s Got Talent, and singing and dancing acts from around the world. Quieter settings included retreats to lounges to hear Jazz or watch a fun show. For dancing there were Caribbean starlit deck parties. In the wee hours you could take a moonlit swim. Movies played on screens throughout as well. And if island shopping wasn’t enough, there seemed to be plenty of stores on board as well offering bargains. Most days were spent in swimming trunks or shorts and evenings in business casual or semi-formal attire.

Our first excursion was on a small island that had not fully recovered from a hurricane. As we were transported to a remote corner of what was still a tropical paradise, you could see where some homes were left as shelled out buildings or stone fenced yards with no structure left within at all. Upon arriving at the beach stable for our horseback riding adventure, we were instructed where to go to use the restroom beforehand. When I was done, I came out a bit embarrassed and said the toilet won’t flush. That’s when an island girl, a bit embarrassed, said that’s what she’s there for. And then she entered the latrine with a bucket of water.

The gentlemen – boys really – handling the horses were so loving life. Their laughter was infectious. Our first ride was on land and on sand. We saddled up and trotted uphill and down learning how to lean forward or back in the saddle. I had never ridden a horse by myself before. Of course, I got a horse with a mind of its own. He’d stop on a hill and decide to snack on the grass holding everyone up. When I dug my heels into his side and pulled the reigns, he cocked his head to look at me. I could swear he gave me an evil eye as if to say, “You wait, buddy!”

Ironically, my wife had a horse named Frenzy but Placid would have been more fitting.

After a pretty lengthy ride which I was more than ready to end, our guides removed saddles, replacing each with nothing more than a pad. It was time to ride the horses along the beach basically bareback and into the water. We only went four at a time for this ride plus two horses with guides. I wasn’t aware of the short strap for holding in front of me. I just played with the reigns. So when the guide unexpectedly hollered and the horses went into a full charge in the water, I was hanging on for dear life. I felt like it was a timed ride in a rodeo. But it was only a matter of time – not much by the way – before I knew I was going for a swim. I thought I might get trampled by the three horses on my tail so when I came off that thing, I did it with gusto to try and splash clear of danger.

When I came up out of the water, you’d think maybe I’d be humiliated but I have to say, it was exhilarating. The 13-year-old boy, who had been chasing us all over that morning on foot, snapping photos for sale, ran into the water with an ear-to-ear grin. I threw my arms up and made the most of the picturesque moment. Then one of the guides helped me back onto my horse. That’s when I noticed a look in my horses eye like, “I told you I’d get you.” My horse charged like the dickens again, thundering through the water. It was a wild ride with lots of splashing. Then we turned around, barely slowing to do so, and charged back the way we came. This back and forth repeated several times. It was pure fun! So much so, I did not mind losing my prescription sunglasses. One of the guides later found them anyway.

So, making a spectacle of me had caught the attention and funny bone of everyone. And it wouldn’t be the last time during our trip that all eyes fixated on my shenanigans. But before I explain the next island’s mishap, I have to mention another secret getaway that we found.

When we came back to the resort area it was thick with sunbathers. We decided to walk the beach for a while. A band of younger people had the same idea. We wrapped around a corner of the island out of sight from the masses and kept going. Eventually, even the college-aged kids stopped in a remote area to snorkel. But we pressed on to a soft sandy area with absolutely no one near us. The hours of afternoon peeled away, effortlessly, much like my skin later.

On another island, we had signed up for a dune buggy tour. About a dozen dune buggies went off road on some rough terrain. At the first stop, you could hear almost every wife quipping about their husband’s driving as we sat two to each dune buggy. We saw a couple of landmarks and then came terrain that even the guides warned about. As we drove on in a single file line, a rather large mud puddle swallowed the path just before a hill we needed to ascend. My thinking was, finally, we get to really dune buggy.

I slowed enough to allow plenty of open space between our dune buggy and the one in front of us. Then, I opened it up, pedal to the metal, and hit that water filled crater so hard that the couple behind us couldn’t stop laughing about it.

“If you could have seen what we saw,” started the husband once we reached our next destination. “Mud and water shot like a tidal wave out of every side. It was absolutely hysterical.”

We knew because most of the water and mud shot up from underneath our dune buggy. There’s no floor so we got it all in the most unexpected direction. And it smelled! Oh did it smell! Fortunately, we ended up at a slice of heavenly beach with no one except our group on it. It allowed us the opportunity to go get a saltwater bath to clean off. Then, we hiked into the rocks for vantage points that say, yep, you’ve found secluded Caribbean island paradise.

On the way back, it was as if the other husbands noted my bit o’crazy and upped the ante. The winner of the craziest dune buggy rider went hands down to the guy that darn near ended his marriage by purposely taking a turn wide then sharp putting the dune buggy on two wheels. His wife was so close to the ground before all four wheels finally touched again – and we weren’t sure that’s the direction it was going to go – you just knew he was in for it later.

On the day before our cruise ended, we received our disembark time and location to leave the ship, get our luggage and go through customs. It’s a good thing we looked because they had my wife and me separating and departing the ship at two different times and locations. We called and it was changed. That would have been disastrous knowing the rat race that ensued the following morning.

When we made it to the airport, we found out that our flight was rerouted, as were much of the flights, due to severe weather blanketing Florida. As we waited at our gate, we recognized a lady across from us. It was our Insanity cruise “friend” from the first day shuttle and hotel. But she looked a little off. We asked how her fitness cruise went.

She struggled to say, “I spent the week sick as a dog,” while trying to show that cheerful face we enjoyed so much at the beginning of the week.

By Rocco Satullo

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