The Grand Carribbean Trip, aboard Celebrity's m/v Galaxy, 30 Sep - 11 Oct 2002
This was Dale and my first cruise, an early 40th anniversary present to ourselves. We were very excited and ready for a fabulous experience, the first of what we planned to be many such future cruises. The cruise turned out to be strictly what it was advertised to be; and much less than what we thought it was going to be. As a result, we haven't yet decided if we are "cruise people".
We found a 2:1 ratio between passengers and the waiters, cabin attendants and hundreds (literally) of smiling cruise line employees who could not do enough for you! We will always remember the wonderful times, the gorgeous sights, the nice people we met, and the differing, colorful landscapes of the islands and their capitals: Phillipsburg, Sint Maarten/Marigot, St. Marten; Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S.V.I; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Nassau, New Providence, Bahamas. As for the "At Sea" activities, the cruise line did a very professional and entertaining job. While I have never liked Musicals and other Broadway shows, the evening shows were a good diversion and "something different". We attended Fine Art auctions twice (out of 5 or 6 showings) and I had the winning tickets for the after-auction drawing both times ($590 in art)! We acquired limited edition works of well-known artists Steynovitz, LeKinff, Fanch, Krasnyansky, Picot, Perez, Bellet, Shan-Merry and Tarkay at relatively bare-bones prices. The theater was so popular that the ship very nicely arranged extra showings of such films as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". The main dining room food (and the service) was consistently excellent, excellent, excellent -- course after course after course! If you're contemplating a diet, do not go on a Celebrity Cruise! The m/v (motor vessel?) Galaxy shops offered jewelry, clothing and many other items at very reasonable prices, with new bargain-basement specials each day to keep you interested and coming back. The lounges had excellent musicians. We "younger old-folks" went to the NightClub/Disco one evening and it was "hopping", but usually we opted for an earlier bedtime each night because of the very early port arrival times and we wanted to make the most of the short port visits. Decks 11 and 12 were my favorites for daytime activities, sitting in the elevated jacuzzi, swimming in the pool, lounging on a chaise, or sitting at a table under an umbrella watching the sea as we smoothly rolled along at 17-22 knots. The crew was always arranging games and nighttime bands would get the crew and passengers partying and dancing back and forth on the deck to "island music". There were also a number of wheelchair-bound individuals on the cruise and everything was very accessible to them (except some difficulties encountered with the ribbed gangways at port calls, where the crew had to help lift them over the "ruts").
My observations and complaints are just that - mine - and I know that others on the trip will have their own version, of course! ;-) On the other hand, if you ever grumbled at the airlines as an Economy or Coach passenger, at least it was over in a relatively short time frame. Although we chose the most expensive of the stateroom options offered, this was apparently not enough for Celebrity Lines. We were relegated to the furthest reaches of the dining room, next to the kitchen, for the duration of the cruise. We were tucked away so distantly, it wasn't until after three days at sea that I wandered into what turned out to be the very same dining area and discovered how huge, grand and beautiful it actually was, and that the music was played by real musicians instead of piped-in recordings (we couldn't see any of this from our table, around the corner, down the isle, etc)! This was not an all-inclusive trip. Celebrity Lines are not as liberal with such minor "freebees" as soft drinks and other items as are Carnival and other lines. You pay extra for everything. They also emphasize how the waiters, their assistants, stateroom attendants, their assistants, and a string of other employees from the Maitre'd to the Chief Housekeeper are expecting minimum tips based on a highly publicized Celebrity-issued guide. Celebrity also provides envelopes printed for each job title, with your cabin number written on them, all to be presented to the expectant individuals at "suggested" times. This adds another $240-$300 or more of hidden costs to your cruise. At the end of the cruise we pulled in to Baltimore early and immediately saw our Vanguard Tours bus "C" (Martz lines) and the driver patiently waiting for us in the rain. But we were then required to leave our staterooms and sit all morning in the public areas, endlessly watching through the windows on deck 11 as everyone else left the ship. After five hours of this torture, our group was finally called: LAST! Of course, SOMEBODY has to be last; to receive the worst seating; etc. but I'd surely like to know how the selections were arrived at! Perhaps we got a bigger price discount than we thought, and Celebrity made us "pay for" our low status accordingly! Most of the other 1,890 (or so) passengers appeared to be seasoned, multiple cruise veterans who were already members of the "Captain's Club", Celebrity's version of a frequent-flyer program, and therefore (as promised in Celebrity's advertisements) probably all received preferential treatment. Perhaps the dregs that remained were all they had to apportion to us, but one would think that the company would treat first-time passengers well in order to acquire their future business. Yet Celebrity believes that they are #1 and they must assume that their current (let's say: "somewhat elderly") patrons will live forever and keep them in business. Bottom line: we think we need to experience another carrier, a #2 who "Tries Harder" (Carnival?), and ask pointed questions about the accommodations and other arrangements before we decide whether or not to do another cruise. That said, here's a day-by-day rendition of our trip.
On Monday, 30 September, we arrived early at the Christ Memorial Presbyterian Church parking lot in Columbia where we were met by Doris Whitehurst, who showed us where to park. Permission to park here was much appreciated by everyone! Most of the other Phoenix members showed up soon and the Marz bus arrived right on time to pick us up. Unfortunately the underside bus storage compartments were already crammed full of luggage (we were the last stop the bus made to pick up passengers for the ship). The bus driver made a valiant effort and was able to find a niche for everything except my Samsonite hardcase, which he placed in the aisle. Then off to the "Shed 5" passenger terminal right near the Dundalk Marine Terminal tower. It's a really ugly location but no one seemed to mind - especially since we didn't have to stay there for long. The driver dropped us right off at the passenger terminal entrance. There was a lot of confusion and milling about so I have no idea if anyone else tipped him before going into the terminal. I hope so because he certainly saved the entire busload of passengers a lot of time and effort, as he took everyone's luggage to where the ship's personnel took over. I saw lots of other passengers lugging their stuff through the lines and, eventually, puffing hard as they dragged it up the ribbed, steep gangway into the ship. At the passenger terminal you loop through lines (unless you are a Captain's Club Member or you paid for an expensive suite on the ship) to finally turn in your paperwork and get a group number which, when called, allows you to board the ship. Although we chose the most expensive of all accommodations offered in the brochure, the room was more akin to what you'd expect if you responded to a last minute travel bargain advertisement: nice, but I expected nicer and bigger (yes, yes I know - complaints, complaints). Perhaps it was the age of the ship. My suitcase was delivered to our stateroom popped open and taped together. One of the ship's forklift drivers had piled luggage too high, hit a bump and dropped mine from a good height. Luckily I had protected everything well and nothing was missing: four cameras, a laptop computer, etc - all still there and in good working order. Whew! We're going to add straps as added security from now on.
First off they have a lifeboat drill. Then, by the time we unpacked and got a bit settled, the ship was already underway and it was time to eat, so we missed the opportunity to get nighttime shots of the Bay Bridge as we went under it. Ratz! Our assigned dining table (for 8 persons) was right next to a window with nice ocean views, but only a few paces from the kitchen's busy revolving door. It wasn't until the third day at sea that I ventured deeper into the the dining area and saw how gorgeous the rest of the passengers had it. Never having been on a cruise before, I had been told how food was available 24 hours a day, all soft drinks were complementary, etc. Well ... yes and no. Perhaps on Carnival Lines but not on Celebrity. Excellent food, and in abundance, but only in certain places at certain times; not 24 hours a day. If you don't want to put on a suit for the three formal diners, or a jacket for the three informal diners, you must make reservations for alternate dining - you don't just show up; and they "recommend" a gratuity for the Maitre'd for being kind enough to allow you to do this.
Tuesday was an "At Sea" day. They have lots to do aboard, so much so that they issue a "Galaxy Daily" with all the scheduled events, special writeups on items of interest and where the ship is going each particular day ("at sea", "in Charleston", etc). They have bars and lounges all over the ship, inside and outside swimming pools, a Casino, Art Auctions, Spa, Gym, martini (wine, etc) "tastings", a library, musicians in different gathering areas throughout the ship, current-run movies three times a day, the Strosphere Lounge for rock-n-roll, the Savoy Nightclub and the Celebrity Theater (large, very well appointed and very comfortable) with professional singers and dancers putting on excellent shows, several cafes, video game rom, photo galleries (photographers take pictures of you all the time and hang them up for your purchase consideration), and lots of deck spaces loaded with deck chairs or tables with umbrellas to sit and read, type on your computer and/or just enjoy beautiful views of the ship, ocean and ports of call. The shops were a big surprise because their prices were very, very reasonable, with specials every day on jewelry, clothes, liquor, etc. The crew sets up ping pong, bingo, golf, shuffleboard, basketball etc. Before arriving in each port they would give an hour long briefing on what to expect, what the best buys were and where, and what to see in the alloted time (set up tours also). They had flower demonstrations; lessons on blackjack, craps, roulette and mixing cocktails (not at the same time, unfortunately ;-); trivia challenge games, chess, pool volleyball. You get the picture! With all the choices you have, your vacation can easily start to resemble work, with appointments and meetings on your "schedule". Watch out!
The stateroom attendant is very unobtrusive. We hardly ever actually see him in the room but it's always spruced up like new when we return. In the evening the beds will already have been turned down with a card on the pillow along with nightly chocolates.
Sometime between 6-7am on Wednesday, 02 October, we arrived at Charleston, South Carolina. Once again the cruise ship's docking area is very drab, but you can't beat its proximity to the best parts of town. The old marketplace is just one block away and you can get one hour buggyrides with knowledgeable driver-guides right there. In our case our daughter Karen and her husband Chuck drove down from Myrtle Beach to meet us for the morning, and a nice lunch at one of the local restaurants. The buggyride was a lot of fun. The sights of Charleston were pretty, the architecture is wonderful and its history was a big surprise to us - so varied and eventful, not just the start of the Civil War. We departed just after 4pm with a fast Coast Guard cutter accompanying us past several miles of a narrow rock jetty, quite a way out into the Atlantic. Later in the evening we found the free "Cruzan rum tasting" locale aboard ship. I never knew that there was a banana rum, coconut rum, pineapple rum and vanilla rum, but I'sh shure doesh now, Matey!
Thursday and Friday, 03-04 Oct, are full days at sea. We were originally scheduled to go to St. Thomas first but the possibility of bad weather has us traveling to Sint Maarten at about 22 knots. Thankfully, the weather stayed bright and sunny! We do whatever we like aboard ship. In the morning the sea swells are "medium", causing the smaller pool on the top deck to slosh huge waves of pool water over its sides and flood the casual dining area on deck. We simply raise our feet with each approaching mini-flood, and continue eating the waffles from the poolside breakfast grill. They finally drain that pool but the large one next to it entices brave souls who enjoy what has become a wave-making machine, with the entire pool's water capacity undulating, alternatively, from one end to the other. I watch from a deck chair, baking in the hot sun, as I read a book on "How to Read Music". Purchased years ago to refresh my High-School knowledge of music theory, it's been sitting in my library ever since. Influenced by this sudden availability of time on my hands, I also took apart and fixed this laptop computer I am using to record our trip - another item I can take off of my ever-growing, years-in-the-making "to do list" (subtraction from the list is a too rare occurrence - I need more vacations)!
Saturday, 05 October 2002: Quit my job! Sell the House! Move to the Carribbean! At 8:30am we docked at Phillipsburg, Sint Maarten, the Dutch side (Netherlands Antilles) of the St Maarten/St Martin island, the first Carribbean island of our 40th anniversary cruise! No passports are needed to enter the island and, due to the close cooperation of the local, Dutch (Netherlands) and French governments, signposts are the only indication you are moving between the Sint Maarten and St. Martin portions of the island. There are also lots of other islands accessible by ferry, such as St. Kitts & Nevis, St. Barts and Anguilla. Hundreds and hundreds of passengers quickly disembark in an orderly mob, separating into different tour lines and off we march to our distant buses. Already we can see pretty, colorful homes and buildings jumbling down the slopes, hills popping up all around us, and water everywhere - inlets, ponds and, of course, the sea. The tour shows that Sint Maarten has many new buildings and homes interspersed between poorer neighborhoods and run-down sections. Lots of alamander, oleander, royal poinsetta and local plants providing color everywhere. The local people are very friendly to visitors and proud of the obvious improvements that are being made to their country's infrastructure wherever we drove. We also passed by a number of isolated luxury resorts on both sides of the island. The French side capital, Marigot, is prettier and apparently better off economically. Buildings are mostly one storey high and painted in pastels. We are given some time to wander around on foot to enjoy a flea market immediately near the town center, and view the truly gorgeous water views everywhere. Around 11am we are back in Phillipsburg and dropped off in the shopping center near the waterfront. Our first purchases were in the local GuavaBerry shop, where they sell variations of a tasty local liquor. A short walk through the many stores selling deeply discounted gems and jewely resulted in a diamonds and rubies 40th anniversary ring for Dale. St. Thomas is supposed to be the best shopping in the Carribbean but we were very happy with Sint Maarten's ring design and the price (Besides, I was then allowed to sip lots of colorful exotic drinks in the waterfront establishments for the rest of the day ;-) We departed just after 6:00pm.
On Sunday 06 October we arrived just before sunup at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. For years I had seen pictures of the beautiful Charlotte Amalie harbor taken from the hillsides, and wanted to see it in person. It was better than I ever imagined. A truly outstanding setting. Since the shipboard shopping advisor had emphasized the Front Street shops of Charlotte Amalie as having the best prices for everything in the Carribbean, and since the ship-recommended shops would only be open for the morning (Sunday), many of the passengers (including ourselves) did not sign up for the mini-bus/van tours and, instead, took taxis en-masse into the shopping district. For the rest of the day then, wherever we walked we were bombarded by the idled drivers with pitches for tours and taxi rides. Front Street turned out to be one endless labyrinth of jewelry, perfume and other stores specializing in high-end items. Wonderful, if you are looking for such things but boring if you wanted to see a variety of island culture, handicrafts and related merchandise. We detoured down to the waterfront and ran into "Alvin", a local with a nice British/island lilt to his speech and the proud owner of his own new van, who agreed to take us all over the island for $40. So, off the three of us went in his 16 passenger van. They drive on the left, as in England (the U.K.), but their cars have the steering wheel on the left, just like the rest of the USA. Alvin said it was because they need to see the outer edge of the narrow roads on the steep hillsides (I'll believe him ;-) ! Great scenery, and he made lots of stops for pictures, including the Mountain Top complex of buildings where we had a banana daiquiri and breathtaking views of the famous Magen's Bay (voted 7th best beach in the world during the last world-wide poll). Alvin dropped us off at the base of the Tramway, a ski-lift aerial ride that Dale and I took to the top of Paradise Point. This turned out to be the famous viewpoint for those very scenes of Charlotte Amalie that I had admired all these years. We had lunch at a table under an umbrella, with a stunning view of Charlotte Amalie spread before us with the waiting cruise ships, seaplanes lazily arcing over the green islands and elegantly swishing to a water landing further off in the harbor, and royal blue and acquamarine waters melting around barrier islands zigzagging to the horizon. Tired from all the walking and lugging of miscellaneous purchases, we returned to the Galaxy after searching in vain for a local store that Alvin had described. With two hours remaining in port before the scheduled 6:00pm departure, I went out again and found Alvin's grocery store. While "Duty Free" and "Tax Free" stores abound, the local grocery stores are where the real bargains are! Customs allows us to bring back five bottles each, so I stocked up on the local St. Croix rums for only $3.79 -$4.50 a liter! St. Thomas was the highlight of the trip. We plan to return and stay for a week sometime in our future. Nearby St John is accessible by ferry, only a $2 (two dollar!) twenty minute ride. St. Croix is somewhat more expensive, but we'll do that too.
Monday, October 7th, before sunup we pass the El Morro castle on our left, protecting Old San Juan's harbor. This will be another short day (7:00am - 4:00pm) in port. When we dock at the main pier next to the Old City we can look out of our room and see the huge San Cristobal fort a few blocks away, as well as some grandiose buildings that turn out to be the home of the Puerto Rican legislature. At first glance the pastel colors make Old San Juan buildings look much like those in the other islands, but this is a real city with continuously-connected buildings 2-3 stories high, laid out in city blocks, teeming with people on narrow streets paved with 400-500 year-old ships' ballast -- small, rectangular blocks that look like cobblestone with a metalic-blue tint. Today's bus tour was in the type of bus used by car rental agencies at our airports, and we were able to meander in and out of the old and new city areas (we also saw where the famous ballplayer, Roberto Clemente, lived). Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States and Puerto Ricans are American citizens, although they don't have seats in Congress. They seem to have a number of tax breaks too. The highways look just like the USA and if the driver didn't speak both english and spanish it would sometimes be easy to forget where you were! One thing that struck me was the many hotels that were recently refurbished or demolished and rebuilt, and renamed. You'd think we were in Las Vegas! As in the other ports-of-call, Old San Juan and the surrounds had much more to offer than was possible for us to do in the miniscule amount of time allotted for touring. The stupendous San Cristobal castle took 140 years to build, and we were given 20 minutes to rush from the entrance, through the ticket collector, deep into the tunnels, past the many exclusion areas ("we're so sorry" - contruction, etc) and finally get two minutes standing inside one of the ornate Spanish stone guardshacks at the upper corner of a wall, then rush back to the bus. Dropped off in the Old City's shopping district, we were in front of what I think was called the "Barranchina Restaurant". Their claim to fame is the invention of the Pina Colada drink, although I seem to remember that the Hotel Caribe Hilton is where the bartender worked (do I know some trivia, or what!). Anyway, the restaurant building was typical of others up and down the Old San Juan streets, with a wide entrance facing the street and the other end of the entrance corridor opening about 20-30 feet back from the main street into an inner courtyard/atrium. The courtyard had trees, plants and umbrella-covered tables, a bar, and entrances to other rooms on all sides. We had a zesty lunch (skirt steak with "jerk" seasoning for me - no comments please!) and, of course, Pina Coladas that were soooooo smooth! Thus fortified, we set out on a leisurely stroll down the main (Fortaleza) street. Behind us we could see the Governor's house/palace and in front, continuous shops of all types. The sidewalk was about 3 feet wide so you often found yourself in the street dodging cars that somehow appeared close behind you. I purchased a novelty T-shirt from a local young lovely running a Senor Frog's shop. Senor Frog's turned out to be a famous restaurant/bar chain headquartered in Mexico, with facilities in the islands and Central/South America. Turning right and heading to the water, we decided to go back to the ship early. San Juan was hot and very muggy, and there just didn't seem to be adequate time left to do anything else, even though we had a couple of hours left. We pulled out sometime after 4:20pm with dark clouds gathering and light sprinkles of rain.
Wednesday, October 9th, around 7am, the Galaxy dwarfs a little lighthouse on a narrow spit of land to our left - the western end of Paradise Island -- as we glide slowly into a very narrow, deeply-dredged inlet, and carefully inch along the narrow bay for another mile or so, eventually tieing up at Nassau's multi-berth, Prince George Wharf cruise ship pier. This is a really short day ashore, scheduled for 7:30am to 1:00pm! We jump out of bed, get dressed and, bypassing breakfast, arrive at the deck 3 gangway to beat the expected crowd for the mini-bus tour. We then realize that we have overachieved, as we are the very first ones off the boat and have 30 minutes to wait. The Nassau tours are quite disorganized as compared to the other ports, and are decidedly not a good buy. When the tour representative finally showed up it was "us tourists" who somehow managed to organize ourselves and begin the long walk to the mini-buses. Divided into groups of 8-10 we start off as a caravan but quickly find ourselves separated (which was GOOD!). Nassau was probably the most disappointing of all the ports because the New Providence Island guidebooks displayed "tons" of beautiful and inviting places to visit (Cable Beach, etc), but our tour driver wasted most of the time showing us "middle-class" neighborhood streets on the outskirts of town. A trip to Fort Fincastle (without going inside) and the adjacent Queen's Staircase (an old quarry) was "okay". We did get to see Paradise Island, and were dropped off for 30-40 minutes to let us walk around the spectacular Atlantis Hotel complex. The rest of our too-short time in Nassau was spent trying to see as much as possible in the portion of the downtown Nassau shopping area (Bay Street and its surrounds) immediate to the ship. I was very pleased to find a liter of Pusser's Rum, the same rum provided to every British seaman ("tar") as his daily grog for centuries. We left Nassau, split between feeling glad to see yet another new place but frustrated at being enticed with the potential to see so much beauty, and then ripped away before being satisfied.
Thursday, 10 October, was a full day At Sea, and we arrived at Baltimore two hours earlier than scheduled on Friday, the 11th, to overcast skies and heavy rains. After the tedious five hour wait in "detention" until we were finally released and allowed to get on with our lives, we found the elderly Marz bus driver still with a pleasant smile after waiting for everyone since before the ship even arrived. He also worked his butt off trying to fit everyone and their luggage aboard. As on day one, I tipped him generously and hope that the others did likewise. We loved the trip - warts and all! Three cheers for the Phoenix Society trip organizers !!!
I'll try to upload lots of digital pictures of this trip to this web site soon.
Barry & Dale