Twists of fate . . .

. . . and other thoughts about travel to the far reaches of today’s shrinking world

As I have said before, and with apologies to Lee Marvin as well as to Lerner and Loewe, I was born “under a wand’rin’ star.” Wanderlust is real!

I am hooked on travel! 

As a freelance writer, I have convinced myself that it is also “my business” to be as informed as possible about popular worldwide destinations, off-the-beaten-path places, interesting excursions and inviting cruise ship itineraries. I enjoy every minute of it, and I keep a running list of possibilities that appeal to me for my own getaways.

I started out as a working journalist at a daily newspaper, and I remain a “newshound” to this day, eager to tell stories about people, places and events. I don’t regret leaving that part of my life behind, but I still sometimes miss being an active “participant” in major news events.

I have been following the Coronavirus outbreak in China with great interest, for all the above reasons, and also because of the serious worldwide health implications. My husband and I listen avidly to the live reports from David Abel and his wife Sally, British citizens on board the quarantined Diamond Princess. But we have watched events unfold, and remained only interested bystanders half a world away.

Until two days ago

Our next planned journey was to have been a trans-Pacific sailing on the 2,200-passenger Celebrity Millennium, scheduled to depart Yokohama, Japan on May 10. We had flight reservations that would have given us a few days in Tokyo prior to the cruise, and allowed us to see friends in Vancouver, B.C. following disembarkation, prior to returning home. We were concerned, but relatively confident that the spread of the virus would be contained during the next 90 days, and that our trip across a vast stretch of ocean would proceed as scheduled without risk.

On Wednesday, we were notified by Celebrity Cruises that the remainder of the Asian cruise schedule for “the Millie” had been suspended. Our cruise and others were to be canceled. The ship would sail early to North America in preparation for a summer season of cruising Alaska. No other details were offered. We shared the disappointment of thousands of other passengers whose vacation plans had instantly been crushed. 

For this single ship of this one cruise line, five sailings were canceled, affecting thousands of booked passengers. Route changes and port cancellations are announced daily by other major cruise companies, and the ripple effect is enormous. Not only is there a huge economic impact on the cruise lines, airlines, hotels and excursion operators, but necessary logistical issues are mind-boggling. 

As we faced the task of canceling reservations yesterday, I ran across some forgotten notes in a travel folder of ideas for 2020 travel. And, to use one of my current favorite expressions, I was gobsmacked.

I had written:

“RT Tokyo — 15 days — Jan 20-Feb 4. Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam. Diamond Princess — cabins available at good prices — air about $925, estimated”

They were just some quick notes that I hadn’t acted upon, choosing instead to begin the year with other trips, lured by the prospect of the journey from Japan to Canada with 10 relaxing  days at sea. I booked another, shorter, closer-to-home trip for early in the year, and moved on.

Reading that scribbled note, I realized that had I made another decision several months earlier, my husband and I would currently be quarantined aboard Diamond Princess in Yokohama harbor. I imagined the weight of the fear that we might test positive for a worrisome new virus, now bearing the name COVID-19.  It was a sobering thought, even though for just an instant I thought about the stories I could tell about that experience!

More news . . .

Earlier today, Royal Caribbean, the parent company of Celebrity, announced that two of their ships will spend the next several weeks offering complimentary cruises to fire-fighting crews and first responders in Australia and California. There are also plans underway to deliver needed supplies to health authorities in China and Asia. We will miss our own time aboard the Millennium, but we are happy to know that the ships will be used for other good purposes.

In addition, I cannot help but smile at the Facebook post of a member of the pastry crew on board Diamond Princess. I know there must be some moments that come close to despair for the quarantined crew, but this is truly an example of indomitable spirit!

Now that I have had another day to consider, I am convinced more than ever that travel is “life-changing.” I still believe that travel is always a good idea; it just doesn’t always happen the way we would choose! 

We certainly hope that all passengers and crew aboard the quarantined ship are able to return home well and resume their normal lives as soon as possible. We will continue to watch the reports, and to follow the mounting efforts to control this virulent virus. 

Ode to February

Saturday, in north central Texas, my day began grey and chilly, with a temperature reading just below freezing. The sun appeared later in the afternoon, but I never warmed up. Sunday was sunny and the temperature hovered in the mid-70s. By midweek, another dip into the 30s, with possible snow, was expected. That may be the norm this time of year, but I was happy to hear that Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow Tuesday, giving me hope that soon I can put away my fleece-lined moccasins and go back to flipflops!

My husband and I did just that the end of January as we snuck off for a few days of R&R. I feel as if I’m still playing catch up from November’s travels, but that didn’t keep us from running away to the sea and sun south of the border. Five days aboard Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas, sailing out of Galveston, were a tonic that let us return home refreshed and renewed, even if we did return to cold.

A getaway trip to sun and warmth

It was another of those whims when I booked the cruise several months ago — a deal just too good to refuse, with the benefit of an easy drive to the port rather than the hassle of a flight to a distant coast.

Our quick getaway to Cozumel and Progreso was not timed for lazy days on the beach, but a pampering routine aboard a mid-size cruise ship, Enchantment of the Seas, felt good. We came home with a fresh outlook and boundless appreciation for the cruising lifestyle, as always. However, in tiny Cozumel, we were certain that tourists outnumbered residents. There were seven ships in port the day we called at the island! Ours appeared to be the small one!

We delighted in the lack of schedule. We took full advantage of the “luxuries” offered: A dedicated staff to cook and serve, no alarm clock, afternoon naps, and plenty of time to do absolutely nothing. We enjoyed the food, the shipboard shows, and simply walking around the ports. We finished a book each, started reading new ones, and engaged in lively conversation with fellow cruisers. I even squeezed in a few hours of work!

Keeping busy on board

We participated in a sushi-making class offered on board, and enjoyed sampling our efforts for that day’s lunch. We participated in an All-Access ship’s tour another day, relishing a walk through the “belly of the vessel.” The behind-the-scenes activity and inner workings of a large cruise ship are captivating. We learned that there are four full decks below the water line, with ample food and drink stores on board to serve the 3,000 plus passengers and crew for an additional seven days, should it ever become necessary.

In view of the current news about passengers quarantined aboard another cruise ship off the coast of Japan, that becomes an important fact.

We were duly impressed with the high-tech engine control room, the procurement and storage areas, and the ship’s systems, including a busy laundry and highly-orchestrated kitchen. We visited the bridge, where ship’s officers on duty around the clock stand watch, monitoring the course as well as the weather.

The effort expended to make cruising an enjoyable experience for all passengers is truly impressive. Every aspect of cruise ship operation is superbly planned and executed, and it reinforces the value of this kind of vacation.

Looking to the future

Perhaps soon the temperatures will cease pingponging between seasonal norms and unwelcome cold. All too soon, I may once again complain about Texas heat and reset the air conditioning.

I have not forgotten the stories I promised to tell about our November trip to the Mediterranean and the Adriatic. I realized that the days have flown by when I looked over a post I began on December 1. We arrived home on Thanksgiving Day, and somewhere between the pumpkin pie and New Year’s Eve toasts, I got lost.

January passed all too quickly, as had December.

So, to whet the appetite for what is to come, I’ll just post a handful of photos from last week. And then I plan to get busy writing all those other stories, and looking forward to upcoming adventures.

Come along, won’t you? Follow me to receive email notifications of each new post, and visit me on Facebook and Instagram.

The gift of the unexpected

Call it grit. Call it fortitude. Call it experience, acceptance, resignation — any number of descriptive terms can be applied. The truth is that every one of them is appropriate.

We were witness to the pluck and determination exhibited by Venetians during the recent record-setting rainfall, flooding and tides that washed over the lagoon and gained worldwide attention in late November.

Daily life and commerce was affected, to be sure. But daily life and commerce continued apace. Much seemed normal to a casual observer during a time when conditions were anything but normal.

Planes, trains and buses ran on time, waterbuses ran their scheduled routes, and other boats, including barges filled with building and clean-up materials, plied the canals, supplying goods and services to residents, hotels, restaurants and shops. Most gondolas and their gondoliers seemed at rest, waiting for sun and more forgiving water.

Portable boardwalks were repeatedy set up and subsequently removed along the busiest pedestrian thoroughfares. Christmas lights and decorations were much in evidence, and shoppers toted bags along with umbrellas, testimony that seasonal spirit and daily life intertwined.

Venetians donned their “Wellies” and rain hats and went about their business. Shopkeepers placed heavy mats inside their doors. Tourists snapped up “fluorescent-colored “cellophane boots with no quibbling over the 10 euro price, pulling them on and wearing them with no embarrassment.

Venice has a full-time population of only slightly more than 50,000, but up to 30 million tourists visit annually. We purposely chose an end-of-season cruise, hoping to encounter fewer crowds at every port, especially in Venice. We succeeded, but the city was by no means deserted!

Through it all, there was a pervasive air of unexpected good humor.

Venice was the last planned port of our 12-day cruise itinerary. Until almost the last moment, we were uncertain whether the call in Venice, scheduled as a three-day visit, might be canceled. When the captain announced that the water levels were receding and lower tides were predicted, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Disappointment turned to anticipation, even as we were advised that although St. Mark’s Square had reopened, the renowned basilica would remain closed.

Our arrival in the city was delayed by morning fog, its canal-hugging buildings shrouded in mist as our ship slowly made its way to its designated dock. It made for mystical photo opportunities, ship stewards passing coffee and pastries in the early dawn light to awed passengers pushing against deck rails even as the drizzle turned to pounding rainfall. The panoramic windows of interior lounges were equally crowded. The day dawned grey and chilly, but then a rainbow appeared. We had arrived in Venice.

Getting to the heart of Venice

From the port, the trip to the heart of the city involved a journey on foot to the tram known as the “People Mover,” then a transfer to a waterbus, where we joined other people — commuting businessmen, shopkeepers, local residents, office clerks, laborers, shoppers, students and visitors of many different nationalities — bound for stops accessible only by water.

The journey was instructive. We were surprised at how high the water was, still lapping at building doorways and bridge foundations. We were astounded at the visible watermarks that confirmed how much higher it had been in recent days. We remarked on the efficiency of the still-operating pump systems that continued to drain standing water from lower levels of Venetian buildings. We arrived at San Marco station in light drizzle.

As it turned out, the sun emerged as we made our way to St. Mark’s square. This was my first trip to Venice. I was not prepared for the sensory overload of entering the square. Any description seems quite inadequate. I can only imagine how it must feel when crowded with tourists. I am so happy to have had the chance to see it in its stillness.

I was — I still am — spellbound.

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The Basilica defies description

I don’t know how many photos I snapped. Every place I looked, from ground level to soaring roofs, held a view I wanted to remember. I stood in the center of this vast square and was completely captivated. I still have difficulty comprehending the size of the plaza, the opulence of each building’s architecture, and the magnificence of every vista.

And then, the final wonder of the day: Visitors were being welcomed into St. Mark’s Basilica. I am overwhelmed by my overwhelming emotional reaction. I honored the posted signs that prohibit photographs and videos of the interior, although I was sorely tempted to sneak at least one cell phone shot.

However, although many others did take their shots, I hold only my vivid mind pictures of the mosaics, the glistening gold ceilings, the tapestries and the carvings. I also have a sense of how the musty, damp odor combined with the scent of candle wax to heighten the aura of sacred mystery. I am certain that this incredible structure will once again dry out, continuing to inspire future generations of faithful worshippers and curious visitors.

We wandered along the city’s uneven paving stones for a time, stopping for a late lunch at an inviting restaurant. Then, in the late afternoon, we found our way back to our starting point, boarded a waterbus, and settled in with Venetian commuters for a winding canal journey to Plaza Roma. We transferred once again to the train for a quick ride back to the port and our waiting cruise ship, our floating “hotel.”

My husband and I would disembark the next day. Our plans called for us to pick up a rental car and spend a few days exploring Croatia, before returning to Venice.

The introduction to Venice was not at all what we had expected. It was more than we had hoped.

Surprises in the off-season

The experience was reminiscent of our trip to France in late January and early February of 2018. That year we flew into Paris at a time when the Seine was flooded, and departed two weeks later with snow blanketing the city after a paralyzing blizzard. It was a memorable time, for some of the same reasons.

Paris and Venice. Though distinctly different, both cities boast an abundance of architecture, art, history, culture, food and drink — enough to satisfy the appetite of any traveler. But to experience the cadence of life during imperfect times is an opportunity that not every visitor receives. My husband and I treasure that gift.

Coming posts and photos will chronicle our all-too-short visit to Croatia, as well as the “small-ship experience” aboard Pacific Princess, and our impressions of other ports along the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts.

Please join me for the journey.

So much world to see . . .

It’s already December!

My husband and I returned home tired in the late afternoon of Thanksgiving Day this year, after nearly 24 hours of travel spanning thousands of miles, seven time zones, and airports in four separate countries. We left Venice’s Marco Polo Airport in the rain and fog at first light on Thursday, and landed at sprawling DFW Airport at twilight, in thick fog and persistent drizzle.

The sky in Brussels earlier in the day had been clear, and even though the pilot announced it was blustery and cold in Montreal, the snow had stopped by the time we arrived, leaving only a dusting of white on the ground. It caused minimal delay. On this Thanksgiving Day, I was grateful for the instruments that guided our pilots and for the “weather window” that brought us home on time!

We booked the trip with full knowledge that an end-of-season cruise to Mediterranean and Adriatic ports comes with inherent risk of cool and rainy days, but off-season travel also promises smaller crowds and more chance to interact with local people. We like that. An alluring itinerary combined with the appeal of small-ship cruising aboard the 670-passenger Pacific Princess had sealed the deal for us.

It became an adventure we will not soon forget, marked by minimal deck time, grey skies, winds, occasional high seas, fog and intermittent rain. Some excursions were altered or canceled due to unfavorable conditions. None of that dampened our spirits, because the small-ship experience was much better than we had expected. We feel as if we forged life-long friendships in just 12 days!

Following the cruise, we rented a car and set off to explore the Istrian Peninsula and coastal Croatia for a few days. We ate well, drank local wine and beer, were captivated by the history, enthralled by holiday preparations, and charmed by the people we met along the way.

Mark Twain’s line comes to mind:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Our time away was marked by pleasant days and relaxing evenings, good entertainment, friendly faces, fine food, impressive sights and wonderful experiences. We returned home tired but rejuvenated, filled with delight, invigorated by memories of people and good times. We learned a lot, made new friends, and affirmed once again that travel is indeed the antidote to narrow-mindedness.

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After a brief hiatus from writing about my travels, I am once again ready to tell new stories. I hope you’ll join me: We’ll visit Malta, several Italian ports, San Marino — the oldest republic and one of the smallest sovereign nations on earth, Croatia and Slovenia. Finally, I have pictures of Venice, during the aftermath of the worst flooding in 50 years, illuminating the indomitable spirit of the city’s residents.

There is no doubt that travel changes a person, in a good way!

After the storm . . .

Our Boater’s Diary, dated Sunday, April 12, 2009, contains the following entry:

We did 512 [nautical] miles in the Abacos from the time we left here — quite something! We’re back where we started one month and two days ago — oh, the stories we can tell.

The “here” in that entry was Old Bahama Bay Marina, West End, Grand Bahama Island, then a frequent first stop for Bahamas-bound boaters. Our journey had begun in Palm Beach on March 10, as we set a course east across the Gulf Stream at 7:30 a.m. and left the beachfront high-rise condos of Palm Beach behind. We arrived a little after 3 p.m., and our adventure in a completely different world began.

It has been more than a decade now since my husband and I cruised the northern waters of the Bahamas. Our history with the island chain extends back further than that, however, and our memory bank is full of the good times we had, the places we traveled, the people we met.

And then Dorian pummeled those places that we enjoyed so much and remember so well.

I cannot even imagine the force, power, and destructive energy that accompany a Cat 5 hurricane. We were there during some heavy rainstorms; we weathered some rough seas, with stronger winds than were really comfortable, even on a sturdy motoryacht. But never did we face hurricane force gusts; no storms pounded us with heavy rain for more than 30 hours without a break, nor did we encounter flooding.

I have never personally experienced a major disaster, natural or otherwise. But over the course of many years spent on the water, in vessels small and large, I have seen weather in many forms, and I know how quickly conditions can change. I have known fear, and weathered unexpected squalls with high winds, rough seas and accompanying discomfort. But I have never experienced raw terror.

The sparsely populated, small northern islands of the Bahamas are isolated and uniquely beautiful. Surrounding seas have unpredictable currents, and are generally shallow. Boaters must be diligent when plotting courses, selecting anchorages, and navigating shoals. And then there is the weather. Squalls form quickly in the islands. Typically, they pass quickly as well, but not always.

And, sadly, islands have distinct limitations for leaving quickly when weather conditions turn threatening.

Today, hearing the names of the cities and towns, cays and harbors that have been largely destroyed brings tears: Green Turtle Cay, Treasure Cay, Great Guana Cay, Baker’s Bay, Hope Town, Marsh Harbour, Freeport, West End. And then there are the outlying islands whose names I did not note in the log. Which, if any, of those have survived unchanged?

The wonder of it all is that other islands of the chain suffered minimal damage. Nassau, the capital and currently the staging center for evacuation, damage assessment and recovery efforts, was spared the brunt of the storm. The world is responding to the need for assistance.

Chef Jose Andres has set up shop in Nassau to prepare meals needed by survivors and rescuers. As we have witnessed following other natural disasters, generosity is once again apparent], with private vessels, individuals, governmental agencies, and non-profits all offering aid in diverse forms and limitless amounts.

The U.S. Coast Guard, as always, is on the scene, and major cruise lines have pledged not only money, but ships and crew to help deliver relief supplies, food and medical necessities.

As news photos of the destruction become available, I cannot help but review some of my pictures of the time we spent cruising those waters. The sadness grows as I realize that my images reflect a time that may never come again. But, Bahamian citizens are strong and resilient and I am certain that, in time, the cities and towns will be rebuilt. I look forward to the time when, once again, marinas will be filled with private vessels and smiling people enjoying life and good times in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

In the meantime, donations to agencies offering aid are welcomed.

I understand the sun is shining once again in Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island, and that tiny Hope Town once again may live up to its name. I have not learned the fate of the red and white lighthouse that has stood there since 1862, one of the last kerosene-fueled, manually-operated navigational lighthouses in the world. I climbed to the top of it 10 years ago and savored the view surrounding Elbow Cay. I hope it will still be there if, and when, I am lucky enough to return.

Prime Minister Hubert Minnis expects the death toll to rise over the coming days, and notes that up to 60 percent of the homes in Marsh Harbour, the largest city in the area, have been destroyed. Airports are unusable and life will not return to “normal” for a long while, if ever.

And now, the massive, slow-moving hurricane has turned toward the Outer Banks along the eastern shore of the United States. We can only hope that residents heeded the calls to evacuate and that damage will not be as extensive as currently feared.

Just as a postscript, our return to Florida 10 years ago was delayed for three full days because of stormy weather. We were relatively comfortable at Old Bahama Bay Marina, surrounded by other mariners who also longed to set sail for other places. Finally, on April 15, we did just that. On the crossing, we were boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard; but that’s another story entirely.

The log notes:

“It was quite a crossing. After last night’s storm, it was a bit nervewrackng to check the weather forecast this morning and find that the prediction was for stronger winds from a different direction and more chop than we would have liked. But the weather is supposed to deteriorate again for the next several days, so we are taking our ‘window’ and leaving — as are most other boats, whether they’re heading east or west. We made the cabin secure and watched the power boat ahead of us bob and sway — and we followed.”

Our journey back to Florida spanned eight full hours, until we dropped anchor in the calm waters of Manatee Pocket in Stuart.

We remember it well.

Meeting a Queen

We saw the looming hulk on a Long Beach pier long before the cabbie dropped us off across the parking lot from a recreated English village. The scene, we decided, is meant to recall the waterfront in England when Cunard’s RMS Queen Mary plied the world’s seas. The hour was early, and the village was quiet, and there were few visitors.

A last-minute decision about how best to occupy a slice of time between disembarking from a short cruise and our flight home brought us to the pier to explore this iconic ocean liner now permanently berthed in Southern California. She had a long run on the waters of the North Atlantic, from 1935 through 1967. 

But the ship’s renown extends far beyond that of a luxury liner.

From luxury liner to war service

Converted to serve as a troop carrier during World War II, the ship known as “the grey ghost” transported Allied forces for the duration of the war, along with her sister ship, the RMS Queen Elizabeth. Launched in 1936, and “drafted” for the war effort in February 1944, the Queen Mary received her makeover to Navy Grey in Australia. The Queen Elizabeth first wore the grey coat, and was not repainted with the distinctive Cunard black and red livery until after the war.

100_2001100_1934

My father, as a member of the 364th Fighter Group of the U.S. 8th Air Force, arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, in February 1944, aboard the Queen Elizabeth. The seven-day unescorted journey from New York Harbor was a perilous one, but the ship arrived safely. My father always spoke of her affectionately as “the Lizzie.” After approximately 18 months of service, he returned to the United States aboard the Queen Mary, expecting to be reassigned to the Far East. Thankfully, the war was over before his new orders arrived, and he returned to his home in Montana for the winter of 1945. 

The Queen Mary, however, proceeded on to the Pacific and was reported, mistakenly, to be sunk by Japanese forces on three separate occasions. Following the Japanese surrender, the ship continued to ferry servicemen and war brides for nearly a year after the cessation of battle. She was returned to passenger service in July 1947, following an extensive retrofit that included numerous upgrades. The two Cunard Queens dominated Transatlantic sea crossings for the next 20 years, joined between 1952 and 1969 by the SS United States, of United States Lines.

The age of sea voyages

Other great passenger liners of the time included the France, a French line vessel that sailed the route from 1962 through 1974; Holland America Lines Rotterdam, Nieuw Amsterdam and Statendam; Cristoforo Colombo, an Italian Line ship, carrying passengers on the northern route between 1954 and 1973 when she was reassigned to a more southerly route, and several others that beckoned the adventurous prior to the days of regular intercontinental flights.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and accepted as a “historic hotel” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Queen Mary’s existence as a tourist attraction has been in jeopardy several times.

The ship currently is, once again, in need of some serious repairs and restoration. Today, her interior looks slightly shabby, not nearly as glamorous as a modern cruise ship. But there is an aura of elegance and grit about her that draws crowds.

The Queen Elizabeth, sadly, caught fire and sank in Hong Kong harbor in 1972, after a brief and unsuccessful stint as a hotel and tourist attraction in Florida.

The SS United States is moored at a pier in Philadelphia, awaiting her ultimate fate. Efforts continue to refurbish the ship and preserve it as a combination living history museum and learning center. It would be a fitting testament to the engineering prowess and the vision of naval architect William Francis Gibbs. Built through collaborative effort between private enterprise and the U.S. Navy, the “Big U” also had the ability to serve as troop carrier if the need every arose. It was not necessary. 

The great liners of the past no longer sail the world’s oceans, replaced instead by massive cruising “destination resorts” and fast airliners. Another Cunard ship, the QE2, was launched as a combination liner and cruise ship in 1967; it is now a floating hotel in Dubai, opened just over a year ago in 2018, a decade after being pulled off active service. 

Echoes of long ago

It was both exciting and nostalgic to stand at the pier next to this historic liner. As we boarded, I could almost hear the sounds of laughter that drifted from her decks during her heyday as an ocean-going vessel. I also sensed how confining her below-deck bunks must have been for the thousands of troops she carried to and from war.

The visit was all too short, but it was memorable. The Queen dwarfed the Russian submarine Scorpion, berthed alongside. She lacks the imposing massive girth of today’s cruise “cities,” with their rows of balconied staterooms, upper-deck pools and entertainment regalia. Instead, the vessel appears sleek, elegant and purposeful, designed to plow through the waves with grace.

The interior seems a little dark and somber, but modern shops beckon visitors with ship memorabilia. Polished metal elevator doors are slightly incongruous in tandem with gleaming paneling and muted floral carpet. Numerous wall sconces provide bright spots of light for the subdued interiors. Public spaces are comfortable, but far from dramatic.

The ship has been altered somewhat to serve as a hotel, but many original salons and lounges are intact, along with an iconic writing room that boasts multiple desks. I can clearly envision travelers writing postcards to friends back home!

Wood-floored decks prompt visions of well-dressed passengers enjoying the ultimate “good life on long promenades,” taking advantage of the opportunity to see and be seen while crossing the Atlantic.

Running on raw power

It was standing in the belly of the ship, in the cavernous original engine room, however, that the massive ship became real. It captured our attention, our imagination, and our hearts.

Today’s cruise ships generate more power, to be sure, but they move no faster and do not require the same kind of focused teamwork, the constant human energy that carried the Queen on her journeys. Old steamships are something to behold, even when at rest.

I have no idea how many crew members labored in the multi-story depths of the ship. I do know that the staircases and catwalks, the controls and gauges, the gleaming equipment, the bells and whistles (yes, really) were enough to confound us. It must also have been deafening down below, requiring hot, tedious and exacting work.

The ship was originally fitted with four turbines in two separate engine rooms, and 24 boilers in four boiler rooms, all designed to turn four propellers.  During sea trials in 1936, the ship recorded a speed of 32.84 knots, or nearly 37.8 mph.

The ship captured the Blue Riband speed trophy for Atlantic crossings in August of 1936 from the French ship Normandie, but briefly lost it the following year, only to regain it once again in 1938 with an eastbound speed of 30.99 knots, and a time of 3 days, 21 hours, 48 minutes.

That record held for 14 years, until the SS United States broke the record with a time of 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, at a speed of 35.59 knots eastbound, and 34.51 knots on the westbound leg. The return trip, which also set a record, took only about 2 1/2 hours longer, due to prevailing currents.

That record-breaking event began, incidentally, on July 3, 1952, when the ship left New York Harbor on her maiden voyage. 

Past glories live on . . .

Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to take the guided tour, nor could we see the full video presentation that was offered. We did not have time for lunch aboard ship, and we did not make the trip up to the bridge. But our brief visit to the Queen Mary was well worth the itinerary detour. It was educational and emotional, reminiscent of bygone times that now are recounted only in the history books. 

We spent more time in the model room than we had intended, comparing features of many of the well-known liners, including the ill-fated Titanic, Lusitania, and Andrea Doria. We were entranced by the detail.

Today we cross the Atlantic in modern aircraft in mere hours. We cross it in floating entertainment palaces with more amenities, attractions and activities than many land-based resorts. We have options. But the refined elegance of travel on these iconic ocean liners, when options were limited and it was all about the journey, has been forever lost.

It’s good to step into the past, if only for the brief reminder of what once was.

Cuba: The ‘after’ story

Cuba is enigmatic – especially for Americans, whose contact with the island nation so close to US shores has been forbidden for so long. But even other nationalities are eager to see this tiny Communist country that has been embroiled in turmoil for at least the past six decades.

Read my account of how this trip came about.

As our shipload of 2,000 plus passengers departed from Key West, the excitement was palpable.

Havana lay just to the southeast. A reasonably swift vessel could make the 90-mile passage comfortably in about six hours. However, in order to adhere to a set schedule that would allow an entire day in Havana, the captain of Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas slowed ship engines almost to idle. Crossing the Strait separating Florida and Cuba would take more than 14 hours. We departed Key West at 5 p.m., with no chance to enjoy either Mallory Square’s street performers or the famed sunset.

Then, even though we were on deck at first light the following morning, we did not catch a sunrise view of el Morro Castle or the lighthouse at the harbor entrance except in shadow. Our first real daylight view was of decaying warehouse structures lining the dock on our vessel’s starboard side.

It was a shock.

First thoughts about Havana

Old Havana lies just beyond what was once a thriving commercial seaport, according to our map, but out of view. We could not yet see the Plaza de San Francisco,first laid out in the 16th Century, nor its impressive fountain and ancient basilica dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi. We saw a few spires, glimpsed brightly-painted buildings and followed dock workers and delivery vans as the morning dawned.

On the street, old buses, small vehicles, and horse-drawn wagons rambled along the uneven stones. We did not yet see the gleaming vintage automobiles we expected.

Our impression was of a city waking up and readying itself for the day; however, there seemed to be no urgency in the movements. We had been told that commerce progresses in Havana on “Cuban time.” We wondered if the onslaught of visitors was a welcome occurrence now that cruise ships call regularly in Havana.

The transition was immediate. We had been transported overnight back across decades to a place that we did not recognize. even from the pictures we had seen.

 

In all the magazine stories I had read about contemporary Cuba, I had never, to my knowledge, seen a picture that depicted age and disrepair in such a graphic manner. Was this the effect of being cut off from the rest of the world for so long, I wondered?

In the distance, above other roofs, two impressive gold-clad onion domes caught our attention and drew our wonder in the thin early morning light. We learned later that 100_1143they are atop the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. It was built under the aegis of Fidel Castro, as a lasting monument to Russian-Cuban friendship, according to his memoirs, and was consecrated October 19, 2008, with Raul Castro in attendance.

Across the harbor, we gazed at the impressive bulk of the white marble Christ of Havana statue, the work of Cuban artist Hilma Madera. It was commissioned in 1953 IMG_3930and inaugurated in 1958, facing east, looking over the city with one arm raised in blessing upon the land and people. Incidentally, only two weeks later, Fidel Castro brought the tide of revolution to Havana. The history of Cuba was forever altered.

The 67 huge blocks of Carrara marble used to form the sculpture, the same type of stone that also graces tombstones in Havana’s sprawling Colon Cemetery, had been personally blessed by Pope Pius XII before leaving Italy.

Stepping onto Cuban soil . . .

The ship was quickly and efficiently cleared by officials. Eager passengers began to make their way to the modern interior of the Terminal Sierra Maestra. 100_1198 (2)Heat and humidity settled upon us, but Cuban officials in the bright and airy non-air-conditioned space seemed not to notice.

We had been cautioned not to snap photographs inside the port building. Functionally laid out, the terminal is designed to process visitors efficiently, not as a space to linger, to shop or to socialize. There were no cautionary signs, but we obeyed the rules as smartly-uniformed customs and immigration officials and currency exchange personnel quickly dispatched us onto by-now bustling city streets or to waiting tour buses.

If only we could shed our preconceptions, I mused—about people and places and cultures—as easily as we shed our clothes in a tropical island setting. I thought about those preconceptions as I disembarked in Cuba. The carefree ambience of Cuba was nowhere to be seen. Somehow, I felt very American at that moment, and was mildly disappointed that there were no welcoming musicians or souvenir-sellers. 

At first glance, Cuba was not at all what I had expected.

Cuba demystified

Despite the relative ease with which an American can now visit Cuba, it is not at all routine. A visa is required, a relatively simple procedure, but it comes at a cost of $75 per person when processed by the cruise line. There are rules and specific guidelines for filling out the forms, depending on the specific category of authorized travel. Visiting Cuba simply as a “tourist” is still not a valid option for Americans. Travel as a journalist, for humanitarian, agricultural or educational purposes, and for specific other reasons is allowed, but there are strings attached.

Participation in some sort of cultural exchange is a requirement, under “people-to-people” guidelines that are well-defined and controlled. Half and full-day tours of many types can be booked through the cruise line; third-party excursions are available. We chose the latter; two separate excursions from two different sanctioned companies. We also built in a few hours of time on our own with thoughts of a museum visit or a leisurely lunch or dinner.

Discovering Havana on foot

We first strolled through Old Havana on our way to meet up with a designated guide. Our planned walking tour promised a sampling of traditional “street food.” We stopped for a morning coffee at an outdoor café where the menu surprise was espresso delivered with a cigar on the side. We opted to forego the cigar, ordering tall iced coffees instead. Served with ice cream, they were cooling and delicious on a morning already steamy with tropical heat! Service was prompt and cordial, and prices were reasonable.

This was no ordinary tour, and the conversation was as satisfying as the food samples.

 

Our group of six enjoyed typical fried treats, akin in some ways to warm American jelly-filled doughnuts, followed by pizza slices, chocolate-covered ice cream on a stick, cooling fresh fruit cocktails, and roasted ears of corn dripping with melted butter!

Our young guide, Marcos, 100_1329 a history student at University, was knowledgeable and informative, even leading us to a local B&B to see typical tourist accommodations and meet the proprietors. He gave an impromptu history lesson, answered all the questions we asked, and our time with him concluded over shared beers at a delightful local establishment on another old city square.

Walking through La Habana Vieja is quite an experience!

. . . and from the backseat of a convertible

A bit later in the day, we embarked on our second scheduled Havana experience. We had booked three hours with a car, driver and guide for a tour that would take us to many of the various neighborhoods that comprise Havana, a city that is now home to more than two million people.

Yes, the car was vintage American, a 1958 Thunderbird convertible; bright red, shiny and impressive despite its age, still with its original engine. And Florida plates!wp_20181018_14_45_59_pro1.jpgIt was a whirlwind excursion; we saw ancient forts, business and residential districts, numerous monuments and families out to enjoy the city’s parks and playgrounds. We drove past massive art galleries, the national opera house, expensive hotels, stark Russian apartment buildings, modern steel and glass office buildings, and residential areas crowded with nondescript apartments. We drove the five-mile length of the Malecon, a broad avenue and seawall bordering the bay and frequented, perhaps equally, by fishermen and lovers, according to our guide.

We returned once again to Old Havana, circling el Capitolio, completed in 1929 as the seat of government. Following the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the “House of the People”100_1286 had no real purpose, and today it is home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences. Its dome has been under repair for the past several years, but the building and its adjacent statuary are still impressive.

We both walked and drove past La Floridita, the bar that served Ernest Hemingway’s 100_1307 (2)favored daiquiri. The stool he occupied when he drank there is said to be cordoned off with a velvet rope.

So much to see and do

We also drove past former mansions and beautiful seaside estates, remnants of an age when Havana was the playground of the rich and famous; when what was characterized as “the good life” was also rife with mafia activity. Some storied nightclubs and bars from Havana’s glory days still exist, and overnight visitors have the opportunity to drink and dine in the outdoor atmosphere of the fabled Tropicana Club and former casino.

We sipped Mojitos from a street vendor at the site of el Morro, were awed by the view of the city from hilltop site of the looming Christ statue, and were mesmerized

 

by the park that has preserved remnants of the military exploits on Cuban soil, including missiles and wing pieces of American planes.

Revolution Square and those bigger than life likenesses of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara will be forever etched in memory. So, too, will the sight of the American flag

 

waving from its pole on the grounds of an embassy now staffed only by a skeleton force of diplomats. An August 28, 2018, U.S. State Department advisory once again recommended “Increased Caution” for American travelers to Cuba, following the illnesses and purported “attacks” on embassy personnel.

Toward the end of the afternoon, we visited Havana’s “forest,” a sprawling domain of greenery that winds along what is, sadly, a polluted river. Families still picnic by the river, however. Amid the overhanging boughs and grassy expanse, we sipped icy Pina Coladas, savoring a day filled with new insights and a wealth of lasting impressions, before our classic red Thunderbird returned us to the cruise ship terminal.

100_1523

The takeaway:

Cuba is a sensory experience. We sailed away that evening in deepening twilight, with100_1563 an overwhelming sense that we had barely scratched the surface of Havana, let alone the country, during our brief encounter. The next morning at breakfast onboard, our table-mates agreed that it will take some time to process the total experience. Now, after a full week to consider, my husband and I are still attempting to digest all that we saw and did during our 12-hour stay in Havana. It was not long enough. And, although not my preferred way to visit a country for the first time, it was a delicious and uniquely palatable first taste.

Its people are charming, proud, gregarious, curious, talkative, hopeful, guarded and resigned — all at the same time. Cuba cannot be easily dismissed, even after such a short stay.

Do I want to return? As yet, I have not decided. For now it is enough to report that a cruise ship call in Cuba is unlike a port visit to any other nation on earth.

It changes a person.

I have many more thoughts to share: Look for additional insights and photos Wednesday, October 31.