There’s no place like home
I’ve enjoyed many cruises since our family went to England on the Queen Mary in 1952. What a memorable trip that was! My wife and I have enjoyed around 40 cruises over the last 50 some years, some on big boats like the Queen Mary, the Queen Victoria and the Crystal Cruise line. And many on smaller boats to exotic places like Bali and even Yemen and Djibouti.
In the 1980’s when the kids were teenagers, we sailed our own sailboat through the leeward islands of the Caribbean, one of the best boating experiences of my life. But we didn’t get to the “ABC” islands, Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. So this year we decided to take a cruise through the Caribbean islands, including the ABC islands, and we found the perfect itinerary on a Celebrity cruise line. The boat was well equipped, the service, while poorly trained, was well intentioned and friendly, and the range and quality of food was so excellent we rarely ate on shore. In fact, if the French specialty restaurant were in Los Angeles, and Michelin was still giving stars, it would get at least one! The cabin was comfortable with a nice balcony which let us look out at the islands when in port.
From Fort Lauderdale Florida the ship first went to Antigua, Barbados, St. Lucia and Grenada.
We were surprised at the change in this first group of islands. Forty years ago there was an indigenous food culture. All that is gone. In most of the ports all I saw were U.S. style fast foods, like hamburgers, interspersed between tourist stores. I searched but didn’t find one good local restaurant in any of those islands, unlike 40 years ago.
After some time at sea, we arrived at the “ABC” islands. This part of the itinerary turned out to be as interesting as we had hoped.
In terms of culture and infrastructure, it was interesting that each island visited was more advanced than the last. Antigua reminded me of Tijuana 60 years ago, while Aruba was a modern, busy cosmopolitan shoppers’ paradise. While the local food on the leeward islands was not so good, on the ABC islands, which are so much more advanced, it was a different story. We had a great seafood lunch in a marina in Aruba, where we made friends with the folks at the table next to us from Russia. He was a really big guy, from a really big yacht in the harbor, with a really beautiful tall blond wife decked out with beautiful jewelry.
In spite of these good features the trip was less than perfect, and we would never go on a Celebrity cruise again. As I learned in business school, management is everything. Below are just a few of the many problems we suffered through on the cruise:
So with a well-designed boat, good food, nice staff, what can go wrong? Let me just recite some of the problems we encountered so you can watch out for them in the future.
Number one, and the most distressing was the medical service. Who wants to go on a cruise without a good doctor on board? I had slight stomach pains and a bit of diarrhea one day. I always carry modium when I travel just for that problem. On this trip I had run out and failed to refill. So I went to the ship doctor. His receptionist asked me when the problem started and I said today. To which she replied “the doctor doesn’t treat patients with just one episode of diarrhea!” She didn’t offer take my temperature and wouldn’t give me any modium just in case.
The next day I had a really bad bout of diarrhea and I was really sick all day. The following day it started to ameliorate and I recovered — no thanks to the doctor.
Number two, I think there were three thousand people on board. Whatever the number, there was not enough staff to handle them, and there were frequently long lines to get anywhere. Inadequate staffing was clearly a problem.
Number three was poor organization of the trips off the boat. On one snorkeling venture on a catamaran they motored a few miles out to sea (it seems they never use the sails) where the seas were rough and there was a lot of wind. I passed on the snorkeling. Then they went to a beach and that was calm and that was where the locals were snorkeling. On another snorkeling trip the motor went out, and they didn’t know how to sail back, and didn’t have a rescue boat on tap, so the boat just sat there wallowing in the sea for two hours until another boat towed it in.
On the other hand, a trip in a semi submarine was great, with a good guide, and we saw a turtle, a school of Barracudas, and dozens of schools of different fish as well as a sunken German boat from around 1940 deliberately sabotaged by the skipper rather than return to Germany, which had just invaded Poland. Smart guy who, with his crew, probably lived happily ever after in the islands.
Number four, no one checked the volume levels of the sound amplification, nor gave any training on the use of a microphone. The board had a central opening and when the band was playing on the bottom floor very loud music permeated throughout much of the boat. Lots of people liked it and were dancing to it, but for us it was a distraction, and it totally wiped out any chance to hear the waiter in the 5th level sushi bar. The same was true of some of the guest speakers, although the singing and dancing shows were generally OK. The worst case was a bus driver on Antigua who had the microphone in one hand pressed against his mouth. Between his accent and the poor use of the microphone we didn’t understand much of what he said, but we were concerned about his erratic one-handed driving on a narrow, bumpy road, with oncoming cars seemingly playing “chicken.”
Aruba had a lot of infrastructure and shopping centers with a Wendy’s, KFC and all the other familiar faces, and downtown shopping was like being on 5th Avenue in New York. Curaçao was much less developed, and Bonaire was a small town. I was disappointed to find that all of the Indonesian “rice table” restaurants in Curacao were out of business. It was almost impossible to find a restaurant with local foods, and we ended up in a buffet with a Chinese name, but the food was nondescript.
I could go on and on with this subject, but let me get to the point: the islands in the Caribbean are well worth visiting, especially the well-developed ABC islands. If you are a beach person there are some of the best beaches anywhere — although I find them too windy. If you can get on a sailboat this is one of the best sailing areas in the world — maybe the best. BUT, the food is better in Santa Monica. The weather is better in San Diego. The snorkeling is almost as good in the Channel Islands, especially Santa Cruz island. And it’s not as windy. We should be so grateful to live in California.
Merv Hecht, like many Harvard Law School graduates, went into the wine business after law. In 1988, he began writing restaurant reviews and books. His latest book is “The Instant Wine Connoisseur” and it is available on Amazon. Or you might like his attempt at humor in “Great Cases I Lost.” He currently works for several companies that source and distribute food and beverages, including wines, internationally. Please send your comments to: email@example.com.