Cruising Around the Caribbean – Part 4

I was rambling about nothing in particular, frozen daquiri in hand, the edible lime-flavored straw halfway eaten, when Aaron suddenly went “Shhh…you hear that?”

“Whaa?” I burbled, blinking at him in the sun.

Without answering, he got up from his sunbed and walked over to where he could hear better the announcement coming over the intercom. The captain was saying something. There was a lull in the ship’s partying, a collective hush which swept across the deck that spoke to a hundred suspended cocktail glasses.

I waited anxiously for Aaron to return. Even though I couldn’t make out what the captain was saying, I could sense that it was important. Something had changed in the air.

“Our itinerary has changed. We’re no longer going to Jamaica or Grand Cayman,” Aaron said when he returned.

“You what?”

“We’re going to Key West and Belize instead.”

“Corona?”

“Corona.”

We understood at this moment that we hadn’t left the real world behind on land after all. All around the world, countries were closing their ports in the hope of stemming the spread of the virus. Cruise ships, whose AC systems mix outside air with inside air in order to save energy- and can’t filter out particles as small as the Coronavirus, represented a legitimate threat as harbingers of the pandemic. I’d read about ships in the Far East that had been denied entry to ports such as Singapore. Throughout February there seemed to be more and more reports of restrictions on Chinese travelers, of ruined vacations, and a concerning number of ships in quarantine.

Our original itinerary was supposed to go like this:

DAY ONE: Galveston
DAY TWO: Day at Sea
DAY THREE: Day at Sea
DAY FOUR: Montego Bay, Jamaica
DAY FIVE: Georgetown, Grand Cayman
DAY SIX: Cozumel, Mexico
DAY SEVEN: Day at Sea
DAY EIGHT: Galveston

We had planned everything carefully in advance, booking excursions in Montego Bay and Cozumel while leaving Georgetown free for a day of spontaneous exploring. Therefore, the loss of Grand Cayman on Day Five wasn’t a big deal. We were getting Belize, which seemed to me a like-for-like swap. Cozumel was still going ahead as planned, so that was all good. The biggest hit to our plans was Montego Bay, not just because we had booked a sweet-ass excursion at a luxury resort, but because Jamaica was kind of like the crown jewel of our trip. The inclusion of Jamaica in the itinerary was the main reason we had purchased this particular cruise, and it was the place that seemed to us the most interesting and exotic to visit.

So, we were a little bummed to be missing out on the thing we were looking forward to most, but we weren’t upset or angry or anything like that. If anything, we felt incredibly lucky. We knew how serious an issue the virus represented to cruise ships, and the fact that our cruise was even running at all was extremely fortunate. The whole thing could just as easily have been cancelled- as indeed all Carnival Cruises would be a mere week later. And it’s not like we wouldn’t be getting a full cruise experience- instead of simply cancelling our ports of call, Carnival had replaced them. You can’t argue with that, really.

Our cruise itinerary now looked like this:

DAY ONE: Galveston
DAY TWO: Day at Sea
DAY THREE: Key West, Florida
DAY FOUR: Day at Sea
DAY FIVE: Belize
DAY SIX: Cozumel, Mexico
DAY SEVEN: Day at Sea
DAY EIGHT: Galveston

Of course, we were immediately refunded for the resort we booked at Montego Bay, and we now had to act fast to find something for our new ports of call. There’s no internet onboard the ship unless you pay for it (I mean, why would you want to…) but you can connect to the Carnival App at any time you like in order to book things or access your billing information. By lunchtime, everyone on the Freedom was scrolling frantically through their Carnival Apps to find replacement excursions before the available slots filled up.

Nothing really tickled our fancy in Key West so we quickly decided to make that our freeform exploration day. As for Belize, there seemed to be quite a few interesting options. Swim with Stingrays, Swim with Dolphins, Snorkeling, Kayak Eco-Tours, Inland River Cruises, Tubing through Crystal Caves, Hike toward Mayan Ruins, Luxury Resorts and Waterparks, et cetera. We were spoiled for choice really. But places were filling up fast.

We weighed up the pros and cons of each one. Although a river cruise that ended with a visit to a lost Mayan city in the jungle sounded good on paper, we knew that the reality of such a trip would involve a lot of travel time and not as much relaxation. We also came close to booking a couple other things, but ultimately decided on a Snorkeling Tour at a private atoll in the sea.

With that sorted, we could continue enjoying our first full day aboard the Freedom. Among our favorite places to drink was the Redfrog Pub on Deck Five, where I had my first ever Piña Colada. Each drinking establishment on the ship has its own unique style and its own specific menu. There are specific cocktails and craft beers that you can only get at certain places, so you have to do some exploring to discover them.

Wherever we went we liked to get a pitcher of something. A typical scene would see us pouring each other drinks and commenting on various things we saw or overheard. Ted had found a young fellow at the bar of the Redfrog Pub with his face in his hands, nails slowly drawing blood from his temple.

“You alright there, buddy?” Ted asked him.

“I was meant to be getting married in Jamaica,” the man answered him. “All of our guests already flew out there, and now we won’t make it.”

“I think you’re gonna need another drink,” Ted told him.

Everywhere we went we kept catching fragments of conversations, with the one constant being the word “Corona”. It wasn’t something that dominated our vacation, but it wasn’t entirely absent from our minds either.

That evening we attended the first of the Freedom’s “elegant evenings” where you have to dress nice at dinner. Chinos and button-downs for the lads, dresses for the ladies. Some passengers had less fucks to give than an arthritic panda, brazenly strutting into the dining room with NASCAR graphic tees tucked into their jeans.

The dining room was probably my favorite place onboard the ship, which might sound like I’m trying to be funny in that I’m-Such-A-Fatty kind of way, but the reason I liked it so much wasn’t necessarily the food itself (although the food was very good). I liked it because it had a slow pace and we were treated so well. The staff in general were the most impressive aspect of the cruise experience, and the servers at the restaurant were the epitome of that excellence. We had the same table every night and the same two servers, Pattira from Thailand and Juan Carlos from Ecuador. We didn’t have to check in, scan our cards, or wait to be seated- we could just walk through the door to our designated table and within seconds Pattira’s warm voice would be at our shoulder, asking us how we were doing and pouring us ice-cold water from a pitcher.

I’m used to the idea that servers will work hard for tips, but these guys seemed to go above and beyond the call of duty. They always seemed genuinely interested in being our friends, and not once did I get the impression that their kindness was artificial in some way. We were also allowed to order as many dishes off the menu as we liked- everything (except the drinks) was included in the price of our tickets. So each evening saw us order multiple appetizers, entrées, and desserts. By the end of the night we were fit to burst, and remained chatting with Pattira and Juan Carlos long after we had finished.

The subject of the itinerary change came up, and our servers said “We hate to see the passengers disappointed; it makes us very sad.”

The overall vibe was that the passengers’ comfort was the staff’s top priority. Everything had to go smoothly, and if it didn’t, there were always profuse apologies over the intercom. But I don’t see how anyone could have blamed Carnival for two countries closing their ports. I think Carnival was informed of this decision before we set sail (or at least, predicted that it would happen) because the contingency plan kicked in quick. Our menus for the evening even reflected our new ports of call, Florida and Belize. Maybe cruise lines were used to making adjustments on the fly, pandemic or no pandemic.

I mean, sure, I know it’s their jobs and all that, but I was still touched by Pattira and Juan Carlos’ solemn concern for our vacation. I try never to take good service or hospitality for granted- after all I work in a restaurant myself. My friends are servers and sometimes I take meals out as well. It’s strange how easily people slip into the attitude that they ought to be pampered, and there have been times at work where particularly rude customers have reduced some of my friends to tears. I could only imagine that it must be worse on a cruise ship. Think about it, if people get carried away with their own self-importance just going out for beef stew at their local, then what are they capable of when they’re on a vacation they’ve been planning for months?

We insisted to our servers that we weren’t unhappy with the change, and they wished us well for the next day.

Everyone was in good spirits. I’d just eaten lobster tail and prime rib for dinner. I’d ordered another cocktail on the grounds of “Fuck it”. We were being treated very well and had a lot to be thankful for. Things weren’t going exactly as they had been planned, but it’s not like that time four years ago where we were stranded in Toulouse for two days and missed out on a bunch of things I’d booked for us in Barcelona. And even then, that experience provided us with stories we find no end of amusement in retelling over and over again.

The next morning we would wake up to find ourselves docked in Key West, and as we went to bed that night we wondered what stories we would tell about that place in the future.

2 Replies to “Cruising Around the Caribbean – Part 4”

  1. I’m so sorry to hear about that guy missing his wedding, but Jamaica is a 3rd world country so we have to be very proactive since we don’t have a lot of resources. I doubt the replacement ports could replace my beautiful island, but I hope you had a lovely time regardless. Stay safe!

    Liked by 1 person

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