In sounding off about our first Royal Caribbean cruising journey 3 weeks ago and arriving back in Newark, N.J. to an 8 inch snowfall, I sang my own Zac Brown parody: I had my toes in the water, butt in the sand, now my sandals are full of snow, so long tan.
Even though the Northeast weather frankly acted like normal, it’s comforting to know that San Juan, Puerto Rico with its’ sunny, 85 degree weather, white sand and clear blue water is only a five hour flight away from the snowy abyss. This also happens to be the wintering area for our “Adventure of the Sea” behemoth cruise ship.
The cruise ship vacation idea has been on our minds (my wife’s mostly) for years and has received glowing endorsements from many in our farming circles who have island hopped. The baby that I am, I poo-pooed the idea always citing the cost, leaving the cows, flying at 36,000 feet, big waves and the “in the news” problems with big ships, for not going.
It was actually pretty selfish to cast off my wife’s desire to experience the Caribbean on her birthday. It became apparent to develop a year-long plan to make it happen that would ease me my trepidation, not knowing I was to survive a heart attack in December. It was a stark reminder to live life to the fullest.
Enter our enthusiastic, cruising mentor friends from New Jersey and Canada; Stan, Christine, Luke and Janique who have a combined 28 ship sojourns on the high seas. Their advice was invaluable in booking the trip, picking island excursions, navigating the taxi and tipping scene and showing us the nuances of ship living etiquette. Our 7 day voyage included ports of call in Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten, and St. Croix.
As a farmer, I was awed by this majestic sea creature. The boat (As I kept calling it) was a 137 ton, 3 football field long, 15 story high, engineering marvel of human ingenuity and extravagance. The floating hulk housed 3000 guests and 1100 crew members and contained 3 pools, 4 hot-tubs, countless bars and dining areas, a spa, a casino, several shops, a rock climbing wall, skating rink, show venues and 8 elevators.
On our full sea day (550 miles) from San Juan to Barbados, I learned why folks liked cruising. The seas were calm, the sun warmed and burned this scary, white body and with a swipe of a card, I could get all the food and drink I wanted delivered to my lounge chair. Yes ladies and gentlemen, this was a human feedlot of the seas, and I liked it—–for awhile. . .
The captain joy-sticked the luxury-liner into Bridgetown’s port with surgical precision from the ship’s bridge which was no bigger than a chicken coop. Upon disembarking on tours of the 5 islands, the comedic captain always reminded us to take our cameras, so if we missed the 4:30pm cast off, we’d get a nice photo as it sailed away! That ship was on a tight schedule.
Marcus the cab driver darn near gave me another heart attack driving on the “wrong” side of the road while navigating people, winding mountain curves and roundabouts. He took us to the Mount Gay Rum Factory (est. 1703) so we could learn about the rum making history from its coral-limestone aquifers and sugar cane network, get our 6 morning shots and realize the company’s slogan of “There’s a time and a place” which as the Caribbean island excursions exemplified, seemed more like anytime. We then toured a sugar cane factory and museum as we darted around welders in our flip-flops, no doubt a tad lax on regulations. We then ended up at the spectacular, mammoth Bathsheba Rock.
Along the way as the grass whisperer surfaced from vacationer mode, I saw deplorable grazing conditions trying to support “see-thru” sheep tempered with a few well-managed pastures of fat cattle and busy egrets harvesting the bugs. In my mind, the islands we visited were fraught with silvo-pasture opportunities in desperate need of grazing practitioners to manage livestock and land and build a network of farmers to better feed their communities and all the tourists while improving water infiltration and keeping the environment camera friendly. In my mind, a beautiful island pasture is as good as any beach.
Our daytrips took us on a catamaran to the Pitons of St. Lucia, horseback riding along Fort James Beach in Antigua, basking in the sun along the Orient Beaches (partial nudity allowed) of St. Maarten and snorkeling along the pristine reef of Buck Island in St. Croix with the mates from the Big Beard’s Adventure Tours. All this daily activity usually ushered in a late afternoon nap on the ship sprinkled with copious amounts of mint & lime-infused rum mojitos, bloody Caesars, Coronas and finger foods as the sun set on the horizon.
At 8:30pm we went to a formal dinner, where staff would swoon over us with even more delicious entrees and desserts until a food coma rendered you, incapacitated. By the end of the week, this grazier clearly understands what “compensatory gain” means. About this time, I started to really notice people’s change of behavior from all this overindulgence. They had this air of entitlement and wasted massive amounts of food together with treating the crew like pawns. As a blue collar farmer, this seemed unacceptable to just feed it to the fish.
So I asked our awesome cabin steward, Marco, who would surprise us every day with towel animals (he could make 37 different kinds!) about this working life at sea. His sweaty brow, body language and eyes clearly signaled that this 18 hour, 7 day a week for 7 months, low paying job away from his family in Guatemala was no picnic. His work ethic grounded me and made me appreciate ALL the crew members, realizing fancy ships don’t run themselves. The lack of a transparent, equitable pay structure and living conditions for employees while always chasing tips tempered some of my enthusiasm for investing in the cruise ship machine.
Overall, my wife and I found the experience in seeing many new places and cultures via a cruise ship to be memorable for many different reasons. The scenery alone was spectacular. It allowed us to relax and recharge our batteries. It was a good conduit to meet new people from all over the world. It allowed us the freedom to dream. It gave our kids a chance to mind the farm and gave us the confidence to trust in others as we may find other getaway (hint, hint) opportunities.
For me, the adage of toes in the sand and cold drink in my hand will have to do until I can run barefoot in the grass again.
Published in Country Folks and The Country Editor