Cruises with Friends…and the Loss of a Dear Companion

January passed aboard Independence rather uneventfully, with Ole doing his routine, and me reading everything in sight, when not going ashore in Cozumel, Costa Maya, Belize, St. Maarten, St. Thomas, San Juan, and Labadee.

Speaking of Labadee, we were headed there, scheduled to call in just three days after the massive earthquake. Sentiment aboard the ship was mixed, with some folks eager to do what they could to help, and others uncomfortable with the thought of playing at the beach on an island with devastation just a hundred miles away. I’ve got to hand it to Royal Caribbean, though, for compassion and organization. During our call at San Juan on Thursday, the ship was able to pick up and deliver many pallets of water and medical supplies to offload in the hopes it could get transported to where it was most needed. Furthermore, the ship and the company decided to donate all revenue generated on the beach that day toward the earthquake relief. When you consider that there are ship calls by Royal Caribbean there five days a week, many locals are employed that would have been left devastated had the ships not called. On the evening before the first scheduled port call, the ship’s captain made an announcement to that effect, and received a standing ovation.

Al and Jan Furtado, friends of ours from the Pompano Beach Power Squadron, joined us for a cruise departing on the 17th. It was good to see them and catch up on old times.

Maggie and Bud Husted, dear friends from our former marina in Ft. Lauderdale, were able to come with us on an eastbound cruise, and bring much missed mail, PassageMaker magazines, and boat parts with them. Some of the fun during their cruise included a group of Elvis impersonators, who gave a benefit performance on the last sea day, to the delight of everyone. And Maggie, unable to sleep one night, managed to hit it big in the casino!!! While they were aboard, Maggie and I took a cab to Marigot on the French side of St. Maarten, where I hadn’t been in 25 years. Bud attempted fishing, meaning he went out in a boat with several folks who got seasick. The three of us rented a cab in St. Thomas and took a great tour around the island, and in San Juan we hiked up to El Morro, the fortress that guards the entrance to San Juan harbor. In Labadee, we sat in the shade, and Maggie was able to find some garden fancies at the craft shop.


Our cruise with them was darkened by the news that our beloved feline companion of nearly 16 years, Mary Margaret von Stripenfurs, passed over the rainbow bridge to the clearing at the end of the path on Friday, January 29, at 2:15 in the afternoon. Dale and Linda followed our instructions and buried her at sea in the Secas islands, with a catnip mouse for company. We will miss her sorely. Her crankiness, her beauty, her sweet voice, and her outrageous purring gave us many happy years. Rest in Peace, dear pussycat.



Holidays Back on the Big Ship

Aboard Independence of the Seas

Life onboard has been very quiet this month, with an outbreak prevention protocol in place to eliminate any whisper of norovirus onboard.  Therefore the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations were subdued, with traditional offerings available in the staff mess.  Although we had a great Christmas tree and the usual Christmas Eve glogg celebration in our cabin, the mood was a bit gloomy without the usual Norwegian food and trimmings.

The ship did a beautiful job at celebrating, though, and Ole got to drive the zamboni prior to our joining the staff for a carol sing and midnight mass in the theater.  New Year’s Eve found us on the Royal Promenade with at least 3,000 other happy souls while the 10,000 or so champagne-colored balloons dropped from the ceiling.  Hope 2010 holds many good things for all of us!

A Welcome Visitor Joins us from Norway

Aboard Independence of the Seas

The first part of August was fairly routine, with Ole working long days and me holing up in the Cigar Bar (my “office”) to read and enjoy my daily latte. Afternoons were taken up by reading, keeping up with the news, and painting.

Ole and Andreas atop Gibraltar

The routine was changed with the welcome arrival of Andreas, Ole’s oldest son, on the 15th of August for two weeks of living the high life. Andreas and I managed to get ashore in every port, doing everything from walking tours on our own to ship-sponsored excursions, understanding that Ole could get ashore only occasionally.

The first port call, Gibraltar, Ole and Andreas went on a taxi tour up to the top of the rock, but were disappointed because there were so many people with two ships in, they didn’t get a chance to see the apes.

Poetto Beach, Sardinia

We lucked out in Sardinia, though, and caught a city bus together to go out to Poetto Beach, touted to be one of the best in the Mediterranean. It was pleasant, but crowded – and after having had so much solitary beach time on Emma Jo, we realized it just wasn’t our cup of tea to stack ourselves up cheek by jowl with thousands of strangers.

Andreas and I took the bus to Florence, and walked around on our own. He was stunned by the art and architecture, and was great company. We found a great little restaurant located in an interior courtyard away from the teeming tourists and had authentic pizza.

In Cannes, we opted to just take a walk, visiting the theater and investigating the famous handprints (the other end of Grauman’s Chinese Theater) lining the sidewalks.

We opted to explore Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral on our own, and it was by far the highlight of the entire summer. Taking the Metro from Las Ramblas, we stood in line perhaps 10 minutes, paid our admission, and rented the audio guide for an additional fee. We were glad we did. This cathedral is a work in progress, started in the early 1900s, and designed by a heretical architect named Antonio Gaudi, who was so far ahead of his time that his contemporaries must have thought him crazy. Having seen St. Peter’s in Rome, the Duomo in Florence, and Chartres and Notre Dame in France, I can honestly say this building is the most spiritual building I’ve ever seen. We walked around the outside, through the inside, and spent nearly three hours in awe of the scale and symbolism of the place. Words just can’t do it justice – the best I can say is that the cathedral appeals to anyone of any religion, and feels like a forest inside, the vault being constructed of columns of differing material, and the ceiling being supported by branches and decorated with carved abstract leaves. I’ll direct you to a link, here, that will provide more detail, but in the meantime, here are a few photos.

Both Andreas and I were thrilled to have seen this in our lifetimes. We wrapped up our visit with an obligatory call in at the Barcelona Hard Rock (Andreas is a collector) for overpriced burgers and loud rock and roll, strolling the Rambla back to the shuttle bus.

Lisbon also presented the Hard Rock challenge, so we explored the Metro, found the t-shirt, and walked Rossio Square, stopping for a cold one on a charming side street.

In Malaga, we took a short tour by horse-drawn carriage, and just strolled through town, stopping to have a coffee and a snack.

Medieval Village on Spain/Portugal Border

We took a ship-sponsored excursion in Vigo up to the Portuguese border and visited a small medieval walled city as well as the fortress in Vigo that has been converted to a park.

It was hard to say goodbye on the 29th, but we felt so lucky to be able to share the ship and all of the experiences with Andreas. Hope it won’t be too long before he comes back!

The end of August, the ship added an out-of-the-ordinary 4-day cruise from Southampton to Cobh, Ireland, which we visited last summer.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Cobh visit actually happened on the ship. The few Swedes aboard had raided Ikea in Southampton, buying them out of crayfish, and sponsoring a Crayfish Party on the forward mooring deck for the tiny Scandinavian population onboard. Apparently it’s traditional in Sweden to have such a party once a year, eat your brains out, and drink accordingly. Here’s the evidence!

May in the Med…and Norway

May 1, the port of call was Cagliari, Sardinia. We opted to head to town for a walk, and found ourselves in the midst of an annual Mayday tradition that goes back 352 years in Cagliari – the Festival of Sant’ Efisio – the first of which (352 years ago) was said to have been responsible for the end of the plague in Sardinia. The inhabitants of the island decorate oxcarts with representations of regional plenty (fruits, breads, flowers, grains, baskets, pottery) and village-specific costumes, and form a parade around the town of Cagliari, which ends with a 4-day procession of the Saint to a village up the coast and back to his place in the Cathedral. It was one of those “National Geographic” moments that we’ll savor for a long while.

May 2 found us at Civitavecchia, the port city of Rome. Expensive as it is, I talked Dale and Linda into joining the “deluxe” 10-1/2 hour excursion – the same one that Suzanne and I did last summer. In reality, if you’re only going to be in Rome a short time, seeing the biggies is, I think, the most important thing to do. That having been said, though, we didn’t take into consideration that in Europe, May 1 is a holiday. The Vatican was closed on Saturday, and would be closed again on Monday, so who knows how many hundred thousand people were in line outside on this particular Sunday – and inside St. Peter’s Basilica, it was a madhouse of a crowd, so much so that the guide was told to keep our group moving. Dale just held his camera up over the crowds and kept snapping pictures – don’t know if he got any good ones. But seeing the vastness of St. Peter’s, the majesty of the Sistine Chapel, and major historic ruins on every streetcorner was worth it. Here they are at Trevi Fountain, wishing their way back to Rome!

Livorno was the port call on May 3, so we just booked a shuttle bus to take in Pisa and Florence on our own. I know I wrote about it in last summer’s entries, but the place is mythical. Not just art, but GREAT art everywhere — and a wonderfully walkable old quarter that just begs for picture after picture. To top it all off, there was a bit of a national market going on in the main square, with food, wine, and craft exhibits from all over Italy. Just had to grab a few pictures, taste a few samples, and wish like crazy I could spend a few months here…

Cannes was the fourth port day in a row, and as we were visually and physically overwhelmed from three straight great days, we opted to take the water taxi in and just stroll, looking for a place for lunch. Ole was able to get free for a few hours so he joined us. Cannes was getting ready for the film festival, with tents being erected all over the marina, yachts pulling in, and in general, the town getting spiffed up. Looking for a bathroom, we wandered into the casino at the exhibition center, where Linda promptly won 60 Euros on a slot machine, but, seeing as how she doesn’t read French, couldn’t figure out why the cashier only gave her 4 Euros. My rusty French interpreter skills were called upon (never thought I had the language skill to argue casino winnings!), all was set right, so we wandered over toward the market for lunch — moules frites! Haven’t had those since we were in Pornichet!

Ladder for the Sherry-Sipping Mouse

Boy, were we happy to have a sea day! Then we called at Cadiz, and took a tour over to Jerez for the sherry tasting and a glimpse of the Royal Spanish Riding School. We went to the school first, and as it was a Thursday, there was no scheduled show. Instead, we got a private tour of the stables, a peek into the rehearsal where we were fortunate enough to be able to see a few horses dancing, and a chance to walk through the exhibit of riding costumes and an elaborately poured taste of sherry. It was a bit disappointing, as our look at the rehearsal was so short. But it all got better at Gonzalez/Byass, home of Tio Pepe sherry. I enjoyed that tour so much last summer, I thought it might be fun to share it with Dale and Linda. This time I learned something, though, I hadn’t seen last time I was there – there is a legend about mice who live under the casks taking a liking to sweet sherry. Apparently a workman saw a mouse lapping up a spill, so every day he left a little snack and a glass of sweet sherry for the mice – but had to build them a ladder to get to the glass. Don’t believe me? Here you go.

We had two cold and rainy sea days back to Southampton, where Dale and Linda left to spend ten days in London, and Ole signed off the ship May 9. While we were aboard, we discussed our bi-annual Norway trip, and as he had heard some bad news about an elderly aunt and cousin, we opted to go immediately to Norway instead of back to Panama.

We arrived in Oslo on Saturday, then took the train to Halden to visit Andreas in his little flat. After a nice two-day visit, we flew from Oslo to Bodo, then took the high-speed boat up to Gjaeroy. As much as we cursed the work back in the summer of 2007, when we arrived we were glad we had done it. The fence Ole and Petter built then has kept most of the sheep out, and after just a couple of days of good weather, Ole had the last 50 meters finished.  And the brush we cleared two years ago hasn’t dared come back!

We’ve never been here together this early in the year, and the weather has been outstanding for 66 degrees North/13 degrees East. Daytimes in the high 60’s with clear blue skies, little to no wind, and a sun that slides sideways around the sky, dipping below the horizon for just about two hours each night. The weather allowed us to work a little, fish a little, and generally enjoy life in this part of the world.

May 17th is Norway’s Independence Day, and a very big deal for everyone. We joined the celebration at the church, then the parade to the school for a day of eating, games, and stories. After watching the 17th of May Parade in Ballard and Poulsbo (Washington) and comparing it to what happens in little towns all over Norway, it’s quite a different holiday in the home country. First of all, the parade is not something you watch – it’s something you join. Second, the festivities are more for the children than anyone else, with ice cream, games, and stories geared to teach the children their history. And third, it’s a chance for women to show off their bunad, the local costume many girls get for confirmation at age 15. What impressed me about being with the residents of this little island this time, though, was that many of the 76 local people approached me to speak English – that didn’t happen when I started coming here 20 years ago.

Picnic on the Beach, May 18, 2009

The 18th was so fine and fair, we went with the little 14-foot skiff (4 hp motor) around to a bay for our traditional outdoor picnic – complete with driftwood fire and shirtless sunbathing – it must have been all of 78 degrees!

The next visit was a sad one. Ole’s last surviving aunt, Marit, died the day before we arrived back in Norway, and the 19th of May we gathered with Ole’s family for her funeral, in nearby Tjongsfjord. After the funeral, we opted to stay a few days with his cousin Aud and her husband Eilif, at their summer cottage in Velanfjord. As always, we thoroughly enjoyed their company, the view, and fine conversation. This time it included time indoors around the woodstove, as the weather turned too cold to spend much time down by the boathouse.

Ole has asked me several times if I would consider spending more time here. I must confess, it’s beautiful. But when the wind shifts north, it’s easy to remember we’re on the Arctic Circle – and as we’re offshore, on an island, we’re the first land any wind from the west hits – and that usually brings rain. If we were to spend more time here, we definitely need to invest in some infrastructure – communication, internet connection, satellite tv or radio – as well as upgrade the house, which hasn’t seen much upgrading in its 50 year history. All of this to tell you that the weather shifted, and we’ve had almost a week of blustery, rainy weather, which makes it a bit difficult to get out and do any yard work, much less travel across the fjord for an internet connection and groceries! Frankly, we’ve had better infrastructure on Emma Jo!

Speaking of internet connections and infrastructure – while we’re here, we cannot get connected from the house, much less the island. We need to travel across the fjord about 15 minutes to, of all things, a guesthouse/inn called Klokkergaarden, run by an ambitious and capable young woman named Malin – who transformed a former parsonage turned sheep barn into a charming tourist destination here in Rodoy Community – much to the surprise of the older local residents who said it couldn’t be done. She’s been the subject of many business articles in the Norwegian Press, up to and including a nomination for Norwegian Businesswoman of the Year. When we’re here, we try to get over at least once for a meal and a chat, bringing the computer with us – and Malin is kind enough to let us check email.

Another wonderful visit was with Ole’s cousin Lyder and his family (see pictures above) for a dinner of moose stew and some lovely companionship with his wife, Solgunn and their children Gunnar Haakon, Anne Marie, and Ole Kaspar, who’s a bundle of three-year-old energy. We were treated to a musical serenade of a song Lyder wrote to commemorate this island (Gjaeroy), and will be travelling next weekend to see a concert put on by the local school children and organized by Lyder, their music teacher.

We’re hoping the weather turns back to at least partly cloudy, so that Ole can finish coating the roof of the house and repairing some fascia boards to keep the place tight and dry until our next visit. One can only hope!

Transatlantic Cruise Aboard Independence of the Seas

April began with a sudden feeling of dryness…where has all the rain gone? Oh yeah – it’s Panama – where in the dry season it rains every day, and in the wet season it rains ALL day every day. Pleasant daytime temperatures, not too hot, led to visions of getting the varnish done on the bow caprail and a coat or two all around. I planned to do one coat every day from April 2 until April 11 – but then it started raining on the fourth day.

I sang at the Cantina again – and when we ran out of common material, we added a few verses to the improvised “Bocas Bottom Feeder Blues:” (it’s a basic three chord, 12-bar blues) – here goes:

Started varnishin’ on Monday
They said it’d be sunny all week long.
Yeah, I started varnishin’ Monday,
Said it would be sunny all week long.
Well, Thursday it started rainin’ —
Now all my motivation’s gone…

So I spent my time cleaning the inside of the boat ready for Brian’s cat sitting service, getting some help from Margarita from the Marina. Really helps to have somebody willing to stick knives and microfiber cloth into all of the louvers…

April 11 I took off on the early morning flight from Bocas to Panama City, for a reasonable 2:30 flight to Miami to join Ole after an overnight in a HOTEL! With CABLE! And a BATHTUB!! And ROOM SERVICE!!! Oh, we cruisers celebrate the small comforts of life. It really was a bit of a break-in period for the outright decadence of the Chief’s cabin on the Independence.

April 12 I took the crew shuttle to Ft. Lauderdale to meet Ole and the ship, and our friends Dale and Linda joined us for the Atlantic crossing cruise and the first Med cruise of the season. It’s their first trip to Europe, and they are tickled pink to be able to join us and get what we’re sure will be a first taste of the banquet that is the Mediterranean.

The first six days we spent at sea, following 30° North pretty much 2/3 of the way across. No Titanic passage for US! We had fantastic, warm, sunny weather and light breezes all the way across, making us wonder what all the hubbub about crossing the Atlantic was. We played $10 a day in the penny slots in the Casino, went to shows, shopped, and tried to work off some of the extra meals in the gym every other day, warming up the muscles and the feet for Europe. We split up the dining experiences among the Windjammer, the Dining Room, the Italian restaurant Portofino, and the steak house Chops, as well as taking a few quiet meals in the cabin. Ole joined us for lunch and dinner every day, and it was great for him to share his experience of his fantastic workplace with friends.

The first port call was a new one for me as well – Ponta Delgada in the Azores. What a pretty place – not at all tropical – it’s a volcanic set of islands with cloud forest and a permanent halo, being the first land for hundreds of miles in any direction. Dale and Linda and I took a little walk, and as it was Sunday, town was pretty deserted. It was charming, though, with a distinctly Portuguese colonial feel. After our walk, we opted to join a private tour and drive up to an area with twin volcanic lakes called Sete Cidades. Though it’s tough to see in the pictures, one lake is blue – the other green – even though they are only separated by a thin strip of land. All of us were impressed with how prosperous, tidy and friendly the island seemed. It’s not exactly on the beaten tourist path, which may have something to do with the local attitude.

Second port call was also a new one for me, as well as Ole – it was Funchal, Madeira. It’s a bit south and east of the Azores, so it has more of a subtropical feel, and has been visited by tourists since the 17th century. There’s a lot more development and tourist infrastructure, including a step-on-step-off bus tour and two Madeira wine houses that offer tours and tasting, so we opted to go that route after a half hour walk into town. Ole was able to get away for lunch, and we were talked into a wonderful (but pricey) seafood restaurant up on the bluff away from town that the locals prefer – called O Barqueiro, it sits across the street from a developed path down to a natural swimming spa. It was in the high 70’s, which didn’t stop the mad dogs and Englishmen from having a dip.

One more sea day, then it was Vigo, where we called last summer several times. Again, we opted to walk, saving our big bucks for the Florence and Rome excursions to come next cruise. After spending so much time roughing it in terms of clothes and shoes in Panama, I persuaded Dale and Linda to join me for some department store time, during which Dale found a dress shirt and some new tux shoes, so I guess it wasn’t all girly shopping. Stopped for a lunch of seafood in the Medieval quarter of the city, and had a wonderful, relaxing visit.

We arrived in Southampton on April 26, and I took advantage of the proximity to a good hairdresser and Marks and Spencer to run some errands. Dale and Linda strolled the city on their own, and seemed to have a grand time exploring. The highlight was the sail away, though, as it’s about an hour and a half downriver, passing the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth, and a summer home from Queen Victoria’s time, as well as some 18th century fortifications at the mouth of the river. One of them is privately owned, converted into a James Bond/Sean Connery sort of mercenary’s paradise – apparently he’s behind on his payments and the government is trying to evict him – but he’s not going quietly!

First call was again, Vigo – and Ole joined us for lunch at a restaurant recommended by Captain Teo called El Mosquito. It was charming, reminding me of the small country places we discovered while we lived in France. While we were there, a Spanish couple at a neighboring table chatted with us, and before we knew it, had treated us to a round of local liqueur. The friendliness of Spain just cannot be topped in my book.

Monument of the Discoverers, Tagus River, Lisbon

Second call was Lisbon, where Dale and Linda and I walked two miles down the Tagus River to the Monument of the Discoverers, celebrating the important Portuguese contributions to navigation. Across the street, in an old monastery, is the Lisbon Maritime Museum, with a fascinating collection of ship models from the 1400s to present time, as well as costumes from the various naval ages, and a reconstructed stateroom from the king’s yacht. For fellow boaters, I can’t recommend any better fun than touring maritime museums – and this was one of the best.

Gibraltar was the third port, and the three of us joined a taxi tour to the top of the rock, taking in St. Michael’s Caverns, the Barbary Apes, and the 18th century network of British fortified tunnels that Swiss-cheese their way through the rock. Linda and Dale just had to join the fun.

Dale is a real picture-taking-fool, and I highly recommend visiting his website as well. You’ll see that he and Linda are fellow DeFever owners, and spend their summers in Puget Sound and Canada and winters in their motor home, lately of Key West.

Happy New Year from Independence of the Seas!

New Year’s Eve at Niccola’s Cabin

The beginning of the year greets us with more change. It looks like Ole’s schedule is changing (again) and our projected 10 weeks of planned projects will be cut down to 5 weeks.

We were invited to present at the 2009 Winter DeFever Rendezvous at Useppa Island Resort in western Florida the end of February, and Ole has a 5-day course from Wartsilla Diesel the third week of February. So we’ve got to get our heads around a new schedule.

The first three weeks of this month were relatively uneventful otherwise, aboard the Independence. Many books read, a few beach days and a bit of shopping in preparation for the Rendezvous next month. Ole signed off on January 24, and we had a pleasant trip back to Bocas and Emma Jo, including a quick overnight in Panama City at the Alderbrook Inn. Sounds more romantic than it was – after a short flight, a loooonnnnngggg wait through Panama immigration, and an even longer bus ride, we got there after 11:00 pm and found no food or drink could be had. So it was up and at ‘em first thing, to fly on Air Panama back to Bocas.

Brian does such a great job looking after the cats – Barclay and Maggie seemed a bit put out that we weren’t giving them snacks and brushing every time they asked! I’m amazed they’re both still alive and well, given we live in the third world and there isn’t a lot of veterinary care to be had. Maggie is back up to her fighting weight, and Barclay , though a bit slim and cloudy-eyed still has the will and coordination to go after the geckos that are brave enough to zip around the boat.

We came home to a few changes at the marina, too. Sharkey has left, leaving the Cantina in the creative care of Dyllan and Darion. The menu is improved, Brian is still cooking, and the service is getting to be pretty top-drawer for this part of the world.

Steve from Serenity is back, too – seems like Ole and Steve are on a pretty closely-matched schedule, so we’ve been socializing a bit here and there.

One of the things we need to do is get the bimini repaired – we came home to find that both it and the bridge cover were in need of some tlc after the wind and rain in Panama this winter. Speaking of which – it hasn’t exactly been cruising weather here. Lots of rain, cool temperatures (cool for here is the low 70’s) and heavy cloud cover.

Holidays Aboard Independence of the Seas

Barging through books at three to five a week, I needed a couple of breaks from the solitude and the holiday tourists aboard the ship, so I called Maggie – she and Kim and I went “boat shopping” at Target and Wal-Mart in Ft. Lauderdale for stuff we just can’t get in Panama. Kind of boring for a “girls’ day out” but boy did I feel like a millionaire hoarding the stuff we have been looking forward to getting! The only problem seemed to be getting off the ship and getting a taxi without ripping somebody a new one. I HATE crowds, and a turnaround day in Ft. Lauderdale is enough to turn me into a complete recluse.

Our Christmas Tree, 2008

We were able to get a great Christmas tree for the cabin, and I went decoration shopping in San Juan so we could make the place look wintry and cozy. Our friends Dale and Linda joined us for an 8-day cruise just before Christmas and we had a wonderful visit. It was fun showing them the stomping grounds of San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Maarten and Labadee – and fun replacing the digital camera! Hence we have some pictures to share again. They were kind enough to give us our 12th Monopoly game – this one a new edition with no cash – just a little computer and an “atm” machine! Cool.

Captain Arnolf Remo and his wife, Tove, joined the ship in early December, and we organized making Krumkake together in our cabin for the few Scandinavians we have aboard. The ship did a great job of organizing special Scandinavian food on Christmas Eve in the officer’s mess for Arnolf, Tove, Johan (from Sweden) and his wife, and the few others aboard. And the week between Christmas and New Year was feast after feast of holiday food from all over the world, served in various parts of the ship. Roast pig for the Phillipinos; steak and salmon tartare for the Poles; seafood and pasta for the Croats and Italians; and music everywhere. We really like the philosophy onboard Independence of letting people feel like family while they’re so far away from home.

New Year’s Eve was really spectacular. The “Royal Promenade” along the center of the Independence was packed with at least 3,000 people, the orchestra was playing, the Cruise Director and his team were out in force for the countdown, and Captain Remo, Staff Captain Johan, Chief Ole, and their respective families were all invited to descend from the skybridge for the countdown ceremony, balloon drop, and champagne toast. I’m sure it was more crowded than Times Square – sure felt like it. Perhaps the most amazing part of the whole thing was the fact that it was cleaned up and sparkling not two hours later – as if the whole thing never happened. Wish I had staff like that on OUR boat!

Happy New Year to All – and may we experience love, joy and prosperity, every one of us!

Repaired Engines and Return to Independence

Happy Birthday to Jan and Ole!

The big accomplishment this month was getting the engine put back together after it’s breakdown The new manifold arrived just in time for Ole to get it put back together before he left to go back to sea. Timing being what it is, he was able to fire up the engines and do a full test at 12:00 noon the day before he had to go back to work!

November 17 took Ole back to Independence of the Seas, with me again tagging along.

The unfortunate thing about flying back through Panama City was that our little digital camera was stolen from our backpack somewhere between Bocas del Toro and Panama City, where we had arranged an overnight to take care of some banking and real estate business. Bummer. Had some great party pics gone…

We arrived a day early, and arranged to stay over with Bud and Maggie Husted, who are now living ashore in Ft. Lauderdale. Maggie, hospitable as ever, organized a barbecue party for the ex-Riverview Marina gang, including Kim, Brendan, Chris, Russian Mike and Natalia. Chris has been competing in regional barbecue competitions, so he provided the goodies – brisket, chicken, and the best pork ribs on the planet, as far as we were concerned. It was great to see everybody, catch up on the gossip and eat ourselves into a stupor.

We joined Independence on her first day back from Europe, and found the entire Homeland security process back in the US to be completely overdone, with petty officials in uniform making the first impression anybody has of the ship unsettling. Plus, with over 4000 guests and 1400 crew, the baggage handlers had a mental block about moving bags with any kind of alacrity. I think we were delayed by two hours that first call in.

It was good to see everyone on the ship again, and settle into our “second home.” Cruising the Caribbean on a ship we have done to death, so Ole settled into work, and I settled into reading, knocking back three to four books a week. Our birthdays were spent quietly, and Thanksgiving dinner was spent in Captain Teo’s cabin. Bless him – a Croatian Captain organized a room service American holiday dinner for Norwegians, Poles, Italians, and Russians. The turkey was fabulous, but we missed some of the trimmings!

First Trip to Ireland on Independence of the Seas

This last cruise was a 4-day cruise from Southampton to Cobh (pronounced “cove”), the port city for Cork, Ireland, and the launching site of the great Irish migration to the United States. What a delight!

Docking in Cobh

I was able to watch the ship come into the port from the bridge, along with the Captain’s wife. The port of Cove was the last port of call for the Titanic, and it was eerie to see that the old White Star Line office building was still there, with remnants of the tender dock that Titanic used. The inner harbor, though deep, is fairly narrow. The Port created a “dock” alongside the town wall using two large rafts, and Independence had to turn 180° to come alongside. It got very interesting watching the bow of the ship swing nearly over the coast road as the azipods turned her on a dime like a tugboat. Hundreds of people drove into town and lined the hillsides to watch the turn, and it was quite emotional to see how the local community supports the port call.

I wandered around on my own after lunch, exploring the little town of Cove. The town had arranged a tiny “French Market,” the equivalent of a street fair, including al fresco performances by local choirs, soloists, and bands, in order to provide some entertainment to the 4200 ship guests and 1450 crew. Ole was able to come ashore for dinner, and when we left the ship there was a swing band performing. We stopped to listen and dance, then struck up a conversation with a lovely local couple. When they found out that Ole worked aboard the ship, the gentleman told us he was the assistant harbor master and offered to be of any assistance. When we told him we needed advice about where to go for dinner, he made a phone call, told us to look down the street, and we saw the restaurant owner (the assistant harbor master’s nephew) standing in the doorway waving us in, in spite of being fully booked. Now that’s advice!

Kelly’s Bar, Cobh

After a great dinner and friendly service, with the obligatory shot of Jameson’s both before and after dinner, we asked where we should go for the best Guinness in town, having been told that even though a Guinness is a Guinness, some pubs are better than others at the plumbing and refrigeration necessary to pour a draft. We were directed down the street to (of all the possible Irish names for a pub) Kelley’s, where we were assured we would find the penultimate Guinness.

When we got there, we found the place filled to fire-marshal freak-out proportions with a live band. Honestly, the place was so full, the singer had to stand on the bar. We felt like ping-pong balls in a random-motion machine as we just let ourselves get jostled to the bar and through to the back where we could breathe a bit better. In reality, I’ve never been a fan of Guinness, in that when it’s been served in the States, somehow people think it’s got to be room temperature (i.e., warm). Room temperature in a Seattle or Boston or Phoenix tavern, what with artificial heat or air conditioning, is way different than room temperature in the basement of a 2- or 300-year-old pub. The ale was cool, and the head was like cream. Not that I’ll convert full-time to drinking it, but it was delicious. Maybe it was the atmosphere.

We concluded our evening out with a stroll through the town, up a steep hillside with frame houses called the “pack of cards,” for the way they were stacked side-by-side up the hill.

The next day, the Captain’s wife and I took advantage of a taxi tour provided through the kindness of the Port authorities. Our driver, Darragh, took us to Waterford, where we toured the crystal factory and learned why it’s so danged expensive. Then we stopped in the seaside village of Youghal (pronounced “y’all”) at a hotel called Aherns for seafood chowder, peasant bread, and sweet Irish butter (delicious doesn’t even begin to describe it).

The tour concluded with a stop at the Middleton distillery, home of Jameson’s Irish Whiskey, where I became a “certified whiskey taster.”Actually, the tasting was educational. It was a “horizontal” tasting of a flight of 7-year-old whiskeys – Johnnie Walker Black, Jack Daniels, and Jameson’s, served in half-sized shot glasses watered down about 50% so you don’t burn your mouth out in the tasting. The differences were stark – and explained by the differences in the malting, drying, and distilling. So now I know. And I’m a bigger fan of Irish whiskey than I was when I started – and I have the paperwork to prove I’m qualified to judge!

On Sunday evening we’ll leave the ship in Barcelona, to fly back to Emma Jo in Panama on Monday morning.

While we’ve had a room steward, daily pick-up and drop-off of laundry, 24-hour room service, an unlimited beverage budget, and people to tell Ole the Chief about the work they’ve done, it will be good to get back home to the boat and the cats.


Cruising the Mediterranean

Aboard Independence of the Seas

It’s been a bit odd being just the two of us (along with 4200 other passengers and 1450 other crew) – the routine is beginning to settle. This will be the first time I will have been aboard for an entire 10-week contract, so it’s a bit difficult to find my place in Ole’s routine. He leaves the cabin about 7:00 each morning, except when there are early arrivals, when he’s up as early as 3:00 a.m. He works pretty solidly in his office until we meet for lunch – then he power naps until about 1:30, to go back at it until usually 7:00 p.m. or so. He has official “duties” a couple of evenings each cruise, that require putting on the penguin suit and mingling among the guests. Some nights it’s quite the panic as he runs upstairs from the engine room, showers and changes at warp speed, and transforms from a coverall-wearing manager of 60 engineers, motormen, electricians, refrigeration specialists, into somebody out of the old “Love Boat” series, complete with cutaway jacket, cummerbund and bow tie. Probably three nights a week, we dine in the dining room or one of the specialty restaurants, and occasionally we’ll catch a show or an entertainer. The nights tend to be early, given his schedule.

My days so far, without friends or family aboard, consist of reading, household accounting via the internet, and the occasional binge on the penny slots in the casino – and on days when there’s a port call, I’ll stroll through town or take an excursion.

I think when I join him next time, I’ll bring some projects – there’s new canvas items to make for Emma Jo (and boy it’s hard to break out the sewing machine and stake out a workspace on a boat) – and I’d like to revisit some of the things I enjoyed as a kid, like drawing, painting and writing.

This time, though, a new project has presented itself quite serendipitously. We heard from our rental management company that our tenants in Bremerton, a young naval officer and his wife, got orders for a quick transfer, so our house became vacant at the end of July. We contacted a realtor to have a look, contracted a home inspector, and decided that since the real estate market in the Northwest is still pretty viable, to put it on the market. So the project has been to rebuild the decks, renovate the yard, re-carpet, and paint the exterior and interior – all by email. We’re shooting for a listing date around the first of September, but trying to project manage from 8,000 miles and 9 time zones away might alter that date a bit. We’re both not quite okay with cutting the tie to our friends and family in the Seattle area – and the prospect of letting go completely of the house is a bit scary – but we’re hoping a quick sale will help us finance the new house in Panama.

Since this is the first season for the Independence, there have been a few “VIP” guests aboard that I’ve had the chance to meet – a few members of the Kuwaiti and Saudi royal families and Jane Seymour (who worked with the producers of one of the onboard shows that’s a takeoff on ‘Dancing with the Stars’). Fun and interesting to meet them. I spent a few hours in delightful conversation about boating and fishing with a Kuwaiti security officer travelling with the royal family. When he found out that Ole and I live aboard a boat, he wanted to know, “How big is it?” I told him 49 feet, and he replied by telling me he had one that was 30 feet, one that was 50 feet, and one that was about 70 feet. Must be nice to change your boat like some people change their socks!

On the excursion front, I was able to go from Cadiz to Jerez de la Frontera, for a two-part tour.

First we visited the Gonzales Byass Sherry house, home of Tio Pepe, one of the highest quality fino sherries in the world. The tour was informative, the buildings quintessentially Spanish, with stucco, red tile, and shaded patios, and the tasting was delicious, featuring a sample of the fino (Tio Pepe) as well as a pale cream (Croft). At the mandatory end-of-tour swing through the gift shop, I found a box of four splits of very old sherries – Methusalem, Apostoles, Noe, and Amontillado (del Duque) to be saved for Christmas on the ship! Now I have at least a limited understanding of sherry – it being a fortified wine from the palomino grape. And like champagne, the wine can’t be called a sherry unless it is from Jerez.

The second part of the tour took us to the Royal Andalucian Equestrian School for an exquisite show. I’ve provided the link above so you can get a feel for it. I’ve admired the Lippizaners my entire life, and did not remember that though they are in Austria, they are a product of the Spanish equestrian school. The Andalucian horses are a breed apart, characterized by their large size and elegant, rounded bodies. Though there were a few white horses, the majority of them were shades of gray or brown.  Their dancing includes leaps like the Lippizaners, and a stepping pattern called the piaffe. When set to flamenco or martial music, the performance is stunning.

Another fun part of this month was running into Norwegian Jade in Villefranche, Barcelona and Vigo – to find that our dock-mate and friend Steve Tepper of Serenity was Staff Captain aboard. Just goes to show you how small the world is! Ole gave Steve a tour of Independence in Barcelona – and Steve gave us a tour of Jade in Vigo.