Tuesday, September 30, 2003

It's been a few weeks since the first installment of my cruise diary, but I finally had a chance to finish it and wanted to post it as soon as I could.


I’ve talked about the Zuiderdam in the first part of this review, so I want to talk about the various ports we hit and how the rest of the week went.

We flew down to Ft. Lauderdale on Friday morning (9/5), after days of worrying about how we might be affected by Hurricane Fabian. We had an uneventful, if pleasant flight on Song (formerly Delta Express) out of JFK. We picked up our luggage, rather quickly and called the Embassy Suites, where we were staying overnight. The hotel sent a shuttle and along with several other cruise bound guests took us to the hotel. We had already checked in and were relaxing in our room when a short, heavy rain hit.

One of the nice things about the Embassy Suites (and I believe this is common in all of them) is that not only do you have a nice ‘all-you-can-eat’ breakfast, but also each hotel has a ‘manager’s reception’ in the evening. Basically, this is a two-hour open bar where drinks (some places limit the types available) and snacks are free of charge. It’s a great way to meet fellow guests and to unwind before heading out to dinner, either at a nearby restaurant or in the Embassy’s own rather nice eatery. We went down at 5:30pm, just when the reception began, had some drinks and snacks, meeting a few of our fellow passengers. Feeling very relaxed, we had a late dinner and went back to our room to put together a smaller, travel bag for the next day.

(Hint to first time cruisers: While every cruise ship I have been on has been very good about getting out bags delivered within a few hours of arrival, there are plenty of stories we’ve heard of others who have found too late, that their bags were sent to another part of the ship and had to spend the rest of the day wearing whatever they happened to bring with them. While on this topic, be sure to carry some items (toiletries, night clothes and your cruise ship tickets, etc.) with you as carry-on items for the plane (whether or not you are flying in a day early). You’d be in pretty bad shape arriving at your ship and not having what you needed to get aboard.)

Jumping ahead a day….

Our first port of call was Key West, FL on Sunday. We were only going to be there for about eight hours (arriving at 8:00am; departing 4:00pm, but we had to be back onboard an hour before), so after a leisurely breakfast we debarked and waited for a tour we had already requested, which left at 9:30am. If you’ve never been to Key West, I’d really like to recommend that you take the Conch Train or Trolley tours that leave from the piers. They only take about an hour and you really do get to see many of the major highlights of the island, since you could walk across Key West in 30-45 minutes. The driver/tour-guide Brandon was very funny and pointed out just about everything of interest along our route. Besides the various residents of Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, we also saw the ‘Little White House’ which Harry Truman used during his Presidency, hotels where famous writers, musicians and actors had stayed and Key West’s “Dog Beach”, where owners are allowed to let their best friends cavort and play at will. Brandon also disclosed a number of fascinating facts about the islands history and the people who have made it their home since before Columbus ‘disturbed’ the local natives relative peace.

We grabbed lunch at Sloppy Joe’s, a very popular bar/restaurant off Duval Street. When you go inside you’ll see dozens of photos of Ernest Hemingway, plus an ‘honor wall’ for Hemingway look-alikes. The original Sloppy Joe’s was actually a few blocks away and is now called Capt. Tony’s, which is where Hemingway actually did visit daily back when he resided on the island. The new place didn’t even exist, despite the name when the writer was enjoying the Florida weather. Despite this, the place is recommended, with decent food at surprisingly reasonable prices and amazing drinks. (I personally recommend the Rum Runner.) You can check out the bar over on their website http://www.sloppyjoes.com , which lets you see several shots of the bar and Duval St., just outside.

We spent an other hour or so walking about and then decided to head back to the ship early, since we wanted to hit the Crow’s Nest bar for bingo. We ended up making the right decision, since the skies opened up a little before 3:00pm, soaking many folks as they tried to get back before departure. We’ve decided that we’d really like to head back down to the Keys for a few days, probably early in the year before hot weather and the majority of the tourist trade settle in.

After a relaxing day at sea, spent going from poolside to bar or restaurants, we hit our next port, Cozumel, Mexico. Donna had been there before, so we passed on the tours (also the ship was only going to be in port for about six hours) and hit some of the shops downtown. Unless you hit the beaches or take some of the various tours outside the town, there really isn’t much to do or see in Cozumel besides the dozens of shops. Everything from local crafts to jewelry is available, along with liquor and cigars (for those looking to get some real tequila or Cuban cigars). We picked up some silver jewelry for Kristina and her partner Devin, and then moved on to get some gifts for others. Again we headed back a little early, so we could grab a late lunch.

Next morning we arrived early at Grand Cayman Island. After breakfast we took a tender (HAL uses their lifeboats) to shore. Unlike in Cozumel, where you needed to take a taxi into town, unless you just wanted to visit the Duty Free shops at the pier, the tenders brought you right into the heart of the shopping district. The Caymans have a very relaxed atmosphere and it’s easy to see why it has become so popular with cruise ship passengers and those who fly in. The people are friendly and the numerous shops are generally low pressure, allowing you time to browse and still possible to find a salesperson should you need one. Again, the beaches are quite nice and the water inviting. The big drawback, for anyone considering a vacation there, is that food is pretty steep, at least in the tourist sections. Donna and I had lunch, comprised of an appetizer, iced tea and fried fish w/sides. Total for the two of us was over $50, not including tip. L

Anyway, we did some shopping, picking up some more birthday and holiday gifts for friends and family, before once again heading back early. When we had arrived there was only one other ship in the harbor, but by the time we finished shopping three other cruise ships, besides our own were anchored and sending thousands of eager shoppers ashore. The place was crowded and we both felt it was wise to go back early, hit the pool again and enjoy a nap before the evening’s usual festivities.
Once again we enjoyed a day at sea, playing bingo using the pool and probably spending more in the casino and bars than we should have. It was also the second ‘formal’ dress night of the cruise so we spent an hour or so making ourselves glamorous.

Friday was the last day of the cruise and the ship arrived around 8:00am off the shore of HAL’s own bit of paradise, Half Moon Cay. Leased (or purchased) from the Bahamas Half Moon Cay is actually within sight of the island of Nassau. As with the other ‘private islands’ belonging to several of the major cruise lines, Half Moon Cay has little actual construction, other than a few shops and garages for their maintenance equipment. The majority of the island has been kept natural, with a few trails winding along the beach and into the interior where guides will take you for tours. They have also wisely divided the beaches into sections, depending on age group; so older folks won’t have children and teenagers around if they desire a bit more relaxation. To be honest I can’t recall seeing more than a handful of kids during the entire cruise, once we had boarded. Of course, HAL is noted at being geared towards older adults, so it should not have come as a surprise.

Donna and I got off early and were situated in lounge chairs on the beach before 9:00am. The water in the Bahamas is absolutely beautiful, being as clear as you could imagine. It was also warm, with an amazing amount of small fish darting between your legs even standing only waist deep in the surf. As someone once said, “It’s always five o’clock somewhere,” so Donna and I took advantage of the wandering waiters. There is nothing quite like floating on a foam pad in the sea while drinking a frozen rum drink.

Except for the brief shower we had leaving Key West, the cruise had great weather for the entire time. Sadly, it was now our turn to be hit by some of the residual rainstorms that followed in the wake of Hurricane Fabian. Around 10:30 there was a brief shower, but not bad enough to even get it out of the ocean. As the sky grew darker we decided not to take a chance and were able to find shelter in one of the small half-tents along the beach. WE were certainly lucky because within a few minutes, with a crash of thunder and flash of lightening the skies pretty much opened up and we found ourselves caught in one the heaviest downpours I’ve seen in quite a while. For a brief time I fully expected the winds to rip the tent from the beach and go flying off behind us. Fortunately, the entire thing lasted less then fifteen minutes and then ended as abruptly as it had begun.

The ship had a barbecue planned for around noon, but as everything we had was now soaked and the skies were still a bit threatening we decided to take the next tender back and simply have lunch onboard. Later we talked to folks who had stayed and found that we really hadn’t missed much, except your standard cookout fare and swarms of mosquitoes. Still it was enough of a taste of the Bahamas to get Donna and I thinking of returning there in the future for more than a single day.

If I have conveyed just some of the fun that the two of us had than this has been worthwhile. Cruising may not be for everyone, but for Donna and I it remains our perfect way to relax and getaway from everything.


Whew! Longer than I had originally planned, but I tried to get in just about everything.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Thursday nights have been our evenings for watching NBC for a while now. FRIENDS & WILL AND GRACE are among our favorite sitcoms, while ER is a must see for Donna. She hooked me on the series when we began dating.

Despite finding the networks decision to play with the length and starting time for all of their shows last night, we decided that we’d toss in a tape to catch the season premiere of CSI (my personal favorite late-night drama series, followed closely by CSI: MIAMI).

FRIENDS began with Chandler, Monica and Phoebe discovering that not only was Ross in his room with Joey’s current girl, but that Joey and Rachel were finally together in her room. Naturally, zany high jinks ensued. The show is just plain fun and you really can’t think things through seriously, but rather go with the flow. As with ER, I never watched FRIENDS until Donna and I started dating, but I quickly discovered that it is very enjoyable and a no-brainer. What more can you really expect or want from network fare?

WILL & GRACE starts off within a few hours of the last season closer, with Jack & Will discovering that they have just spent the night together. Since neither has any memory of what happened they assume the worst. Poor Grace, meanwhile discovers a letter meant for her husband and also assumes the worst. This show really does push the limit and doesn’t expect the audience to take anything seriously. Even edited it’s not hard to spot some scenes where the cast members themselves appear ready to start laughing. Wonderful writing and a great cast of natural comedians.

Since NBC was playing games with the starting time of ER (reportedly starting it at least a minute earlier than its advertised 10:00pm), we decided to just keep the TV on NBC and watch COUPLING. The show has got tremendous PR and the recent announcement that several mid-western stations refused to carry the program, certainly pushed the curiosity button for me. I mean, I knew going in that the show was basically a clone of the British hit, which in turn was a copy of FRIENDS with even more innuendo. What I quickly found was that it was not funny, plus saddled with a laugh track which began during the opening when characters (we did not even know) were making comments (we didn’t understand the meaning of) only to discover that we had been mislead as to whom the references were directed anyway. Boy, tears were just streaming down my face as I clutched my sides in laughter!

You certainly can’t go wrong with condom jokes, lesbian references and couples making out in public restrooms. The Emmy judges will have no problem voting next year!

Needless to say, after about ten minutes of this I switched over to the Game Show Network and caught the genuinely amusing MATCH GAME PM. In my book, the best bet for 9:30pm viewing when nothing of note is on the other networks. Just watching Charles Nelson Reilly and Richard Dawson cutting it up compensates for the sometimes lame contestants and other ‘network personalities’ that fill the remaining seats each night.

Finally, I switched back a minute or two early and we were able to catch the opening of ER. Of course, the promos had been a bit misleading; hinting as they did that someone from the cast was involved in a rather graphic automobile accident at the shows beginning. On the other hand, we learned the news that one of our favorite cast members had been killed off-camera. Most of the cast returned this time around and a new member added (Parminder Nagra as Neela Rasgotra). This episode is proof that the show has not lost its edge and why it continues to be a strong ratings grabber for the network. Even though the show is not getting the Emmy nominations it once did it is still one of the better dramas on the air. Carter (Noah Wyle) continues to be the main reason to tune in each week; his performance is always worth watching and is sometimes surprising in showing how good an actor he is. Sadly, I have never warmed to Abby (Maura Tierney) who has to be THE most annoying and whiny character ever created for a non-sitcom. As much as you are supposed to hate Dr. Romano, at least you can sometimes see and understand why he is the way he is, certainly the loss of his arm has only increased his anger. However, even with all that it’s Abby whom I’d love to see fall victim to a fatal accident. I can’t understand how both Luka and Carter could have any feelings whatsoever for such an ungrateful and self-absorbed little bitch.

Next week should prove very interesting as Carter goes back to Africa to discover Luka’s fate. Looks to be another great season for a great show.

Thursday, September 25, 2003

The only thing that caught our interest last night (9/24) was the season premiere of WEST WING. Picking up on a few hours after the end of last season's closing, Pres. Bartlett finds himself helpless as he has turned over the reigns of government to the Republican Speaker of the House (played nicely by John Goodman). The acting Prez is far different in temperment and manner from the ultra-liberal Bartlett, so the White House staff isn't very comfortable.

Things do look pretty grim for First Daughter Zoey, now in the hands of kidnappers. The Bartlett approved assassination of a foreign head-of-state and known terrorist has become public knowledge and events are happening fast.

A bit heavy handed this time around, but not really the place for anything other than that considering the plot. Everyone is good, even in the smallest roles, but that's what fans have come to expect. Not really sure how this will turn out, but have my fingers crossed that Zoey will be rescued at the last minute. Plans for later in the season seem to be the introduction of a new VP for the Bartlet administration, and I expect worsening health for the Prez.

ER is the show of choice for tonight, but we may have time to check out some other shows.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Donna and I were never big fans of 8 SIMPLE RULES... over on ABC. It was one of those shows we'd catch if nothing else caught our interest. Neither a great show, nor really bad.

Naturally, like millions of others we were curious and saw found ourselves watching what would be the first of the last three episodes of the show in which John Ritter would appear. Ritter was a delight and we actually found ourselves laughing, forgetting for a few minutes that this man was no longer with us. It will be a much different show without Ritter, and I don't know how much humor will be in the first episode which deals with his passing. For the next couple of weeks, we will put that aside and watch the man once again display the talent that brought him fame, if not fortune, on the small screen.

I'm not familiar with either Teri Polo or David Sutcliffe, so I had no preconceptions about I'M WITH HER. It's an old plot, most recently brought to life in the Julia Roberts/Hugh Grant film, NOTTING HILL. Sutcliffe is Patrick a highschool teacher, who is bitten by a dog owned by Alex (played by Polo) an internationally known actress. While both seem immediately smitten, Patrick realizes that Alex is way out of his league, but Alex decides that she'd like to take a chance with someone outside show biz. Zany antics ensue, as someone once said. It's a harmless enough show and certainly worth another watch to see where things go from here.

It seems to be the last season for FRAZIER, but Donna and I still enjoy this show and it's one of our 'must see' programs each week. The season premiere appears to bring things back to status quo, with Ross back as Frazier's producer and poor Fraz, once again without a romantic interest. The twist this season is that Daphne is pregnant so we'll probably spend the rest of the season watching the entire cast going through the usual pre-birth antics we've seen on hundreds of shows before. Still we love the characters and will stick around until the final show.

Tonight....WEST WING!!!!! YES!!!!!!!!!

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Years ago, when Elayne and I were married we would try and review just about every new prime time show the networks put on each season. Of course, not having cable back then it was far easier and generally speaking it was either one of the three major networks or syndication. I'm not going to try and do anything remotely like that this year, but do want to share a few comments on any new or returning shows that Donna and I happen to catch.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed TWO AND A HALF MEN, which debuted last night on CBS. I thought that Charlie Sheen was out of his depth doing situation comedy, but thinking back it was probably because he had the impossible task of 'replacing' Michael J. Fox on SPIN CITY. This time around he is starting from scratch and his laid-back style if perfect in the lead of this harmless comedy. Sheen, is able to use his bad-boy background to good effect in his role of Charlie Harper, a commercial jingle writer. Standout is Angus T. Jones as Sheen's nephew Jake, a wise-cracking (but not overly so) kid who finds himself trapped between his disfunctional parents and now living in Charlie's home. It was also a nice surprise to find Holland Taylor as Charlie & brother Alan's (played by Jon Cryer)
very controlling mother. Taylor is a delight in just about every role I've seen her in, rather theatrical or on the small screen. Not an outstanding show, but certainly head & shoulders over many of the other shows I've read of and miles beyond CBS' returning yawner, YES, DEAR. (Anybody actually enjoy this show? It really does strike me as a program that lucked out by getting scheduled on Monday night when CBS is strong. I loved it when one of the comedians on the Emmy's made the joke that CBS might not know that YES, DEAR was even still on the air. :-)

It was also great to see the season premieres of two Chez Chaput favorites, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND and CSI: MIAMI.

I'll have more to add as the days (and new shows) go by.

Monday, September 22, 2003

I've tried to make NEW YORK IS BOOK COUNTRY an annual trek and since I began going back in the early 1980s I believe I've only missed a half dozen. (One wasn't my fault, since the organizers actually cancelled the event due to predictionf of heavy downpours. Naturally, the weathermen were way off and they day turned out to be nice.) Each year the NYIBC folks get Fifth Ave. blocked off for about ten blocks or more, allowing publishers, book stores and assorted vendors of new & used books to set up shop in the street.

It's always wise to get there early (it usually kicks off at around 11:00am), since by around 1:30-2:00pm the street is almost impassable. Even on slow years you can usually pick up some nice freebies. This year both DC and Marvel had booths with creators in attendance to sign their books. Generally, they were just getting freebies shoved into heir hands by kids (and parents) who had no clue who they were, but it was a nice PR move so everybody came up winners.

Anyway, Sunday began a bit overcast, but turned quite sunny and warm as the day progressed. Elayne Riggs (link over on the left) and I had made plans to hook up, since both of us enjoy the event and we haven't actually seen each other in several years. It was nice to get together, have a nice lunch and generally catch up on how things have gone in our respective lives.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I'll be able to make the Ninth Ave. International Food Fest next year, since that was the other annual event where the two of spent some wonderful times together.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

I'll try to get to the second part of my cruise review on Saturday, if I have a chance. Things are actually pretty hectic here at UNH and I haven't really had the free time to write much of anything non-official.

Don't know about the rest of you folks but it seems that Connecticut has been spared the worst of Isabela. They are predicting heavy surf and coastal flooding later and heavy rain tomorrow. Fortunately, since I'm here on Saturday I'll have Friday off and can simply sit inside and watch whatever out the window.

I was going to ramble on a bit more on the storm and the media hysteria, but just about everybody else in Blogville seems to be putting in their two cents, so I really don't think I have anything creative to offer.

Man, I am totally bummed that the Hallmark Channel has dropped the double-dose of PERRY MASON in the morning. They now have one PM followed by an episode of MATLOCK. I'm more the MURDER, SHE WROTE type and so I turned over to A&E and saw Jessica Fletcher nab a killer.

Catch you on Saturday, unless something earth-shattering happens in the next couple of hours.

Poor Donna is still having problems with her back, which she injured on the last day of the cruise. I'm trying to convince her to take tomorrow off and simply rest for the next three days. I know from personal experience what a bad back can do to you and would hate to see her aggravate the situation by driving to work and then moving around the office all day.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003


Donna and I had a wonderful time on what was our fourth cruise together. Donna has been taking cruises for years, but I took my very first one with her back in ’99. Trust me when I say that cruising is THE best way to vacation, if you have any interest in doing something a little out of the ordinary. Not only do you not have to worry about hotels and restaurants, but also you only have to unpack once. J

Having spent nearly ten years in the U.S. Navy, I’m not totally unfamiliar with life at see. Of course, ‘cruising’ for Uncle Sam is very different than going aboard one of the cruise lines and letting other folks serve you. I didn’t have to hang over the side, chip paint or take part in ‘war games’. The closest thing you get to what I did in the Navy was the lifeboat drill, prior to getting underway, and having to take tenders (in this case, the ship’s lifeboats) into a couple of the ports.

This was the first time that either of us sailed with Holland America (HA) and I have to say that neither of us was overly impressed. We were on the ms Zuiderdam, one of HA’s new ships. The ship itself was nice and certainly clean, with our room steward doing an amazing job by almost magically cleaning up after us whenever we left the room. We always found our ice bucket filled and fresh towels when we returned, sometimes only an hour or so later. You get to love the turndown service and the chocolate on the pillow each night is a treat. (Diabetics and dieters take note!)

Our major problem (and I admit we may be spoiled, but our impressions were shared by fellow travelers, even those who had sailed on HA before) was that the service in the main dining room was anything but special. The food was well prepared, but no thought was given to presentation, which one generally expects (and receives) on other lines. One morning we decided to have breakfast in the dining room, rather than on the Lido Deck (where the buffet and informal dining takes place), and it took over a half hour for our meals to arrive. It was not even that crowded as the ship was in port and many folks were already departing for tours and shopping, or preparing to do so. Of the seven nights we were onboard, we only ate in the dining room for three of those, two being the formal nights and the other the very first night (when attire was casual).

On other hand, we found the wait staff on the Lido deck to be friendly and courteous, much more so than those of our dining room table. In the evening, you could even order the same items that were being served in the main dining room and have them brought to your table on the Lido Deck.

While it’s certainly nice to have food and beverages available 24/7, there are certainly other things about cruises and cruise lines that set each one apart.

The entertainment on the Zuiderdam was okay, but certainly nothing special. They had a couple of nights of the Broadway/Las Vegas type of thing, which was on a par with the shows I’ve seen on Celebrity and Carnival, although the stage on this ship was a bit smaller than ones I’ve seen before. Also, I don’t know who designed the theatre (Vista Lounge), but they should be forced to sit in one of the back rows for a performance and be made to see that you cannot see the entire stage from there. The theatre is designed with a half dozen large columns (apparently holding up the balcony, or at least made to look that way) that make visibility impossible from more than a dozen seats on either side of the stage.

There were also performances by a comedian/magician (whose name escapes me), Barneby (if I recall correctly) a comedian/juggler and Paul Tanner, a very good singer/impressionist. Tanner’s show was really entertaining and he certainly could have performed nightly as far as I was concerned. He did a very good Neil Diamond, a decent Tom Jones and a great duet (believe it or not) between Willie Nelson & Julio Iglasios. He finishes with Elvis (naturally), which isn’t great but was funny, as he didn’t take the thing seriously. Except for his costume change at the end for Elvis, he does everyone else using only body language and an occasional prop (his Dean Martin, sits atop the piano smoking a cigarette with a drink beside him).

As for other shipboard activities, they ran the usual range from bingo, trivia contests and a “Newlywed, Not So Newlywed Game”, which you’ll find on most every ship. Nothing really stood out, but only a lack of a nice dance floor (other than a disco, for which Donna and I are a bit too old) put a damper on things.

Finally, the casino was surprisingly small and rather dull. There were several nights where even the tables were empty, though this did allow Donna and I to get into a few games of roulette with only the two of us playing. Oh, the beverage service was consistently good all around, for those of you interested in that type of thing…. ahem. J

I’m going to split this into two parts, so next time out I’ll actually talk about the ports we hit and what we did when we weren’t afloat. See you there!

Monday, September 15, 2003

So, did I miss anything? :-)

I plan on doing a complete cruise/vacation report in the next day or so, but basically Donna and I had a great time. We pretty much returned whole and while both us suffered a bit of physical discomfort from stupidly playing in the surf, we are still safe and mostly sound.

I was sorry to hear about the deaths of both Johnny Cash and John Ritter while we were gone.

While not a major fan of cash, I did enjoy much of his music and certainly admired the impact he had on country music and American music in general. He was an influence on many singers who followed him and dozens of his songs will remain classics for years to come.

I actually the opportunity to see John Ritter in person back in the early 1980s. Believe it or not he was touring in the Tennessee Williams play "Battle of Angels", which performed in the playhouse in Westport, CT. A friend had season tickets to the theatre and when her usual companion couldn't attend she offered me the extra. It was strange seeing Ritter in a very, serious role, since everyone knew him from his role as Jack in THREE'S COMPANY. He was actually pretty good, but sadly that couldn't be said for his leading lady (his first wife Nancy Morgan, if I remember right), so the play suffered.

He was, for me, the ONLY reason to watch TC, although Don Knotts was fun when he joined the cast in later seasons.

That's it for me now!

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Well, I had planned on doing a light-hearted commentary on my Labor Day weekend. Talking about the wedding I went to, the minor disasters what with the carsick bridesmaids, fainting Maid of Honor (who also happened to be the bride's sister) and the other brides maid being stung by a bee while having photos taken in the park. But things got out of hand yesterday..... *sigh*

In a not too rare attack of real stupidity on my part I thought that I could go through what appeared to ME to be a puddle under the railroad bridge. Putting aside that I was using a different route because the railroad bridge over my usual route was inpassible due to flooding. (We see where this is going, right?) I found myself suddenly surrounded by over three and a half feet of rising water and my car decided to stall. Not that I blame it, mind you!

Long story short, the tow truck driver and cop had a good laugh, and I'm am without a car. The garage mechanic and insurance agent both agree that the car is probably totalled.