From Baltimore to Bermuda and back on a beautiful big ship with buddies

Grandeur of the Seas, as seen from the Royal Navy Dockyard in Bermuda.

Grandeur of the Seas, as seen from the Royal Navy Dockyard in Bermuda.

My cruise logbook came full circle last week.

The first time I stepped onto one of those gigantic ships, the destination was Bermuda. That was in 2006, when Karen — before she became my dear wife — convinced me that all would be well if I stuck one of those little white Dramamine patches behind my ear and leave my worries on the shores of New Jersey.

And she was right. I climbed aboard the Explorer of the Seas and altered my history.

Me, the guy who got sick on a rowboat on the Long Island Sound as a kid. Me, the guy who stayed flat on his back in the family car when my parents decided to cut the driving miles to our relatives’ in Massachusetts by taking the Port Jefferson to Bridgeport Ferry. Me, the guy who made my father and his friend Charlie D’Orazio pull the rented fishing boat back to shore and drop me off to hitchhike to my Aunt Marion’s house in Mattituck because I was tired of hunching over the side.

I rocked with all 3,114 passengers as the 15-deck boat cruised its way past the Statue of Liberty, under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and across the Atlantic. I never felt a single pang of nausea.

I loved it. Food available all day, every day. The sit-down, dress-up dinners with the merry gang of more than a dozen that Karen had already been cruising with were exquisite. The shows in the theater were enjoyable, from the comedians to the musicians to the singers. The Explorer was so big it housed a skating rink. The Royal Caribbean ice capades were without one spill from jumps as the ship swayed. It had a promenade so large it hosted a daily evening parade, a la Disney World.

And as Karen and I bumped along on the public bus driven by the fearless Mrs. Higginbotham from the combo zoo and aquarium in Hamilton to the Royal Navy Dockyard, the smile never left my face.

I was hooked.

Karen and I have since joined the group led by our dear friends Brenda and JoAnn regularly since. We’ve cruised out of Long Beach, Miami, and Boston twice. We’ve visited Catalina and Ensenada, Nassau and Key West, Bar Harbor and Halifax, just to name some highlights.

And, three years ago to celebrate our second wedding anniversary, Karen and I jumped cruise lines to Norwegian to visit the Hawaiian islands via the Pride of America.

But I digress.

I come here today to chronicle the fabulous excursion on the Grandeur of the Seas, a dozen friends sailing from Baltimore to Bermuda and back. I think you’ll appreciate the stories and pictures. All of the photos were taken by me with my iPhone 4, except those noted.

The green is inside the Science Center in Baltimore.

The green is inside the Science Center in Baltimore.

Chapter One: How do we get to Bubba Gump’s, please?

We arrived at the parking lot tucked next to I81 in Mattydale five minutes early after dropping our beloved Ellie B, aka Dogamous Pyle, at the Doggone Inn Doggie Day Car in Manlius for her week's vacation. And we were the last car of our caravan to arrive.

This group was eager to get to Baltimore.

All four cars managed to stick close enough together through Cortland, past the construction blasting zone in Binghamton — 19 minutes before its scheduled start, according to the video sign, thank goodness — and to our first gotta-go break in Clarks Summit, Pa. That stretch just north of Scranton reminded me of our own Erie Boulevard, only more congested. We pulled into a lot that served both a McDonald's and Starbucks to meet all of our needs.

Back on the road, I took over as the lead driver. Brenda, with JoAnn beside her and Jackie and Tim in the back seat, kept me in sight. Somewhere before the exit to I83 South, though, we lost the cars of Kitty and Eddie and Dave and Pauline. Fortunately, the directions gathered by Brenda and given to us all were precise. Some 6 1/2 hours after we started, all four cars were safely in the parking lot of the Best Western at Boston and O'Donnell. Jackie had found the hotel, perfect because its one-night rate included parking for the entire length of our cruise and shuttles to the Inner Harbor and Royal Caribbean terminal.

The rooms were big, bright and clean. Karen swam in the pool as I read emails and surfed on my iPad. We knew that the two Michelles would arrive later because they had to work a half-day.

So the 10 of us took the shuttle a couple of miles, through Little Italy, to be dropped off at Pier 5 at the Inner Harbor. Our mission was dinner at Bubba Gump's. Eating at the movie-themed shrimp house when we arrive at the port city the night before the cruise has become a tradition. We've enjoyed the Bubba Gump's in Long Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

And now we had to find the one in Baltimore, on foot, in the pouring rain.

We passed the Hard Rock Cafe.

We crossed two foot bridges.

We asked directions. Everybody pointed yonder and said, "over there."

That turned out to be the other side of the horeshoe harbor.

The Baltimore Inner Harbor shines.

The Baltimore Inner Harbor shines.

Soaked but undaunted, we answered the Bubba Gump trivia. I recalled that the signed photo in the White House bathroom was of Marilyn Monroe, and the waitress gave me a high-five. Karen, JoAnn and I ordered the Shrimper’s Heaven, a healthy offering of shrimp three ways. I call it the Cones of Shrimp. Yum.

On the way back to the shuttle stop, it had stopped raining. The walk seemed like one mile instead of 10. We moseyed and enjoyed the bright sights. The Science Center had transparent walls through which you could see trees and other vegetation. Awesome. On this Sept. 12, we stopped and bowed at the tribute outside the World Trade Center, a twisted portion of the original placed on a marble pedestal. Chilling.

Back at the Best Western, Karen and I met Michelle and Michelle for a beverage. They were talking with J.J., whose group of friends and family would be cruising with the mission to join the bride and groom to be wedded under a big gazebo in Bermuda.

The aerial show hovers at deck seven over the Centrum lobby. The acrobats also dance in the production shows.

The aerial show hovers at deck seven over the Centrum lobby. The acrobats also dance in the production shows.

Chapter Two: Everybody’s so friendly

We shuttled to the ship and boarded with ease. Short lines, happy staff checking passports, swiping credit cards, taking your picture, handing over the coveted Sea Pass, the card used as both stateroom key and currency on the ship.

The Grandeur of the Seas looked buff.

It had been refurbished. Our ship, you see, was the one that caught fire in May down there in the Bahamas. There was nary a sign of that trouble.

There were two hours to spend before the staterooms would be available, at 1 p.m. The staff on the 1,900-passenger Grandeur was in the midst of finishing the turnover from the cruise that had pulled back into port and started disembarking at 7 a.m.

The Windjammer buffet restaurant was open and stocked with lunch.

The pool deck bar was open and serving beverages.

Karen and I hung out with Michelle B and Michelle M, chatting with two talkative sisters from Maryland, Vicky and Margie, and a whole bunch of of happy people.

In fact, friendliness was the guiding principle the whole seven days aboard Grandeur of the Seas.

The staff was personable. Our stateroom attendant, Emerson Thomas, had the knack of being there when we needed him and not being there when we didn’t. The pool deck bar was always manned by the same three bartenders, all ready with a story and your drinks of choice. One of the main men at the deck four bar surprised us by saying “hello, Mark and Karen” on our second stop there. The cruise director, Ricky Matthews, was a bundle of energy as he bounced to emcee event after event. Activities director Darryl Dyball owned the best pompadour since 1965. He won me over forever by noticing my choice of Bermuda shorts and knee socks with jacket-and-tie for the first formal dinner night and thumb-upping his approval. But Karen and I’s favorite was Andrew, the lanky lad from Ireland who told all one afternoon on the pool deck that this was his very first cruise. He was all arms and legs, leading that short dance party, beaming the whole time.

Sandro, Christian and Denise wish Brenda and Dave happy birthday after the final dinner.

Sandro, Christian and Denise wish Brenda and Dave happy birthday after the final dinner. Michelle B applauds at left.

The dining room crew of waiter Sandro, assistant waiter Christian and head waiter Denise were full of cheer and good intentions. Hard as Sandro tried, though, he had a tough time getting a handle on serving the right plate to the right diner at our table of 12.

And Karen and I agreed that somehow, the dinner experience timing was always just a tad off. They always seemed to make their announcements a moment after a plate of food was put before you.

I kept eating.

And how could you not warm to a crew that served a birthday cake and happily sang to Brenda and Dave the final night, on her big day and two days prior to his?

Fellow passengers made you feel like we were all in this together.

When a woman named Kathy and three of her friends wore matching T’s to mark her 50th birthday, suddenly everybody at the pool deck bar was celebrating the occasion, too.

It was easy to talk ports visited and ships taken.

The Grandeur of the Seas pulls into Bermuda.

The Grandeur of the Seas pulls into Bermuda.

Karen and I stood next to a very nice couple at the deck 10 rail as we pulled into Bermuda.

When they spied us sitting in the deck four Centrum three days later, they sat down to share notes on our Bermuda experiences.

We stood next to a young engaged couple while pulling out of Bermuda.

We told them about how we enjoyed the trip from Boston to Halifax so much that we took it two years in a row. They shared their feelings that the grandness of the Oasis of the Seas was impressive, but because it was so big, they could never find a deck chair by the pool and the staff had to close the buffet in the Windjammer for 30 minutes at a time during lunch because it was too crowded.

The NFL on pool deck nine, bigger than life.

The NFL on pool deck nine, bigger than life.

Chapter Three: NFL on a really big screen!

On this six-night cruise, the ship is your home for large stretches of time.

We set sail from Baltimore late Friday afternoon and pulled into Bermuda at 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon. We left the island at noon on a Tuesday and woke up in Baltimore early Thursday morning.

The Royal Caribbean folks seemed to make things more Americanized this time around.

The company’s ships sail under the United Kingdom flag. The staff is a diverse representation of all the countries and colonies under the queen — and far more.

That nations-united approach allows a refreshing window to other ways.

On the buffet table, you find traditional English breakfast items of fried tomatoes and baked beans alongside the bacon and eggs. A cheese tray is always offered as an after-dinner dessert.

Michelle M, Karen and I prepare for the ship's Make-A-Wish charity walk on deck ten. (Photo by unnamed fellow passenger)

Michelle M, Karen and I prepare for the ship’s Make-A-Wish charity walk on deck ten. (Photo by unnamed fellow passenger)

And on TV, in the staterooms and the lounges, there is plenty of soccer and cricket on the station tagged as ESPN. Even when cruising from Boston through Maine to Canada the last two falls, we could not find American football or baseball. This time, a station tagged ESPN2 appeared. It broadcast NFL, college football and Major League Baseball, as well as our familiar SportsCenter news shows and the always-present scores-and-breaking news scroll.

The Grandeur of the Seas also has a huge video screen atop the pool deck.

At 9 p.m. every evening, passengers filled chaise lounges to watch a movie. Karen and I watched a healthy portion of “The Blind Side” one night we were at sea. It felt like an outdoor drive-in without the car. Neat.

On Sunday afternoon, though, it broadcast the Green Bay Packers vs. Washington Redskins game, a Fox production that somehow made its way onto the ship’s ESPN2 channel. A big bunch of people cheered on one team or the other, although the colors of the Baltimore Ravens were the dominant dress choice of the day. Very neat.

Also every evening, a big production show is presented in the main theater, which has a capacity of 870.

Singer Bobby Brooks Wilson, son of  legend Jackie Wilson, talks to fans in the lobby after his show.

Singer Bobby Brooks Wilson, son of legend Jackie Wilson, talks to fans in the lobby after his show.

Comics and singers are interspersed with a couple of song-and-dance productions.

James Stephens III has landed the role of playing Bill Cosby in an upcoming biopic. He kept me smiling with his impersonations, singing Sammy Davis Jr. songs or mugging like the Cos himself. He had a great personal story, too, about being born in LA but adopted by white parents after family tragedy when he was young. Stephens runs a foundation, and has awarded scholarships through 20 years.

The son of singer Jackie Wilson kept toes tapping with a strong voice. Bobby Brooks Wilson looked and sounded like his famous father, who passed away when he was just a child.

When you’re docked, there are two places in the ship that are closed because of tax and duty laws. Nobody can shop and nobody can gamble when the ship is tied to one nation or another.

But once the ship pulls into international waters, the lights come on in the shops and casino, too.

You can buy clothes, booze, jewelry and far more. I brought home a snazzy beige fedora.

You can play the slots and table games. Our friend Michelle B came in third in the big slots tournament after earning her way to the finals with fast-tapping hands and good fortune as we cheered her on.

Bermuda, from what's become known as the Queen's View.

Bermuda, from what’s become known as the Queen’s View. That white spot near the middle is our ship, docked at the other end of Bermuda.

Chapter Four: Bermuda rocks

As soon as the ship tied its ropes to the Royal Navy Dockyard in Bermuda and dropped the gangplank from deck one, Karen and I walked out to land.

The scene was much as I remembered it from seven years ago, a winding walk up a hill and around the harbor to shops, a grassy square and bus lines to the rest of Bermuda.

Last time here, the Bermudians threw a block party in the grassy square, and I was hoping for a repeat performance of the local art, music and craft beverages. There was no party this time.

But we had a fine time shopping in the indoor mall, housed in a beautiful, old stone building in sightline of the ship. Karen and I both returned to the ship with new Bermuda T-shirts and hats. We also found a fine pair of walkabout shoes for Karen, who had tossed a left and right white sneaker from two different pairs into her suitcase. It could happen to anyone.

The fish were jumping for bread scraps in this St. George inlet.

The fish were jumping for bread scraps in this St. George inlet.

Early the next morning, Karen and I climbed onto a tour bus with Michelle B and Michelle M, ready for the 5 1/2 hour excursion that would take us roundtrip to and from St. George, on the other end of Bermuda, with a second stop in the biggest city, Hamilton.

Driver Waylon Harvey picked up the microphone to welcome his full bus of 30, and didn’t put it down.

And that’s a mean feat, considering the twisting hills that make up Bermuda’s three main roads: north, south and middle.

Harvey was a storyteller, and fast at answering questions.

We discovered that the average price of a home in Bermuda is a cool $1 million. A fixer-upper runs you $900,000. Every house is painted in bright pastels.

My favorite tree overlooks Elbow Beach.

My favorite tree overlooks Elbow Beach.

The government is building lower-priced condos. One complex carries a price tag of about $500,000, without many takers. Another is full at about $200,000 per unit. They both looked nice.

Asked about wages, he said the minimum runs around $25 per hour, and the average citizen holds two or three jobs. I still can’t quite reconcile the math of daily living.

Harvey made sure we saw Tucker’s Point, where the really rich folk live. Actor Michael Douglas is a citizen because his mom is a Bermudian. His $37 million mansion up on the hill sure looked fine.

Harvey gave us an hour to explore St. George. The narrow streets and bright colors reminded me of Key West.

The four of us ate lunch at the White Horse Pub and Restaurant, on a deck overlooking an inlet. Four meals and two bottles of Miller Lite each carried a bill of $133. I had a $9 bowl of chicken vegetable soup. The math began to make a little more sense. Our friendly waitress told us to throw any leftover bread into the water. We loved watching hundreds of fish battle for the scraps.

We also stopped at Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, towering on a hill with a stunning view, even from the base. Queen Elizabeth II stood there in 1953, Harvey told us, and from then on it was called The Queen’s View.

Everybody was able to file out at Elbow Beach, too. The four of us walked to the clear water through the pink sand. I fell in love with a hill with a big tree, picturing myself sitting underneath it, tapping on my iPad. Idle dreaming.

The final stop was Hamilton, and we only had 15 minutes to wander in the cosmopolitan city. That was OK, because Karen and I had spent an afternoon there on our last trip, sitting in a coffeehouse where I heard six different languages being spoken. It made me imagine I was in London.

Karen and I enjoy a tourist moment outside Snorkel Beach. (Photo by  JoAnn)

Karen and I enjoy a tourist moment outside Snorkel Beach. (Photo by JoAnn)

This time, we stretched our legs and admired the port on one side of the main street and the shops on the other. Ships have outgrown the Hamilton dock, Harvey told us. I remembered having dock envy of the two ships there the last trip.

We woke up early enough the final morning in Bermuda for the two Michelles, Karen and I to take the mile walk over to Snorkel Beach.

To get there, we followed footsteps painted on the sidewalk, darted through a hole in the big stone wall, and, viola: yet another great view. I went in up to my knees. Karen swam. We all spread out on ship beach towels and soaked up the sun.

Bermuda is beautiful, indeed. We may visit again someday.

The beauty of Snorkel Beach, one mile from the docked Grandeur of the Seas.

The beauty of Snorkel Beach, one mile from the docked Grandeur of the Seas.

6 thoughts on “From Baltimore to Bermuda and back on a beautiful big ship with buddies

  1. Pingback: I will call 2013 life-changing | markbialczak

  2. Pingback: In ‘Pirate Alley,’ Stephen Coonts builds tension on the seas | markbialczak

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