Saturday, December 31, 2016

Back in Bradenton

And now we're back in Bradenton, at a trusty Ramada Inn near the Tamiami Trail, which as a child I always thought was a genuine Indian word. Then someone told me the truth -- that it's simply an amalgam of Tampa and Miami. Not nearly as exotic as it first seemed.

Our room faces the highway and last night as I got ready for bed, a motorcycle went by and it was loud -- even though we had the door and window closed. I thought, "This is not a good sign." But then I slept like a log. I was exhausted.

Dave and I drove down from Tampa yesterday morning, after returning to my stepmother's house and collecting the car and the stuff we left behind there during the cruise. As we crossed over the Sunshine Skyway I thought about how weird it was to go both over and under that massive bridge on the same day. The weather was windy and cool and the kite surfers were out on Tampa Bay.

We spent the day with Dave's parents and sister, mostly eating. It's the quintessential family activity, I suppose!

My sea legs have mostly vanished. I no longer feel that omnipresent rocking motion. And let me just say, I am thrilled to be in a place where the Internet doesn't cost 75 cents a minute!

(Top photo: A fire hydrant in Bradenton. I was intrigued by that dark wall of feathery Australian pines.)

Friday, December 30, 2016

All at Sea, Again

Well, we're back in Tampa. The sun hasn’t come up yet. I woke to the lights of the port reflecting off our cabin walls and moving across the room in ghostly whiteness as we pulled into the shipping channel that leads to our dock. I’m a bit bleary-eyed this morning, having stayed up late last night in the bar with my brother and stepsister for some sibling bonding — an essential part of this trip, after all. And Dave packed the aspirin in his suitcase, which has already been taken elsewhere for offloading. Argh!

Yesterday was another full day at sea — a fairly leisurely one. We seemed to take our time crossing the Gulf of Mexico back to Florida. Or maybe I’ve just become used to the ship’s speed, the churning wave sounds and gentle rocking motion.

I spent the morning finishing “H is for Hawk,” which I came to like more as I worked my way to the end. The author became less cantankerous as she healed after the death of her father. But I still don’t get falconry. I understand it’s considered a sport, and I suppose it’s no crueler than riding a horse — perhaps a lot less cruel in some circumstances. But a horse is domesticated animal, and a hawk isn’t. Even a trained hawk seems only borrowed from nature. Their fierceness demands freedom. Don’t you think? I’m not sure why falconry is even legal, frankly.

Anyway, I finished the book. Then Dave and I went to a question-and-answer talk with the ship’s captain and watched a slideshow about the behind-the-scenes operation of the ship. Dave was curious to see how the kitchen and engine rooms work, for example — he used to go boating with his dad, so all that information resonates with him.

Then we went up to the Crow’s Nest for our daily Happy Hour trivia contest — and did I mention our family team won trivia on Wednesday? We all got little Holland-America lapel pins. (What I'll do with that I have no idea.) Yesterday we came in second place. The question that stumped everyone: “In her song ‘Hung Up,’ Madonna sampled which ABBA song?”

(Answer: “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight).” As a longtime unembarrassed fan of both ABBA and Madonna, I’m surprised I didn’t know that. But neither did anyone else.)

Anyway, I need to get myself in gear and prepare to get off the ship. Our life of luxury is at an end. Back to the real world.

(Photo: Our dock at Cozumel. As you can see, there were multiple cruise ships in town that day! Ours, the Oosterdam, is second from left.)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Cozumel, with Returning Special Guest Star

Yesterday’s stop was the small Mexican island of Cozumel, which I always get confused with Cancun, even though they’re entirely different places. Our ship pulled into port yesterday morning and I expected to see phalanxes of high-rise hotels — I suppose because Cozumel is a popular tourist spot. But that’s not the vibe of this island at all. Instead the landscape is mostly forest — low clusters of fan palms, sea grapes and gumbo limbo trees.

The small main town and port areas are on the side of the island facing the channel and the Yucatan. There's a long waterfront sidewalk lined with little dive shops and family-run hotels. And that’s where I got to meet today’s Returning Special Guest Star.

If you read Mary Moon’s blog, Bless Our Hearts, you know that she’s in Cozumel right now with her husband Glen. When we realized I’d be passing through at the same time, we engineered a blogger rendezvous!

Dave wasn't feeling well yesterday, so he stayed on the ship. But I got off and walked to the Moons' hotel, not too far from the port.

Mary and Glen are staying in a terrific little hotel right on the water, with unforgettable Caribbean colors all around. Even the most mundane scenes seem twice as beautiful.

There’s a black hotel cat named Bagheera — the namesake of the panther in The Jungle Book — who quite happily crawled into this leftover pizza box. (I’m not sure anything about this picture is in focus but I like it anyway.)

The Moons generously gave me almost an entire day of their vacation, showing me authentic Cozumel — from the glamorous gas pump jockey in her carefully applied makeup to the pickup truck packed with larger-than-life statues of Disney characters. Mexico can be a mysterious place.

Since I gave up on the idea of trying to take cruise excursions to Chichen Itza or Tulum, because they’re just too darn far away, my main goal was to see some Mayan ruins. Fortunately, there are some right in the middle of Cozumel!

The ruins are called San Gervasio, and we explored the winding rocky paths laid by Mayans hundreds and hundreds of years ago. I chased yellow-breasted birds and bright blue butterflies with my lens, but the butterflies in particular were a challenge to photograph. They just would not open their wings and sit still.

We saw Iguanas only slightly smaller than Olga.

At San Gervasio we were given wristbands when we paid our entrance fees, and I still can’t bring myself to take mine off. As I told Mary, it’s like when you go clubbing as a young person and you wear your wristband the next day to show everyone where you went. It’s my souvenir.

After the ruins, the Moons drove me around the island in their rental car. We passed the windblown gulfside beaches and rocky, protected tide pools where children swam. We’d originally intended to have lunch in a remote gulf-front restaurant, but by this time it was 2 p.m. and I needed to be back to the ship at 4 p.m. So we retreated back to town and had tangy chicken-and-lime soup in a sidewalk cafe, where Jesus presided over us from a nook in the corner. Fab!

This was the second time I’d met Mary, and let me just say, anyone who says you don’t make real friends via the Internet is clueless. She and Glen are such open, genuine people — I feel like we share fundamental values that bind us together just as tightly as any of my friends. (Even though Mary revoked my hippie card because I didn’t know about Dr. Bronner’s soap.)

They dropped me back at my ship right on time, and today I’ll be cruising back to Tampa, crossing the wide expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. Tomorrow, it’s back to real life in Florida, and in just a few days Dave and I will be back in London — which seems very surreal to me now.

Speaking of London, I traded e-mails with Olga’s dog sitter. Apparently Olga is happy and well. She probably won’t even want to come home!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Belize City

Belize, which used to be called British Honduras, was our stop yesterday. The harbor is apparently quite shallow, so we had to "tender" in from the ship -- shuttle back and forth in catamarans. They were pretty big boats themselves, so it wasn't an arduous process, but it took about 20 minutes for each one to zip from the ship to the dock.

In the picture above, you can see our cruise ship in the distance -- we're the one on the right. A Carnival ship was in town the same time we were.

Dave and I took a trolley tour of the capital, Belize City. The tour took about an hour, and afterwards I re-walked the route and explored some side streets to get some pictures. (I find it impossible to take decent photos from a moving vehicle.)

A lot of the businesses were closed for the day, apparently because it was Boxing Day in Belize. They celebrated a day late because Christmas fell on the weekend, as I understand it.

Belize City strikes me as very safe and friendly -- I was never bothered by anyone as I walked around. A few guys offered to give me a taxi ride, and lots of people said hello as I passed them on Albert Street or Princess Margaret Boulevard.

It's not hard to find lingering traces of Belize's British past.

Some of the houses seem on the verge of collapse...

...but many are solid and colorfully painted. Sherwin-Williams must make a fortune in the Caribbean.

On the way back to the ship, I bought a bottle of the local beer, Belikin, and drank it perched on a wall near the street. I saw an incredibly mangy dog walk disconsolately past, tongue lolling. I felt so bad for him that I bought a can of Vienna sausages and went after him. I offered him one gingerly and he refused it! I don't know if he was so sick that he's just not very hungry, or maybe another tourist had already fed him. I wound up dumping the sausages near a wall, where something has no doubt eaten them by now.

Oh well. I tried.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Roatan, Honduras

Our stop yesterday was Mahogany Bay, a slightly Disneyish Carnival-owned port on the island of Roatan in Honduras. There's a little cluster of pastel-colored duty-free shops and a beach. There are also a couple of wrecked ships rusting scenically in the harbor, giving Mahogany Bay some history and authenticity and saving it from being completely bland. (Presumably they are not cruise ships.)

Not wanting to be stuck in Mahogany Bay with nowhere to go -- because we're not really beach people -- Dave and I took a sightseeing excursion up into the hills. We stopped at an overlook where we could see the breakers booming on the turquoise reef offshore.

Years ago I read a book called "Far Tortuga," by Peter Matthiessen, about sea-turtle fishermen who are stranded on a disabled boat in the Caribbean. Their goal through the entire book was to get to Roatan. I never in a million years imagined that one day I would be here.

The sightseeing van took us to a fishing village called Oak Ridge, which gave me exactly what I wanted -- an idea of how people live here. There was a little shop containing essentials, and guys sitting on an outdoor patio playing dominoes and watching an action movie on a wall-mounted television. Narrow water taxis carried passengers from the pastel-colored houses on one side of the bay to the other.

On the way to lunch our van passed this bizarre construction, a gigantic beached ship. Apparently it's a defunct nightclub. Our tour guide, Carol, told us it had been confiscated by the government because of illegal drug activity, so we couldn't go inside, but we enjoyed the folksy sculpted skulls and beach creatures on the exterior.

At lunch (refried beans, plantains, tortilla chips and yucca, provided by the cruise line) we saw a performance of a dance that supposedly represents Roatan's historic African roots. They were called Garifuna dancers, and I believe that's also the name of their language and culture. It was an interesting call-and-response song with a group dance. Carol wasn't sure exactly what the song meant, but said vaguely it was about life and joy.

Dave made friends with a puppyish local cur, who darted skittishly around our ankles and seemed to relish the attention.

On the drive back to port, Carol -- who was not a shrinking violet -- sang a rousing solo rendition of "Feliz Navidad" in the van, resulting in that song being stuck in my head the rest of the day. Thanks, Carol!

Monday, December 26, 2016

All at Sea

This was our view all day yesterday — water and more water. And sky.

(Have I ever before lived an entire day without seeing any land? I’m not sure!)

Specifically, the photo above shows the view from the Promenade Deck, which — as its name suggests — includes a walkway that circles the deck of the ship. Three times around the deck equals a mile. Yesterday, after breakfast, I started walking laps to get some exercise. I walked at least two miles, but maybe more, because I lost count of how many times I went around! It was super-windy and I got spray-coated by a mist of salt water.

Maybe that wind is part of the reason that the seas got a bit rockier yesterday. I’ve discovered that I’m not susceptible to seasickness, which is a relief! In fact, the motion was kind of comforting — like being rocked in a hammock. (I’m sure there’s a threshold at which I would feel sick, and let’s hope we never reach it.)

The fact that yesterday was Christmas barely occurred to me, despite the poinsettias on our dining tables and the omnipresent Holiday Classics soundtrack playing in the ship’s public areas. All the crew members are wearing red Santa hats, but I’ve come to think of them as just part of the uniform.

Dave and I had breakfast, lunch and dinner with the family, and we all played afternoon trivia in the scenic Crow’s Nest bar. We didn’t win, but we didn’t badly lose, either. And let me just say, a couple of gin and tonics make navigating the decks of a rocking ship an interesting experience!

After lunch I sat up in the Crow’s Nest and read “H is for Hawk,” a memoir by a woman who’s fascinated by birds of prey — especially goshawks. It’s partly about falconry and partly about larger issues of life and death and growth. I haven’t yet decided whether I like it. It’s well-written, but falcons and hawks are less my thing than hers — the idea of putting a hood on a wild bird’s head and subjugating it to human whims seems a bit cruel to me.

Speaking of wild things, here’s the animal of the evening! Any guesses? I thought it was a sitting elephant, but it doesn’t seem to have a trunk, exactly. Dave thinks it’s a monkey. Hmmm….

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Key West in Pictures

Our arrival in Key West went smoothly yesterday morning. We steamed (is that the word?) into port and were helped to our berth by this guy, who used that long pole to capture the ship's tie lines when they were dropped into the water. His dog helped by watching.

The entire family had some trouble getting off the ship, thanks to confusing directions about which stairwell/elevator to use. But we finally figured it out and found ourselves on Duval Street, the town's main drag.

Of course it's no surprise that Key West should have its Christmas decorations out, but they look a little weird in that tropical environment.

The usual assortment of characters were out and about (and no, I did not cheat the little dog)... well as the usual assortment of wandering chickens.

Dave and I walked with my brother and his family to the Southernmost Point, which was mobbed with people taking pictures. There was actually a line. Which I have never seen there. I think it's because there were two ships in port.

We beat a hasty retreat and my brother headed back to the ship with his small daughters, who were not having a lot of fun walking in the heat. Dave and I moved on to Blue Heaven, a terrific outdoor restaurant, where we had bloody marys and chicken salad sandwiches beneath the spreading overhead trees.

Dave peeled off and went back to the ship after lunch. I kept walking another few hours, to photograph more of the tropical foliage and quirky buildings and sights. I love Key West.

I first came here in the mid-'80s, and it's changed a lot since then, into more of a tourist mecca -- ironically partly due to the presence of cruise ships, which began docking here in the '90s, as I recall. But there are still lots of quiet corners.

As ambivalent as I am about cruises and cruise ships, the service on this trip has been impeccable so far. Last night, this little guy was waiting for us on our bed. I think he's made of washcloths!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Setting Sail

Here we are, in our floating city on the sea. Any concerns I had about not getting any exercise on this boat have been allayed by the fact that it's huge, and has lots of stairs to climb and decks to walk. I think I'm getting more walking done now than I did over the past few days of riding around in a car!

Above, you can see our ship, the MS Oosterdam, behind Tampa's "Exploding Chicken" sculpture. (Not its real name, as I've blogged before.)

We boarded yesterday afternoon around 1 p.m. Remember all those movies you've seen of passengers gathering at the ship's rails, waving at hordes of spectators and well-wishers, and throwing roses? Yeah, that doesn't happen anymore. We were seen off by four forklifts and one lone old guy.

We cast off the ropes around 4 p.m., and cruised out into the bay in the golden late afternoon.

We gathered with our fellow passengers around the pool on the Lido Deck to watch the city slip away behind us. (Yes, we have a Lido Deck! Just like The Love Boat!)

So, what can I say about this boat? It has eleven decks, and we're on Deck 7 (stateroom 7099, in case you'd like to drop by). I haven't come close to seeing it all. There's a cozy bar with big windows on Deck 10 called the Crow's Nest, which I love, and there are two pools. Right now I'm in the Lido Deck buffet dining area, having cereal and coffee for breakfast. Dave is back in the cabin, snoozing away.

We have a balcony, which is pretty awesome. It was cool to step outside last night and watch the stars.

This morning, at sunrise, I took a stroll around the observation deck, which has some colored lights up for Christmas. Those are the ship's funnels at the right.

If there's any downside to cruising, it's that we have to pay for Internet, and it's not cheap. So I'm not sure how much browsing I'll be able to do. I'm going to keep up the blog to the best of my ability, though!

Later this morning, we dock in Key West, our first stop!

Friday, December 23, 2016


I mentioned yesterday that we stayed in Winter Haven on Wednesday night. It's my old stomping ground -- I lived in Winter Haven from December 1988 to February 1991, reporting for the local newspaper. It was my first job right out of college. For about a year and a half, I covered four towns on what's known as The Ridge, a citrus-growing hilly area east of "Haven," and then I covered Winter Haven itself.

I don't get back to this part of Florida very often, so as Dave and I traveled to Bok Tower on Wednesday, we took a little detour through those four Ridge towns: Davenport, Haines City, Lake Hamilton and Dundee. We had lunch at Melonie's Cafe in Dundee, which has been there forever, and I found what is possibly my favorite street intersection in the entire state, just outside Davenport. Aren't those great names? (For the record, I think the sign is slightly wrong -- according to maps, and my memory, it's Pink Apartment Road, singular, not possessive.)

There are several peculiar place names on the ridge, like Lake Confusion, just west of Haines City. I always meant to do a story about how they got their names -- but I never got that project off the ground. So why Mystery House Road is so named, I haven't got a clue, but I assume there was once a pink apartment building in the vicinity somewhere.

Anyway, as we drove through this area I showed Dave some of the sights and told him some stories -- about the huge fire that demolished several buildings in downtown Haines City, and the recall election that upended politics in Dundee -- but he wasn't very into the tour. By his own admission, he doesn't see the appeal of revisiting his (or anyone's past). He just doesn't have an interest in bygones. I remember when we went to Michigan the first time, I had to ask him to show me places he used to live and frequent. For the same reason, he's not much into pictures either. I, on the other hand, love seeing where I used to live, and we know how I feel about pictures.

In Winter Haven, I found a store named Reed's Grocery (no relation, as far as I know). And even better...

...Olga's Restaurant!

Yesterday morning, we drove from Winter Haven via the bustling cosmopolis of Wauchula (☺) to Dave's parents place in Bradenton, and stayed there last night. Their mobile home park is right on Sarasota Bay, and I spent some time yesterday on the waterfront taking photos.

My goal was to get a photo of a jumping fish. Do you know how hard that is? By the time the fish makes any noise it's practically back in the water. I had to point my lens at a busy stretch of bay, wait for something to happen, and be quick with the shutter. Fortunately lots of them were jumping, and finally, I got a few shots. Not exactly National Geographic, but still.

Today we're driving back to Tampa to board our cruise ship. So I'll be coming to you tomorrow (hopefully) from the open seas! I don't know what the Internet connection will be like but my goal is to keep blogging each day, and hopefully I'll be able to catch up on some blog-reading too. I know -- I'm behind!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Bok Tower Gardens

With a spare day at our disposal yesterday, Dave and I left Jacksonville, drove down through Central Florida and wound up at Bok Tower Gardens, one of my favorite places in the whole state.

Bok Tower was the creation of Edward Bok, the editor of Ladies Home Journal, who in the 1920s -- after wintering near the small town of Lake Wales -- decided to create a bird sanctuary there. He brought in Frederick Law Olmsted to help design the gardens, and architect Milton Medary to design a grand Gothic bell tower of coquina stone and gray and pink marble. In 1929, it was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge.

It was one of Florida's original tourist attractions, long before Disney World was even a twinkle in Uncle Walt's eye. I love the way it combines an enthusiasm for nature and conservation with strikingly beautiful architecture and music -- there's a 60-bell carillon in the tower. (One of the reasons why I thought it might appeal to Dave.)

I first came to Bok Tower in college. Here I am in 1986, on the left, with two of my oldest friends from high school, standing in the tower's shadow. (I had more hair then!) Before yesterday, it had been decades since I'd visited. I'm not even sure when my last visit was.

Dave wasn't feeling great yesterday, but he did enjoy the gardens. When the tower bells aren't playing, all that can be heard are the birds and the rush of wind across Iron Mountain, the highest point in Central Florida.

Dave amused himself by feeding the koi in the pond around the tower. A little girl asked him what he was feeding them. "Fish food," he replied. I promptly added, "You can get some in that machine over there for a quarter." Which of course caused the girl to whine to her parents: "Pleeeeeaaaaasse Mommy, can't we get some fish food?"

"Oh, that man shouldn't have said that," her mother said, casting me a dirty glance. I think she was half-joking. But only half. (The girl did wind up getting some fish food and having a koi experience.)

The gardens are carefully landscaped, but they're surrounded by acres and acres of wild Florida scrub. Scrub is an under-appreciated ecosystem -- dry and sandy and thorny -- but I think it's beautiful.

There's also an adjacent mansion, Pinewood Estate, built in the 1930s for a vice president of Bethlehem Steel, with gardens and furnishings intact. We didn't go inside, but the surrounding landscaping is beautiful and worth a wander. I'd never been to the mansion before -- in fact, I'd never heard of it, though apparently the house became part of Bok Tower Gardens way back in 1970. How did I miss that on my previous visits?!

We spent last night in Winter Haven, in a very retro '60s motel with tropical plantings and aqua-colored bathroom tile. A bargain at $65 a night!