Caribbean 2009

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Brooks Blog

A personal account of the 26th "Music at Sea"

A Caribbean Adventure onboard Celebrity Constellation

January 12 to 23, 2009


Fort Lauderdale U.S.A. - Georgetown, Grand Cayman - Cartagena, Columbia

Colon, Panama - Puerto Limon, Costa Rica - Cozumel, Mexico - Fort Lauderdale,

This Music at Sea – our 26th - was deliberately timed as a post holiday season ‘pick-me-up’. Our ports a mix of old favourites and new experiences, whilst our private shore excursion in Panama, especially created by Rosemary and John, a big hit. Cristobal and Colon are the two major ports on the Atlantic side of Panama. (Cristobal derived from Christopher and Colon from Columbus) I confess that although I have been to both many times I had not seen the obvious connection - which almost puts me in the same class as a bewildered passenger who, about to transit the canal, enquired of the room steward “Which side of the ship will the canal be on?”!

Our shore excursion left from Colon where, emerging from the cool of Constellation’s air conditioning into the humid atmosphere of Panama we were greeted by a blast of air similar to opening the door of a hot oven. No wonder that so many of the canal’s constructors died from exhaustion and Malaria. Little comfort to them that their destiny was to create one of the wonders of the modern world and that by eliminating the three weeks needed to circumnavigate South America they would revolutionise trade. Their workmanship was superb. Our private tour began with a visit to Gatun Locks where the original gates - each containing 6000 rivets and the size of a 6 story building - are still in operation today.

 Construction of Gatun Locks 1910         (Panama Canal Museum)

  How thrilling to watch the operation of the canal from such close quarters – it seemed even more spectacular than from a ship. Then off to Fort San Lorenzo. Hundreds of years ago the Spanish used Panama, and specifically the Chandris River, to ferry gold and diamonds from the Pacific to the Atlantic. More gold has been transported down the Chandris than any river in the world and San Lorenzo was where it was stored before being loaded on to galleons for the journey to Spain. If only we had known this beforehand we would have brought a metal detector! It was here that we were involved in an ‘incident’ Someone had left a dog inside a parked car with no ventilation, and, in the heat, she was slowly cooking to death. I’m happy to report that we were able to lower the windows to provide fresh air and fill her empty water bowl with chilled Evian. Then, with tempers hotter than the noonday sun, we found the owner and let our feelings be known. His main language was Spanish – but he certainly got the message! Let Mahatma Gandhi have the last word: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” Exactly.


Leaving San Lorenzo - stopping the coach to permit a snake to slither on its karmic way - we went on to the rain forest, where thank goodness it was much cooler. Think Amazon Rain Forest and you have the picture, the lush vegetation is the same. This is where the USA trained their troops in jungle warfare – maybe they still do - but for us the big thrill was to see animals in their natural habitat. Boy, were we lucky? Groups of Howler and Capucine Monkeys put on a great acrobatic show as they swung through the trees (with accompanying vocals from the Howlers) and, at the other end of the scale, a Sloth, languidly hanging from a branch did exactly what his name suggested – and acted slothful!


 Sloth in Panama


At dinner that evening, Gitta, one of our group, told how, on seeing a caged monkey for sale in a Peruvian market, she bought it – it would have been eaten - and they became inseparable companions. When, inevitably, the time came for her to leave Peru she made arrangements with some Indians to care for her new friend. This they did, and when she returned the following year not only was her monkey fit and well, he recognised her and there was a joyful reunion. By the way, monkeys eat fermented fruit in order to get drunk – Tipsy Monkey, what a great name for a cocktail!


I first visited the Canal and the Caribbean in the late 1970’s onboard ‘Stella Solaris’ a truly luxurious ship owned and operated by Sun Line, Greece.



By modern standards she was small – a maximum of 650 guests – but generally sailing around the 500 mark. The theatre onboard Constellation with its drapes, revolving stage, multi-level stage and millions – yes, millions – of dollars of equipment plus 8 staff to run it, would have seemed sheer fantasy then. Stella Solaris had no show lounge – instead a drawing room with an area in the middle for dancing and a small raised dais at the back which accommodated the band. At cabaret time the dance floor would clear and the artiste would work ‘in the round’ with just one spotlight – more like a strong torch – to add colour. Since the chairs faced every which way - positioned around the many small tables in the room – each performance needed a pre-announcement “Please make sure your chair is facing the dance floor” otherwise the hapless performer would walk out to an audience sitting with their backs to him! How times have changed. A small electronic card to open your stateroom door? All in the future. On the Solaris every stateroom had a heavy metal key. In the corridor outside was an open key rack with hooks and cabin numbers for all the staterooms in that section. On leaving their stateroom the guest would lock the door and leave the key suspended on its designated hook in the rack. Anybody could have taken a key and entered a stateroom – but nobody did.

Formal nights then, as now, were glittering occasions. On Stella Solaris one of the highlights of the meal would be the appearance of Maitre D’i Chronis regally holding aloft an enormous tureen filled to the brim with caviar. Processing around the tables he dispensed liberal helpings along with lashings of sour cream and blinis. Caviar is now so prohibitively expensive that this tradition has had to go – I remember a time on the QE2 when the difference between profit and loss was dependant on the amount of caviar being consumed onboard! At the other end of the Solaris gastronomic scale was a dessert entitled “Traditional Greek Tapioca Pudding.” I was a fan of tapioca pudding until I sampled this for, apart from the tapioca, the main ingredient appeared to be industrial strength glue! Dear reader, I leave you to imagine the effect this had on the inner workings of one’s body - but I suspect an over indulgence in Greek Tapioca Pudding might have been the inspiration for the sea shanty “Heave Ho, My Hearties”! 


Whilst the guests enjoyed their dinner, Zigi Binor – a brilliant musician poached from the Plaza Hotel, New York – walked around the tables with his accordion serenading the ladies. One of his signature numbers – “Lady of Spain” – finished with an instrumental flourish rythmically similar to “Pom-tiddlepom-tiddlepom-tiddlepompom-pom-pompom- Olé”. One evening, Zigi, performing this classic to a superbly gowned and newly coiffeured lady, got a bit carried away. As he reached the final stanza he ‘Olé’d’ with a triumphant flourish of his right arm which, in one continuous circular movement, went high into the air, then down to the floral table display, where, deftly plucking out some flowers, he inserted them into the hair of said beautifully coiffered lady. Oh No! These were real flowers from real water! The unfortunate lady, her smile now frozen into a rictus of horror, was helpless, water and make-up dripped down her face and her glorious hairstyle instantly transformed into a sodden mess resemblant of a waterlogged punctured soufflé! 


Formal nights were the occasion for the Master - Captain Benas – a great character, as you will read – to hold court at his table with specially invited guests, His huge eyebrows - a pair of giant cockroach sentinels – shielding a pair of eyes which constantly swept across the dining room. After dessert those eyes would silently look in Zigi’s direction, the coackroaches would rise as though standing to attention and Ziggy, miraculously now in front of the Captain’s Table would launch into “Any Old Iron” . This was the cue for Captain Benas to play the spoons! Dear reader, you had to be there. Lustily giving his all, his face beaming like a happy baby let loose with a hammer amongst the saucepans, the Master of the Stella Solaris, now turned spoon virtuoso, would bring the house down. This may not have been the expected finale to the meal but it sure worked! The guests were still chuckling as they retired to their staterooms for the night.


On their bed they would find a chocolate and a copy of the Daily Programme for the forthcoming day. This fitted on to a single sheet and always ended with the words of one of the many wise ancient Greek philosophers - Plato, Aristotle, Homer - Amongst these worthies was one Saneb to whom the following quote was attributed: “Wherever you go – there you are!” Never, in all my years there, did a guest question the existence of Saneb – or work out that in reverse it spelled …………Benas!

Reading this through I realise that you, dear reader, might think I am hankering for the ‘good old days’. Not so, and one area in which ships have improved beyond all recognition is in the provision of care for handicapped people. Constellation, has ‘special’ cabins for people with disabilities. One of our group – Terry – booked one and over coffee described in glowing terms the thought which had gone into the design. For the visually impaired, signs in braille. For those with hearing problems, a door bell which activated both strobe lighting and a buzzer under the bed pillow. To summon emergency assistance there were bell cords above the bed and also in the shower. Wider doorways accommodated wheelchairs and the clothes-hanger bar in the wardrobe could be lowered to wheelchair height. Other amenities included ramps to access the shower and outside terrace, a shower seat, additional phone in the bathroom, a three piece floor to ceiling mirror and the choice of using the beds as one double or splitting them into singles in case one had a travelling carer. And to that list all I can add is “Bravo, Bravo, Bravo Celebrity Constellation”.

Bravo leads me to the entertainment! Always top rate on Celebrity – no, NOT because your big headed, self opinionated, egocentric scribe takes part – but because it is genuinely full of variety and talent. In the Production Shows you will witness artistes with the potential to become stars of tomorrow. To unearth this talent Celebrity hold auditions in some of the world’s major cities and discussing this one day brought to mind an audition story (not concerning Celebrity) which still makes me chuckle. A legendary London agent – Michael Black – regularly held auditions in his office which was situated above a coffee bar in Great Windmill Street. Not being one for running up and down stairs to obtain his refreshment he quickly arranged a code of communication with the staff below. One tap with his foot on the floor equalled “bring up one coffee please”. Two taps - 2 coffees etc etc. You get the picture? Simple and foolproof – until the day his office door opened and in walked a pair of Spanish Flamenco dancers……….!

I was rehearsing for our second concert when I noticed a couple in the corner of the room. She in a wedding dress and he wearing a very smart suit. I could not stop to chat but when I returned for the performance later that afternoon I learned that the couple had been waiting to renew their wedding vows and had so enjoyed the rehearsal they wondered whether there was any chance ……….? Well, others have asked that question before and the answer has always has been ‘No’ - but how often do you see a couple in full wedding attire, mid-afternoon aboard a cruise ship? So I ran it past the group and they decided that, on this special occasion, we should make an exception and invite them to join us. After the concert they explained how much this day meant to them. Their romance had started as teenagers and, following strong parental disapproval, they had run away together to go through an illicit, unromantic civil ceremony. Now, fifteen years later – and still very much in love - they wanted to do ‘something in style’ hence the cruise and the renewal of vows. After hearing this we all felt privileged to have been part of their surrogate wedding day.

Romance also involved two of our own - Robert and Linda – who celebrated their 46th, and, joining their dinner table that evening, I enquired about their wedding day – which turned out to have been dramatic! Linda’s ‘ex’ had taken the news of her forthcoming nuptials badly. So badly that, when Linda arrived for the service, he was waiting in his car outside the church, hooting the horn, revving the engine, whizzing up and down and performing spectacular skids! Now, having run that gauntlet to get inside the church, Linda, might reasonably have supposed she was safe, but, processing demurely up the aisle and distracted by the cacophony outside, she brushed against a lighted candle which fell to the ground within a few inches of her highly inflammable wedding dress! To this day she believes that only divine intervention prevented her being set on fire and becoming the first bride in history to be cremated en route to the altar! Could it get any worse? Yes. As they were about to exchange their vows the pew on which Robert’s parents were sitting collapsed – depositing them both on the floor! Did their anniversary go more smoothly? Are you kidding? After dinner they visited the casino ……..and won $20,000!!!!

So how was our cruise? Fabulous of course! (What did you think I would say?) We always have a wonderful time. For twelve days, Captain Pagonis, his officers and crew of Constellation, (one of our favourite ships - voted number 2 in the world in the large ships class by Condé Nast readers) treated us like royalty, before returning us safely to Fort Lauderdale, content, relaxed and better able to face whatever challenges the ‘real world’ might decide to throw at us. Thank you Celebrity for a wonderful start to our upcoming season of ‘Music At Sea’ cruises. A season which will see us visit China/Japan in March; Scandanavia /St. Petersburg in August; Canada/New England in September; Egypt/Israel/Greece/Italy and Turkey in October; and next year - our tenth anniversary – Antarctic/South America in February.

Tempted? ……Go for it – Join us!

Hoping to see you soon.

With warmest thoughts

London. February 8, 2009