Thursday, April 7, 2011




Travel is educational, often stimulating, always an adventure, but sometimes it also has something of a melancholy side.

In December, my Lady Laura and I sailed on the maiden voyage of Royal Caribbean's "Allure of the Seas." The largest cruise ship afloat, almost four football fields in length, it can carry slightly over 6,000 passengers and is therefore almost a small city unto itself. The ship has received a lot of publicity: Oprah did a telecast on it and so did Kathie Lee and Hoda. It was featured in a Wall Street Journal piece, and even The Palm Beach Post wrote about it.

The ship technically is considered to be a state-of-the-art marvel, about which I can offer little comment. As far as entertainment goes, it has something for everyone: There's a big theater in which we saw an extremely well done production of the Kander and Ebb musical Chicago. There's a separate itheater presenting ice shows, another entity in which to see something called "The Blue Planet Show," a comedy club, an outdoor spectacular with divers, swimmers and acrobats. Dance at night? Of course! And bar lounges everywhere. Shopping? Roughly 40 stores, mostly upscale, can be visited. Too much excitement? Go to the well-stocked library! Or relax around the swimming pools, sit on chairs while taking in the good sea air. Hungry? Try any of 26 eateries, including a Starbucks and a store that dispenses free Nathan hot dogs. That's alongside an area known as "Coney Island." Nearby is "Central Park," the most tranquil place aboard ship, with trees and flowers and where there's a little restaurant serving no-cost delicious and bountiful tuna fish sandwiches.

So what are the downsides? We had a room with a small balcony, smaller than any similar stateroom we've had on any cruise ship. Dinners in the main dining room were not as good as that served on comparable cruise lines. Better meals can be had at specialty restaurants, but better food spells bigger bucks. Better cabins can be had, but they can get quite a bit pricey. You don't want to mingle with the hoi polloi? Okay; you can escape from the masses by paying additional and moving in segregated areas set aside just for you and others like you.

This actually is not my kind of ship. (Laura loved it.) For me, a ship is like a car, transportation to take me somewhere. Allure of the Seas is designed to be an entity all its own. For seven days in the Caribbean Sea, you don't have to leave the ship at all if you don't want to. I wanted to, as did my Lady, so we booked three tours, two in Mexico, for visiting Mayan ruins, and one is Labadee, Haiti, where Royal Caribbean owns a private beach.

Haiti, already one of the world's poorest countries, had just suffered a terrible earthquake. The 'quake's effects had mainly been felt on the opposite, the northern side of this mountainous island. We got off the ship slightly late and found ourselves on a cozy, isolated beach where people from the Allure were already swimming or sunbathing or had rented sailboats; some had apparently paid extra to ride on rafts down nearby rapids. Several large tents had been put up. Food, brought from the ship, was under them so folks could eat to their stomach's content. A few stalls stood nearby, where indigenous Haitains were selling mostly things they had made themselves. We bought trinkets: inexpensive jewelry; a small wood carving of a bird. When we'd finished paying for our items, the man selling the goods said, "We --" (four skinny men were at the booth where we'd made our purchases) "-- we are hungry. We haven't eaten today. Would you go over to the tents and bring us some food? You don't have to pay for it. We can't afford to buy, and if we could, they wouldn't sell it to us anyway." We asked what they wanted. "Anything!" They didn't care what. All they wanted was to eat. So we did go back to the tents. Most of the food by that time was gone, but we brought some of which remained. As we left, they started to wolf it down. We live in one of two or more different worlds. If only by hearsay, they know a lot about ours. For the most part, we're only vaguely aware of theirs. That's the melancholy side.

In February, we went to New Zealand. By the government's own estimation, slightly under 5,000,000 people inhabit the two main islands "down under." There are 38,000,000 sheep and Lord only knows how many cattle. It's a beautiful country, mountainous, water everywhere, including shooting geysers as in Yellowstone Park. There's just one large city, Auckland, which has perhaps a million and a quarter human population. The prettiest city (300,000 or so folks) is Christchurch, that name deriving from a college in Oxford, England. The city indeed has a lovely church, built along English lines, a lively university campus, several new and interesting museums, an enormous and beautiful botanical garden, and a narrow, tree-lined river running through the heart of it. This is the kind of place where people are friendly and go out of their way to be helpful, the kind of place where someones such as we wouldn't mind living. Four days after we left, an earthquake took down the very center of the city, including the church steeple and parts of the university. Many casualties, not a few deaths. More melancholy.

Finally, as noted, New Zealand has sheep. Sometimes one encounters shows featuring sheep. At one such show, thirteen varieties of sheep -- more than I knew existed! -- were put on display. Viewers were invited to pet the sheep, which we did. As I was petting one affectionate animal, it licked my hand. Now I have sworn off eating lamb shanks and lamb chops, anything at all having to do with a sheep, -- dishes that used to be favorites of mine. Moral of the story: Don't ever let a sheep lick your hand. When you think of what might happen to that poor sheep, -- ah, there's the melancholy again!

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