It’s not an annual thing, but this year we decided to plan a winter getaway, a tour of Caribbean ports on a cruise ship.
It was plenty cold when we were away, but we got back right on time to face the savage polar vortex blast, which pushed the thoughts of warmth and sun deep into the memory banks. But some still skitter about as if they happened yesterday.
We set out from Fort Lauderdale and headed to our first stop in Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas. This small island is owned by Holland America, our cruise line, and is little more than one long white sand beach with beach chairs stretching as far as the eye can see. We rented a clamshell cabana, settled in and took up the offers of a roving squad of waiters peddling the usual tropical drinks. We have two cheesy tiki glasses to prove it, though they are safely stashed away, out of sight for the remainder of our lives.
The drinks were watery and the beach barbecue rated a C-minus, but the vacation endorphins were kicking in and we began to chill, so to speak. The one and only highlight of Half Moon Cay was that Jane actually got in the water. She has become a nonstop broken record about this modest feat, and her mutterings could lead to divorce proceedings if she keeps it up.
The captains on Holland America ships all seem to be Dutch. They dutifully make desultory announcements in the afternoon about location and weather factoids and other trivia. Humor is not their forte. But our guy cracked up the whole boat when he took to the mic to explain why we weren’t departing on time from one of the ports. In his deeply serious voice, he said the reason was not late-arriving passengers from a beach excursion, nor was it some mechanical glitch. It was a late-arriving supply of bacon.
I was in one of the ship’s bars when this announcement was made, and we all spontaneously laughed and applauded this sensationally wise decision. You don’t want to antagonize bacon-lovers, particularly at sea. Would the boat have waited for a late pallet of cabbage? Not a chance.
In Curacao, we elected to go on a submarine to look at the fish. We have had poor luck in the past with glass-bottomed boats and had little confidence the submarine would be any better. But it was a tropical fish bonanza, worth every penny we paid for it. The tour guide eagerly pointed out fish species and coral formations as we lazily roamed the reef.
Then he stopped and went topside for some reason. A huge swarm of silvery medium-size fish appeared and zigged and zagged in exact unison in precise maneuvers that have no human explanation. Oohs and ahhs abounded in the submarine.
We found out where the tour guide went when he showed up alongside the glass viewing panels in frogman gear, feeding the fish. Scared the living chum out of me. But the fish were ready for him, churning and causing havoc in the turquoise waters. So the submarine gets an A-plus.
Next up was the Panama Canal. The boat goes through the locks on the Caribbean side and anchors in Lake Gatun, where the various shore excursions are launched, then goes back out and ties up at Colon, an impressively tawdry and dilapidated place. We had opted for the monkey cruise and set off on a lake boat led by Jasmine, our tour guide. We saw sloths, a small crocodile and some colorful bird-life.
Then Jasmine directed the boat driver to a particular spot and told us to look for monkeys. We might see howler monkeys, white-faced monkeys or capuchins, she said. And sure enough some white-faced critters showed up right on cue. We pulled in close to shore and Jasmine tossed a wedge of lemon toward the nearest white-faced and he caught it.
He then started to descend toward the boat — and hopped on to the bow!
At the time, this seemed extraordinary. Upon reflection, and some consultation with members of other boats, it seemed clear that the monkeys had become habituated to the boat visits and lemon offerings, which made their appearance and boat-hopping a little less special. Jasmine says they use the lemons as under-arm cleaning agents.
This is so preposterous that I immediately and for all time believe her.
In Costa Rica we went to a banana plantation in, as you would assume, the middle of nowhere. Carlos, our machete-wielding banana know-it-all, told us probably everything there is to know about bananas, and I will never look at them the same way again, understanding the subtleties of their cultivation and watching bunches being put into the clear plastic you see in grocery stores.
Knowing the chauvinism of Americans, Carlos slyly asked the group which country eats the most bananas. It has to be the U.S, right? Carlos grins and drops his zinger.