Vacation Log: 2003

Thursday December 25, 2003

I got to BWI very early since I did not know how long it would take to get through airport security. I got through in about 15 minutes, so I had a lot of time to kill. Luckily there was a pub inside of the checkpoint called Fells Point and they had a fairly good selection of beers to enjoy. I made a dinner of some potato skins and had a few beers. I met some interesting people there … one guy was going home to his family in Tampa, another older couple was also going down to Orlando - the wife was excited about my going on a cruise later in the week and recounted some of the good times she had had on her previous cruise experiences (about 15). I also talked with the bartender who was a very friendly girl. We ended up chatting about vacations and warmer weather, and she had me sample some of her jelly beans that she got for the holiday. At airport prices I probably had around $50 in drinks and food (the prices there are astronomical because you can't go elsewhere). When I got the bill she only charged me $12 (just a little more than the price of the appetizer I had!) - needless to say, she got a hefty tip that was actually more than the bill was.

The flight was fairly uneventful - a lot of people were concerned about the possibilities of bad things happening flying on Christmas day with all the alerts, but nothing bad happened. When I got into Orlando International Airport I was met by the beautiful Sara. We waited for my bag, but it was to no avail - my bag was nowhere to be found. About to panic (I had all my clothes in there for the entire trip) I calmed down for a second and thought to myself that perhaps it had arrived before I did - which was what ended up happening. It was sitting by the baggage claim office as it had hitched a ride on a previous flight to Orlando. Sara took me to my hotel and I promptly crashed.

Friday December 26, 2003 [images]

After sleeping in until around 8, I went next door to the world's largest McDonalds for some breakfast. The thing is quite a sight - and a bit chaotic. I took the 9:50 bus over to Disney's Epcot Center, where I would spend most of the day reliving moments from my childhood. A little aside here - when I was a kid my grandparents lived in Fort Pierce, Florida. Every thanksgiving we would come down to visit, and conveniently Orlando is about an hour or so North of there. So almost every year we would spend a couple days before Thanksgiving at Disney World at its various parks. This stopped when my grandparents moved, which must have been about a decade ago (feels weird thinking about time-spans of that size). Anyhow, I have a lot of fond memories of those trips to Walt Disney World. So, since Sara had to work on Friday I figured what better way to spend the day than hanging out with the mouse. Epcot was a blast. They have some new rides since I was last there and have updated many others. One of the new ones was Mission: Space. Normally I think that simulator rides are pretty lame. They just shake the hell out of you and don't give the great feel of a roller coaster. This is an exception. The ride is basically a complex centrifuge with a rotating cabin that allows you to feel gravitational forces much like you would were you to blast off in a rocket (this is supposed to be a "training mission" where you are learning to pilot one). They pulled it off very well, I could not detect any side to side motion, just motion consistent with the projected display. By easing up on the centrifuge quickly they even were able to approximate weightlessness briefly - pretty cool. While waiting in the line I met a couple girls from Alaska - very friendly bunch. We talked about rides and colder climates and they followed me onto the next ride where we waited together in line once more: Test Track. Test track is a ride which is a big GM commercial where they are "testing" safety features in the vehicle. Anti-Lock brakes, crash protection, suspension (bumpy roads), and acceleration (the last part of the ride hits around 65 miles an hour). It was alright, but anti-climatic after Mission: Space.

After that I headed out to the World Showcase where I got some culture in. This is something where it was definitely better being older - I actually appreciated the cultural elements (they weren't the educational crap to be endured between the rides anymore). I had Chinese food in China (orange chicken with "Chinese beer" - I'm guessing Tsingtao) and it was surprisingly good. Later I hit up Germany for a Beck's Dark and a pretzel and enjoyed some of the many attractions around the showcase. In all I hit up the Mexico boat ride, got coffee and pastries at Norway, Lunch in China, Pretzels and Becks in Germany, looked at shopping in Japan and Morocco, and saw films about France and Canada. Next I went to the updated Figment ride. I have to say that I preferred the old version - there is something wrong with a computer animated Figment, and the new plot device just isn't as good as the old. Spaceship Earth (in Epcot's geodesic dome) was also changed - and I have to say I miss Walter Cronkite's towering baritone and the catchy song "Tomorrow's Child," both excised. I also hit up Body Wars in the wonders of life pavilion and saw some of the exhibits in the concourses - a memorable one was the "ultimate home theatre experience". Sara picked me up around 7:15 and she took me to meet her parents and have dinner at a steak house. I had a New York Strip and everything was delicious. Sara's Mom works for Disney, so she gave me a free pass for the next day and Sara and I were to meet up at the park (she had to work in the morning) the next day. Unfortunately, that was not to be as Sara fell quite ill that evening and had to cancel for the next day.

Saturday December 27, 2003 [images]

I took the bus one more time out to Disney, this time to the Magic Kingdom. As soon as I got there I made sure to hit up Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. When I was a kid, Dad and I would go on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad over and over again until the park closed at night (at night the wait times drop dramatically). I hit up the ride several times that day, arguably the best in the park. Space Mountain is also good, and I hit that one up early. One of the benefits of going alone to these things is that you can get in the single rider lines. It can cut your wait time in half since you are used to fill in the gaps that happen when a group of two fills up a 3 person car. Epcot had these lines as well, and they cut times in half as well. Space Mountain is in Tomorrowland which has been completely redone since I was last at the park. Everything is newer - and instead of the 50's retro-future look, everything is a bit more cartoon like. The Wedway People mover is now the Tomorrowland transit system, but it still does the same things, just with a different narration. The Carousel of Progress had the most recent chapter changed to reflect the realities of our digital world. I had a great time at the Magic Kingdom, but the crowds were intense.

By 3:30 I was in need of a break from the sea of people. Unlike Epcot, there are no bars or even alcoholic beverages in the Magic Kingdom. However, through the magic of the Monorail the Contemporary Resort is only a stone's throw away. I went to the Outer Rim bar and had a couple beers and some food and got the much needed refuge I sought. Around 5 I made my way back to the park for more fun. I hit up Big Thunder a few more times as well as Pirates of the Caribbean and generally had a blast. As the sun was setting I went to the Haunted Mansion, where I met some college girls from Orlando - we chatted during the wait, which was significant - the recent movie seems to have really increased the interest in the ride. The ride was the same as it has always been, some things never change. As the 9:00 hour struck I watched the fireworks spectacular right in front of Cinderella's castle. After a few more rides I headed back to the hotel.

Sunday December 28, 2003 [images]

Since Sara was sick I decided to find a way to get myself to the airport by myself instead of dragging her over there to drive me - so I got up at 5:50 in the morning! Luckily, Orlando has a decent public transit system, so I was able to shower, shave, and check out while still getting to the airport around 8. Once again, I was very early and had to sit around for a bit in the terminal (security only took about 5 minutes to get through). Orlando's airport is quite beautiful with glassed in vistas where you can see for miles. I grabbed breakfast at the McDonald's and relaxed until my flight came. While waiting for the flight I met a guy who was celebrating his twentieth wedding anniversary with his wife. He too was headed to a cruise. He used to be in the travel business, so he has been on a lot of cruises. He said that Carnival was always a blast.

Once I got into Fort Lauderdale International Airport I was greeted by representatives of Carnival who instructed me how to get onto the charter bus down to the Port of Miami. As soon as we got out of the airport we hit some massive traffic on Interstate 95. A car had completely flipped over - luckily I had planned in a significant amount of buffer time, taking the earliest flight to FLL that I possibly could, so no worries. When we arrived at the Port of Miami we went to Carnival's terminal where we went through yet another security checkpoint - which was not a problem for me, I'm becoming a pro at these things. Anyhow, once past the scanners there were two lines. One about 15 minutes long, the other looked to be well over an hour. Luckily, I was in the short one since I pre-registered my information on the web. After that wait I was issued my room key (which also doubles as your "Sail and Sign" card - how you buy stuff on the ship and I made my way into the vessel.

The Carnival Paradise (my ship) is incredibly huge. It is a fairly new ship and has all the amenities. Once I got in and situated I headed up to the Lido deck (the main outdoor area) and got a complimentary glass of Champagne. We then went through the safety procedures and then it was almost time for dinner. Since I was going by myself I was seated with some other single people. The incredible thing is that two of them were from the DC area, and another was moving there in the coming months. Talk about a small world. All the singles were girls around my age (can't complain about that) and we had a great meal getting to know each other. I had a pretty good sirloin steak preceded by a salad and an appetizer of salmon. I had a merlot to accompany my steak and then had a port to accompany a simply delectable chocolate mousse cake. After I was joined at the bar by three of my dinner companions and we talked a little longer before retiring to our cabins for a bit. Next I went to the stage area where they were having an orientation show explaining some of the highlights to come. There was a comedian and a few games the cruise director Shawn (a girl) had arranged for the audience to participate in. After that I headed up to the nightclub Rex for a little drinking and dancing (it was a singles mixer) and retired to my quarters around 1 in the morning.

Monday December 29, 2003 [images]

After sleeping in until around noon I made my way up to the sunny decks of the Paradise. The place was packed and a lounge chair was hard to come by. I ended up finding one on the top deck, where sunbathers are invited to do so topless. Unfortunately, the only women who usually do this are not the ones you'd like to be seeing. However, I came to read and relax, and that is what I did. Spent around 4 hours under the sun, putting my Coppertone Sport sunscreen to the test - it worked where I properly applied it, but where I did not the sun left its mark. The weather was beautiful, but it was a bit windy at the top deck, so I moved down one and it was positively perfect. I saw some of my dinner companions from the night before on the deck as well. That evening I put on my suit (and I must say I looked rather dashing) and made my way back to the restaurant for some more delicious food. Along the way I stopped to grab some sushi that was being served one deck up and watched the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico - it was positively beautiful. This night I had prawns for an appetizer followed by a Caesar salad, lobster tails, and fresh quail in a nice brown sauce. For desert I had a chocolate almond cake once again accompanied by a Dow's Late Bottled Vintage port. Afterward Stephanie (one of my dinner companions) joined me to see the Vegas style show in the main theatre. The show was pretty good.

Tuesday December 30, 2003 [images]

I ordered in room service for breakfast as we were set to arrive in our first port of call, Belize City, Belize. I had bagels with lox and cream cheese, croissants, and raisin bran. After taking a shower I headed up to the Queen Mary Lounge where my excursion group was assembling. I sat down next to a girl who appeared to be going on the trip by herself as well - we became fast friends. Her name was Aileen and she hails from Wyoming. The both of us got to know each other as we headed down to deck three where we met a boat which tendered us to the port. This boat went wicked fast - we were making some incredible wake - but it was a small boat, so it would not run aground on Belize City's numerous reefs. Once we got to the port we got on a bus which was to take us to our destination. On the way we got a tour of Belize City and its surrounding areas.

Belize is a beautiful country, but it has stark contrasts between poverty stricken areas and those areas lived in by the more well to do. There were some refuse lined drainage ditches, but there were also some beautiful mansions, all within walking distance of each other. Once out of the city we continued down the highway to a restaurant called Cheers. The food was quite good (rice and beans with a chicken dish) and I washed it down with a Beliken beer, locally brewed in Belize. It was pretty good actually. After our repast we took the final leg of the trip into the rain forest, our destination.

This trip was Cave Tubing - and it was a blast. Basically we hiked into the rain forest carrying an inner-tube (a real one used for tires, complete with the spike for inflation!) and a miners light that you strap onto your head. Once we got to the right point in the river we hopped on the inner-tubes and floated down through the water, over rocks, rapids, and through the caves. Without our lights, we would have been in near darkness for much of the trip, but with them we could see the stalactites and stalagmites in the caves. It was incredible, and a great time. On the way back Aileen and I got to know each other better and after sharing some nachos at port together decided to meet up for a drink later on that night. As it turns out, she also went to Cornell - the other one, Cornell College - and she loved it.

When we got back I hopped in the shower and made my way to dinner for another wonderful repast. I had the escargots, sirloin steak, polenta, and another chocolate concoction finished off with the port. Afterwards it was to the theatre to see two magic acts - they were okay, but not fantastic. After the show I went back to my quarters and changed into something more comfortable and headed upstairs where I met up with Aileen. We had a drink at the United States bar and then made our way to the decks where we talked under the moonlight in the warm Caribbean air. Good times. We both retired for the evening around midnight, we both had shore excursions early in the morning and needed to get some rest.

Wednesday December 31 [images]

This morning I ordered mostly the same stuff I had the previous morning for room service and got ready for my shore excursion to Parrot Beach in Isla Roatan, Honduras. Isla Roatan is a beautiful island, but an island that is stricken with extreme poverty for a good portion of its inhabitants. Refuse littered most residential properties and the streets, but that could not detract from the sheer beauty of the island with its bluish waters and lush green hillsides. Our bus ride took us to the other side of the island to a manmade lagoon that was near a reef. I have to say I was a bit disappointed, while the settings were pretty, I was hoping to see some reefs and be on an actual beach. The weather was also windy and overcast as well, so I just got some reading in while drinking a Salva Vida, a beer brewed in Honduras. It was lackluster, but drinkable, I'd place it just slightly above Budweiser.

I headed back to the boat on the early bus and got back with plenty of time to spare. So I stopped back by the Spa and signed up for a full body massage the following day and then swung by the pool for some more rest and relaxation. By this time the sun had come out and there were plenty of lounge chairs available on the deck. I went down the waterslide several times and swam in the pool for a bit cooling myself off. I also got a good deal of reading in all while enjoying the drink special of the day. I alternated from the cool pool to the whirlpool - I'm telling you, I could get used to this. I also saw Maureen and her friend (the girls from DC) on the deck and caught up with them. Once I decided I had enough sun I went back to my quarters and found out that my scuba trip the next day had been cancelled for technical difficulties. So I went to the excursions desk and rescheduled some snorkeling in its place. After that was settled I came back to my room and showered, getting ready for dinner.

On the way up to dinner I grabbed some sushi and a Red Stripe beer and then made my way down to the dining room. They really pulled out the stops for the holiday. I had crab cakes, duck confit, and a truffle soup for an appetizer and prime rib and jumbo shrimp for the entrée. For desert I had a flourless chocolate desert. Stuffed, I headed back to my stateroom and saw that my bottle of Nicholas Feuillate Premier Cru Champagne had arrived - it's New Year's Eve, remember? I then went to see the show for the evening, which was decent, but nothing special.

Next I headed to my stateroom and picked up my bottle of bubbly for the New Year's Celebration that was being held on the Lido deck (outside). I got up on the dance floor, bottle of bubbly in one hand and a glass in the other and danced to the music from Carnival's cover band. Within a few minutes I was joined by Wendy and Michelle who had been at my dinner table the first night. We started dancing and rang in the new year together. Afterwards we headed down to the Rex disco where we talked and danced until around 3 in the morning. It was a blast.

Thursday January 1, 2004 [images]

Thursday brought an incredibly beautiful port: Georgetown, Grand Cayman. I had been longing for that ever elusive blue water, and I got it in ample quantities. Where Belize and Honduras had been run down and littered, Cayman was a glittering counter-example. The port was stunning. We tendered into the pier and I was taken over a couple blocks to another boat where my snorkeling tour was to take place.

After a short trip out to a reef we were set loose in the beautiful blue water. You could look down the 20 feet or so to the bottom and see everything, positively beautiful. We spent about 45 minutes at one reef and then another 45 at a wreck site where I was able to explore a shipwreck. The water was teeming with beautiful fish of every color of the rainbow. They were totally unafraid of me and I was able to swim along with dozens of them inches from me. It was an incredible time.

Afterward I headed over to the Hard Rock Café to get the required t-shirt and then walked around the port for awhile. There was abundant shopping, all of it duty-free. Expensive liquor in the states is about half its price down there. As I kept walking I saw some macaws and kept admiring the shimmering beauty of the Caribbean. I kept walking down the main drag until I came to a bar and grille that made its own beer. I had some jerked chicken and one of their seasonal ales under a straw umbrella gazing out to the cruise ships in the distance over the pristine blue water.

After finishing my repast I made my way back to the tenders so that I could get back on the Paradise. While climbing on board I saw Aileen again and we talked for a bit about what we had done that day. Both of us really enjoyed the port of Grand Cayman and had a blast visiting it. When I got back on board I relaxed for a bit, took a shower, and then headed over to the spa where I had my full body massage. It was quite relaxing starting from the bottoms of my feet up to the top of my head. After 50 minutes of bliss I went to my room and put on my suit - tonight was a formal night. We had another fantastic dinner in the Elation Dining room including Beef wrapped in a pastry and many other delectable treats. Afterward I decided I would take a nap (all the partying and snorkeling had made me quite tired) so I went back to my stateroom for a nap, which ended up lasting all night. I woke up the next day refreshed and ready for another great day.

Friday January 2, 2004 [images]

Cozumel. What a port! I got up reasonably early this morning since I had gotten the full night's sleep and as I was walking around the ship I saw Michelle from New Year's Eve. We ended up talking in the hallway for what must have been twenty minutes and decided to head to the upper decks to get some sun by the pool. We didn't arrive in Cozumel until around 1:00 so we had some time to soak up some sun and talk. We must have laid there chatting for around 2 hours. After getting our fill of the sun we walked around the ship for a bit then I went back to my stateroom to get ready for my shore excursion for the day: Scuba Diving!

Talk about an incredible time - since I had not done a dive in about 5 years I decided to take a beginner dive as a refresher. I was underwater for almost an hour and was able to swim just like a fish. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my young life. I had gone diving before, but only in Cayuga lake in Ithaca, a dark, cold, murky place. Cozumel had crystal blue waters, the entire rainbow represented in fish, and wildlife that makes your jaw drop. The training I had received when at Cornell when I got my certification came in handy here - I was in complete control of where I wanted to go and started to feel completely at ease underwater. My dive guide showed me where some of the most beautiful scenery was and I had a great time. Even around 30 feet below the surface everything was bright and beautiful - and very warm. After my dive I had a stupid grin on my face that would not leave me for the rest of the day. I headed back to the port by taxi and got myself yet another Hard Rock Café t-shirt and then went back to the boat to shower, change into some dry clothes, and go out and explore some of the nightlife in Cozumel.

On the way back into the boat I saw a few familiar faces, one that surprised the hell out of me (pleasantly). As I was about to cross to the pier I heard someone calling my name, it was Allison Groff from Cornell! She and I still talk on IM all the time so I knew she was doing a cruise on Royal Caribbean the same time I was doing one on Carnival, but I had no idea we would be in port at the same time. Since there were 6 ships in port that day (meaning somewhere around 12,000 people from cruise ships!) that was an incredible coincidence. We talked for a bit and then I bid her adieu and made my way back to Punta Langosta (my pier). Next I saw Wendy and Michelle and we started talking. We were excited to see each other and decided to meet up at Carlos and Charlie's after we changed.

Carlos and Charlie's was right by the pier and has a reputation for being an incredible place to party - and it is. The three of us went there for dinner, skipping dinner on the ship, and drinks - many drinks. As soon as I sat down a beautiful waitress gave me a shot in a rather creative way and we all ordered yards of drinks (I had beer, the girls had sex on the beach, Charlie's special, and strawberry daiquiris). We shared a shrimp and nachos dish for an appetizer as well as guacamole and tortilla chips and had a great time together. I had barbecue shrimp wrapped in bacon and melted cheese for my entrée, Wendy had a fajita sampler, and Michelle had a peculiar garlic butter fish dish. After we settled our tab we went over to the dance floor where we danced for about 3 hours, drinks in hand, going rather crazy. We had a blast. While there I saw some people from my scuba trip and everyone got a bit tipsy. The three of us got refills on our drinks and headed with the yard cups back to the boat (where surprisingly, they let is bring in our huge beverages).

From there we headed up to Lido deck where we enjoyed a deck party and kept talking well into the night. As the night progressed Wendy and I went out to the side of the boat and watched the coastline fall out of view with the bright moonlight shimmering on the water. It was absolutely beautiful and romantic. She is moving to DC this month - so we exchanged info and will be hanging out in the district together. As the hour approached 3 in the morning I walked her back to her cabin and then retired to mine. That was one of the best Fridays I've ever had. If you are young and like fun, one word: Cozumel.

Saturday January 3, 2004 [images]

After the revelry of the night before I naturally slept in until around noon. I took the opportunity to get some packing in since the trip was, unfortunately, coming to a close. On the way there I had taken one carry-on roller bag, a backpack, and a beach bag for reading material. Amazingly, I was able to fit about 14 days worth of clothes plus a suit and two formal shirts. On the way back though, it would prove much more difficult with the requisite souvenirs. Luckily those geniuses at Carnival had a sale on luggage, so I picked up one more bag and the laws-of-physics-defying task before me became infinitely more trivial. After I had gotten most of my stuff packed I headed up to grab a bite to eat on the Lido deck and then walked around for a bit.

I saw Michelle sunbathing up on the deck above and sat down next to her and we chatted for what must have been an hour. She and I went around the ship for a bit then parted ways since she had a date with the spa for an hour of foot massage. I got ready for dinner and got some sushi on the promenade deck beforehand. Then I headed to the dining room where I had chateaubriand and many other delectable treats, capped off with a cappuccino pie and a glass of Graham's Six Grape port. At dinner I bid farewell to my dining companions who had made for such a great last 7 evenings and after stopping by my stateroom, made my way to the Normandie lounge where there was to be the last night's entertainment. The first act was a juggler who was fairly decent, but the second act was a comedian, Jim Brick, who was absolutely hilarious.

After the show I relaxed in my stateroom for a bit and then gave Wendy a call. She and I met up and went to the casino (where she had won $100 earlier in the week) where she played her lucky slot machine which lasted a surprisingly long time on a twenty dollar bill. Afterward we went up to the upper decks and looked out at the many ships off in the distance in the moonlit night. We must have seen five or six of them. After a drink in the Paris restaurant we bid each other good night and planned to meet up the following morning as we were waiting for debarkation.

Sunday January 4, 2004

I was expecting my debarkation to take a long time -- I had read that many people experienced long wait times, so I arranged to meet up with Wendy and Michelle while we waited for our luggage tag colors to be called. Alas, it was not to be ... our colors were called first. After saying goodbye I got off the ship quickly and boarded my bus to Fort Lauderdale International Airport.

I got to the airport around 10:30 or so -- the only problem was my flight wasn't scheduled to leave until 5. Luckily I was able to go standby for an 11:45 flight and I got the last available seat on the plane. I took jetBlue on the way back and what an airline -- they have 24 channels of DirecTV at every seat and leather seats with legroom (not a lot, but enough). I really enjoyed the flight and got into Dulles around 2:30, bringing to a close a truly incredible vacation.