Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hedonism on the Sea

Longtime readers have slogged along with us on our vacations as we wander aimlessly through Europe checking into and out of hotels. This time we decided that even though there were still lots of places we wanted to see, we were tired of packing and unpacking.

Our solution? A Mediterranean cruise!

We do not fit the 'cruise' profile, but then- alot of people on cruises don't fit the profile. Basically, you buy a stateroom and choose to participate or not in a strange floating summer camp for adults and children while someone else cleans your room, makes your meals (in an endless loop of breakfast/brunch/lunch/snacks/dinner/snacks/room service), entertains you, and generally makes life as easy as possible.

If you are disciplined (or one of the folk we affectionately called FREAKS), you can use the well stocked fitness center (treadmills, stair machines, weights, etc.), take Pilates/Spinning/Aerobics classes, and just ignore the food and the lounge chairs and the hot tubs.

We prefer the food and hot tubs. And free room service. And the nice people at any one of the seven million bars on board who will, upon being presented with your 'Sea Pass' (room key/charge card/passport) which bears a special sticker, give you unlimited soft drinks for free (after you pay a fixed fee on the first day and then try to soda pop your way through more Cokes than you actually paid for).

Anyway, that was our solution to the hectic driving vacations we have been taking, and it began on one of Royal Caribbean's Voyager Class ships in Southampton England.

We flew to London, spent a day there making our annual pilgrimage to the Apple Store on Regent Street (coincidentally on the same day yet another batch of critical-thinking dropouts decided to try blowing up London again), then drove a rental car to Southampton where we traded our Vauxhall Intermediate car for The Navigator of the Seas, or as we call it, The Monster of the Seas.

This ship is massive. It has a 29 foot draft, is more than a thousand feet long, weighs almost 140,000 tons, and can hold more than 3,000 people. The top deck of the ship is more than 200 feet from the water, and it is a mildly worrying puzzle how the whole thing stays upright, although the Captain assured us that they had plenty of ballast and computer programs running 24/7 to make sure it was distributed correctly.

This is what The Monster of the Seas looks like...

and here's a shot looking down its length from the backend (or stern, as they fruitlessly tried to teach us)...

Our stateroom was deck 9 (second row from the top of the five rows of rooms with balconies) second one from the front. Except on the other side of the ship
(starboard) from the picture.

Right by the flying bridge, which meant we could watch the Captain and his crew dock each time we came into a port.

We hung out on our balcony, clutching our binoculars, ready to help out, but they never seemed to need our input.

So we left England and sailed out into the Atlantic, just like the Titanic.

And for two days, this was our view...

For us, this was heaven.

Electricity and water on demand.

More food than we could eat.

A slight chill in the air on deck, but with our choice of five giant hot tubs.


Maid (or rather Steward) service.

Room service.

And did I mention electricity and water on demand? Whoot! We would have been happy if nothing else had happened for two weeks. Africa tends to re-order your priorities. ;-)

After two days, we sailed into Gibraltar and watched a shockingly small cadre of people (four on the pier, four on the ship, and three people steering) dock the Monster of the Seas without so much as a bump.

I can't even dock our ski boat without bouncing off the side bumpers, so I bow to the masters (and covet side thrusters on our little Larsen- THEN I could navigate, by god!).

We had arranged to join a tour of Gibraltar, a move which turned out to be terrifically smart on our part when we found ourselves being whisked through some of the narrowest, most congested, rock wall lined streets we have found yet on a bewildering ride through a maze of unmarked, twisty roads straight up the side of the rock, through narrow tunnels into wildly popular spaces with no parking lots. Eek!

But all we had to do was sit and watch while our driver/guide Phil did it all with ease and made sure we saw the sights of his country while keeping us in stitches with his sit down comedy routine.

Part of the show in Gibraltar are the Apes that inhabit the rock itself. They are smart, greedy, people wise, and way too eager to play the part of delinquent children.

The warnings about the Gibraltar Apes are plentiful and accurate- don't feed them, don't carry anything they can snatch (they will only play with stolen items if you are alarmed and show distress- if you ignore the theft they lose interest and toss the item over the side of the hill...), don't try to pet them, and don't stare at them because they take it as a sign of aggression.


Then we get to the top of the hill and Phil rolls down his window. An ape jumps onto his shoulder. We quickly realize that all the driver/guides on Gibraltar are on a first name basis with the apes and that if we follow the basic rules about food and loose items, we will be able to play too. Here's a couple who kindly posed for me...

At one point, Phil looked at me and said, "Hey! You want one?"

And the next thing I know, I have an ape on my shoulder.

Who quickly moved to my other shoulder. And then to my chest. And then back to my shoulder.

As I turned to find Ted, I saw Phil unloading another ape onto Coop. Here he is with his own pal...

He is doing exactly what it looks like he's doing- grooming the human. He dug through Coop's hair looking for tidbits, and thankfully found nothing to eat.

Anyway, there is a lot to see and do on Gibraltar. The place is lousy with history and was a fun place to spend time.

Here's our parting shot of the rock...

Next up: steaming to Italy.