Cruising to the End of the World

Since you are reading this, the world didn’t actually end, duh! Not that anyone with a brain actually believed it would… But for fun, a bunch of us astronomy/space/science fiction geeks got together for a “Not the End of the World” cruise. We sailed on the Norwegian Pearl from Miami the week before Christmas 2012, visiting Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas; Ocho Rios, Jamaica; Grand Cayman; and Cozumel, Mexico (with a day trip to the Mayan ruins in Coba).

Great Stirrup Cay

Great Stirrup Cay

My friend Rob and I had never been on cruise before. I convinced my co-worker and friend Beth to go as well and she brought along her boyfriend. I’d even met the organizer of the group at a workshop earlier this year, so I felt like we were in good hands, even if the travel agency handling us seemed to be staffed by old people who can barely work their computers (very nice old people, mind you). After almost a year of anticipation, away we went…

Rob and I went down to Florida the day before the ship sailed, flying into Fort Lauderdale (because: JetBlue) and staying overnight at the airport La Quinta (because: rewards points). I was advised by the travel agent that we might save money by renting a car at the airport and returning it at the rental car company’s Port of Miami office. Unfortunately, it ended up costing us more than the cruise line’s bus transfer from the airport would have been, since Budget didn’t have a shuttle to take us to the Pearl and we had to pay for a taxi. But at least the car allowed us to go out to dinner with an old co-worker of Rob’s who now lives in Miami.

Getting on a cruise ship is a lot like getting on an airplane. You check in, show your passport, drop off your bags, go through metal detectors. You don’t have to take off your shoes, though, and they take your picture and give you a nifty ID card that you use to pay for everything onboard, get into your room, and get on and off the ship. I had always heard the staterooms are tiny and ours was indeed small. But as a veteran of many a teensy New York City hotel room, I wasn’t shocked at all. With the balcony, it actually seemed downright roomy.

A cocktail party the evening we left Miami introduced us to the special guests on the cruise, a great bunch of people, led by our fearless leader Doug Duncan (of the University of Colorado and the Fiske Planetarium).

Our first cruise stop the next day was Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas. It used to be a pirate hideout, saw action during the American Civil War, and is now owned by Norwegian. Basically it’s a beach and a buffet. Paragliding and snorkeling are available but Rob and I just laid out and got some Sun. It was also our first experience riding a small tender boat in from the Pearl. Great Stirrup Cay doesn’t have a dock/harbor suitable for a ship of its size.

We spent the follow day “at sea” (enroute to Ocho Rios, Jamaica). This was the time for our special “Not the End of the World” program. We had a cosmology talk by Dr. Erica Ellingson, Dr. Steve Hawley reminisced about his time as an astronaut in the shuttle program (he helped launch Hubble AND Chandra!), our Maya expert Dr. Inga Calvin gave us a little education on them, and sf writer Robert J. Sawyer read from his latest book. Our other sf writer guest, David Brin, was also able to sign a book for me, one which thankfully survived the exploding bottle of sunblock in my suitcase.

Dunn's River Falls, Jamaica

Dunn’s River Falls, Jamaica

Rob and I had one excursion planned for Jamaica: climbing Dunn’s River Falls. The waterfalls are terraced like steps, so it’s not as strenuous as it sounds, but it was still pretty treacherous for wusses like me and Rob. You have a guide and videographer who stay with your group, helping you along. A lot of the time you form a human chain with the others in your group. We got pretty wet but I only fell down once (slippery rocks!) and got a tiny scrape on my leg. I wished I had brought my own water shoes, because the ones I rented kept getting small pebbles in them. The experience was frustrating but fun. Really felt like we accomplished something. It was marred, though, by the gauntlet of pushy souvenir hustlers that you have to pass through when you try to exit the park. Ugh. We ended up with some wooden turtles that we really didn’t want. The excursion package included admittance to a nearby park called “Dolphin Cove” but we didn’t pay for the “swimming with dolphins” part so it was lame. On the whole, my impression of Jamaica from what we saw of the island was poverty and crumbling infrastructure. Not really a place I would choose to go to again on vacation.

Atlantis Submarine, Grand Cayman

Atlantis Submarine, Grand Cayman

The next day’s stop was Grand Cayman. You know: the island where rich Americans hide their money. When we got off the tender we were surrounded by souvenir shops but no one was getting in my face to buy. As a consequence, I think I spent more money than on Jamaica. Funny how that works. Our excursion on Grand Cayman was a ride on the Atlantis Submarine, 100 feet down to look at the coral reef. Lots of pretty fishies, turtles, barracudas, and a big drop off. Made me think of Finding Nemo. We couldn’t figure out how to get good pictures out the portholes with our cameras (the color didn’t come out very well) but some Photoshop adjustments helped. We were only there a short bit of time, but Grand Cayman is definitely a place I would love to return to.

Our “Not the End of the World” group had a party that night. It was a costume party, but Rob and I didn’t bring costumes with us, so we just dressed up nicely. There were 2 Doctors (as in Doctor Who) in attendance so Rob was kicking himself for not going as the 10th Doctor. I told him months before that he should do just that, but he claims not to remember the conversation. Ha!

Nohoch Mul

Nohoch Mul pyramid at Coba, Mexico

Our third stop in a row the following day (the Winter Solstice) was the Mexican island of Cozumel. The official ship excursion is to the ruins at Tulum. We had a special private tour arranged for our group to Coba, which was likely to be less crowded on the Solstice. After a long wait in the ship’s theater, they let us board our ferry (both Tulum and Coba are on the Mainland). The long wait should have been a dead giveaway: the conditions were very rough. That ferry ride to Playa del Carmen scared the crap out of me. People were barfing. Rob and I had taken motion sickness meds, and we still got queasy. Rob, silly boy, ate his box lunch on the ferry and really regretted it. I should have stopped him. He’s just lucky it stayed down.

In Playa del Carmen we boarded buses to Coba. I saved my box lunch til then and was much happier than Rob. After one stop at a roadside tourist trap gift shop where all the toilets in the women’s bathroom were overflowing, we made it to the ruins. We had been warned about bugs, so I wore long sleeves and jeans and used bug repellant. None of it was necessary, since it was overcast and not a bug was to be seen. We had an affable tour guide who spoke passable English, though Rob thought he rushed us too quickly through the ruins. We really didn’t have as much time as I would have hoped. We, of course, had to get back to the Pearl so it could depart for the return trip to Miami. But we got to see a small Mayan ball court and the tallest Mayan pyramid in the Yucatan, Nohoch Mul. And one of the few that you can climb. I didn’t go very far up, due to the crowd of people, but Rob managed to make it 2/3 of the way up. No weirdos (except maybe us geeks!) or rowdies were present, seemed like a normal tourist day at Coba, not even all that many people there. I would love to go back and spend more time wandering the site. And now I want to see more Mayan ruins!

Another bus ride took us back to Playa del Carmen and seas that were just as rough, if not more so than earlier in the day. They had trouble just getting us on the ferry. The metal ramp (gangplank?) scraped back and forth. A mooring rope snapped. They let little groups of us run on in between wave sets. Finally we were all on and set off back to Cozumel. Once again, the swaying of the boat terrified me. A few weeks after this trip I found out I had good reason. I ran into a couple who were on the cruise with us and they told me they heard the next day that if it had been up to Norwegian, we would not have been on that ferry. The swells were 16 FEET. Those ferries flip over in conditions like that and kill people! Norwegian was going to put us up in a hotel and come back to get us the next day. But, no, this cowboy ferry company said “Eff it, we’re going!” In the end, of course, we made it to the dock at Cozumel and hustled back onto the Pearl. And we actually never set foot on Cozumel itself, since the ferry docked right next to the Pearl, coming and going. I’ll be shuddering for a long time when I think about how this story could have ended.

We had another day at sea, as the Pearl made its way back to Miami. The seas were still rough but on a ship that big you barely feel it. Well, almost barely. We had another round of talks. Dr. Kevin Grazier, who’s been a science advisor on lots of tv shows, talked about end of world science; Andre Bormanis also talked about working on Hollywood scifi shows; and Dr. Nick Schneider gave us the latest news from Mars (and invited us all to a Mars launch this fall, cool!). David Brin gave a talk and later he and Robert Sawyer had a little workshop giving advice to aspiring writers. Ahh, it reminded me I need to get back to my unfinished (and barely started) novel.

Verdict on my first cruise: awesome! (Scary ferries, aside, of course) The ship is like a floating hotel and you only have to unpack once. The food was plentiful and always available. Granted, what was on offer that was complimentary wasn’t spectacular, but Rob and I are not sophisticated foodies, so we didn’t care in the least. We did, of course, partake of the specialty restaurants with cover charges that the Pearl had, too, and enjoyed the food there as well. Cocktails in the hot tub (the tubs were always empty right after dinner when everyone was going to shows and stuff like that, which we cared nothing about) and nightly walks around the promenade deck. We were in heaven. I’m already fantasizing about taking my next cruise…

All my pictures:

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