Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Love Boat, Day 5 Part 2


After hitting the street once more I remained in shock. My Fair Lady was nice enough to hold my arm while I staggered around not even paying attention to where we were. All I could hear was "The Fanfare" and all I could see was Nick autographing something to me while I stood in the presence of Yoda.

Meanwhile, My Fair Lady's eye was caught by a number of different shiny baubles in some stores so away we went. I think at some point I stopped repeating "I met him... I met him..." I figured this out not so much because I couldn't hear myself anymore but because bystanders quit staring at me and giving me a wide berth. When we walked into one particular jewelry place we found several items worth closer inspection. One of the ones that caught my eye was a heart-shaped light blue crystal on a simple rope necklace and it looked dazzling. I'm not much for jewelry, being a guy and all that, but I figured My Fair Lady might get a kick from it. I called the clerk over and had her pull it out then motioned to My Fair Lady that she come inspect it as well. Her initial reaction of breathlessly staring at it told me she fancied it far more than I. Upon inquiring of the price we found it wasn't unreasonable so My Fair Lady would soon depart St. Maarten with something heartfelt. 'Cause the necklace was in the shape of a heart.

I'll be here all week, folks.

As we walked back down the street something caught my eye down an alley. Next to Star Wars it's about the only sign in the universe that captures my mind, body, and soul all in one go:

"Ice Cream This Way."

Naturally we headed "this way" and found ourselves in a French cafe/ice cream parlor with open-air seating. My Fair Lady ordered up some mint chocolate chip while I wanted to test how well the French did Swiss chocolate. The proprietress was a cute French girl in her 20's who makes all of the ice cream by hand. She was working on some crepes when we arrived and ordered our respective ice creams. One taste sent me even further over the moon. By then I think I was approaching Jupiter. I tasted the mint chocolate chip and even though My Fair Lady was in Heaven as well it seemed to me to be too heavy on the mint and not enough on the chocolate chip.

Once we finished our ice cream we decided to walk out along the boardwalk near the ocean. Everyone from the cruise who hit the beaches must have washed ashore there because we recognized quite a lot of the people lounging about. My Fair Lady has a compunction about putting her hands in water wherever we are (no stone throwing here as I just groveled at the feet of a Star Wars artist) so we walked on the sands and stood in the water for a bit.

"Oh wow the water is warm," commented My Fair Lady.

"That's because it's very shallow here and since the water isn't as deep the sun warms it that much quicker," I replied with great insight. Mr. Skim, marine biologist. At that point I looked around to make sure I wouldn't experience a repeat of the "Seinfeld" episode where a beached whale demands George's immediate attention.

"Is anyone here a marine biologist?" cried the masses.

I casually looked around as though trying to find one myself, and then we walked down the boardwalk. After seeing the rest of the stores and restaurants on the front we finally decided to retire back to the ship. We hailed a cab and sped over to the wharfs where we looked at a few more shops (My Fair Lady picked up a backpack for $5 which broke the second we returned home to the airport) and then walked back on board the ship.

Since My Fair Lady was a tad sleepy at that point in the afternoon I let her rest for a few minutes by leaving and heading to the top of the ship. My destination? Johnny Rockets and their vaunted chocolate milkshake. By the time I arrived, though, I figured it wouldn't be the smartest thing in the world to have due to our special dinner plans. So I decided to sit down and watch the ship depart St. Maarten. Then I heard the music of Johnny Rockets grow louder. My head turned and looked down at the restaurant known for playing "classics" and this was no exception. Yet I couldn't figure out why they felt the need to blare "Staying Alive" as loudly as they were.

Until the entire wait staff came out on deck and started grooving to the beat.

Seeing a bunch of people in aprons and little white hats spinning their hands and pointing to the sky all set to the Bee Gees was too much hilarity to accurately describe. They were actually quite good considering how well synchronized their choreography was. After this I walked back to the room passing in the meantime the Couple From LA who were enjoying an early-evening burger on the deck. I arrived back in time to find My Fair Lady awake and ready to move on to our next event.

We figured, correctly as it turns out, that the evening of Day 5 would be the best suited to receiving a couple's massage. So we booked it upstairs to the spa and signed in. We were escorted back to the massage rooms where our respective masseuses came in to meet us. My Fair Lady wound up with The Czech Chick and mine was Thai-One-Ahn. Both were extremely nice and managed to work us over very, very well. As mentioned in the blog before, I'm a huge fan of massages and this was a nice romantic way to spend the evening. Our usual banter continued to fly back and forth as well and you know you're scoring some hits when even the masseuses find themselves laughing. Afterwards they also threw in a spiel about taking care of ourselves but by then we were thinking about dinner. Once the couple's massage ended we raced back to our room to get ready for it because that night was a special night.

For it was Lobster Night, you see.

If there's one thing My Fair Lady loves more than putting her hands in strange waters in strange places it is lobster. I wondered aloud if she had ever combined the two.

"Well, there was that one time rafting through the Congo when I stuck my hands in the water and came up with some lobster-looking space aliens," she said. "Does that count?"

"Was this a regular dream or did you have a little help from a mysterious Spirit Guide?" I asked.

"Nope, regular dream. Not even one of my stranger ones now that you mention it. Dinner time! Whoo-hoo!"

Once at the dining room table we greeted our fellow guests then noticed the Couple From LA was not among us. It was odd because the guy was fervently looking forward to Lobster Night but I guess the siren call of the Johnny Rockets burger was simply too loud to ignore. So we left it alone and proceeded to enjoy a seriously strong dinner with equally enjoyable conversation. Our talk covered the majority of topics both high and low, and many times all of us were busting out laughing. Eventually our conversation moved on to what we were doing for the rest of the evening.

"Well, we're going to see The Quest," said My Fair Lady. "I'd heard about it from some other people who've done it and they said it's hilarious."

"Oh yeah that's supposed to be one of the best parts of the cruise," replied Seattle Sue, the original missing member of our dinner party.

Her husband, The Barbequer (so dubbed on account of both his ability to turn anything into top-notch barbeque and also his custom-made barbeque oven/cistern), also expressed interest in it.

"What exactly is it?" I wondered. When everyone at the table looked at me as though I'd just grown a second head I said softly, "I don't read the manual."

"It's supposed to be this big scavenger hunt all in the confines of the theater," said My Fair Lady. "Apparently it's hilarious and really fun and oh I want to do it so bad!"

Once dinner finished we whisked away to our cabin so My Fair Lady could freshen up before Questing it out with a bunch of strangers. We opened the door to our cabin and found disappointment.

"Oh," moaned My Fair Lady. "There's not a towel animal!"

It should be noted up to this point that every night while we were away at dinner our steward would cleverly craft an animal out of our available towels. He would also use either of our sunglasses to give an aura of "cool" to the animal. We'd taken pictures of each one, but sadly there would be no picture-taking that night. Then I bumped into something hanging to my left and freaked out.

"Oh!" exclaimed My Fair Lady. "He made a little bat!"

Hanging from one of the curtains was a coat hanger wrapped around which a series of towels were forming a bat. Atop its little head were my sunglasses. The picture taking began in earnest, and then we raced downstairs to the ship's theater for The Quest. The theater was packed when we arrived, and only then did My Fair Lady clear up for me that we weren't actually in the theater. We were in the ice rink and they had obviously covered the floor for the event. We made our way to one of the far edges looking for seats but couldn't find two together. I made the offer to give her the seat while I sat in the aisle, but right as I finished speaking the announcer spoke over the loudspeaker.

"Could I have everyone's attention please?" spoke the Cruise Director. "I need two volunteers per section to act as team captains. Will two people from each section, a man and a woman, come forward?"

I don't quite recall exactly what happened next but it involved something colliding with me full force and knocking me out of the way, the explosion of the sound barrier being broken about an inch from my ear, and my body connecting with the floor as it was unceremoniously hurled out of the way. When I came to a minute later (a guesstimate) I found the seat next to me empty and My Fair Lady standing out on the floor next to her partner for the event, Sancho Panza.

I dropped myself in the recently vacated seat and steeled myself for the night's events. The Cruise Director began once every one else finally settled down.

"Alright, welcome to The Quest," spoke the Cruise Director. "Tonight we're going to have lots of fun with lots of events and what do we have for the winning couple?!?!?"

Chita Rivera showed up at this point holding up a very sexy looking set of keychains.

"That's right, gang, we have these swank keychains for the winning teams. What does that mean? That it's not worth killing each other over some keychains. I mean they're cool and all, but we're here to have fun."

Judging from the looks in the contestants' eyes this statement fell on deaf ears.

"Alright, I want a nice clean game. Here's how this thing works. I give you a task to either find or perform. If it's to find something then your section will help you find it. If you have to perform something, then you're going to dance like the monkeys you are. IS EVERYONE READY FOR THE QUEST?!?!?!"

The crowd roared their approval not unlike ancient Rome. Each team buckled down and steeled one another against the coming storm. My Fair Lady and Sancho Panza stood ready to leap into the fray.

"Alright," began the Cruise Director. "Here's how it works. I give you an item to find, you find it and the first team that brings it to me gets X amount of points. For each team that brings it to me after the first team will see diminishing points so get things to me as quickly as you can. For your first Quest, we need to see how many of you can fry like bacon on the floor. GO!"

And with that every one on the floor not working for the cruise line fell to the floor and "fried like bacon."

I'm half tempted to just stop now and leave it at that because the image of all these people, My Fair Lady included, on the floor "frying like bacon" was an image heretofore unknown to the annals of comedy history. Once everyone was crispy, the Cruise Director drew forth additional mandates to send people flying.

"We need at least five guys to take their belts off and show them to us."

"We need at least five women to show us their thongs."

"For the guys, we need at least five shirts right now."

"We need at least five women to show us their tattoos."

"We need each team to bring us a pair of false teeth. Yes, used."

"We need at least five women to show us their piercings."

"We need each team to bring us a sock with a hole in it."

"We need at least five women to hand us their bras."

"We need at least five pairs of guys' pants."

During the course of The Quest there appeared a rather colorful blonde woman on our team who was obviously having a blast and possibly a little inebriated. When the call rang forth for guys' pants and Sancho Panza immediately dropped his, the blonde's head whipped around and she shrieked at me.


Ordinarily this would be viewed by Yours Truly as both complimentary and a turn-on. Under the circumstances it just freaked me out.

"Uh, why not those guys over there?" I asked as I randomly waved my hand at the rest of our side.

"GET YOUR F^&$IN' PANTS OFF NOW!" was the reply from Saucy Wench who still pointed at me.

Fortunately for my dignity, I immediately felt several pairs of men's pants hit my head as guys behind me threw them at Saucy Wench. She quickly gathered them up and threw them towards My Fair Lady standing on the floor. Saucy Wench spun back to face me.

"Next time I tell you to get your pants off you better do it right then and there!"

"Will do, chief," I replied.

Ultimately The Quest came down to all the guys on the floor wearing women's shoes, their bras, and smearing lipstick all over their faces then marching in a conga line. Again, my dignity was safe so I enjoyed watching those who were not so lucky. Our team lost, sadly, so the Sexy Keychains were not to return to Casa de Skim. My Fair Lady was soaring as high as a kite though when she left the floor.

"Alright, now it's on to the midnight buffet!"

Previously announced on the cruise was a midnight buffet that night where the chefs went out of their way to craft exquisite foods for the passengers. We hiked to the other side of the ship and entered the dining hall to see a massive feast laid out. There were some people among us who were on the heavier side of life that were stocking up. As for My Fair Lady and Yours Truly, we sauntered over to the desert tables and stocked up there. We returned to the room and snacked away.

"Hey, you want to watch a movie tonight?" I asked. "We're not going anywhere tomorrow since we're at sea all day so what do you think?"

"Sure thing! What do you want to see?"

"Well, I was thinking Mission: Impossible 3 to be honest."

"Oh, that sounds good. I liked that one."

About half way through the movie was when My Fair Lady passed out. As I dug the heck out of the flick, even on pan-and-scan, I watched through to the end before passing out myself. So concludes the saga of Day Five and begins the remainder of the voyage.

To be continued....

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Love Boat, Day 5 Part 1

Previously on 24...

Day 5 began innocuously enough with the ship pulling into the St. Maarten harbor. My Fair Lady and I were again already up and at 'em. It's relevant to note that whenever we go on vacation we realize just how much our shower at home sucks. It's the right height for both of us, but water just sort of falls out of it instead of blasting out. When I clean off I want hot water hosing me down like an animal at the zoo. You know the elephant shower head Kramer bought on "Seinfeld" that blasts him out of the shower?

Yeah, I want two.

While the cruise ship's shower had plenty of pressure it lacked for roominess. You hop in and can turn in a complete 360 direction and that's it. If something fell to the floor there would be no bending over to pick it up. Oh no. There is only squatting and even then your head may bounce off the wall or door.

So after surviving the claustrophobia-inducing shower, we raced upstairs, scarfed down breakfast, and were off the ship immediately. When we hit the docks we found that we were ahead of when our tour guide would show up. While we waited the rest of the tours set off for the St. Maarten beaches. My Fair Lady had it in her head that we could walk off the docks and look around a bit before coming back and meeting our tour guide so away we went. We noticed immediately that St. Maarten appeared infinitely less commercialized than St. Thomas was. By comparison, you can't walk around St. Thomas without tripping over at least three American fast food restaurants or stores. St. Maarten has a lot of this but it's far more focused on the cities and not the remaining countryside. The air, land, and sea also looked a heck of a lot cleaner, and it took but an instant glance at the mountainsides to fall in love with the island's beauty.

For a lot of tourists, Yours Truly included, one of the first thoughts that pops to mind whenever someone mentions the Caribbean is reggae music. Thus far we'd heard none of this, even on the ship's loud speakers, but at the end of the St. Maarten docks was a reggae band who was just jamming. My Fair Lady instantly morphed into Madame Perky at this because she was dying to hear "authentic" reggae music.

"I hope the band is still here when we get back today," she enthused.

"I'm sure they will be," I replied. "They can't miss a better time to serenade for tips than when everyone is leaving."

Since the house was a rockin' we didn't bother knockin' and moved on the various store fronts. I made sure to snag a picture of Madame Perky sitting on top of the "Welcome to St. Maarten" signage like any respectable tourist would. Since it was before 9 a.m. at this point only a few of the stores were opening up. We found a basket weaving place that offered her a purse for only $5 US but we declined. Madame Perky did however file it away for future reference.

We turned around and headed back towards the warfs and once there we found our guide to the "Tree Top Adventure." Yes, it is what it sounds like.

We loaded up with a larger group than we expected and headed off towards the center of the island. For those who are unaware, St. Maarten is divided in half with the Dutch owning the south half of the island and the French owning the northern side. There is effectively a Maginot Line right through the middle of the island where the nice and helpful southerners stop and the snotty northerners begin. We docked on the Dutch side and the bus travelled north. We again held on for dear life as the bus wildly raced along twisting and windy roads, some paved, some not so much. After a good half hour, the bus turned to go up a road barely bigger than my desk at work. This thing was so small and narrow I couldn't believe the bus could get clearance on either side. We get to the end of it, then hung a hard right and turned into this nature preserve where we disembarked.

The tour guide met us at the bus and welcomed us to what she referred to as "the training ground for The Amazing Race." This set Madame Perky atwitter because her life's ambition is to appear on that show. Racing around the globe, performing tasks and finding clues all while in a race appeals to her in a way nothing else can. So the thought of climbing through tree tops and racing down zip lines was something she'd been dreaming of for the last few months.

Oh yeah, that's what I meant by "Tree Top Adventures." For once, advertising pegged the right name for the event in question.

The tour guide also warned us of a friendly neighborhood dog named Eiko. Immediately, Eiko was upon us. I never caught what kind of dog he was, but he was friendly, playful, and anxious for all of us to throw a stick for him. Eventually the stick passed to Yours Truly and I threw it for him. And again. And again. Yet again. This went on for a while and the dog kept bringing the stick back to me so I'd play with him. I swear to all that is Holy I do not understand what it is about dogs and babies that makes them want to play with me all the dang time. I don't even do anything to encourage it! Do I come off as huggable?

Didn't think so. Moving on.

The guide takes off but not before handing us over to our instructor for the course, Mr. Echo. Far from the stoic character he plays on LOST, he was upbeat, friendly, and had a great personality that he shared with us at deafening volumes. He showed us/shouted at us in quick succession how to strap on our harness, how to climb using the safety clasps, and how to hook onto the zip line and fly from one tree top to another. Out of the corner of my eye I catch Madame Perky jumping up and down for joy like a four year old on Christmas morning. Since there were a few families there, Madame Perky and I weaseled our way close to the front of the line so we wouldn't be behind any teens. We lucked out in that you had to be so tall in order to ride this ride. There were only a few men and women in front of us and being the chivalrous gent that I am, I went first. I climbed into the first tree, hooked on my safety clasps, then began the course.

If you are not even remotely adventurous then the thought of climbing over and sailing through tree tops is likely not high on your list of things to do before you die. For me, I was immediately 10 years old again when climbing on trees like a monkey was all I could think about. The first thing I did was climb across some not-so-evenly placed steps (thank God for long legs) to a platform where I connected my harness onto the first zip line and the guide told me to sit down into the harness, hang onto it with my left hand, put my glove-covered right hand on the cable itself, then essentially let go. At that moment the world started whipping by as the trees became a blur and the sound of the harness wheeling down the zip line filled my ears.

A split second later I noted how thick and heavy the padding was on the tree I was aiming for.

You ever have one of those moments where the world flies by your head in slow motion and have you have a lot of coherent thought in the span of two seconds? It ocurred to me at this point to slow myself down because while the padding on the tree would mitigate some of the damage were I to plow into it at full speed, said padding remained wrapped around a tree. Somehow I didn't think it would overly forgiving, let alone flexible, were I to smack into it at the rate I was travelling. So I start to grip the cable and the guy on the other end shouts at me not to do so. I quickly let go of the cable with my right hand and continue to slide down the zip line. When I was closer to the tree the guy motioned to me to stop myself and I again gripped the line.

Apparently I didn't grip it hard enough fast enough because I still plowed into the tree although not at full force. When the stars cleared from my eyes I looked back at the zip line and pegged where in relation to the tree I needed to start slowing down. Future zip lines would not be an issue. This I vowed!

Solemnly, I might add.

My Fair Lady zipped in behind me and the look of excitement and bliss on her face made the entire trip worthwhile. Any and all problems I may have had with the cruise or travel in general vanished then and there. So it was I began the rest of my climb through the tree tops. The flier mentioned how kids were discouraged from attending due to the rigorous nature of the course. The specificity as to why was on the next leg of the course when I had to climb over a rope/plank bridge where the wooden planks for your feet had a nasty tendency to be just out of reach. The result is stretching waaaaay out and hoping you hit it. At least we did this in the daylight.

The entire course took around an hour and a half to two hours to complete, during which time it was not uncommon to find oneself having to literally hang onto the tree for dear life in order to advance to the next cable. Good lord was this fun. Zipping through the trees, climbing over them, walking across rope and cable bridges while sweating like crazy under the canopy of a forrest in the middle of St. Maarten is tough to beat for sheer vacation bliss.

By the way, neither My Fair Lady nor I believe in going on vacation just to sit around. Hell, we can do that at home. I experienced plenty of it as a kid when the family would hit South Padre island on our summer trips. We'd read on the beach and play in the surf, and go para-sailing. Do that frequently enough and you grow bored. So whenever My Fair Lady and I are on vacation we're off doing extreme activities like this. This is something to keep in mind if you're ever anxious to go on vacation with us. "Restful" it will not be.

Once we finished the course, we hung out at the bar and talked to some of the other guests before playing more with Eiko and then hopping back on the bus. We pulled into the wharfs with several hours to kill so opted to hail a cab and ride over to the downtown (about a 20 minute walk from the harbor). We jumped out of the cab and beheld... the exact same stores we'd seen on the previous islands. The primary difference though was the essential ambiance. Perhaps it was the feeling of being in a Euro-designed town, but the downtown markets, familiar though they were, did at least feel more welcoming. No matter, we thought, we'll look through them anyway and see what we could find. This town though was built much like their European founders in that everything was very narrow and pedestrians not only had the right of way everywhere they were, but also could walk in front of and in between the cars on the street. It's something fascinating to watch if you've never seen it. Then, out of nowhere, I heard it.

The Fanfare.

The initial blast of the symphony at once, the rest vanish while the trumpets sound, the rest of the music swells, and the involuntary reaction of my face is to form an ear-to-ear grin while my mind is instantly five again. Only a single piece of music has that effect on me, and it had found me in the very heart of St. Maarten.

Star Wars.

Try though he might through hammering the fans with outright lies and relentless pandering, George Lucas shot me in the head with a movie when I was a small boy and I've never been the same since. Star Wars lives in my blood as a part of me so much so that I will go to my grave loving it and dreaming of flying the Milennium Falcon around the galaxy battling the Empire. But I wondered who the hell was playing it in St. Maarten of all places. My Fair Lady heard the same music and wondered the same thing. I whipped my head around and found it coming from a small alcove off to the side of the main drag. Figuring we may as well check out a Star Wars store on St. Maarten we went in.

The first thing we did was walk up the stairs past some posters and such onto a balcony overlooking the street below. We ducked into the first open door and that's when I came face to face with Yoda. Or at least a good replica. I started looking around and something about the place felt... different. This wasn't a simple Star Wars store because while there was plenty of artwork from the series there were plenty of other pieces as well. Some original, some not, but all of it together told me I was someplace I'd like. Then an older gentleman came out and introduced himself as Nick Maley, a name I couldn't place. Then he told me who he was.

"I'm the one who helped design and build Yoda," he calmly said. He pointed me to a picture of him sitting at a work bench working on the animatronic Yoda used in The Empire Strikes Back.

"Huh," I replied. I think it was this exact moment when my brain literally shut down. As much as I want to meet all the original cast members, there is a part of me genuinely scared to. Oh sure, they're as human as you or me but there remains that part of my brain indelibly attached to Star Wars in a way that goes beyond simple love. I was shaking the hand of the guy who had made Yoda himself. I couldn't think straight. Immediately my head sort of exploded and imploded at the same time becoming a black hole of geekery.

"So, uh, how did you wind up out here?" I meekly asked.

Nick casually explained to us how he and his wife grew tired of Hollywood after one too many bad experiences and went sailing for a year. When they returned they decided to settle in St. Maarten so he set up shop and sells Star Wars artwork as well as his own paintings, which were quite good by the way. I asked him how much one particular thing was and he rattled off a price approaching $1000. Considering what it was, I wasn't surprised. He also noted that it was one of a few things not for sale on his website so you had to know it was there in order to buy it. I made a mental note to call him for it when I became wealthy someday.

In the meantime, we chatted him up about this and that. I seemed to actually skirt most things Star Wars related because I knew that would be opening a floodgate and I wouldn't want to leave. I looked through some of his different prints for the films and since My Fair Lady correctly recognized there was no way in hell I could leave without buying something I found one I liked. It contained a few storyboards and a script page from The Empire Strikes Back and looked uber cool. Nick was even nice enough to autograph it to me so I was fairly hopped up on "Geek" by the time we were ready to leave. We still wanted to look around a bit outside so they kindly held it for us, then we took our leave. As we walked downstairs I was still geeking out and then I actually looked at some of the posters on the stairwell. Highlander, Lifeforce, Krull, The Keep, Clash of the Titans, Superman I and II...

I mean the guy worked on my childhood. How the hell could I not be reduced to a complete basket case?

This one is running a little long so I'll split the rest of the day and night into Part II. Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Love Boat, Day 4

Day Four of our continuing journeys to explore strange new shopping haunts... to BOLDLY GO... where plenty of shoppers have gone before...

The cruise ship was pulling into the port of St. Thomas (US- Virgin Islands) when we awoke so we scrambled to get pictures of the island. I'm sure our neighbors were grateful for the protective barrier between balconies so all they could see was the camera flashing them instead of me. Today was going to be different than Day 3 because this was the first time we had full on planned excursions set. We readied ourselves, slammed on our hiking boots, and raced upstairs to the cafe for a quick breakfast.

By "quick breakfast" I mean "load up with as much food as possible because who knows when we'll next eat." One thing I'll give My Fair Lady on exploring is when she starts her day she likes to load up on a massive breakfast so she doesn't have to eat the rest of the day. My body and blood sugar regrettably doesn't have that luxury but at least this would postpone my need for eating for longer than normal. Combine that with relentless sinus attacks and the more food I eat the better off I feel. Away we stumbled down more flights of stairs and prepped ourselves for exiting the ship the second it docks.

Anyone notice a theme thus far on how quickly we want off the ship at the first opportunity?

As soon as we hit the docks we found the tour bus that would take us to the one and only Blackbeard's castle. Again, it's important to note that streets on islands do not go in a straight path. They wind and curve and follow the island's topography instead of the other way around. Now, hop onto a bus with no doors on the side and hang on for dear life as the driver guns it up and over and all around the curves of said island.

Naturally for the first leg of the trip I sat in the middle while My Fair Lady sat next to where a door would normally be. I could always tell when she looked down because her nails would suddenly dig into my arm. We hit one scenic view after another and snapped many pictures to boot. One thing that cannot be said of St. Thomas is that it's ugly. The beauty of the island is difficult to put into mere words so accept that while we were on a stunningly beautiful vista you weren't.

Interestingly enough the tour guide was very proud of all the government housing on the island. I found it curious as to how proud they were of such housing compared to how most Americans tend to look down our noses at such projects. The things you see and learn when you leave home I guess. We made sure to get our picture taken with a mule at one of the stops because the mule looked ready to party at Mardi Gras.

You really had to be there to appreciate the randomness of it.

We eventually get to the top of this mountain where Blackbeard's castle was and we're told to disembark. We hop off and as we walk forward we see a massive bronze statue of the fabled pirate and behind that was a tower we could walk up. Only eight people at a time were allowed in it though, ostensibly due to the weathered nature of the iron stairwell, and looking out from the top of it we could see yet another magnificent view. When we went back downstairs we discovered three things. The first was that the tower was all that was left of Blackbeard's palace as the rest had been claimed by age. The second was that Blackbeard himself preferred to hang out on the docks waaaaaay down the mountainside because those were his kind of peeps.

The third was simply me doubting that Blackbeard had two pools installed in front of the remaining tower.

We walked through the encampment though and were treated to a good few hours worth of information on the pirates of the island in general. Eventually we made our way down to a series of homes that were built in the 17th century and were still owned by the same family. The living family rep gave us an extensive tour which was equally fascinating. Walking through living history like that thrills me regardless of where I am. All of these homes have underground cisterns that collect water from the extensive rains so they are rarely without a fresh supply of water. They also pointed out a particular type of tree that can hold up to a gallon of water PER branch.

Bear in mind the trees in question were huge with extremely long branches. Another tree we saw has been dated back over 3000 years and is now home to an iguana. He and I regarded one another casually.

"'Sup?" I asked.
"Nothin'," he replied. "Just hangin' out, havin' a bud."
"Cool," I said.

When the tour was over we hiked about looking through yet more shops. It struck me then that we'd seen almost an exact carbon copy of these stores in Old San Juan so I began to wonder about the chains in that part of the world. All the same people kept flocking to the stores though, which also struck me as odd. How could one be so blinded by the phrase "tax/duty free!" that they will obediently buy things from the same store again and again? Is it because it's on a different island? If so, then someone needs to calmly explain to these people what the phrase "chain store" denotes because they ain't getting new stuff every time.

When we finished our window shopping of the exact same stores readily available in Dallas (also known as a Mall Mecca), we headed back towards the ship to see what else was around. Near the wharfs was a mountain top restaurant called Paradise Point which we figured would be nifty to see. So we hop on board the ski lift to head up and My Fair Lady immediately chats up the couple sharing the ride with us. I'm busy shaking my head wondering whether these people want to just leap off the ski lift to get away from Madame Perky but they were nice enough to go along with it. Turns out they were honeymooning on the opposite side of the island where the massive resorts were. They were married the day before on the island and this was the first day they'd had in a while to be alone.

So naturally what's the first thing that happens to them? They wind up trapped in a ski lift with an animated Chatty Cathy and her husband.

At the top of the mountain we get off the ride, look around, then head towards the restaurant. Imagine our surprise to find a country & western bar/restaurant on the top of a mountain in St. Thomas. My Fair Lady, hailing from Lubbock, TX, naturally sits down and starts bopping her head about to the tunes. Meanwhile I'm looking over the menu while trying to guess how the Dixie Chicks and Kenny Chesney feel about their tunes being on a jukebox in the Caribbean.

Right about then it started raining, and raining hard. We look around and there is plenty of sunlight on the rest of the island, however circling above the restaurant is a dark cloud of rain. We look at one another, click our plastic cups together in celebration of deciding to eat under a roof instead of under an umbrella, then watch as the rain proceeds to move to the inner part of the island and the wharfs.

"Isn't right down there where the open air market is?" I asked.

"Yup," replied My Fair Lady who promptly takes a sip of her margarita. "You happy we're not shopping down there anymore?"

"Yes, and not just 'cause of the rain," I said.

"You didn't find anything you like?"

"Well, it's not that. It's that I know if I do find something I like I'll be able to grab one on any of the other islands since they all have the same stores."

"What about that one pirate store. That was unique, and you got that t-shirt there."

"True, but only because we didn't have a baby to dress up with all the mini-pirate paraphernalia. Nothing cuter than a six month old with an eye patch. Unless you're social services."

This last drew a punch in the arm. In hindsight I wish it had gone towards the person who decided how expensive the food was because the double-take the bill induced caused whiplash.

"It costs $60+ bucks to have some weak cheddar fries, a burger, and a frickin' Coke in St. Thomas?" I was damn near in tears. The view was one thing, but if the food was a hell of a lot better maybe I would be able to swallow the bill too.

"You think we can make it out of here without them noticing?" My Fair Lady asked.

"Not sure yet. The only sure-fire escape route is over the railing and down the side of the mountain. The catch being we're on a mountain without snow so it's going to hurt like hell sliding down it," I said.

"So what's going to hurt more? Paying that bill or face-planting down the side of a mountain?"

I was silent for a minute as I thought about this.

"I'm leaning towards the mountain right now, but the ship might suspect something is amiss when we show up bloody with the cops on our heels."

So after paying the bill we descended down the mountain in the ski lift yet again with the honeymooning couple who were again assaulted by My Fair Lady's relentless cheeriness. After a little more shopping we headed back to the docks and boarded the ship yet again for more fun and frivolity.

At dinner that night we were missing the Duo from LA, yet the Missing Missus From Seattle appeared. We all speculated how long it would take to get a full table, but she was a more than welcome addition to group. My Fair Lady and she hit it off very well and we had plenty of fun talking to everyone. Afterwards, we hit the stateroom and blacked out again ready to start day five. It would prove to be the biggest and best day of the entire trip so that one may take two posts to get everything in.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Down to Eight...

The console backlog is now down to eight. For the record, I haven't had a console backlog of less than 15 for going on four years now. In theory, I hope to be able to knock off several other titles in the coming weeks because the Fourth Quarter Surge is upon us. For whatever idiotic reason, game houses release everything they possible can (and some things they shouldn't) from October through December. The idea being to hit the Christmas rush.

The result is people only buying two or three of the 15 available AAA titles. The result from that is the incorrect assumption that certain games are bad because they didn't move units. For example, look at Quake 4 from last year. That was an A- game all around, and a generally fantastic action-fest. But it released the same day as GUN, Call of Duty 2, F.E.A.R., and about four other big name titles and Activision utterly abandoned it. This happens every year and no one ever seeks to change it, which speaks to the utter stupidity among corporate executives.

I already see two games on store shelves I desperately want, but I'm holding back to focus on the remaining eight. Unfortunately for my timetable, two of them are role-playing games (namely Jade Empire and Dark Cloud 2) which means each one could command weeks worth of my attention. The others though I should be able to knock out with a few days worth of concerted effort each. I sincerely want to go into 2007 with as few of these hanging around my neck as possible because as busy as this year was, it pales in comparison to what I know is coming soon enough.

In the meantime, I'll have the rest of my Love Boat saga completed this week (left my notes at home, so I'll have to pick them up at lunch), along with having a few DVD reviews here and there. My Fair Lady goes out of town on Friday and doesn't return until late Sunday so there will be gaming and movie-watching aplenty at Casa de Skim this coming weekend. Later...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Love Boat, Day 3

Awoke/hid under covers/in the bathroom/received breakfast. Day Three was under way.

As My Fair Lady groomed herself I flipped through the tv channels available. Apparently '70's programming remains a big draw south of the border because there was plenty of Dallas, The Mod Squad, and The Partridge Family to choose from. I also came across Beverly Hills Cop 3 which I haven't seen in years. It took me all of 10 minutes before I remembered why I have voluntarily not seen it in years.

Breakfast good. Beverly Hills Cop 3 not so much.

Right about then I noticed how scratchy my throat felt. You know that feeling when your body isn't quite sick but that in the next 12 hours it's going to try like mad to make your life hell? I have that feeling then which is reinforced about 10 seconds later when my sinuses start attacking. Naturally I'm puzzled by this since we're IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FRICKIN' OCEAN and my sinuses have nothing to affect them. Of course, what medicine did I intentionally leave at Casa de Skim?

My DayQuill.

My Fair Lady comes in and grabs me to take me out on the rest of the ship and we go around exploring some more. We even wound up sitting up on the deck for a while just people watching. I'd realized before this point how a lot of the people on board, not all but a lot, resembled lobsters who ate too much. As previously noted, the goal of going on a cruise is to shop/eat/tan thineself and if you're not into doing any of these three (or all of them as we were) you start running out of things to do pretty quickly.

We did, however, have one thing to do before departing the ship. My Fair Lady found on the schedule an 11 a.m. world geography trivia challenge in one of the lounges so forthwith we strode with the utmost confidence in our geographic knowledge. We made our way to the lounge and found seating close to where the speaker would be and others soon poured in. When the speaker stepped up and opened his mouth I immediately dubbed him Cabana Boy. If any of you have ever played the truly inspired The Curse of Monkey Island there's a character you encounter who's known only as Saucy Cabana Boy. So it was with this guy and the description was spot-on. His questions though left us stymied as we knew not quite a few of the places he spoke of. We managed to get a few correct but the family near Cabana Boy's podium scored the majority of points and were declared the winner. So, knowing we were geographic failures, we decided to grab something to eat and hit the room.

We made it through lunch in the cafe and then ran back to our room to make sure we had everything prior to disembarking at San Juan, Puerto Rico. We get back and walk out on the balcony to see the island as we pull in. The camera was whipped out and many shots were taken.


Should I ever get around to understanding Flickr then I may upload a few and post a slideshow. We rushed back out the door, flew down the stairs...

And came to a dead stop with about three flights to go. Apparently everyone not named "us" wanted off the ship as well so the line stacked waaaaay up. We wait and wait and just for kicks waited some more when finally the announcement came over the PA that we could disembark. The mad scramble began as everyone started pushing forward. I figured that with so many people in such a crowded spot that we could easily crowd surf our way past everyone.

Note to self: Do not attempt crowd surfing when the ceiling of a ship is barely a foot taller than you.

Once off the ship we took in the sights of Old San Juan. We looked at our clocks and knew we had roughly five hours before we had to return to the ship. It was at this exact minute My Fair Lady and I realized why cruising may not be for us. When we go somewhere new, we dive into the culture and world whole heartedly. We get our hands in it and live as close to the "natives" as it's possible for a couple of whitebread low-key Texans to manage. We explore in as great a detail as possible, yet with the clock running there was no way to explore the entirety of the island. So we settled with hiking about Old San Juan.

That being said we enjoyed the sights. Along the coastline are a couple of Spanish forts so we immediately headed inland towards the first one we saw. If you've never been on an island then be aware that hiking boots/shoes are your best friend. It doesn't matter how hilly they are, the roads built on an island conform to the terrain not the other way around. In the US, we'll blast a hole through a mountain to allow a road to go straight through. On an island, the road will wind and wander around and up and over the mountain before rapidly descending to the other side.

Now apply that principle of road and sidewalk building to any city on an island anywhere and you have a good idea what it's like. So if you're into walking and getting some exercise then it's highly recommended you strap on your boots and hit the nearest island. When we walked into the main city we immediately saw a Starbucks.

Of course, My Fair Lady was going through withdrawals by this point so we headed inside. She was able to mask her twitching long enough to get the order placed without anyone freaking out. Although I think the waitress behind the counter must have seen and recognized the look of pure "COFFEEEEEE!!!" in My Fair Lady's eyes as her beverage was delivered directly.

Once the coffee demon's thirst was slaked we hiked towards the fort on the mountain side. When we walked up to the side we spotted some graffiti across from it that wished death to the policia and the FBI. My Fair Lady was disturbed by this considering her father is retired FBI.

"But why would they want that?" she asked.

"Hey, look over there! A Spanish fort where people were tortured! Follow me!" I shouted. Dragging her into the fort we continued our exploration and discovered just how short people were only a few hundred years ago. I'm 6'1" and my head was almost scraping the tops of some archways inside the fort. The preservation society should be commended though because of their recent edict that all plastering and maintenance performed on the fort should conform to the exact standards used by the original builders. I thought that was quite cool. We walked all over the fort and took many great pictures of the admirable view.

Not to mention My Fair Lady took a shot of me next to a smelted stack of cannonballs. Never let it be said that Yours Truly lacks for balls. I now have the picture to prove it.

We left the fort and continued our wanderings through Old San Juan and again I was grateful for playing video games for the past 15+ years. Why is that, you ask? Because in about two minutes I can break down and decipher any map handed to me and immediately figure out how to navigate a city. If Grand Theft Auto had taught me nothing else, at least it taught me how to read a map while on the run from the Feds. Mere words aren't enough to qualify the gratitude I feel towards developer Rockstar.

Several of the city streets reminded us of New Orleans because of how huge and overgrown the trees were, and how narrow and steep the roads were. Again, island-based construction will conform to the land not vice versa so steep roads are the norm nor the exception. We did some shopping among the street vendors in the central marketplace (things like this are about the only sort of shopping I enjoy) and My Fair Lady picked up a nifty handmade ring that she really digs. We also hit the local Walgreens and grabbed some deodorant for me, though they were lacking in DayQuill.

At least other people would suffer no longer. "Considerate" remains my middle *achoo* name.

Around this time we needed to at least be in the vicinity of the wharfs so we headed back to the main drag where we bobbed and weaved in and out of various stores. We started to get hungry (and by "we" I mean "me") so we looked at the various restaurants and decided on a place called Lupi's. Apparently it's a Puerto Rican sports bar and we were pretty much the only patrons in it. One hopes it was more popular during the lunch shift, but it was still nifty to go in and check it out. We ordered up some insanely spicy, but oh so good, nachos that kicked our butts. then the enchiladas came and we made the mental note that the guys running the place must either love cheese or have an excess of it. The food was good overall, and it was fun looking at an autographed poster of Mike Tyson the whole time.

We headed out after dinner and waddled around the shops some more trying to let our food digest. After perusing more stores we finally made our way to the docks and back on board the ship. From what I recall we pretty much passed out that night considering those enchiladas felt like lead weights in our guts. So we slept with the hope that additional islands wouldn't be so shopping-centric. It felt so much better to have our sealegs back on land though and this truly made up for the previous day. Next up was the island of St. Thomas.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Love Boat, Day 2

Following an entire night in the deep blue sea we awoke... to mutual headaches. My Fair Lady and I woke up that morning and neither of us felt close to 100%. Heck, we'd have gone in for 70% but at the time all I could hear was the siren call of my Advil bottle. Fortunately, I never go far from it so while I may stink on account of forgetting my deodorant, never fear for I doth have Advil handy.

Were you to combine that with a shot of booze then you'd pass right out and never have to smell me. "Considerate" is my middle name.

The steward knocked on our door around 9 a.m. with breakfast, so while My Fair Lady hid under the covers and I ducked into the bathroom, our breakfast was put in our cabin. I walked out and examined what we had on hand and it looked pretty solid. One thing we've both become accustomed to in our travels is how Europeans always throw a cooked or fried tomato onto the breakfast dish as a side. It never fails, and this extends even so far south as Sydney.

My Fair Lady bounded out of bed with her trademarked morning enthusiasm and we ate breakfast on our balcony. I recalled the famous line from The Shawshank Redemption when Morgan Freeman's character Red is on the bus bound for the Texas-Mexico border.
"I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the ocean is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope."
The Atlantic Ocean is indeed the deepest and richest blue one can imagine and sailing across it while eating scrambled eggs with assorted pastries was a wonderful way to spend the morning. After taking in the view and smells of the ocean we figured it was time to explore the ship stem to stern.

Before any of that could begin though My Fair Lady rushed out to buy us tickets to the ice show on Thursday.

"Tickets will sell out if I don't get there right now!" she cried out.
"Uh, this is a show about people skating around, yes?" I asked.
"Uh huh. They have shiny costumes and everything," she replied.
"So how is it this whole 'we' thing applies to enjoying it?" I asked.
"Oh hush, you'll like it."

With that the door was open and away she flew down the hall. Some days I wish I had that sort of enthusiasm first thing in the morning. But then I'd have to kill myself out of fear the perkiness might spread like an infection. Soon all would be perky and the world would become populated solely by Katie Couric clones.

Think about the sheer terror alien invaders might feel. They come in war and all they find is perky, the once great nations of the planet Earth reduced to shiny, happy, automatons of joy. They'd flee back into the depths of the universe in terror. Think about that.

Once My Fair Lady returned with full perkiness in tow, we headed out onto the ship to explore everything. We found a rock wall, a Johnny Rockets, and a mini-golf course set up at one end of the ship. In the middle were the spas and the swimming pools and the bars. There were restaurants galore, a movie theater, a stage where the nightly shows performed, and so forth. Plenty of stuff to do...

But then that "trapped" feeling set in.

Neither of us is particularly claustrophobic especially when one examines our personal lives. We're not hermits but we do have a sort of structure about our lives. We go to work, come home, and maybe go out for a bit before returning home. Yet when we vacation we like to just go walk-about as the Aussies would say. We'll pick a direction and just start hiking to see what we can find. So for us to be stuck in the middle of the ocean on a giant floating mini-mall surrounded by people boozing it up and scarfing down food and shopping incessantly was a little weird. But we figured it was only one more day until we landed in San Juan so why shouldn't we make the best of it.

Right around that time came the announcement for the cannonball competition up on deck. Chita Rivera emceed the festivities with some Spanish flair added to the rampant perky. Many challengers stepped to the plate and many a giant splash was created until the main man strode forth. His name? Dave.

His size? Frickin' ginormous.

Dave danced his way to the platform, waved to everyone (whether it was for good-by or good luck I couldn't tell) then leaped into the air, curled into a ball, and aimed for the water. As he hit the water it was though someone detonated a mine under the surface because every drop of liquid in the pool shot straight into the air and landed on us. When we could all see again we brought in a ladder to pass down to him so he could climb out of the now-vacant pool. What better reward than to hand out a perfect score?

We wandered the ship snacking here and there for the rest of the afternoon until it was time for dinner. This was the first of two formal nights so while My Fair Lady leapt for joy at dressing up (something she is amazingly good at, it bears mentioning) I grumbled about wearing a suit and eating with people I didn't know.

"But you do know them," she said. "We met them the other night and they seem like very sweet people. Oh! I'm just so excited! Whoo-hoo!"

Hang with her long enough and this sort of boundless enthusiasm towards pretty much everything becomes common place. There are many reasons I wanted to marry My Fair Lady but her energy and joy at the world is easily in the top five.

We arrive for dinner and greet our server again, and we meet one half of the missing duo from the previous night. Mr. Mark from Seattle joined our merry crew and along with Robyn/Armando from Texas and Charles/Michelle from LA the couplings were almost complete. As the night wore on we became increasingly comfortable in our discussions and the evening was very friendly. The dinner itself was alright, but nothing spectacular. Mark mentioned that Johnny Rockets made a mean milk shake which meant I had to immediately head there for dessert.

One of the headlining traits of the cruise I was sold on was 24-hour ice cream. This proved not to be the case. By 24-hour ice cream I assumed, incorrectly, that there would be a bar setup in one of the cafes where I could pick up a few scoops whenever I wanted and go on with my day. Instead I could either pay for Ben & Jerries (overrated) or grab a soft-serve yogurt cone at one of several locations.

Soft-serve yogurt to me does not equal 24-hour ice cream bars. Just sayin'.

At any rate, we learn that Michelle is a financial manager for certain celebrities and sports people in LA and apparently it's true how poor they are with handling their money. I don't know anyone that can justify dropping $20K on a piece of luggage, but these people somehow do. I can only imagine Michelle sitting on the other end of the phone telling them that's not the wisest course of action regarding long-term investments.

After dinner digested we ran up to Johnny Rockets and grabbed a shake. Fortunately the girl behind the counter didn't have to use the mixer because the cruise ship hit some rough chops and at that height we were all swaying. When we returned to the midship we were able to stand on our own and figured the wisest thing would be to hit the sack and hang on for dear life.

Day three and LAND!!! was just around the corner.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

I Love/Hate You, Titan Quest

I've been playing Titan Quest for a few weeks now and I absolutely love it... when it works. By "when it works" I mean "when it's not hard locking the crap out of my computer." So developer Iron Lore puts out a few patches. I update accordingly. It still hard locks my PC, but now I get an error log to go with the crash. After submitting said log to said developer the guys there tell me it's a memory issue. So I've got that to look forward to.


In the meantime, I'm still playing the heck out of Titan Quest so much so that I have the "trigger finger twitch" non-stop mouse clicking gets you. Not familiar with this disease? Then you must not have played Diablo II ad nauseum back in the day like the rest of us did. If anything, Titan Quest is little more than Diablo III with an Ancient Greece skin on top. The game is exactly like Blizzard's beauty only with shinier graphics and prone to crashing like Lindsay Lohan after a bender.

Stability issues aside, this is a gorgeous and terrifically fun click-fest that absolutely is recommended for all you loot whores. I giddily admit to being one and seeing the sheer volume of badass equipment landing at my feet after slaughtering waves of foes is simply joyous. Compare this with the derth of really anything you get in Oblivion when you open a chest or slay a monster. I knock Bethesda for a lot of things but their stinginess is near the top of the list of reasons why their Elder Scrolls series is vastly overrated. Sure they create whole worlds for you play around with, but it always takes the mod community six months to add the fun.

By comparison, Titan Quest is fun right out of the box and only gets better the further along you go. The various skill combinations make for some deliriously awesome ass-whooping so much so that the game demands many replays. Once players hit level their first level, they get to choose a mastery. When they hit level eight they get the option to choose a second. They can either specialize in the first mastery or split the difference between two. Unlike any of Bioware's hybrid characters, having two masteries in Titan Quest is absolutely essential to bringing the pain to the monster hordes.

Some of the skills have only recently been balanced out too. For example, the Oracle hybrid (Spirit + Storm) is strong at first and only grows moreso as the game wears on. While some may complain that the famed Ternion Attack (a Spirit attack) is way overpowered (true) it makes the enjoyment of truly destroying mobs that much better. At the higher levels, certain characters can walk over everything in their path and the destruction they bring is awesome to behold.

But then they get to Epic and Legendary difficulties and find themselves swatted down like flies. Thus begins the need for strategy and possibly a complete overhaul of their characters. Such is the beauty of Titan Quest: Once you have a handle on things, the game shifts to something you don't simply power through. The higher levels don't so much require tactics as DEMAND them. Fortunately, the higher levels bring with them insanely cool equipment. The better quality ones all have sweet looks to them so when players see something sparkling on the ground that looks like the coolest spear/sword/battleaxe/armor they've ever seen then they're probably right.

So why am I taking a break from this right now? Mainly because I want Iron Lore to put out another patch or two. They just released 1.2 which balances the game (so they say) but what they're missing is a way to store equipment and trade it with different pack mules. There is a hack out for this, but the patch is incompatible. So I have to uninstall it then reinstall the game then patch it then hack it again only to have to repeat once 1.3 hits.

Instead I think I'll go play Space Rangers 2 again and wait for Iron Lore to put out another stability patch or three. On the plus side, they've proven to be dedicated to improving the game so another few patches should be coming down the pipe soon. Major kudos to Iron Lore for their continued and rapid support.

Monday, October 9, 2006

The Love Boat, Day 1

Day One of the Post Bar Trip. My initial impression of the cruise ship was just how big the thing was. When you see it across the Miami harbor it dominates the surrounding docks. When you pull up next to it in a cab though, you find your head involuntarily craning back until it’s resting not so comfortably between your shoulders staring at the sky.

We boarded through an elaborately designed mousetrap losing only a few passengers along the way. I didn’t think much about the empty customs counters as we boarded, but those would return to viciously haunt us. The scientists running the experiment must not have liked us pausing in front of the barren customs counters because they quickly herded us on board. If you can avoid cattle prods shocking your shoulders for the rest of your life I heartily recommend it.

Once on board we rushed to our cabin on deck 8 and opened the door to behold streamers from one end of the cabin to the other. My Fair Lady had the foresight to book us a cabin with a balcony, and where the ship was docked gave us a heck of a view of Miami. Our steward showed up and introduced himself as Mauricio and I believe he was from Jamaica. I might have misunderstood him considering he spoke so fast I only caught roughly every fourth word.

After speaking with Mauricio, and by "speaking" I mean "nodding a lot while trying to figure out how anyone’s mouth could move that fast," we headed up to deck 11 where the main buffet was in the Windjammer Café. Once we piled on enough food to feed a small army between us we sat down to plan out our day. The first thing on the agenda was the mandatory revelry that afternoon on the lower decks. Wearing the life preservers wasn’t so much recommended as demanded, so at least we’d all look silly together. My Fair Lady made the observation that we had best book any and all reservations on the ship for the week immediately because if they booked up then we’d be sad.

So we headed up the spa and found a host of options. Since neither of us heard the irresistible siren call of having our faces peeled off, we opted for the massages. I have to confess one of my deepest and darkest secrets is having a great massage so we looked on the menu for those. We knew one day later in the week would be physically intensive so we scheduled a couples massage for that night. We noticed, however, that a "First Night Special" applied to certain types of massages, and the woman behind the counter sold us on the Hot Stones one.

"They drop hot stones on you?" I asked.

"Yes sir, along with hot oils," replied Spa Lady.

"And how will I find it relaxing when my skin is on fire?" I asked.

"It’s actually quite pleasant, sir, and one of our most popular choices. And it can be yours tonight for the low price of $100."

Fortunately for my sanity I didn’t ask how much it normally was.

Around this point it was time for revelry so we headed back to our cabin, grabbed our life preservers and headed several decks down. Once we fought through the hordes of other guests we were herded into lines looking out over Miami harbor. People were excited and jumping up and down, and a few right next to us wouldn’t shut up about how much they were going to party and drink. They also took off their preservers the first chance they had, which told me if the ship hit a rogue iceberg somewhere in the Caribbean at least they wouldn’t be on our rowboat for long.

By that I mean I’d personally have thrown them overboard. By "tossing them overboard" I mean "got their attention with some Bacardi then thrown it in the ocean and laughed as they chased after it."

It’s quite something to swelter in the Miami humidity in a life preserver. I’m sure they work as advertised when you’re in the water but they doth suck mightily when wrapped around your neck on the side of a ship that’s docked in a harbor. My Fair Lady and I made sure to take pictures of each other as the sweat was pouring down our faces. At this point the ship’s captain, Cruising-For-Personality, came on the com and told us that everything was good with the ship and we’d be ready to sail shortly. His voice was only slightly flatter than Jimmy Hoffa’s vital signs.

We raced up several flights of stairs, threw open the door to our cabin, threw our life preservers on the floor, raced back out the door, up more stairs and collapsed in front of the doors to the spa. When we came to we beheld the last flight of stairs leading from the gym upstairs to the actual spa so we hiked up them and fell onto the front desk.

"Skims, party of two for the Scalding Stone treatment," I said.

"Have you been with us before, sir?"

"How is that possible? We just got on the ship."

"I think she means have we done their treatment on a prior cruise, sweetie," replied My Fair Lady. It bears mentioning that she’s the levelheaded one of us when it comes to spas and spa personnel so I must give credit where credit is due. We were promptly escorted back to the waiting area where we were given release forms, ostensibly because if neither of us made it out alive then the spa wasn’t liable for using cooking oil instead of massage oil.

Our respective masseuses came in and took us to our rooms. My Fair Lady was escorted by Diego de la Fuego of Spain whereas I was handled by Donna of the Philippeans who introduced us to the nature of the Hot Stones Massage. If you’ve ever been curious about it then I suggest you try this. Douse yourself in really hot water, and then have your significant other take hot rolls fresh out of the oven and rub them all over your back. Now do that for roughly an hour. Oddly enough, it’s strangely relaxing in a sort of "oh my God my back is on fire!" way. It’s a rubdown based on extremes, and what better way to experience that than on a cruise with a small Philipino woman working out muscle kinks with her elbows?

All aboard, says I.

Unfortunately, Diego stiffed My Fair Lady by working on her wallet instead of her back. He spent some of her time shilling some suped up oils or some such as opposed to actually, you know, massaging her. We left the massage parlor and headed south to deck 5 where all the shops and the Café Promenade were. Hitting the Café Promenade proved to be a wise move on my part because they cook pretty dang good pizza until 3 a.m. They also made a heck of a tasty pastry so stocking up there would soon become the routine. We then perused the local shops each gawking at the fairly expensive prices for trivial items like... a small bottle of Pert.

"At least I don’t have to pay $10 for a bottle of shampoo no bigger than my hand," I observed. "Oh no..."

That’s when it hit me that I forgot my Right Guard spray.

"Why not use the stick?" advised My Fair Lady. "I’m sure that’ll at least be affordable."

"Because I get the luxury of being allergic to the stick. I break out in rashes and everything."

"You want to try mine for the week?"

"Yours is a stick, so no thank you. And while it may be strong enough for a man, it’s made for a woman."

"It’s not like you’re going to mutate into a drag queen."

"I would hope not, but there’s no worse time to crave tickets to Ain’t Misbehavin’ than lost at sea."

When we returned to our cabin we found a Bon Voyage chocolate cake waiting for us. One thing we knew we wouldn’t be lacking for this week would be sugar. We quickly got ready for dinner, then headed to the main dining room and our assigned table of 324. In the case of this particular ship, the dining room was three floors each named something different. In our case, the third deck was called The Nutcracker.

There’s nothing funny related to that so let’s move on to dinner.

We soon met the server, who would be with us for the week, a kindly gentlemen by the name of Leonardo. Each section is assigned a certain waiter though I think he was just for our table. He was terrific in both quality of service and speed of service, plus it was just fun talking to the guy. The rest of our table could seat three additional couples, but only two more showed up that night. A pair from LA and a pair from San Antonio were the other featured guests and while it took a while for all of us to warm to one another, we soon were chatting back and forth like chums.

After dinner, it was time to hit deck 5 for the late night Bon Voyage Mardi Gras. The staff of the ship threw a parade to celebrate us shipping out and it was filled with much raucous music and dancing. We then realized there were several rooms right above deck 5 which made us wonder whether those rooms were soundproofed. If they weren’t then I honestly don’t know how those people stayed sane let alone got any sleep. On the flip side, our cabin was filled with the sound of silence in between the sounds of us eating our cake so we relaxed after the parade.

More to come as the cruise began in earnest on Day Two. Coming attractions include plenty of shopping, meeting a Star Wars behind-the-scenes alum, and roaring through the treetops on zip lines.

Monday, October 2, 2006

The Return

My Fair Lady and I returned home yesterday after a weeklong cruise in the Caribbean. For the record, if you've never seen how truly blue the ocean is you are missing out. Details are forthcoming on the day to day activities so if you enjoy vacation highlights mixed in with a healthy dose of pain I have some stories you'll enjoy. Stay tuned for those throughout the week.

Also, I've received a few more things via Netflix and reviews of those will appear as soon as I watch them. With mountains of laundry to knock out this week and My Fair Lady's car needing to go back into the shop things might be a little crazy.