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    by KATE POCOCK
    Family Travel Ink
Parent Getaways: Cruising: Moms Escape Winter Blues on a Turquoise Sea

Well Oprah is finally onto something that I and two of my girlfriends have known for years— at least 20 of them—the tonic, the fun, the verve of the girls’ getaway weekend. Every year, since our graduation from University, we three former roomies have fled husbands, kids and jobs for our annual “February blahs” weekend. It’s perfect. Just as Mother Nature is delivering her worst, we liberate ourselves to be together, to laugh until we hurt, to shop until we drop, to come back refreshed.

Sometimes we travel far — to sunny southern Spain for instance to re-live Operation Spaniard (don’t ask, it was thankfully unsuccessful). Sometimes our escape is as close as the nearest downtown hotel. But we had never taken our threesome joie de vivre to the high seas. Why not trade winter blues for the azures and turquoise of Florida and the Caribbean? And what better vessel than a Carnival Cruise Lines’ Fun Ship known for laid-back frolic? The Fascination set sail every Friday for the Bahamas. We could be home by Monday afternoon. Despite the fact that we had endured debilitating seasickness during rough ferry crossings in our student days, we booked. Besides it was springtime down south. The weather would be as soft as pussy willows, right? Or, so we thought.

Meeting up in Miami, we toasted our first sailing escapade with electronic cocktails (pink champagne and cranberry glowing with electric ice cubes in martini glasses) at trendy Wish restaurant. Carole raised her glow-in-the-dark drink with a wish for us all. “We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time,” she laughed. Cathie and I liked this new Ya-Ya-like mantra. Soon, we were clinking glasses all round.

The good time started at the port. Filling out bag tags, Carole joked, “Well I don’t want to put the wrong cabin number down unless he’s tall, dark and handsome.” Ha! Our married life measured more than 70 years between us. We were not about to get into serious trouble but rather to see the shows, eat some gourmet fare, stroll the decks, catch some sunshine under our hat brims and breathe in some invigorating ocean air.

Despite the current travel fears, this cruise was packed. Some 2414 passengers and 973 crew from 66 countries. In fact, according to First Purser Marcus Davies from Wales, Carnival’s cruise capacity was up. Astonishingly, the 20 vessels boasted up to a 90 percent passenger rate. Perhaps this was partly due to stringent security measures. We were checked repeatedly, bags too, photographed and ID’d while still in the terminal. Once on board, we were escorted to our spacious cabin. The movie star mannequins decorating the public rooms did nothing for me and the pastel cabin colours looked a little dated but there was a large picture window, two single beds and a bunk, loads of cupboard space and my favourite, a shower that produced so much hot water that we regularly flooded the bathroom.

As we explored the ship, we spotted young and old but mostly young. Families were checking out Camp Carnival (some 400,000 kids will sail on Carnival this year) while teens (117 of them under 15!) were searching for the disco, the virtual reality games and the 24-hour pizzeria. I counted 14 wheelchair passengers riding elevators and positioning for good views of the Miami skyline. On deck, a gaggle of 20-something girls, looking like cheerleaders in personalized red and white jerseys, were celebrating the upcoming marriage of one in their midst. They posed for photos though I wondered if “Molly Rimjob” or “ Bush Peddler” would make it into the wedding album. Other single gals were booking aromatherapy massages or peppermint foot treatments at the Spa or settling into hot tubs with Bahama Mamas—the drink of the day.



We were offered an “Updo” at the hair salon. I joked that I needed a “Downdo.” We were here to relax a bit too, though we could have filled our three-day calendar with myriad shipboard activities—everything from Tiddley Winks in the library to Ten -dollar bets at the Black Jack tables.

At dinner, we met our 40-to 50-something tablemates: a female accountant from Vancouver ready to read, relax, and play golf (in that order), a first-time cruiser lawyer from Windsor, Ontario, a graphic artist and former disc jockey from Nashville, Tennessee and a scuba diver/ real estate developer from Key West, headed to the Bahamas to buy a dive boat. With one writer, one lawyer, and one creative artist added to the mix, we had lots to talk about over wild mushroom soup, duck rolls, rack of lamb and “thing in a dish” according to waiter Branko. The “thing” turned out to be a delicious Grand Marnier orange soufflé.

Carnival listens to passengers says Davies. And that is nowhere more evident than in the dining room. As one New York veteran of 14 Carnival cruises said, “The food used to be what I would call ‘wedding food’—good but not memorable.” And two days later? “The food has been excellent. I’ve been very impressed,” she praised. So true. As the able Branko from the Dalmatian Coast (not one of the 101 Dalmations he joked) and the smiling Made from Thailand served up lobster, local dishes such as pumpkin soup, succulent beef from Alberta and some of the best tiramisu this side of Venice, we gobbled it up. One passenger’s shirt said it all: “Born to be Big.” Good thing high impact Tai Bo classes and a running track were on board.

Other requests too have been answered. More wine? Sommaliers now pour 86 wines from around the world. Passengers empty more than 50,000 bottles per week. That’s some recycling box. More flexible dining? Try 24 hour cabin room service, buffet or table service and deli sandwiches available around the clock. And if you don’t bond with your tablemates, the maitre ‘d will find suitable companions. Gourmet fare? One Florida passenger confided that he’d never ever seen, let alone eaten, such things as escargots or crème brulée.

Over the next few days, we enjoyed free entertainment. We howled at the R-rated comedian’s shark and sinking jokes, did the twist on a crowded dance floor, and watched The Banger Sisters on our cabin TV. One evening, we had a pyjama party in our cabin with chocolate and wine and laughed until we couldn’t stand it any more.

We signed up for a Galley Tour, a fascinating exploration of the stainless steel kitchens. As Food and Beverage Manager Michel bel Ami conducted the tour, he rhymed off staggering numbers—3000 main courses served within a half hour, no microwaves in sight; weekly shopping lists of 10,000 pounds of beef, 1,000 gallons of ice cream, 48,000 eggs and “only one chicken”; 500 extra meals for passengers who might want seconds; and more than 37,000 dishes to wash every day. Phew!

In Nassau, we snorkelled with stingrays at the postcard-pretty Blue Lagoon Island. This shore excursion cost $45 US. I found it crowded and frenzied for both swimmers and rays. But Cathie loved the ray sucking up squid from her hand, “just like a soft vacuum,” she said and as Carole quipped, “About as close to Jacques Cousteau as I’m ever going to get.” More authentic was swinging under palms in hammocks built for two or shopping at the cruise terminal’s Festival Market. Cruising this newly re-created “Bahamian village,” we bought sheets of soap smelling like lemon and mango, hearts made out of conch shell, jerk chicken sauce, island watercolour note cards, and a jar of Bahamian honey from the GloryBee Apiaries. Seemed as if Bahamian bees were feasting too. The honey consisted of nectar from the Grand Bahama plum tree, the pigeon tree and the mangrove.

When we wanted to get away from the whoopla around the pool to make our own fun, we discovered the perfect spot— the Topless Deck up high. There, stretched out on nautical blue-and-white chaises by the big cartoon-like red funnel, we read our books and magazines in between analyzing our pasts and presents. Riding with the horizon and scouting for dolphins (I wish we’d brought our binoculars), we were but a glance away from 360 spectacular ocean views.

Finally, on our last afternoon, the sea blues gave way to grey funnel-like clouds and a blackening sky. By dinnertime, we were rocking and rolling, and not because of the champagne or Grand Marnier. Strolling the decks was impossible. “High Winds” warnings were posted on windows. Slivers of rain pelted down which didn’t deter some passengers from donning life jackets and standing by lifeboat stations. The purser’s desk was getting agitated phone calls. “Perfectly normal,” advised one of them. “Just a bit of rough weather. Nothing to worry about.” He asked the life-jacketed Titanic wannabees to please return to their cabins. They were scaring other passengers.

Cathie and I stumbled along to the Photo Gallery to see if the Gala Night pictures were ready. Sure enough, there we were in our finery—Cathie in brilliant turquoise, Carole wearing her antique Chinese jade, and me in my black cocktail dress. Behind us, the Fascination at sea under a full moon. I’d forgotten the moon, a natural electronic cocktail glowing big and bright in the distance. It wasn’t Moon over Miami— yet. That would come tomorrow after we docked. For now, it was wind and waves and a ship rolling home in the dark. And time to crawl into our bunks to share a laugh—or three.

 

 

 

 

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