News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Amey Takes Aim

July 24, 2010

AMEY TAKES AIM: Head to the high seas: Ameys’ vacation cruise

TERRE HAUTE — It’s good to be king.

Abdication? Not so good.

Jenny and I are both suffering from cruise withdrawal after taking the Emerald Princess through the eastern Caribbean last week, then discovering we weren’t able to take the ship’s staff home with us. Not Allan, our perpetually smiling cabin steward from the Philippines, nor our favorite waitresses from Macedonia and Chile. Not even the pastry chef was available. So with no one to wait on us hand and foot and to anticipate our every need, we’re a little grumpy.

I probably don’t have to describe cruises to any of you, because it became clear to us after a couple of hours on board that we were apparently the last two people in the world to take one. The two couples we sat with during our first dinner, Janelle and Roger and Martin and Donna, had combined for about 40 among them. Janelle had actually been on only three, but all of them had been since she and Roger got married — three months ago.

It’s not hard to see why people keep coming back, and this is being written by the guy who was skeptical about the premise.

For one thing, you are living in what literally is a palace. We had one of the cheapest staterooms on the boat (No. 2 on the list of things you’ll never hear on the Emerald Princess, we were told: “Come join me in the shower, honey, there’s plenty of room”) yet I thought we had the best location: right off the ship’s art gallery, just a few yards from the base of the impossibly elegant three-story piazza, mere steps away from the International Cafe (great snacks at any hour of the day), the coffee bar and the wine bar with sushi and tapas. All that food is free.

Also free (or maybe I should say already purchased) is the breakfast buffet (corned beef hash and McMuffins every day, with stuff like kippered herring, smoked salmon and plenty of other exotic things in addition to the usual items), the lunch buffet (who has time?) and the gourmet dining every evening. I’m kicking myself for not having a chance to try the pheasant, but I did have duck and quail and venison and many, many varieties of seafood plus the usual beef, pork and chicken; had some cold peach soup that was even better than the curried pumpkin soup; and sampled about a dozen new flavors of ice cream and sorbets among the other desserts.

Jenny often says when she reads these vacation columns it seems like all we did all week was eat, and I’m not quite finished talking about that either. No. 1 on the aforementioned list: “I’m on a diet.”

There were also two specialty restaurants on our ship — one Italian, one a steakhouse. For $20 extra per person we went to the Italian restaurant one night, where we chose one entree and they brought you the rest of the menu — eight appetizers, two pasta dishes (and we could have added salad) and a dessert (or more than one, if we’d asked). We were afraid to see how much we’d eat at the steakhouse.

My biggest misgiving prior to the cruise was that I’d do nothing but eat, but there was a very nice — and very busy — fitness room, plus sauna and steam room. And there were plenty of other activities, only a couple of which also involved eating.

There were several trivia contests every day, some of which found us teaming with Missouri couple Gary and Angela and their extremely helpful daughters Anastasia and Gabriella; we went to one of several art auctions (hands firmly in pockets, although apparently we could have had bargains on some pieces by the recently deceased Pino if we’d had an extra $50,000 or so); we tried a wine tasting (no sommelier is in danger of losing a job to either of us yet); and we took a flyer on high tea.

Here’s where the pastry chef comes in. With tea, you have to have sandwiches. And cookies. And cakes. And scones with jam. LOTS of scones with jam. I’d had a few scones in my day and always wondered what the fuss was about, but I’m pretty sure last week’s scones were what they are supposed to be. We wound up going to tea at least four or five times, and the two dozen or so folks at the first one had expanded (physically and numerically) to several hundred by the last day. Even the teenagers were in line by that time.

There were also off-boat excursions, and we visited four countries — at least two of which could fit comfortably inside Vigo County, or for that matter Fayette Township — in three days. Here are those highlights.

n St. Maarten/St. Martin — The former is the Dutch side of the island, the latter the French side. We visited on Bastille Day and were warned that nothing would be open on the French side, but they still had plenty going on.

Most notable spot: the international airport on the Dutch side, runway of which starts about 10 feet beyond a main road which is next to a 15-foot strip of beach. There’s a sign warning of injury or death for people standing on the beach when a plane lands (blowing sand, percussive air currents), and it’s a busy airport. We stood at a bar on our tour (one of several we visited, actually) and watched six landings in a half hour.

Most notable product: guavaberry liqueur. Free tastes reveal that it is very sweet (those who have eaten guava are not surprised) and pretty potent. I also now know what “pain killer” is (rum or vodka and Coke).

Most fun stop on our tour: Pedro’s Beach Bar, just a few yards off the clothing-optional beach area on the French side. Had a guavaberry colada (very nice, with a cinnamon froth), watched a couple of boyz sing reggae, then watched a middle-aged woman in a bikini rock some karaoke in French.

n St. Thomas — This mountainous spot in the U.S. Virgin Island group was once the headquarters of just about every pirate in the area. We toured Blackbeard’s Castle, a stone fortress and observation point on the highest mountain from which the frigates laden with riches were observed making their way back toward Europe.

Favorite pirates: Blackbeard, of course, who used to put matches and gunpowder in his long hair and go into battle literally on fire; Calico Jack, whose old lady Anne Bonney was perhaps a meaner pirate than he was; and a guy named Lollonnos, so famously cruel that when he was finally captured he was cut in pieces (while alive), the pieces burned in separate locations and each set of ashes carried to even more separate locations, apparently to keep him from reassembling himself.

Oh, and Captain Morgan, of course.

Speaking of which, there’s also a rum factory on the site (more free tastings; the mango rum is outstanding); there are several old homes to visit; there’s an amber museum with some really spectacular jewelry; and there’s a hotel and bar that was open before 10 a.m. (after we’d already tasted all the rums). From the bar, we could walk to the downtown area, which means we’d walked all the way down the mountain (don’t tell Jenny) that had taken us a harrowing climb on steep and narrow twisting roads in a bus with open sides to reach the top of.

Downtown in Charlotte Amalie, the capital: No. 6 on the list is “Gee, I sure wish I could find a jewelry store on St. Thomas.” I can’t imagine a place in town where you could stand and not see at least a dozen of them. We went into a liquor store (for the air conditioning) and realized as we walked to the rear that it had morphed into a jewelry store, then a cigar shop, then a cosmetics store, then a fragrance store, then an art gallery and finally a watch shop as it ended on the next block.

Ambiance: We don’t have an explanation for the man we saw walking down the street among all those jewelry stores and watch shops in total native garb (skins, feathers, lots of body paint and not much else). We did learn, however, to eat at Gladys’ Cafe (most of the restaurants in Charlotte Amalie are outdoors; she has air conditioning). Gladys likes to sing along with the radio, but her food’s pretty good and her cold drinks are large. I had goat curry myself.

n Turks and Caicos — Our stop at this country of 11 islands (two Turks, nine Caicos) was at Grand Turk, a tribute to island living if not to adjectival accuracy.

Although the seat of the nation’s government and home of its biggest airport, Grand (?) Turk is seven miles long and a mile and a half wide. Its most important street is one lane wide, its biggest hotel has a single story and the islands’ horses, cattle and donkeys (not to mention its flamingos) roam unfenced (because a load of animal feed flown in would cost $10,000).

A relaxed way of life? Well, one of the islands’ bars is inside the police station (and open to the public) and its former prison had walls low enough that prisoners could climb over them, walk down the street to the liquor store, then knock on the door of the prison to be let back in.

That was our last island stop, but there are a couple more things to mention:

n Seasickness — The Caribbean, we’re told, is generally smooth sailing, although we caught one rough day. Jenny survived by wearing the patch, I survived by taking my patch off, and there were plenty of other remedies (pressure bracelets, inhalers, dramamine, green apples, saltines) discussed and available.

n Going and coming — We spent one night on each end of the cruise at Fort Lauderdale, during which we discovered a very good Greek restaurant, an excellent Cuban restaurant and an inexpensive rail/bus system right outside our hotel that could have taken us anywhere from Miami to Palm Beach for pennies.

Also learned that an offer to upgrade to business class is well worth it, and that airport security near the border (Fort Lauderdale, where Jenny became a suspect for having Kleenex in her pocket) is a lot more intense than it is in Indianapolis.

To summarize, then, if you are one of the few left who haven’t cruised yet, Jenny and I would recommend it heartily.

And if you need someone to come along and show you the ropes, we’re available.

Andy Amey can be reached after 4 p.m. at (812) 231-4277 or at 1-800-783-8742; by e-mail at andy.amey@tribstar.com; by mail at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN, 47808; or by fax at (812) 231-4321.

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