PORT OF GALVESTON, Texas — We have just had the experience of a lifetime on a Royal Caribbean cruise with thousands of total strangers — a mix of attractive guests and a carefully selected, talented international crew.
We never bumped into anyone who wasn’t a fascinating storyteller.
My first glimpse of the ship came as it broke through a fading mist, dwarfing the terminal and triggering memories of a haunting melody by Texan Christopher Cross. Sailing takes me away to where I’ve always heard it could be. … Just a dream and the wind to carry me and soon I will be free. … Believe me.
How long has it been since you have spent an entire week being nothing but happy? Or secretly wiping away tears of pure joy? Cruising is a stabilizer for the soul. We’re all in this together, but who thinks of life that way these days and tries to make it better for everyone around them? Cruisers and crew do.
The newly refurbished and improved Navigator of the Seas, all 138,279 tons of it, can hold 3,114 guests and a staff and crew of 1,213. Scheduled for its second maiden voyage, this time to introduce major improvements and updates, it was blocked Feb. 9 from port much of the day by dense fog. Nobody seemed to mind the wait as the hours dragged.
We rank this Navigator of the Seas voyage No. 1 in all of our vacation experiences. It feels like a rebirth, seeing life anew, being refreshed, the two of us starting out together for a second time. We made promises to each other we intend to keep.
My assignment was to review the cruise for The Oklahoman and NewsOK.com. Before I could begin writing, I became frozen in time, longing to return to those magnificent moments when life was truly blessed with the feeling of peace on earth and goodwill.
I found this condition best-described by Harrison Liu, Royal Caribbean’s manager of brand communications, who had guided us through every experience at sea and on shore. His words helped me understand this odd feeling of disconnection from normal daily life at home:
“It was only a matter of four hours after disembarking our lovely temporary home away from home when I started to feel the twinge of ‘cruise withdrawal.’ I missed the food that was delivered to my fork’s reach, a perfectly made bed every time I entered my stateroom, the delicious wine poured over great conversations, and most importantly, the wonderful people — each and every one — with whom I shared a most memorable week — laughing, sharing, learning and growing.”
A cruise can deliver happiness so completely that it’s routine to keep returning for more — 20, 50 or 70 times more. One woman who lost count said she is sure she has experienced more than 100 cruises.
So, finally, with one cruise under our expanded belts, I can begin to put stories on paper and eventually write about the options onboard and off that keep everyone on the move, except for those who prefer quiet time on their own.
Oklahoma was well-represented onboard by the extended family of Wes McFarland, who retired in 2009 after 25 years as Superintendent of Agra Public Schools in Lincoln County; his wife retired after 42 years of teaching. In the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings, Agra High School, with 98 students and 9 teachers, was awarded a national bronze medal, placing it among the very best.
With thousands of people milling about, it was unlikely that we would see the McFarlands a second time, but we kept bumping into them, much to our pleasure.
“Jean and I love cruising and have visited many great destinations but the most important reason we enjoy cruising so much is the wonderful, brilliant people we meet. In June we visit the Baltics with three other couples we have met as we cruise the world. One couple lives in Aberdeen, Scotland, one in Bath, England, and one in Ontario, Canada.”
The couple are “regular cruisers and the Navigator trip was our 25th. We take a family cruise every January with Jean’s family. We had to change to February this year as the Navigator was in dry dock being revamped,” McFarland said.
Along with the McFarlands, there were seven others from Jean’s family on this cruise, including Joe and Alice Harris, Leon and Edith Harris, Kelley and Alice Harris, and Theresa Harris.
“We took an excursion from the ship in Belize that took us up the New River for the Maya Experience at Lamanai, which was the trip we enjoyed the most as all of us went. It was a nice safari with a spectacular rainforest. Lamanai was once the largest ceremonial site in Mesoamerica and was occupied as early as 1500 B.C.,” McFarland said.
They all enjoyed the piano man, Phil Anderson. They attended all shows and loved the two production shows. They agreed the best entertainment was the ice dancing.
On the side
Side excursions were part of the Darnell cruise package. On the second one, I had some difficulty with a climb up a Mayan ruin in Belize. After completing a climb to the top and back, I had stopped to rest on the bottom row of the massive stone steps not suited to my short stride.
At dinner the first night, a guest from Texas mentioned W. “I knew his Dad,” he said. “How did you meet President Bush?” someone piped up. “I was working at Blockbuster Video,” he said, “and he would come in a lot and rent movies. There he was coming through the door. Barbara followed, then the Secret Service.
“I would hand him his movies. He was always polite, very polite; a nice man. Then they would leave. Not once did he ever rewind a movie. Not once.”
Odd that no one in his entourage took the time to do that for Bush 41.
On Day 3, we shared dinner with a very talkative group. A younger woman directly across from us told how she wound up performing a wedding ceremony for her mother. She wasn’t licensed to officiate when her mother decided to take a new husband in a quiet ceremony among family and friends. Not wanting to miss the chance to give her mother a most special gift, she signed up for online training and became a certified wedding officiant. Before the ceremony was over, she said, everyone was crying the way it is when vows are deeply moving. The daughter remained dry-eyed until the end; then she joined the weeping.
Since then, she has performed several ceremonies for couples. She said she can tell before the ceremony if the marriage will work.
Then there’s the story over dinner of the man who never actually proposed, but called his future bride at work, telling her to get blood tests — required years ago for a marriage license — and meet him on the courthouse steps with the results at 10:30 in two days. She did as instructed. They picked up the license a few days later. On the way to the small, private church ceremony, she asked if he might ask her to marry him. He said, “It’s too late for that.”
Their honeymoon was a business trip to South Bend, Ind., where they got behind the Notre Dame band during a practice session for the game with Pittsburgh on Saturday. They marched in step with the band until the brass did an “about face,” charging directly toward them. The newlyweds rushed off campus, laughing uproariously all the way. They didn’t stay for the game which Notre Dame won, 42-16, before more than 59,000 fans. The couple remains a team 41 years later.
One story floating around the Navigator is being told and retold. We first heard it over a late dinner. Here’s how a crew member recalled it:
“There was a group of single young women on the ship. They found a young man in the crew to be very attractive. He kept refusing romantic innuendos from one of the women, explaining that employees could not fraternize with guests. Still, she persisted until his defenses crumbled.
“On a day when he had some free time, he said he could come to meet her. She said come to my stateroom, specifying a time. So he went to the stateroom and she invited him inside. Someone observed that he entered but never left. Ship Security was notified and pulled up the cameras that showed he had, indeed, behaved badly, entering her stateroom but not exiting. Facial recognition software installed on the ship is capable of quickly identifying a culprit.
“Ship security came to her stateroom and knocked on the door, calling to him by name. He escaped to the balcony scantily clad. He perilously balanced on the balcony railing then jumped to the next balcony, repeating the move over and over from balcony to balcony high on the side of the ship.
“An elderly woman observed the high flying man grabbing onto balcony railings and dialed guest services to report: ‘Do you know that Spider-Man is on this ship?’”
He was apprehended and dismissed, but that is not the end of the story, as you have probably guessed. Now he is happily married to the woman he pursued; they have three children and live in Canada.
Why we cruise
So why did we cruise? It was more than the call of the Caribbean. Belize is a port on this tour and a part of our family history. We wanted to see this western Caribbean nation to better understand why my husband’s great-great-grandfather, Zachariah Darnell, relocated there. He and wife, Sarah Sanders Darnell, with six of their children, left Mississippi for Belize in 1868 and lived there until returning to Mississippi years later, shortly before Sarah died. She is buried in Kosciusko, Attala County. Where her husband is buried is a mystery.
Belize, with its heavy forests in the late 19th century, would have offered an opportunity to use his business experience owning and operating saw mills. We can only speculate on the rest of their Belize story, unless research from our Edmond home turns up more than it has so far.