The best way to see a place like Belize, which was included on this itinerary, is by ship. Itís the ultimate backwater, but it is just the tip of a great civilization to be explored in itís interior regions. Even our tour guide told us, as we drove out of Belize City towards Orange Walk, the coastal area should never have been built at all, as it sits on nothing but marshlands and water. Once we got to the New River and stepped onboard our little canopied "Jungle Queen"-style boat for the 30 mile trip through Central American jungle to get to the Mayan ceremonial center at Lamanai, all of this was forgotten. The day before, our cruise on the Sea Breeze took us to the Bay Islands of Honduras, Roatan to be specific, which was another grand experience.
But I digress. More about that later.
First of all, let me tell you how we came to be on this ship at all. Having sailed once very briefly on the SS Sea Breeze, we decided to go for it when we saw this listed on a cruise auction site. Weíd wanted to try this mode of booking a cruise ever since several friends had had very good luck, themselves. It was mid-December of 1999, and we were in need of a cruise. Going somewhere right after the holidays seemed like a good idea, and we wanted something that would be both interesting and, more or less, a no-brainer. This fit the bill. The price was certainly right ($546 plus airfare for the BOTH of us) for a classic older ship going to places we hadnít been before. We went for it and bid, and we got it!
We left Port Everglades on Sunday afternoon after a quick and painless embarkation. Because we were looking for lunch, as we hadnít eaten anything since that morning before leaving for the airport, we went straight up to the Planets Counter for something to nosh. A friend had warned me that there were many less folks up there on embarkation day since most new passengers go right to the first place they see with a buffet, which is the Pastoral Cafe. Since our suitcases hadnít arrived at our cabin yet, we decided to break out our old Frederico C deck plans and take ourselves on a self-tour of the ship. We found little doors that most people would spend the week passing by, since they didnít look like access to anything in particular. Instead, they revealed passage to what was once a class-based ship, with different dining areas and public rooms, depending on who you were and what you paid as fare. The interior of the ship reminded me of a rabbit warren or even an English muffin, full of nooks and crannies. No straight boring deck plans here. Also, no glitter or decor hype, no Chinese clay warriors, no faux duel stacks, no giant atria, no waterfalls, no rock climbing walls, ice skating, roller-blading, excavating or crusading. But hereís the added plus: you get to enjoy the very basis of what a ship is all about, the sea and traveling on it.
Outside, the lovely little Sea Breeze actually made me very proud to be onboard, as I eyed her graceful profile while in port in Cozumel. Several other newer muscle ships were there, too, including Carnivalís and Celebrityís, even the Enchanted Capri right next to us at the pier. I found myself becoming fiercely defensive of her age. These wonderful older ships are like favorite aunts or grannies, the ones with the graying hair buns and the lace doilies, the ones you always have a good time with when you donít feel like playing Nintendo with your contemporaries. I found myself taking a lot of photos of her sheer, her decks and her profile. There are areas on a ship like the Sea Breeze that just donít exist anymore on the modern ones. Now, donít get me wrong. The Sea Breeze is old, and it looks ancient compared to most others. But it is very well maintained and more sea-worthy than most. The ship is spotless in all areas, even though I would think it would be more difficult to maintain such a high level of cleanliness on an older vessel. The cabin decor is uninspiring, simply the generic sea/ship motifs done in deep corals and turquoise. The public rooms are also not terribly exciting, but every now and again show a bit of what the ship was, even though there have been several major overhauls over the years.
The food on Premier has been reputed to be better than most folks expect, and the Sea Breeze was no different. The menus were varied and the presentation well-done. Food is good, sturdy stuff, promptly and professionally served. Even afternoon tea, done buffet style, was much better than on other cruise lines generally perceived as more "quality" or high end. I could only complain about the espresso at dinner the first night, which was an extra charge item, unpleasant and ungenerous stuff, it was. My creamy tiramisu for dessert, following a wonderful rosemaried, mint-jellied lamb for dinner more than made up for that, however. I must take a moment here to rave about the service onboard, more specifically the dining room service. It is the very best I have ever encountered on ANY ship, including the Crystal Symphony and the beloved QE2's Princess Grill. Hard to believe for some of you reading this, but absolutely true. Everything was top notch. Premier should be very proud of this.
The shore excursions are the other thing that really made this trip for us, and the reason I would recommend this particular cruise for anyone who wants a week in the Caribbean but who dreads going back to the same old haunts there. How many times can one go to St Thomas or St Martin. We started with a day at sea, passing the distant north coast of Cuba (when *will* this dumb embargo end, already?) and coming to our first port of call, Cozumel, Mexico, the next morning. We went off to the beach to go snorkeling at Chankanaab, then headed into town for lunch at the (in)famous ĎCarlos & Charliesí. After some shopping and looking around (we hadnít been to Cozumel for over a decade), it was back to the Sea Breeze for afternoon tea and more picture-taking.
The next day brought us to Roatan, Honduras, where we went sailing and snorkeling on the Graziafelice catamaran for the day. For those who love the water and/or the beach, there was also dolphin shows, Tabyana Beach snorkeling, parasailing, ,jet skis, power boats and glass bottomed boat trips over the reefs.
Next day was Belize and our back river trek into the jungle to see the Mayan ruins of Lamanai. We were told to wear long pants and bring along bug repellant. We also go the almost-expected jungle rain forest downpour which nearly wrecked my camera. I was particularly interested in this shore excursion, as well as some others that included Mayan sites, as weíve been all over the Yucatan peninsula over the years and have seen some of the most magnificent and awe-inspiring archeological spots. We were not disappointed at all, and were interested to see how our dining room tablemates did on their trip to Xunantunich, another impressive Mayan archeological site located on the Mopan River near the Guatemalan border. They loved it, and it made me sorry we werenít sticking around the area long enough to be able to do both trips. For those less interested in history or ruins, there was horseback riding in the rain forest, cave tubing down a jungle river, reef fishing, tours of Belize City and more.
We missed the last port call, Key West, as the harbor closed due to high winds. Indeed, the seas were very rough the last scheduled sea day (and night), and I think many folks would have liked to be on terra firma once again at Key West. I didnít mind that extra sea day at all, since weíd been to Key West several times in the past.
As for the goings-on onboard the Sea Breeze, they were numerous and plenty. The cruise director, Meredith Miller, kept her wits about her, even when it was obvious a small group of the seniors were getting to her, but another young woman who acted as the cruise "hostess" was out of her element as a polished and gracious companion to Captain Parissis at the functions he hosted for the guests during the week. Captain Parissis, I might add, was the consummate sea captain. I stood under the bridge wing on several occasions during the week when we were coming into or leaving a port and was reassured by his deep, no-nonsense voice as he gave directions.
Of course, there was always the ubiquitous game of bingo going on, as well as that tic in the side of most experienced cruisers, the Art Auction At Sea and gold-chain-by-the-inch. The passenger talent show was so bad it was good, if you know what I mean. There was a group of unexciting and out of step line dancers from Missouri, a guy from Brooklyn (complete with appropriate accent) singing "The Stweet Where You Live" and an amateur sit-down (as opposed to a stand up) comedian. Iíve convinced myself that I shall bring my accordion on the Rembrandt this summer. I can play a "Lady of Spain" that can make you weep, and my polkas are to die for.
Hans and I spent the week engaging the others onboard in discussions about Premier, their plans for their fleet with regard to the BRB concept and the general appeal of older vessels on which to cruise. A member of the cruise directorís staff said he thought Bruce Nierenberg had "come up with some good ideas in the past, so maybe this one would work, too" when asked about painting the fleet red and targeting families. Another woman said "How can they expect to fill those boats with families and kids when kids have to go to school?" Another woman asked "Isnít Disney already doing that?" Indeed. Our dining room waiter, an intelligent guy, thought for a moment and finally said it most diplomatically for an employee who had worked onboard ships for fourteen years: "I donít like red". Then he smiled, and we knew what he meant.
I enjoyed this trip very much. The ship was great, the people were, too. The places we went were interesting, and we had the chance to kick back and relax along the way, as well. Would I do it again? In a minute. In fact, I plan on doing this itinerary on this ship again. Since weíll be onboard the Rotterdam V this summer, my next ship must be a big mega-super-duper cruiser. Iím already looking at a brochure and asking questions. Itís time to see what tomorrow holds. I just hope itís not TOO much bingo and art gone to sea.