Monday, April 20, 2009

Port Call - Cayman Islands, Day 4

GRAND CAYMAN, British West Indies - After an all night journey we arrive at our destination just offshore of George Town, Grand Cayman. Grand Cayman is the largest, and most populous, of the three island country that make up the Cayman Islands. The other two, smaller islands, are Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Surrounding all three islands are healthy coral reefs and underwater walls that drop off hundreds of feet deep. The clear water makes this one of the best diving and sport fishing locations in the Caribbean.

Along with hundreds of other passengers we were anticipating taking part in some of the many shore excursions offered. The previous evening at dinner many people were overheard discussing going golfing, scuba diving, swimming with stingrays, spending the day at 7 mile beach, or like us, planning on a submarine tour and snorkeling. These hopes were soon dashed for many.

As we were getting ready for our 7:30 am departure, for the Nautilus Undersea adventure, our cabin was invaded by the booming voice of Christian, our cruise director. He apologized for making an early, and intrusive announcement ,in the stateroom. Normally all announcements are in the hall and other public areas of the ship. He informed us that due to high Westerly winds we would be departing two hours earlier than planned and that all afternoon and late morning excursions were canceled. We needed to be back on board by 2 pm. Later one of the crew told our group that if we were late making it back to the ship by two it would be a good idea to have a camera with us. He paused and then said "the Disney ship looks great sailing into the sunset." We got the point to be back on time.

Even though it looked very calm outside the prediction was for rougher seas later in the day, not necessarily a storm. At Grand Cayman there are no docks and not a defined harbor for the visiting cruise ships. Here we needed to use a tender, a smaller boat, to offload from the ship to shore. Any increase in wind and waves would make the transfer of passengers to and from the 964-foot (294 meter) long cruise liner hazardous. In the past, when the waves became rough, hundreds of passengers were stranded on the island and had to wait hours for conditions to improve before making a safe return.

Fortunately we had an early excursion. We offloaded on one of the first tenders and headed to shore. Our tour guide met us at the dock and we followed him to the waiting bus where we did just that, wait. After about twenty minutes we left for the Nautilus, a semi-submersible boat that has a lower deck that is under the water about five feet, but because of the design has plenty of head room. The top side of the ship stays on the surface and is used for steering and as a platform for snorkeling or diving. The lower level of the Nautilus is air conditioned with slanted windows on all sides, giving passengers an unobstructed view of the sea bottom, with coral, colorful fish and even shipwrecks.

Once underway the captain on the Nautilus provided interesting footnotes on the two sunken ships we passed over, the Callie and the Balboa. Now not more than a debris field on the bottom of the harbor we could still see the engine and some of the key components, like the ships' mast.

The Balboa was a freighter carrying a large load of lumber and oil when she sailed into George Town harbor during a 1932 hurricane. After being beaten by high waves the ship sank. Reportedly the lumber floated all the way to the shore in such volume a person could walk to shore without getting their feet wet. The wood was eventually used to build a church on the island. Over the years more ships came to the island and the wreck was becoming a hazard to shipping. In 1957 the British Army Corps of Engineers blew up the ship which accounts for the debris field. The propeller and stern sections could be seen clearly despite the lack of visibility due to the high waves

Passing over the nearby wreck of the Callie, the captain told us about the four masted schooner that ran aground in 1944 with a cargo load of rice. Once grounded the rice became wet and expanded to the point that the seams burst and the ship went down. This ship was also blown up to keep the harbor clear.

We continued over several areas of coral and watched out the windows while a diver from the ship fed and attracted large numbers of fish to the windows. After seeing a number of stingray, barracudas and other tropical fish we went topside for some snorkeling. The water was perfect, around 82 degrees, and extremely clear with 60 to 70 feet visibility.

After the ride back over the shipwrecks we opted to walk back through town instead of waiting for the bus. The shops were typical of a tourist town and reminded me of Bermuda. Prices were a bit higher here than Key West. As we headed back to the tender boats we could see the water was more choppy than when we left a few hours before. When the smaller boat pulled alongside the Magic there was quite a lot of up and down motion of the gangplank.

Back on ship we enjoyed another theatrical performance in the Walt Disney theater. Twice Charmed is an original twist on the Cinderella story and was very well down, once again.
After dinner in Lumiere's dining room we tried another movie in the Buena Vista theater, Bedtime Stories. Then it was off to get a good night sleep before our next shore excursion in Cozumel, Mexico.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Magic at Sea - Day 3

Gulf of Mexico - This is day three of a seven day cruise on the Disney Magic.

As the sun comes up we skirt the coast of Northwest Cuba on the Disney Magic. The ship glides through the still deep blue water on the way to the Cayman Islands at 21.5 knots, or roughly 25 miles per hour. We have all day for shipboard activities since we won't reach the island, on the Southern side of Cuba, until morning.

After enjoying the ocean view we checked the informative Personal Navigator to make our plans for the day. I started with a workout in the Vista Spa Fitness Center located just above the ship's bridge. There were a number of people on treadmills and elliptical trainers with an excellent view over the bow of the ship at the Gulf of Mexico. After about an hour workout I joined the family for a late breakfast topside.

This was a good day to explore the ship and learn some interesting facts. One unique feature of the Disney Cruise Line is that there is no gambling on board, except for the jackpot bingo games. This frees up a lot of space for family activities and kid areas. Most ships the size of the Magic, 964 feet in length, have only one funnel on deck, while the Magic has two. The twin stacks give the Magic an elegant look reminiscent of the 1920's and 30's cruise ships. Only one of the stacks is functional for the emissions. The forward stack is designed for the teen area and is their hangout, no parents. It is called the Stack or deck eleven.

There are four pools, one for children that includes a slide, a family pool, an adult pool and a crew pool on the fore deck. Activities for the day included a number of seminar type demonstrations for making "dazzling desserts", volleyball, scrapbook making, plenty of photo opportunities with the Captain and crew, and of course the Disney characters that made appearances at various times throughout the ship.

In the afternoon I enjoyed an Art at Sea auction with Art historian and auctioneer Gordon Wilson of West End Gallery Inc. He was extremely knowledgeable of artists and their work. The artwork on display ranged from early Disney animation cels, Miro and Dali prints and an original Duaiv valued at $40,000. The auction lasted about an hour and covered a number of artists. I was surprised at the number of pieces sold. Gordon has a seminar on Thursday entitled "Cave Art to Pop Art" which sounds very interesting.

My wife tried the Vista Spa for a facial and gave the experience a 4 star rating (out of 4). In the early evening we ventured back to the Walt Disney Theater for the red carpet "Golden Mickey's". This stage performance celebrates the music of Disney and had incredible special effects, as good as most Broadway plays. The songs were from Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Pocahontas, Lion King and other classics. The only downside was the volume of the sound was excruciatingly high. My daughter put rolled up napkins in here ears. With the quality of everything else in the theater they must have had someone new running the audio. Even with the loudness the performances were very good.

We had the second seating for an excellent dinner with a number of choices for the appetizer, soup, salad, main course and a desserts. Following dinner we tried the Buena Vista Theater, located mid ship to watch Bolt in 3D. The showing of Bolt was the first ever 3D movie on a cruise ship. Seeing the movie in the 270-seat Buena Vista Cinema was a great way to end the evening and get ready for a big day at Grand Cayman, British West Indies. Until tomorrow...

Port Call - Key West, Day 2

KEY WEST, FLORIDA - This is day two of a seven day travel report from the Disney Cruise Line Magic.

After a great night of feeling the gentile movement of the Disney Cruise ship Magic we arrive at our first port of call, Key West. Known as "The Conch Republic" Key West is the southernmost island of the Florida Keys and is also the most southern point of the United States.

There were over twenty different shore excursions from the more reserved Conch Train Tours and Old Town Trolley to the more adventurous "White Knuckle" boat ride and the popular Snorkel, Kayak and Dolphin Watch tour. We decided to start our touring out easy and opted for our own walking tour of Key West. The ship docks in downtown Key West and is only a couple of minutes walk from the gangplank.

My first stop was just outside the big red building that I could see as we approached Key West on the ship. Over the years this historical building has served many functions to include a post office, court house, the custom house, and now the home of the Museum of Art & History at The Custom House. Approaching the building you can't help but notice there are five large nudes dancing in a circle around a man lying on the ground. The large nudes are a bronze sculpture called "The Daydream" ,reportedly by sculpture Mortimer Blake, and serve as a tribute to Henry Matisse's 1909 painting "La Danse." Upon closer look the man lying on the ground between the dancers is also a sculpture of a man enjoying the dance, by artist Seward Johnson. The two artists are said to have met in New York and each contributed to this piece. The more I looked around the more I saw life like statues intermingled with the off loading tourists who stopped to look at the various works of art. The artist Johnson has at least ten other "Man in the Street" lifelike statues in and around the museum. There were two people looking through binoculars from the porch, a man sweeping the sidewalk with a cigarette butt in his mouth and even Henri Matisse standing next to his easel composing his famous painting "The Dance". As a side note, while I was doing some research on the web, I found many instances where the nudes identified on the plaque next to the piece as those of reclusive artist Blake, were attributed to Johnson. I couldn't find a lot of info on Blake and am curious if he is a pseudonym for Johnson. Anyone have any ideas on this?

Reluctantly we moved on to Duval street to do some shopping and people watching. Cruise ship day is a big day in Key West and it seemed to be a rush for transportation. I cannot recall when I have seen so many people on so many different modes of transportation, in such a small area, as downtown Key West. There were people loading into the Trolley and Conch Trains for tours, people piled into electric cars, stacked on scooters, motorcycles, pink taxi's and even rickshaws pulled by bicycles. I was waiting for the big crash as all of these modes seemed to be in motion going every direction imaginable. I was waiting to see a guy on a unicycle twirling a baton. The most interesting part was watching the people on the motorcycles. Some looked as though they were a bit over the weight limit for the smaller scooters and others must have skipped the safety briefing, riding with flip flops.

The architecture and colorful shops of Key West were enlightening as were the historic bars we passed. There was of course Sloppy Joes, the Whistler Bar, Ricks, and around the corner Capt. Tony's Saloon, which claims to be the first Sloopy Joes. We tried the Mel Fisher's Maritime Museum and while interesting to see the treasures I would recommend using the money you would spend for admission on one of the books in the gift shop, or better yet, spending your money on admission across the street at the Museum of Art & History at The Custom House. Shopping was excellent with really good sales for souvenirs, t-shirts and Hawaiian style shirts. There were a few of the popular stores where everything is $5. Just looking at the architecture and colors around Key West puts this place in a class by itself.

We only had seven hours to tour the city then it was back on board to watch the ever popular sunsets. From our stateroom balcony we watched the sailing boats and catamarans taking boatloads of people out to watch the sun set. At the end of Duval street hundreds gathered for this daily ritual, and I thought they were coming out to wave good bye to us as we pulled out just as the sun was setting.

Back on board we had a night of entertainment with more juggling and balancing acts from Jeff Civillico. After dinner we took in Confessions of a Shopaholic in the Buena Vista Theater. Tomorrow we have a day at sea and according to the Personal Navigator a full day of activities.

Disney Magic in the Caribbean, Day 1

Join me on board the Disney Magic for a seven day cruise in the Western Caribbean. We'll start at Port Canaveral, Florida and spend time at Key West, Grand Cayman, Cozumel, and Disney's own private island of adventure, Castaway Cay. Over the next seven days I will review something about the days events, excursions, food or activities, in less than 1000 words.

The Magic Begins - Day 1

Port Canaveral, Florida - From the moment we entered the velvet rope lines at the Orlando International Airport the Disney customer service was in high gear with helpful, happy people. Disney had sent us a booklet with directions for everything. We had a coupon for the 45 minute bus ride from the airport to the Disney exclusive cruise terminal, pre-printed luggage tags with our stateroom and pre authorization forms for purchases on board, everything we needed for a successful cruise vacation.

From the airport we traveled by bus to Terminal 8 in Port Canaveral. We were whisked through security and up the escalator to level two, where there were more people waiting to assist us with pre-boarding. There were no lines. Either we were too early, too late, or the efficiency of Mickey Mouse and company was extraordinary. As it turned out Disney was that efficient. We checked in, had our own personalized Key to the World card made, with a corresponding electronic file and photo. We would not need cash for the next seven days, unless we were in a port and wanted souvenirs or more food. Our Key to the World card is also good to charge specialty drinks, like smoothies or alcohol (not included in the cruise price), buying bingo cards, excursions, tips, and of course merchandise from the on board shops. The card was also our room key and ticket on and off the ship at each port. While you will have to pay extra for the specialty drinks and alcohol, Disney was the first cruise line to offer free sodas, water, coffee and teas 24/7 at a beverage station on deck nine.

After we were announced, in the three-story atrium of the ship, we headed to deck seven and our stateroom. The room is equipped with a bath and a half, one room has a bath and sink and one room a toilet and sink. This is really convenient, particularly in the mornings. I am traveling with two teenage girls and my wife so having the extra sinks is a real time saver. The room has a balcony, queen size bed, a couch that converts to a single bed and a pull down bed from the ceiling.

When we entered the room for the first time we discovered our first towel creature on the bed, a cobra, sitting on the Disney Magic Personal Navigator newletter. This publication is put out each night and will be our road map for activities, location and start times. The first evening was packed with things to do everywhere on the ship. There is no way you could cover all the activities. For the children they have their own activities as do the teenagers.

Before the bon voyage party everyone attends the mandatory boat drill. We joined our fellow passengers wearing our very large bright orange life vests. We also noticed, and were informed later, that the lifeboats on this ship are yellow, not the traditional orange as on other ships. The U.S. Coast Guard had to grant special permission to Disney for this exception. After all the colors of Mickey Mouse are black white and yellow, there is no orange on Mickey.

Following our safety drill we joined the party topside on deck nine with a rocking band, Disney characters and a jumbo screen mid ship. The ship's horns gave a blast followed a few minutes later with the theme sound from "When You Wish Upon a Star" just before the ship began to move. As the ship traveled down the narrow inlet towards the Atlantic the shore was lined with locals and tourists waving to us as though we were the giant float in a parade, it is quite a nice bon voyage.

Our first activity, after the bon voyage was at the nearly 1000 seat Walt Disney Theater for the production "All Aboard! Let the Magic Begin!" This Broadway style show was a preview of the excellent shows scheduled to be performed during our cruise. There were also two comedians at the early show, Freddy Fusion and Jeff Civillico who brought two different styles of entertainment. They will be featured throughout the week.

From the show we went to our late seating dinner at 8:15 pm. I'm not sure this is the best seating and would like to hear from the experienced cruisers on which seating they think is best. I will have an opinion later in the cruise.

Our first dining experience was in the Animator's Palette restaurant. Disney is unique in that it offers rotational dining throughout the cruise. For the first three nights we are scheduled to dine in a different Disney themed restaurant, then repeat the cycle throughout the cruise. During the rotations we keep the same wait staff and table mates. This keeps the dining experience as fresh and different as the menu options. Animator's Palette starts out looking like a black and white movie set, the walls, waiter's vests, and pictures are in black and white. Throughout the meal, with Disney magic, the room and pictures gradually change to color, so by the time dessert rolls around everything is colorful, including the wait staff vests.

With plenty more on the Personal Navigator we call it a night and head to the room to get ready for a day in Key West. Until then....