Regent Seven Seas
Saturday 31st December 2016
We left the house at 6am, leaving the cats in the care of our housesitters, Christine and Steve. They seem to be very good indeed and we're confident that this is a better solution than a straight fortnight in the cattery, lovely though it is.
We were at Heathrow in only 45 minutes and found no queues at check-in. We flew with Virgin and were delighted that the seat configuration was 2-4-2, meaning that we could get up and move around in-flight without disturbing anyone else. For a change, I was the one who slept most of the way and Gill watched back to back films. The highlight of the flight was the excellent gluten- and dairy-free food that was provided for Gill – full marks Virgin!
We landed at about 7pm (2pm local) and were amazed to find no queues at all at Immigration – now, that's a first for a US airport! Our luggage came fairly quickly and we picked up a pre-booked shuttle to our hotel, the Pestana South Beach. Although really weary we went out to look at the beach where the hotel has a reserved area with umbrellas and sunbeds and then wandered down Lincoln Road Mall where there are dozens and dozens of restaurants. One of them offered a lovely gluten-free Salmon Salad that Gill loved and I had Tacos while we listened to a cellist playing beautifully nearby on a balmy evening – lovely!
Back at the hotel we've stayed up until midnight UK time, but we won't last much longer!
Happy New Year!
Tuesday 3rd January 2017
We've been lazing about these last few days, doing very little except reading.
On Sunday morning we were up and about very early since we'd crashed out by 8.30pm on New Year's Eve. The day was largely spent by the hotel's pool, following an indifferent breakfast that made little provision for Gill's diet, so we cancelled future breakfasts in favour of buying food in local grocery stores the night before.
Yesterday we went to the beach for most of the day, using the hotel's reserved area and its complimentary sunbeds. The day was mostly sunny, with temperatures in the 80s but with cloudy periods. The Atlantic was crashing fiercely on to the beach all day, and Ocean Rescue lifeguard patrolling on quadbikes were constantly insisting that swimmers come closer to shore.
We left the beach in mid-afternoon and went to the cinema to see 'Lion', a really good Australian/Indian joint production based on the true story of a young boy who became separated from his family In India, lived on the streets as Calcutta and was eventually adopted by Australians.
We ate at the same restaurant that we'd visited on Saturday night on Lincoln Road Mall. The street was absolutely heaving, with crowds of people eating in the open, mostly with loud music blaring around them but enjoying the warmth – it was still 80 degrees at 9pm!
Today we're going to try the Hop On Hop Off bus trip, and tomorrow we finally board the Seven Seas Mariner for our cruise. Can't wait!
Wednesday 4th January 2017
Regent Seven Seas Mariner
It's mid-afternoon and we're on board!
The ship is really nice and, if anything, seems at first sight to be even a little better than our favourite Azamara and Oceania ships. Our suite is a good size and the bathroom is huge compared with the one we had on our last cruise, even including a proper bath! And there's also a walk-in wardrobe.
The lunch buffet is 'posher' than we're used to, with linen table-cloths and more space between tables. We were handed a glass of champagne as we boarded, and went straight to lunch, and as we ate we were offered top-ups. The fact that virtually all alcohol is complimentary is taking a bit of getting used to!
After lunch we explored the ship and were amazed at how small it is from stem to stern, and yet the two-tier theatre is much bigger than a ship this size usually supports. There are small bars and lounges scattered all around the ship, and the best one we've found so far is high up at the front of the ship with magnificent 180 degree views. We also tried out our first 'free' cocktails – Bellini and Caipiroska.
Provision for Gill's dietary requirements is varied but mainly good. The bad news is that none of the food in the buffet is marked as either dairy- or gluten-free, but the system is aware of her requirements. Each evening she will be sent the evening menu for the following day and must choose what she wants by 10am that day. As we understand it she can choose freely from the standard menu and a dairy- and gluten-free variant will be specially prepared. It'll be interesting to see how (if!) that works.
Usually it takes a little while for our luggage to be delivered to our room, but today it was waiting for us even before the announcement that all suites were now available was made. The mandatory lifeboat drill is at 5.15pm, by which time we'll have unpacked – well, Gill will have unpacked ;o) – and we'll be ready for the week ahead.
Yesterday, we took a series of hop-on hop-off bus tours. There are three routes around Miami with one stop where they all cross. We 'hopped off' mid-tour just twice, once at 'Coconut Grove' where we had Sorbet/Ice Cream and another at Little Havana, which proved to be a bit tacky and not really worth getting off the bus for.
There was one stop on the final tour where we didn't get off but, with hindsight. perhaps should have done. This was in an area where most buildings have been decorated with 'street art', some of which was better than anything in the East Side Gallery in Berlin.
We didn't get back to the hotel until almost 5pm, so we relaxed until it was time to go out for dinner in the very busy Lincoln Road Mall – again!
We had a lovely time in South Beach and saw nearly everything that it has to offer.
Thursday 5th January 2017
It's really nice to start a cruise with a sea day as it gives you the chance to get to know the ship and settle into a routine.
We had breakfast delivered to our suite at 8am. The waiter who brought it also brought a linen tablecloth, which was a nice touch. At 10am we went to the theatre for a lecture on the Mayan civilisation, their beliefs and customs, why they vanished from sight and how many impressive monuments and cities are still being found in the jungles of the Yucatan peninsular. The lecturer was a professor who'd just started a sabbatical from a university in Kentucky and who said at the outset, very cheerfully, that thirty minutes earlier he would normally have been giving his first lecture of the semester to his students.
After the lecture we found sunbeds on deck and read for a couple of hours until lunch, then returned until mid afternoon. We wouldn't normally do this, but we had cocktails in the morning – well, they're all complimentary!
At 6pm it was the Captain's Welcome Party, when you get to meet the Master of the ship and the senior officers. Interestingly, the captain of this ship is female, something we've never previously experienced, and it makes you think, 'Well, why on earth not?' She has all of the background that her male counterparts have, such as service in merchant ships early on, followed by climbing the ladder in cruise ships as Safety Officer, Navigation Officer and Staff Captain.
After the Welcome we had a 6.30pm booking in the French speciality restaurant. Gill had placed her order this morning and all of the dishes that she chose were made gluten- and dairy-free. Consequently, she had a very enjoyable meal!
The evening show was the usual song and dance stuff that Gill quite likes ;o)
Friday 6th January 2017
Puerto Costa Maya, Mexico
Today was our first port of call, at Puerto Costa Maya, Mexico, on the eastern coast of the Yucatan peninsula, south of Cancun and Cozumel.
To quote the ship's daily newsletter, 'The Costa Maya cruise port is something of an anomaly. Unlike other established tourist attractions in the area this port of call near the town of Majahual has been developed exclusively for cruise ship passengers. The shops, restaurants activities and entertainment you'll find here aren't open to the general public. Puerto Costa Maya was also created to open up some of Mexico's lesser-visited archaeological sites to tourism.'
Our excursion wasn't due to set off until 12.45pm, so we took a walk down the pier in mid-morning to look around. There was a little shuttle running passengers the 200 yards from ship to shops, so we took that option. There are around 650 passengers on the Mariner and about 2,800 on the Celebrity Eclipse that was also moored here. However, there didn't seem to be all that many people looking around, and the shops and restaurants were predictably 'touristy' so there wasn't much to hold our attention and we returned to the ship before lunch.
The afternoon excursion was interesting. We travelled by coach to Chacchoben where there are Mayan ruins that have only been uncovered in the past 20 years. They were all of similar format – pyramids with lots of steps. Most buildings were constructed around 200AD, although it's thought that the area was inhabited as early as 200BC.
The guide was enthusiastic about Mayan culture, perhaps a little too much so! He rabbited throughout the one hour drive to Chacchoben, and once amongst the ruins became ecstatic about how advanced Mayan culture had been. He stoutly denied that they were a blood-thirsty culture and blamed that reputation on the Aztecs. However, the lecturer who spoke yesterday told of a sport similar to football where the losing team was beheaded and the heads placed on specially constructed stone racks around the playing area!
The weather has been sunny and hot but with a remarkably strong wind that has been lashing the ship and making it shudder. It's now 7pm local time, we're at sea, and mercifully the sea is fairly calm.
Gill's already chosen her meal for tonight and is intrigued to see how her selections can be made gluten- and dairy-free ;o)
Saturday 7th January 2017
Harvest Caye, Belize
Overnight our clocks went back one hour, so we're now six hours behind UK time.
For the second day running we're in what I'd call an artificial port of call. Norwegian Cruise Lines, which owns Regent, has developed a resort for its cruise customers. It's very new indeed, having been opened only six weeks ago, so it's absolutely immaculate. We were the only ship here today, and if every single passenger had gone to the beach at the same time they'd all have found a sunbed on the white sand.
Once again, we had an excursion booked for 12.45pm, which meant the opportunity to wander ashore in the morning. Again, there were motorised shuttles to take us to the end of the pier. By 9am we were on the beach, having ambled through a succession of bars, restaurants and shops all designed and built for cruise ship passengers. Wherever there was seating we found fine water sprays being blown around by electric fans. Whether this was to make the temperature more bearable or to discourage insects wasn't clear. Gill had an enjoyable swim in the coral reef-sheltered, crystal clear sea and I had a paddle – not wild about water, to be honest! At 11am we were back on board for lunch before we returned to the pier for our excursion.
This was billed as 'Lagoon Wildlife and Mangrove Estuaries', with the big attraction being the chance to see Manatees. And did we see any? Well, actually, yes! Quite a few in fact! You can only see them as they come to the surface for air every three to five minutes, and they're gone again in seconds' However, the four tour guides on our boat were constantly on watch, rather like wartime lookouts on minesweepers looking for U-boat periscopes! Our best sighting was a parent and calf, swimming together. There's an extensive Manatee protection area in which boats have to proceed with the utmost caution, causing no wake at all
The lagoon is fairly shallow, and one of the crew jumped over the side and came back with two jellyfish in a bucket, which he handed around. He also brought on board two live starfish, which were also handed round with instructions to keep them upside down so that the water inside didn't drain away.
As we went into the mangroves we also saw termite mounds in the foliage, plus Frigate Birds, Cormorants and Herons. And all of this in only 90 minutes!
Once again we had a very enjoyable dinner. As usual, Gill had made selections from the menu this morning and these had been adapted to her requirements. For one of the courses I had the same dish and it was interesting to note the differences between hers and mine. They'd even made allowances in the petits fours offered after the dessert course, with lovely maccarons for Gill. She was very happy with the whole meal.
Sunday 8th January 2017
Unexpectedly at sea!
We're supposed to be on Roatan Island, Honduras, today, but the weather is so appalling that the ship couldn't dock and couldn't even tender passengers ashore safely. A passenger, who had been taken ill, had to be taken ashore by tender, and the difficulties suffered by the tender crew in doing so and then winching the tender in-board again made it clear that taking several hundred other passengers ashore safely just wasn't possible.
So, the ship's been turned round and we've set off north into a rainy gale and steel-grey, heaving seas that make you want to look for periscopes! We're sailing through twenty foot waves! Even though the ship is moving around and occasionally staggering as it's hammered by the wind the stabilisers are working well and we're comfortable. Our cabin is in a pretty good position - mid-ship, mid-deck, so the motion is tolerable.
It's now mid-afternoon and things are still a bit grim; the captain has warned us not to expect any improvement in the next twelve hours, and, in fact, the weather might worsen. There are three separate, nasty weather systems heading south and east from the Gulf of Mexico. We're travelling at reduced speed to keep things as comfortable on board as possible and to reduce the possibility of damage to the ship, We're just back from the theatre where we've been watching the film about the passenger plane that landed on the Hudson River in 2009. Every now and again the ship crashed into waves, which added atmosphere to the film ;o)
At lunch it was apparent that most people were staying in their cabins or in lounges on lower decks. We had only a quick meal since the buffet is high up on the ship at the stern, where the motion is most pronounced. Every now and then we heard a crash from the galley, so it's impressive that any food was being prepared at all! We're booked into one of the premium restaurants tonight and we're hoping that the ship's motion doesn't spoil everything.
The big plus is that this is a lovely ship and our suite is very cosy and comfortable!
Tuesday 10th January 2017
Today we were in port and no longer confined to ship on bumpy seas!
We arrived by 8am in Key West and had to go through US Immigration procedures, but at least this was carried out on board in a simple way by friendly officials. Our 9.45am excursion was a bus tour around Key West, which is really quite a small place, measuring only about four miles by two. The bus tour, with commentary, lasted only about an hour, after which we explored the streets on foot.
Key West is at the very southernmost point of the USA and the southern end of Highway One, which heads 2,000+ miles north to the border with Canada. It's only 90 miles from Havana, but the absence of anything Spanish is really quite remarkable. The town consists of pretty, white-painted wooden houses only two or at most three storeys high, with more trees and palms than you'd expect to see in such a hurricane-affected area, It's a lovely, relaxed and photogenic place that has tourism as it's sole source of income.
Back in the 1980s the government decided that all vehicles entering or leaving Key West had to be stopped and searched for evidence of drugs or illegal immigrants. This proved to be a very unpopular measure, as tourists weren't prepared to put up with nine hour delays entering and leaving the town. At the checkpoint you had to show proof of citizenship such as a passport or birth certificate. As the local tourism industry began to die the locals went to law over this, but even an sympathetic judge said that there was nothing that he could do.
It dawned on a group of locals that the 'border controls' indicated that they were being treated as living in foreign territory, so they decided to take that literally. They declared Key West to be 'The Conch Republic' (there are conch shells on sale everywhere), declared war on the USA, immediately surrendered and applied for aid. The point wasn't lost on officialdom, the border checks were stopped and life gradually returned to normal.
We walked around for an hour or so, enjoying the atmosphere, but the shops are very 'seaside-touristy' with little of particular interest, at least, in our price range ;o) So, not long after midday we were back on board for lunch, followed by an afternoon reading bythe pool in bright sunshine. We decided to make the most of our last afternoon of 'free' cocktails, so we had two each. Gill's discovered 'Gold Medal', which is Banana, Strawberry and Coconut Milk, which she loves as long as it isn't packed with ice. She's also a long-time fan of Bellinis (Champagne, Peach Schnapps and Peach Juice). I stuck with Caipirinha but joined her for a Bellini!
At 6pm in the theatre the stage was turned over to the crew, who had the greatest possible fun entertaining guests with song and dance. They seemed delighted to be in the spotlight in their own right, and their audience showed enormous appreciation for their efforts. It's very clear that this is a very happy ship, and we're sure that the Captain's role in this is significant.
We went straight to dinner at 6.45pm, and once again the kitchen staff had taken enormous efforts to come up with gluten- and dairy-free variants of the menu just for Gill. It really has been one of the highlights of this cruise that she has been able to eat 'normally', even though the gluten-free bread has been, as usual, a poor substitute for the real thing.
At 9.30pm we went to one of the lounges where members of the excellent resident band were going to play an hour of Beatles numbers. We assumed that it would be a sort of tribute act, but the cruise director and a couple of the younger singers took over the vocals, and they really weren't very good. After ten minutes we left, disappointed, but with an extra cocktail each on board!
We'll be off the ship by 9am tomorrow (Wednesday) in Miami and have booked another trip on the sightseeing bus to kill time. Our flight back to Heathrow isn't until 9.30pm, and we arrive at Heathrow late in the morning UK time. It's been a nice break in mostly good weather!