Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Back from Vacation!

Well, vacation was a blast.  My only complaint was that it was too short!  There were a few, relatively minor hiccups, but for the most part, it went off without a hitch.

Last Friday evening, we drove to Billings, and stayed at a hotel, so that we could sleep a few hours longer and still catch our Saturday morning flight.  The hotel let us park the car there all week for free, so in the morning, we took their shuttle to the airport, and got underway.  The flight to Denver went fine, but the airline had made changes to the schedule after we booked the flight, giving us an extraordinarily short layover in Denver.  Naturally this meant the connection would be at the other end of the airport.  Sure enough, that is exactly how it played out.  We made the connection, though with only a minute or two to spare, and the flight to Fort Lauderdale went without incident.  It was a bumpy flight, but otherwise not noteworthy.

When we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Sarah's Dad met us, and we went to the baggage claim area.  However, our luggage did not make it to the baggage claim area, which we suspected to be the result of that short layover in Denver.  We talked to the baggage people, and they assured us it was on its way, and it would most likely be arriving on a flight later that night.  It sounded like something that happened frequently, and we were not the only ones reporting delayed luggage.  The only thing that really annoyed me about the luggage situation is that we had given this airline $50 to get our luggage there, and they had not, yet a refund was also not possible.  I do not mind paying to check luggage, it does cost the airline money to move it too, but I feel like I should see my luggage at the other end or I should have that fee refunded.

Anyway, we went to the hotel, got checked in and settled in as best we could with what we had packed in our carry on items, and started to catch up with friends and family arriving in the area.  We checked the status of our luggage periodically on the computer, and sure enough, it was on its way to us, although a bit slower than we might have liked!  We got some dinner, and walked around Fort Lauderdale a little in the evening.  It is not exactly a scenic town, it is mostly urban sprawl, and is actually rather ugly.  But the weather was warm, so we did not mind too much what the scenery looked like!  We met a few more people at the hotel later, who had later arrivals, and then our luggage finally arrived just after midnight.

Sunday morning was busy, with preparations for the wedding and the cruise.  Sarah had an early morning hair and makeup appointment, and it seemed like my phone was ringing off the hook with people asking what time they needed to be at the pier to get on the ship.  I guess telling everyone 10:30am just was not clear enough!  Once the hair and makeup was done, we packed everything up and got ready to go.  Since we were getting married on the ship, Holland America Line sent a limo to pick us up.  When it arrived at the hotel, we hopped in, and we were off to the port.

We were the first in the group to arrive in Port Everglades.  We met our wedding coordinator there, who explained how we would board as a group, and then certain rooms would be available for everyone to change in.  She was in contact with the hotel staff on the Nieuw Amsterdam, and kept us up to date on the status of the rooms.  We waited in the main lobby as everyone in our group arrived at the port, so that they would be able to find people they recognized.  Once everyone had arrived, we proceeded through the security checkpoint, and on to the check in area.  There was a little computer glitch as we got to check in, so that took longer than usual, but we still made it onto the ship with plenty of time to spare.

Once on the Nieuw Amsterdam, we found the rooms for changing, and got into our wedding clothes.  Sarah had a dress, so big around no one could walk nearer than a few feet from her, and I had a tuxedo, complete with a tailcoat.  When we were dressed and ready to go, we headed up to the Observation Deck, to the Crows Nest lounge, where we would all meet before going up to the outdoor area above the lounge, for the wedding ceremony.  It was rather entertaining as we made our way to the lounge, because everyone involved was more dressed up than anyone else on the ship, and so comments from other cruise guests were common.  I went to the lounge with Steven, Michael, and Tim, and Sarah came along with her bridesmaids later, but even just four guys in suits made a little bit of a stir.  Apparently Sarah caused quite the scene as she walked through the ship, in her wedding dress!

The ceremony was held in an outdoor area above the Crows Nest lounge, at the top of the ship.  It was sunny, and as dressed up as we all were, that made it rather hot.  The ceremony was short, but quite nice.  An employee of Royal Ocean Events, the company that organizes events, such as weddings, for Holland America Line, was the officiant at the wedding, and we had a small crowd of family and close friends watching.  In total, there were just over 20 people present, including ourselves.  Apparently someone had not informed the cruise director of the wedding taking place, and he chose the middle of our ceremony to make a seemingly long winded announcement about the buffet available on the Lido Deck.  When he got of the PA system, we continued with the ceremony!

After the wedding ceremony, we had a short break for photos, followed by the reception.  As we were taking pictures, Sarah and I found it entertaining that we had complete strangers taking pictures of us, in addition to the ship's photographer.  We took some photos outside, and we took more in the lounge, and in the atrium.  The atrium is a three deck high lobby in the middle of the ship.  As we made our way down there, quite a few people came to see what was going on, and as we were standing at the bottom of the stairs, to have our picture taken, our photographer had to motion to the people on the two balconies above to move, so they would not be in the pictures!  We just laughed, because we had become celebrities on the ship without even trying to!

The reception was also very nice, and as usual, Holland America took good care of everyone there.  There was plenty of food and drinks to go around, and the cake they had made for us was delicious.  The Crows Nest was a great place for the reception, because it was not a huge lounge, but very comfortably accommodated everyone in the group.  We did all the usual ceremonial things, cutting the cake, feeding it to each other, toasts, and the first dance.  During the first dance, our cruise director decided to make another announcement, this time regarding the lifeboat drill.  Again, it seemed much longer winded than it probably was.  His timing really was something else!  A few people who had come to the wedding were not sailing with us, and at the end of the reception we said goodbye to them.  They were escorted off the ship, and we went and changed for the lifeboat drill.  The rest of the evening was more casual after that.

The cruise was very nice.  At about 5:00pm on Sunday, the mooring lines were cast off, and the Nieuw Amsterdam eased away from her berth in Port Everglades.  This process was almost unnoticeable, until the blast on the ships horn let everyone know that she was making her way towards the Atlantic Ocean.  The first stop would be Grant Turk, Turks and Caicos, in the British West Indies.

Cruise Itinerary.  Image by Holland America Line.
We spent all of Monday at sea.  To those that have never sailed anywhere, a day looking at water may sound quite boring, but I find it goes by too fast.  There is plenty to do on the ship, but I also find that sitting on deck, watching and listening to the water go by, is actually very relaxing.  The only set thing we had for Monday was a massage, in the spa, which was also quite relaxing.  Overall it was a completely stress free, relaxing day, which was very nice!  In the evening we had a leisurely dinner, and then we went to the Captain's welcome aboard toast, followed by that evening's show.

On Tuesday, we arrived in Grand Turk.  Grant Turk is a small island in the Turks Islands, part of Turks and Caicos, which is part of the colony called the British West Indies.  We had a couple of shore excursions lined up there, including a dune buggy trip and some kayaking.  The dune buggy trip was interesting because we did get to see the whole island.  Most of it was actually on paved streets.  Since Grand Turk is a British colony, they drive on the left.  That took a little getting used to!  Every time I saw another vehicle down the road a ways, coming towards us, I would think, "Oh crap, I'd better get out of the way...oh wait, I am out of the way, this is weird!"  Every time I turned onto a different road, I instinctively aimed for the right lane, which is actually the wrong lane.  I found I was looking in all the wrong places when I had to make turns, because I was just not accustomed to driving that way.  Driving on the left side of the road was really the most interesting aspect of that excursion.  The kayaking excursion, on the other hand, was quite a bit more interesting.  We went to an inlet at the north end of the island and explored the mangrove trees, as well as an old, wrecked dredging barge.  We also went looking for jellyfish and native birds.  It was quite a bit more interesting than the dune buggy trip.  Once both of our excursions were over, we went back to the Nieuw Amsterdam.  We had seen the entire island, and while it was a nice spot, it was pretty isolated, and there is not a whole lot to do there, besides the tours and excursions offered by the cruise line.  I would not want to live there!  In the evening, we sailed, and continued heading east.

On Wednesday, we stopped in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Nieuw Amsterdam tied up right downtown, within walking distance of the old city and fortifications built by the Spanish about 500  years ago.  It was an interesting city, because of the obvious history.  Many of the streets near the port were very narrow, built on steep hills, and still had cobblestones.  Shops in the area were typically very tiny, and very few places had air conditioning.  Most places were simply open, allowing the breeze to blow in from the ocean.  We did an excursion that took us out to the Bacardi Rum Distillery, which was a few miles outside of San Juan, in Cucharilla.  We spent a couple of hours touring the distillery, which included free rum at the end.  Some people had more than others, but our group stayed mostly sober.  During the trip back to San Juan, we took a more roundabout route, and we also had a very nice tour of the area and San Juan.  It was quite interesting, and overall I think it was a good tour.  When we returned to the pier from the tour, we still had a bit of time to kill before the ship departed, so we walked around the old part of San Juan.  It was a really interesting city, and I would love to go back there and spend about a week next time.  At dinner time, the ship eased away from the pier, exited the harbor, and set a course east, to St. Maarten.

On Thursday morning, we arrived in Philipsburg, Netherland Antilles, on the island of St. Maarten.  St. Maarten is an interesting island, because the southern half of it is part of the Netherland Antilles, while the northern half of it is owned by France.  St. Maarten is also home to Princess Juliana International Airport, which is a well known spot for aviation enthusiasts, because of its extremely close proximity to a public beach.  I would have liked to get out to the airport, but there was not time.  Instead, Sarah and I did a sailing excursion.  They have a few retired America's Cup Regatta boats in St. Maarten, and we went on one, the Canada II, and had a race against a few of the other yachts.  Sarah was appointed to be the captain, and she led us to a victory in the race.  It was a lot of fun.  Everyone in the excursion had a job to do on the boat, and the actual crew of the boat spent time teaching everyone what to do and why they were doing it.  It was quite interesting, and it was a beautiful day for sailing.  We had a great time on that excursion, and decided afterwards that we need to get a sailboat!  That was our favorite excursion of the trip.  After the excursion, we had a little time before the ship departed, so we walked around Philipsburg a little, and then made our way back to the Nieuw Amsterdam.  In the middle of the afternoon, we departed, and began heading west.

Friday we were scheduled to be at sea all day.  Our next scheduled stop was Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, but that was Saturday.  We had another very relaxing day on Friday.  By that morning, all our wedding pictures were ready for us to look at, so we spent a little time looking over those and deciding which ones we wanted to get printed.  Our photographer had taken over 200 of them, but had picked out the best ones and touched them up a little, leaving us with 123 to go through.  We had about 40 of them printed for the album, and a few others printed a bit larger, for framing.  Besides that, it was another relaxing day at sea, as we looked forward to being in the Bahamas the next day.  The weather was good, but apparently that changed the following night.

On Saturday morning, we arrived at the anchorage off the shore of Half Moon Cay.  The weather was overcast and windy, although on a ship as big as the Nieuw Amsterdam, it did not feel very rough.  Half Moon Cay is a very small island, and as such has no deep water docks, so the ships mush anchor off shore, and then send people ashore on a small boat called a tender.  The tender pulls alongside the ship, and people are able to transfer back and forth.  The tender is obviously significantly smaller than ship.  Because of the condition of the seas, as the result of 35+ mile per hour winds, tendering operations were not possible.  After monitoring the situation, and checking the weather predictions for the day, the captain decided to cancel the stop at Half Moon Cay.  Transferring people between the ship and a bouncing tender would be difficult and dangerous, and the captain decided it was better to not take any risks, and so we ended up with another leisurely day at sea.  While it would have been nice to go to the Bahamas again, it was also nice to have another day to sit around and relax on the ship.  Since cancelling the stop meant that the ship was headed to Fort Lauderdale nearly eight hours earlier than planned, they slowed down considerably, and we moved at a only about 13 knots for the day.

On Sunday morning, we awoke in Fort Lauderdale, wondering how the week could have possibly passed so quickly!  It was time to disembark, and catch the plane back to Billings.  Our trip back to Billings went just fine.  We had a fairly quick layover in Salt Lake City, but our luggage managed to make the connection, and we only had to wait a couple of minutes for it to arrive on the carousel.  Once in Billings, we got some dinner, and headed home to Glendive.  Now we are planning our next cruise, which will happen in March 2013, but more on that later.

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