Life moves at warp speed. One day my niece, Bianca, two, wants to sit cheek-to-cheek with me and watch television, her chubby arm too short to hook around my shoulders. In a blink of an eye, she is thirteen, nearly my height and way too cool to cuddle.
Don’t even get me started on her inability to call me. Our marathon phone conversations from days gone by only take place now in the nostalgia nook of my middle-aged mind.
So when Mom suggested a family vacation this past winter, we agreed a cruise was the best option to provide different locales and entertainment for our group, ages thirteen to seventy-one. From scavenger hunts and outdoor movies to wine tastings and Bingo, certainly a cruise could keep boredom at bay. Wanting a moderately-priced vacation, we decided on – wait for it – Carnival.
Enter endless second-guessing. Of course we were apprehensive about Carnival, given all the negative press regarding mishaps earlier this year. Here is what won us over: Splendor is Carnival’s biggest ship; its eight-day Eastern Caribbean journey begins in New York City, meaning no airline hassles (plus, cruising past the Statue of Liberty rocks!); and as past guests of Carnival, Mom and I received discounts.
My family is in Philadelphia. I traveled there by Amtrak and my brother, niece, nephew, mom, and I used a van service from home to the pier. My mother needed wheelchair assistance, so we waited fifteen minutes for a chair, and five minutes later we were aboard. Fast-forward a week and disembarking was even speedier, at under ten minutes.
Nicknamed the pink ship by cruisers, Splendor’s decor took some getting used to for this girl. Even its spacious cabins have pink molding. To my surprise and delight, after a few days the odd colors and designs seemed more playful than obnoxious.
When all was said and done, the biggest discovery aboard the Splendor was not our overall satisfaction with Carnival. It wasn’t the mouth-watering fare at Tandoori Grill (just one of many delectable dining options), the remarkable Legends show performed by passengers impersonating musical icons, or the infectiously energetic singing and dancing waiters in the formal dining room. The most remarkable thing was the realization that my family is composed of individuals I do not know nearly as well as I should.
Our cruise connected us in unexpected ways and provided moments, more beautiful even than Grand Turk’s glimmering sea in several shades of turquoise, or the uniquely colorful ports of San Juan and St. Martin.
There were unexpected moments I will forever savor, like dancing with my brother, Michael, 46, on the lido deck under the stars. We had not vacationed together since 1985, when he Attended my graduation from a journalism program at the University of California-Berkeley, and it had been forty years since we danced together. His swagger on the dance floor was as surprising and impressive as it was contagious. Michael has endured serious health issues in recent years, including a seven-hour surgery. He exercised by avoiding elevators while exploring the thirteen-deck ship, which can accommodate up to 3,744 passengers.
I enjoyed sipping complimentary champagne with Mom during an art auction and attending a couple of family-friendly comedy shows where we silently prayed not to become part of the act. You know that feeling, right? We even had fun ordering tasty tuna sandwiches from room service and watching recent movies like the kind of creepy Mama. One afternoon we played dominoes in the library, a real eye-opener as I was clueless that she played. How did I not know this?
My nephew, Anthony, and I attended two adult comedy shows. Initially I grimaced more than laughed, embarrassed to hear raunchy material in his presence. Midway through the set, I realized that Anthony, 22, is no longer the squeaky-voiced boy who talked so much that my hubby initiated “the quiet game” – which Anthony never won.
I was beyond thrilled to see shy Bianca connect with a new gaggle of friends through Circle C, the cruise line’s club for 12- to 14-year-olds. One night Mom and I came back from dinner to find her in bed, awake and annoyed. She refused to talk about what upset her.
The next day Bianca said she ditched the group because she did Not like their idea of fun. I was proud of my niece for being bold enough to make new friends on a cruise, and independent enough to walk away from them when they were acting goofy. Gratified by her maturity and developing backbone, I was also pleased later when she reunited with the girls.
While family bonding was a highlight, so were on-board activities and excursions designed to delight. We enjoyed dressing up for the two formal nights, posing for photos we swore we would not buy – but did, and pushing our luck in the casino.
Daily trivia contests held in the lobby are engaging whether you are competing or watching. Before answering questions, participants may have to do Beyonce’s body-pumping dance moves, assume the posture of an animal, or perform some other zany feat to the amusement of onlookers. After a Michael Jackson trivia game Bianca and I participated in, MJ aficionados rushed the stage for a dancing class to learn the moves to “Thriller.” Would-be zombies of all ages, sizes, and hues danced with zeal, if not always precision.
Bianca ate meals with us, but we seldom saw her otherwise, as she had her own social schedule. Circle C held dances, contests, and sail-away parties, among other activities that kept the young teens preoccupied until their one o’clock curfew. (Yes, that’s one in the morning. Curfews have a little more give on a cruise!)
As for excursions, my nephew went zip-lining through a tropical forest in Puerto Rico, snorkeling in St. Martin, and wave-riding in Grand Turk. When he said, “This cruise is my best experience ever,” my heart smiled as I recognized the happy kid in his grown-up eyes. While there was plenty for Anthony, one shortcoming was the lack of wheelchair accessible excursions for Mom.
And then there was my birthday, which Carnival celebrated twice! The day started off with a cute birthday card left in our on-board mailbox. We missed our regular dinner seating, so we sat at another table, where the maitre d’ crooned to me between courses.
Suddenly he gathered several others and they sang with such conviction and bass that most of the three-story Gold Pearl Dining Room chimed in to help me celebrate. The maitre d’ then asked me to dance with him during a performance that involved table dancing (not from me fortunately, but from the maitres d’ in Flamenco costumes). Back at my table, they brought me a piece of cake. The next day, our regular servers sang and presented me with a follow-up birthday slice.
On the last night of the cruise we went to the Legends show, where we seat-boogied at an open-mic talent show of sorts as fellow cruisers impersonated Cher, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, and Frank Sinatra. Bedazzled in trademark attire befitting their inspirations, the vocalists nailed their songs for a great finale.
After the show, feeling anxious about returning to real life the next day, I decided to make it a late night. I took Mom to the lido deck for delicious pizza and there we experienced some unfortunate excitement: A Coast Guard helicopter hovered on the side of the ship mere feet from our heads. It was announced that the chopper needed to land on the deck above us to transport two seriously ill passengers to the hospital. Another announcement followed asking observers to please stop snapping photos as the flashes were blinding the pilot. Fortunately, the operation went well.
My heart ached for the airlifted passengers and their families. But the evacuation showed me that Carnival could handle emergencies, and it reminded me to count my blessings. My niece was within sight, hanging out by the hamburger stand. Mom was waiting for me at a table where I’d left her as I watched the evacuation. Moments later, I connected with my brother and nephew. Relief replaced any regret I felt by the trip ending. I exhaled, grateful everyone was fine.
And isn’t that what vacations are about? To discover new places, have new experiences, and in the process, see and appreciate your life and loved ones with fresh eyes?
The years are flying by indeed. I am unable to find the brakes for this journey called life. But for eight days aboard Carnival Splendor, time slowed and magic moments flowed. Sure, special memories can occur anywhere. But adding an azure ocean, postcard-pretty islands, and a playful pink ship made our delicious family vacation sweeter – and my grateful heart beat stronger.