Centenary World Cruise Day 9: Stonehenge!

“What happened to Day 8?” I hear you cry. Nothing. Nothing happened to Day 8 because nothing happened on Day 8. Let’s move on!

We made port in Southampton, and while the passengers from the last cruise left (good-bye to all those hacking coughers!) and the passengers for this next leg came on, we boarded a bus for Stonehenge.

On the way, we took a little detour through the New Forest, where “new,” in typical British style, means that it was planted 600 years ago. So much of the wooded areas reminded me powerfully of home, and I felt my first real wave of homesickness that didn’t involve my family.

As we crossed the Avon river, I learned that there are lots of rivers in England called Avon. Here’s why:
Foreigner: Hello! We’ve come to colonize your land! What’s the name of this river?
Native: I can’t understand a word you’re saying. Speak Celtic, for crying out loud!
Foreigner (speaking their own language more loudly and slowly with large hand gestures): THIS RIVER HERE…WHAT DO YOU CALL IT?
Native (with a dismissive look): It’s a river?
Foreigner: Then in recognition of your culture which I will do my best to obliterate along with much of your population, I will call it “River”!
“Avon” is the Celtic word for “river.”  

On to Stonehenge! The first time I saw the Mona Lisa, I was let down because it’s only about the size of a sheet of notebook paper. I prepared myself for Stonehenge to be similarly disappointing.

In the visitor’s center, I learned that “henge” doesn’t refer to the stones, but to the circle of ditch surrounding the stones. There are lots of other henges (Woodhenge is nearby), but all they have in common is that ditch. Next, I learned that the average height of the people who built is was just over four feet, which explains much about my mother and grandmother.

Lise reclining on a bed of woven wood
This is a bed made of something like woven willow branches. It’s every bit as uncomfortable as it looks.

We then went out to Stonehenge itself. It’s exactly as advertised, except for one thing: while the stones are every bit as tall as they look, they are much closer together than I was imagining. I thought there would be room for thirty or forty people within the remaining circle of stones, but it appears that there is room for more like 5-8.

My husband and me in a photo that just looks like we’re standing in front of a poster.

Stonehenge is on a hill in the middle of a vast plain, which means that the wind there can rip your hair off. It also rains a lot, leading to this particular bin.

The last thing I learned is that crows in England are incredibly vain, and also not well-off financially. Take this specimen. You can see, as it grooms itself, that its white roots are showing. Deduction tells us both that this crow dyes its feathers, and that it hasn’t done so recently, but desires to keep up appearances.

A truly shocking number of people (including us) had their backs to Stonehenge, one of the most famous monuments in the world, in order to take pictures of this bird.

Once back on board (where we discovered that, with the new crop of passengers, the average age of the population had shot up by 20 years), we were treated to the Imperial Military Band which, despite its pompous name and the fact that it was exclusively men, gave a very impressive concert. A lovely end to a lovely day.

Centenary World Cruise Day 3 – What I Forgot

Just before we left, I worried that I was going to forget something. One of the things I listed was a full set of professional water colors and an easel. At the time, I was joking – it was an example of something obviously unnecessary that was in my brain for no reason other than the fact that I worry about everything.

Turns out, there’s a daily watercolor class for which you may purchase materials. So it turns out I needn’t have worried.

And we have figured out what I forgot. Despite the fact that I have about a dozen receptacles into which one can put pills of any description, and despite the fact that I spent an entire evening putting my daily meds/vitamins into little packets so I would remember to take them, I utterly neglected to bring any kind of painkiller. This meant that while we were in New York and for the first two days on the ship, I had a whacking headache. See? Told you I’d forget something.

We’ve taken to hanging out in the lounge set aside for those doing the entire world cruise. It’s nice, because one can always find a table, there are conveniently-located outlets, and there is always tea and a variety of snacks. Except “snacks” here means “canapés.”

I had never before in my life eaten a single canapé, and now I find myself faced with them several times a day. Honestly, I’m not impressed. I’m sure that canapés handmade by the host of a dinner party eager to make a good impression on their guests are delicate and delicious. These are mass-produced, industrial canapés, and are therefore…well, let’s just say uninspiring. Although I will never say no to skewers of shrimp.

Centenary World Cruise Day 2 – Drama!

Today is our first full day at sea, and the drama began even before we left our stateroom. We were in the middle of breakfast when the captain came over the loudspeaker to tell us that there had been a medical emergency, and that someone was being evacuated by helicopter. We could leave our rooms, but we could not go out on the balconies or any of the outdoor areas until we were told otherwise. Almost immediately, we heard the sound of the helicopter.

I feel for whoever got evacuated, especially if they’re just starting out their journey. It turns out, this is not just the first leg of our cruise, it’s also the last leg of a cruise that left Southampton, sailed around the Caribbean, then came up to New York before heading back to Southampton. Our world cruise is, in fact, three separate cruises. Of the approximately 2700 people on board, only three hundred and forty five are doing the entire world cruise. So far, we haven’t met any of them, but from what I’ve heard, we’re the youngest by at least a decade. Not sure what that means, other than we’ll spend a lot of time talking loudly and slowly at World Cruise get-togethers (there are several scheduled), and helping people up from a seated position. Worse things could be true.

Also today, I made a couple of discoveries about our bathroom. The bathrooms on cruise ships are tiny – not a whole lot bigger than the bathroom on an airplane. But this one has, above the toilet paper holder, a sort of glass tray with what looks like finger marks impressed into one side, attached to the wall with a metal bracket. Right next to the door frame, there’s a triangle of metal that I realized has a hole in the side nearest the floor. It took me a bit to realize that these are, respectively, an ashtray and a bottle opener.

There are no other ashtrays or bottle openers in our room, which raises the question: Just what kind of party are they expecting people to have in their bathrooms, and do I have to say “cool” before coming in? We’re not allowed to smoke in our staterooms, but I guess they want to make sure that if people do smoke, they’re getting all they can out of it by hotboxing in the tiny, enclosed space. Sadly, I don’t think we’ll be making use of either of those things, unless I need a handy toiletside tray for holding my earrings, and a nice anchor to tie my balloons to.

Monkey on a Boat: Day 3

I want to apologize to my laundry. For seven years now, the Pirate and I have had one of those high-efficiency front-loading washing machines that barely dampens the clothes, infuses them with just enough thin detergent that they smell good, and then barely dampens them again before spinning them to within dashing distance of dry. I apologize because that’s almost exactly how the showers on this boat work (minus the spinning bit), and it’s annoying. It looks like there’s water coming out of the shower head, but I can’t actually feel it, and at no point is my skin any more wet than it would be on a moderately humid day. I would take an actual bath, except that the “bathtub” is the size of the utility sink in our laundry room at home. Maybe I’ll let my clothes feel some vacation love by putting them in the tub, filling it with water and a little bubble bath, and giving them a nice, long soak.

I also want to go on record as saying that I have never had any use for the ocean. Yeah, yeah, I get that it provides the bulk of the world’s oxygen (but that’s not even the ocean itself – that’s the kelp in the ocean). And that it also provides some incrediby tasty fish. But it also exists just to fake me out. I sit on the verandah of the room and look out over the water hoping to see whales or dolphins or sea otters, but no. From our room, all we can see is freakin’ ocean, and if you fix your eyes on a single point you will eventually see something that looks like a breaching whale off in your peripheral vision. So you look at that spot and realize that it’s just some stupid waves. But as you stare at those, a pod of dolphins jumps just at the edge of your peripheral vision, so you look there. But it’s more stupid waves. Sea otters surfacing: more waves. Flying fish: more waves. Ocean, you’re like the father of the planet. Large, powerful, and boring as all hell.

We had boarded the boat at lunchtime on Monday, and so already knew the boat inside and out (as far as our hanging off the verandah of our room would allow). So…what else can you do? Every night, you get a little newsletter in your room that lists the activities available for the next day. On Wednesday, our second day at sea, there were 33 activities listed for “family,” 33 specifically for “adults,” 113 separate activities spread among the various kids’ clubs (there are 4 for different age groups), and 18 character appearances, movies, live band events or mini parties listed between 8:30am and midnight just on Wednesday. I’m sure you could be bored if you wanted to, but you’d really have to work at it.

Here's our kid with Belle from Beauty and the Beast

The characters hang around for a photo op, then it's back to whatever their day jobs are - Belle also works in one of the gift shops.

Some of the activities were all of the parlor-game variety: scavenger hunts, trivia contests, crafts like origami and animation. There are also tons of fitness classes, lots of dance parties, lots of athletic events (free throw contests, putting contests, soccer contests). And even if you weren’t up for a constant regime of dancing, gym attendance, etc., it was easy to work off the rich food because there are 11 decks on the ship. We were on deck 7, which was entirely taken up with staterooms. To do anything, we either had to go up 2 decks to where the pools and fitness club lay, or down 2-4 decks to where the shops, restaurants and lounges were, and we never took the slow, tiny elevators.

The Edge is the tween club aboard ship

Here's where the 11-13 year-old set hang out

By Wednesday night, we were in bed early (and exhausted), ready for our Thursday adventure: zip lining over the jungle!

Monkey on a Boat: Day 2

This morning, we had the first “character” breakfast on board – that’s where all the Disney characters show up and sign autographs and pose for pictures. While most of the waitstaff was busy bringing us our food, some of them were there solely to fold the napkins into entertaining shapes and put them on people’s heads. Most of the women received enormous bows. Some of the men got Robin Hood caps, but some of them got what looked like a bandana holding up earrings made from dish covers. Or teacups. Or milk jugs. I told the Pirate that not only was I going to take a picture of him in his lovely gear plate-cover earrings (they made him look like a Jamaican robot Princess Leia), but that he had to make it his new LinkedIn profile picture. He’s been married long enough that he just smiled and nodded.

The Pirate's new look

Most of the men ended up with some variation on this theme

While I was in the bathroom this morning, I realized something. While I washing my face and brushing my teeth, I realized that every so often I would feel like the mirror was a little further away than it just had been. Then, a second or two later, I would feel like I was going to fall forward into the mirror. It was very subtle, but it was the first time I could really feel the motion of the ship. As we walked down to breakfast, I realized that I still felt a little dizzy. Just a little, and mostly whenever I looked out a porthole at the passing ocean. It feels pleasantly disorienting and encourages me to breathe deeply.

After breakfast, we hit the bingo game where I ordered a drink called an “eco-tini.” It had acai berry, agave nectar, ginger, leaves, bugs…you get the picture. It came with a little bracelet of acai berry seeds. I put it on, and what it really looks like is my alcohol friendship bracelet. I hope that gin doesn’t get jealous. I’m sure this will just be a shipboard romance for me.

I want to go on and on about the experience of being on a boat, but it’s like any large-ish touristy building. Most of the space is taken up either by rooms or by boring things like utility cupboards and big bits of weirdly shaped metal with seventy million coats of paint on them. Once you’ve been through every single thing in the two shops, poked your head into all four of the bars and been to all of the restaurants, there’s not a lot to see. I did spend some of every day we were at sea in the gym, and I can tell you that it’s really hard to get a good head of steam on the treadmill when the ship is really pitching. So, the only other thing left is to spend a lot of time out by the pool, sunning yourself and fending off the advances of the seventy-four waiters hawking beverages. To be honest, I wasn’t always very successful at fending them off. To be even more honest, sometimes I didn’t even try.

Monkey on a Boat: Day 1

I’m a nervous traveler. You don’t really need to know that, except that it will explain why, when I went to bed at 10pm the night before we left, I didn’t fall asleep for nearly an hour, and why I woke up every 15 minutes to make sure I didn’t miss my 2: 45am alarm. I was just thinking of every single thing I had to do when I got up, and of every single thing I should have done but didn’t before I left. And about all those things that might happen, but probably won’t, of things that won’t happen but probably should, of things that should happen but probably not when they need to…I know you’ve been there.

We left at 3am to make the ~6-hour drive from our house to Los Angeles where we could board the ship any time between 11am and 4pm. That’s right. I built in an extra seven hours, during which I would have nothing else to do but imagine what could go wrong later on the trip.

I worried that it might be hard to find the boat, to find parking, to find breakfast close to the dock. It wasn’t. There was really only one boat, and it had Mickey Mouse on the funnel, and you could see it from the freeway. Right in front of that one boat was one giant parking lot with one driveway leading to it. A block away was The Grinder – a sort of Denny’s knockoff with easily the worst food I have ever had ever in my entire life. None of my imagined problems materialized.

Disney Waiting Room #3,124

She's still cheerful because we've only been sitting here for five minutes

Boarding was exactly like getting on any Disney ride. Any time you get onto a Disney ride, the queue is shuttled from one room to another so that you’re always moving, you never see the tail end of the line, and the number of people in any one place never seems to change. And just like at Disney theme parks, every single person: the guy who took our luggage, the guy who directed us through security, the woman who took our picture, the woman who directed us into a giant waiting area, and every one of the eight thousand adrenaline-addicted, polo-shirted employees who roamed the rooms looking for unoccupied children to harrass – every one of them evinced a level of cheer that required shouting.

Please welcome - THE GAZPACHO FAMILY!!!!!!

This is the room you enter when you get on the boat

When we got on the boat, we had to stand in a sort of line because as each family walked through the doors, a man in white livery boomed cheerful things like “Let’s hear you make some noise for THE GAZPACHO FAMILY!!!!!!” or “Welcome back THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY!!!!!!!!!!!!” (and he enunciated each of the exclamation points, I swear). Then a phalanx of other white-liveried individuals applauded with ecstatic grins on their faces. But there are four people in our family, and we don’t have a common last name. Disney really doesn’t have a paradigm for that, and they wouldn’t announce us individually. Instead, they mispronounced both my last name and the Pirate’s last name, and then the manic applause began. This is how I can tell that I’m not cut out to be a celebrity. When faced with the applause of a crowd of people, I have no idea what to do apart from looking around uncomfortably and muttering under my breath.

Our luggage wasn’t in our room yet (I think it’s delivered by the same house elves that Hogwarts uses), so we went up to the top deck with the really, really loud swimming pools and cafes. Within minutes of boarding, I had a poolside table, a gin and tonic and an order for champagne to be delivered to the room. Thank you, Pirate!

I had booked a mani/pedi for 1pm, so I showed up to the spa. I was the first person to visit the spa, so once again I was assailed with friendly, cheerful greetings to which I had no appropirate response. The mani/pedi was as wonderful as those particular procedures always are, and Cameel, the lovely Jamaican woman who provided the service, and I talked and sang and bonded while she was sloughing off my calluses. When I left, she wanted a hug and told me I was the most fun customer she’d ever had. As did the woman in the gift shop from whom we bought a watch, and Yusef and Lavendra, the two men who have been assigned to wait on us at dinner for the entirety of our stay. What this tells me is that one of the keys to getting a job with Disney is the ability to fake sincere friendship. That’s really the key to getting a job pretty much anyplace, but they’re really, really good at it here. I know it’s an act, but I’m a sucker for it all the same.

Dinner was in the animation-themed restaurant “Animators Palate.” The walls are covered with black and white drawings from various Disney movies, and there are giant paintbrush-shaped columns scattered around the room. The bristles of the brushes are glowing LED things that light up various colors. The paintbrushes hold up what look like giant artist palettes with blotches of paint on them. The paint also lights up in different colors. The friendly waitstaff wore black-and-white vests with drawings of Mickey in various styles. At the end of the meal, the main screens showed an INCREDIBLY LOUD film about how wonderful and magical and fabulous Disney is, and then Mickey Mouse came out, did a hyper little dance, and then the waiters, now all dressed in rainbow-colored vests, danced around as well. Good golly.

By this time, I was barely hanging on. I was dizzy and having a hard time getting excited about any of the upcoming events, mostly because all I could think about was being able to sleep – two and a half hours just isn’t quite enough. The girls, who had both had good nights’ sleep, took off to the various kid activities, and the Pirate and I passed out at about 8:00. So much for kicking off the cruise. We found out later that both girls had been in and out several times while the Pirate and I slept, and we never heard them.