Friday, August 12, 2022 Aug 12, 2022
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TRAVEL CARIBBEAN CRUISING

Sailing on the Good Ship Swingle.
By MIKE SHROPSHIRE |

THE TOUR BROCHURE tells it this way: “Let the Amerikanis make the most of your three or four night cruise to the Bahamas with a celebration that starts the moment you are on board. Grand dining, acres of deck space, star entertainment, on-board casino, and a smiling Continental crew to cater to your every whim. The fun never stops. A great party ship at a great price.”

Having just experienced this situation firsthand, and after receiving the customary hero’s welcome on my return, I think 1 would have amended the brochure to read something like this: “Take the most outrageous elements of every low-rent dive on Industrial Boulevard and the glittering meat markets of Upper Greenville, and jam them wall-to-wall on the Good Ship Swingle. Come one, come all. Moral Majority need not apply.”

Of course, that’s why they don’t let me write travel brochures. I contend, though, that my impression is entirely accurate.

In what is looming as a decade of creeping austerity, it is refreshing to discover that alternatives do remain available. The heartbeat of hedonism is steady and strong on these Greek party boats.

Six meals a day. Strawberry daiquiris that will knock your hat in the creek. Show girls all dressed up in fabulous feathers. Cram that in your gizzard and smoke it, David Stockman.

Let’s just call it a saltwater adventure.

A lady representing Costa Cruises, the fleet to which the Amerikanis belongs, says, “There’s no denying that the TV show The Love Boat has had a strong and favorable impact on the cruise industry.

“But people who aren’t familiar with the cruise atmosphere and come on these things in hopes of patching up a failing relationship or in hopes of meeting their future husbands or wives are probably going to be disappointed.”

After witnessing what I did during four days on the Amerikanis, I may be inclined to disagree with that. Strongly inclined.

There’s something seductive about that rocking, rolling ocean that can inspire romantic essences more than, say, lunch at Ojeda’s.

“Well, it is true that people tend to party it up a little more on these quickie voyages to the islands than they would on a longer cruise,” the Costa spokeswoman says.

That may be underestimating the situation a little. Men have gone to prison for 30 years for having less fun than some boys and girls had on my short cruise.

To illustrate this point, I will simply reproduce my ship’s log of the short cruise to Nassau, which is accurate right down to Washington Post standards (with the possible exception of Friday, the details of which are pretty hazy).

Friday. According to the itinerary, I am supposed to fly from D/FW to Miami via Air Florida, meet a Costa representative for a tour of a Marriott Hotel, and then be transported to the ship, which is scheduled to disembark at 4 p.m.

I start out on the right foot by missing the flight. In fact, I don’t even come close. The only thing I can do is contact the travel agent in New York who had arranged the trip and figure out what to do next. She sounds pleasantly exasperated. “Catch the next flight out,” she says, “and take a cab to the ship and hope you don’t miss it, too.”

The Braniff flight arrives in Miami directly by God on schedule. I have exactly one hour and 15 minutes to make the ship.

The cabbie is one of those dour Cubans who are always in strong supply around the Miami airport. His eyes light up like little Christmas trees when he hears me tell him to go to Port Everglades.

Fortunately, I don’t tell him to step on it because that just makes them get lost. As it is, he blares out of there like a pace car in the Dixie 500. He makes what is customarily a 45-minute trip in just under 28 minutes, and even though the meter reading races along like digits on a gas pump, I embrace Santos for getting me to the boat on time. That is in lieu of a gratuity.

Actually, I have had a couple of cocktails on the airplane and am feeling giddy from the altitude.

Once I stumble up the gangplank, it is a relatively simple task to locate my stateroom on the Rome deck (which is situated immediately beneath the Washington deck, which is beneath the Jerusalem deck, which is beneath the Athens deck, which, in turn, is beneath the Sun deck).

The stateroom consists of two single beds, and from the standpoint of comfort and appeal, the accommodations compare favorably with the Rio Motor Hotel, Fort Worth’s famed honeymoon lodge.

After quickly changing into my cruise costume -my favorite nine-year-old cutoffs and a pair of Hush Puppies – I backtrack my way up to the top deck, expecting to see everyone pressed against the railing, pitching confetti and colored streamers to schlocks down on the pier as we disembark.

But there is to be none of that. Everyone is already jammed elbow to elbow in the Neptune Lounge, getting goofy.

The room seems to be dominated by two distinct accents, those of New York City and Texas, which can be the most volatile of all possible mixtures.

Elizabeth and Annette are, yes, travel agents from the Big Apple. Ralph, a red-faced gentleman to my left (with what seems to be unlimited bad-boy potential) identifies himself as an air traffic controller from Beaumont.

Four ladies are seated at a table adjacent to the bar. “Y’all,” one of them says in a stentorian, nasal voice that identifies her and her group as being from Hurst. Two of them are married. Good potential here.

A man that everyone on the ship would later come to know as Uncle Toodie, who works as a groom in the stables of Aqueduct Race Track in New York, advances on the Hurst girls. Toodie is a 46-year-old bachelor who lives in Brooklyn with his mother.

The Hurst girls don’t seem initially impressed by his suggestion that they should all buy him a drink. He says he will be back later.

“I’ve put a cheap move on every woman I’ve ever seen in my life,” Toodie tells me. “You gotta keep swinging that bat. Every now and then, you’re bound to connect.”

It’s early yet, but no one wants to get left standing in the starting gate in the Neptune Lounge. Chaos is rapidly setting in.

An hour into the voyage, the romance command center is transferred to the Galaxy Club, the disco located near the front of the ship.

This is the first officially scheduled activity of the cruise: the singles get-acquainted party, complete with complimentary rum punch.

There are no late arrivals. A cruise director, who refers to himself as the Love Host, requests that everyone pair off and dance. In fact, he straight-out demands that everyone dance. I get matched with Uncle Toodie and utter a silent prayer that this will be one time when he won’t swing the bat.

By now, the rum punches have started to kick in; it is clearly time to evacuate the Galaxy Club.

The Love Host now breathlessly arranges a diabolical activity where the so-called singles align themselves on the floor in a sitting position, arranged in a female-male-female-male configuration, and “row the boat.” The person who “rows the hardest” will win a bottle of champagne.

There have been fraternity initiation rites that are less demeaning than this spectacle. As I stumble out of the Galaxy, it is obvious that the over-40 male singles are rowing the hardest.

Back in the Neptune Lounge, the air traffic controller from Beaumont is trying to get his filthy claws onto Annette and Elizabeth from New York. He tells them his name is John Paul Pope.

The Greek bartenders at the Neptune must have apprenticed at Joe Miller’s. They pour ’em stout. It’s at this point that Friday begins to fall out of focus and becomes merely a dream sequence.

Sometime during the day I must have returned to my cabin to change clothes because at one point I realize that I am seated at a formal dinner wearing my little blue seersucker suit. I order a steak, but am so engrossed in a conversation with someone I can’t now remember that I look down after three bites to discover the waiter has already taken my plate away.

Next come vague recollections of the Vegas-type floor show and the gals in the oh-so-classy feathered costumes.

Memories of my experiences in the onboard casino are even more shadowy, except for the part where I squander my entire gambling budget at the blackjack table. One thing about it; it sure didn’t take long.

Saturday. 1 awaken fully clothed on the floor of the stateroom, trying to keep in the proper spirit of these old Bahamas folk customs. After about five minutes of groping for my wallet and counting my fingers and toes, it occurs to me that the ship isn’t moving. I peer out of the porthole and determine that we are docked in Nassau.

After changing back into the cutoffs, I reel up to the top deck by the poolside.

A lot of the poolsiders start pointing at me and laughing. Oh well, I get lot of that at home.

“Oh, look. There’s that strange man from North Dakota,” I hear a New York accent say. I order a Budweiser, then try to work up the guts to jump into the swimming pool. Finally, I take the plunge. The sensation must be something akin to what a person feels when the executioner throws the switch on the electric chair. Besides, I’m not prepared to find salt water in the pool. Anyway, I manage to float in there for about half an hour. I keep pressing a thumb against my left wrist in search of a pulse. There isn’t one.

My peaceful nonexistence is interrupted by the sounding of chimes, which I interpret to be a lifeboat drill.

Tenderly, I creep up the ladder leading out of the pool to discover everyone lining up for a poolside buffet. It is a helluva line, too. For purposes of discretion, I decide to slink over to the nearest deck chair and catch my breath.

A middle-aged lady nearby is staring at me. I am certain I’ve never seen her before, but she says, “That was quite a story you told last night. Do you really own a bazooka?”

“Yes, ma’am. All us Texans own bazookas and cannons.”

“But you said you lived in Ecuador.”

“Well. Technically. I think I’ll go eat.”

The buffet on the Amerikanis turns out to be first-rate, with strong emphasis on seafood delicacies. The act of finishing off the meal, plus the swimming pool exposure, gives me reason to believe I may survive this ordeal after all.

I am now even enterprising enough to leave the ship and explore Nassau, famed for its straw markets and other exotic delights.

I had already been warned that the Bahamas is simply Miami Beach with British-sounding black people, but it turns out to be much more than that, Mom. The downtown area, such as it is, seems more like a movie set, and all those people are simply extras hired out of Central Casting.

Next, I ride a ferry to nearby Paradise Island, a short jaunt across water that’s so clear and so blue that, well, it didn’t remind me much of Lewisville Lake.

I ride a taxi back from the beach to the ship. The cabbie says he grew up in Florida, but that he is now a full-time resident of Nassau.

“Got me a Bahama Mama,” he explains. “They’re the best.”

This business of driving on the left side of the road isn’t so bad in the daylight, but at night, it can be gut-wrenchingly disconcerting.

The effect is enhanced by the happy native drivers, who thrive on a game of which the object, apparently, is to try to force all the other cars into the sea.

Fortunately, our driver, named Fireball, is damn good at it. He not only makes the luau on time, but probably also causes 16 fatalities along the way.

The luau that is next on the schedule turns out to be less hokey than I’ve anticipated. They start it off with a rum and coconut liqueur concoction just potent enough to stone half the British fleet. Two of these seem to loosen the partygoers substantially, to the extent that when the entertainment, a nubile fire dancer, tries to force a burning torch down my throat, I experience only mild heart seizures.

And there’s something about that Caribbean sky at night that makes the roast pig taste even better. I’ve been to the Spotlight Club and the Postman’s Lounge in Dallas, so I’m not totally immune to the ways of the wealthy. But this luau is no bad deal.

Then they trot out the maestro of the steel drums, who looks like he could make a living protecting the starting passer for the Cleveland Browns. This man has a repertoire on the drums that exceeds that of any 10 jukeboxes in North Texas.

At this point, it starts getting hazy again, but at least I wake up on the bed the next morning.

Sunday. The travel writers embark on a bus tour of the island. Early in the tour, motion sickness sets in. At several points, disaster seems only seconds away.

The bus finally stops, thank God, at an old British military installation called Fort Charlotte. The tour guide, Fat George, assures me that in the Bahamas, a person’s heart beats at two speeds: slow and dead stop. I am getting close to the latter again.

Fat George takes gleeful delight in ushering the group down into the jet black dungeon and into what he calls the “heh, heh, heh -torture chamber.”

It’s fun just getting the hell out of there. Then it is back to the ship, which is about to head back to Port Everglades. The cruise director is busy touting a contest at the swimming pool in which girls will compete to see who can stuff the most Ping-Pong balls into their bathing suits. This tasteful little event is heavily attended.

But the highlight of the entire voyage occurs during the midnight buffet, when the air traffic controller from Beaumont crashes through the table, spilling a mountain of Greek hors d’oeuvres.

An old-timer from New York witnesses that spectacle, sneers, and yells, “Feed him some more drugs!”

From there, the social holocaust continues until I am startled to discover that it is daylight and the boat is docking back in Florida.

After receiving some genuinely dirty looks from the boys at U.S. Customs, I race back to the airport, board a plane, close my eyes, and wake up at D/FW.

My first instinct tells me that I have imagined the entire experience, except for the fact that skin is peeling off my face, and the baggage claim area appears to be rocking like a ship.

Love Boat? Not quite. But it was ahelluva ride.

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