[First in a series of articles chronicling the 7-day Southern Caribbean tour, ‘Where the Action is’ cruise, featuring Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Buckinghams, Charlie Thomas’ Drifters and Davy Jones of The Monkees.]
When the news came that January 2012 offered a grand and glorious vacation opportunity to become a first-time passenger aboard the stately Grand Princess vessel and the chance to hear four superb representative bands from the very best days in rock and roll—well, who could resist? Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Buckinghams, Charlie Thomas’ Drifters and Davy Jones of the Monkees—such a classic rock lineup promised great music and entertainment.
Any seasoned traveler already knows the joys of a cruise, but the questions: ‘what’s it like to?’ and ‘and then what happens next?’ indeed begged an answer. Hence, this series will take you through every day on land and sea, with an up-close look at music professionals as gracious as they are legendary.
Harmon Travel’s Bob and Eleanor Harmon, aided by the enthusiastic Tammy Selee and her team, brought almost 600 people together for the sold-out cruise package. Now in their 19th year of this event, the Harmon team managed to create another new circle of friends, many of whom exchanged phone numbers and e-mails to stay in contact, at least via Facebook, with one another.
Typically, the seven-day cruises begin and end on Saturday; first-time passengers who travel more than two hours to Ft. Lauderdale’s Port Everglades departure site are encouraged to arrive a day early, just to get into the decompression mode and start the vacation process gently.
Although a multitude of hotels abound in Ft. Lauderdale, any of which are only 15 minutes away from the sea ports, Harmon had contracted with the Comfort Inn on Stirling. If you booked with them, complimentary transport from airport to hotel was provided on passenger bus hauling an orange trailer. A fifteen-minute wait brought a smiling driver who managed to pack the trailer full of luggage in such an efficient manner that you were on your way to the property in no time.
When 35 passengers all want to check in at once, your best bet is to find a shady spot in the Florida warmth (some of the travelers from Ontario and the northeast were so grateful for temperatures in the plus-category that they reveled in the heat of the 75-degree day. Fifteen more minutes later, you were checked in and given a brown snack bag that had a mini-bottle of water, an apple, and crackers/trail mix to hit the spot, especially when it was too early for dinner.
One of the funniest parts of the arrival was the guidance from your lobby to your room. First, when you get your key, you are directed to an adjacent desk where a fast-talking, smiling salesman wants to offer you all kinds of activities and excursions and then you can also book your departure transport with him. Grr. You’ve been in Florida 30 minutes and have to plan for your departure. Okay. Twenty minutes and twenty dollars later, you get a receipt, a little orange sticker and you know you can get back to the airport from the ship. Check.
Now, to find your room. That’s harder. The layout of the hotel complex, that is immediately adjacent to a Hampton Inn complex, is a bit tricky. They give you a map to your room. Use it. There is going to be a long trek for you and your luggage, bellman or not, and first you have to go to the gate via the poolside walkway. Opening the gate is a sneaky test of mechanical aptitude and it helps to have folks poolside having a drink with a little umbrella to give you the heads-up on how to open it.
Once past the gate obstacle, you’re on your way to the sorta-kinda long trek to find the elevators and your room. You have time to toss your bags in the room and then travel back to the quaint poolside vista to be greeted by a group of concert-sailing veterans, as evidenced by their t-shirts featuring the Concerts at Sea logo and the year of their preceding cruises. Although there were many other first-timers the presence of several seasoned vets was welcoming and warm.
At 5 pm (we’re on Florida time now), the popular deejay, Jimmy Jay was there with his “Rewind” show, playing great songs from back in the day, and an added bonus was Stacey Wayne as Elvis, in his civilian togs but he was pretty easy to spot, with jet black hair and wry smile. You just wanted to go up and say, ‘thank you, thank you very much,’ but better judgment prevented that.
Dinner with friends and a brief walk in downtown Ft. Lauderdale was just a $25 cab ride away. That’s the catch if you go offsite for anything. The private and hotel transportation arena is a money pit, so know that going in. Expect to spend $50 for a round-trip ride to eat anywhere but the walk-next-door Kentucky Fried Chicken or convenience store goods, but if you want fresh seafood, it is so worth the price.
The next morning the private KSA tour buses were set to depart for port between 11:15-11:30 am, so you had time for a leisurely and plentiful breakfast buffet, poolside for that great Florida feeling. The funny thing about gathering strangers together is that some folks tell you ‘too much information,’ even if they’re not part of the tour group.
One gentleman who slightly resembled Tom Selleck started espousing “loudly” how little sleep he’d gotten the night before as he was originally sharing ‘his’ room with two senior couples and they were all snoring like buzzsaws. When it was revealed that one of the senior couples were his own parents, sitting there in his presence, you just had to laugh to yourself and prevent yourself from walking over to announce to ‘Tom’ that if he was so cheap as to be sharing his parents and aunt/uncle’s rooms, that is what he could expect.
His regaling his inconvenience was just plain embarrasing to hear, the first time he told the stranger who was making waffles—she ignored him. The second time he told it was funnier, because you knew the end of his story—two pillows carted down to the hotel lobby, he managed two hours of sleep—awww too bad.
When checkout time arrived, one ironic side note: you know, sometimes folks just don’t pay attention. At 11:00 am as you were standing in a long checkout line (no such thing as use the TV to check out), the most desirable object to use was the one office stapler there. The stapler was to affix your specially printed luggage tags on your bags for transport and carry-on to the Grand Princess.
Meanwhile, the TV was tuned to CNN in the lobby. Not sure how many others saw, or cared, but the network was rerunning details of the tragedy aboard the Costa Concordia vessel of the preceding week. Oops. Not exactly fare for the faint of heart, but oh what the heck. Statistically you’re as safe as ever since ‘that’ was already an incident in the past now. Add in humming to yourself a little chorus of ‘Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main,’ to drown out the Gordon Lightfoot song worm in your head, ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ and you’re good to go.
Ah, the joys of traveling in groups. Fortunately, friends were waiting aboard the Grand Princess, so it would be easy to forget ‘Tom’, and the weird poolside ‘gate,’ the overly painted pink color of the cozy Comfort Suites, the looped-til-you-droop CNN tragedy rerun and just look forward to the boarding procedure for the destination journey of sheer fun.
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