The never-ending review: Like a Virgin (Island)
Copyright 2018 Debra Littlejohn Shinder
After my sea-day-in-port at St. John’s that I wrote about in Part Four of this review, I was ready to finally get off the ship in St. Thomas. I have always enjoyed the U.S. Virgin Islands, and was very disappointed when our plans to spend the week in a condo there at Point Pleasant last December were obliterated – along with much of the island – by the one-two punch of category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September.
I was happy, then, when our original itinerary changed to substitute St. Thomas for Sint Maarten, which was even more badly damaged; however, I was a little uncertain of how far along recovery had gotten and what changes (both temporary and permanent) were still extant in Charlotte Amalie outside of the main tourist areas.
St. Thomas is only 32 square miles of land but pre-hurricanes, it had more activities and sites of interest than many larger islands. There were beautiful resorts, gorgeous beaches, wonderful restaurants and clubs, and great shopping. The photos and videos of the devastation in the wake of the hurricanes was painful to see. Roofs were gone, homes and hotels and public buildings were flooded, the local economy was badly damaged and individuals were left homeless and in debt.
The good news is that progress has been made in the five months since the storms. Roads have been cleared, power has been mostly restored and the cruise ships are back, bringing with them much-needed tourist dollars that play a big role in helping the islanders get back on their financial feet again. I was more than happy to spend my money in St. Thomas.
My week in a nutshell: Day Five (Wednesday, Feb. 21)
The ship arrived in St. Thomas at 7:00 a.m. and sadly, it was our shortest port day, with “back on board” time set at 1:30 p.m. First, though, the breakfast that I had ordered from room service via door hanger arrived promptly when requested, and I settled in to enjoy it, still in my pajamas, before going out to face the day. I opened up my balcony curtains as far as they would go (one of my few complaints about the cabin is that they don’t open further) and dug in. For once, I was hungry first thing in the morning.
The waffles weren’t the fluffiest I’ve ever had, but they were cooked properly – not undercooked inside and not burned or hard on the outside. They were still hot, and there was a generous amount of chocolate sauce to pour over them and make them even more tasty. Along with black coffee and orange juice, it was just the right way to begin the day.
I couldn’t linger over breakfast, though. Well, actually it turns out I could have, but I didn’t know it at the time. Some of the Facebook group had made plans to meet in the atrium at 10:00 and leave the ship together, then hire a taxi to take us up to Paradise Point – something that many of us had done before.
But that was “before” as in before the hurricanes. There were plenty of taxi drivers at the port, vying for our business, but when we asked to be taken up the mountain, they all told the same story: “We don’t do that anymore.” It seems the roads were so badly damaged that the vehicles can no longer manage the trip. The only way to get to Paradise Point is via the sky ride, which once you’ve been there, done that a few times begins to seem not worth the hefty ticket price ($21 per person for a 3 minute ride).
I was still game, but nobody else wanted to do it, so we ended up all just going our separate ways. Since this was my first time to get off the ship, I wanted to get a few photos of her in port, and also snapped a shot of our neighbor at the dock, the Regal Princess.
I also found a friendly couple to take the obligatory tourist photo of me at the St. Thomas welcome sign (in exchange for taking one of them.
Although I would have liked to find out how much of the downtown I remember was still standing, there wasn’t really much time to venture into town, so I spent most of my two hours off ship shopping there at Havensight. I ended up with a turtle (to keep me from missing the real one at home quite so much), a USVI cigar for Tom, shot glasses for the collection – even though I have several from previous visits to St. Thomas – and my favorite, a tee shirt that seemed appropriate, given my focus on this cruise.
Back on board around noon, I stashed my purchases in my cabin and headed to the lounge. There I met up with my neighbors in the cabin next door, Scott and Rich, and they invited me to go with them to the YC restaurant. It was my first time to have lunch there. We were served by Arthur, who by popular consensus is absolutely the best waiter in the Yacht Club – in other words, the best of the best – and possibly the most loved waiter on Facebook.
There were several items on the menu that sounded good – I could easily have had the cabbage spring roll – but in the end, given the impromptu nature of the meal, I knew I was there just for the halibut. It was a good choice; the fish was delish. And the crab was pretty fab, as well. For dessert I had the ice cream of the day, which was Hazelnut. I carefully avoided the strawberry (since I’m allergic to them) but the ice cream was almost as good as the previous day’s stracciatella gelato. But only almost.
In addition to the good food, it was nice to have some good company with whom I could enjoy the meal. And it was wonderful to get to know Arthur and find out that he really was as funny and friendly and proficient as everyone had said. Every once in a while, someone really does live up to the hype.
After lunch, I had some writing to do so I went back to the cabin to retrieve the Surface and then set up shop again in my own little private corner of the lounge and worked for a while, then went for another walk around the ship to see what was going on, and stopped to admire yet another beautiful sunset (if less colorful) at sea.
I stopped in at the Seaview Lounge for a few minutes to listen to “smooth sounds with Julio.” I really love that I could find music I like on this ship: jazz, classical, and older favorites. Except for the piano bar, it was always hard for me to find any music that was my style on Carnival ships after they stopped having the orchestra and live jazz.
Wednesday night was the second elegant night, and my plan for the evening was to go to dinner and extract my fair share of lobster – at the urging of all my Facebook friends who assured me that dining alone in the YC restaurant was perfectly acceptable – and then attend the “officers and gentlemen” dance in the atrium. Well, you know what they say about plans: we make ‘em, God laughs. But I ended up having more fun than I would have if I’d stuck to my original agenda, and they (whomever “they” are) also say all’s well that ends well.
I began what turned out to be a very long and fun dining experience by asking for a table for one in Arthur’s section. The hostess led me to a small table near the railing overlooking the lounge, close to the window with a magnificent view. She also asked if the location was okay or would I prefer a different table, but I was happy there.
I really, really like the feel and layout of the restaurant. It is (with half-credit to James Bolger) so civilized. The decor is elegant, but not stuffy. The chairs are comfortable, but not huge and unwieldy. And yes, we do have tablecloths. Piano and violin music from the lounge downstairs wafts upward, but never so loud as to interfere with conversation. The tables are placed far enough apart so you don’t feel as if you’re almost in the lap of the people at the next one.
NOTE: I should mention that the chairs are obviously made with Europeans, who tend to be thinner, in mind. They do have arms. I like arms, but some extra large Americans might have trouble fitting into the chairs. As accommodating as they are in the YC, I’m pretty confident that if it is a problem, they would find you a chair that works.
One reason I gave in to the advice of everyone online to just go and enjoy myself by myself was the elegant night menu. Both escargot and lobster – oh, my. And Crepes Suzette for dessert … that is like hitting the trifecta. And that’s what I ordered.
As one of my Facebook friends commented when I posted the photos, “Now that’s a lobster.” It was huge, tender, and almost melted in my mouth. Arthur noted that he would be both my server and my surgeon, and expertly extricated the meat for me so that I didn’t have to fight with it as I have sometimes done in the past with introverted lobsters who didn’t want to come out of their shells.
A word of advice for anyone else who is sailing solo in the Yacht Club: on one of the Facebook groups someone said she was apprehensive because she had heard that the YC is not solo-friendly. I found it to be the exact opposite. Everyone including the butlers (my own and those in the lounge), the waiters and bartenders, the cabin stewards, the concierge staff, and even the Yacht Club director himself seemed to go out of their ways to make sure I was comfortable and never wanting for anything.
Although the lobster was the highlight of my dinner, the escargot was also excellent. The flavor and texture were both perfect. My only complaint about it would be that I wished there was more of it (I know, I could have ordered another helping, but then I would have ended up feeling even more stuffed than I did). The crepes were also very good, although of course they weren’t served flambé since open fire is a no-no on board a ship.
So I had a wonderful, quiet dinner all alone in my little corner (but I didn’t feel lonely, with Arthur popping by every so often with a quip to make me smile). On the bright side, I got to really savor every bite without being distracted by conversation. On the other hand, I did miss the usual dining room interaction.
And then, as if by magic, I had that, too. It was as if the genie in my lamp (or more accurately, electric candle) had noted the one thing that would make this elegant night YC restaurant experience better and said poof! and Rich and Scott appeared, along with their friends Bob and Frank (whom I had also met previously in the lounge). Just as I was about to leave, they were being seated at a large table across from me – and asked me to join them.
I certainly couldn’t eat again (earlier desire for more escargot aside), but I was happy to sit and enjoy the company with a glass of wine and a cup of coffee. It was a very pleasant way to wrap up the meal, and the time passed quickly. And for those Negative Nellie reviewers who have complained that their dinners lasted 90 minutes (I guess they mistook the dining room for a fast food place), I can beat that. My elegant night dinner went on for over three hours – and I loved every minute of it.
A lesson that we Americans could learn from the Italians is how to slow down and take time to appreciate our food, family and friends, and life.
There is an Italian saying, “A tavola non si invecchia,” that literally translates to “At the table, one does not age.” The meaning is a meal is not just about feeding your body; it’s about feeding your soul with the pleasurable experience of sharing food and drink and conversation with others.
In addition to the complaint that dinner in the MDR lasts too long, another of the most common kvetches I read about Seaside was that at dinner time, the buffet is sparse, with few choices. I think both of these exhibit a lack of understanding of the Italian culture and outlook on living. In Italy, buffets aren’t very common outside of tourist areas because dinner is such an important family and social experience; it’s a “sit down and stay awhile” affair, not a “grab a quick bite and gulp it down” thing.
Knowing this was a source of my hesitation to go to the restaurant as a party of one. I should have realized something else about the Italians, though: “family” means extended family and includes friends, even those you haven’t met yet. And on the Seaside, in the Yacht Club, you are already part of a family – even sitting alone.
The seas were a little rough that night, and we were rocking and rolling more than usual. It wasn’t the best time to be wearing high heels. All of us were inadvertently “dancing” a little as we left the table, and my stumbling on the way back to my stateroom was not because of the wine. I arrived there safely despite the impromptu weaving, to find that night’s towel animal came bearing gifts – including a little plate of bedtime nibbles.
In the end, it’s not so much the extravagant gestures as the little things that make you feel special. The MSC Yacht Club is very good at those small touches that add up to create an over-the-top experience.
That morning, when I took my yellow highlighter to the daily schedule, I had intended to attend both “My Life in Music” at 9:30 and Invito All’Opera (“Invitation to the Work”) at 10:30, but once again, my plans for the day proved to be more ambitious than my ability to carry them all out. The first show was over by the time we left the restaurant, and it was time for the later one to start.
Stronger than my desire to go to the opera was my overwhelming wish to get out of my formal clothes (and especially shoes) and into something more comfortable – like the oh, so soft, white, fragrant sheets on my bed, where I spent the next few hours reading and then being rocked to sleep by the still-swaying ship (but not before I checked off the breakfast boxes on the door hanger and left it out for morning delivery).
I know some who read this are likely to be disappointed that I didn’t go out and participate in more of the ship’s activities, see more of the shows, try out more of the entertainment venues, experience more of the things that they want to do. I didn’t go bowling, didn’t go water-sliding, didn’t dance the evenings away in the night clubs or watch the big screen movies or get drunk and party at the pool.
Regrets? I have a few – especially about how few times I partook of the gelato and that I never did order a frozen Toblerone cocktail. But in the end, like Frank, I did it my way.
A tutti non si adatta una sola scarpa.
The same shoe does not fit every foot.
NOTE: Just FYI, the giant red shoe is not on the Seaside. I needed a photo that would go with the closing quote, so I “transported” it, via PhotoShop, from a picture taken in Las Vegas.