Entertainment at sea

Load up the car and head to the Caribbean: Cruises from Galveston make it possible

Load up the car and drive to the Caribbean

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View from ship’s bridge.   Photo by Melissa Gaskill
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Roatan, Honduras. Photo by Melissa Gaskill
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Mojito in the Wheelhouse Bar. Photo by Melissa Gaskill
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Chef’s table sorbet. Photo by Melissa Gaskill
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Chef’s table dessert. Photo by Melissa Gaskill
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Sunset at sea. Photo by Melissa Gaskill
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From the first hors d'oeuvres we nibbled standing in the galley to the final bite of Belgium Dark Chocolate Dome Cake and sip of Limoncello, the Chef’s Table dinner onboard Crown Princess took nearly three hours. Those three hours of delicious indulgence in food, drink and socializing flew by. Definitely a highlight of my week-long Western Caribbean tour, but only one of many.

I made the drive to Galveston to meet a group of friends, boarded the ship, and sailed at 5 p.m. on a chilly, gray Saturday. By Sunday morning, the air had warmed and the waters turned blue. Our itinerary began with two days at sea, a perfect opportunity to wind down and switch gears. This happened to be Princess' second annual Entertainer of the Year cruise, with four finalists aboard vying for our vote.

Sunday, we caught comedian Sarge, who sings, plays piano and does impersonations in addition to poking fun at everything from air travel to the ship’s captain and himself, a self-styled black Jew who “sits at the back of his own bus.”

Then we started the first of two formal nights with cocktails in the elegant wood and brass Wheelhouse Bar, followed by dinner in the equally elegant Crown Grill, one of the ship’s two specialty restaurants. I ordered an heirloom tomato salad, eight-ounce filet mignon, heaping helpings of the family style side dishes — asparagus, creamed corn, scalloped potatoes and mushrooms — and Chocolate Obsession for dessert.

Monday’s highlight: the ultimate ship tour. It starts backstage in the theater; Princess produces, writes and directs its own shows, hiring singers and dancers from all over the world. The line has more space for entertainment per ship than any cruise line – second only to the engine room – including the 802-seat theater and a half-dozen other venues.

The tour includes the mooring room, medical center and laundry room, where Golberg-ian machines fold sheets, towels and napkins, and a spin through the food storage and preparation area and one of nine galleys (ship speak for kitchen), which prepare mostly from-scratch food for three main dining rooms, two restaurants, the 24-hour food court, and the crew.

The Crown Princess goes through 25 tons of food a day; with 3,068 passengers and 1,200 crew on board, that works out to 11.7 pounds per person. Good reason to visit the health club, where treadmills, bicycles and ellipticals face a bank of windows across the front of the ship. Feeling as if you’re pedaling across open water makes a workout easier.

After a visit to the spa for a hot rock massage, I was ready for dinner and, afterward, a performance by mentalist Wayne Hoffman, whose blend of magic and psychological stunts had us all wondering how the heck he does it.

Tuesday morning the ship eased up to the dock in Roatan, Honduras, part of the tropical Bay Islands.  I boarded a bus to Anthony’s Key Resort to dive two of its 35 minutes-from-shore sites, Greenhouse Wall and Deep Eel Reef. Abundant tropical fish swarmed coral dotted with colorful barrel sponges and fans, and we even saw a green sea turtle and a shipwreck. Our afternoon was spent relaxing on the cruise line’s Mahogany Beach, soaking up sun and breeze, snorkeling in the shallow seagrass beds, and eating jerk chicken washed down with a cold Honduran beer.

The ship sailed at 5 p.m., and by 6:45, our memorable chef’s table experience began. Led by Maitre d’hotel Giorgio Pisano, we started in Galley 8, the ship’s largest, a vast expanse of gleaming stainless steel, white dishes and hustling waiters, with lobster margarita with avocado and mango, salmon tatar, mini-quiches and caviar.

Then we moved to a dining room table complete with flowers and candles, starting with Italian Arborio Risoto with porcini mushrooms, followed by a lemon sorbet drenched in Gray Goose Vodka, and roast veal shank and beef tenderloin carved tableside by none other than executive chef Giuseppe De Gennaro, who sports a charming accent and mustache.

The entre was accompanied by fresh, beautiful carrots, broccoli, asparagus and potatoes. This was followed by a baked camembert, whisky-soaked raspberries served in a spun-sugar sculpture, and, finally, Belgium Dark Chocolate Dome Cake. All in all, one of the most incredible meals I’ve experienced.

On Wednesday, the ship reached Belize City, Belize. We traveled about an hour by bus to Chukka’s Jungle Jaguar Camp  for zip lining and cave tubing, led by an enthusiastic, Energizer-bunny of a guide named Elvis. After flying through the dense canopy on three lines, we grabbed head lamps and big blue tubes and descended into Xibalba — or hell, to the Mayans. No flames, though, just a vast chamber filled with clear, cool water and formations that sparkled in the light of our headlamps. We paddled to one end and back, then slipped off the tubes for a refreshing swim. Climbing out, I looked back into the dark cave at rows of headlamps that looked like candles, or stars.

In Cozumel on Thursday, we’d picked an America’s Cup sailing race.  Two boats built for the last 12-metre America’s Cup race in 1987 race a zig-zagging course of about two hours, with us as crew, grinding winches, trimming sails, or just enjoying a cold one and trash talking the competition as the boats vie for position around the buoys. The race came down to a neck-and-neck spring to the finish line, my boat winning by a nose.

In need of a relaxing afternoon, I had a slice of pizza for lunch, a tasty margherita with a light, chewy crust, and lounged by the pool. That evening, we caught Alfred and Seymour, a.k.a. The Blackstreet Boyz, a combination of hip-hop dancing and comedy. After dinner in Sabatini’s, the other specialty restaurant, we hit the final show, Tony Tillman. This singer opened for Bill Cosby for more than 10 years and starred as Sammy Davis Jr. in a Rat Pack tribute in Las Vegas.

Spending the final day at sea allowed for packing, winding down, and getting ready to plunge back into the real world. I slept in, had a final workout and spa appointment, then dressed in time to attend the announcement of Tony Tillman as entertainer of the year. I have no insider information, but suspect a close vote. After a final, leisurely dinner, I turned in, knowing I'd awake in port.

It’s a short drive back to Austin, but a long way from being pampered on a cruise to catching up on bills, laundry and emails back on land. I set Courses, a cookbook from the cruise, on the kitchen counter. Perhaps I can re-create that chocolate dessert, and I’m sure you can buy Limoncello somewhere around here.

Better yet, I'll make plans to load up the car and drive back to the Caribbean soon.