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Princess, Valentine's Day a Match

ON BOARD THE CROWN PRINCESS — Saved by a Princess. No, not the one I'm married to…by the Crown Princess, who really isn't a person but a ship, a ship that came in handy on Valentine's Day.

The tradition in our house on Valentine's Day is that there isn't one. Just another day…in paradise, that is. Just another way for some enterprising vendor to extract a few dollars from my wallet, which never seems to contain many. Red roses that cost $18 a dozen are suddenly valued at $48. Even cards cost a fortune, relatively, all in the name of guilt…er, love. 

Why does a man have to buy a card on February 14th to convince his wife he loves her? Isn't that what happens on the other 364 days?

Oh yes, the Princess. The ship, I mean.

The Crown Princess, bless her heart, offers a romantic Lobster Balcony Dinner for its cruise passengers and this being Valentine's Day Week (no, no, don't ever think it could be a whole week!), it seemed like a good idea. The fact that the Crown Princess — like all 16 ships in the Princess fleet — offers such a dinner the other 51 weeks each year is completely irrelevant, at least in my world.

This was MY idea for a romantic Lobster Balcony Dinner and, for this night at least, that makes the Crown Princess "The Love Boat"…a ship which was once the Pacific Princess, but that's another story. This story is about doing something special for Valentine's Day without having to think about it.

Well, mission accomplished.

Such bold ventures by somebody who in many years of marriage has managed to ignore February 14th come with a cost, of course. It's $100 and before you wince too hard, think about that. Start by smelling the flowers. If a dozen roses was already going to cost you $48, and that's not a given, you can maybe convince her that a colorful combination of daisies, carnations, baby's breath and lilies is an enriched substitute. She'll be so touched by the entire thoughtfulness of your plan that it won't matter anyway.

Then there's the dinner.

On a cozy table on your cozy balcony – all balconies are cozy on cruise ships — arrives a glass of champagne to accompany the "Pacific Blue Crab Cake" followed by "Marinated Chevre and Mesclun Field Grass, which is goat's cheese and tasty grass to we who have no professional palate. Then comes the coup-de-gras (not to be confused with the field grass): surf and turf.

Now if there's one main course my bride loves, even though there are many she loves, it's lobster and beef tenderloin. The accoutrements were roast Parisienne potatoes, a bouquet of vegetables and two sauces (peppercorn and hollandaise). Wine is extra but it is most nights wherever we dine.

For dessert, there's a quartet of chocolate: dark, Swiss, milk and white, capped by a generous plate of small assorted pastries…if you still have room.

I was sold by the bargain but, frankly, I think she was sold by the flowers — and we hadn't even started to eat. So "romantic" wins over "dinner" every time.

Especially on Valentine's Day.

Star Princess
14 nights
April 23, 2013
Los Angeles (return): Kona, Nawilwili, Honolulu, Lahaina, Ensenada
Inside: $1,309
Cost per day: $93

Dolphins in Honduras a Trip


ROATAN, Honduras — In anticipation of my upcoming "Dolphin Encounter" I wasn't sure who would be more scared, me or the dolphin. Since only one of us swims, it was logical that my fear factor would far exceed that of Mika, the 12-year-old mammal zipping around contained waters at Anthony's Key, on this popular Honduran island in the Caribbean.

This was a shore excursion from the Crown Princess, and I was looking forward to it just like I looked forward to the small-aircraft journey to a glacier on Alaska's Mount McKinley — my fear of heights is exceeded only by my fear of water.

Obviously, I lived to tell about both.

Mika and I both had company in the water. She had her trainer, Edgardo Farach, and her daughter, 18-month-old Polly. I had…where did he go, anyway?

Once I became accustomed to Mika's tail touching my legs, I was more or less able to relax. I did say more or less, right?

Even though she's a female, Mika and I don't have a lot in common. She consumes 40 pounds of food a day, or a little more than some people on cruise ships. She weighs 400 pounds. Please!

She likes to have her face in the water, makes noises through a hole on the top of her head and eats raw fish. None of those things apply to me. She's 12 years old, already has three kids and is nursing Polly while pregnant with child number three. Not so much.

Besides, Mika really puts on a show.

Those of you who have been on dolphin encounters probably already know what I learned this week. Training her and the other dolphins who perform takes two years — although I did forget to ask Edgardo why that didn't apply to 18-month-old Polly, who was doing tricks 50 feet away from her mother. Fast learner, I guess.

Dolphins live longer in captivity, where they're pampered, and for females "longer" can mean as much as 48 years. Well, at least I have her beaten in that department.

I also learned that by the time her latest child arrives, she'll have been pregnant for a year and for all but the last four months of it will continue to hunt stray fish, race through the water at speeds up to 25 miles an hour and "walk" on her tail with Polly by her side.

Mika and I do have one thing in common. They say if she was released into the wilds, she would probably die of starvation.

Me, too, Mika.

After 45 minutes in the water with her, I became quite fond of Mika. I miss having her around, though not as much as Princess Cruises and Edgardo are going to miss her when Mika's on maternity leave, because cruise ship passengers spend $135 to get to knew the dolphins at Anthony's Key.

On the other hand, Mika's just adding to a future pool of performers.

Royal Caribbean Vision of the Seas
7 nights
May 18, 2013
Copenhagen (return): Alesund, Geiranger, Fiam, Bergen
Inside: $649
Cost per day: $92

Tales of Two Ways to the Sea

ON BOARD THE CROWN PRINCESS — There's a million stories why people can be found on cruise ships that go far beyond buying a ticket to an opulent vacation…

* * *

Dylan Belton is the senior doctor on the Crown Princess. That makes him a good man to know. It also makes, as it turns out, for an interesting story.

Seven years ago, he was preparing to leave home in the United Kingdom for Australia. He had agreed to an 18-month contract, half to work on a search-and-rescue helicopter and half to work in the intensive care ward of a hospital. Before leaving, he called a friend from med school, John Penniston-Bird, so they could say their good-byes before going their separate ways.

Only one day was available, and his buddy was applying for a job on Cunard's Queen Mary 2. The only way Dylan could get on board to visit John was to pretend he was a candidate for an interview because only applicants were allowed on the ship that day.

So he "applied" and boarded the Queen Mary.

"I couldn't think of anything worse than going on a cruise ship, never mind working on one," he recalls, "They wanted to interview me, and then they asked me to join Cunard. I told them I was going to be away for 18 months [a perfect excuse] and they said: 'That's okay.'"

Dr. Belton finished his search-and-rescue — "one of the best jobs ever" — and intensive care commitments in Australia, joined Cunard and switched to Princess when the two Carnival-owned cruise lines quit sharing the same headquarters. For six years, he has been working four-month contracts on Princess ships.

As for John…

"He didn't get asked for an interview," says Dr. Belton, "but he eventually did get on a Cunard ship and also worked for Princess. I didn't really think about it before, but now we've done a complete swap — I'm working on a ship and he is settling in Australia."

* * *

Giorgio Pisano's title on the Crown Princess is "Maitre d'Hotel." He started down this path when he was just 15 years old and "didn't like school."

His mother and father, naturally, were horrified when their son announced he was quitting.

"My parents and my older brother told me at least to go to a school where I could learn to make a living," Giorgio recalls. "I went to food-and-beverage school for three years and after the first year I had to make a choice [in specialty] from the bar, concierge, dining room and galley. The dining room was my choice."

After graduating, he signed with Princess in 1976, when the cruise line had just two ships, one of them The Love Boat (Pacific Princess). Between contracts, he went home to northern Italy and found work in five-star hotels to sharpen his skills. Today, 37 years later, he is in charge of all the restaurants — three dining rooms, three staff dining rooms, two specialty restaurants and an assortment of smaller eateries — on the Crown Princess, which until June will remain the third-newest ship in a fleet of 16.

For Giorgio Pisano, it all began with being a "high school dropout.'

Sapphire Princess
7 nights
April 20, 2013
Los Angeles (return): Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas, Ensenada
Inside: $699
Cost per day: $99

Crown Tour Educating Passengers

ON BOARD THE CROWN PRINCESS — Ten things we learned yesterday during the Ultimate Ship Tour ($150) of the Crown Princess, somewhere on the sun-stroked waters of the Gulf of Mexico:

1. This era of more sensible eating hasn't really impacted the ratio of the 20 to 25 tons of food consumed each day, but it has resulted in soy milk moving from the list of "dietary items" to the main menu. Veggies and meats are still ordered and prepared in the same proportion, although the passenger demographics affects salt content. The salt consumed by a ship full of Americans is double that of the salt consumed by Europeans.

2. Performers recruited for shows in the Princess Theater have to be multi-talented — How many people do you know who can sing and dance to hip-hop, jazz, tap, disco and ballet? — and spend four to six weeks rehearsing at the cruise line's studio adjacent to headquarters in Santa Clarita. Princess claims it has more space devoted to entertainment per ship than any other line.

3. X-rays taken in the medical center are transmitted to a radiologist in Texas for interpretation, and returned to ship doctors within 24 hours.

4. Bakers make between 20,000 and 24,000 rolls every day.

5. Almost everything you don't see happening on a ship — food preparation to laundry to photo processing to cleaning — is going 24/7.

6. The ship's anchor is not what keeps it in place when it parks to tender passengers ashore, as it will this week in Belize, so much as the chains that drop the anchor to a depth of about 180 feet…and, while this doesn't apply to cruise ships, the anchor well (right) on cargo ships is a popular place for stowaways to hide.

7. Helicopter evacuation for critically ill patients is far from automatic. The ship has to be inside 350 miles of helicopter service, the weather has to be good enough for 'copters to fly and the patient has to be capable of surviving a helicopter transfer.

8. The Crown Princess burns about 1,000 tons of fuel on a typical seven-day cruise like this one to the Western Caribbean, at a cost of approximately $100,000 per day, and requires about 220 liters of clean water for each passenger every day.

9. Costumes for the 17 theater performers — and there 1,600 of them (costumes, that is) are made to be long-lasting and flexible. That's flexible, as in size. Two seamstresses can change costume sizes to go up or down by several sizes. Going up might be a service Princess can offer customers who eat too much.

10. The reason the funnels are the dirtiest part of the ship is that for safety reasons it's off limits to crew except when all the engines are shut down, and that can only happen in three North American ports — Alaska, Vancouver and San Francisco — where electrical systems can be kept running by plugging into outlets on the shore. And the closest any passenger can get to the funnels is just above Deck 16, some 190 feet above the water, and the only way you'll get that close on the Crown Princess is on the Ultimate Ship Tour.


Carnival Pride
7 nights
April 21, 2013
Baltimore (return): Port Canaveral, Nassau, Freeport
Inside: $469
Cost per day: $67


Perilous Time for Gem of the Gulf


GALVESTON — Let's start with mea culpa. Full disclosure. We love Texas. From Houston to Dallas to San Antonio to Austin to College Station to Galveston. Great places to visit that made great memories.

Ah yes, Galveston, a special place that doesn't always look special.

It can be pretty, and it can be pretty sad. Saturday, as the Crown Princess left its shores, was not one of Galveston's happy days. A mardi gras in the streets but no sunshine. A storm brewing and the ship had to, as they say in this part of the country, "get outta Dodge" before the "weather" arrived. The ceiling so low it seemed to be caressing the funnels of the ship.

Galveston has it tough.

Like a boxer with his hands down, it can be defenseless, sometimes looking into the eye of a hurricane as if to say "bring it on" and when Mother Nature's knockout is over "is that your best shot?" Hurricane Ike roared through the Gulf of Mexico five years ago and the devastation it left behind included an empty cruise ship terminal.

The cruise lines come and go. They can be as skittish as the forecast. Each time the Disney Magic leaves port, as it did again Saturday afternoon, Galvestonians wonder how many times she'll return. There are rumors the Magic is headed for Fort Lauderdale next winter. The Crown Princess, which just arrived in November, will definitely relocate to Florida and be replaced in Texas by the Caribbean Princess…but to Houston, not Galveston.

Yet it's Galveston that is the Gateway to the Gulf, the tip of the funnel for cruisers from America's heartland wanting to sample the Caribbean from a ship. Whether they fly in or not, it almost always means a 60-minute drive from Houston to a port that is, well, a port. Upon entry, industrial and colorless, especially on an overcast day. First-time visitors, like one boarding the Crown Princess, may see it as a once-in-a-lifetime visit…vowing never to come back, searching for charm you will never find in an industrial area — anywhere.

However, near the port is a funky and fun area where you can breakfast at The Original Mexican Cafe, dine at Fisherman's Wharf, lounge on 32 miles of beaches or visit The Strand, a district that focuses on the area's historical connection to the sea. Unless you're overnighting, you're unlikely to see much of it, and that makes staying an extra night or two in this seaside resort worthwhile.

There are currently five cruise ships based in Galveston. Next year there will be four…maybe three. As recently as a year ago, the only major cruise port in Texas seemed to have a bright future. Galveston deserves better, but the people here know so well not to get complacent because they also know their lives can change in a hurry…cane.

Too often, they have.

Celebrity Eclipse
13 nights
April 20, 2013
Fort Lauderdale, Nassau, San Juan, St. Maarten, Southampton
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $46

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