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Hawaii 2013 - Return to Paradise!

Written by Rick Archer
November 2013

   


Aloha!  The 2013 SSQQ Trip to Hawaii Recap

Rick Archer's Note:

Our Hawaii 2013 turned out to be a very odd trip. It was totally different from any trip I have ever been on. This lengthy two-week vacation felt like four different trips rolled into one.  Marla and I spent a couple days in San Diego, then came five days at sea.  Next we had four days of port calls on the Big Island and Maui. 
We concluded our trip with three days in Honolulu.  It really boggles the mind how much happened on this trip.

 

Rick and Marla's 14 Day Trip

01  Sunday, Sept 22 - Arrive San Diego at 10 am
02  Monday, Sept 23 - Depart from Ensenada, Mexico
03 04 05 06 07: Sept 24 - Sept 28 - Five days at sea crossing the Pacific to Hawaii
08  Sunday, Sept 29 - Hilo, Hawaii
0
9  Monday, Sept 30 - Kailua, Kona
1
Tuesday, Oct 01 - Lahaina, Maui
11 
Wednesday, Oct 02 -  Lahaina, Maui
12  Thursday, Oct 03 - Honolulu, Oahu -- overnight stay onboard ship
13  Friday, Oct 04 - Honolulu: Disembark ship on , go to Prince Hotel
14  Saturday, Oct 05 - Spend day in Honolulu, board airplane at 7 pm
15  Sunday, Oct 06 - Arrive Houston at 9 am

This was a very unusual trip for another reason - the ship did not make a round trip.  The Celebrity Solstice was passing through Hawaii on its way to Australia to "reposition" the ship for the Australian Spring and Summer season.

We were registered at the ship terminal in San Diego, then bussed down to Ensenada, Mexico, 70 miles to the south.

From there it took the ship 5 days to cross to Hawaii located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.   One weird feature was crossing six time zones in seven days.  Actually, this was a great benefit.  We crossed two time zones flying to San Diego.  We left at 9 am and got to San Diego at 10 am!

Then on four of the five days at sea we crossed a new time zone.  In other words, we had 25 hour days for a week!  This made the days at sea very relaxed.

Marla and I used our extra time wisely.  We made sure to take a 30 minute walk every morning, have a leisurely breakfast, and still have time to get to our 10 am dance class every day. 

Who cares that we gave 6 hours back at the end of the trip?

 

Rick and Marla Visit the San Diego Zoo

 
 

DAY ONE - A VISIT TO THE SAN DIEGO ZOO

The first thing I learned on this trip is that it is far wiser to take a trip heading west than heading east. Thanks to a series of time zone changes, Marla and I landed in San Diego just an hour or so after taking off here in Houston. Considering this was a three hour flight, not bad.

Since we had deliberately left early in the morning, we had the whole day ahead of us upon landing. It was still morning! After a quick lunch, we headed over to the famous San Diego Zoo!!

Only one problem. We couldn't find it. I swear, between Marla and myself, we made dozens of map errors on this trip. This first mistake was on Marla, but most of the rest would be on me.

The zoo was about two blocks from the car rental, but Marla read the map wrong and went the opposite direction. We got on the freeway and headed a few miles out before realizing our mistake. No problem. We had plenty of time.

Our biggest concern was the luggage we had hidden in our trunk. We saved at least an hour by skipping morning check-in at the hotel and relying on our trunk instead. However, this was a serious gamble. Our entire trip would be ruined if someone relieved us of our belongings while we visited the Zoo.

All day long I felt vulnerable to a catastrophic car break-in. We allayed our fears a little bit by parking under a police surveillance tower. If something bad happened, perhaps they would at least get good video of our demise.

The San Diego Zoo was everything they say about it. It is one of the finest zoos in the world. Fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, this zoo is way way big. There is simply no way a person can do justice to the place in one visit.

Thanks to the gift of great space, the San Diego Zoo pioneered the concept of open-air, cageless exhibits that re-create natural animal habitats. One of these habitats features the giant panda, one of the few zoos in the world to do so. This is good, except that the zoo is so darn big Marla and I never managed to find the exhibit despite five hours of wandering. This was bad.

It is easy to find the San Diego Zoo using Google Earth… looking down from outer space, it is the only green spot in the middle of the city. The water bill for this place must be immense because there are waterfalls, rain forests, hippo tanks the size of mansions, and virtual rivers for the otters. I am telling you, some of these animals have better homes than humans.

A fun aspect of the Zoo is the gondola ride across the park that gave access to all sorts of sweeping panoramas below. From the gondola, I figured out that the zoo is built into some sort of deep and very complicated ravine. The abundant trees and the split levels created by the ravine cleverly hide various sections of the park from the rest. This made for a delightful journey, but it was also easy to get lost or have trouble finding stuff because everything was so well hidden from the rest.

From the sky, Marla and I spotted a magnificent aviary. There was a huge net and hundreds of birds inside. When we later visited the aviary, to our surprise we were allowed to go inside. They have a clever double door system that allows people like us to enter and exit without the birds getting out. The birds don't seem to mind a bit that hundreds of people are visiting their home at any particular moment.

Marla loved it. Wherever she went, birds went flying right past her. The energy was exciting. This was a real paradise.

What I didn't know is that the Zoo is home to many species of ferns, trees, flowers, and bushes imported from different areas of the world. In other words, the Zoo is also a botanical wonderland… which of course drives up the water bill even further. There was one nature walk in particular that was sheer bliss… mist, bird calls, descending walkway, abundant tropical flora and thick vines that completely separated the visitor from any sign of civilization for quite some time.

Towards the evening, Marla and I were getting pretty tired. So we hopped on a bus that took us on a winding road through the Zoo. We learned all sorts of things including hot inside gossip on which giraffe was currently sleeping with which giraffe. Indeed, we saw a very impressive group of giraffes including a new born stumbling around like it was walking on stilts. One of those boy giraffes obviously has more going for it than just a pretty neck.

We passed the elephants. Our guide informed us there are two kinds of elephants - Asian and African. I stared in awe at their immense size. My favorite moment came when he pointed out the African elephants have ears shaped like the African continent. I'll be darned. Sure enough, he was right.

The bears were a big disappointment. They were all sleeping in their caves in the back. What a bunch of losers.

The orangutans put on the best show. These trapeze artists did a marvelous job of swinging from tree to tree Tarzan-style. Plus they seem to be natural hams. One large monkey rolled over and over towards the audience. Considering the monkey looked up several times to make sure we were paying attention, this was obviously an act staged for our benefit. These animals definitely seem to enjoy the attention.

Besides the pandas, we also missed seeing the gorillas. And we missed the lions too. This place is just way too big.

During the bus ride, I learned that the Zoo has a sister location 32 miles to the north known as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Located way out in the boondocks where there is plenty of unused space, the habitats are even larger.

These free-range enclosures house such animals as antelopes, giraffes, buffalo, cranes, and rhinos. Apparently any animal that isn't a carnivore is allowed to roam free. Since the climate and landscape is so similar to the African bush at home, I am sure these animals feel right at home.

The Safari park is noted for its California condor breeding program, the most successful such program in the United States. The San Diego Zoo single-handedly brought these magnificent eagle-like birds back from the edge of extinction.

Since there are no cages and few barriers, this Safari area is more like a game preserve than a Zoo. I smiled when I learned animals are regularly exchanged between the two locations. How cool is that… a vacation resort for the animals! If I was in charge, I would immediately revoke any visiting privileges for the bears until they start making more daily appearances.

To my immense relief, I did at least get to see the lions towards the end of the bus ride. Although the distance was great, I really enjoyed seeing the massive Lion Kings with their great mane of hair.

One night at supper during our trip, I brought up how magnificent the lions were. My friend Tom Easley told me a great story. He said the male lions, the so-called King of the Jungle, are the laziest creatures on earth. Tom said the male lions sleep most of the day and expect their female mates to go out and catch the food for the evening meal.

Tom spoke of a scene he saw in a documentary. A pack of very large hyenas found a lioness alone as she searched for food. Realizing they were nearly as big and had the numbers on her, the hyenas pursued the lioness. The big female cat was forced to climb a tree to escape. Now the hyenas had her cornered.

At this point the documentary switched back to the lion sleeping in the den. He wakes up hungry. The movie shows him yawn, then start looking around for his mate. You could very easily read his mind: "Where's my woman and where's my dinner?"

Finally the lion decides to go look for her. He finds her cowering up in a tree surrounded by the pack of hyenas. The lion doesn't even hesitate. Even though he is badly outnumbered, he loses his temper and plows right into the middle of them. The hyenas lose their nerve and quickly scatter. It is just amazing the confidence this lion has.

Meanwhile the lioness meekly climbs down from the tree where the lion confronts her with a withering stare. She quickly slinks off into the brush to find dinner while the grumpy lion heads back to his lair to rest some more.

After that story, I could not help but think that if I were as confident as the lion, I could have my life of ease too. However, my life is much different.

I will be laying there on the couch dreaming of all the great things I want for dinner. I will call out to Marla, "What's for dinner?"

She will say, "Whatever I serve."

I will say, "But what are my choices?"

And she will say, "Your choice is to get dinner or not. And if you open your mouth one more time, you can make your own dinner."

Oh, to be a Lion King. Whatever happened to male dominance?

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park

   

DAY TWO - THE ENSENADA ORDEAL

Travel has so many benefits.

Adventure, learning, the chance to meet new friends and strengthen ties with people we know, entertainment, relaxation… the list is pretty endless.

However I have to admit travel can also be very stressful. Anyone who has ever read the bizarre story of how I lost my passport on our trip to Russia will quickly realize how traumatic things can get in the flick of a moment. There is so much that is out of one's control that it is difficult to let down your guard.

The one good thing I can say about the perils of travel is that it toughens you up and it also encourages a form of ingenuity to find ways to make things a little easier. Experienced travelers typically fare much better than the rookies…. but not always.

One of the ways I deal with the inevitable problems is to expect something will go wrong. Into every life some rain must fall. Once I accept that travel will sometimes be unpleasant, it is easier to roll with the punches. However, like the next person, I have my limits of patience.

Never in all my years of travel have I seen more things go wrong in a single day than Day Two of our trip.

The day started innocently enough. Marla and I took a morning walk on the grounds surrounding the lovely Sheraton Hotel in San Diego. The first hint of the oncoming problems came when Marla confessed she was very worried about today. She had a feeling that something was bound to go wrong.

I asked her why. Marla said that although Celebrity was nowhere near as conflicted as the doomed Carnival, they too had their share of problems. She had encountered several very frustrating situations dealing with the Celebrity staff ahead of time plus there was a legion of complaints on Cruise Critic that had her worried.

As we walked back to the hotel, Marla clearly had a frown on her face. I had the feeling Marla knew more than she was telling. However there wasn't anything she could do about her fears, so we both shrugged our shoulders.

We had a great breakfast in the hotel's main dining room. The room was full, but we noticed newlyweds Larry and Megan had two extra spots at their table. So we asked to join them. The company was great and the breakfast was great.

Life is good. Still no warning of the problems ahead.
 

THE BAD DAY BEGINS

Our first mistake was lingering in the room longer than necessary. Marla and I were both ready to go at 11 am, but Marla decided to hold back for 30 minutes. As it turned out, we hit the terminal at the same time as everyone else. Marla would later estimate we could have shaved 90 minutes off our upcoming trip to Ensenada had we left at our first opportunity.

The headaches began when Marla went to check out of the hotel. The man looked at her strangely and said in a very rude manner, "Lady, you're a no-show."

Marla did a double take. Mind you, Marla had personally placed over a dozen of her cruise passengers in this hotel.  How on earth could they not have a record of her? Furthermore, what man chews out a customer for not showing up when the customer is standing right in front of him?

To her surprise, the man continued to speak to her in an accusatory voice like "the nerve of you to not honor your reservation". The man actually began to argue with her that she wasn't there. Marla was incredulous at his attitude. As far as he was concerned, since she was nowhere in the computer system, therefore she didn't exist.

Marla could not understand his animosity. Why on earth would Marla be going to the trouble of checking out if she hadn't been there in the first place? Okay, so something was wrong with the computer. Why take it out on her?

Marla showed the man her key, told him her room number, but he continued to say there was no record of her being there. He concluded by saying, "I'm sure we will find the record shortly. You can just go."

Not so fast. Marla said she wanted a printout to make sure all the charges were accurate. The man shrugged his shoulders. He couldn't print what he couldn't find. Just go.

Rolling her eyes, Marla left the counter. It was time to get a cab and go to the pier.

The cab ride was supposed to cost $10. Marla had checked ahead of time. It was only two miles to the cruise ship pier. Thanks to yesterday's rental car, I knew exactly how to get to the ship. On the previous evening, I had seen our cruise ship in plain sight on the other side of the harbor across from the Sheraton. Easy. After all, the road simply hugged the coastline. All I had to do was make one right turn. In fact, if we didn't have luggage, it was an easy walk.

Now as we got in the cab, I learned our cab driver was from Afghanistan. He said he had been in America for five years.

His next words brought up a red flag, "Please direct me to your ship."

That made no sense. After five years in San Diego, he needed help finding the pier one mile away?  Heck, I had found the ship myself just last night.  Where had this guy been for the past five years?

Before I could even answer, the driver made a left instead of a right at the main street. Both Marla and I immediately protested. "No, no, turn right, turn right!" So the driver took a long roundabout way back to the hotel and got it correct on the second try.

Marla looked at me and I looked at Marla. We both knew what was going on. This guy knew exactly where the ship was. Although the ship was not currently in the harbor (I will explain in a moment), he had even mentioned seeing it the night before.

So why was he playing stupid?  Well, we all know the answer to this.  The cab driver was scamming us.   Sure enough, he asked for $20 and pointed to the meter as proof.

Marla was indignant; so was I.  I had never seen a more blatant scam in all my years.  This guy had made two deliberate mistakes to run up the meter.

As the map shows, the route from the hotel to the ship terminal was about
as simple as it gets.  So how does one get lost?  It would be impossible.

The sad thing is that he knew we knew what he was doing, but he did it anyway.

Some people have no shame.

Unfortunately now I made a mistake… I had only $20s in my wallet. If I had a $10, I would have handed to it him and walked off. Instead I gave him a $20 and left in a huff. I didn't want to argue with this jerk. The sad thing is I would have given him a $5 tip if he had done his job right. He would have had $15. Was it really worth it to him to deliberately create such animosity to get $5 more? Well, we know the answer to that.

Now I was in a bad mood for the second time. First the Sheraton's incompetence, now the cab driver was playing us for a fool and getting away with it.

Why do people have to act this way?


Priority Status

Our next reversal of fortune came inside the Celebrity doors. We had priority status. That meant we had the right to go to the "Fast Lane" for check-in.

Instead we were ordered to go to the "Slow Lane". There must be some mistake. We took a quick look over at the Fast Lane. There were maybe 20 passengers milling around. We took a look at the Slow Lane. There were 200 passengers in line.

We protested, but no one budged. Slow Lane. We protested to another person. She too pointed to the Slow Lane. Three people in a row had ordered us to comply. What choice did we have?

Marla was livid; for the past six months she had been repeatedly told we had priority status. No such luck.

So what is priority status and why was it important? Well, today it would have saved us at least an hour of extra waiting, probably more.

A cruise line values "loyalty" as much as any other business. In order to build this loyalty, they reward returning passengers with goodies and added privileges. Although Marla and I had never been on Celebrity before, our 17 previous cruises on Royal Caribbean carried weight since the same company owns both cruise lines.

Now I understand it sounds a bit "snobby" to want to move through this check point faster than the others, but I would like to point out we have previously stood in our fair share of check-in lines over the years. At some point, it is nice to avoid having to lug our carry-on luggage around the snake line for half an hour… which is what we were now forced to do. The line was huge. Marla instantly regretted waiting the extra half hour. So much for believing the hype about the "priority status".

For lack of anything better to do, we continued to stare at the priority line across the room. It was so empty that they had extra staff people just standing there waiting to check non-existent passengers in. There were two agents for every customer, one to take their information, another to polish her own fingernails or twiddle her thumbs. How ridiculous.

The worst was yet to come.
 

THE JONES ACT

Everyone on the ship was about to be taken on a bus from San Diego down to Ensenada, Mexico, a 70 mile trip.  Fortunately (or unfortunately), none of us had the slightest clue just how ridiculous this trip was going to be.  Actually, one person did have a good idea… Marla. She had read all the horror stories about this upcoming bus ride. But there was nothing she could do about it other than fret.

As it turned out, there was no cruise ship in San Diego that day. Why not? After all, it had been there in this harbor the night before to drop off passengers. However, today it was waiting for us down in Ensenada.

So why did we have to take a long bus ride down to Ensenada, Mexico, in the middle of Nowhere when we had a perfectly beautiful harbor in San Diego?

That's a good question.  I am not sure I can give a good answer, but I can try.

Long ago (1920), the Jones Act was passed to protect the American shipbuilding industry. Section 27 of the Jones Act deals with "cabotage" (i.e., coastal shipping).  It requires that all goods transported by water between U.S. ports be carried in U.S.-flag ships, constructed in the United States, owned by U.S. citizens, and crewed by U.S. citizens and U.S. permanent residents. This prevents outside ships from undercutting the U.S. shipping industry. By giving a monopoly to U.S.-built ships, it stifles lower-rate competition from other countries.

As for a cruise ship, if the ship is not U.S. built or U.S. owned or U.S. crewed, then it is required by law to touch ONE foreign port during the cruise trip.

This stupid law makes a huge difference to cruise lines.

Although it causes all kinds of headaches for cruise passengers, rumor has it the foreign cruise lines secretly like it. I will explain why shortly.

Due to the Jones Act, any cruise ship that is not U.S. built, U.S. owned and manned by U.S. crews cannot travel directly between U.S. ports. They must first stop at a foreign port before proceeding to another U.S. port.

Consequently, any ship that is foreign in any way (origin, ownership, crew) can only go from Seattle to Alaska or from Portland to San Francisco if it stops in Canada along the way.

Similarly, to stop in Hawaii means that a ship that is "foreign" in any sense of the word must either sail from Canada or Mexico, or as NCL did for years, stop in some tiny foreign port to get around the law. For many years, this turned out to the Republic of Kiribati, a little known island nation located in the middle of the Pacific. Kiribati served as a way station for many cruises headed to Hawaii.  Want to know something funny?  Hawaii is 2,500 miles from Ensenada, Mexico.  Kiribati is 1,200 miles southwest of Hawaii.  

Looking at the map, using the "Kiribati Technique", a cruise ship leaving directly from San Diego would be forced to go not just 1,200 miles out of its way, but almost 2,400 miles out its way simply to comply with the Jones Act.  Obviously some cruise lines will go to any length to circumvent this strange Jones Law, but this is ridiculous.

Given this absurd situation, the decision to substitute Ensenada for Kiribati starts to make sense.  Since it is illegal for a foreign-owned ship to go directly from San Diego to Honolulu without stopping in a foreign port, now we begin to understand why Ensenada, 70 miles south of San Diego, was chosen as a solution to Kiribati.

What I couldn't figure out… and still can't… is why the Solstice couldn't dock in San Diego, board the passengers, cruise all 3,000 passengers in comfort down to Ensenada, sit in the Mexican harbor for an hour, then head on over to Hawaii.

I know cruise ships are expensive to operate, but I cannot imagine how it would be cheaper to hire 70 buses (yes! 70 buses!) to caravan the poor passengers on a miserable FOUR HOUR ordeal down the Baja California coastline (one hour waiting in terminal, two hour ride, one hour waiting on bus).

My guess is that to do something practical like ferry us down on the ship is somehow illegal.  If anyone knows the correct answer, by all means let me know. I am very curious.

On our previous 2007 cruise to Hawaii, we used NCL. Although this cruise line is registered in the Bahamas, it negotiated some sort of sweetheart deal with Congress which bypassed the Jones Act by hiring an all-American staff. I remember back in 2007 when a very knowledgeable crew member explained to me that even a sold-out ship like our NCL ship in Hawaii would probably end up losing money because the labor costs were so high. Only at total capacity did the ship have a fighting chance of making money. Neither Marla nor I understood how this business model made any sense.

I am not sure if today's cruise lines are unhappy with the current system, but I suspect not. I am not sure they are the ones who are inconvenienced. It is the passengers who suffer!

There are significant financial advantages to the cruise line for all this trouble we had to go to. Not only does Celebrity have the ability to register the ship in a low-tax country, but it can also hire foreign staff and pay them wages that would never pass U.S. labor laws.

If the Jones Act were repealed, it could definitely make a significant difference to the cruise industry. For starters, there would be more cruises around Hawaii, and quite possibly short cruises from San Francisco to San Diego or Seattle and the like. I could see a cruise trip from Galveston to Disneyland here in the Gulf.

In addition, in the fall, being able to directly travel between U.S. ports might mean a cruise line could try an itinerary between, say, New York and Florida or vice versa. There is great potential for fall foliage cruises up in New England. Currently, cruises either go roundtrip for Boston and New York and stop in Canada, or go one way between the two countries, but new rules could mean longer stays in Maine and simply forget about Canada.

In my opinion, this is one law that should disappear. For one thing, the U.S. shipbuilding industry has largely vanished. Furthermore, most of the less popular cruise ship jobs aren't exactly the average American worker's cup of tea. These menial jobs are heavily tip-dependent, and require long hours with little free time plus onboard commitments for months at a time. Worst of all, each job demands endless butt kissing. In an egalitarian society like America, I just can't see American workers having the necessary mindset for this job. So I can't imagine why American labor unions would object to relaxed labor standards either.

There would be some real benefits for the American cruise passengers. It would mean more short cruises within the U.S. on large ships which could be an economic stimulus. Certainly the combination of "something new" and no need for a passport would be appealing to regular and first-time cruisers alike.

I suppose the reason the Jones Act doesn't get repealed is that today's cruise lines don't actually mind it that much. Cruise lines can hide behind foreign registry as an excuse to take advantage of workers regarding minimum wage and overtime issues.

As it stands today, if an American cruise passenger wants to go to Hawaii, their cruise choices are limited to goofy situations like this Ensenada fiasco. If the passengers complain about the uncomfortable bus ride to Ensenada, the cruise line can blame it all on the stupid American "Jones Act".

One more thing… a cruise trip to Alaska is a completely different story. While it is subject to the same absurd situation as Hawaii, Vancouver-Canada is about a million times more pleasant to visit than Ensenada. More about this shortly.

 

THE BAD DAY GETS EVEN BADDER

Getting back to our Miserable Day, Marla and I finished our check-in and now waited nearly an hour to get on a bus. It bugged us to know had we come earlier, we would have hopped on a bus immediately.

The odd thing is that I had absolutely no idea what a mess this was going to be. I had looked on a map. It was only 70 miles between the two cities. However we made terrible time. I had forgotten about Mexico's "drug problem". We had to stop at the Border and one checkpoint after another. I saw Mexican military men carrying massive weapons longer than their own height.

But the biggest insult of all was being forced to sit on the bus for an entire hour AFTER we reached Ensenada.

We just sat there. Nothing was ever explained to us. Not one Celebrity representative ever bothered to board our bus to explain the delay. I had no idea what the problem was; I still don't. Every single person on that bus had already shown their passports earlier in the day. We all had our Celebrity "sea passes" proclaiming our legal status. So the reason for the delay went totally over my head.

As I learned later, the Mexicans had only brought two X-ray machines to scan our carry-on luggage, creating a huge bottleneck.  Why this was even necessary was beyond me.  We had already had our carry-on luggage scanned back in San Diego!

Meanwhile during the long unexplained wait, people increasingly had to go to the restroom. This was a serious dilemma since the restroom at the back of the bus had developed a serious "port o potty" odor. Most of the women would walk up, be assaulted by the smell, then think twice and return to their seats. I know of one woman in particular who chose to suffer rather than enter that vile cabinet.

Guess who was sitting at the back of the bus and suffering the most? Yeah, me. What was I doing back there?

My problem started way back on the Oslo 2010 cruise. Everyone on the trip wanted to dance, but the crew handed me a boom box that was so inferior it had no volume and skipped to boot. We couldn't dance the entire trip.

The disappointment at not being able to dance as promised was obvious. I vowed never to depend on a cruise line instead.

Hence every trip since I carry heavy music equipment (amplifiers, speakers, computers, backup sound system, wires) back and forth back and forth. For example, on this trip my carry-on duffel bag weighed 75 pounds.

Is this really necessary? Probably not. After all, these days all I have to do is hook up my music computer to a small plug and use the ship's sound system. How hard is that?  Except that Celebrity demanded $100 every time we hooked up to their equipment.  I fumed.  Mariner 2013 had allowed us to do this for free.  I wasn't going to allow them to extort us for something so painfully effortless to do on their part. 

It wasn't till right before the trip started that they dropped their demand, but now I didn't trust them anymore. So thanks to Celebrity's lousy attitude, I lugged this enormous weight from Houston to San Diego as a precaution.  Fortunately I didn't have to pay extra.  I was able to pretend the bag was a simple carry-on.

Now that I was on the bus, where was I supposed to put this unwieldy duffel bag? Certainly I couldn't check it. I had an expensive amplifier ruined on the Dominica 2012 cruise trip. Someone broke it by being too rough. I am reluctant to let anyone touch the bag but myself.

So I headed to the back of the bus where I could use the entire back seat. Bad move. I nearly died of noxious fumes during the bus ordeal. Death by overpowering stench.

My only salvation came from two Scottish ladies sitting in front of me. Every time the door opened, they would quickly get out their expensive little perfume bottles and spray the air. I owe them my life.

Marla, of course, was too smart to sit next to me. She sat up at the front enjoying the charming company of a delightful unattended Scottish husband instead. I fumed as I watched her laugh at one witticism after another while I nearly choked to death. I was so mad at the unfairness of it all I wanted to get some Scotch tape and put it over his big mouth.

So we reach Ensenada and we just sit there. 15 minutes. 30 minutes. 45 minutes. An hour.

Once we were finally allowed off the bus, we walked directly to the ship and stuck our sea pass into the machine. This stage took all of five minutes. Why couldn't we have done that when the bus stopped in the first place? I can only assume the Mexican government was responsible for this delay.

It was now 4 pm. We had left the Sheraton at 11:30 am. This ordeal had taken four long hours. Between the time waiting for the bus, the two hour ride down to Ensenada, and sitting on the bus for another hour, we were completely exhausted. But the hour wait on the bus was the worst.

The sad thing is that Mexico will ultimately be the one to suffer. All this red tape has backfired. I heard that Celebrity is fed up with Ensenada. Next year they plan to switch their entire operation to Vancouver, Canada, instead (which is clearly a very smart move). At that point, this expensive Mexican cruise ship pier will stay empty and bring no more money to this impoverished town at all.

Well, tough, it's their own fault.  Should have brought more X-ray machines.

 

MORE CELEBRITY HOSTILITY

Before we got on the ship in Ensenada, we walked through an extensive gift shop, the kind that sells you every possible item you could ever want or need on the long trip ahead. I noticed a wine shop and wanted to stop. We were allowed to carry on two bottles of wine. Marla said better to unload the equipment and come back. I disagreed, but was too weakened by fumes to put up much of an argument.
 
So I get in front of the camera for my "sea pass" picture. I am not a happy camper. Let's get this over with. They order me to take off my glasses which irritates me further. I didn't like the tone of their voices, but comply with a frown. Click. Good, it's over. I walk away but they order me to come back.

Apparently I had blinked. I protest. So what? Is some terrorist going to fake being me by closing their eyes? I was exhausted, so I kept walking.

Now seven security personnel step in to block me. Their expressions make it clear I was going to have my picture re-taken or I can hitch a ride back to San Diego. So be it.

In retrospect, all they had to do was be patient with me and they would have gotten my cooperation. It was the way the photographer demanded I return for a second picture that got under my skin.

These security people weren't the ones who had to endure a grueling day-long bus ride, so why did they need to be so harsh? This isn't the military; do you really have to bark at me over a simple mistake? A soft word would have worked wonders. Something along the lines of "please, can we do one more?", for example, not "get back here and do it again!"

After this unpleasant confrontation, Marla and I head to the cabin. As we await the elevator, I notice I am not the only passenger who isn't smiling. The mumbling and complaining says it all. We are all completely beaten down by this ordeal.

After Marla and I put our luggage down, I turn around and head back out for my two bottles of wine. I have never needed a glass of wine more in my life. Now I encounter more problems. The security people stop me again.  I am not allowed to leave the ship until after the mandatory muster drill scheduled an hour from now.  Mind you, the shop was 200 yards away. I had a valid sea pass. What difference did it make for me to get off and get back on? I would be gone for all of ten minutes. I raise this point, but no explanation is given.

I took this picture of the 14 newly-arrived buses from my cabin. 
These buses arrived after ours.  I would estimate there are
60 people or so in each bus just sitting there waiting. 

The red building on the right was the gift shop
where I wanted to go buy my two bottles of wine.

I noticed hundreds of suitcases were sitting below. 
What was this all about?  Then I had my answer. 

A drug-sniffing dog was checking out the bags on the pier

More waiting.  These people are getting in line to have
their Sea Pass picture taken. 

The long day ordeal began at 11:30.  We got to our cabin at 5 pm.

"We have our orders."

That was it. I was officially mad. The utter stupidity of this entire process left me shaking my head in disgust. Celebrity had gone out of its way to make a very grueling process far worse than it ever had to be.

Some cruise lines go out of their way to make the check-in process as gentle as possible, but Celebrity had done just the opposite.  You have my word I did not use any profanity or sarcasm.  I was exhausted from the six hour ordeal and they were insensitive.  That's the bottom line. 

As a footnote, after the muster drill, I did indeed go back to the store and buy my two bottles of wine. I gave my meanest glare to the same man who had stopped me twice.

Ironically, I never drank a single drop from either bottle the entire trip. They became a symbol of my oppression.

Every time I looked at one of those bottles, I got mad again at how I was pushed around at the entrance that first day.  

I ended up giving one bottle to the cabin attendant on the final day and the other bottle to some valet kid at the hotel in Honolulu.
 

THE CELEBRITY DINING ROOM FIASCO

Believe it or not, the story of our Very Bad Day isn't over yet.  There's more!

We had early seating for Dinner at 6 pm. After the muster drill was over, that gave us about half an hour to get ready. After purchasing my two useless bottles of wine, I dropped them off in the cabin and headed to dinner.

There were 60 of us. Our official total was 62, but two people chose to do the later seating.  The moment we entered the room, we were greeted by 8 members of our group. They were seated at the absolute worst table in the room in front right next to the Maitre d'. This meant they would be passed all night long by every single passenger eating on this side of the room. I was instantly upset. There would be no privacy for these people.

I looked at Marla to ask why these people were seated in such a crummy spot.  However, the moment I saw that Marla was ashen faced, I realized this was not her fault.  Marla was beyond horrified.  She could not believe her guests were being treated this way.  This was not where the Celebrity liaison had agreed to seat her people.  Marla immediately assured the group seated at the front door that she would look into this.

It turned out that our own table was in the same place Marla and the ship's liaison had agreed upon.  So was the table next to us. Marla and I sat down and said hi to everyone. But neither one of us could relax.  We both had a nagging feeling something was wrong.  Then it dawned on us - half our group was missing!

So we began looking around. Sure enough, we spotted our fourth table about five tables down. Then we saw two people eating at another table all by themselves.

I asked Marla why these people were alone. She replied that no one was supposed to be isolated like that. Just to make it clear, Marla handles the seating personally. This means she has handled the exact seating assignments long before the trip has even begun.  Every single table had been adjacent in the planning stage, but not now.  Marla had no idea what had gone wrong; our tables were scattered all over the room!

In 27 previous trips, not once had our group ever been separated like this.  NOT ONCE.  Historically everyone sits in adjacent tables in one specific area of the dining room. There have been some trips on the Conquest where our group was so big it stretched from one side of the room to the next.

Well, that particular streak was now officially broken. Despite her best efforts, something was very wrong tonight. Marla whispered, "I had the entire group seated in six consecutive tables 10 per table. Someone moved these people behind my back!"

Alarmed, we both got up from our table. While Marla stomped over to the Maitre d' in search of an explanation, I started to walk around the room in search of the missing people. I soon discovered a fifth table in another section of the dining room.  It was divided from sight by a wall. I was incredulous. What were they doing over here?  I apologized to this new table and said we would try to get this worked out.

I assumed I had located the final missing table, so I went back to see what Marla had learned.   Marla said she had gotten nowhere with the Maitre d'.  Maybe I should go talk to him.  I said I would, but something was still nagging at me.  I started to do the math. Then it dawned on me. There were still 10 people unaccounted for!  

There had to be another missing table somewhere.

I was already angry when I entered the room. Now I was even angrier. This was beyond acceptable. I walked up and down our "port" side of the dining room twice without spotting the missing people. Now I went to the center of the room. Nope, they weren't there either. Now I went to the "starboard" side of the dining room. Nope, not there either.

Determined to solve the mystery, I found the stairs and climbed to the level above us. No one on the starboard side. There was no center to check; a massive chandelier occupied the "center" of the floor above.  So now I headed over to the port side. No one over here either. Every seat I could see the back section was deserted, but then I noticed there was a wall.  Surely not… but I decided I better check behind the wall just in case.

To my surprise, I turned a corner and found the missing ten people. Their table was completely hidden from sight behind the wall. They were eating by themselves in a completely empty section of the upstairs Dining Room. To their credit, they all smiled when they saw me.

"Where the heck is everybody?" they asked.

Bless their hearts. They could just as easily begun to chew me out for sticking them up here by themselves and I couldn't blame them if they felt that way. I explained something had gone badly wrong and that I would try to correct the situation. I kept my temper, but I was seething inside as I apologized to these people.

Who had done this? Why had they done this? What was the point of taking Marla's careful pre-planned seating arrangement and hacking it to pieces? Even ham-handed Carnival had never done something this preposterous.

Finding these people alone turned out to be a silver lining. While I was up there, I took note of the empty room. I carefully counted chairs. Counting the ten people who were already here, this alcove had 64 seats. Hmm. We could move the entire group in here without asking any other of the ship's guests to move.  This meant no one would have to be inconvenienced and then we would have our group intact again.  

The Maitre d' was named Jesus. When I finally spoke to Jesus, he was standoffish and non-committal. He refused to say who had done this. He didn't even seem to care.

What did bother him was my request to move the entire group to the alcove in back upstairs. "This is a very special section!"  Jesus said this remote back section was reserved for drop-in guests. He added this back room played a major role in an intricate, highly calibrated overall seating plan.

OMG!  What utter horse dung. Plain and simple, that area was an unwanted, unused overflow area where they typically stuck people who changed their minds and didn't want late night dinner seating. This guy was trying to convince me how valuable those seats were when I had seen with my own eyes that those seats had all been empty thirty minutes into the Dining process.  Besides, if our group moved into this alcove, then he would have five extra tables downstairs at his disposal. 

And as for his 'highly calibrated' operation, what genius had moved us in the first place?

Jesus never once seemed to understand that it wasn't about what was convenient for him. He never once acknowledged that entire group of 60 friends had been scattered to the winds and it was his responsibility to do something to remedy the situation. That would have been the correct attitude. Instead he made it seem like a real imposition to be expected to move a group to unoccupied seats in a back room that no one cared about but him. Jesus never seemed to grasp that the come-later guests could just as easily be seated at any table we vacated to move upstairs. This man had clearly been promoted past his level of competence. He had serious trouble seeing the Big Picture.

No matter how much I implored, his best answer was 'maybe'. He said he needed time to think about it. He left it that Marla and I would need to make a special trip to meet him tomorrow in the Dining Room at 10 am. Based on my experience, I decided not to force the issue. Let him have his space.

Besides, I knew what this delay really meant.  Even though Jesus said he was in charge, Jesus wasn't in charge. He obviously had to get permission from someone else, but didn't want to admit it. In the meantime, thanks to his procrastination, our guests had no idea where they would be seated the following evening.  This meant poor Marla would spend the entire night worrying about what to do if he said 'no' the next morning.  Now that I think back, I worried all night long as well.
 

THE FINAL INSULT

When I finally got back to the table, Marla had a new surprise for me. Larry had spoken to her. (Larry was the man who had let us sit at his breakfast table that morning.)
Marla said that Larry had just told her a terrible story.

After we had left the Sheraton in the morning, the front desk had called Larry's room to ask him who we were.  Larry was told we had stiffed the hotel for the breakfast tab.

This of course was not true.  At the end of breakfast, we had simply written our room number on the check like we were supposed to.

However, since the computer had no concept who we were, the dining room people had just discovered our room number was no good. Apparently the waiter at our breakfast table remembered the four of us eating together. They called Larry's room and proceeded to give Larry the third degree regarding our identity. In fact, they were so angry about being stiffed for breakfast that they began to act like Larry was in on it. Maybe he had invited these outsiders to join him and they had played a dirty trick on the hotel.

Embarrassed and flustered, Larry offered to pay for our breakfast!!!  Even worse, the Sheraton accepted!

I looked at Marla; Marla looked at me. How absolutely embarrassing to be singled out as deadbeats by those incompetent people. And how embarrassing they laid so much guilt on our friend that he felt the need to pay for us!  

As we walked back to the cabin, we were both dejected. Could this day possibly have gone any worse than it did?

Once inside, Marla showed me her original seating chart. There it was - six adjacent tables, ten people per table. Marla could not settle down. The utter senselessness of someone ripping up her carefully designed plans ate at her for the rest of the night. She was distraught that her dining plans had been ruined and that this ignorant man would not budge on such a simple solution.

Knowing there was no guarantee that he would come to his senses the following day, Marla did not sleep a wink. What would she do if he turned her down? She worried all night long.
 
I didn't sleep well either. One time I woke up in the middle of the night. There was Marla staring blankly at the TV screen. She looked miserable.

What an awful day.
 

DAY THREE - RESOLUTION

At ten the next morning Jesus was waiting for us in the Dining Room. He didn't waste any time. Our request had been granted. Our entire group had permission to move upstairs to the alcove in the back of the dining room.

Marla and I immediately began to smile. This was a very good omen. Maybe yesterday's dark cloud had passed.

That evening we all gathered in this small room hidden at the very back of the second floor of the Dining Room.  This was by far most remote corner of the vast two-floor dining area and invisible to anyone but us.  

I was glad to see our group finally gathered together in one spot, but I was still appalled by his incompetence.  This entire area had been empty the night before except for ten members of our group who in here all by themselves.  Why was this deserted area was so "valuable" to his master plan that he was fearful to make this obvious concession?  If there was any legitimate reason Jesus had been reluctant to offer us this space, it went completely over my head.

First they screwed up Marla's entire seating arrangement.   Then they forced us to beg to have our group moved here.   Ridiculous.

   


Chapter Two - Crossing the Pacific Ocean

   
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