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Quick cruise to Key West and Nassau

My final trip for 2022 was a quickie cruise aboard the RCL Brilliance of the Seas out of Tampa for a 4-night trip (15-19 December 2022) to Key West and Nassau. What triggered me to book was that I could visit the cathedrals in Nassau, plus I hadn’t been back to Key West in nearly 40 years.

After dawdling Thursday morning so I didn’t arrive too soon, I filled the tank with petrol, collected my sports jacket from the dry cleaner and hit the bank for cash before I left Venice and drove in rain to the port in Tampa. By the time I had parked in the structure across from the pier, the weather was down to a slow drizzle, so I rolled a small stuffed suitcase across a parking lot to the departure point. No real lines, no real queues. The boarding process really went well – my only pauses were to get a photo and register my presence.

Cabin 4583 was at the head of a hallway through a door from the stairs and central lounge, just off the Customer Service counters. Compact, I had a single bed pushed into the corner walls, a decent size bath and shower stall, enough space to unpack 3-4 days changes of clothing. Once I was settled, I grabbed my camera and climbed to the top deck. Gray skies and rain-wet deck meant few fellow passengers wandering to view the harbor and port. Into the buffet (Windjammer,) I found a goodly number, filling plates and admiring the holiday-themed gingerbread houses. I filled a small plate with two prepared salads and had a glass of water.

Observing that those boarding looked mixed, with all age groups represented, I learned that we would sail with about 2100 passengers, with a capacity of about 2500. Looking out through openings on the various levels as I descended the stairs and took pictures of the atrium, I noted that my dining options would probably be the two halls on the fourth and third decks, or the seven restaurant-bars for an upcharge. The Park West art gallery staff were mostly South African, were congenial and had some interesting pieces on display. Dropping my camera in the cabin, I met Gino, my steward. A “Meet the Ship” talk provided some interesting statistics, and then I left to join the Solo/Single traveler group. Scheduled for half past four, the gathering was set for Deck 12, but was rained out, and seemed to be shifted back in the Colony, which I had just left on 5. No one appeared to be “gathering”, but when a solo woman came in looking around, I approached and asked if she was looking for the group. She was, and we sat and talked for a bit; her name is Melissa, she’s from Boston and a non-drinker.

Once we split, I continued to roam, visiting the pre-auction for a glass of bubbly. I got 18 of 20 correct in their scavenger hunt; and saw two artist’s pieces whose work I liked. Heading to dining room for the late dinner dining, I was seated with 3 other couples at a table for 10, with Johnson (Mumbai) and Charles (Zimbabwe) as our waiters.

From Alabama, Crystal and her husband were quiet (I found out she was diabetic, and couldn’t deal with the pauses between courses) and didn’t join us the other nights. Hannah and Caden are from Utah on their first cruise; they joined us once more, but were anxious to experience as much as possible, and became buffet diners. The couple from Michigan, Heather and Noah were stalwarts, having cruised a lot, including a transpacific, and were entertaining and interesting.

Wednesday evening dinner consisted of Maryland crab cake, prime rib, the artisan cheese plate, hazelnut chocolate cake, key lime pie and pistachio ice cream. The starter and main were great, desserts off the menu good. The ice cream, a special request, was bland, nothing like the pistachio ice cream I’d had for the transatlantic crossing. After the pairs all left, I was still enjoying my meal (the cheese plate, with 2 of 5 offerings being tasty, had slowed my finish) and I wound up speaking with Johnson. He is named for his grandfather, who was a son of John, hence the unusual first name, particularly for an Indian. I asked if he would be getting off in Key West, and if he needed anything from port. He admitted he had never been to Key West, and wanted a magnet for his 6-year-old daughter, and a t-shirt for his father. He was unsure if he’d be allowed off. I left with a mission.

In the theater, a juggler-acrobat-comedian repeated his earlier show. Back in my cabin, I checked with Gino if he needed anything from the port, with him demurring. I had put my phone on airplane mode about the time we slipped under the Skyway, plugging it in to charge and got organized for Thursday. I read a bit before turning off the lights. The smaller mattress was firm, and I banged up against the wall a few times. I had set the room temperature to warm, and kicked off the duvet. At one point, I nearly rolled off the bed. So not the best of nights.

Day 1- Key West

Waking at 8:30 and getting into the dining room 30 minutes later, Jane and Jefferson brought me an omelet with salmon, onions, tomato and cheese, a small portion of corned beef hash and two strips of crispy bacon, along with coffee and OJ-cranberry juice. The brunch menu didn’t have oatmeal, which I would have preferred, but the dining room is closed for port days, and I wasn’t about to send my waiters up to the buffet for my porridge. After eating, I went up to the top levels and observed passengers gathering below for excursions, and, from the port side, the small strip islands out in the Florida Strait.

Leaving the ship, after walking the long pier to land, I strolled to the south along the marina walk, only to find it a dead end. Reversing, I headed inland, and then south, with my objective the Fort Zachary Taylor State Park. Constructed around the time of the eponymous president’s death in office, the fort remained in Union control during the American Civil War. Heritage Landmark posting related some of its history, and I caught the tale end of a guided tour on one of the battements. Originally it was oceanfront, but what might be called reverse erosion filled in around the walls. Now a moat provides a feel for being on the water. I spent about an hour in the State Park, viewing the walls, cannons, beach. Out one opening (for the cannons) there was a large orange iguana, its bright orange and black tail dangling over the mangrove once it faced up the branch.

An enactment, apparently a monthly feature, would bring folk to camp on the grounds on the coming weekend, and I wound up talking with a volunteer, a retired nurse, who would be stationed in the mock hospital. She was down early from her home in Pensacola, as the holiday event would be larger than usual. A bigger gathering happens in March, I think she said. We talked in the “chow hall”, where a Christmas tree stood in the middle of the room.

Leaving the fort, I walked around outside, along the mangroves that border the moat. Leaving by a different path, I passed locals’ cars as family went to the beach and surfers peeled off wetsuits. My next objective was the Hemingway House. Google Maps took me on a zigzag stepping route, past numerous B&Bs and inns. Christmas decorations adorned several, with a few going over the top.

Once I paid my admission fee, I learned I had about 15 minutes before the next guided tour. Wandering the property, I sought out any of the 50-odd cats on the grounds, particularly those with 6-toes. As I wandered the outside of the two-story house, I passed the cat cemetery, the pool, the bookstore below the writing studio. Inside I spotted the portraits of Hemingway, the model of his fishing boat, the upstairs bedrooms, the view of the lighthouse from the outside walkway off the bedrooms. After the tour ended at the bookstore, I climbed the outside staircase to see where the master wrote.

[All the cats on the property are descendants of Snow White, the original polydactyl family cat. Nowadays, population control is done by neutering the female cats after their first (and only) litter; only 2 males are allowed. They are apparently very territorial, keeping any foreign cat visitors away. And most have their own space around the house and property.]

Back on the street, I observed that US Highway One was split on either side of the block. South led to the “southernmost house”, while northbound would run to Fort Kent on the Maine-Quebec border.

Around the corner was the lighthouse, with 188 steps to reach the observation deck. From the top I saw the Brilliance, the only ship in the port that day, the coral-colored southernmost house, numerous church spires. After my climb and descent, I went into the lighthouse keepers’ house – two family were necessary to maintain its operation. Two large examples of the heavy glass lenses used to amplify the light rays were part of the museum.

When I last visited Key West, I had been tempted to purchase a timeshare to be built at Zero Duval. I had backed out, and over the years wondered if it had ever been built. So I walked to Duval Street and then, as it was the major tourist street, followed it back to the port and observed landmarks like Sloppy Joe’s Bar, as well as art galleries, clothing stores, t-shirt emporiums. At the latter, I found a magnet and t-shirt for Johnson, and a few hat pins for my collection. At the end, a resort-style inn proved to be Zero Duval. Nice, but since it took me nearly 40 years to return, it would have been a poor investment.

Because I was avoiding having a drink until I was within site of the ship, I skipped Hemingway’s various waterholes, opting to get two draft beers (IPA and a “blue Moon” knockoff that was tangerine flavored) on the waterfront. Heading back to the ship to see if the solo/singles group would form up at 4:30, again no joy, but I did wind up sitting with a group of 4 “boys” and 2 “girls” from Clearwater/St Pete. We hung out until 7, watching as the ship got underway, clearing the port. Hungry, as no food for the day since breakfast, I stopped in Windjammer, the buffet, for a salad. Seated with a couple (available tables at a premium), we chatted about Nassau: they were unaware of the two breweries and two cathedrals there that were on my agenda for Saturday’s docking.

Two couples with me at dinner. We discussed the variable weather we’d experienced, comparing where we’d been when the several showers broke loose and doused us all. Starting with beef carpaccio, crispy buttermilk calamari, my appetizers continued with pumpkin soup and an iceberg wedge. Unusual for me, I had beef again, the roasted beef tenderloin being exceptional, and I asked for an extra portion of asparagus. Two desserts: carrot cake (the recommendation) and Grand Marnier souffle. I much preferred the latter.

Back to the room about 10pm, I was tired from all the time I’d spent on my feet, so turned in.

Day 2 - Nassau

Breakfast in Windjammer, so I could have oatmeal, which was unfortunately cool. A banana and juice got me started for the day. I left the ship at 9:45 to discover there were 6 cruise ships in port! Poor crowd management had the flow going through two narrow bottlenecks, with locals attempting to stop and market taxis, tours, trinkets to the mixed crowd. A tug moored at the pier, named Kenneth C, caught my eye and got a smile.

Prior to the trip I’d emailed both cathedral offices to learn if the buildings would be open Saturday and accessible for photography. The Anglican office replied that it was open, but booked for a wedding and that I wouldn’t be able to enter; no reply from the Roman Catholics.

Christ Church Cathedral, Nassau

Arriving at Christ Church Cathedral on George Street, a priest was standing on the patio entrance above the street level, and responded to my “Good morning” greeting. He welcomed me into the church, allowing me to take pictures as the baptism which was first on the schedule wouldn’t start for at least an hour. From the outside, the building was blocky, gray, weatherworn with a square bell- and clocktower rising over the central doorway. Inside, the large stained-glass window behind the altar reflected on the marble central aisle. Clear pedestals supported silver vases filled with balls of red silk flowers.

Two decorated Christmas trees bracket the altar table, the one on the left beside the cathedra. White walls and columns contrasted with the dark wood of the pews and flat vault. The nave windows were mostly translucent, with medallions of stained-glass depicting events from Christ’s life. The rear balcony hosted the visible organ pipes, while a small console with pipes stood to the side of the sanctuary.

Exiting, I stayed to get a few more photos of the exterior, noting that there were three parallel peaks to the roof over the nave. I always wonder how rain will drain with that configuration.

My walk to the other cathedral took me on Hill Street through Heritage Village, with open red umbrellas hanging suspended above the street. The art museum is behind a tall stone wall on the south side of W Hill Street, and had an intriguing iron gate. T-ing into West Street, I walked around the former church building that faces West Street to get to the cathedral proper.

St Francis Xavier Cathedral, Nassau

St Francis Xavier Cathedral is an octagonal building, coral in color, oriented with the altar at the northwest end. This part of the building is above a parking area, as the entrance is on the higher portion of a hill. Unfortunately, the building was locked, the custodian cleaning the altar unaware of my attempts to try every door. I was able to get a few shots of the interior through windows in the doors, but I was frustrated that there weren’t options to enter. As I walked the perimeter, I got shots, avoiding water spots on the camera lens.

That was all the obsession was going to get. I at least was able to get into one, which I hadn’t expected to visit. Heading back down the hill towards the port, my next objective was Pirate Republic Brewery. Located in the tourist district, and given the showers that drove visitors into dry spaces, I was lucky to find a seat at the bar. The brewery had just opened in the space, and had nothing on tap. So I had an IPA from a can, chatted with the two women sitting beside me, and left. A mile to the east, well outside the immediate port environs, Rip Ty’d Bahamian Craft Beer was quite the hike in the inclement weather. At one point, a block away, the skies opened up, and I stood on a sheltered corner with another fellow who was also heading to the brewery.

When we walked in, the AC was on overdrive, and we were both soaked to the skin. I pulled off my shirt to allow it to start drying. The owner/brewmaster was behind the half-skiff counter, and tanks were visible through the glass wall. Six beers were on tap, and she offered samplers. I found most of the ales had a metallic (aluminum?) aftertaste, and asked if it might be the water or the solvents used to clean the tanks. Nonetheless, I got a pint of the Hazy IPA as the women from Pirate Republic walked in.

Leaving, I headed back down Dowdeswell Street towards the pier. Flashing my ship card and passport, I cleared security and the crowd slowly thinned as the two Carnival ships’ passengers headed to their ships, and then the Disney and first RCL ship’s voyagers. Brilliance and an even larger RCL ship were on the outer pier. After ridding myself of my wet clothing, I headed up to Sky Bar, hoping for a solo/single gathering, but the bar was closed. I had a chair under an overhang, so spent an hour on my phone clearing emails, watching the shenanigans in the pool below.

Heading inside and down, I stopped by the gallery to see the artworks of the featured artist Kre8, which don’t appeal to me. Back to the cabin, I took a nap and then read until it was time for dinner. It was just Noah and Heather, and the promised lamb chops were the recommended main.

Asian tacos (messy, too much bread) and salmon tartare (strange taste) to start. Two mains: in addition to the grilled lamb chops, I had the garlic tiger shrimp. I carried in a glass with a double pour of the Emmolo merlot from the wine bar. At the recommendation of my dinner partners, I had the apple blossom a la mode, which was good; I also asked for the cherries jubilee, which was soupier than I remember having 50+ years ago at Top of the Sixes, and no flambee!

Day 3-At Sea

Requesting Johnson as my waiter, I was seated and Jane (from day 1) was waiting on the table as well. The oatmeal was hot, with a banana, raisins, almonds and brown sugar. Leaving the dining room, I climbed a few levels and found a chair overlooking the atrium and proceeded to read until near midday. The sole auction on this cruise was scheduled for noon, precluding getting sit-down lunch. Arriving 15 minutes early to register, the queue moved at a crawl. Once I received a paddle, there was another queue awaiting entry. Apparently, the high rollers had preview time. Once the barrier was dropped, the attendees were directed to sit and then a video rolled. Once the seven-and-a-half-minutes video finished, we were given 15 minutes to look at the art to be auctioned. When we were called back to our seats, one waiter began doling out the promised bubbly. No refills, and no effort to collect and remove the empty flutes.

[My bachelor degree is Industrial (efficiency) Engineering, and I earned an MBA in Finance and Marketing. I’ve worked retail at several points in my life. So I was shocked at how poorly the event was staged, with so little attention to the potential lower-dollar buyers.]

As on my transatlantic crossing, this auctioneer Monae used the term “bucks” repeatedly to label dollar amounts. This irritated me. A multiple piece collection was promoted, at $9000, which included a few acceptable paintings, but they didn’t make it attractive to pursue. There was a sole work I had a smidgen of interest in, which turned out to be the last piece put on an easel, and by then I was just looking to leave. Seated dining for lunch had ended, so I went up to Windjammer to grab some food.

Back to the atrium to read, I returned to my cabin to change for dinner. I stopped at the bar for a double Glenlivet and then kept my appointment with Park West. That took a few minutes, as there was no interest on my part, and their feedback interview raised the eyebrows of the associate. The revue show, awkwardly scheduled for 7:15 and 9:15 had my curiosity, and I found a seat at the early show near an exit, so I could leave in time for dinner. Not on a par with any of the shows I’d seen on my 4 cruises this year, I was glad I had an excuse to leave.

At dinner I started with the beet and orange salad, with the crispy coconut shrimp, to start. The braised lamb shank was delicious – tender and moist, falling off the bone. For dessert the profiteroles and chocolate brownie. Noah and Hannah both wished me well, as I did them. They were off to north of Tampa for the pre-Christmas week before returning to Detroit.

Heading back to the cabin, I pulled together the still-clean clothing, the soiled laundry, and my other gear, getting it all into my small roller. Wanting to have breakfast in the morning, I set the phone alarm to 7am and went to sleep. [Nico finally was leaving the duvet off the bed.]

Day 4- Departure

Up ahead of the alarm, I showered and had the bag waiting for the toothbrush. Off to breakfast, where the staff were combining folks at tables. With 4 couples at a table for 10, conversation was strained due to distance. I got my oatmeal, and then headed back to clean my teeth and finish packing. Out before the required 8am, I was soon rolling onto the pier and across to the parking lot. Gray skies for a typical December morning. Using the phone for directions, I wound up driving Route 41, the Tamiami Trail, south rather than the interstate, which apparently had backup issues. Joining I-75 north of the Manatee River, I exited at Bee Ridge and drove to Trader Joes. Three bags of staples in hand, I took the Tamiami Trail south to Venice and stopped at the chiropractor for an adjustment. I was home before noon.

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