Monday, February 18, 2008

ETA Bluegrass Cruise - Saturday and Sunday

The Liberty of the Seas loomed over downtown Miami as we tried to reach the Port of Miami piers. We could see it, standing there against the sky, but the maze of roads leading to the ships lined up at the pier was confusing and there were people trying to get on board while all those arriving from last week’s cruises had not yet debarked. We followed the signs into the parking garage, took the ticket (maximum parking ticket for the garage = $165.00), missed the sign taking us upstairs in the garage and arrived at the checkout booth. The attendant motioned for us to make a U turn and head back against traffic. After some jockeying we found the up ramp and a space. It only took us two trips to move our gear across the street, some to a porter for delivery but our computer, camera, and (most important) instruments carried through customs, immigration, boarding security, check-in, waiting room, another check in, a delay, and with a relatively simple boarding procedure into the ship itself. The crew members told us to find something to do to entertain ourselves, as we wouldn’t be able to occupy our cabin for a couple of hours. We sat for while, found a buffet luncheon, and eventually got to our stateroom several hours before our luggage. All was well, and we were into our new home for the next week.

Our stateroom, down on the third deck, is comfortable with a pretty large window looking out on the sea. It has all the necessary comforts – queen size bed, TV, desk, comfortable though tight bathroom. We cruise the decks, trying to find our way and to do so without having to walk through clouds of cigarette smoke. Royal Caribbean says that “essentially” this ship is smoke free, while at the same time saying that smokers want to smoke. They’ve designated the port (left) side of the ship on the outside decks as smoke-free, but have also left ash trays there. They claim it’s a change of policy about which everyone isn’t quite aware. Furthermore, almost all the bars on the ship permit smoking as does the casino. Where smoking is permitted, the smoke permeates the atmosphere. There are few areas of the ship where the smell of smoke isn’t pretty pervasive. Fortunately, dining rooms and cabins are smoke free.

The ship is brilliantly designed to force passengers to walk through the major commercial portions of the ship several times a day. The merchandising is powerful with many trinkets to be bought, extra side-trips in port to be purchased, seminars and activities invite people to spend more money. We have already paid a significant premium to add the bluegrass component to our cruise, so perhaps we object more to the rest of the sales pitch than we otherwise might. Neither of us can understand why people are buying ice cream (even if it is Ben & Jerry’s) pizza, hamburgers at a premium restaurant, and so on. A dedicated eater could eat breakfast at 7:00 and return for a mid-morning snack before the dining room closed. Same for lunch. Why people would purchase snacks with so much food available they’ve already paid for mystifies us. Perhaps the most expensive “extra” is the cost of Internet access. There are several plans, but the least costly one still sets a person back $.37 a minute for 150 minutes. Nevertheless, much of what I’ve commented on is truly standard operating procedure for cruising, and if I don’t like it, I suppose I shouldn’t cruise.

At 5:00 PM the ETA Bluegrass Cruise group meets in the Sphinx Theater for our welcoming cocktail party and get together. Steve Wallach, tour director, and Tami Newton, his assistant greet us and prime us for the rest of the cruise. There’ve been some changes that are reflected in our packet. The only problem is that our packets haven’t been delivered. They eventually show up mid-afternoon on Sunday. We get our complimentary T-shirts and some hors d’oeuvres as well as drinks. Since this is a bluegrass group, most of the crowd drinks cokes. We greet our friends from Grasstowne as well as Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road, the two bands we’ve come on this cruise to spend some time with.

After the cocktail party, we head for the dining room for our first regular meal on board. We’re assigned to a table right by a big window with four other folks from the bluegrass group. They’ll be fine as table companions for the week. Getting assigned to table where you have nothing in common with the other people can lead to long and uncomfortable meals. This won’t happen here. The food, as with other cruises we’ve been on, is fairly interesting, pretty tasty, beautifully presented, and better than many cruisers have ever eaten. Service is attentive and pleasant. It astounds me how the kitchens can put out the volume of food they do for two dinner sittings a night while maintaining quality as high as they do. For sure this never happens at hotel banquets or weddings, to which these nightly feasts might be compared.

An hour or so after dinner we head for the Conference Rooms, which have been set aside for jamming. I bring my banjo and join a man with a guitar who I quickly realize is much better than I. After a few minutes another guitar, a banjo, a Dobro, and a bass appear and we have a band. I’m easily the least able picker in the bunch, so I refuse breaks and don’t call songs, but have a good time vamping while the others carry the heavy lifting. I stay for perhaps an hour. The music is good, too fast for me, and fun. I’m sure I’ll get in some more and Irene might even bring out her mandolin. We head for bed shortly after ten after a busy first day.

Sunday began for us as it usually does, around 4:30 AM. Fortunately, there’s a 24 hour coffee pot two decks above us, so coffee and morning reading got us through until breakfast in the Windjammer cafĂ© on deck eleven. There’re lots of choices from bagels to eggs, waffles, pastries, breakfast meat, as well as cooked to order eggs and omelets. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast while we watched a low set of islands, maybe the Bahamas slide past about four or five miles west of us.

Alan Bibey at Workshop

Lorraine Jordan teaching at Workshop
Fiddle Workshop

At 10:00 o’clock the bluegrass portion of the cruise really began. A series of one hour instrument specific workshops were scheduled with band members in the conference room area. Teaching and providing workshops requires very different skills from performing, and some musicians are better at it than others. Nevertheless, for people interested in particular instruments, the individual workshops were quite satisfying. Steve Gulley of Grasstowne, Dave Denman of the Mark Newton Band, and Skip Cherryholmes presented a guitar workshop. Steve, who is also an accomplished songwriter, sang one of his songs, as did Dave. There was excellent attendance. Because Irene plays mandolin, we were both particularly interested in that one, presided over by Alan Bibey (Grasstowne), Lorraine Jordan (Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road) and Sandy Leigh Cherryholmes. Lorraine showed strong teaching skills as she answered questions, demonstrated skills, and provided some practice for workshoppers. There was plenty of teaching. Lorraine was particularly impressive as a teacher when she summarized the content of the workshop at the end. The banjo workshop contrasted strongly with the mandolin group, but was equally as interesting. Four banjo players from four different bands played the same tune in their own quite different styles. Ben Greene (Carolina Road), Jason Davis (Grasstowne), Cia Cherryholmes (The Cherryholmes) and Tony Wray (Mark Newton Band) differ in age and approach to picking the banjo. This approach helped illuminate the great range and subtlety of this sublime instrument. In the Dobro workshop Phil Leadbetter (Grasstowne), well know as one of the very top players of this interesting and fairly recently invented instrument, and Tim Graves (Tim Graves and Cherokee) the nephew of fabled Dobro player Josh Graves answered questions about the instrument and demonstrated thoughtfully the differences between their styles., The bass workshop included Todd Meade (Carolina Road), Jayme Booher (Grasstowne) and Beth Lawrence (Mark Newton Band) talking about playing this important instrument, which in bluegrass substitutes for drums in other bands by playing the solid rhythm line needed to provide structure and form to the music. Finally, at the fiddle workshop, Josh Goforth (Carolina Road), Molly Kate Cherryholmes, and B.J. Cherryholmes (both of The Cherryholmes) jammed on fiddle tunes. It was impossible to attend all six workshops, but together they constituted a master class in bluegrass music.

Cia Cherryholmes waiting for Workshop

Tim Graves and Phil Leadbetter teach Workshop

Meanwhile, the ship kept plunging through increasingly rocky seas toward its first stop in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Moving forward at 22 knots (a knot is a nautical mile or 1.15 statute miles) into a breeze sometimes reaching 25 miles per hour. The effective wind on deck approached 50 miles per hour, which seemed to dampen no one’s enthusiasm for sunning and playing on deck. I’ll write more about these activities with pictures on Wednesday.

Jere Cherryholmes at Captain's Gala

Sunday dinner featured the Captain’s gala, one of the three formal dinners of the cruise. According to the written material provided by Royal Caribbean, “formal” means tuxedo for men and cocktail dresses for women. This practice hearkens back to the glory days of transatlantic passenger ships when the folks who could afford such luxuries commonly wore such dress to dinner. These days the demographic of cruising people has changed as have the times, making the word “formal” a somewhat daunting challenge to many cruisers. In the end, some people appeared in full formal attire, while everyone choosing to attend the gala dressed above and beyond the normal for cruise attire. Most men wore ties; all had jackets and most ties while women looked attractive and showy. The food for the dinner was a cut above its usual high quality.

Steve Wallach: Host and Emcee

The bluegrass crowd reassembled in the Sphinx Lounge for the first bluegrass show of the week. There are about 270 people on the bluegrass cruise most had time to change back into more comfortable clothing in keeping with the usually informal dress of a bluegrass festival, which after all, this looks very much like, even if it’s taking place at sea. Promoter Steve Wallach served as emcee, combining his usual combination of corny stories, long experience running this cruise, and familiarity with many of the people who have taken this cruise a number of times kept the proceedings moving forward in good humor. Tonight three bands performed. Tim Graves and Cherokee opened, followed by Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road with Grasstowne closing the evening as midnight approached. The response, even from this rather stuffed and tired crowd, was enthusiastic, too say the least. The performers, struggling with a sound system not designed for the demands of the acoustic instruments of a bluegrass band, acquitted themselves very well, and the music was of a very high quality, even though it was sometimes difficult for the musicians to keep their feet as the ship’s rolling increased into the evening. Many of the people on the cruise chose to come because they are friends or fans of particular band. One large component of the cruise is quite loyal to Lorraine Jordan and shows it. I’ll have much more to say about the individual bands as the week goes on. Suffice it to say that despite a few minor problems, the cruise is off to a roaring start and will certainly end much too soon.

Steve Gulley (Grasstowne)

Phil Leadbetter (Grasstowne)

Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road

Lorraine Jordan, Benny Greene, Jerry Butler (Carolina Road)

Lorraine's Daugher Susanna