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Sir Harry and the Caribbean Cruise

By Hal Higdon

"Thank you, Sir Harry," said the waitress, returning my Costa card. "Enjoy your cruise." Although I have used the name Hal most of my life, my birth name and name on my passport is Harry J. Higdon, Jr. I switched from Harry to Hal in sixth grade to differentiate myself from my father, but in this era of heightened security, I have been forced into using my earlier name on important documents. That included the plastic Costa card used in place of money for everything on our cruise ship. I still don't like being called Harry, but "Sir Harry," as said by the waitress? I could live with that.

Costa is the name of an Italian ship line. I recently cruised the Caribbean on the Costa Mediterranea with my wife Rose, our first cruise if you don't count an overnight boat ride to Nassau for our honeymoon. Cruising had never appealed to us, because cruises had seemed so, well, fattening. Didn't cruises consist mostly of eating, drinking, eating, gambling, eating, fancy shows, eating, shopping and more eating? Or so we thought.

Still, every year Rose and I would say to each other, "We really ought to do a cruise some day." Was that a sign of aging? Unfortunately, that "some day" never came.

Until this winter.

The Tom Milo Big BandThen at a Christmas party given by our neighbors in Long Beach, Indiana, we chatted with John and Madeleine Hayes. They told us about a cruise to the Caribbean featuring the Tom Milo Big Band. We long had enjoyed the music of that 18-piece orchestra, a semipro group from Northwest Indiana that specializes in music by Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and other Big Band greats.

"It's a week-long cruise with stops in San Juan, St. Thomas, Santa Domingo and Nassau," John explained. "Milo plays dance music nightly for our group and also does a concert for the entire ship."

I remembered the music I had danced to while young. In eighth grade, I had rushed home from Friday-night Boy Scout meetings so I could hear wartime broadcasts from England featuring the Glenn Miller Orchestra. When the Benny Goodman Sextet played at the Blue Note in Chicago, I had my picture taken with the King of Swing. But my most memorable Big Band memory involved In My Solitude, the Duke Ellington melody that had ended every Saturday-night dance at Carleton College, my alma mater. Alas, by the time Rose and I began dating, Elvis was King. Rock 'n' Roll had begun to replace Big Band sounds on the radio, but we still loved the old tunes. We signed up for the cruise immediately. Sir Harry was heading to the Caribbean.

Calorie Control

Rose and I now spend winters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, so early on a Sunday in January, we drove south to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, about a five-hour trip. Living in that community now were former Long Beachers, Dennis and Joanne Leahy. Dennis currently works as Quality Director for American Airlines' Miami expansion program. Joanne manages community relations for a branch of the University of Miami.
Elegant dining

Elegant diningWhen she learned of our plans, Joanne invited us to stop for brunch before sailing. Thinking ahead to all the food we would encounter on the cruise, I warned Joanne: "Don't you dare offer us more than 500 calories!"

Joanne ignored my request, and we spent an enjoyable several hours chatting with the Leahys and their daughter Moira, who was visiting. Rose had taught Mo in sixth grade at Long Beach School. Later as a senior in high school, when Mo had an opportunity to invite her favorite teacher to an awards luncheon, she reached back to our grade school days and chose Rose.

We left our car in the Leahy driveway, avoiding a $12 a day parking fee at the port. Dennis drove us to the ship and promised to pick us up when we returned in a week. The process of checking our bags and showing passports and tickets took only a few minutes. On board, we stopped by the information desk for the Tom Milo Band Tour.

I spoke with Fran Milo, singer and wife of band leader and drummer Tom Milo. I asked her if the band had In My Solitude in its repertoire. "I'll talk to Tom," Fran replied.

Though the tour was being organized by Wal-Mart Vacations, the Costa Mediterranea proved to be anything but Wal-Mart in its décor. The ten-deck ship glittered with glass and marble and stainless steel. Fine art hung from the walls in corridors with deeply cushioned carpets. A midship atrium rose from the second to the tenth deck. To get to our room on an upper deck, we wound our way past slot machines and roulette tables. Lounges abounded everywhere where you could order a drink (using your Costa card) and listen to music. Three banks of elevators provided vertical transport for the thousand or more passengers on board. When we reached the deck for our cabin, an electronic voice in the elevator announced in Italian, "Ponte Sette. Deck Seven." In addition to couch and king-size bed, our room featured not merely a porthole, but a full glass wall and verandah overlooking the ocean. The Costa Mediterranea functioned like a Las Vegas hotel afloat, more than suitable lodging for Sir Harry and Dame Rose on their first cruise of the Caribbean.

Mustering in Life Preservers

At 4:00 just before departing, we mustered for an obligatory drill showing us how to board lifeboats in an emergency. "They'll be showing the movie Titanic in the ship's theater this evening," I quipped to Rose just before a photographer snapped our picture wearing orange life preservers. It seemed that everywhere we went, a photographer wanted to take our picture and collect $19.95, payable by Costa card, of course.
Rose relaxes on her verandah

Rose relaxes on her verandaThose on the Tom Milo Big Band Tour gathered later in the theater to meet the band. Tom Milo confessed that the band did not have In My Solitude in its repertoire. Given the number of passengers aboard, the title hardly seemed appropriate anyway.

Rose and I moved to the top deck as the ship sailed onto the ocean at sunset. Other cruise ships, before and aft, similarly emerged from the port steaming toward Caribbean destinations. By then, it was time for the first seating of dinner. We had arranged to sit with John and Madeleine Hayes, and other friends from our home in Northwestern Indiana.

Once out of the harbor, the ship began to roll in waves created by the tail end of storms that had brought mudslides to California and deep snow to Long Island. Our gourmet five-course meal was punctuated by the noise of dishes clattering to the deck. Green-faced passengers passed, heading toward their staterooms. "Switch in the movie schedule," I told Rose. "We'll be seeing The Perfect Storm." We learned later from a couple that had been on two dozen cruises, that this was the roughest weather they ever had encountered.

Although heavy waves rocked us to sleep, the seas grew progressively calmer as we sailed south. We spent all day at sea Monday, relaxing and reading. I got a truly great haircut from an Italian stylist. We walked the upper deck, each lap a third of a mile, I estimated. We cased the half dozen buffet tables topside near the pools. We established a calorie-burning strategy of using stairways instead of elevators. Unlike the concrete stairways found in most skyscrapers, the Mediterranea's stairways featured carpeted steps and mirrored walls. We burned additional calories dancing to the music of the Tom Milo Big Band later that evening. Still no In My Solitude, but they played a snappy arrangement of another Ellington favorite, Satin Doll.

We landed in Puerto Rico Tuesday afternoon and wandered through Old San Juan. A nighttime kayak tour that interested us had been canceled, so we signed up for a tour promising Latin music. The strongly strummed music of guitar player Juan Carlos enraptured us, but every second number he yielded front stage to a half dozen thong-clad dancers wiggling their tushes. "As much as I love--uhhh--dancing," I told Rose. "I like Flamenco guitar even better."
Classmates Cliff and Sir Harry

Classmates Cliff and Sir HarryWe sailed overnight to Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands, but took a ferry immediately after landing Wednesday morning to nearby St. John. Waiting for us at the dock was Cliff Stiles and his wife Carol. Cliff is a retired physician from Foley, Minnesota, a classmate of mine from Carleton College. President of the Young Republicans Club, he helped organize a campaign stop by Dwight Eisenhower our senior year. I carefully refrained from discussing politics with him.

Cliff and I climbed into the back of a 4x4 truck, Carol driving with Rose beside her as we roller-coastered along the island's steep and narrow roads, stopping occasionally for panoramic views of blue water. At one jewelry shop, Carol asked the owner about a specific type of necklace. "I'll make you one for next season," the owner promised. Rose bought earrings for herself and for a friend.

The Stiles occupy a cottage clinging to a hillside, high over a bay and beach, where Cliff can nude sunbathe without being disturbed. Rose and I chose to wear swimsuits for our romp in the surf. Carol made sandwiches for lunch. "No more than 500 calories," I warned her. Like Joanne Leahy, she failed to meet that limit.

Strip Show

Thursday, our ship moored near Catalina, an island off the Dominican Republic. Tenders took passengers ashore to swim at a private beach. We chose instead an Eco-Tour of the main island. This involved taking a tender to shore, boarding a bus for a ride to another beach, where we got into a speedboat that whisked us along the shoreline at 40 mph to a mangrove swamp where we boarded dugout canoes powered by electric motors to view nests of frigate birds. "Eco stands for ecology," I reminded Rose.
Frigate birds

Frigate birdsEn route back, we stopped at a sandbar along with a half dozen other tour boats. Everyone jumped off to wade in chest deep water while drinking Rum and Coca-Colas and searching for starfish on the bottom. Rose and I hesitated. The tour instructions had said to bring bathing suits, not to wear them. Shamelessly, we changed in the back of the boat hoping nobody had us on video.

Our next port of call on Saturday, after a full day sailing, was Nassau in The Bahamas, where Rose and I had honeymooned. Not much remained from our first visit, including our honeymoon hotel, an abandoned shell when we visited Nassau on our twenty-fifth anniversary, now a shopping center.

We strolled Bay Street looking for gifts, February being a big birthday month in the Higdon family. A store named Del Sol featured T-shirts, Frisbees and nail polish that changed color when exposed to sunlight. That took care of the grandkids. We bought a shirt for our son Kevin displaying the name Kevinston, a rugby team. Rose priced one tanzanite ring, but passed when she discovered it cost $2,500. Even Sir Harry lacked that much cash, and the store did not take Costa cards.

Our last night on board featured a toga party. After returning from shopping, we discovered two fresh sheets at the end of our bed to be wrapped around our suntanned bodies to look like proper Romans. Not everybody on board accepted this sartorial challenge, but all at our table did. "I have come to bury Costa, not to praise him," I offered as a toast before one final, and sumptuous five-course meal.

Sunday morning we landed in Port Everglades, to be collected by Dennis and Joanne Leahy. Before heading north, we regaled them with tales of our first cruise. We fled north before Joanne could offer us lunch.

St. John in the Virgin IslandsWe had not seen a bathroom scale all week, that not being a standard piece of stateroom furniture for cruises. But on our return to Ponte Vedra Beach, Rose and I discovered that while the average cruise passenger allegedly gains one pound for every day at sea, we had not gained a single pound. All that walking on deck and up stairs apparently had done its job.

We already have begun to consider destinations for our next cruise, including Alaska, the Greek Islands and Antarctica, where kayaking between ice flows might help us maintain proper body weight. And in the meantime, maybe Tom Milo can add In My Solitude to his band's repertoire.

Related Content:


- Go Guide: Cruising the Caribbean

- Click Here To Order Books by Hal Higdon