Empress of the Seas Cuba and Haiti cruise review

This review is based on a December 9-17, 2018 trip from Miami to Havana, Cienfuegos, Grand Cayman, and Labadee, Haiti.

See https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2019/01/03/cuba-tourism-cruise-ship-versus-hotels/ for some thoughts about seeing Cuba by ship versus land tours.

By virtue of having qualified as U.S. government-authorized providers of “people to people” tours, the cruise lines are able to operate in Cuba legally. Due to their scale and efficiency (world labor market!), the result is far cheaper than what land-based tour companies are able to offer. The basic rooms-with-windows on Empress of the Seas for our departure were going for less than $800 per person ($100/day) including all fees.

Empress of the Seas is the smallest and oldest ship in the Royal Caribbean inventory. Wikipedia says that she was launched in 1989 and holds 1,840 passengers. Piers in most Cuban ports circa 2018 were not capable of handling larger ships, which is why this smaller and less profitable ship was in use (see https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2018/12/26/cruise-o-nomics/).

The basic cabins on Empress are truly closet-sized. We paid $3,070 for a “suite” that is more like the size of an ordinary “room” on a new ship. The bathroom was tiny (way too small for a tub, for example). It was worth it for the balcony. We spent another $2,000 or so on shore excursions, Internet connectivity (intermittent and sometimes slow), drinks (not on the unlimited “alcohol misuse disorder” plan!), etc.

The crew likes to surprise passengers with decoration:

Shore excursions typically entailed 1-1.25 hours of “line up and wait” before we were actually on a tour bus and headed to the first destination. Passengers are called to the theater, check in with their tour tickets, are assigned number/sticker, and then wait for 45 minutes until the number is called. The guided tour of Havana was interesting and the guide spoke excellent English. The tour in Cienfuegos was struggling for reasons to exist, on the other hand, and our guide struggled with English and organization. We did enjoy the botanical garden, but it would have made more sense just to walk around the UNESCO World Heritage downtown on our own (may not be legal, technically, but there are no practical barriers to doing this; passengers self-certify that they will buy an organized tour of some kind, but there is no enforcement). Cienfuegos receives many fewer tourists and therefore has many fewer people hustling to make a buck off tourists. This makes it a more relaxing environment for sightseers than Havana.

Grand Cayman has the strip malls and traffic jams of Greater Miami, but without the art, architecture, culture, and music. The local museum is interesting (the history of the Caymans is mostly the history of killing all of the sea turtles) and Seven Mile Beach is a nice walk and perfect for swimming. Snorkeling and Sting Ray City strips were canceled the day that we were there due to several days of high winds and associated heavy surf.

It was nice to see a strip mall sign feature the Chabad center next to a tattoo and piercing parlor (see “Why Does Judaism Forbid Tattoos?” on the Chabad.org site). However, I would be much more enthusiastic about returning to Cuba than going back to Grand Cayman. (Luca, on the beach inside the Caribbean Club hotel, was a great place to hang out for a long lunch and swim before or after.)

We loved Labadee, Haiti and I wrote about it separately in https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2019/01/21/labadee-port-guide/

Out of our 7 full days on the ship, 3 of them were spent entirely at sea. Cruise lines love sea days because they pay no port fees and collect revenue from their shops and casinos, which cannot be operated except when in international waters. I got a high-quality reasonably-priced haircut on one of the sea days and managed to get in 10,000+ steps/day walking around the promenade deck.

The Serenade of the Seas (see my Baltic cruise review) had a beautiful spacious gym with wonderful sea views. Unfortunately, the Empress of the Seas has a small gym that feels like an afterthought. It is tucked up in a balcony above a lounge/bar.

As on Serenade of the Seas, the kitchen cannot make a donut, roll, or loaf of bread with anywhere near the competence of an average American supermarket. I ended up eating no bread for the entire journey and came back having lost a pound or two. Coffee is not up to the usual Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks drip standard. Food in the main dining room is mediocre. The specialty steak house food was excellent, as was the service and the ambiance. As described in https://philip.greenspun.com/blog/2019/01/01/new-years-wish-national-and-global-unity-via-more-cruise-ships/ the lack of assigned seating in the main dining room led to a lot of interesting mixing among passengers. Royal Caribbean’s main strength seems to be HR. Nearly all of the staff were friendly and seemed happy to be helping tourists enjoy their vacations. The restaurant folks were strong on hospitality and presentation.

The bridge tour was awesome. Maybe it would have been better if one passenger hadn’t asked whether a screen was dedicated to avoiding collisions with U.S. Navy vessels…

On-board entertainment was at least pretty good on about half the nights, though you have to like pop, ballroom, and Broadway. Olga played the piano for us in the dining room:

Security screening never caused a delay of more than 2 minutes and usually less. At Cienfuegos we got in and out of the port via the ship’s tenders, of which there are two. This resulted in a 20-minute line to get back on board. At Grand Cayman we used 200-person tenders run by the port itself, but they didn’t go very often. I got to the tender about 40 minutes before the “last call for a tender” time and ended up sitting on the tender for 40 minutes before it cast off. (First two photos below show one of the ship’s tenders in Cienfuegos and also that you want to be reincarnated as the Purell salesperson for the Royal Caribbean account. Second two are from Grand Cayman and show the port’s tenders.)

Returning to Miami involved 45 minutes of “hurry up and wait” followed by an astonishing U.S. Immigration and Customs experience. Having come from Cuba and Grand Cayman, potentially with suitcases stuffed full of contraband materials, we merely showed our passports to a smiling officer and then walked out to the pier.

Recommended hotel in Miami: Hyatt Centric, South Beach.

Recommended art museum in South Beach: Wolfsonian, for its Art Deco collection.

(Before deciding to abuse shareholders with looting via stock options and decades of stagnation in stock price, GE sold light bulbs to honor Ahura Mazda, the God of Zoroastrianism!)

Summary: It was a great trip, a good value, and a nice introduction to Cuba.


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New Zealand 1993 versus now

I was buried in work yesterday so missed the news about the shooting in New Zealand.

I was there only once, back in 1993 (my travelogue and photos), and it seemed decades removed from any of the world’s disputes. The population was 3.5 million back then (about 5 million today), fewer than the greater Boston area. In a lot of places there were only two kinds of cheese available. I met a 21-year-old who had never seen a U.S. dollar bill.

Readers: Who else wants to share a fond memory of the country?

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Antarctic aviation in the 1930s

If you love Antarctica stories and airplanes, Antarctica’s Lost Aviator: The Epic Adventure to Explore the Last Frontier on Earth is the book for you. Lincoln Ellsworth, whom the author says would be a multi-billionaire if his fortune at the time were adjusted to today’s mini-dollars, spent years organizing a flight across the continent and finally succeeded in 1935. He decided to become a polar explorer at age 44.

How had things gone for the world’s greatest polar explorer?

Roald Amundsen had devoted his life to polar exploration, and by 1924 it had left him bankrupt and bitter.

In truth, Amundsen’s biggest mistake was that he had won. A small team of hardy and hardened men from Norway, with experience and careful planning, had upstaged the ambitions of the proud and mighty British Empire and the Empire did not like it. Burdened by debt, made weightier by accusations of cheating, Amundsen again sought refuge on the ice, but his plans were interrupted by World War I. After the war, he made an attempt to sail the Northeast Passage, before deciding his future was in the sky. He gained a pilot’s license and resolved to fly to the North Pole and across the Arctic Ocean. He took an obsolete plane to Wainwright, Canada, but crashed it landing on rough ground. Amundsen reasoned that what he really needed was a plane that could take off and land on water or ice: a flying boat. The best available at the time were the Italian-built Dornier Wal flying boats. But how to pay for them? Amundsen was forced to turn to the only way he knew to raise money: touring and lecturing. The money was in America, so that’s where he went. Thus, in October 1924, Roald Amundsen was holed up in New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, refusing to accept visitors lest they be creditors and “nearer to black despair than ever before,” on a tour that, “was practically a financial failure”:

Amundsen, Ellsworth, and some well-qualified pilots and mechanics of the day did head up towards the North Pole in two German-designed Italian-built Dornier Wal seaplanes (two 350 hp engines). Mechanical issues prevent them from reaching the Pole, however. They have better luck in an airship, making it from Svalbard to Alaska via the North Pole in 1926 (story).

What were prices like in the early 1930s?

Bernt Balchen agreed to be the pilot [of a trans-Antarctic flight in a Northrop Gamma] if he was paid $800 a month plus his expenses, for the length of the expedition. For a successful flight across Antarctica he would receive a $14,700 bonus. It was a lucrative contract at a time when professionals, such as doctors, were earning $60 per week and production workers were lucky to manage $17.

Women today are generally prevented from taking flying lessons. A T-shirt from a flight school in Bentonville, Arkansas

Back in the 1930s, however, men were not sufficiently organized to exclude women from aviation:

While at Mittelholzer’s airfield, the fifty-two-year-old Ellsworth met Mary Louise Ulmer, a fellow American, twenty-five years his junior, who was taking flying lessons. Ulmer was the daughter of an industrialist, Jacob Ulmer (who had died in 1928) and Eldora, who was fulfilling her duty as the wealthy, idle socialite mother of a plain, awkward, and painfully shy daughter. Eldora was dragging her child around Europe in the hope of finding a suitable husband. When Ellsworth and Mary Louise met at Mittelholzer’s airfield, Eldora instantly knew she had hit the jackpot. Ellsworth was older, equally shy, and, she may have suspected from his bachelor status, gay. But he had two qualities that made him an ideal son-in-law: he was incredibly wealthy and he was well practiced in doing what he was told. … ten days after they met, Ellsworth proposed marriage to Mary Louise.

Having succeeded in her safari to the continent to hunt down a husband for her daughter, Eldora’s next task was to return to America to display the trophy. Any fleeting attention Ellsworth might have given to his polar expedition was redirected to surviving the less forgiving environment of a society wedding.

By 1930, Antarctica was still 90 percent unknown. Maybe this is because explorers were usually too plastered to make maps?

Ellsworth also sent on board forty bottles of whisky for his personal consumption, in addition to the whisky and beer taken on board for the crew.

The expedition leader had some reasons to drink:

[Hubert] Wilkins tried to make sense of his life and plan what he should do next. He had no money and was living on the small salary that Ellsworth was paying him to take care of the Wyatt Earp. He felt that his debt—moral or financial—had been repaid. He had organized the expedition and got everything successfully to the Ross Ice Shelf, until circumstances beyond his control had brought the whole affair to a premature end. He was alone and lonely; famous for a failed submarine expedition to the North Pole, while living in hotels at the bottom of the world, touring country towns and showing his films for a little extra cash. … On the personal front, Wilkins had not seen his wife in two years and was conscious that she was dating other men. He had married Suzanne Bennett, an Australian-born chorus girl working in New York, shortly after he was knighted. It was a whirlwind romance, consummated at a heady time in Wilkins’s life. It was soon apparent to Wilkins that Suzanne’s main motivation in attaching herself to the famous explorer was to gain the title Lady Wilkins, then put it to use to elevate her career from chorus girl to movie star. (A strategy that was spectacularly unsuccessful.) Wilkins constantly wrote Suzanne long letters expressing his love, but she rarely replied, and when she did it was usually only to taunt him about his lack of success, his age, or the fact he was going bald.

(The wife later writes to him saying that she is pregnant.) He dispenses life advice to the crew: “Remember, Magnus, you will never gain anything without personal wealth, or government backing.”

The Southern ocean was not any better behaved back then

The Wyatt Earp had a rough trip south. In heavy weather it would roll fifty degrees to each side. From being heeled over to port, rolling though one hundred degrees to starboard, then back to port, took only four and a half seconds. Anything not secured would be catapulted about the cabins with dangerous velocity.

The first trip was going great until the ice shelf from which they had planned to launch the airplane split apart, in cartoon-like fashion, right underneath the airplane. The plane dangles into the crack, supported by the wings on both sides. The season of 1933-34 wasted.

The season of 1934-35 is ruined by a mechanic’s error in trying to start the engine without first draining the preserving oil, then by some bad weather.

The author explains why a lot of folks have had trouble in one particular part of this continent:

Today we know that on each side of Antarctica there is a huge bight. On the side facing the Pacific Ocean it is the Ross Sea, while facing the Atlantic Ocean it is the Weddell Sea. Currents, which are driven forcibly from the oceans to the north, flow into these great bights to scoop up millions of tons of ice that have descended from the Antarctic Plateau and, in a swirling clockwise motion, sweep it out to sea. In the Ross Sea where, at the western extremity Victoria Land does not extend north, the piled pack ice easily reaches open water. At the western end of the Weddell Sea, however, the Antarctic Peninsula extends north. Here the ice cannot escape so freely. Trapped, it becomes deadly as it is caught, crushed, jumbled, and tumbled over itself. And small rocky islands jut from the water and conspire with the ice to crush any ship foolish enough to venture into the area. The northwest corner of the Weddell Sea is the most dangerous coastal area in the Antarctic. In February 1902, Swedish explorer Otto Nordenskjöld and a small party were landed on Snow Hill Island at the edge of the Weddell Sea. Returning in December, their relief ship found it impossible to reach them and had to move away from shore. Returning again in February 1903, the ship was caught and smashed by the ice, marooning the relief party on nearby Paulet Island. Nordenskjöld’s group, which had already built a hut, spent a second winter in Antarctica, while the relief group survived in a small stone shelter, before all the men were eventually rescued. Nordenskjöld claimed the area had “a desolation and wildness, which perhaps no other place on earth could show.” Another person to risk entering the Weddell Sea was Sir Ernest Shackleton, who ignored the advice of the whalers and based his decision on his two trips to the more benign Ross Sea. When he attempted to unload the team that planned to walk across Antarctica, his ship Endurance was famously caught and crushed. In the twenty years since the Endurance, no one had tried to navigate the Weddell Sea. In fact, in more than thirty years, no one had returned to visit Nordenskjöld’s hut. But Wilkins’s previous experience told him there was no other possibility of finding a flat runway. Venturing into the infamous Weddell Sea was their only hope.

Supposedly we are living in a woker-than-ever age of tolerance. People in the old days were morally defective by comparison. Yet when Sir Wilkins’s wife sends him a letter repeating gossip regarding Ellsworth being gay, he replies “I am not the least bit concerned as to what people say. He may be a sissy for all I know, but I do know that I gave my word that I would do the job of putting him in a position for doing the flight he has made up his mind to do and that is that. One does not argue or ask to get out of a contract by word of honor.” The unconventional sexual choices purportedly made by Ellsworth did not keep him from being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal twice, one of only four people to have achieved this. Nor did his sexual orientation prevent a lot of stuff on the map from being named “Ellsworth” (plus a hall at the American Music of Natural History).

For the 1935-36 season, the pilot is Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, born in England 38 years previously and with 6,000 flying hours behind him.

During the months before the flight, the author describes what is surely Ellsworth’s most remarkable achieve: “he went tiger hunting in the jungles of Brazil.”

The challenge and the proposed solution:

Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon had to fly 2,200 miles, more than half of which was over an unexplored area of the Earth’s surface. That unexplored area, lying roughly in the middle of their flight, could be flat ice shelf, towering mountains ranges, or a series of islands. They would be taking off from a point north of the Antarctic Circle (63°5′ South, 55°9′ West), flying to within six hundred miles of the South Pole, and through more than one hundred degrees of longitude (over a quarter of the way around the globe) to an ice shelf the size of France, on which they needed to locate a buried base, only indicated by radio aerials protruding from the snow.

Balchen was proficient at dead reckoning navigation. So was Wilkins. Importantly, Balchen and Wilkins knew that a key to dead reckoning was knowing the plane’s flying speed, and the only way to accurately measure that was to time a flight from point A to point B. Balchen had flown the Polar Star and claimed its top speed was 220 mph and that it cruised at 150 mph. But Balchen had made that test flight in

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Austin and Lockhart, Texas: 10 barbecue restaurants in 72 hours

On a recent business trip to Austin I resolved to consume 100 percent of my calories at barbecue restaurants.

The trip started with an Uber ride from the airport (the city’s license raj effectively outlawed Uber, but the state legislature brought them back). Traffic was horrific reverse-commuting into the city at 6:30 pm so we had plenty of time to watch folks living under bridges operate their 1980s-style squeegee business. I asked Himmatullah whether there were more homeless in Austin or back in his hometown of Kabul. “There are way more in Austin. Nobody is homeless in Afghanistan.” (As it was a leisurely ride, I learned that Himmatullah returns to Kabul at least once per year and that tickets cost as little as $1,200 round-trip from Houston via Dubai.)

Day 1: dinner at Iron Works BBQ, right across the street from the convention center/Fairmont. Tried brisket (a bit dry), sausage (great), mac/cheese (fair), green beans (limp). The purportedly homemade pecan pie was disappointing, with no apparent connection between the sweet/gluey stuff on the bottom and the pecans on top. I hate to say this, but a local farm near my Boston suburb makes vastly better pecan pie. (See below; this style seems to be what Texans like) Employees did not seem passionate about BBQ. Overall rating: Fair.

Day 2: early lunch at Cooper’s BBQ. Line that got right to the door by 12 was met by an enthusiastic pitmaster. Brisket (much better than Iron Works), Sausage (two varieties; both great), Pork Ribs (tender, not fatty), jalapeno/bacon mac/cheese (“meh” says John; Philip enjoyed it), green beans (not as mushy as at Iron Works; lots of bacon), cole slaw (excellent), salad(!). BBQ sauce is thin and vinegar-y. Pecan pie-ish cobbler: awesome. Lightyears ahead of Iron Works. Overall rating: Superb.

Day 2: dinner at Stubb’s BBQ. Brisket (tender, not as dry as Iron Works, not as much flavor as Cooper’s), sausage (good; Cooper’s was better, but John says “more of a toss-up), fried okra (awesome), mac/cheese (sharper than Iron Works; John preferred to Cooper’s, but Philip was less impressed), pecan pie (similar to Iron Works; pecans on top of flavorless sugar gel), banana pudding (Nilla wafers!). Overall rating: Good.

Day 3, Pilgrimage to Lockhart. Our local guide, Matt Cohen: “Historically, the best Texas BBQ was in small towns – in the days before refrigeration, the local meat market would smoke their leftover fresh cuts to sell the next day. BBQ is still generally sold by the pound for this reason.” We drove at 90 mph in a Chevy Volt down a private toll road (speed limit 85). We were joined by Chris Lamprecht, who flew a Columbia 400 (single-engine piston) from Texas to the southern tip of Argentina.

Day 3, lunch 1: Lockhart. Kreuz market. Brisket. Shoulder. Sausage (moist/soft). Beef rib (somewhat stringy). John’s favorite Mac and cheese; Philip found it bland. Boring green beans (not a lot of bacon like at coopers). Sauerkraut. Skipped dessert. Cavernous and not especially welcoming. Playing Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” regarding individual responsibility (I would have been more excited to get customer reaction to his 2008 “Hillary”: “And who kept her head high when it could have been down … changes need to be large / Something like a big switch of gender / Let’s put a woman in charge”). Overall: great, but uninspired barn-like dining room.

Day 3, lunch 2: Black’s in Lockhart. Pork ribs. Brisket (moist and smoky). Sausage jalapeño and cheese. A bit mushy (maybe because it was made fresh and we’re used to supermarket sausage made months earlier?). Mac and cheese (bland, but John’s new favorite) beef ribs (better than Kreuz). Cole slaw (wet). Green beans (bright green and not mushy). Sweet potato pudding. Pecan pie looks like Iron Works: pecans on top of sugar gel. Did not try. Manager, Anthony Hamilton, came out to chat, welcome, us and insist that we try beef ribs (he returned with a sample and they were awesome, much more tender than at Kreuz). Best decor. Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Overall rating: Superb.

Day 3: Stroll past the central square.

Day 3, lunch 3: Smitty’s (original Kreuz location in Lockhart). Turkey (moist!), brisket, pork ribs, prime rib, sausage (she specifically asked if we wanted a softer one, almost apologetic for the conventional firm sausage). Mac and cheese and beans. Desserts: not special. Meat and sides come from two different counters and are paid for separately. There are no forks (plastic knives are provided, though, and spoons are available at the sides/desserts counter). Dining area smelled funny. Decor: weak. Verdict: similar style/taste to Kreuz, but inferior venue. Overall rating: Good.

Day 3, lunch 4: Chisholm Trail BBQ in Lockhart: fajita skirt steak awesome. Brisket fair. Sausage fresh and soft. Mac cheese boring (John says not as good as Black’s). Fried okra not nearly as good as Stubb’s. Perhaps made in a batch in the morning and then left under the heat lamp? Pecan pie same style as usual; on top of gel, boring supermarket-style crust. Lemon Meringue pie: good graham cracker crust. Peach cobbler: super sweet. This is where the locals go (partly for the drive-through?) and the staff was the warmest. They also have the largest variety of food, e.g., fried catfish. Overall rating: Good.

We drove back into town just after 3 pm and traffic was intense. Viewed from the hotel window, I-35 was jammed every day from 3-8 pm. We saw a single rider on one of the light rail system‘s $12.5 million cars. The system shuts down at 7 pm on most days after running a total of 18 trips (i.e., the number that the Moscow metro would run on one line in 18 minutes). After we walked up the river a bit, Google Maps showed that it would be 18 minutes to walk back to the Fairmont and 15 minutes to crawl on a surface road. Austin needs a third or fourth dimension for transportation.

Day 4: Cheat with a fruit bowl at the Fairmont and coffee (no milk or sugar) with Jack Long, veteran of three round-the-world PC-12 flights (someone should tell him about the invention of the twin-engine turbojet?).

[Blues Posse interlude, courtesy of J.J. “Jamie” Van Beek, lead singer, harmonica player, and Uber driver to County Line (he’s a fan, but also recommends brisket from the H-E-B Mueller supermarket at 51st and Berkman).]

Day 4, lunch: County Line BBQ, Route 2222 in NW Austin. Homemade bread (awesome; sweet, chewy, and thick). Lean brisket (fair). 2nd cut brisket (moist and delicious). Sausage (firm, good). Beef rib (charred; not as good as Black’s Lockhart). Minimal choice of sides: potato salad, coleslaw, baked potato, beans, salad (no mac and cheese!). Peach cobbler: great and not too sweet. Pecan pie: Nuts-over-glue style, yet somehow better than the others. The gel/glue tasted nuttier and less sweet. The nuts on top were crunchier. We still preferred Cooper’s pecan cobbler. Much more elegant experience than the others: table service (excellent), interesting decor, waterfront location. John gives authenticity bonus for the well-dressed customer getting out of luxury pickup in cowboy hat open-carrying a collectible quality handgun. Overall rating: Great.

Day 4, dinner #1: Terry Black’s, just south of downtown. Superb moist brisket (see below for Ricky cooking the next batch of victims; all that you need is a big stack of wood and 14 hours of time). The most interesting and intense jalapeño cheese sausage. The best of the creamy bland-style Mac and Cheese (pasta was not overcooked, for example). Reasonably crunchy green beans. First butter crust for a pecan pie among the restaurants we tried and overall even better than Cooper’s pecan cobbler. Like a good pastry shop’s pecan pie. The peach cobbler, on the other hand, was gluey and sweet and no better than any of the others that we tried. Overall rating: Superb.

Day 4, dinner #2 (meal #10): Salt Lick BBQ’s outpost at the Austin airport. The best coleslaw so far. Good sausage, though quite peppery. Weak brisket (maybe due to reheating?). Sweet soft bread. Not competitive with County Line’s bread. Overall Rating: Poor.

Conclusion: My taste in mac/cheese is chewier and sharper than what folks in Texas like, i.e., creamy and bland. I am not a Texas BBQ dessert fan. The fruit-based desserts are not generally made with fresh fruit and they taste more like sugar than like fruit. Although we ate enough pecan pie to risk getting a nut rash, we never learned to enjoy what is apparently the classic Texas style of sugar gel topped with pecans.

Philip’s rankings: #1: tie between Black’s in Lockhart and Terry Black’s in Austin. #2: Cooper’s in Austin, with Cooper’s getting a boost for mac/cheese and dessert. #3: Kreuz Market. #4 County Line, with a boost for atmosphere, bread, and riverside location. Honorable mention: Stubb’s for fried okra.

John’s rankings, based on brisket and beef rib: #1: tie between Black’s Lockhart and Terry Black’s in Austin, #2 Kreuz Market, #3 Cooper’s, #4 Smitty’s. Honorable mention: County Line for bread and atmosphere.

Parting messages from the merchants at the airport…

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Labadee port guide

If you have do-gooder friends that like to share their tales of helping the world’s woe-plagued, including their voluntourism trips to Haiti, you’ll get a lot of value from any cruise that stops in Labadee, Haiti. Imagine the thrill at cocktail parties of saying how concerned you were about the inequality that you saw in Haiti:

Sign in front of the private luxury subsection within Labadee.

This lease, which runs through 2050, was a stroke of genius by Royal Caribbean. It is only a few steps from the dock to the beach and, for folks who have trouble with steps, the beach is wonderfully accessible to the wheelchair-bound. There are concrete paths along the beach and balloon-tire wheelchairs and boat shuttles from the dock to the farther beaches.

Here are a couple of overview drone photos, one from the top of the insane zipline, that the manager of the resort shared with me:

The nearby town of Labadie had a population of about 1,200 when Royal Caribbean showed up in 1986. Due to migration from other parts of Haiti, the population is up to 5,000. There is a carefully circumscribed tour to a corner of this town that is kind of interesting. The locals are grateful to the company for the electricity and clean running water that has been arranged. One worker in the resort had been born in 1981 in Labadie. He was enthusiastic about the Royal Caribbean presence: “The money that my father earned building this place was used to send me to college and learn English.”

Labadie is atypical, despite not being part of the Royal Caribbean lease, because there are no roads connecting this town with the rest of the country. People who want to shop or see friends take a two-minute water taxi to a dock next to the Royal Caribbean area and then a 30-minute 8-mile $5 minivan taxi to Cap-Haïtien.

A big part of the tour was on the topic of medicinal plants, of which dozens are used for specific ailments and for which specific preparations are required. I explained to our guide that medicine in the U.S. is more advanced, especially in Massachusetts. We have found a single plant that is said to cure all ailments: medical marijuana.

There is a Trump-style border wall between Labadee and the rest of Haiti:

Big question: If a pregnant woman scales the wall and gives birth on the Royal Caribbean side, is the resulting infant entitled to a birthright Seapass and lifetime membership in the Crown and Anchor Society?

When a small ship such as the Empress of the Seas is the only ship in port, the beach is wonderfully uncrowded. The beach barbecue is basic, but the chicken was perfect. You can tell do-gooder friends about how you weren’t afraid to eat any of the food offered in Haiti and how everyone there was enjoying at least 6,000 calories per day (note: everything that you might consume in Labadee was loaded onto the ship in Miami). Prices for excursions are reasonable. One couple we talked to did a 45-minute jetski tour for less than $100 and raved about it.

This was the last stop on our tour and it was a little sad to be sailing away…

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Cruise ships should be wired up for stargazing

One of the luxuries of being out at sea in the old days was seeing stars that would never be visible from light-polluted cities. Cruise ships don’t offer this, though, because they don’t want people stumbling and falling on the upper/outer decks.

The officers of Empress of the Seas talked about trying to darken the top deck for stargazing during a ferry trip (crew-only). It turned out to be impossible. “Every time we thought we’d turned off some lights with a breaker, an emergency system would come on and replace them. We ran around for about an hour trying to turn off individual switches, but gave up.”

In case any future cruise ship engineers happen to read this… how about a system where a top deck area can be darkened for 15 minutes? Passengers can walk up there for an event. Once they’re all comfortably established on the ubiquitous lounge chairs, the crew can kill the lights.

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Jews of Cuba and Cuba-Israel relations

I’d forgotten how prominent Cuba once was on the world stage, but our guide in Havana reminded us that Cuba and Israel are still on bad terms. Wikipedia notes that Cuba was a military ally for Egypt and relations were broken off by Cuba in 1973, when the countries were at comparable levels of economic development. Apparently not enough has changed in the intervening 45 years for relations to be reestablished!

Our guide said that roughly 1,500 Jews remained in Cuba and that most were elderly, the young Jews having emigrated to Israel. These facts are consistent with Wikipedia.

It makes me wonder what the point of having physical embassies might be. If relations were established tomorrow, could it really make sense for cash-strapped Cuba to set up and run an embassy in Israel where almost everything costs more than in the U.S.? Similarly for Israel, why pay someone an Israeli wage to sit around Havana and drink mojitos when almost any conceivable issue between two nations could be negotiated at the UN in New York and/or via Skype?

[A fellow guest at dinner shared her theory that all of the casinos in Cuba were funded with “Jewish money” and that, following the revolution, this money was used to build Las Vegas (see also the Wikipedia history of Las Vegas). That’s one of the beauties of cruising, in my opinion. One is exposed to a much broader range of people and opinions than at home. (This theorist was an African American from Connecticut, retired from a government job.)]

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New Year’s Wish: National and Global Unity via more cruise ships

A wealthy (through marriage) and virtuous (through Trump-hatred) friend posted while on a $1,000+/day luxury vacation on Grand Cayman:

I mentioned the fundamental lack of sustainability of any economic ecosystem involving cruise ships filled with passengers interested in snorkeling coral reefs and visiting white sandy beaches. How the destruction of mangrove forests for the sake of resort development will only increase the damage done by future hurricanes, and that it was my hope that tourists not want to visit places with gross wealth disparity between themselves and the local population: the simile is an invasive species that devours resources to (the resources’) extinction before moving on.

This is consistent with a lot of what I’ve seen and heard from elite Americans. They say that they’re upset by inequality. They also say that they hate cruises and they mock cruise ship passengers as obese, uneducated, undiscriminating, and uncouth.

My response:

If you dislike wealth disparity you should welcome cruise ships. They are the cheapest form of vacation. A week on a cruise ship that visits St. Bart’s is cheaper than one night of hotel on that island. (Currently on a Royal Caribbean ship where the cost per person per day is less than $100/day including food, entertainment, and transportation to all of the ports visited.)

Let me devote New Year’s Day, then, to celebrating the cruise concept, which enables people of many different income levels and nationalities to come together and experience the world. Empress of the Seas is the smallest vessel in the Royal Caribbean fleet, but we still had crew from 59 countries and passengers from 39 countries on board. The cost of visiting Cuba via this ship was less than half of the cheapest land-based “person-to-person” tours that I’d ever seen. Roughly 20 percent of the Americans on board were African Americans. Due to the policy of mixing up passengers at tables for eight, I saw more mixed white/black groups in a week on the ship than in a year of dining out in Boston. Retired government workers (loyal Democrats!) conversed politely with working small business owners.

Here I am with a new friend:

(my Facebook friends posted some similar images, minus the golden halo, after each had found one African American friend to join for Black Panther)

One block of cabins on our ship was occupied by graduates of a Taiwanese engineering college enjoying their 60th reunion(!).

Who else, other than Purell sales reps, will be brave enough to join me in hoping that 2019 sees further growth in what has already been a spectacular growth story and a force for national and global unity?

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The dangers of traveling in Israel

Friends who read the newspaper and watch CNN didn’t want me to come to Israel, which as far as they can tell is the world’s most dangerous country.  If this is true, someone forgot to tell the Israelis.  They gather in huge crowds at beachside restaurants.  They stroll around Tel Aviv at all hours of the day and night.  They pack the highways and shopping malls.  They meet at huge dinner parties with friends and extended family.  In short, they are sitting ducks.

When I go back to the U.S. tomorrow morning I’ll be risking getting eaten by a Mountain Lion in a Colorado suburb (it happens), being killed by a Grizzly Bear almost anywhere in the West, getting swept away by violent rivers and waves, being mugged in Cambridge by local kids who aren’t grateful for a lifetime of taxpayer support, being blown up on Amtrak or in NYC by Islamic terrorists while attempting to go to a Broadway play, being killed in a post office by an angry worker with a high-powered rifle, etc.  And then there is my first helicopter lesson on Monday morning….

Anyway the bottom line is that Israel seems to be at least as safe as most densely populated parts of the U.S. and Europe.  The obsession with violence in Israel is a foreign obsession.  The world would be a much safer place if people focussed more on reducing violence in their own backyards.

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Flying in Israel

Spending a few days on Martha’s Vineyard listening to birds chirp, waves break, golfers golf, and … airplanes flying overhead at all altitudes and in all directions.  Quite a contrast from general aviation in Israel, where I did two flights last week in Cessnas.  [Snapshots at http://www.photo.net/philg/digiphotos/20030606-g3-israel/.]

Every American pilot ought to fly in Israel, if only to see just how
bad it is likely to get as the U.S. suffers from more terrorist
attacks.  Getting into a general aviation airport is very difficult.
You have to explain who you are and why you need to fly.  In 2000 and
1992 Israeli security officials lost interest as soon as they figured
out that I was a native-born U.S. citizen.  Attacks from Muslims born
in European countries, however, have turned the Israelis into
xenophobes.  If my host/pilot hadn’t been friends with the chief of security
for all airports in Israel, I wouldn’t have gotten into the parking
lot much less an airplane.

Once you’re seated in the plane the security remains just as tight.
You make a radio call to request permission to start up the engine.
You make a radio call to activate your previously filed flight plan.  Unless you’re coming in on an instrument flight plan from a foreign country, everything happens in Hebrew.  It is basically illegal for anyone without an Israeli license to operate an airplane, or even touch the flight controls without an instructor on board, under VFR within Israel.  This is partly due to the fact that the controllers aren’t accustomed to working in English but perhaps more due to the complexities of navigation.

Once in the air the entire airspace of Israel is forbidden except for
a handful of designated VFR routes and altitudes, which are not in a
standard GPS’s database.  Even though the controllers have very good
radar coverage of the entire country you make regular position
reports.  If you deviate more than one mile horizontally from any of
these routes the controllers will chastise you; keep in mind that the
State of Israel is only about 10 miles wide in the middle–if you get
off course you will be straying over the West Bank and the government
is afraid that Arabs will shoot at you.  In the good old days you
could fly down the valley of the River Jordan, land at the Jerusalem
airport, fly over Jerusalem, etc.  In 2003 all of that is closed off.
With virtually nowhere to go it will presumably be time to land soon.
If an airport closes at 5:00 pm, it is forbidden to land after that
time.  There is nothing like the pilot-controlled runway lighting that
is standard in the U.S.

Safety ought to be better in Israel than in the U.S.  The weather is
almost always clear.  In the U.S. you may depart from New Jersey in a
small airplane and arrive several hours later in Maine to completely
weather that is completely different from what it was in NJ, from what
it was in Maine when you took off and got a weather briefing, and from
what was forecast.  By contrast, the whole country of Israel is no
larger than New Jersey and the weather tends to be very similar across
the whole landscape.  In any case you take off and land at the same
airport most of the time, usually flying for less than one hour.

Mid-air collisions only constitute a few percent of the accidents in
the U.S.  Nonetheless they seem even less likely in Israel because all
airplanes are on designated routes at designated altitudes in radio
contact with and under the control of air traffic controllers.

In the U.S. an airplane operated privately has to be inspected and
recertified airworthy by a merchanic every year.  An airplane operated
commercially, either by an airline or a flight school, needs a
mechanic’s inspection every 100 hours.  In Israel an airplane has to
be inspected and certified airworthy every morning.  A mechanic walks
out onto the flight line and signs off all the machines that are going
to fly that day.

One thing that is very odd about Israeli pilots is that they are not
trained to lean (adjust the fuel-air mixture to compensate for air that is thinner due to heat or high altitude; your car does this automatically but little airplanes generally run on 1930s technology). 

They taxi full rich.  They take off full rich, even
when it is 40 degrees C (over 100 F) outside.  They cruise full rich,
unless they are over 3000′ MSL.  They really ought to all have died
from either fuel exhaustion or failure to climb when fully loaded on
very hot days.  The performance and range figures in a Pilot’s
Operating Handbook (“P.O.H.”, the owner’s manual that comes with the
airplane) are calculated by American pilots using American procedures,
which include leaning very nearly to peak exhaust gas temperatures.
Most Israeli airplanes are ancient Cessnas that don’t have fuel flow
gauges but it seems safe to estimate that Israelis are using 50
percent more fuel than would be predicted by the P.O.H.  Probably what
saves them is that the distances are so tiny; you could fly almost
anywhere in Israel from Tel Aviv using only what an American pilot
would keep as a fuel reserve.  For climb-out at a high density
altitude Americans who fly in the West learn to find a peak power
mixture setting on the ground and then richen just a bit for cooling.
Perhaps what keeps Israelis alive is the near sea level elevations of
all the airports here and the fact that the terrain isn’t very
dramatic, i.e., you never have to climb very steeply to clear a hill.

Oh yes, and the hourly rates for all of this are about double that of what it costs in the U.S.

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