Part 4: Across the Gulf of Mexico
Introduction: In July and August 1998, the four of us took what was up to that time the most expensive vacation of our lives. This page is Part Four of a report on that vacation.
This was all written back in 1998 and 1999. Other than updating links, the text below has not been brought up to date. References to "now" or "soon" or whatever are all as of 1998. Photos have been retouched, but not re-scanned -- the originals were film, not digital, and the scanner used to transfer them back in 1998 wasn't very good.
When we awoke the next morning we found that the ship had left port around 12:30 a.m., and that we were somewhere out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, chugging our way toward Key West. This was to be one of our two days at sea, and Mexico was gone behind us.
A day entirely on board meant making use of the ship's various offerings, which we did -- and before I go any further, this seems an appropriate time to give a top-to-bottom description of just what the Leeward offered.
Deck 11 of the M/S Leeward is the basketball court. It's a half-court, really, with the backboard mounted on what's probably some of the navigation equipment on the forward end. The other three sides -- aft, port, and starboard -- are just nets. You really don't want the ball to go out of bounds up there, as it would at the very least bounce down a deck or two, and might well go overboard; hence the nets. Deck 11 was very popular with young male passengers. It's only accessible by outdoor stairs, by the way, just forward of the swimming pool and above Coconut Willy's, one of the ship's many bars.
Deck 10 is an actual deck, more or less, though there's a big hole in the middle, around the pool (which is on Deck 9). Starting aft -- well, there's the Observatory Lounge to port and Gatsby's Piano Bar to starboard, and they connect across the stern. Together with the aft stairwell they form a good-sized rectangle around the base of the ship's funnel, and the entire rectangle's outer wall is glass slanted outward, so that from Gatsby's or the Lounge one has a spectacular view out and down. Gatsby's is the designated smoking lounge and offers cigars as well as booze; the Observatory Lounge is the disco and was where dancing, karaoke, and music trivia games were to be found. They share their bar, which is at the stern.
From the aft stairwell, to port you have the entrance to the Lounge, to starboard you have the entrance to Gatsby's, and forward you have two doors to the Sunwalk -- that is, the open deck surrounding the pool area on either side. This is where you get the best view for some stuff -- it's where Kiri and I watched the Mexican cruiser.
Forward of the pool is a closed-off-to-passengers area that serves as a bandstand for parties in the pool area, with open passage on either side. Once past the bandstand one needs to go up some steps that wind their way through the ship's superstructure somewhat; the stairs to Deck 11 branch off here. The bandstand is directly over Coconut Willy's, and the basketball court's back end is over the bandstand. If you continue forward you eventually come out on the Observation Deck, a roughly triangular area over the bow that has a spectacular view forward, down over the prow. (I just realized that one reason there's so much up and down in that area is that it's over the flies for the show lounge stage. Hmm.)
Deck 9 aft portside is the Sports Bar & Grill -- if you want a burger for lunch instead of a three-course meal, this is where you get it. A bank of TVs over the bar alternates ESPN and CNN, and there's a lot of sports memorabilia about -- autographed footballs, that sort of thing.
Deck 9 aft starboard, under Gatsby's, is Le Bistro -- I never actually set foot in there. This is the formal dining option -- jacket and tie required, and while the food's still free there's a $5.00 service charge for the waiter. Julie and I might've tried it if we hadn't had the kids along.
Those open off the aft stairwell, like the stuff above them. Forward of the stairwell is the pool area. The swimming pool itself is tiny, maybe 15' by 30' -- maybe less. There are deck chairs and towel dispensers, and forward of the pool is the aforementioned Coconut Willy's bar. To port is the jacuzzi -- which is not tiny -- and the kiddie pool, which has a small slide and is all of maybe eight inches deep. (The main pool's four or five feet.) The pools have extra barriers around them a couple of feet out -- they slosh sometimes when the ship rolls. The pool area is open overhead, but covered by the Sunwalk along either side, and the outer sides are glassed in, not open.
Forward of the pool and Coconut Willy's is the spa, beauty salon, and fitness center. Julie splurged on a massage there, but I didn't get in there much. Oh, and tucked in the corners are a couple of kid facilities -- the video room (it's too small to constitute an arcade) to starboard, and the game room (Trolland, equipped with tables, chairs, Candyland, parchesi, and so on) to port. Deck 9 is truncated at the bow by the upper part of the show lounge, accessible only from Deck 8.
Deck 8 is the social heart of the ship, as far as we were concerned. Aft portside, and all the way across the stern, is the Seven Seas dining room, where we ate most of our meals and which I've already described. Aft starboard was not open to passengers -- I believe it was kitchens and so on. There was a small sitting area outside the dining room, next to the stairwell, which was a good place to sit and look out the window at the sea.
Amidships (which is to say, between the two stairwells and the two sets of elevators) port is the Monte Carlo Casino. About two-thirds of the space here was taken up by slot machines of various kinds (there was one that mooed), mostly quarter machines, some dollars, maybe a few that took higher denominations. The remainder of the space included the cashier's cage, the roulette table, the craps table, and the card tables -- one table for Caribbean stud poker, and five for blackjack. The dominant color here is black, with red (mostly felt) secondary, and the silver of the slots a close third.
Amidships starboard is the Tradewinds Lounge, which serves as a bar and lounge in the evenings (and which is the other place besides Gatsby's where smokers were common), but is a multi-purpose space during the day; and four conference rooms that didn't see much use on this particular cruise, but were nominally a gathering area for the teen program (which neither of our kids ever had any contact with) and so on.
The Tradewinds Lounge was home to the art auction extravaganzas. This is something I'd never heard of before -- the Leeward has art auctions every afternoon at 4:30, with large quantities of watercolors, prints, and so on. This is a concession, not something NCL itself runs, though I'm sure they get a cut; the auctions are run by a South African fellow named Rory, and every afternoon the ship's P.A. would carry an announcement that began, "This is Rory, your art director." And he never, ever just called it an art auction; it was always an art auction extravaganza. This is now a running joke around here -- when someone wants to make an announcement, we're likely to preface it with, "This is Rory, your art director."
Julie and I each took a brief look at the art, and decided it was all just wall-filler, not anything we cared to bid on. There was one Erte and one Norman Rockwell, but they weren't particularly distinguished works; I don't think I'd heard of any of the other artists.
The Casino, on the other hand -- kids weren't allowed in there (in theory; in practice they cut through it frequently, and at least once I saw a couple playing the slots), and Julie wasn't interested, but I put in a few hours playing cards there. Never got around to roulette or craps or the slots. I won a couple of hundred that first day at sea, and then lost it all, and a little more besides, later in the voyage.
Forward of the Casino is the forward stairwell and elevators -- which, by the way, are enclosed, not the spiffy glass kind like the aft pair. And forward of the elevators is the Stardust Lounge.
This is the main show lounge; it's an elaborate Art Deco thing with a full-sized balcony. Seats are not theater-style, in rows, but are arranged around tables in a sort of nest pattern, with a mix of curved benchs and loose chairs, all richly upholstered and quite comfy. There's a bar at the back starboard, and drink service at all events held there.
It's very comfortable, but the sight lines to the stage aren't all they could be, and it isn't really as big as it probably should be for a ship the size of the Leeward.
There were two big shows and five small ones held there, at least in theory -- we missed the first one, which was the Leeward's show band playing dance music, entirely, and I wasn't even sure there'd been a show that first night until I looked at the Cruise News for that day.
I notice I forgot to mention this essential element of the cruise: the ship's daily newsletter, the Cruise News. You need the Cruise News aboard ship; it tells you what's happening when and where, and what to wear for dinner, and lots of other useful stuff, including some history of the day's port. Each day's issue is delivered the night before, when the cabin attendant turns down the beds and leaves a chocolate on the pillow.
The Stardust Lounge was also where the ship's bingo games and lotteries were held, and where talks by crew or staff on various subjects were given, such as the cruise director's suggestions for what to see at the various ports.
And that's Deck 8.
Deck 7 is all just cabins, except that that's where the bridge is -- that's ordinarily off-limits to passengers, but there are tours available when the ship's in port, once each afternoon; it's all the way forward, of course -- and there's the afterdeck. I've neglected to mention the afterdecks heretofore, because they're hard to get to on the upper decks, but in fact there are open deck areas all the way aft on Decks 5 through 9, where one can sit and watch the seas roll by. They're stepped back as you go up.
Deck 6, too, is all cabins, pretty much, except for the afterdeck -- that, you may recall, was our deck.
Deck 5 is the Promenade Deck, so called because it's the only deck where one can walk full-circle around the ship without going inside -- though for about half of each side the walkway is heavily sheltered by lifeboats. At the stern is the largest afterdeck aboard, equipped with a jacuzzi, a bar, and a ping-pong table as well as the usual deck chairs. Forward of that, extending to the aft stairwell, is the Four Seasons dining room, allegedly the "main dining room," though it isn't noticeably larger than the Seven Seas.
(Have I mentioned that each dining room serves two seatings? We were in the main (i.e., earlier) seating, which ran from 6:00 to 8:00 for dinner, 12:00 to 1:30 for lunch. Late seating is 8:30-10:30 and 2:00-3:30.)
Forward of the spiffy glass elevators is the Main Lobby, done in maroon and grey and looking much like... well, a lobby. The Registration Desk, which really serves more as a concierge desk, is in the aft starboard corner, and to port is the photo gallery -- there are half a dozen occasions when the ship's photographer snaps each family's/couple's/passenger's picture, and the results are displayed here for sale. We bought about half of ours.
Forward of the lobby is the ship's gift shop, full of sweatshirts and trinkets; we bought a few things. Julie got a T-shirt, Julian a plush lobster, and so on. This is also where one can find things like aspirin and dental floss.
There's a passage around the gift shop on the starboard side, and this is where the Excursion Desk and the Dive-In Desk are. The Excursion Desk is where one books the bus tours and so on that are offered in the various ports, while the Dive-In Desk rents snorkels and the like and books tours that use such gear.
That brings us to the forward elevators, and from there on the rest of the interior is cabins.
We did a lot of walking around on the Promenade Deck. In bad weather the forward part of the promenade was closed off, for safety reasons -- it got extremely wet and windy there -- but usually it was a good place to see what was going on, and to get a little fresh air and exercise.
And the afterdeck on Deck 5 was a good place to lounge in the sun. It was also where they offered trapshooting once or twice a day when we were at sea -- a ship's officer and an assistant would set up a table with two pump-action shotguns and ammunition on it, and mount the doodad that launches the clay pigeons on the after rail, and for ten bucks anyone who wanted could take ten shots.
I decided to give that a try. I hadn't fired a gun since high school, and that was just a .22 in a couple of days of riflery in gym class, and it looked interesting.
The first guy who tried made it look easy -- he nailed eight out of ten, then came back for ten out of ten on a second try. The next guy got seven.
Not to keep you in suspense, I got three. Sigh.
I discovered that a shotgun does not kick as hard as I might have expected. There's a kick, all right, but it's not bad. And it's loud, but not deafening. And there's an odd thrill to working the pump and seeing the spent shell, still smoking, pop out.
I also discovered that I had a tendency to pull the trigger too soon, while I was still bringing the gun to bear, and I resolved to try again sometime and do better. So on the last day of the cruise, our other at-sea day, I did try again, and I did do better.
I got four, instead of three. Sigh.
I then made the interesting observation that somehow, saying I got seven out of twenty sounds more impressive than saying I got four out of ten. And I was relieved to see that I didn't do the worst of anyone aboard; there were a couple of folks who managed just two or three. There was one couple that split their ten shots five and five. She got two; he got zero. That might produce some friction...
(Neither of them had ever fired a shotgun before. She was astonished at how loud it was, the exact opposite of my reaction -- after her first shot she stopped and lowered the gun and babbled in amazement for a moment.)
Pardon the digression; back to the deck-by-deck tour.
Deck 4 is all cabins.
Deck 3 has the top half of the door -- if "door" isn't the correct term I don't know what is -- where the gangplank goes, and a bunch of cabins, but a significant portion of it is closed to passengers.
Deck 2 has the bottom half of the door, a few cabins, and a whole lot of closed-to-passengers stuff.
Deck 1 is entirely closed to passengers.
We decided that we were very glad our cabins weren't on Deck 2 or Deck 3 -- it got pretty loud down there, especially astern, when the ship was under way.
So that's the ship. In our day at sea we swam and splashed in the pool, roamed the ship, played Caribbean stud in the casino, watched (but did not play) a little bingo, checked out the art auction, shot skeet from the afterdeck, and ate huge meals.
And the third meal of the day, dinner, was where things got interesting, because this was the first "formal" night.
Dress on cruise ships varies according to which line you're on; on NCL, most meals are casual (shirtsleeves are fine), but they do ask that you not wear shorts or sandals to dinner. There's usually a theme, which you're free to ignore -- a Caribbean night, a country-and-western night (which brought out lots of cowboy shirts and bolo ties), etc. And once or twice a cruise (once on cruises less than a week long, twice on a week or more) there's a "formal night," which means a nice dress for women, jacket and tie for men, and if you want to go all out with a tux or gown that's great (though hardly anyone did on our cruise).
If you really can't stand to dress up, there's free room service, but it's a very limited menu.
I bought a new suit for this trip, and we found hand-me-downs of mine that would fit Julian. Julian hated the whole idea of dressing up, hated it intensely, the first time; the second time went much better. Kiri on the other hand was glad to have an excuse to wear her purple velvet dress.
To be more specific, this first formal night was the "Captain's reception," or something like that -- dinner was to be dressy, and after dinner the Captain would be greeting everyone at the Stardust Lounge before the first big musical show, "Sea Legs at the Copa."
So around 5:30 we went to our cabins to get dressed up. Julie and Kiri put on dresses -- Kiri's purple velvet was maybe a little shorter than called for, but both were elegant. I put on my new dark suit, bought specifically for the cruise. And then I went to check on Julian.
He was still in a T-shirt.
I informed him that he was going to wear the jacket and tie we'd brought, and tuck in his shirt.
I'll skip the gory details; it took a lot of nagging and fiddling to get him presentable. He tried putting on the wrong pants -- for some reason he'd brought a pair that didn't fit and wanted to wear those, and then wouldn't tuck in his shirt because the pants were too tight. He tried desperately to avoid buttoning the top button on his shirt. And he really didn't want to wear a tie.
Somewhere in the midst of fussing about all this I realized that he had never, not once in his life, worn a tie before, and that that was a large part of the problem. He had no idea how to tie one, or how to get comfortable in the old sport coat we'd brought (he kept buttoning it).
I first wore a tie when I was four. I hadn't realized Julian had managed to avoid it.
Anyway, we eventually got him dressed properly, and even almost comfortable, and went to dinner -- but he was still pretty grouchy.
After dinner was the show. At the door the Captain greeted each passenger and shook his hand, and each family was then posed and photographed with him. I am embarrassed to admit I've forgotten his surname; his first name is Jan, and he is, reasonably enough, Norwegian.
Our photo came out absolutely ghastly; it's not one of the ones we bought. Julian was surly and squirming, Kiri was fidgety, I happened to close my eyes at exactly the wrong time... sigh.
We went in and found seats in the balcony, and watched the show, which was fun -- basically a revue, but with a vague semblance of a romantic plotline tacked on, involving an alleged triangle in the cast. It was roughly summer-stock quality, I'd say -- professional, but not at a terribly high level. And after the show Julian was able to doff the hated garments.
Funny thing -- for the second formal night (if I may take things out of sequence for a moment), Julian gave us no trouble at all, and seemed entirely at home in his jacket and tie. I suppose increased familiarity (and learning the trick of unbuttoning the top button but hiding it with one's tie) helped. The picture from that night turned out just fine, and that's the one I'm including here.
And that was our first at-sea day, pretty much. Next stop, Key West.
This concludes Part Four. Links to the other parts of this trip report are below: