Caribbean Vacation 1998Caribbean Vacation 1998
Caribbean Vacation 1998

Part 8: Charleston, Alexandria, and Home

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 the final installment 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.

Note: I haven't bothered repeating the same link over and over, but several may be repeated from one installment of the report to the next. Usually, the first time on each page I mention something that I thought it appropriate to link, I've linked it, but after that it's generally in plain text. A few items are linked more than once; usually (but not always) these links will go different places.

When we awoke the next morning the seas were calm, and we were on our way to Charleston Harbor -- but ninety minutes behind schedule, because storms and stabilizers create a lot of drag, and even at full throttle we hadn't been able to keep up. (Ordinarily the Leeward's top speed is 21 knots; in rough seas it's a lot less, I'm not sure how much.)

Building being restoredAfter breakfast -- which was sparsely populated, and a plethora of "Do Not Disturb" signs still lingered on the cabins, though the herd was starting to thin -- I went up on deck and watched our approach. We cruised past Fort Sumter, and another small bastion. Off to starboard I saw a few warships, which are a museum of some sort.

Given how little time we had in port, though -- our departure time wasn't changed -- we didn't bother with any of that.

In fact, since we didn't actually dock until 11:30, we cut our shore-going even shorter and ate lunch aboard ship. After all, we'd paid for it, and finding somewhere in Charleston that suited us all would be too time-consuming to be worth it.

This turned out to be a mistake. A friend of ours, Brian, lives in the Charleston area, but it was our understanding that he'd be working and unable to meet us.

Well, he took the day off. He waited on the pier for that ninety minutes, watched the ship dock, waited forty minutes for us to come down the gangplank, and finally gave up and went to do his own tour of Charleston.

The streets of CharlestonTen minutes later, more or less, we finally went ashore. We had no idea he'd been there until Julie checked her e-mail back home, a week later.

Charleston is a once-major port whose growth was abruptly stunted by the War Between the States, resulting in the preservation of assorted interesting antebellum stuff. We took a leisurely walk through the oldest part of town, starting with the old market -- which is long and narrow, running between the two halves of Market Street -- then heading down toward the point past assorted historical buildings (the Round Church, the Hibernian Society, etc.), turning left again for a look at Rainbow Row (a block of 18th-century merchants' houses), then left again and back along the waterfront to the ship.

The market was definitely the most entertaining part -- at one time it was a major commodities market, selling ships' cargos, including slaves, but now it's a flea market. The local specialty item is woven sea-grass baskets, which have been hand-made there for a couple of centuries -- some of the same families are still at it. We admired them, but didn't buy any.

Baskets for saleThe market itself is a brick structure with mostly-open sides, by the way; it extends several blocks, from the waterfront up to the center of town.

Rainbow Row was less interesting than we'd hoped, but still worth a look. It survived largely by not being worth tearing down, and was a slum for much of this century; the sets for "Porgy and Bess" were allegedly modelled on its rear facades.

There's a lovely park on the waterfront near Rainbow Row, by the way -- a good place to take a bit of a break.

One minor curiosity of Charleston is its abundance of lizards; we saw several of them crawling on buildings, even in the heart of downtown.

And we returned to the ship without incident.

That night's show was the big spectacular of the voyage -- a production of "The Pirates of Penzance."

It was, however, edited down to a mere 55 minutes, to allow two performances in an evening and to suit the short attention spans presumed of cruise passengers, and had to make do with a relatively small cast and stage. The shortage of cast resulted in several double roles -- the police were played by actors who had previously appeared as pirates and even as some of the Major General's wards, outlandish as female cops in Victorian England might seem.

Rainbow RowThe more tedious songs were dropped entirely; the role of the nursemaid was eliminated, replaced by four lines of explanatory dialogue by Frederick, which meant losing one of the good songs ("Oh, false one, you have deceived me..."), but was otherwise a good idea under the circumstances. There was much updating, including of musical arrangements -- one song did a brief segue into the Village People's "YMCA," for example, at an oddly appropriate moment.

The result was reasonably successful, though the plot tended to blur; it was certainly energetic. The Pirate King, in particular, leapt about buckling swashes with abandon -- he made one entrance by zipline from the balcony, for example, and another by flinging himself over the orchestra pit from the audience.

I suspect that Sir William Gilbert would have enjoyed it, but that Sir Arthur Sullivan would have been utterly horrified. Or do I have them backward?

Julie and Lawrence dressed up againThat night's event in the Observation Lounge, later on, was Karaoke Night; Julie and Kiri and I attended. (Julian was in bed by then.) The performances ranged (unsurprisingly) from abysmal to near-professional in quality -- sometimes in the course of a single song -- but averaged better than we'd expected.

I seriously considered attempting "Summertime Blues," was urged by Julie to do so, but in the end chickened out. I now regret this. New experiences (if non-injurious) should be embraced, not avoided, and I passed up both the karaoke and the parasailing.

By the way, it would've been the Who's version of "Summertime Blues," since that's what they had for their karaoke set-up. Also, this was the second formal evening, and I hadn't bothered changing, so I was still in my black suit and red tie. Would've looked good out there singing. Damn.

And then to bed.

The following day was at sea, and our last aboard. I took my second try at trapshooting, lost a little more money in the casino (net for the cruise I wound up losing a modest amount, after having been up for the first few days), sympathized with the kids on the fact that the pool was never refilled and reopened after the storm, and generally took it easy.

Sunset over the ChesapeakeWe spent some time packing, tagging our luggage with color-coded labels, and so on -- everything would be carted ashore in the morning before we left the ship. We also figured and paid the expected tips to the dining room and cabin attendants.

We also watched "The Wedding Singer" on the ship's TV system -- we'd seen it before, but it's a good movie and holds up under rewatching.

That night's show was a farewell performance -- encores by Glenn Smith, Ralph Achilles, and Jean Boucher. We all attended, and had a good time.

At bedtime we set our luggage out in the hall, having carefully saved out the few items we'd need in the morning, and went to sleep.

I'd had some vague idea of staying up late or getting up early in order to see one particular event. If you're familiar with the DC area, or have at least driven I-95 through, you know the Woodrow Wilson Bridge; that's where I-95 and I-495 (the Beltway) cross the Potomac.

Sunset over the ChesapeakeIt's also a drawbridge, downstream from our intended port in Alexandria.

And because it's where it is, it's a drawbridge that by law can't be raised during rush hour, defined (I believe) as 6:00-10:00 a.m. and 3:00-7:00 p.m. We were scheduled to pass under it at 3:30 a.m., give or take a few minutes.

And the Leeward's next cruise was scheduled to depart in time to get under it well before the 3:00 p.m. cut-off -- they were aiming at 1:00 p.m.

It takes time to get people aboard; this meant they wanted to start loading the incoming passengers by 9:30. This meant they wanted the departing passengers -- us -- all off the ship by 8:30.

They didn't make it unloading us that soon, but they tried. I didn't stay up, nor rise early enough, to see the bridge; instead I was awakened by announcements at 6:30 or so. We were docked in Alexandria, and U.S. Customs was at work. Passengers were to be sent ashore by decks as soon as Customs cleared the ship. Luggage was being loaded out onto the pier, sorted by deck under a big tent. Breakfast started serving at 5:45.

We decided we didn't want to deal with a real breakfast at that hour; instead we went up to the sports bar and got pastries and the like. From then until they called for Deck 6, we alternated between watching the procedures ashore from the Deck 5 promenade, and watching Channel 9 on the TV in our cabin.

The ship was picking up our local Channel 9, which was running news coverage of the Leeward's arrival. That was amusing, really.

For one thing, I'd come to think of the Leeward as small -- by cruise ship standards she is, and after a week aboard I knew my way around well enough that she seemed very compact and familiar. Well, to the local newsfolk in Alexandria, she was huge, and they said so -- the largest ship to ever dock there!

Looking out from the promenade we could believe it -- at eleven stories high, the Leeward was one of the tallest structures in Alexandria at that time.

She was also only the third cruise ship to ever dock there, and the first in years -- it really was news, after a fashion. In Cozumel or Key West cruise ships are an everyday event; the locals know the names and schedules for most of them. In Charleston the Leeward was a mild curiosity -- they get cruise ships there, but not very often. In Alexandria she was An Event.

Eventually they called for Deck 7 passengers to disembark, and we gathered ourselves up and began drifting toward the exit on Deck 3. Then they called for Deck 6, and we marched off, past a Customs agent with a drug-sniffing dog, passports in hand (they'd been returned a few nights before, after the paperwork for U.S. and Bahamian immigration was done).

We collected our luggage (and found a porter with a cart), then headed for the line of shuttle buses. We'd been told that there would be a shuttle bus to National Airport, where we'd left our car.

The man directing people to the appropriate shuttle buses said there was no such thing. There were buses to Dulles and various hotels; to get to National we should take a hotel shuttle, then get the airport shuttle from there.

Have I mentioned that I was scheduled for my first panel at the Baltimore Worldcon at 1:00 that afternoon, and it's an hour's drive to Baltimore? I didn't want to do anything as tiresome and time-consuming as going via hotel. National Airport was just a mile or two upriver, after all.

So we devised an alternative plan -- I'd get a cab to the airport, then come back in the car and collect everyone. Which is what we did -- there was a cab line at the corner, and it wasn't at all long yet.

The cab dispatcher there was frantic -- they'd had maybe a dozen cabs assigned here, and they were already gone, and they really hadn't realized that there were nine hundred people getting off that ship... He was yelling into his radio that this was opportunities beyond imagination here, that all those cab drivers who bitched about not having enough fares on weekday mornings should stop complaining and get the hell down to Orinoco and Union.

Cabs were trickling in; I got one, sharing it with a woman also headed for the airport. On the ride there we could hear the dispatcher still shouting for more cabs -- "It's raining gravy down here!"

M/S Leeward in AlexandriaI got the car, headed back -- and it sure wasn't hard to find the ship; it towered over the city. Alexandria is not very tall.

I collected spouse, kids, and luggage from the corner of the park at Orinoco and Union -- they'd enjoyed just sitting in the fresh air, watching other people hurry about. Passengers were still coming off the ship; the cab line was now half a block long, though cabs were arriving and departing steadily. Several shuttle buses were gone, but more were loading.

We didn't stay to watch, though. We went home.

And the Leeward departed on schedule that afternoon, so far as we know. We considered going down to Alexandria to watch its subsequent arrivals or departures, and eventually did watch its next-to-last departure.

Didion World Cruises announced that there wouldn't be any cruises out of Alexandria in 1999, but that there might be more someday. I hope Ed Didion recouped his six million bucks.


This concludes this trip report. Links to the previous installments are below: