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Copyright 1995-2001 
Linda Coffman

 

Great Group Cruise 2000

by Linda Coffman

Keep an eye on the NORWEGIAN SKY

The Great Group Cruisers made it... enduring icy Atlanta runways and homicidal south Florida motorists, we arrived!

Dick's Last Resort, site of the Bon Voyage Blow-out may never be the same.  We cruised in on Saturday night and began eating--the first of the mandatory five meals a day so necessary to veteran cruisers.  What a fun place.  The wait staff puts on quite a show, but it was nothing compared to meeting and greeting one another with handshakes and hugs and screams of recognition.  Our host and travel agent George Leppla obviously loves parties--greeting everyone with a smile and mentally counting noses.  Dining, dancing, meeting old friends and new... could life get any BETTER than this?  Well, of course--once we board our vessel!

(hereafter, Great Group Cruise = GGC)

Sunday, January 23, 2000
Embarkation & Sail-away

Sunday dawned bright and balmy in Miami. Boarding Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Sky was a one hour process for Latitudes members who arrived about noon.  Not the fastest boarding, but with such amiable companions in line, who cares?  

Once on board, donning nametags made further introductions and recognition a simple matter.  Amazing... after only a few minutes of conversation, it's like I've known some of the Great Group Cruisers for years.  Well, I guess I really have!  What a wonderful feeling to come across old friends face-to-face for the very first time.  

By 3:00pm Mel and I had hit the buffet, unpacked our luggage, and stowed our belongings (rather tight even in balcony staterooms).  We prepared for the lifeboat drill and sail-away festivities, but sailing time came and went with the Norwegian Sky still docked as a crane lowered equipment to her topmost deck.  No problem... Carnival's Paradise and Destiny departed; however, the Royal Caribbean ships behind us were still awaiting late arrivals--passengers in motorcoaches sped beneath our balcony, no doubt relieved to see the lights of the World's Largest Cruise Ship beckoning them to embark.

Happening across our Captain, Owen Whitlock inquired about sailing time.  Perhaps anticipating a spate of complaints, he was somewhat reticent until Owen made it clear she was simply wondering there was time to return to her cabin before we left.  Captain Juliussen reassured her there was no rush--the Norwegian Sky would not sail until everything was ship shape.  Departing without the usual fanfare, Great Group Cruisers didn't fill the Miami sky with bubbles as planned--some were at Early Seating dinner as we slipped our mooring, others were relaxing before Late Seating.    

Tired, and happy to feel the slight swell of the ocean beneath us, we slept until our very punctual breakfast order arrived at 7:30am the next morning.

Monday, January 24, 2000
At Sea--Sailing SOUTH

Mel and I savored coffee on the balcony while a watery dawn streamed over us.  Yes, rain punctuated our arrival in Nassau.  Even "When You Wish Upon A Star," announcing the arrival of  Disney Magic, didn't brighten the day.  

The bad news was it was pouring rain and those who'd booked the private shore excursion were left standing soggy at the dock (an error by the excursion management's scheduling!)--the good news was that anyone who wished to tour anyway went happily off by taxi.  Others were just as glad the bus didn't show up, preferring a refund to slogging around in the storm.  I spent the morning poking around the ship.  What a beauty she is!  Meeting up with fellow GGCers, we gravitated to the Observatory Lounge to read and observe... more rain.

Hearty souls, paying little heed to the bleak Caribbean sky, took advantage of Norwegian Sky's hot tubs.  Who's going to complain with Jimmy Buffett music in the background and sailaway Margaritas at the pool bar?

So... we sailed into the gray, dreary, and chilly afternoon.  The Dutyfree.com shop enjoyed brisk sweatshirt sales!  It was time for Bingo, the casino, trivia games, art auctions, and long lazy napping.  I'm certain some passengers weren't happy with Mother Nature, but color me thrilled to be at sea again on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship and anticipating Formal Night and the Captain's Welcome Party.

Tuesday, January 25, 2000
At Sea--Still Sailing SOUTH

Party day!  No big improvement in the weather--still rainy and chilly.  After buying sweatshirts, we warmed up and carried on with Bubba Grok's Hillbilly Bash.

Bubba (otherwise known as George Leppla) arrived in glorious red flannel and cut-off pants.  A more gracious host has never trod the stage of the Stardust Lounge, the only room on the Norwegian Sky large enough to accommodate the GGCers.  After determining that a number of us are real Bubbas and Bubbettes, contestants in the GGC 2000 Theme Song Contest performed to the accompaniment of the 432 member kazoo chorus.  I particularly like the following from Win Latham's group pleasing entry (to the tune of "Let It Be")...

"But now I'm looking all around me
Fashion emergencies are all I see
I'm trapped with newsgroup junkies, out at sea."

Ever on the alert for Fashion Police, we were attired in the chicest of tees, adorned with the official GGC logo designed by our own artist Peter Bugda.  Well, most of us were and the rest came in their finest hillbilly duds to vie for the best-dressed award.  Speaking of best-dressed, MisterEd Shuster had a really difficult job--leading the judging of the cooler decorating contest.  A crowd pleaser was the Igloo that opened to reveal an eerily accurate miniature Norwegian Sky cabin interior.  I heard someone say it was almost as BIG as their cabin... 

An in-place scavenger hunt revealed some interesting and creative "finds" and was a hilarious conclusion to our first gathering of the day.  The creativity and talent displayed by group members just blew me away.

Before we get together for yet another party, I'd like to share some of the goodies the Great Group Cruisers enjoyed.  Upon boarding, we checked in with our hospitality desk and were given mugs with Peter's logo imprinted on them and the GGC 2000 Coast to Coast cookbook compiled with contributions from 100 cruisers representing 23 states in the US, 3 Canadian provinces, and 79 cities.  Edited by Gregory and Brenda Read, the most important recipe is:

Ingredients:

Organizer & webmaster, Dave Allen
Travel Agent, George Leppla
Social Hostess, Becca Love

"Take 434 people and pour into a large ship. Apply liberal amounts of food & drink & mix for seven days. Remove from ship & separate ingredients, storing memories of good times. Best enjoyed while fresh, but the memories will keep forever!"

What a VERY special group of people--we were bonding with our name badges and identification on our doors.  The GGC was a huge presence on a ship that contained at least a dozen other groups, but none nearly as large as ours.  Other passengers were already asking how they could be a part of the next GGC!

But on to the evening's festivities and the cocktail party compliments of Norwegian Cruise Line--and they were liberal, serving our beverages of choice and heavy hors d'oeuvres that were more generous than those served to repeaters at the Latitudes members party later in the evening.  

In addition to $25 per person onboard credit and a bottle of wine, GGCers had our own daily "Great Group Cruise News" to keep us up to date with our own activities, in addition to those scheduled by NCL.  Our newsletter contained "Talks with Tom" Gauldin to add a daily dose of humor, cruising trivia, and port facts.  It  was distributed by a small army of volunteers.  The level of participation was just what you'd expect of regulars on rec.travel.cruises, people known for their friendliness and caring.

Wednesday, January 26, 2000
San Juan, Puerto Rico

None of us will soon forget "Constance"--the lady who failed to report to US Immigration in San Juan and kept us captive aboard our vessel for over an hour.  This cumbersome United States procedure, combined with a stubborn woman's disdain for regulations, inconvenienced over 2000 passengers.   

Once cleared, Mel and I headed ashore, picking up a map of old San Juan from the visitors' information center just outside the terminal.  Admiring the Seabourn Legend, we strolled past Soapy's Internet Station just across from Pier 3 (to the left) and proceeded up Cristo.  Passing the remodeled hotel El Convento, we checked the menu at their Patio del Nispero.  At $10 for a hamburger, we decided not to stop for lunch but ducked into the Catedral de San Juan and then on to El Campo Del Morro, one of San Juan's forts.  Following the city wall back toward the waterfront, we admired the cool peaceful gardens of Casa Blanca and made our way to the Wyndham Hotel & Casino where we relaxed with cold Coca-Colas ($2.50 each) amid the clang of slot machines and whisper of cards being dealt to hopeful players.  The Wyndham is a good place to stop for a bathroom break--through the front entrance, go left past the reception desk, and then to the right.  Pay phones are also located here. 

A tour of El Yunque Rain Forest was offered to the Group and participants delighted in reporting NO RAIN.  Knowing the island well, Neil Fredette led a great walking tour through parts of the Old City that most of us wouldn't try... but he's not called BIG Neil for nothing!  Mel and I encountered a few street beggars at churches and some of the other tourist sites, but for the most part the neighborhoods we passed through were clean and the residents helpful when they noticed us consulting our guide map.  Plenty of taxis were available for tours if desired.

Thursday, January 27, 2000
St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands

We entered the busiest cruise ship harbor in the West Indies early and, thankfully, there was no delay clearing the ship.  Downtown Charlotte Amalie didn't seem terribly crowded even though Carnival Paradise, Enchantment of the Seas, and Norwegian Sky were docked at Havensight, Veendam was berthed at the Navy Dock, and Rembrandt and Melody were anchored in the harbor.  In the past I've seen more people in the stores with less ships in port.  Perhaps fewer passengers bothered to go into town with the large shopping area at Havensight right outside our hull. 

After a bit of shopping downtown, we elected to take the tramway up to Paradise Point to enjoy the view.  A taxi driver told us that at $8 per person it would be cheaper to take a cab, but we wanted to ride the tram.  At $12 per person (round-trip), it's a little pricey but the view is lovely and the ride serenely peaceful. 

Before returning to the ship we stopped at the AT&T World Net Service Internet Cafe to make calls and check email.  $3.00 for 15 minutes and a great, fast connection.  You'll find it across the street from Havensight--walk to the left after leaving the shopping area.

Just a point of interest--our AT&T Suncom cell phone worked fine in San Juan but not in St. Thomas.  Cellular One has service in St. Thomas.

Again, Great Group Cruisers had independent tours scheduled and the SNUBA in St. John was an exceptional experience.

Friday, January 28, 2000
At Sea--Sailing North

When the phone rang to announce breakfast was on the way I groaned.  Those were definitely clouds outside our balcony door.  Dark clouds.  The weather front that dogged us through the Bahamas earlier in the week had stalled.  It was poised to cause us more discomfort as we headed north to Great Stirrup Cay, NCL's private island.  Well, if I had to be indoors, I was determined to make the most of it and headed for the sauna and steam room.  

Most of the day was spent socializing with other cruisers--generally inside, although the truly determined were in the whirlpools.  Looking for a quiet place to relax, I struck up a conversation in Churchill's with a single woman who told me about the Norwegian Sky's dance hosts.  A widow, she really appreciated the presence of dancing partners.  While we talked, the craft-of-the-day lessons were being conducted next door in the Windjammer Bar.  It was pretty amusing to watch a couple dozen people make yarn "luggage tassels" and "pom poms" to better identify their suitcases.  One problem, though... they were all using the same color yarn.

Saturday, January 29, 2000
At Sea and Great Stirrup Cay

Today's schedule included the thrill of awards and the agony of de-beach.  Another drizzly dawn made landing on Norwegian Cruise Line's private island for a day at the beach questionable.  The island's Bahama-rama-mama tender took a scouting party ashore but it didn't look good.  The tender (and it's a good-sized boat!) bobbed about upon its return and Captain Juliussen determined it just wasn't safe to offload and take the chance that weather and sea conditions might deteriorate further.  While Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Seas passengers went ashore on their private island, I was later told that it was a bust to spend the day in the rain eating 'burgers on the beach.

No matter, it was time for the Great Group Cruise 2000 Awards Ceremony.  With over 120 prizes and awards to be given away, including a drawing for a free cruise, we had plenty to look forward to.  The virtual army of people from all over the US and Canada who toiled together for untold hours were saluted for contributing to the success of the GGC 2000.  In addition to recognizing those volunteers, a special gift was presented to George Leppla.  He was nearly speechless and choked back tears after he opened the package containing a Waterford Crystal ship.  While I don't have the space to mention everyone, it was very special to have two of the rec.travel.cruises newsgroup founders with us.

One final gathering was held following the Awards Ceremony--the taking of the Group Photo.  Our intrepid ship's photographer did a "king of the world" imitation and hung on for dear life from the deck railing above us.  The results say it all... it was a GREAT GROUP CRUISE!

The Last Dance

When suitcases line the ship's corridor, it's time for a final look around before the business of disembarkation captures our full attention.  Some of us gathered in the Observatory Lounge for a nightcap on Saturday night to share a bit more time together and say unhurried farewells.  Not real farewells, though--we know we'll all be together online at rec.travel.cruises and Seacruise chat.

As we did that night, I'd like to offer toasts to Peg Caldwell-Ott who planted the germ of an idea for the first Great Group Cruise and to Dave Allen who got the ball rolling... and finally, to George Leppla of Countryside Travel and the RTC volunteers whose vigilance and behind the scenes efforts made our enjoyment possible.

During our first dinner on the Norwegian Sky, I asked George when he was going to relax.  His response was, "A week from tomorrow."  This group cruise was a massive undertaking and I'm sure all the Great Group Cruisers join me in a hearty, "THANK YOU, GEORGE!!!"

Photos Courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line


Reach George Leppla at Countryside Travel

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