Holidays on the High Seas

Aug 11, 2021 | Lifestyle

By Amelia Epley

I was feeling the rocking of the boat as I fixed my hair for Thanksgiving dinner. I turned off the blower and reapplied the herbal oil behind my ears. Tonight’s seasickness would be rough. It had been a windy day in Belize. I was standing to put on my boots but had to pivot on one leg and land on the bed as the ship caught a bad sway. A quick application of lipstick, and I was ready.

My mother was already put together and waiting for me on the pool deck. She had made reservations at Aqua, one of the Norwegian Dawn’s many restaurants. It was on the 6th deck and we were on the 12th, so we decided to use the stairs instead of waiting for elevators that everyone was using at once.

When we got to Aqua, the hallway was packed with people. Everyone was in their best dress and waiting for a Thanksgiving dinner reservation. It wasn’t dinner at Granny’s house, where carved turkey and glazed ham usually sat among a collection of Thanksgiving garnishes but things were different this year. Mom husband, John, died in April of lung cancer and this was the first family holiday without him. He always said he wanted to take her on a cruise to Cozumel, so she decided to spend the holiday this way and asked me to go with her.

The passengers and I aboard the Norwegian Dawn traded typical Thanksgiving traditions for a cruise ship and a Caribbean climate. No one spent hours in the kitchen except the staff and crew. No one watched football. Each day was spent in a different country and I was not the only one to come back with a tan.

This ship can host 2,340 guests and it was sold out for the holiday. Numerous restaurant workers, cabin stewards, bartenders and hosts from many different countries entertained guests every day. Around 1,000 crew members come to work 8-month contracts with the cruise line and this crew will not get a full day off until their contract is over. Once they dock on Sundays, its back to work and preparing for a new crowd of guests, most of whom are older than 40 years old, married with families and, according to the FCCA, earn an annual income of $114,000.

This Sunday began in New Orleans and there was a send-off party on the pool deck. Just about every person over 21 had a drink in their hand, eager to start their vacation. I heard Dan France’s clear British accent before I saw him. The Norwegian Dawn’s cruise director had a microphone in hand and was getting the party hyped up by drawing people to the dance floor for the Cupid Shuffle and the Cha-Cha Slide.

Cheers roared when the boat began pulling off and toasts were made. People took selfies and introduced themselves to new friends. At one point, France was leading a long conga line that was making its way in a big loop around the pool – getting longer every second. It weaved through the tables and couches, around the four corners of the pool that held the four hot tubs, all full with people.

The sun was strong in the sky when we pulled away, but it was slowly dropping toward the horizon as the boat made its way down the Mississippi River and closer to the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn’t until most of the light had left the sky that the horizon was nothing but ocean, clouds and stars.

The pool deck was lined by floor-to-ceiling windows and tables looked out over the ocean. Three men sat at one of the tables playing dominoes. Chance Courtney had been playing for a couple of hours with two new friends. He was from Texas and the men with him were from New Orleans and Mississippi, but a game of dominoes brought them together as they joked around and talked about their families, while they drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes.

Courtney was there with 32 family members — his parents, his five brothers and sisters, their wives and husbands and all of their children. This was the family’s third cruise traveling as a group, but it was the first one taken on a holiday. They manage a family owned and operated construction company in Texas, and some of them occupied the penthouses on deck 14 that overlooked the pool deck and had a spectacular view. Courtney had some reservations about throwing away tradition for luxury, but he said he can’t say no to his mama.

“I live, eat, and sleep tradition,” he said. He has been trying for 10 years to teach his kids the value of the traditions they keep. In 39 years, he had never eaten a Thanksgiving meal anywhere except the matriarch’s house, where his mother served her signature dressing.

“I freaked out when I realized I might not have dressing on Thanksgiving,” he said. He had his mom make some dressing, also known as filling or stuffing, before the trip. They froze it to pack it with them. Unfortunately, he dropped it and it spilled to the ground during the packing process, forcing him to concede to whatever the ship had planned for the Thanksgiving meal.

As I moved into the lower decks of the ship, I saw crew members milling around their respective stations and drunk or confused guests trying to navigate the ship’s many sections to meet loved ones or new friends for Sunday dinner.

They had many options to choose from but the ship’s main dining rooms were full and there was a 30-45 minute wait. There was live music in the Atrium and the Garden Café buffet was overflowing with food. Fried fish filets and huge bowls of tartar sauce were served next to the chicken alfredo pasta and grilled vegetable skewers. Then there is what I called the All-American section which included french fries, pizza, hotdogs and cheeseburgers. In the morning, you could get freshly squeezed juice and made-to-order omelets.

The cigar bar was a place for conversation after dinner. Dim lights illuminated plumes of smoke that rose from heavy glass ashtrays, and the air in the small, enclosed room was thick with it. People relaxed in mustard colored couches and black leather chairs with glasses of red wine and their favorite cocktails, talking of motorcycles, career paths and past vacations to Mexico.

“You throw a peso into a group of little kids and the fight is on,” one man with a long bushy beard said. “It’s quite entertaining.”

His audience laughed as he took another drag from his cigar and for a second, his face was hidden by smoke. A woman across the room asked me where I am from, and I introduced myself as a journalism student at Western Kentucky University. She told me her name is Barbara Benz and she works in Las Vegas, Nevada, as tour guide. She came on this cruise alone because her son is with other family. Her 70th birthday was two days away. I asked if I could celebrate with her and she readily accepted.

“Through the years, I’ve traveled by myself and its fine because I meet people,” she said. “When you travel with other people, you have to do what they want to do.”

Later that evening, I decided to check out the show going on in Bliss Lounge on the 7th deck, hosted by Dan France and his staff. Right before the show began, the group huddled up together for a quick rundown of the performance. When they broke apart and saw me with my camera, they posed for a quick picture. I laughed as they gave me this moment and then fluidly danced away to start the show.

France’s red hair and accent made him an easy person to spot throughout the trip. People were impressed by his great energy and how hard he must have worked to be directing a ship like this at 27 years old. The first day ended in sleepy drunk smiles after a long day of traveling and excitement. The next day would be spent at sea and I’m sure that I was not the only one worried about getting seasick.

After waking up completely devoid of nutrients and in desperate need of electrolytes and food, I stood on the deck of the ship and admired the endless expanse of ocean and blue sky that welcomed me. Mom had been poolside since the early morning and had flashed a $20 bill at a server to keep her mimosas full.

After dinner, I checked out the casino for the first time. Blackjack and roulette tables were wedged in between the penny slots and other games. Bright lights flashed, and the sounds of people winning were echoing around me. They sat mesmerized with cocktails in hand, some were smoking cigarettes. I was up $100 when I decided to stop and make my way to the Café for dessert and coffee.

After finally finding the desserts seemingly hidden in the back of the buffet line, I sat down with my chocolate mousse pie and black coffee. A man and his wife were leaving when he saw what I had found and asked me, “Where did you find that?” Knowing his struggle, I told him as his wife shook her head, playfully batting him out the door with her hands saying, “He don’t want that!”

In Cozumel on Tuesday, Benz was going to meet new friends at Señor Frogs for a birthday lunch celebration. Courtney and his brother Shane rented a jeep to check out the Mayan ruins and do a tequila tasting that turned out to be shot after shot. They must have taken it to a whole other level because Shane, after being asked about his day, responded with, “I need to go to church.”

My mom decided to try Sea Trekking. We wore a 70 lbs helmet on our heads, which was much lighter under water, as we walked on the ocean floor 25 feet below the surface. Our host led us around the sea floor as a camera man swam around in flippers and filmed us. We were continuously encouraged to pause and pose, dancing and waving at the camera while we played with fish and snapped photos with our underwater disposables.

As we emerged from the Gulf after around 30 minutes of being under water, we were met by a couple sitting at a table directly in front of us. I recognized them as the couple I met after getting dessert the night before.

They were curious to know what we had been doing with that thing on our head. When we told them that it allowed us to walk 25 feet below on the ocean floor, Thornell looked impressed as he said: “Uh uh… That’s crazy! You’re brave for doing that!”

Thornell and Carla Washington were from Stockton, California and were used to cruising. They usually go up and down the Pacific coast to Baja, Mexico. He owned a septic business and considered himself very lucky and said he had a lot to be thankful for. They’d never taken a holiday vacation but were grateful for the warm climates of the Caribbean and the opportunity to skip Thanksgiving meal preparation and cleanup.

Once we got back to the ship, I washed up and went to find Barbara Benz for her birthday dinner. She was excited that of all the days, France had planned an “American Graffiti” show featuring music from Barb’s era, the 1950s, in the Atrium. She was joyful and looked beautiful in a bright blue dress with colorful flowers embroidered on the front, her white hair shining and standing out against the hues.

She told me her cabin steward brought her a birthday cupcake and Jose, the Café worker, made her a paper flower from a napkin. Everywhere we went, Barb would get “Happy Birthday” from various guests. She had already made plenty of new friends to keep her company this week. As we sat watching the show, the performers kept asking trivia questions about the 1950s and Barb knew every answer.

“Let’s go to Lubbock, Texas! Who came from Lubbock?” the musician asked.

“Buddy Holley!” Barb called out loudly with a shining smile on her face.

Wednesday in Honduras was a great adventure and everyone I talked to later said they had a great time playing with monkeys and seeing the island, as did I. People were having so much fun and time was passing by so slowly that I couldn’t believe that we had only been aboard the Dawn for three nights.

When Thursday came and the passengers readied themselves for Harvest Caye, a private island owned by the cruise line just outside of Belize, most were surprised that it was Thanksgiving. It didn’t feel like Thanksgiving at all, but most families had reservations at one of the restaurants for a turkey dinner.

It was a dreary day and one beer was $9, so mom and I bailed and spent our day poolside on the boat with our unlimited beverage package and complimentary food, getting to know Ronnie and Renee, a “permanently engaged” couple from Pensacola, Florida.

The Courtneys were a great presence on the ship. I had managed to meet 30 of the family members but still had not met their mother and father. Apparently they spent most of their time in their room or in the casino. I showed up at 6:30 p.m. in Aqua for their Thanksgiving reservations and finally got to see them all sitting together as they took up seven or eight tables between them all. Chance and his family were the last to arrive before I was called away because my own table was ready and my mother was waiting.

The restaurant was packed close with families eating what you might call a traditional Thanksgiving meal, but I knew that Chance Courtney was missing his mama’s dressing because I was definitely missing mine’s. This dressing was not up to par for my tastes, neither was what they were calling a green been casserole, but the turkey and the sweet potatoes were good. The meal was very healthily made, whereas, I’m used to Southern dishes soaked in butter and gravy. I chalked it up to the fact that a British man was hosting our Thanksgiving meal, eliciting a chuckle from my mother.

There were football games playing on some of the televisions throughout the ship, but every time I passed by one, I saw no one was watching. Guests were milling about in their best dress for the occasion, and the drinks were flowing. Barb was eating at the Venetian, the main dining room, with a family that she had befriended, and the staff was busier than ever.

The wind had picked up to dangerous speeds and the open decks were closed due to the high winds. I was using the oil mom had given me to combat sea sickness, but it wasn’t helping much. The boat tossed on, and when I laid my head down in my cabin later, the sickness dissipated and the waves rocked me to sleep.

On Friday, the ship docked in Costa Maya, Mexico at 7:00 a.m., and Mom and I did not wait long to head out, traveling the short distance to the beach and making it there by 8:00 a.m. I truly felt like I was in paradise and the fact that my mother and I were the first tourists on the beach made it even better. We were treated like royalty, having had the extra hour to befriend the locals and beach staff while the rest of the passengers took their time getting to the shores.

Our all-inclusive pass at the Tipsy Turtle restaurant and hotel on Barefoot Beach allowed us unlimited drinks, unlimited food and a one-hour massage on the beach—which we got before everyone else began arriving so it would be peaceful. Mom was drinking her mimosas again and I chose a tequila sunrise.

Sam would have another drink for us as soon as we were out and he seemed to find the perfect time to offer lunch—plates piled high with nachos and chicken tacos. As we sat, venders selling snacks, cigars and homemade wares kept walking up. They weren’t pushy though. If you weren’t interested in what they were selling, you said, “No thank you.” They may insist but once you repeat, “No thank you,” they walk off.

There was one vendor selling snacks out of a heavy looking basket that he carried on his head without using his hands and when he saw me taking his photo, he posed standing on one leg. He came over to talk to us and mom, who by this point was very drunk, was playfully asking him to marry her because she wanted to move there as soon as possible.

“Your mom will be my señorita!” he said, looking at me and wiggling his eyebrows.

“Then that means you’re gonna be my new daddy,” I said, which sent him howling with laughter.

After we ate and took a walk down the strip to get a sense of the place, we returned to Sam setting up two beach loungers and a stool for a table on the shoreline facing the sun.

“This guy thinks of everything,” I told mom. When we told him how wonderful everything had been, he asked us to rate him on TripAdvisor. He snapped a photo of us in our loungers and put it on his Facebook page. When the time came for us to head back to the ship, Sam came to tell us that he would get us a taxi whenever we were ready. We were definitely were not ready, but the boat would leave without us if we didn’t leave soon.

During the $2 taxi ride back, mom was asking the driver how much teachers were paid and what rent was like, but this time she was sober and not asking him to marry her. A few days later, she told me she got a message from Sam asking if she wanted to help him start a nightclub in Costa Maya. I wouldn’t be surprised if she actually ended up there, night club or no, because she truly enjoyed herself that day.

Saturday was the last day at sea. Everyone I talked to enjoyed reflecting on the trip and expressed their sadness at returning to colder climates the next day. As the night came closer and our boat traveled farther north towards New Orleans, you could tell. The air was getting colder, and the guests donned light jackets or opted for the hot tubs.

In the Atrium, Thornell stopped me to say how much he’s enjoyed my presence on the boat, ensuring me that I had a great energy about me and that if I worked hard and was brave, I could achieve anything I set out to do. He said that he already knew I was brave when mom and I came up out of the Gulf, wearing those helmets, after our Sea Trek in Cozumel.

He gave me his contact information because he wanted to keep up with me and insisted that I watch Steve Harvey’s motivational video “Jump” on YouTube, saying it would change my life by teaching me to let go of fear and realize my goals. I said that I would definitely watch it and assured him that I would keep in touch and thanked him for his kind words.

Barbara told me that I was welcome in Las Vegas whenever I wanted to visit and that I could stay at her house just around the corner from the Strip. I also have a place to stay in Pensacola whenever I wanted to visit Ronnie and Renee. I got emails from the Courtney family so I could send them the photos I took of their family, and I thanked Dan France for his hard work to make this a fantastic vacation.

Sunday was bittersweet for most of the passengers. Some were eager to return home or to finally have their cell phone data back. I was woken up to my phone ding, ding, dinging from the numerous texts and notifications that never made it through during the seven days I went without service. That’s how I knew we were back on the Mississippi River and home wasn’t far away anymore. We ate one last meal in the café and began packing our bags.

The mass exodus off of the ship was tiresome. We waited in line for a long time and there was a screaming toddler in the line with us. I felt her pain. I didn’t want to leave either.

I was almost off the gangway when I spotted Ronnie and Renee on the deck of the ship. I paused to give them an enthusiastic wave through the window, and they responded in kind once they saw me. I would miss these new friends and vowed to keep in touch like I said I would.

The trip was the best experience of my entire life. To have spent it during such an important American holiday was interesting but welcomed. I thought about Chance Courtney and told mom that she was going to have to make me a pan of her dressing when we got home.

Even though the guests aboard the Dawn celebrated a different kind of Thanksgiving holiday, the main reasons to celebrate were not missed. Everyone had something for which to be thankful. Barb was thankful for her freedom, I was thankful for the vacation and time spent alone with my mother, and Chance Courtney was thankful for his family. The location didn’t matter, only the company.

“Everything I love about Thanksgiving is on this boat,” Chance said, and I knew it to be true.

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