Half Moon Cay, HAL's private island getaway.

WIllemstad, Curacao, in typical Caribbean colors.

Cruise ships often dwarf the ports they visit.

The World of ResidenSea, condo cruise ship.

Above two photos: Queen Emma Floating Bridge


Every March, some old college buddies and I get together in Hollywood, FL, for a weekend of folk music and reminiscing. It made good sense to show up a bit early and take a cruise out of Fort Lauderdale. The Miami area is, without question, the cruise capital of the world. Having said that, living in Texas, we look for cruises to depart from Galveston. We didn't really care much about the ports of call, just the schedule. Frankly, I don't remember which ship we were on. It is part of my research, however, to go on as many cruise lines as possible. Linda already had a deposit for Holland American Lines, dating from before we began cruising together.

It's rare to go more than two days at sea in the Caribbean, without stopping at some port. The major cruise companies also own their own islands (or, I suppose, rent them), which is included as one of the stops. In that way, they can control the environment, make sure it is safe, and also cash in on the shore portion as well as the cruise. For Holland American Line (let's call them HAL), it is Half Moon Cay (the third word is pronounced "key").

The photo (left, top) makes it look like the ship is sitting on that little spit of land, but it is really well behind it. The shallowness of that water contributes to its outrageously brilliant turquoise color. However, it also prevents the ship from docking. So we take "tenders" to the shore. There are railroad cars called tenders, and navy ships. But in this case, they are lifeboats, used to ferry the passengers to the shore. Some people avoid cruises because they think having several thousand people on board a ship will mean terrible crowding and long waiting lines. Certainly, when sitting in the show lounge with hundreds of other people, you get a sense of the population. And when the show lets out, there is briefly a line to exit, although the people seem to disperse rather quickly. The only times I have waited in line have been during the initial boarding process (caused, in part, by our early arrival), and when taking the tenders to shore. Even then, the wait is rarely more than 10 minutes or so. Exiting the ship, the passengers have their ID cards scanned. Returning, another scan, plus placing one's carry-on's through the x-ray machines, similar to airports. For Half Moon Cay, being a controlled area, security wasn't quite so strict.

The tenders are really covered twin-engine lifeboats that carry 80 or more people. Not everyone goes to shore, of course. The staff also goes to shore, carrying great quantities of food for the free lunch buffet. In some ports, the action is far from the port, requiring a taxi or bus or long walk. Half Moon Cay, of course, was immediately under our feet. We could have gone horse back riding, snorkeling, jet ski riding, and other activities, but we just walked. It was not crowded, the sand was pristine, white, and soft. There were numerous hammocks tied between palm trees. We came to a pirate ship themed bar, with requisite music and drinks, but that wasn't for us. We sat on some benches that were in the shade, looking out at the water and feeling the gentle breeze. It was about 80 degrees outside.

Humorously, Linda kept calling it Princess Cay, which, of course, is a different Cay. Norwegian Cruise Lines has Great Stirrup Cay, Disney has Castaway Cay, Royal Caribbean has Coco Cay. I think it is Royal Caribbean that also has a place on the shore of Haiti, called Labadee. Besides safety, the benefit of the setting was the lack of vendors. Sure, there were some booths where we could go and look at things. But unlike beaches on the major islands, no vendors wake you up and try to sell you anything. When we go to Puerto Vallarta every January, we encounter many vendors. I find them to be very hard working, standing in the hot sun, pitching their wares. When we say "no," few are insistent. They have always been polite. And, in some cases, I have made purchases. Still, I prefer Half Moon Cay.

We ate from a copious choice of items on a buffet located under a roof, with many picnic tables also sheltered from the sun. The folk singer that I liked on the ship was set up to one side -- amplified, but not loudly. Margaritaville. Montego Bay. The usual sort of songs, with a smattering of Beatles thrown in. Onboard ship, he plays for four hours every evening in one of the lounges. We enjoyed his music on several occasions. Even as vegetarians, we found plenty to eat -- and to stay away from. Hm-m-m-m. those chocolate chip cookies and lemon squares.

After several hours, we returned to the ship well before the deadline, to avoid any last minute rush. After one sea day, we arrived in the ABC islands, that is, the Dutch possessions of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao. These are rather separate from most of the other Caribbean islands. Think of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, being a very large island. Going east, you come to Puerto Rico. Continue east, then swing south, and finally, a little west. That great crescent contains most of the islands we associate with the Caribbean, such as St. Maarten, Antigua, Martinique, Granada, all the way down to Trinidad. The ABC islands are not a part of this chain. They are further west, just north of Venezuela. One resident we talked to liked Aruba because the oil industry makes the island more prosperous, and therefore doesn't have that sort of Third World feel of grinding poverty.

It was also in Aruba that we saw The World of ResidenSea, a condo cruise ship that I had read about (photo left). It was immediately apparent that the design was different than a cruise ship. rather than hundreds of 10-foot-wide balcony cubicles lined up, the balconies were long and spacious. You buy your stateroom, which you can use for yourself or rent out to others. We met a couple who just got off, who booked a few weeks through an exclusive vacation club. I wish I had asked to go aboard for a tour. Staterooms start at 1.4 million dollars and go up to about 6 million. The ship always operates every amenity -- including seven restaurants -- regardless of how many people are actually on board. Taking around three years to circle the globe, the owners can join or leave at any time. Unlike a cruise ship, they often stay in port for several weeks at a time. From what we were told, we calculated the annual condo fee as being about $200,000. I wonder if the meals are free or if they cost extra. There have been other condo ships planned, but this is the only one operating (since 2002). I have always enjoyed the passenger to crew ratio on some of the more luxurious cruises, sometimes coming close to 1:1. But for The World, it is extreme. The 110 apartments and 88 guest suites hold a total of 285 passengers, whereas there is a crew of 1,096. That's almost four crew for each passenger. Our excursion into town entailed the usual: A meal at an interesting restaurant, buy a few trinkets for the grand kids, and find a T-shirt or two for me and Linda. Mine says something like, "Aruba, One Happy Island."

Much more interesting to me was Willemstad in Curacao (photo left, below ResidenSea). It was a holiday there, so stores were closed and residents were out, preparing for a parade somewhere. We sat along the quay and had a delicious frozen coffee drink. There is a market in which the vendors' wares are all in boats. In fact, many of these vendors come from Venezuela, which is only 35 miles away and can be seen on a clear day. The city is divided by a large river. What to do? The cruise ships actually go up the river and dock along the bank (photo left, bottom). When weather is bad, there is a ferry that crosses the river, to connect the two parts of the city. There are two forts at the mouth of the river, on each side.

Then, someone had an ingenious idea. Let's build a floating bridge. When we first heard of it, we pictured some shaky pontoons hooked together, with people walking unsteadily, rather like the hanging rope bridges in Puerto Vallarta. To our surprise, that wasn't it at all. The bridge is wide, and made solidly, like a boardwalk or a major pier (photos, left). You can drive vehicles across it. It doesn't telescope or fold, as I imagined. Rather, it is hinged at one corner. When the time comes to close it, to let a ship in, a powerful motor starts up and pushes the bridge, which hinges and lies flat along the bank of the river. Then, when the ship has passed, it can return. It takes about 20 minutes to open and to close, so we found ourselves "stranded" for a short while before we could cross back over. I didn't notice if people actually stay on the bride while it is moving. Wouldn't that be fun! It is called the Queen Amma Floating Bridge.

Then we had two sea days going back to Fort Lauderdale. It all goes so quickly. A week just isn't enough time. My book, Found at Sea, is about a 17-day cruise. I'm ready for much longer than that.