I was sitting at the bar in the karaoke lounge on the Carnival Fascination when a 30-something woman buying a glass of house red introduced herself.
Her name was Tracey, she was from Virginia, and she was on this weekend cruise with 10 other woman. All had left husbands and kids at home for a moms' getaway.
''Are you going to sing?'' Tracey asked.
''There's not enough liquor on this ship,'' I said.
''I have a good voice. I was going to sing,'' she said. ''But after that'' -- she motioned to a young woman singing The Greatest Love of All in a voice as lovely as Whitney Houston's -- ``I can't follow that.''
Five hours after leaving the Port of Miami, Tracey was well into her vacation groove, while I was still waiting for mine to start.
I've always been more interested in destinations than in getting to them, and cruising seemed a remarkably inefficient way of getting there that cheated me of time to explore an exciting new place.
But on this weekend, I was determined to change my mind-set. I would regard the cruise ship as a floating resort where the destination was incidental, even optional. Since I was already well acquainted with Nassau -- our only stop -- I would not feel deprived of the opportunity to spend more time ashore. At least that was my plan, though at this point, I still thought of the Fascination as transportation.
The itinerary: The ship would leave Miami at 4:30 p.m. Friday and arrive in Nassau around 6:30 a.m. Saturday. It would stay in Nassau almost 24 hours, then spend Sunday at sea, returning to Miami early enough Monday for me to get to work at my usual hour.
The Old Me groused about the day at sea. Surely the ship could have made it to Freeport, giving me an opportunity to explore a new island. The New Me was pleased about a day with no onshore temptations and time to loll about with a book and a fruity drink with an umbrella in it -- forced relaxation.
My husband was content either way. He would spend most of the weekend in the ship's casino or watching NASCAR on TV.
And so, as we cruised out of the Port of Miami on a cold February afternoon with choppy seas, I resolved to let Carnival entertain me for the weekend.
We had started early, boarding about 1:30 p.m. and settling at a poolside bar with those fruity drinks.
We'd been assigned to the 6:15 dinner seating, but that was too early for us. Instead, we fortified ourselves with a snack from the sushi bar, then went our separate ways.
My first stop was the karaoke bar, where my new friend Tracey was getting up the nerve to take the mike. She bounded up to the stage and launched into an off-key rendition of a Shania Twain song, interrupting it to cry: ``Let's hear it for all the moms!''
The other moms-at-sea applauded her as if she'd actually sung like Twain. I slipped out before she could ask me how she had done.
ON THE PROWL
Besides, there was plenty of action elsewhere:
In the Palace Showroom, I watched singers and dancers in an '80s revue perform to music from Flashdance, Fame and the Eurythmics, then went to check what was going on elsewhere. When I returned, a giant Rubik's Cube hung over the stage and two men from Miami were breakdancing.
In the piano bar, a not-so-good singer and piano player entertained a dozen passengers, all of us well over 40. A group of 30-ish men -- a bachelor party at sea -- took seats, quickly got bored and left. So did I.
I couldn't miss the disco, with its knots of stylish young people waiting to get past the doormen. But members of the senior class of Westminster Christian School in Miami -- on their class trip -- encountered a problem there: No one under 18 was allowed. The 17-year-olds in the class could go to the teen club, but no one over 17 would be admitted. If they wanted to dance, the 17- and 18-year-olds would have to split up.
It was cool and breezy on the pool deck, which was nearly deserted as I crossed on my way to the 24-hour deli. Five women in their 20s sat in the hot tub, talking and laughing. An hour later, the women were gone, replaced by five kids, maybe 10 years old. Just then a parent called out that it was 10 o'clock and time for bed, provoking protests from the hot tub.
In the casino, the blackjack tables had betting limits of $5 minimum, $200 maximum -- no high-rollers here. Most of the men at my table were from the south side of Chicago and on the cruise for another bachelor party. They had spent the previous night in Miami, where they went to a strip club.
The groom cashed in his chips. ''I'm down,'' he said gloomily.
The ship had docked in Nassau when I woke on Saturday. We ordered breakfast in bed -- literally. The rooms are newly remodeled and pleasant enough, with room for a weekend cruise's wardrobe, but not enough space in the bathroom for toiletries -- and no place to eat except on the bed.
Carnival offered 20 shore excursions, including scuba and snorkeling, city tours, a ride on a glass-bottom boat and golf, but I had my own itinerary.
We ate a late and leisurely lunch -- pasta with lamb ragu, gnocchi with bacon and goat cheese -- on the tree-shaded patio at Cafe Matisse, a few blocks uphill from the dock and Bay Street.
We toured the Museum of Slavery and Emancipation, which had been closed on my last trip to Nassau, and the National Art Gallery, which I'd visited two years earlier and liked so well that I came back, this time for an exhibit of Bahamian pop art.
Our 6:15 dinner seating again came too soon. Gambling that some people scheduled for the later dinner would eat onshore, we skipped our assigned seating for a second night. The maitre d' found room for us at the 8:30 seating, putting us at a table with three couples in their late 20s or early 30s, all on their first cruise, all strangers to each other.
Most of us ordered the beef Wellington. But the meat was tough, and soon after we gobbled down the Warm Chocolate Melting Cake -- so good that it almost made up for the beef -- we headed for the blackjack tables.
Sunday after lunch, while my husband watched NASCAR, I went exploring again. In the showroom, one of the dancers was teaching disco steps to 17 passengers, most of them women, on the scuffed wooden stage. I was puzzled by the large audience -- watching disco lessons isn't that interesting -- until someone called out ''What about Bingo?'' and clued me in to what the onlookers were waiting for.
In the bar that had hosted karaoke the night before, just a few people browsed works of art spread out on tables and chairs -- the scheduled auction had fizzled when the weather turned too sunny to resist.
Up on the pool deck, one young couple played shuffleboard, but most people sunbathed or splashed about in the pool. The twisting water slide was busy with kids.
The pool deck is the focus of upgrades Carnival has been making on its eight Fantasy-class ships -- the ones used for weekend cruises out of Miami and six other ports. Some of the biggest changes are the construction of elaborate water parks with dual lane racing water slides on the pool deck and a new adults-only ''Serenity'' deck area, additions that haven't been made yet on the Fascination.
But other upgrades had been completed, including the remodeled cabins and more interconnecting cabins, recreational space for Carnival's new Circle C program for 12- to 14-year-olds, a remodeled spa, new exercise equipment and a nine-hole miniature golf course on the top deck, where I found 15 or 20 people, including a few kids, playing a round.
For our last night on the cruise, we finally went to the dining room at our assigned time. Our table mates -- three couples, everyone 50 or older -- had become friends. They welcomed us as they joked with the waiter, who by now knew who wanted an extra dessert or dressing on the side. When the steak they ordered turned out to be tough and the waiter quickly brought substitute entrées, no one complained. For the price of a weekend cruise -- $100 a person a day, more or less -- you can't expect that unlimited supply of food to be three-star quality.
As I packed my bag later that evening, I realized I had made little headway in the novel I had brought. I had let Carnival entertain me on its floating resort. As for Nassau -- that was a bonus.