Dave Barry

Cruising all the way to the buffet

(This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, February 1, 2004.)

In my family, we are nautical people. We have the sea in our veins. I do not speak metaphorically: Sometimes we find actual eels in our underpants. That's how nautical we are.

And so a few weeks ago, we set out on a sea voyage from Fort Lauderdale, knowing that it would be five days, and roughly 153 meals (included), before we would reach our destination: Fort Lauderdale.

We sailed aboard a cruise ship, which had one of those cruise-ship names, like the Majestic Vagabond Restaurant of the Seas. She is a fine vessel, a tad larger than Connecticut, boasting (really) an onboard shopping mall. Leaving port, she weighed 75,000 tons, at least half of which was food. Here's a log of our voyage:

Day One: We arrive at the ship and meet our fellow voyagers, most of whom are wearing brand-new sneakers, as though they're about to compete in the decathlon, as opposed to spending the next five days chewing.

We begin our cruise with a lifeboat drill, lining up in neat rows, wearing our life jackets, calmly awaiting instructions. In a real emergency, of course, we'd fight for the lifeboats like wild dogs battling for meat. Our sneakers would squish with blood. We have all seen Titanic.

Speaking of meat: It's time for dinner! In the dining room, we engage in sparkling intellectual repartee with our fellow voyagers ("What are you having?" "I'm having the salmon." "Really? That's what I'm having!" "Really?" etc.).

After dinner, it's time to engage in the vast array of shipboard activities, by which I mean: drinking, gambling and shopping. By midnight, everybody is weary from a long partial day at sea, and it is time to: Eat more! There's a midnight buffet. Plus, if you pay a little extra, your cabin attendant will come around and stuff food into your mouth while you sleep.

Day Two: When we wake up, the Restaurant of the Seas has docked at the exotic island of Key West. This is four hours from our house by car. By ship, we made it in just 13 hours.

Before going ashore, we eat a buffet-style breakfast. We are issued enormous plates; they look like small wading pools. It is not easy to cover every square foot of plates this size with food. But we manage, because we know we must soon cross, on foot, several hundred feet of barren, commerce-free no-man's-land between the ship and the Key West shopping district.

While we're ashore, disaster strikes: The power goes out. For 45 agonizing minutes, the cash registers in the stores and restaurants do not work. Unable to buy or eat anything, some cruise passengers become disoriented and begin to have non-shopping-related conversations. Fortunately, it passes quickly.

Carrying our purchases, we return to the ship in time for more intellectual give-and-take ("Really? I'm having the prime rib, too!"). In our cabin, we find chocolates on our pillows. Clearly, they want us dead.

Day Three: We arrive in Cozumel, Mexico. After a hearty breakfast, we go ashore and experience Mexico, which consists of souvenir stores and restaurants where everybody speaks English and accepts dollars. Travel is a good way to learn about other cultures.

That night, back on the ship, we go to a piano bar, where the piano player gets everybody in a festive mood by playing - I am not making this up - The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a song about a ship that sank, killing all aboard. Party time!

Day Four: We spend this entire day at sea, eating and shopping. I think some passengers must be secretly throwing their new purchases overboard to make room in their luggage for even newer purchases.

The ocean is rough; some waves affect even the massive bulk of the Restaurant of the Seas. At breakfast, there's a moment when I'm watching maybe two dozen cruisers going through the buffet line, each holding a wading pool heaped with food, and the deck shifts, and the cruisers, in perfect unison, all lurch to the right, then back to the left. Nobody drops so much as a waffle. I am damned proud to be serving with this outfit.

Day Five: We arrive, at last, in Fort Lauderdale. We are tired, but we are also, because of this experience, something more: fat. We vow to go on the South Beach Diet, or even just the Beach Diet, where all you eat is sand. But some day, we will return to the sea. Because we know that it's a big world, and there are many more adventures awaiting us, out there on the vastness of the ocean.

For example, we have yet to try the shrimp scampi.

(c) 2004, Dave Barry

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