Blue skies. Blue water. Blues music.
Sounds like a Facebook status, and indeed it was for me for one full week on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, which sailed from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to exotic locales in the Eastern Caribbean.
On the fully chartered cruise ship, it's all about the blues.
Photos by Phyllis R. Sigal
Ana Popovic entertains the crowd on the pool deck of the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.
When the ship is at sea, the music starts around noon. And it goes (I'm told) until the wee hours of the morning, almost until sunrise, I suspect. In fact, one morning as I awoke to watch the sun come up behind the island of Dominica, I heard a boisterous group - blues fans, I'm sure, who had been up all night long listening to their favorite genre.
Most of the cruisers are diehard blues fans - many of whom have sailed with the LRBC multiple times.
This particular seven-day cruise sailed to Dominica, Martinique, Barbados and St. Lucia. But for most of the 2,000-plus cruisers, it was the music that was the attraction. And with good reason.
Ruthie Foster. Taj Mahal. Tedeschi Trucks Band. Buckwheat Zydeco. Brooks Family Blues Dynasty. The Nighthawks. Trampled Under Foot. Tommy Castro & The Painkillers. Ironing Board Sam. Ana Popovic. Carolina Chocolate Drops. Earl Thomas & Eddie Angel. James Harman's Bamboo Porch Revue. Matt Anderson. Leon Blue. Mitch Woods. Deanna Bogart. Shane Dwight and Bekka Bramlett. North Mississippi Allstars with Lightnin' Malcolm. Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials.
That's a lot of blues.
Five venues were hopping throughout the day and night, from the spacious pool deck to the concert-style Celebrity Theater to the more intimate Rendezvous Lounge, Revelations Lounge and Michael's Piano Club, the most cozy of all. And it was easy to venue-hop as all were only a level or so away from each other.
Blues artists in general are very approachable, and many said hello to my husband Bruce Wheeler, who produces the Heritage Music BluesFest in Wheeling. While Bobby Rush was cooking up some barbecue before the sail-away party Saturday night, he gave us his card, hoping for a call to return to Wheeling. "I got to get back up there," he said. Many blues fans and artists have told Wheeler that the Wheeling festival is their second favorite only to the blues cruise.
When the artists weren't on stage, they were there to have fun, too, and to relax and listen to the other musicians. They also took part in the nightly pro-am jam sessions.
BLUES CRUISE FUN
Just as Rush barbecued up some specialties, other musicians found ways to interact with cruise guests. There were a couple of autograph parties during the week. Samantha Fish hosted a shrimp boil one afternoon on the pool deck. Rush and Ana Popovic joined in for a "beauty call" at the spa, where guests could choose a manicure, pedicure, facial or massage - and champagne - and hobnob with Rush or Popovic at the same time. Taj Mahal even found time to go sport fishing with some cruisers, and the more adventurous could sign up to go ziplining with Deanna Bogart on the island of Dominica.
Many blues-themed events took place every day and evening, from workshops to theater presentations to films to parades.
Things really got going when "bluisers" gathered for a sail-away party with Ruthie Foster, who sang us out to sea from our port of San Juan.
Saturday's theme was "Hometown Blues," with most of us sporting our favorite blues festival T-shirts.
On Sunday morning, champagne greeted guests for the "Virgin Party" and for the "Returnee Party." On our particular cruise, about 65 percent of the guests were "virgin" blues cruise attendees. Sunday's theme was "Soul Blues/Give Me Back My Wig." Some people wore some crazy wigs. (We just "wigged out" of this one.)
Monday's full moon prompted the "I Put a Spell on You" parade with magical costumes all around - wizards and witches and warlocks, oh my. The evening's emcee introduced each and every member of the parade, as he did for every parade throughout the week.
Tuesday's theme was "Pirates of the Caribbean." There were some pretty awesome pirate costumes, and even a couple wearing a lovely Pittsburgh Pirates ensemble.
Wednesday happened to be Halloween, so a full-blown costume party took place that night.
Thursday night's theme was "Carnival," while the closing night on Friday was "Pajama Night." A torrential rainstorm right around 10 p.m. put a little damper on that night's festivities, however. Maybe that was all for the best, with an early rise time to disembark Saturday.
We were aboard the Celebrity Summit, a beautiful ship with wonderful amenities including a fitness center that looked out floor-to-ceiling windows over the bow of the ship; fitness classes; a full-service spa; acupuncture physicians who specialized in preventing seasickness; a casino; close to a dozen places to dine, including several specialty restaurants; family pools and adult pools; bars, bars and more bars (10!); shopping, from art to purses to jewelry to clothing to souvenirs to duty-free iPods and iPads.
A glass elevator shot up and down the 11 decks with a beautiful ocean view. (I took the steps most of the time, and was surprised at how few others did.)
You could chill in the whirlpools on the pool deck or let pounding water massage your back in the thalassotherapy salt-water pool.
An upgrade to AquaClass staterooms - worth it! - allowed complimentary access to the Persian Garden in the spa, priority access to the Blu restaurant for breakfast and dinner, a spa concierge, and indulgent amenities such as the Hansgrohe shower tower and custom-blended bath products. Most AquaClass staterooms were just a level away from the spa and fitness center.
FOOD & DRINK
We dined most frequently in Blu, the exclusive dining area for AquaClass guests, which featured lighter, "clean" cuisine. The decor was as fresh as the food with its cobalt blue and white appointments.
Some of the offerings: chilled seafood Napoleon; BLU cheese souffle with candied pear and port wine reduction; chilled avocado and lemon soup with poached shrimp; sweet yellow corn veloute with chile oil, cilantro and chorizo; blackened ahi tuna with forbidden rice, baby bok choy, spicy onion and white sesame seed vinaigrette.
We dined one evening at The Normandie, and one at Qsine, two of the specialty restaurants.
The Normandie is described as "exquisite fine dining in a distinctive setting with impeccable service." In other words, it's a throwback to classic, cruise-ship dining. Many dishes were prepared table side at this restaurant, where diners were surrounded by the original paneling and ornamentation from the SS Normandie.
My appetizer was a smoked salmon and peekytoe crab parfait. My entree, Murano Lobster, which was cognac flambeed warm water lobster tail, fresh basil, applewood smoked bacon and dijon cream, was prepared with finesse by our waiter at table side.
Definitely worth experiencing was Qsine.The decor reminded me of "Alice in Wonderland" with whimsical chairs and a colorful ambiance.
Small plates were the order of the evening; and ordering was done on an iPad. Everything was high-tech and creative here, and delicious. "It's time to give your palate a wake-up call," says the description of Qsine.
One of our six choices, a petite filet, was accompanied by four little shot glasses - one with truffled mashed potatoes, one with creamed spinach, one with mac-n-cheese and one with sauteed mushrooms. We also dined on sushi "lollipops" and eight mini-glasses of interesting pureed vegetables - carrot-cardamom, green pea-mint, broccoli-cheddar, sweet potato-raisin, spinach-garlic, cauliflower-apple, parsnip-shallot, potato-truffle, and eggplant-tomato and olive.
The dessert menu was a cubed puzzle; you had to search for the selections inside. My dessert - three flavors of gelato - was served in a silver rocket-shaped vessel.
It was a delicious adventure from beginning to end!
Not a fan of the standard, large-table cruise ship dining arrangements, we avoided the main dining room for all but one dinner. Luckily, we were seated at a four-top with a pleasant couple from the Boston area.
The Oceanview Cafe offered just about anything: made-to-order pasta, stir-fry, pizza and sushi; eggs benedict, but with a variety of twists; carved turkey or ham; cereal, yogurt, fruit.
The AquaSpa Cafe was one of my favorite spots, with its fresh and healthy fare for breakfast and for lunch. Fruit and yogurt parfaits; steamed, poached or broiled fish; poached fruits; low-sodium salads; organic breads; freshly made jams; and smoothies. Ummmm.
From fresh to fried: I had the best French fries in my life at the Pool/Mast Grill. A plate of fries with mayonnaise was a favorite "happy hour" snack for us. Well, you have to have balance in your life, right?
With 10 bars on board, you would be hard-pressed not to find your favorite libation. One unique space was Cellar Masters, where the nectar of the grape reigns. A state-of-the-art Enomatic wine-by-the glass dispensing system added a bit of sport to your wine selecting. With a swipe of your Seapass card, a 1-ounce, 2.5-ounce or 5-ounce pour is dispensed from bottle to glass.
An eye-popping experience was my first glance at the ice-topped martini bar, where bartenders put on a show while they create your favorite drink. We have a video of a bartender pouring 12 martinis at once, waterfall style. You can write your name in the thin layer of frost that tops the bar - which can come in handy if you've spent too much time there!
Beautiful bottles of classic and rare vodka (one with floating gold leaf flecks) are planted in an ice trough, and a variety of fine caviars also are available there.
Our first destination was Roseau, Dominica. I watched the sun rise, turning the dark protuberance into green trees and buildings, the closer we came to the first island destination of our cruise. I was up early that day in anticipation of my Rain Forest Yoga excursion.
What was the highlight of my week, the excursion began at 9 a.m. Monday when I met four other cruise mates. Our excursion guide, Kashme, explained points of interest and gave us a good lesson on Roseau during our van ride on twisty island roads to the Papillote Wilderness Retreat.
Some come to this retreat just for the gardens alone, which were exquisite. Others, for the volcanic hot pools and mud massages. Some, to stay and relax, and to dine on island specialties.
We were there for the yoga.
Our group was met by Martha Cuffy, who was born in the United Kingdom to Dominican parents. She's studied yoga for 20 years, spent two years at the first ashram university, Bihar Yoga Bharati, in Munger Bihar, India, where she earned a master's degree in yoga psychology. She was the real deal.
As we hiked up through the rain forest to a roofed terrace where five yoga mats were lined up waiting for us, Cuffy talked about the flora that lay before us. She talked about the energy of the rain forest air that we were breathing in ... and giving carbon dioxide back to the beautiful flowers - like a beautiful "dance with the plants and flowers."
It was a glorious experience. We practiced yoga for about an hour, and quietly descended, refreshed and introspective. We were offered our choice of three fresh fruit beverages (I had tamarind juice) at the Rain Forest Restaurant, before a hug goodbye from Martha.
What a way to start my week.
Dozens of other excursions were available at each port including biking, a whale and dolphin safari, cooking, a rain forest drive, distillery tours, scuba dives, snorkeling, beach and waterfall trips, glass-bottom boats, golf, tubing, walking tours, ocean kayaking, a monkey encounter, Segway tours and more.
We strolled around the port city of Fort de France in Martinique, went to a beach party with music by Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials in Bridgetown, Barbados, and Bruce went deep sea fishing in St. Lucia; my scenic drive to Pigeon Point and the beach was canceled. Instead, we took a cab ride around the city. Our driver explained much of the history, took us to a batik factory/gift shop and introduced us to Jacob, who earned a few dollars each day telling tourists the story of Castries, St. Lucia.
We took advantage of the airport drop-off tour in San Juan on our last day. A tour bus picked us up at the ship, while our luggage was loaded onto a truck. We spent a delightful three hours with our tour guide - the funniest man on the planet, I'm convinced - before heading home.
"Pedro" - he called himself, but admitted it was not his real name - gave us history and geography and sociology lessons and more about Puerto Rico. We either visited or drove by a number of sites: the St. Christopher Castle; one of the oldest cemeteries in the western hemisphere where Raul Julia is buried; a home owned by the family of Ponce de Leon for more than 400 years; El San Juan Resort, which houses the third-largest chandelier in the world; new San Juan and old San Juan. It was a whirlwind three hours, but quite entertaining and informative.
Then it was back on the bus, to the plane and home.
Roger Naber, the force behind the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, describes the cruise as "a music lover's dream."
The music starts before the ship sets sail, he said, and goes on and on for seven days and nights.
"Everybody's got a backstage pass," he said, noting that it's fun for everyone to get up close and personal to the musicians. The musicians are very accessible; there are no "cordoned off" areas.
It's also a dream gig for the musicians, he said. "Some tell me it's the best gig in the world."
The cruise "takes them back to before it was a real job," Naber said. "Now they're in a hard regime of touring, they're on the road, they perform, go back to their hotel and travel in the morning. (The blues cruise) takes the stress out of traveling," he said.
"The musicians are inspired by being around each other," he said. "It almost becomes a camp."
The first LRBC set sail in 2002, although Naber did earlier cruises in the 1990s. The idea came to him even before that when he was running the Kansas City Blues Festival.
It was LR&BC No. 19 that we were lucky enough to be a part of. No. 20 sailed in January to ports in the Eastern Caribbean, while No. 21 sets sail from Fort Lauderdale to Key West, New Orleans and Mexico in October. It's already sold out, but the next trip is No. 22, sailing in January 2014 to the Eastern Caribbean.
"We program it so there's more going on than they can possibly see," Naber said. "There's certainly not time to stand around and wonder what they're doing on this ship," he said.
"Since they can't experience everything, that's why they want to come back," he said.
One of Naber's favorite parts of each cruise is the returnees' party. On our cruise in October, Naber had all of the women blues artists perform. He figured each would do a song or two, but they ended up jamming together for an hour and a half, he said.
While the returnee party was going on, we attended the "virgin party," which also was lots of fun, but apparently not as much fun as the returnee party.
I suppose that's something to aspire to in the future.
"I always want to try to improve - it's a challenge to match what we've done. Each cruise seems to be the best one ever," he said.