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For fun, get off the ship

People who cruise often will concede that there are some ports of call where they never get off the ship. Been there, done that.

The cruise industry has come close to ruining any authentic experience on the Caribbean islands by being too successful.

At Cozumel, Mexico; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; or St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, a half-dozen or more megaships may simultaneously anchor. More than 15,000 passengers get off, each one intent on finding that one great duty-free diamond, liter of scotch or the Forbidden Fruit that turns responsible wage-earners into frat boys all over again: Cuban cigars.

For those passengers who don't want to just shop, or venture on their own a couple of blocks beyond the harborside commercial district, there is the shore excursion.

The variety of these organized tours is mind-boggling. On my recent seven-day cruise, the Carnival Freedom pulled into Cozumel, Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios, Jamaica, spending 32 ½ hours in port. And the 3,300 passengers could choose from 140 (!) excursions.

The tours ranged from transportation to beaches with picnic lunch, to horseback riding in the surf, to ATV treks and diving adventures. There even were organized shopping trips.

I chose three tours offering things I'd never done, and each was a winner.

Mexico:
Look, I'm cooking!

Adam and Adrian Shafer, 20-somethings from Defiance, Ohio, shared my cooking station in a sparkling clean, 2-year-old building a 15-minute ride from the harbor. They had never been on a cruise before, but they had had margaritas before, so they chose that from the "endless" drink choices chef Luis Esquivel Mendes listed for the 30 or so of his latest kitchen recruits.

The title of this tour was "Mexican Cuisine Cooking and Tasting.'' We were collected at the dock about 9:45 a.m., and the first of that endless supply of drinks was served at 10:30.

That made the cooking lesson go down easy.

We were to learn the basics of three dishes:

• Sopas. These were banana pepper leaves stuffed with chorizo, cubed potatoes, cheese and refried beans.

• Grilled grouper with mango sauce.

• Rice pudding towers, in which layers of cooked rice are sweetened with sugar, raisin and a cinnamon stick and tucked between sugar cookies.

Mendes demonstrated at a table in front of the room, overhead TV cameras showing his efforts on large flat-panel TVs.

Adam, a deputy sheriff, told me he does most of the cooking, while Adrian takes college courses. They watched each other's efforts, suggesting more red pepper here, more sugar there.

In truth, we only began each dish, then carried our plates to racks and the assistants oversaw the cooking.

Each student finally ate his or her efforts. I did rather well, I think, considering how delicate the grouper is. My efforts at "presentation" — decorating the rim of the plates with sauces from squeeze bottles — were disappointing.

I blame the margaritas.

Grand Cayman:
Here, fishy, fishy

Other than setting yourself on fire with flaming olive oil, there wasn't much personal safety to be considered in the cooking lesson. SeaTrek Grand Cayman was a different matter.

I've worn glasses since second grade. Now I'm into trifocals and have cataracts. Which means that without glasses I can't see a thing, especially underwater.

But SeaTrek literature explains that you can wear prescription glasses when you don one of their helmets.

Sign me up, I told Carnival.

On the ride of less than a quarter-mile from shore to our dive boat, a young fellow named Ben explained to six of us the hand signals we'd need to remember once we went below the surface.

He didn't mention that the helmet that sits on your shoulders weighs 75 pounds. He left that for the four divers who were in charge of us below the surface.

But our lead diver, Chris, explained that the helmet would not be placed on your shoulders until you were standing on a ladder, with only your head and shoulders out of the water. Air is constantly pumped into the helmet during your 35 minutes underwater.

As you descend every few rungs of the ladder to the bottom, Chris said, do what you need to do to equalize the pressure in your ears, just as you would when an airplane cabin is pressurized or depressurized.

Oddly, three in my group couldn't accomplish this. That meant Chris, and two safety divers who also took dozens of photos of us, had only three people to watch. The fourth diver stayed on the boat and placed the helmets on us.

I was surprised by the helmet's weight but as I descended the ladder I concentrated more on keeping my ears clear. I had no problems doing that, but during our walk on the sand 30 feet down, my body movements seemed awkward.

To lure the fish closer for us to see, Chris pulled a plastic bag of fish food from under one leg of his wet suit. The fish went into a frenzy. And when Chris put some food in my open palms, it was delightful to feel their tiny mouths nibbling on me.

When it was time to go up the ladder, the weight of the helmet increased the higher I climbed. But as soon as my shoulders broke the surface, the fourth diver grabbed a bar on top of the helmet and lifted it off.

My hair and glasses were dry, but the highlight was looking at a new world for the first time.

Ocho Rios:
Flyin' to Zion, mon

Reggae legend Bob Marley was just 36 when he died of cancer 26 years ago. He left behind enough recorded work to create more than 10 albums, and it was clear from our guide, Elon, that the man was a touchstone for talented island musicians.

I figured taking the bus ride 33 miles from the port to his home and mausoleum would be interesting. It proved a bumpy trip into a curious place.

Our transport for the 75-minute ride past lush countryside and crushing poverty was a version of a school bus, 33 padded bench seats, no air conditioning but its ceilings and interior walls plastered with pictures of Marley and a few of the late Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie. He was worshipped by Rastafarians as the true Messiah.

The bus had a good sound system and Elon played DJ and historian. He sat next to the driver and worked a soundboard, interspersing a gentle discourse on Marley with his songs.

Interfering with the history lesson, however, was the highway horn that driver Allen had to repeatedly sound as we barreled along the narrow, potholed road toward curve after curve.

Up in Nine Mile, the home of Marley, at 3,000-foot elevation, guides took groups of tourists up a hill and through a closed driveway gate toward the two-room cinderblock home.

Our group was met outside the gift shop — I particularly liked the Marley collectors' card sets, $5 for six cards — by a tall thin man with dreadlocks who called himself Captain Crazy.

The captain led us up a steep, fenced, driveway, telling us about that part of the Rastafarian religion that probably most interests its nonpractitioners: smoking dope.

Rastas believe the ganja — marijuana — helps them appreciate both life on Earth and the search for Zion, the Promised Land.

"We don't drink and drive," said the captain. "We smoke and fly."

We continued up the hill. Along the way, through a hole in the fence, a young man on the other side poked a wire hanger on which he had attached three large joints.

"You want some, man? Gimme somethin' . . . Gimme $5 for one.''

As I passed by, he urged, "You take one now and pay me when you come back down."

Outside the two buildings at the top of the road, the captain said, "How many smoke ganja? We believe you can appreciate Bob through his music, and through the ganja.

"Those who don't smoke, you can appreciate him through the music — but those who do smoke, they can appreciate dat, too!''

Next to the tiny home is the larger mausoleum. Visitors have to take off their shoes to enter either building, and while the guides will take your photo posed next to the Great Man's bed, no cameras are allowed in the narrow building holding a large crypt.

After having our pictures taken inside the house, we listened to a little more commentary from the captain, then lined up to enter the mausoleum.

Just before I entered the mausoleum, I heard the guide behind us telling his group, ". . . those who do smoke, they can appreciate dat, too!''

Hmmm, Disney World meets Jamaica, mon.

Robert N. Jenkins can be reached at bjenkins@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8496.

.If you go

Shore excursions

These tours were booked through Carnival Cruises (www.carnival.com or toll-free 1-888-227-6482). You may be able to book them yourself before the cruise or once you are off your ship. The Carnival prices:

• Mexican cuisine and tasting, about five hours in length, includes lunch and drinks; $87.

• SeaTrek Grand Cayman, about one hour; $101.

• Bob Marley bus adventure, about 5 1/2 hours, includes lunch; $91.

For fun, get off the ship 03/12/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2008 11:30am]
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