When your cruise veers off course
Ding, ding: This is the captain. Due to a medical emergency. . . .
That's how our Caribbean cruise began its descent into Adventures (You Don't Want) on the High Seas.
Longtime fans of cruising, my husband, 10-year-old son and I had picked a seven-day, six-night itinerary with Royal Caribbean that combined lazy beach time and water sports with wildlife encounters and Mayan culture.
The Explorer of the Seas would sail the western Caribbean and dock at Belize City, where a river rafting trip promised natural beauty, crocodiles, howler monkeys, even dolphins; Grand Cayman for some beginner diving; Costa Maya, Mexico, rich with the ancient ruins of Kohunlich; and Cozumel, snorkeling heaven.
Four hours into our trip, paradise was looking more like purgatory.
The public-address system chimed - a tone that would become all too familiar as it delivered one piece of bad news after another. It was about 10 p.m. of Day One. The captain told us of a medical emergency that would force the ship to return to Miami overnight to evacuate a sick passenger.
Other than hoping that she would be OK (and we wouldn't catch whatever she had), we went to bed without any worries.
We spent Day Two at sea. Mid-morning brought another ding-ding. This time the captain told us that the sick person, now safely on shore, was doing well. The diversion, though, had cost us eight hours of sailing - time that could not be made up.
Belize City would be stricken from the tour. Instead, we'd go directly to Cozumel and stay overnight. Costa Maya was pushed to the end of the trip.
We were glum. No river rafting. No crocodiles. No monkeys. No dolphins.
The dining staff tried to cheer us. "It's a dry island. Nothing to do there," one waiter said. Geography lesson: Belize is not an island; it's a country in Central America. And isn't most of the Caribbean specks of dry sand? Besides, if it was so dismal, why was it touted as "scenic" and "lush" in all those pricey excursions?
Knots of passengers grumbled throughout the ship. Everyone understood that an emergency was an emergency, but why hadn't the captain called for a helicopter? Why not travel faster to make up time? It would cost too much in fuel, we speculated.
And even if none of that was practical, why not tell us?
Once home, I found out from cruise line spokesman Michael Sheehan that medical evacuations occur about twice a month, out of more than 125 sailings of the company's Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Azamara ships. The method of evacuation - by helicopter (our ship had a landing pad, as do others in the line), the ship changing course, or returning to a port of call - depends on the circumstances, he said.
Captains make every effort to stick to an itinerary, but they can travel only so fast, Sheehan said. Most medical evacuations - 85 percent, the company estimated - do not require any change in schedule.
Too bad the staff didn't communicate that type of information on board.
We did our best to make lemonade (cocktails) out of lemons.
At Cozumel, we spent the day at the Xel-ha Water Park. Even though the tour started an hour late, it would prove to be the highlight of the week.
First, though, we had to reach the lagoon by floating on inner tubes. It was not like a lazy river ride on the Delaware, more like a bumper-car race. Dozens of tubers had to navigate a narrow, cattle-chute start, and I was pushed into a tangle of tree roots.
After some maneuvering, the three of us made it to the bay, where the snorkeling in the fishbowl-clear water was spectacular. At one point, my husband, Dilip, saw two stingrays beneath him.
I lazed on a rock outcropping, occasionally dipping my face into the salty water for a peek at schools of exotic blue fish and the occasional big, yellow sucker.
Too bad we couldn't stay there. Back on board, we got more bad news. Costa Maya did not have docking facilities available. Strike that stop. But, the captain said cheerily, the ship would take a detour to Jamaica.
Many folks wouldn't mind a stop on the island of Bob Marley. But Costa Maya was supposed to be our chance to see Mayan ruins - one of the reasons we had picked this ship and this itinerary.
We quickly tried to book a trip to the mainland the next day to see the ruins at Tulum, but we struck out. Instead, we teamed up with a young couple and rented a jalopy to explore Cozumel on our last day there. We took in panoramic views from a lighthouse and saw a pile of rocks - an ancient hut on a designated historic site.
Not quite what I had hoped, but ruins nonetheless.
On board again, we couldn't shake the jinx. Halfway through the cruise, another family of three was seated at our dining-room table, and they were furious. The wife ended up crying. It was awkward.
Another day, at the ice show - yes, the boat had an ice rink - one of the skaters misjudged a turn and hit a glass partition that shattered within feet of us.
I was expecting to bump into an iceberg just any time. But it's hard to stay grumpy when you're traveling the Caribbean on a marvelous ship. Besides the ice rink, it had a rock-climbing wall, a miniature-golf course, and several wonderful shows.
At Grand Cayman, I relaxed on board while Dilip and our son, Rohan, went snuba diving. It's like snorkeling, but air pumped through a long tube allows deeper underwater exploration.
Rohan was particularly enthralled with the diving adventure - and the hand signals he learned in case of emergency - as well as the array of colorful fish along the reef.
In Jamaica, we saw water birds while we rafted on a river. It wasn't Belize with its rich wildlife, but it was relaxing and scenic.
As the Explorer of the Seas pulled into Miami, we took stock of our travels. Yes, we had faced some scheduling mishaps and more than a few disappointments. But at least the ship hadn't sunk.
For information about Royal Caribbean cruises, go to the line's Web site, www.royalcaribbean.com, or call 1-866-562-7625.
Contact staff writer Lini S. Kadaba at 610-701-7624 or Lkadaba@phillynews.com.