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Caribbean

Finding an Island of Safety at Sea

Scrutiny is greater and security is tighter on a cruise, but for most passengers, the sense of tranquillity remains the same.

November 11, 2001|ROBERT CROSS | CHICAGO TRIBUNE

COZUMEL, Mexico — There were no gala bon voyage parties: Visitors not allowed. No tossing of confetti as passengers waved farewell to loved ones: No spectators permitted past the terminal checkpoint. After posing for the usual pre-boarding portrait by a ship photographer, passengers posed again at the top of the gangplank, this time for a mug shot electronically linked to a blue ID card.

Some things were different on a recent cruise of the western Caribbean aboard the Grand Princess, but maybe not all that different. Although some cruise lines have reported a falloff in business since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (and two have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection), the Grand Princess hardly noticed the bump.

The ship, one of the largest on the seas, left Oct. 21 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with 2,652 passengers. (The ship holds 3,000 if every bunk bed, baby crib and folding cot is booked.)

Signs atop the purser's desk in the opulent lobby atrium told those who wanted to switch staterooms for a better one, "Grand Princess is fully booked this sailing. There are no alternative cabins available."

That's been the situation for most of the past few sailings on this ship, one of 10 in the Princess fleet, said assistant purser Deryck Greer. "There was a drop-off the week after the incidents, but since then, it's been like this," he said. "People book so far ahead of time, I suppose they figure, 'Might as well go ahead with it."'

On embarkation day in the immense Princess terminal at Port Everglades, passengers left their luggage, as usual, with porters at curbside who placed the bags in steel cages for transfer to the ship by forklift.

Passengers got their ID cards and, after a longer-than-usual process at the X-ray machine and metal detector, finally made their way up the gangplank. Then each inserted the card and posed for the mug shot. Princess had been insisting on the photo ID for a few years, but on some other lines this extra security precaution has just been introduced.

Princess line regulars, thinking they might step outside the bare-bones terminal to find an ATM or a cup of coffee after completing the paper work, saw "No Reentry" posted above the doors and security personnel, arms folded, ready to enforce the rule. Once inside the terminal, people could board the ship or go home.

Behind the registration desk, more security staff with holstered pistols examined the occasional document that didn't seem quite in order. Once settled in and strolling the decks, cruisers might have noticed the Coast Guard launch Bluefin bobbing near the pier.

The Coast Guard sailed in tight circles on Grand Princess' port side, occasionally moving forward to accompany other departing cruise ships as they began to make their way through the narrow Port Everglades channel toward the open sea. A smaller patrol boat, blue light flashing, kept pace with the mammoth ships the rest of the way to the port's mouth.

Because of some luggage delays, Grand Princess missed its 5 p.m. departure by nearly an hour. It stood by while the Celebrity Millennium and Royal Caribbean's Enchantment of the Sea exited.

At the aft swimming pool, five female Princess crew members in dark blue polo shirts and white shorts got a party spirit going by lip-synching "YMCA," then performing a bar-top "Macarena."

Passengers sang along, drank their cocktails and never seemed to notice the helicopter that circled the port. Another Princess crew member leaned on a rail outside his post somewhere in the Princess' mechanical guts. He nodded toward the Coast Guard vessel and said, "That's new, since the events. Just to keep an eye on things."

Finally, Grand Princess pulled away from the pier, following Holland America's Zaandam. Passengers jammed the rails. The ship horns let out mighty blasts. Fort Lauderdale residents waved farewell from the balconies of their beachfront condominiums. A young man elbowed his way to the portside Lido Deck rail and unfurled an American flag. Without the parties and confetti, that send-off would have to do.

A scattering of passengers chose stars and stripes as part of their cruise ensemble. The flag motif showed up on hats, T-shirts, pins, ribbons, beach towels and even one little girl's rubber flip-flops.

The message seemed to be: We're cruising because we want to, and no enemy of America can stop us.

"We were determined to go. We did it almost as an act of defiance," said Leslie Tuten of suburban Atlanta. She and her husband had booked the cruise before Sept. 11. They said they never considered canceling.

Grand Princess stopped first at Princess Cays, the cruise line's private beachfront property in the Bahamas. Passengers seemed to be enjoying a carefree day frolicking with water toys, snorkels and volleyballs or sunning on the hundreds of beachside lounge chairs.

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