Tuesday, November 02, 2010

2 NOV 10: A Trip to the G.B.I.

If you boarded a bus for a "City Tour" of Columbus, what sites would you expect to see? The Springer Opera House? The National Infantry Museum? What if the bus stopped at Crazy Cecil's Party Shop on River Road -- and it was NOT because the bus driver had to take a bathroom break?

Believe it or not, I went on a trip like that during my vacation several weeks ago. It was part of a two-day cruise to the Bahamas, which mixed interesting scenery with low-ball.... what? Oh, you're wondering about our title? This tour bus was on Grand Bahama Island. Shame on you for thinking I had breaking crime news....

The plan to visit the Bahamas started with one of those computer telemarketing calls - the one which starts with a steamship sound. I answered ten bland survey question on my phone, to receive "two free boarding passes to Nassau." The offer turned out to be misleading in several ways. For one thing, the cruise ship went to Freeport - and it wasn't any more free than Nassau.

When I connected with an operator, I was told the boarding passes were free - but there was some kind of other fee, which required me to pay 59 dollars per person "double occupancy." The fact that I'm a single guy with no split personality did not persuade the operator....

I already was committed to attending a church convention in Daytona Beach, Florida, so I decided to squeeze in a two-day cruise before the convention began. The Bahamas Celebration was docked in Palm Beach, but I'd have to pick up my boarding pass one hour south of there at a Fort Lauderdale motel -- a curious way to promote statewide tourism.

A confirmation call before I left on vacation added to my suspicions about this trip. I already knew I needed a new passport, costing $100 (beating a July price hike). Then on top of the $118 for "free boarding passes," parking at the Port of Palm Beach would cost 15 dollars per day -- in cash, to a valet. They don't call that area the "Gold Coast" for nothing....

On top of that, 80 dollars would be taken off my credit card before the trip began. Some of that would go for a fuel surcharge and "gratuities" -- yet the cruise ship staff expected tips for everything from bottled water to casino winnings. If I really was made of money, I would have expanded the trip to seven days.

The confirmation call also alerted me that coffee and tea were complimentary - but even a soda on the ship would cost me money. I've never made a 20-ounce bottle of Walgreens diet cola last so long....

My vacation budget already was on the tight side. But the events leading to the cruise admittedly made it feel more like a chore than a celebration. It didn't help that the "welcome aboard" photo taken of me at the boarding area was on sale hours later for 15 dollars -- and I was barred from taking a picture of the picture.

But there were ways to make money aboard the cruise ship -- and I took advantage of one of them, winning a fast 50 dollars in the casino playing cash-game poker. As I told other players, someday I'll understand the strategy behind "jackpot bingo."

(By the way, the critics of long hours at Goodwill Industries ought to talk to a cruise ship staff. A dealer in the casino told me she works for weeks at a time, with NO days off. Maybe that's why so many employees seemed to be from the Philippines, instead of the U.S. and Bahamas.)

To be fair, there were nice free fun things aboard the cruise ship. I found a shuffleboard court on the top deck. Of course, I immediately thought of home and the Columbus Parks Department audit....

The ship also had two hot tubs for relaxing before dinner. On the first day, I sat across from a family of vacationers. But they didn't help the dinner mood, when the apparently-drunk mother started throwing up in a bucket of beer.

Hurricane Igor was far from our cruise ship, but it stirred up the sea enough to make the journey to the Bahamas unsteady. I've never been drunk in my life, but I think I now know what it's like....

Bahamas Celebration passengers were offered a variety of excursion plans for the day in Grand Bahama Island. There was swimming with dolphins, snorkeling, horseback rides on nature trails - and of course, all of them cost extra. That's why I selected the 40-dollar "City Tour" of Freeport. It was the closest thing to a freebie I could find.

As I ate breakfast before the City Tour started, a cruise ship staff member walked by selling bottled water. I needed to spend $3.25 (plus gratuity) for it, because Bahamian water is "very different." Did they add jerk spices or something?

I had time before the tour to listen to a few Bahamas radio stations on headphones I brought. One talk show had host Chrissy Love interviewing a transplant from Minnesota and declaring, "White people put up such a front...." It's quite tempting to note here (ahem) the Internet "country code" for the Bahamas is .bs....

All this led up to the City Tour, which led us through a neighborhood of nice Freeport homes known as "Millionaire's Row." The bus slowed down at a home where jazz legend Count Basie once lived. I have no idea who lives there now - but the owner probably counts all the tour buses and longs for part of the profit.

I heard somewhere along the way that Freeport doesn't really have tourist attractions. That may explain why the City Tour didn't stop at any of them. Our first stop was a row of small booths selling everything from T-shirts to jewelry. It looked like a scene from a county fair, and made the strip mall across the road look appealing and extravagant.

I could have purchased two conch shells for one dollar at one booth. Bahamians somehow cook conch for meals - but I doubt there's a creamy alternative to crunchy.

(The tour bus driver kept things interesting and light, as he drove us through Freeport. He pointed out a KFC restaurant, and declared the letters' real meaning: "Keep From Cooking.")

Then came the City Tour's second stop - the Butler & Sands liquor store. We didn't stop here because it had any historical value. It was simply a place to buy the two bottles of duty-free rum we can take back to the U.S.

I asked the cashiers at this liquor store if I was told the truth aboard the cruise ship, about how different Bahamian water is. They assured me the claim was untrue. But I took no chances, and only bought a small bag of cookies.

The tour bus driver pointed out all sorts of sights in Freeport. But for some reason, he didn't mention a strip mall with several stores named Lexus. They all had the automotive logo, but none of them sold cars. In fact, the Lexus Juicy Chicken shop might leave tourists wondering if the meat is road-kill.

The main stopping point for the City Tour was the Port Lucaya resort area, outside Freeport. It offered shopping and restaurants on one side of the road, and a beachside hotel with a casino on the other side. You could even snap a picture of a man dressed as a giant yellow flower - but he said up-front he wanted a tip for it. It's a good thing Mickey Mouse in Orlando never speaks....

It was a short walk to the Port Lucaya beach, with white sand which could rival Gulf Shores and Panama City Beach. But surprise, surprise - people strolled the beach selling sunglasses and shirts. After what I experienced aboard the cruise ship, it was easier than ever to say no.

I left the G.B.I. wishing I had more time to explore the countryside. And I left the Bahamas Celebration unsure if I'll ever commit to another cruise. Another passenger who took that trip described it online as a "ghetto cruise." Only the people halfway-begging for money were wearing crew uniforms....

OVERHEARD OVER HERE: On the way to the cruise ship in Florida, I stopped at a restaurant Columbus doesn't have yet. As I waited for dinner at Bob Evans, a family with several generations of women sat at nearby tables. A mother asked a gray-haired matriarch: "Have you ever watched Star Trek?"

"I don't think so - unless it was a mistake."

We're keeping our promise to be politics-free on Election Day (although one e-mailer gets credit for tempting me to change plans). So let's come home to Columbus, and get caught up on news from the last couple of days:

+ Halloween seemed to pass uneventfully in Columbus. Glenn Anthony Baptist Church on Veterans Parkway offered a variation called "Holy-ween." What's coming in January - a "King of Kings Day?"

+ The Enrichment Services Program began enrolling needy people for heating assistance at the Liberty Theatre. I was relieved to see no one was handing out fire barrels.

+ A radio talk show host held a rally at the Georgia state Capitol, demanding controversial Bishop Eddie Long resign from the ministry. He's entitled to his opinion - but why have a rally at the Capitol? Does he want a bill in next year's legislature to bar Long from preaching? That's about as logical as a bill to bar Mark Richt from coaching football.

+ Oregon moved ahead of Auburn in the Bowl Championship Series rankings. Ticked-off Tiger fans contend.... oh wait. I promised to be politics-free today. Sometimes the online debate over football rankings seems like a spin room.

+ Instant Message to WTVM: That's better - replacing Colonial Bancshares with BB&T in Monday night's stock listings. Since you've proven this blog's effectiveness, please feel free to advertise here.

SCHEDULED WEDNESDAY: A blogger's night out, as the polls close. Where will we go? What will we see?....

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