Norwegian Pearl, Western Caribbean, 02/29/12, Jamaica

Okay, one word for you: Swims With Horses. I think that will be my new name. But, more on that later.

We got up, I went typing while Michille went treading. Her workout and my blog post coincided nicely and we went up to Cagney's for breakfast. Today was Eggs Benedict, nicely done. Oh, and have I mentioned Cagney's serves Lavazza coffee in a very nice French press? Strong and tasty!

So, after breakfast we got off the ship and walked in to Ocho Rios (we had 90 minutes to kill before our excursion). Stopped at a few trinket shops, didn't buy anything, got some nice pictures, and fended off the drug dealers. Ochie has changed over the years that I have been coming here. While the net number of drug dealers working the streets probably hasn't changed much, they are a tad more aggressive than I remember. And while there are some new "malls", including the one where Margaritaville is, and where we walked around for a bit, all that new storefront has really done is make the old part older and less attractive. Anyway, and, long-story-short...not impressed. While I don't usually go for the ships excursions, I did this time, for Michille's sake, and I have to tell you - GOOD IDEA!!! But for that the day would have been not so good.

BUT - we got back to the port, found our excursion group and loaded up into a minivan. Very nicely, there were only 11 of us on this trip, rather than a giant busload. We drove out to Chukka Cove (about 20 miles from Ocho Rios, almost to Mo' Bay).

After a short wait and a quick safety briefing we mounted up and moved out. Our main trail guide, a gentleman by the name of Nicolo, and I talked for a few minutes, I told him I was a middling fair-horseman, though not on English saddles, being a Western type. But he put me on one of the more spirited horses, a bay by the name of Expression, who was a great horse, but not a follower. He had a habit of taking his head, and trying to bite Nicolo's lead horse and/or just take the lead. Once I realized why he was ackin up, we got along fine. Nicolo put me directly behind him, and Michelle next. He really was an awesome guide, who took a particular interest in us. As we headed out he was telling me all about the indigenous flora (mango, banana, almond, achi, etc). This was all pretty much him and me, as even Michille, one back of me, only got to hear about half of the conversation. We rode around Papillon Cove, where the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman movie of the same name was filmed. After determining that I had, in fact, seen the movie, he pointed out the famous "cliff" that McQueen jumped from (it's a lot less impressive in real life), and some of the other memorable areas. He also took Michilles camera and got a BUNCH of great pictures of us (okay, mostly her) along the cove.

We then continued on thru the jungle and came out on the beach, and walked the horses thru the shallow water to the staging area for the swim portion. Now, I have to be honest with you - had the excursion ended right there, I would have felt I probably got my money's worth. But this was just the setup for the "good part". We dismounted, took off the goofy helmets and put on goofy flotation belts, and re-mounted. Michille got on her same horse, but I had to switch out, as Nicolo explained that Expression was a little wild for swimming. So, anyway, as we got to the water, Nicolo gave Michille's camera to Squishy (one of the trail hands), and the two of them had a full on photoshoot at waters edge. Now, as most of you know, I usually travel alone because, frankly, I don't like people.

This trip is an exception, and there are definite advantages to having a friend along, especially one who is a traveler, but not a jaded and world-weary cruiser like myself. It was pretty much worth the price of admission just to see her light up as her and her horse vogued for the camera...and THEN we actually went in the water!!! And I am not talking about the horse walking in the water...I am talking about the horse swimming in I-don't-know-how-deep-water, while you are essentially bareback (they have a small blanket, no saddle), hanging on to the reins and trying to keep your balance. I have ridden bareback, and holding on to a horse with your knees is not all THAT difficult...but doing it with the water pushing you back is quite an exercise. I never fell off, but I came close a couple times. In fact, everyone managed to stay on...but there were quite a few close calls. Despite that, it was GLORIOUS. Thats the only word that comes to mind. I love horses. I have ridden horses all my life. I have owned horses. But I have never rode a swimming horse. And, I have never felt as close to and "a part of" a horse as when we were crashing thru the ocean together. Wait - I have another word to add to "glorious" - MAGICAL. Yep. Mystical and Magical. Anyway...whether you are a horsey person or not, I have to heartily recommend that if you ever get the chance, take it. And if you ARE a horse person, FIND the opportunity.

So, anyway, after probably only 10 minutes of frolicking in the surf, we got back out of the water (with a bunch of more pictures) and dismounted again, to hang out while the other half of our group got in the water. When they were done, we all mounted up (back on Expression, I was), and headed home, again with commentary from Nicolo on the plant life, and the life and death of Bob Marley, and Jamaica's government, etc. He even told a few riddles....All in all, I am going to say a couple of the best hours of the last 5 years, at least. And something I would absolutely do again. At the end of it all, as I was giving Nicolo and Squishy a little toke for how much they did to make it an outstanding day, Nicolo asked if we would be back tomorrow...I honestly started to calculate what it would cost to spend the night in Ochie and fly to Grand Cayman on the morrow to catch up with the ship. Alas, it's not to be.

Anyway, one of the things I have been looking forward to for months was lunch at the Village Jerk Centre. I've eaten there every time I've been to Jamaica, going back to 1984 on the cruise where I met my first wife. I'd like to say I fell in love with her there, (and it was kind of our first "date"), but the truth is I fell in love with Jerk and Red Stripe on that trip. Sadly, my Red Stripe days are over...but a good plate of Jerk still makes me nearly weep. So, we ordered a combo plate with ribs, jerk chicken and jerk pork, some Festivale and rice & beans. It was nearly as good as I remember. I also had my first (and second) Ginger Beer of the trip. My buddy started with a Pepsi, and then we noticed that Red Stripe now makes a Light Apple Beer, so she broke down and decided to try one. Until the bartender noted they also make a ginger-flavored brew...so she had one of those instead...and THEN the apple.

I had been offering for months to buy lunch there for any of my travel agent friends who cared to join me, and I must say, I was a little disappointed that no one showed up. Oh, well...their loss.   On the flip side, I was so wiped out when we got back to the ship, I fell asleep and missed the group photo I was supposed to be in...

So, we started walking back to the ship. One beggar woman followed us out of the Jerk Centre, and started by offering to braid Michille's hair. About the 264th person of the day to do so. Next she noted the medical condition she needed money for. Not interested, I told her. Then, I am pretty sure she was offering up sexual favors to me (I went from "your husband" to "sexy man", while Michille was demoted from "nice lady" to "blondie" [a generic and slightly insulting term for pretty much any white girl, but especially funny considering her RED hair]). When that was a non-starter she flat out asked for a dollar. Upon being refused even that, she got pretty snarly, and I think offering up some voodoo curses. So, if I am found dead in my bed or choke on a chicken bone in the next day or two, she's probably the culprit.

One more brief stop on the way back for Michille to get a coconut, something another friend told her was a must do...I've been there/done that, and don't really like straight coconut juice, though I did a few sips just to get the sugary ginger beer taste out of my mouth...plus I am pretty sure it's a prophylactic against Voodoo curses from Jamaican crackheads.

We arrived back to the ship without further incident, and I took the opportunity to make a phone call home, get some reservations for excursions and dinners, etc.

Oh, and another bottle of wine showed up from somewhere, apparently to match the, now, THREE trays of chocolate strawberries...seriously, how many of these things can two people eat? I totally appreciate the gesture, but my table is piling up...

Anyway, after sailaway from Jamaica we got not-quite-dressed-up, and went to La Cucina for dinner. La Cucina is NCL's rustic Italian eatery. By the way, before I go any further, y'all might have noticed we are eating in the alternative restaurants every night. There is a reason for this: DISCOUNT! Seriously, one of the things I most hate hearing from clients is that cruise lines, most especially NCL, because they have by far the most dining options, are "nickel and diming" people because they give you choices of where to eat. In my mind, all these restaurants are just a bonus opportunity. You can still eat as well, with all the included dining choices, as any other mass market cruise line. But for a few bucks more, you can elevate your gastronomical game on NCL. AND, as I said, that's at their regular prices. BUT, get this: all the speciality dining on this cruise has been discounted. Apparently revenue is down, and they're dropping the prices to get people in. So, Moderno, which should have been a $25 meal (and is a steal at that price) was only $18. Sushi was a la carte, but we both filled up for $26. Le Bistro, again, normally $25, I think, was only $14pp. And La Cucina last nite, normally a $15 cover charge was NINE DOLLARS PER PERSON. Now, before I go on with the details of what we had for dinner, maybe reread the previous posts, and what we ate, and put those prices on the meals. Or just start from here: $9 in my friends deli will get you a whole pastrami, a bag of chips and one of her wide variety of speciality sodas. Or, that same $9 at La Cucina will get you antipasti of quiche, sun dried tomatos, black and green olives, prosciutto, and marinated peppers. And a carpaccio and arugula appetizer. And tomato and fresh mozzarella slices. And a seafood fettucine that included mussels, squid, salmon, shrimp and scallops. ANd top it off with an entree like Saltimbocca. Which, by the way, was done to a turn this time. My last outing at La Cucina, on the Norwegian Star, I complained of it being too sagey. This one was perfect, with just the right hint of sage. So, I not only got a better dinner, I am vindicated that the previous time, it wasn't quite what it should be.  Or, for that same $9, you could have gone a different direction (as my partner did), and ordered (after the antipasti and bread), some Pasta et Fagioli, the Insalata La Cucina, a salad of mixed greens with figs, pancetta and some other stuff. And then a small Margherita pizza (which, by the way, was really fabulous, based on the piece I stole). And then a Spaghetti Carbonara. Oh, and add to those a big bowl of strawberry ice cream or a piece of ricotta cheesecake.

Now, tell me $9 is too much to pay for a cruise ship speciality restaurant...

okay, rant over.

So, that's what we had for dinner. And then, after dinner, an hour of feeling just how sore all that horseback riding can make you, until it was time for Second City. I love's me some Second City. Their big show in the theater is mostly sketch with one improv thrown in, as opposed to the lounge show, which will be later in the week, and pretty much all improv. But the sketches were good, and the final audience participation number was cute and funny.

After the show I ran into the casino to check my blackjack turney standing, and, amazingly I am still #2 on the leaderboard. OF course there will be a bunch of qualifiers on Saturday, and I could fall fast, but based on the results so far, I think my score might just hold up.

And, finally a run to Bliss to check on signing up for the Murder Mystery Lunch. I have tried to do this on my last two cruises with NCL, and was too late to get in. Finally, SUCCESS. It better be good.

Now, I am blissfully weary from a grand day and a grand horse ride...

Back in 24 hours!!!

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