This is my daily log of our cruise to Bermuda on the MS Veendam (Holland America Line), sponsored by the Weekly Standard magazine.
We started our journey to the East Coast by visiting my Aunt Elsie in Barrington, Rhode Island, a few miles southeast of Providence. She has a lovely old house on the shore of the Barrington River. We flew to Boston and rented a car for the ostensibly90-minute drive to Barrington. Traffic was really heavy, both leaving Boston at 3:30 PM and driving through Providence after 5. This turned out to be the last day of a vicious heat wave that had plagued the area for the last couple of weeks. so we were very lucky from a weather standpoint. On Thursday, the three of us visited the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence. It is small, but pretty decent because the animal enclosures are quite generous in size and the animals do not look so miserable cooped up in tiny cages. The photos below show some of the animals I enjoyed there.
On Friday, Nancy and I visited Mystic Seaport, about an hour away, just across the border in Connecticut. The highlight is the sailing ship Charles W. Morgan, which is the nation's oldest merchant ship. It is being restored in the shipyard there and we happened upon a guided tour that discussed many of the processes involved in restoring an old ship like this. The seaport area is a restored village with a number of sailing vessels and shops that attempt to reproduce the atmosphere of the 19th century. Nancy particularly enjoyed a visit to the print shop and came away with a number of samples of nicely executed letter press.
On Saturday, I ran on the Barrington bike trail to Bristol and back, about 12 miles round trip. It is a great place to run because it is flat and secluded, interrupted periodically by beautiful views of the water. In the afternoon we drove into Providence and visited the Rhode Island Historical Society Museum at the John Brown house. No, it was not that John Brown—this guy was from the 18th century and he was actually a slave holder and trader. They had a tiny exhibition about Rhode Island at War, which was little more than a few posters about and memorabilia of Elisha Hunt Rhodes. I found a few errors, which I reported to the docent. The rest of the house was moderately interesting. Across the street was the house of Ambrose Burnside, one of my favorite Civil War generals, and later the governor of Rhode Island. The John Brown house had a very interesting portrait of Burnside as a young man. That evening the three of us went to the Barrington Yacht Club for a big lobster boil. The lobster I got was a two pounder and had the thickest shell I have ever encountered, hard enough to deflect a Minié ball. In fact, it broke the lobster-cracking utensil and I had to resort to digging tiny holes and teasing out the meat one morsel at a time. Delicious, though.
We took the Amtrak Northeast Regional train from Providence to New York's Penn Station, an enjoyable ride of 3 1/2 hours. We sprang for business class seats, $30 each, but they ended up being not a great bargain because the benefits included only a few inches of additional legroom and one free coffee or soda from the dining car. Outside of the station, the line for taxicabs was probably 50 people long, but we quickly got over to the Hudson River at Pier 88. Cruise lines are becoming more and more efficient in reducing their turnover time and the Veendam, which had discharged its previous passenger load at about 9 AM, was ready for boarding as early as 10:30 AM, although we reached it about 2 PM. The embarkation process was very efficient. However, the mandatory lifeboat drill at 4 PM was easily the most disorganized we have ever encountered. (This was our twelfth cruise, second on Holland America. Because of a commercial dispute I had with HAL a few years ago, I had resolved never to sail with them again, but this opportunity to join the Weekly Standard crew was one that won me over.) Thoughts of the Costa Concordia brushed our imaginations.
The Veendam is smaller than ships we have been on recently, about 1250 passengers and 500 crew, and probably about 15 years old, so it did not have some of the spacious rooms and entertainment amenities that more recent ships enjoy. We were not overly impressed with the friendliness of the crew, although they seem to warm up over the week. For example, our cabin steward did not bother to show up the first day, but then he appeared on a daily basis, usually knocking on our door at an inopportune time. (I always thought that stewards had a way of monitoring whether we were in the cabin, but this guy obviously did not.) On a previous trip with HAL, we were very impressed by a steward who created whimsical animal shapes out of towels, figuring that it was a personalized touch. On this cruise, we realized that it is a corporate policy to do this and in fact they had a class on the ship of how you could do your own.
One of the most impressive aspects of this cruise was the departure from New York Harbor. The weather was beautiful and we got great views of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty, and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The partially completed Freedom Tower impressed everyone as it grew over the World Trade Center site. I was hoping to see the space shuttle Enterprise, which was recently acquired by the Intrepid air and sea museum, but they have her hidden under a giant gray bubble tent covering half of the aircraft carrier's flight deck.
At 7 PM we attended a reception at the Lido pool area, where we met the Weekly Standard folks for the first time. I am a long time subscriber to this political magazine and I was interested to meet all of my favorite writers and have conversations with like-minded folks. Nancy was a great sport because, although she does not find any interest in politics, she was able to endure an entire week of political presentations and chatting without complaint. We had a long talk with Lee Smith, a foreign policy writer. His viewpoint is that he is rather optimistic about how Syria will turn out, which is good news. My innate shyness prevented me from having many other conversations of this type. I can never figure out a way to become comfortable weaseling in on a conversation with a person who is already occupied with other folks. But I got better during the week. One unfortunate incident during the reception was the death of one of the guests. The cruise line seems to be used to this certain thing and handled the affair pretty efficiently.
At dinner, we were assigned to a table of eight that was hosted by Phil Terzian, the literary editor, and his wife Grace, who happens to be a vice president with the Hudson Institute, a New York think tank founded by Herman Kahn. This was quite a delightful evening with a table full of knowledgeable and well spoken guests. There was a quiet couple at the other end of the table, a bit too far away for me to hear, but Nancy was seated next to them. After dinner she told me that the man was the former Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and she got to listen in on all of the opinions about John Roberts’s recent Obamacare decision. I am sorry I missed that, but I was not surprised to hear a summary of his views of judges cognizant of popular opinion, which were not positive.
We had breakfast at the Lido buffet, which is worth mentioning only because it seems that cruise lines now have a policy that until they have identified the sick people on board, no one can handle the food for themselves, which really puts a crimp into the efficiency of a buffet. This policy lasted until Tuesday, causing really big lines.
Since it was a day at sea, there were four hours scheduled for presentations and panel discussions in the main ship showroom. I believe there were 400 attendees, so this venue worked out pretty well, size-wise. Bill Kristol started with an introduction of the staff and an overview of the 2012 election. He gave a number of historical and political reasons why Obama the incumbent should expect to be reelected, but another set of reasons why he might be defeated. I can summarize the week on this topic by saying that most of the Weekly Standard guys were marginally optimistic about winning the election—Bill less so, Jay Cost more so.
Note: The indoor photographs that follow are pretty disappointing. I took them with my iPhone, rather than dragging my regular camera around. Although they looked pretty good on the tiny screen at the time, examining them at full-size shows they are really wretched and noisy. So I am offering them here only as thumbnails.
Fred Barnes hosted a panel that went into more detail on the election and it was mostly positive about Romney and his chances. (Various guests during the week had vocal complaints about the staff’s less than full enthusiasm about Romney, however.) Both Brit Hume (guest speaker from Fox News) and John Podhoretz (editor of Commentary magazine) considered that the election would be primarily a referendum on Obama. Byron York (Washington Times, former National Review) was considerably more pessimistic about the challenges facing Romney. One of the great themes of the week was the selection of the vice presidential candidate. A number of the speakers liked Bobby Jindal, but most seemed resigned to Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty. During a break I approached Brit Hume and, using my trademarked dry humor, said that I had heard that Aaron Sorkin used him as the model for the anchorman in the HBO series, The Newsroom. Brit spoiled my joke by saying he had never seen the show (which I frankly find hard to believe, even though it is a laughably terrible show).
After lunch, another panel told stories about incidents on the campaign trail. The group was very positive about Marco Rubio, although they found it unlikely he would be chosen as VP. They were universally negative on Jon Huntsman. Steve Hayes continued his long-standing negative appraisals of Romney and a lady in the audience called him out on it. (Perhaps she was also miffed that he always showed up on stage wearing flip-flops.) Another panel on foreign policy and defense issues was disappointingly long-winded, but offered not much content of interest. I came to learn during the week that there is a weakness in the panel-discussion and heavy audience-questioning format, which is that complex topics cannot really be covered in depth, and soundbites about campaign horse races and VP selections come to dominate. The best sessions of the week were a single speaker in a longform format, but there were very few of those.
Late in the afternoon there was a session in which people could have their photographs taken with the speakers, but this is not something we bothered with. What would we do with such a photograph? Before dinner we attended a showing of the latest Sherlock Holmes movie. This was our last movie of the week because it looked as if they were showing the DVD version, which does not project clearly on a large screen, and the movie theater had air-conditioning equivalent to a meat locker. Free popcorn, though.
Dinner was the first of two formal nights. (In the "old days" of our cruising career, we would typically have two or three formal nights in which everyone wore tuxedos or long gowns, a couple of semi-formal nights with sport jackets, and the rest "casual", meaning "no shorts". I think I saw one tuxedo on the entire ship. And there were no semi-formals.) We were at another table of eight, this time hosted by Christian Lowe, the managing editor of U.S. News & World Report, and his wife (whose name I have regrettably forgotten), the editor responsible for the Weekly Standard website and for wrangling the speakers throughout the cruise. A couple of inebriated ladies at the table complained to him that they did not like his magazine, and did not seem to be fazed by the fact that it is no longer published in physical form. He argued with them that his website now is somewhat a center-right affair, although they did not buy it. I had a one-on-one argument with him about what I thought would be noncontroversial. His background was as a military correspondent, so I felt comfortable expressing my dissatisfaction with the upcoming sequestration of defense funds. To my surprise, he argued rather vigorously for reducing the defense budget even further. He is very concerned about the expenses of veterans (retirement and medical) and thinks our forces don't need to be nearly as large as they are. The political content of the conversation really tapered off after this. We heard nothing about Christian's experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, but quite a lot about the summer camps of his youth.
We had traveled about 700 nautical miles and arrived in Hamilton midmorning. The captain was concerned about squalls in the harbor, some rather heavy rain and 60-knot winds, so our docking was delayed. However, Nancy and I completely missed this because we were in the show room. The first session was about what to expect in a term of either Romney or a reelected Obama. There was a lot of pessimism about Republican chances to repeal Obamacare and actually pass the Paul Ryan budget into law; they seem to think that the previous votes to approve this budget were primarily symbolic and that when the actual governance is in GOP hands, they will get cold feet (to mix a metaphor). The prospect for another Obama term was a continuation of the practice of lawless skirting around the Constitution.
Brit Hume gave a very entertaining talk about his career, how he was hired by Roger Ailes at the nascent Fox News, and quite a lot about how the media is inherently biased in a leftist direction. He described a conversation he had with friends in the business who swore that Obama was a completely centrist president and they had no idea why anyone would think he was left of center. He is convinced that Obama was elected due to extraordinary circumstances and, given the financial calamity in September 2008, he said that a ticket of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan could not have won. So he was one of the more optimistic guys during the week about the election of 2012.
By the time we got on deck, the weather was pretty nice—sunny, very warm, but tolerably humid. We had arranged our single shore excursion for the week through the Weekly Standard (actually a company called the Cruise Authority that handled all of the logistics), a four-hour bus tour of the entire island. This did not work out so well, because we were stuck in a rather cramped 14 passenger van and I found it difficult to see anything through the low windows. We had a moderately entertaining driver/guide named Debbie and put on quite a number of miles, seeing St. George's at the eastern end of the island, the Dockyards at the western, and a number of points in between. We got to see Michael Douglas's driveway! The highlight of the afternoon was at a mundane garden that featured a shallow pool with a scale model of Bermuda in it. It was covered with bullfrogs and Debbie was deathly afraid of them for some reason. One jumped out at her and she dashed away in panic, shrieking like a little girl. There was also an odd cast-iron lighthouse, from which we got a very nice view of the western end of the island.
After our return, I hoofed it over to the National Library, which had a free Wi-Fi connection. Wi-Fi on the ship is a real joke, very slow and supremely expensive. (If I recall, the smallest package, of 250 minutes, was $100.) I did this each day in Bermuda.)
That evening we resigned ourselves to a non-hosted table—of the seven dinners, only two were designated for us to dine with the speakers, at least for first-time participants such as us. (This was the ninth Weekly Standard cruise and some of the participants had been on all nine.) However, we were delighted to be called in our cabin and told that because of a cancellation by another couple we were being reassigned to a table hosted by Jay Cost. Jay is one of my favorite bloggers, an expert on history and the mechanics of elections and polling. He is the author of a new book about the problem of clientelism in the Democratic Party, Spoiled Rotten, which was given out as a gift to all of the cruisers. We had a really outstanding discussion, with lots of opinions flying in all directions. Jay is very optimistic about the election, expecting it to be 52/47 Romney, which may lead to a pickup of as many as 10 Senate seats as well. However, he is quite pessimistic about the chances for fixing the problems of entitlements and budget deficits after that, and most of the people at the table were sympathetic to that view. An interesting insight was that the people who did ticket splitting—voting for the president of one party and the senator from another—are now almost gone from the scene. When I questioned his book's reference to the "once former noble" Democratic Party, he cited Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland, and John F. Kennedy. Pretty slim pickin's.
This is the first cruise we have ever taken that spent more than a couple of days in a single port. I wonder how the captain felt about being assigned to a job that had only three days of sailing each week. Anyway, the crew got us all concerned about bad weather forecasts for the day, so we planned no outside activities. We slept in, then took a brisk walk on the promenade deck, about 2.5 miles, or 10 laps. Today was an off day for the Weekly Standard, with no sessions and no assigned tables at dinner. We sat around all day and I read Jay's book. The weather turned out to be fine all day, but it was too late to do anything about it, and we enjoy reading anyway.
This cruise was actually our second visit to Bermuda. Our first was in 1983! We stayed in a lovely old hotel called the Newstead, which now seems to be a modern resort, although we did not visit it. But each day on that previous trip we visited a wonderful beach owned by a hotel that billed itself as a beach and tennis club, which had reciprocal privileges set up. Unfortunately, I was not in the business of writing webpages about my travels at the time, so I have forgotten the details, but we are pretty sure we got close today, by taking the bus to Elbow Beach. In between two private beaches, we found a narrow section that had chairs and umbrellas for rent, right next to a beach and tennis hotel that had changing rooms at a restaurant we were welcome to use. It was a delightful day, with lovely warm water and the trademarked pink sand of Bermuda. Lunch at the hotel was breathtakingly expensive—my turkey sandwich was $20! (Later in the week I checked out café menus in Hamilton and they were closer to the $10–12 range.)
Late that afternoon, we had two more sessions. The panel on political book recommendations led by Phil Terzian was a bit dry; none of the 21 were of compelling interest to me. Fred Barnes gave a disappointing rambling speech on presidential stories, Ronald Reagan papers and misconceptions, and his VP guesses—it will probably be the "cautious" pick of Portman or Pawlenty. Fred was getting prepared to leave the cruise early so that he could fly to London and join Mitt Romney's trip to Israel and Poland, so I suspect he had other things on his mind. Dinner was with two doctors and a feisty lady who emigrated from South Africa 60 years ago and owns a cattle ranch in New Mexico.
Because of our noon departure, we did not have time for any extensive touring. We walked over to Fort Hamilton and I found interest in a couple of cannons they had on display. They were 10- and 11-inch rifled cannons on Moncrieff disappearing carriages, set up so that the recoil would swing the tube down to a concealed position, where it was reloaded and then raised back into firing position. Unfortunately, the actual carriage mechanisms did not survive and the tubes were mounted on permanent concrete stands. But they were monstrously heavy iron tubes, muzzle loaded, shooting 400 pound projectiles. The fort was constructed because of concern about the American Civil War and Britain's potential entry into it, but this fort did not start construction until 1868. The fort had a giant, deep dry moat on the land side. Then we visited the Bermuda National Gallery to see an exhibition of impressionist paintings of the island, virtually all by American artists. It was in the same building as the City Hall, where we met the official town crier of Bermuda, Ed, who was starting a free city walking tour (that we did not have time to attend, which was too bad because he was very entertaining in his introductory remarks).
As we departed, the ship took an elaborate twisting course to negotiate between rocks and around coral reefs. At one point, we took a sharp turn that started emptying a hot tub on Lido deck. Once underway, there were two more sessions in the show room. The first was on key elections in the House, Senate, and in the states. Bill Kristol was not overly enthusiastic about Senate prospects, worrying about Montana and North Dakota because Democrat incumbents have strong ties to small electorates. John McCormack likes Republican chances in Wisconsin. The second session was an interview with Jay about his book, although there was little content surprising to someone who has read it.
Tonight was the second formal night. The dinner conversation at our table of six was less interesting than on previous nights. A couple proceeded to describe their 27 prior cruises. One of the men raved about Bill O'Reilly's new book on the Lincoln assassination. Somehow he thought it applied to the entire war, but I am quite certain it is limited to March and April 1865. It also got pretty wretched reviews from Civil War historians, so I mostly kept my mouth shut. But this conversation gave us an excuse to skip dessert and retire to the evening's entertainment, which was surprisingly good. It featured an operatically trained tenor and soprano, performing show tunes and some Italian popular and opera songs. The conclusion was an over-the-top rendition of the Ode to Joy, the choral portion of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, sung in English, accompanied by a nine-piece electronic orchestra. At the conclusion we grazed through an elaborate, decadent dessert buffet that took up three floors of the central atrium of the ship.
Our final day, at sea, included four hours of sessions. The first was about up and coming politicians. Tom Cotton was the only name unfamiliar to me. Bill Kristol lamented that Allan West did not run for senate. All agreed that Bill Nelson is beatable in Florida. Phil made a very interesting observation, which was that at the 1940 Democrat convention, one would never guess who would come into prominence. The next three presidents were at that time an obscure senator from Missouri, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, and a college student.
A panel on prospects for limited government was very negative, a real "woe is me" exercise. It gave me a case of the ass because if Ronald Reagan had been on that panel, he would have been optimistic about America's future and found a way to convince us of it. Jay said Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 was the most important conservative event of the century and it shows how to seize the moment, as liberals often have done.
A panel on the best magazines and websites was really sort of a snooze. Kelly Jane Torrance provided a very lengthy exposition on how wonderful Twitter is, and attempted to remember the handles of all of the people that she follows. Lee Smith read off dozens of foreign policy authors and attempted to spell all of their names. Many of the recommendations were for arts and letters kinds of websites, which really don't interest me, and the political ones cited were not new to me. (This was the only session that Nancy bailed out of and people at dinner complimented her for her foresight.) The final session was called "Ask TWS" and it consisted of random Q&A, ostensibly about the magazine, but really more about hot political topics.
That evening we had another cocktail reception and I enjoyed myself quite a bit more than the first time. No one died tonight, for starters. But I was able to jump in and establish a few satisfying one-on-one conversations. We talked at length with Claudia Anderson, the managing editor of the magazine, and I humorously complained about the silly caricature cartoons that they used to illustrate the authors—I told her that all of the people on stage looked better than those caricatures did. She said she thought they were 15 years old. We talked about Obamacare and federalism with Terry Eastland. And I was able to overhear a tantalizing snippet of conversation with Andrew J. Ferguson, so I jumped in and contributed. Because it was about Daniel Sickles, one of the most controversial generals of the Civil War, and someone I know a lot about. The other guy I joined in with turned out to be the author of a two-part article in Gettysburg magazine about Sickles and the Third Army Corps, so the two of us continued to have a very interesting conversation about the war and Civil War cartography. (Actually, quite a number of people were politely interested during the week in my little retirement hobby/business.) It was too bad that my social fortitude came out only at the end of the week because every night (other than Wednesday) there was a get-together in a lounge after dinner. I attended one of them, found the speakers entirely engaged with small groups, so shyly withdrew, and did not return for another try.
Dinner was with an elderly couple from Hawaii and the same two inebriated ladies from earlier in the week, so once again we did not linger at the table. The after dinner entertainment was a comedy singer and we had a nice old time with him. He did great imitations of Elvis and Roy Orbison and was quite a talented rock guitarist. Then we packed up and placed our luggage in the hallway before retiring.
We arrived in New York harbor about 6 AM and got up early to go up on deck. It was significantly overcast and rather dark, so I got few good photographs. Disembarkation was extremely efficient and we left the ship about 8:30 AM, boarding a bus that took us to Newark airport. After a lengthy wait for our scheduled flight, we got back home around 7 PM.
I had a memorable time with the Weekly Standard, but I have some doubt about whether I will repeat the experience, unless a very interesting cruise opportunity goes along with it. It was a pretty pricey affair and I think my limited social skills prevented me from achieving the full value of interacting with all of these interesting folks. There was quite a bit of repetition in the topics of the panel discussions, focusing more on the 2012 horse race than on conservative policy, and the overriding pessimism about future prospects was a downer. As I mentioned earlier, I am also not happy with Holland America Line, which seems to be the default choice of carrier. They are planning another cruise in January, to the Caribbean, which I definitely will not attend—it is either going to be happy, or very, very depressing—and a long weekend at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs in May, which I just might consider.