Coco Cay

This is an excerpt from chapter 12 of my book, “What Time Is the Midnight Buffet?” Here we visit Coco Cay, the private island in the Bahamas owned by Royal Caribbean/Celebrity Cruises. Kris makes a last minute decision to accompany me on a waverunner (jet ski) excursion, and the rest is history…

Near the lunch area, I spotted the waverunner hut. In anticipation of my 3:00 reservation for a ride, I dragged Kris along for a look. A large sign out front displayed a long list of prohibitions for participants:

  • NO Excessive Speed
  • NO Wake Jumping
  • NO Wave Jumping
  • NO Racing
  • Follow the guide
  • Maintain 300’ Separation
  • Etc., etc…

If the sign had been just a little bigger, they would have had room to sum it all up with a simple “NO FUN”. Maybe this wasn’t a good choice, after all. In bold letters, the sensible zero tolerance policy for riding under the influence caught my eye. I had just been thinking about a pina colada, but now I had reason to dismiss the idea.

Carrying lemonade, we went back to our encampment. It was already 2:00, and there really wasn’t much time before the waverunner session at 3:00. We sat in the sun for a while, and I took one of the rented floating beach mats into the water for ten minutes of pure relaxation. I’m going to buy one of those things some day. Even though I would carry two of them around for the rest of the day, we never got another chance to float around. All the while we sat on the beach, waverunners buzzed annoyingly offshore.

I took a couple of pictures for the record, and it was time to go. “Well, have you decided if you’re coming with me?” I asked Kris.

“Oh…I guess so,” she answered. “It does look like fun.”

We packed everything up and headed to Waverunner headquarters. There were convenient shelves available to hold our stuff, beach mats included. The little straps that give your glasses a chance to survive vigorous activity were available at the check-in desk. For a couple of bucks each (on the room card), we made the investment. After an introductory video in an air-conditioned room, we put on life vests and headed for the Waverunners. Over my vest we added a set of straps that provided cushioned handles for Kris to hang on to.

On the dock, we were introduced to our guides — a young man and a younger woman. The male guide said, “Who wants to go fast?” I raised my hand, as did a couple of others. Kris nudged me, but the cushioned lifejacket reduced the impact.

“We don’t want to go fast,” said Kris. I kept my hand raised. “Put your hand down!” She nudged me again.

Our guide counted off the go-fast wannabes. “One, two,” he said before pointing to us. “Three.” He kept going until he reached the eighth and final participant.

“Listen up!” said the guide. “I will go first, and our other guide will go last. You will launch in your assigned order at her signal. We will maintain 300-foot intervals until I stop. You must follow my exact path because there are coral reefs all around. That’s why you must ride with a guide while you’re here.”

Again I wondered if we were wise to take this excursion. We could be relaxing on the beach with a cold drink, having fun.

The guide continued with his speech. “When I stop, you should gather with me until everybody catches up. After our first stop, we’ll be heading into open ocean. It’s pretty rough out there, so there’s no way to avoid some jumping. We will forgive you.”

Hmmm…this was sounding better.

“We will then go around to the other side of the island and stop for a rest. Ready?”

The group murmured an affirmative, and the guide gave the instruction to start our engines. When all the waverunners were running, he took off and curved toward Galaxy, which was anchored offshore. The follow-up guide pointed to waverunner #1, and blew a whistle. The driver launched smoothly and followed the guide’s wake. The whistle sounded again, and waverunner #2 took off.

Our turn. I gripped the handlebars tightly, and at the signal hit the gas. We were instantly flying, and I tried to get a feel for what the machine could do. Kris immediately transformed into a back seat driver of the worst sort, shouting warnings and pleading for mercy. “Ahhhhh! Take it easy!!”

Ahead, waverunner #2 came to an abrupt halt. I think the girl driving got scared and wanted to let her father take over. I had to make a split-second decision, and scanned the water for obstructions. Seeing none, I swung far to the right and gave the sled some more gas, passing the stopped waverunner in an arc at least 400 feet away.

Kris pulled so hard on the handles attached to my vest that I had to secure myself with the handlebars. From a few inched behind my ear she screamed, “You can’t do this! You aren’t supposed to pass! Slow down! Don’t get so close! Stop! Wait! Oh…myyyy…Gawwwwd!!” I rolled my eyes and steered back on course behind waverunner #1.

The leader stopped at the entrance to the bay, and we slowed to join him. It took some time for the others to catch up. The guide asked if anyone wanted to change positions in the lineup, and I volunteered for the number two spot. Kris groaned, and increased her handhold. The guide warned us that we were about to leave sheltered waters and go out where the waves were dancing around.

“All right, dude,” I thought. On the signal, we went.

I watched the guide when he took off, and his technique seemed to be to hold the throttle wide open and hang on. I decided to give it a try. We hit the first wave and launched into the air. The sled slammed back down with the engine screaming before we got the water equivalent of traction, launching us up the next wave and back into the air. A woman behind me was screaming. Sounded like someone I knew.

We established a regular rhythm: Bang, whoosh, scream (engine) — bang, whoosh, scream (woman), bang… I knew anyone within earshot would be well and truly annoyed, but this was seriously fun. Huge sprays of water hit me in the face, and my mouth was full of salt. My sunglasses remained fixed in their proper spot, but I desperately needed windshield wipers.

I found that I could establish a less jarring rhythm by timing things a little differently. It was possible to get the waverunner skimming over the wave crests for good distances. We kept encroaching on rider #1’s space, and I’d have to back off. When you let off the throttle there is absolutely no steering control, leaving you are at the mercy of other forces. Faster please. It is easier that way.

We rode around the far side of Galaxy. I wanted to look, but thought it better to concentrate on keeping the sled upright. The waves became larger and more closely spaced, changing the whole dynamic of the ride. I don’t think I ever really discovered the secret to handling the beast, but it was fun to try different approaches to the current situation. Kris eventually became silent. Her face seemed to be burrowing into my neck, and her death grip on the handles continued to pull me slightly off balance. We were making progress. Around the far tip of the island, we entered a calm bay and again paused. Just in time for me. I had been holding on so tightly my hands ached and I had lost my finesse on the throttle. White knuckles contrasted sharply with tanned hands.

“How are you doin’ back there?” I asked Kris.

“I’m all right,” she answered. “I think I’m getting used to it.”

“Do you want to drive?”

“No way!”

As the others slowly filed in, the lead guide dove into the water and came up with a huge starfish. We passed it around while we waited. Kris was carrying a waterproof camera, and another driver offered to snap our picture.

“Did you take any pictures while we were moving?” I asked.

It was a rhetorical question, but she answered anyway. “Are you insane?”

Click image for a larger viewWhen everyone had gathered, we were again offered the chance to swap places in the running order. I was sorely tempted to put us in the lead position behind the guide, but I deferred out of respect for my passenger. We reversed our route, traveling back over the largest waves where we spent more time in the air than in the water. The kids would be proud. I didn’t hear any more human screaming behind me — it was quiet back there. We repeatedly had to slow down to maintain the proper spacing, which became quite an annoyance after a while. The guide did not make an intermediate stop on the return trip, and we soon approached our departure point.

As we motored in to the dock Kris said, “I can’t believe how slow the first waverunner was going. You should have asked to go first.”

I rolled my eyes again.

Back on shore I noted that it was five and a half hours after noon in the next time zone eastward. We had avoided having anything to drink because of the waverunner policy, and shared a strong mutual desire for a pina colada. Floating mats and snorkeling gear safely returned, we set out for the beachfront bar.

Timing is everything, and ours was terrible. The bar had just closed, and the staff was cleaning up. Even though the last ferry didn’t leave for an hour yet, there were very few people left on the island. A man sweeping the floor told us that we might be able to get a beer at the hut near the dock. When we got there the crew was packing up, but they were glad to serve us a round of Beck’s beer, and then another. Kris ran over to the market area where the vendors were also packing up. She got some end-of-the-day bargains on t-shirts. As 5:30 approached, the last ferry pulled up to the dock, and we went to the end of the short waiting line. Our bags were hand searched in case we had met up with smugglers, and we boarded.

Leaving Las Vegas

The bleary-eyed young couple practically climbed over us to get into the elevator. I guess they didn’t notice that we were trying to haul 200 pounds of luggage through the door.

“What was their hurry?” asked Kris.

I could think of at least two possibilities, but kept one of them to myself. “I’m sure they’ve been up all night and need some sleep.”

We exited the elevator lobby and entered the cavernous space that lies between any two points in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. The atmosphere in the casino was markedly different than it had been just a few hours earlier. When we’d traversed it at 1 a.m., there was barely room to pass through the thousands of revelers who jockeyed for positions at the slot machines, gaming tables and bars. The noise was deafening. Now, at 6:30 a.m., a few of those same souls wandered about in stunned silence. A handful of new arrivals, freshly arisen early birds armed with coffee and the morning newspaper, paused to try their luck at the slots. Otherwise, the place was deserted.

I was, for the briefest moment before I came to my senses, tempted to feed another dollar into one of the machines. The prospect of the second phase of this vacation pulled me back from the brink. It had been a long time – at least 20 years – since we made a genuine all-American road trip. There was a lot of ground to cover today, Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon by way of Hoover Dam. I’ve spoken to many friends and coworkers about their trips to Vegas, and I’ve  asked them all the same question. “Did you go to Hoover Dam?” It’s a question that can be answered two ways – yes or no. I’ve received two variations on one of those possibilities – “No,” or an uncomprehending, quizzical stare.  Never heard a “yes,” which is a great mystery to me. Hoover Dam is way cooler than a slot machine.

Hotels Combined PTY LTDKris waited with the luggage under the hotel’s portico while I fetched the rental car from the parking garage. I had requested a mid-sized Jeep SUV knowing that we’d need some cargo room later when we moved Wells into the dorm at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Clutching keys I’d picked up at the rental counter the previous afternoon, I walked about a mile – at least it seemed that far – to the hotel’s parking garage. When I finally found space #38 on the fifth level, it was occupied by a monster truck – a Jeep Commander that looked remarkably like a Hummer. It was menacing. Deep, dark blue with windows tinted black, a chrome grill that looked like shark’s teeth and tires that bulged obscenely from the fenders. Children would cry when they saw us coming.

I hadn’t driven anything so big and unwieldy since a memorable white-knuckled trip through the narrow streets of Philadelphia in a 20-foot U-Haul truck many years ago. I climbed aboard and sat in the captain’s chair, adjusting things to my liking before backing carefully out of the parking space. Something started beeping. The tone grew more urgent as I crept backward, and ceased when I shifted into drive. It dawned on me that this beast had a radar warning system, lessening the chance that the driver would inadvertently crush an innocent Volkswagen hiding in the blind spot.

I found it remarkable that the parking garage at MGM was free. It seemed so out of character for Las Vegas, where even the free drinks came at a steep price. By the time I’d driven in spiraling circles down five levels, I was so dizzy that I took a wrong turn and was forced to go all the way around the block. Going around the block in Vegas is like driving the periphery of our home town, and it took ages. Finally, I pulled onto the Hotel’s entrance road and, using all of the dumb luck that had otherwise remained dormant throughout our time in the city, chose the correct lane – from at least twenty candidates – to take me to Kris.

“Where have you been?” Kris asked. “And what is this thing? I thought a pimp was checking me out.”

“It’s a Jeep. I guess they upgraded us from the little one I asked for.”

“It’s so…huge! Does it cost more? Is it a camper, too? I thought we were staying in hotels.”

As big as it was, it still couldn’t hold all of our luggage behind the rear seat. I don’t know how the designers managed to use the space so poorly. Our Subaru can hold more stuff. And this Jeep didn’t even have 4-wheel drive, so there’s even more points in favor of the Subaru.

“What kind of gas mileage do you think it gets?” asked Kris.

“I don’t know…maybe ten or eleven,” I said. Out of curiosity, I popped the hood. Standing on tip-toes, I peered into the engine compartment. A massive empty space allowed me to see the pavement below. Several people could have stood upright in there, feet firmly on the ground – without ducking. “Look, it’s the Grand Canyon.”

“Where’s the engine?” asked Kris.

“Up there,” I said, pointing to a tiny little motor sticking out of the upper rear wall of the compartment. “It’s only a six-cylinder. I think we might get actually get twelve  miles to the gallon.” Actually , there was more empty space under the hood than there was in the luggage area. I began thinking about how one could fashion a shelf in there.

We exited the hotel’s private expressway and made a u-turn on Tropicana Avenue, heading east into the blinding sun. “I have to make a stop,” I said.

“Already?” asked Kris. “You didn’t even have coffee yet. Maybe you should talk to the doctor…”

“Not for that. I’m going to pick up a GPS unit.”

“Where? Why?”

“At the main rental car office,” I said. “They don’t stock them at the hotels.”

“Well, that’s kind of a pain. Do you know where it is?”

“Sort of…but it would be easy if we had a GPS. That’s why I got it.”

It turned out that the rental office was just a block off our intended route, so the detour was brief. I traded my signature for the GPS unit, installed it in the Jeep and programmed it to take us to the Hoover Dam.

“Can it tell you where to get a decent cup of coffee?” asked Kris. She had been warned by her well-traveled brother about a lack of decent coffee in the western United States, and she was starting to get a little edgy. “I really need some good coffee.”

“I’m sure we’ll pass a hundred places before we get on the highway.” I said. “Look…there’s a McDonalds – how about that?”

Kris growled.

We drove block after block without seeing so much as a Starbucks. I thought those things were everywhere, not that I’ve ever been to one. The GPS advised that we’d soon be turning onto the highway, and Kris grew desperate. “Here! Right here! Turn! Burger King – I can live with that.”

I pulled into the deserted parking lot, entered the equally empty drive-thru lane and stopped at the menu board. “Do you want anything else?” I asked.

“Just coffee,” said Kris. “A big one.”

A garbled voice came over the loudspeaker. “Orning. welc…urger…ing…oment, please.”

I don’t know exactly what the voice said, but I got the impression that he or she wasn’t ready for the sudden rush of business and was asking me to wait. A few moments later, I heard some more noise. Detecting a rising inflection at the end of it, I assumed it was safe to submit my request.

Speaking slowly and deliberately I said, “Two large regular coffees, please. That’s it…”

From the response I picked out just three words – “…six…drive…window” – but I got the message and stepped on the gas.

Simultaneously, the person in the passenger seat went into a violent, thrashing conniption. “Get the turbo! Get the turbo!!” Kris shouted. If she hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, her head would have dented the roof. “You didn’t ask for the turbo! I have to have TURBO! AHHHH” I’ve only seen her display such emotion during football games, which is why I retreat to my office when the Patriots are playing.

“You said you didn’t want anything else. What the heck is a turbo?”

“It’s their special coffee. I can’t drink their regular coffee – it’s disgusting! I have to have the turbo. Go back and tell him…”

I continued forward and pulled up to the window as Kris carried on. Through the glass I could see a man struggling to put a lid on a tall coffee cup, a task made difficult by the fact that he only had one arm. He turned in our direction, opened the window and passed me a cup of coffee. “A dollar eighty-six, please,” he said.

“Is it the turbo?” Kris shouted.

“No, maam. Did you want a Turbo-Joe?”

“Yes. I have to have turbo!” Kris’s voice actually echoed in the cavernous Jeep.

I interjected. “Actually, I asked for two cups.”

“I’m sorry – I couldn’t really hear you on the intercom. So you want two cups of Turbo-Joe, sir?“

Kris leaned over and shouted, “Do you have any cinnamon rolls?”

“Yes, maam. So that’s two Turbo-Joes and a cinnamon roll?”

“Large! Large turbos!” yelled Kris.

“Actually, I’ll just keep this regular coffee,” I said. “So it’s just one turbo and a cinnamon roll. Large…”

“I’ll be glad to take that one back and get you a Turbo-Joe.”

“No thanks, it’s fine,” I assured the man, not wanting to be more of a burden. I sipped the coffee to seal the deal. To me, it tasted like it was supercharged.

A minute later I pulled out of the parking lot. The soothing voice of the GPS unit said, “Turn right in point one miles.” Kris was sipping her way to caffeine nirvana. I had a hunk of the family-sized cinnamon roll stuck to my fingers, bits of sugar coating dangling from my mustache, a burning hot cup of non-turbo coffee between my legs, and a beast of a vehicle at my command.

What more could one ask for? The road trip had begun…

Skijoring with the Chinooks

Video – Skijoring with the Chinook dogs in New London, NH, 3/22/2009. Two of the Chinooks are puppies – Huck (in green) and Qivi (in red) and, like at least one of the people, are just learning the sport…

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Music: Icarus, Paul Winter Consort

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