1998 March 2

    It was one of those last-minute decisions.  I saw an article this
January in the American Airlines magazine about the upcoming total
solar eclipse on 1998 February 26 mentioning the Caribbean island of
Curacao as an ideal viewing location.  While I have seen a few 90-plus
percent partial solar eclipses, I have never seen the whole enchilada.
So I called my travel agent, a woman named Chris, who started doing
some research.  This time of year is The Season in the Caribbean which
means that eclipse viewers are competing with the usual tourist crowd
for the limited spaces available.

    After we were wrangling over hotels on Aruba and airline flights
with all kinds of strange combinations, she found a one-week cruise on
the Fascination, a Carnival ship, billed as "The Eclipse Cruise."
They were changing their usual route to be South of Aruba on eclipse
day, Thursday, and the whole tab was considerably less than my other
options and food is included in this deal.  I have never been on a
cruise and I haven't even watched an entire episode of the TV show
"The Loveboat."  I had no idea what to expect.

                         THE ECLIPSE ITSELF

    First of all, the total eclipse was worth every bit of my effort.
It was stunning, fantastic, amazing, and all that.  Pictures just
don't do it justice and Industrial Light and Magic just can't top
Mother Nature in this show.  As the last crescent of the Sun is going
away, a silent storm moves in from the West, the approaching shadow of
the Moon.  I didn't see the famous "shadow bands," but it suddenly got
dark.  This eclipse was not dark enough to see stars, but several
planets were visible, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  The
corona was brighter than I expected, truly "pearly" in color, and a
few red prominences (solar flares) were visible as red dots at the rim
of the ebon disk.  The entire horizon was glowing since it was only
dark in a small region.

    This is the fastest three and a half minutes I've experienced.
(We suggested that Bill Clinton's honeymoon may have been faster.)
I caught the beginning of the diamond ring and, Wham!, it was daytime
again.  Several people on the boat had a seven corona eclipse by
adding a six-pack to the astronomical phenomenon.

                        THE CARIBBEAN CRUISE

    Getting 2600 passengers onto a boat was chaotic and getting us
back off a week later was even more so, but things ran fairly smoothly
once we were underway.  I suspect that the bars, the casinos, and the
island shop kickbacks bring a tremendous revenue stream into the boat.
I suspect this because the fee I paid was $1431 for the following:

    Air travel DFW to SJU (San Juan) on 1998 February 21.
    A single cabin with shower and sink for six nights.
    Meals and snacks for seven days (twenty meals).
    Stops in St. Thomas, Guadeloupe, Granada, Venezuela, and Aruba.
    Reasonably full set of weight machines and jogging track.
    Evening and late night shows with bands, dancers, and others.
    Air travel back to Dallas/Fort Worth on 1998 February 28.

What was extra?  Well, each port had tours which ran from $20 to $40.
We could take our own tours or do our own exploring, but they only
"guaranteed" that they would wait if their tours were late.  They
pitched specific merchents on St. Thomas heavily and apparently got
quite a kickback for bringing a crowd of shoppers there.  They even
had a bunch of tours in San Juan (including the Bacardi Rum factory)
that ended up at the airport for our flights home.

    Drinks, gambling, and soft drinks were extra and they had a photo
lab on board with overnight processing for a slight premium over land
prices, $10 for 24 4x6 inch color prints, $15 for 36.  They took a
bunch of pictures of us getting on the boat, getting off the boat,
and portraits on the dress-up nights.  They also were smart enough to
have their main photography guy get some decent equipment and take a
fantastic picture of the total eclipse and sell 8x10 inch prints of
that for five bucks (instead of the usual $20 for that size).

    This cruise had about 900 people who were serious about astronomy,
not their usual crowd, but the other 1700 were normal cruise patrons.
They figured out what was going on and scheduled astronomy seminars
for serious members and regular folks.  I don't know who matched whom
with whom, but I ended up with five terrific meal-mates, three serious
astronomers and two wannabees.  I also ran into a friend of mine from
Alabama who is a marathon runner and Big Time science weenie.

    The sales effort was almost funny.  I was waiting for the 14:09
moment to begin with the announcement bong, "Ladies and Gentlemen,
this is your Cruise Director Brett.  This is the famous Diamond Ring
effect you have heard about and that means that diamonds are on sale
at the Gallery Gift Shop for the next three minutes and thirty seconds!
Twenty percent off of everything in the store, an opportunity you
won't want to miss, so hurry!"

    I did manage to run in three of our five ports, St. Thomas,
Guadeloupe, and Aruba.  I heard quite a few interesting languages and
saw some interesting scenery that way, quite a bit of which was not on
the official tour.  By the time I got on a tour bus, I felt I had some
idea what these places were like from my brief pedestrian travels.
For those interested in details about my four-new-country and
one-new-continent experience, I'll be happy to expound.  I bought some
trinkets, plenty of T-shirts most of which had eclipse pictures on
them, and pictures sold in the ship's photo lab.

    Would I go on another Caribbean cruise?  I'm certainly more
positive on them after this experience.  The entire ship was kept
immaculately clean and every meal was substantial, tasty, and
beautifully presented.  The shows were fun and kept me up later than I
wanted because I was enjoying them.  The tours were fairly well
organized, for the most part, although there was some confusion from
the changed routing. (There were people on the boat who bought the
original itinerary and had no knowledge or interest in astronomical
events.)  I'm not sure I would find the seven days fulfilling without
the climactic event, but I certainly enjoyed the cruise activities.
And I met a lot of interesting people.