Sunday, February 24, 2008

ETA Bluegrass Cruise - Thursday - Labadee, Haiti

Liberty of the Seas at Anchor
Tender

Labadee Beach
Haiti is the poorest island in the Caribbean and the oldest island nation there. It has been ruled and mostly destroyed by a succession of brutal dictators who have become rich on the backs of the people. The United States has wooed, bullied, neglected, invaded, and manipulated Haiti without ever seeming to have had a positive effect. Royal Caribbean leases a mammoth beach area called Labadee (Wikipedia profile) on a secluded point as a stopover spot for its cruise ships. In its promotions and preparations for the visit, passengers almost never hear the word “Haiti” and all is focused on enjoying a day of fun in the sun on Labadee (Royal Caribbean’s web site promotion). We were told that Royal Caribbean has a significant beneficial effect on the island’s economy (Wikipedia says the line pays Haiti’s government $6.00 per tourist landing there), but never are passengers faced with the realities of the tragic nation on the island of Hispaniola, one of Columbus’ first stops. Excellent pictures of Labadee and reviews of experiences there can be found here.
Main Activity Area - Labadee

We awoke to find the verdant mountains of Haiti rising above us as we slid into the harbor at Labadee (aerial photo- Google). Haiti has been extensively deforested by natives needing fuel for cooking (no one here needs to heat their home), but Labadee was covered with palm trees, bushes, and shrubs providing attractive plantings as well as plenty of shade for those who want it. There are several small beaches on the Caribbean side of the peninsula and a short walk takes people to the Atlantic side where there is much more space as well as some surf for those wishing it. The central part of the island has rest room facilities and a large, open air cafeteria where a sumptuous luncheon, prepared entirely from food brought from the ship, is served. Each beach has one or more open air bars. Paved walkways lead from place to place, and a free shuttle conducts people to the rather reaches of the area.

The Liberty of the Seas anchors about half a mile offshore and soon a small fleet of tenders, each carrying about 200 passengers begins to conduct the 4200 people on board to shore. This is done with dispatch and efficiency complemented by the different schedules people prefer. I made two round trips to Labadee (assessments from Trip Advisor.com) without ever waiting in line more than fifteen minutes. As passengers board they are encouraged to purchase quart bottles of water ($3.50 charged to your Sea Pass), and it’s a very good idea to buy water sooner rather than later. Other than at meals and in the staterooms, there is no place on the ship where free water is available. (Since staying hydrated is of major importance in the tropics, water sales must be an important profit center for the shipping line, and it approaches the irresponsible for Royal Caribbean not to provide copious amounts of free water at Labadee as well as on St. Martin.) The tender drops passengers at a dock and everyone debarks into the continuing hard sell. Ships photographers are everywhere snapping shots of people with the ship in the background, in front of life rings, on various attractions, and so-on. Later on these pictures appear in a photo gallery on ship where people can purchase various packages to put together showing their experiences. These are high quality pictures and priced somewhat below studio poses, but they also represent another opportunity for commerce.


Steve Wallach
My response to Labadee as a beach is informed by our other beach experiences in the Caribbean. On three occasions we’ve taken Caribbean vacations where we’ve rented apartments or small villas on beaches. We’ve had the freedom to eat when and where we wanted, to travel easily, and to shop widely. Such experience is sufficiently unlike the cruise experience to color my assessment of a place like Labadee. Having said that, numerous activities are offered for ship’s passengers coming ashore. A large area on a beach near the docks is given over to a range of slides, floats, and other constructions suitable for children’s play (SeaTrek Aqua Park - $15.00/hr). There are opportunities to drive a wave runner ($89.00), Parasail ($89.00), ride a speedboat ($42.00), ride a zip line ($80.00) or take a snorkeling adventure ($42.00). Depending on your perspective, these “Explorations” can be seen as expensive luxuries, once in a life-time opportunities, or reasonable vacation expenses. People traveling on a more restricted budget can have a beach chair set up (no tip required) to enjoy the sun, go for a swim and relax. The ship provides a buffet luncheon. About 200 vendors have small shops in a market area where local crafts are sold and tourists encouraged to bargain to their hearts content. We came back early for lunch on the ship and a quiet afternoon, but others we talked to reported a fine time on the best beach they’d ever visited.

Josh Goforth
Passengers returned to the ship and managed to look fresh and happy at dinner, although we noticed plenty of empty seats as man chose to eat in the Windjammer CafĂ©, which is open for all three meals and for long hours for those not wishing a tablecloth, waiter service meal. We generally ate breakfast and lunch at the Windjammer and found the food to be tasty, varied, and well-prepared. We were fortunate to have Josh Goforth, the very talented fiddler for Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road, as well as Todd Meade, bassist for the same band, as our table companions, giving us the opportunity to come to know them better and to gain a deeper understanding of the realities of being a road musician. Josh, at age 26, is a particularly interesting young man. His career has included stints with several other bands, including his own. He often performs with folk historian David Holt (four time Grammy winner) and also makes frequent appearances in the U.S. and abroad as a solo artist and lecturer on old time traditional folk arts. He plays all acoustic instruments as well as, we later discovered, a mean pop/jazz piano. Josh is unusually articulate about his own music and the role of band member in a bluegrass band. His contribution to Lorraine Jordan’s band has been significant.

Lorraine Jordan

Ben Greene
In the evening we assembled for the nightly bluegrass concert. Four bands performed. Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road led off with another spirited traditional bluegrass set. Lorraine is an impressive woman who has fronted this band for about nine years. She plays an upfront Monroe style mandolin, writes songs, and sings. In recent years the band has seen considerable changes in personnel (what bluegrass band doesn’t?) but has been stable for the past eighteen months as she has molded it into the best of her bands yet. Ben Greene’s playing style on banjo isn’t flashy, but very solid as he plays strong breaks, excellent backup, and contributes a mellow bass voice to gospel quartets. Lorraine has also attracted a strong and loyal fan club who form a significant part of the bluegrass cruise group. Lorraine and her band are eager to interact with their fans and create good will throughout the cruise.

Jerry Butler and Lorraine Jordan

Tired Road Fan


Jayme Booher (Grasstowne)
Grasstowne followed with another of their fine sets. I’ve written so much about this group I find little new to say. While the emphasis about this band has rightly focused on the three principles (Alan Bibey, Steve Gulley, and Phil Leadbetter), who are among the finest at their jobs as any in the field, it’s worth talking about the two sidemen for this band. Jayme Booher is only twenty-one years old, and he’s the only member of the band not an original, having taken up his bass for Grasstowne after its first CD was finished. As with the other members of this band, he’s not a showy player, but his work on bass is better than good. Since bluegrass bands don’t usually (ever?) have drums, the bass provides much of the percussive drive as well as maintaining a solid beat for the entire band. Booher, who played for his family band near his home in Johnson City, Tennessee for many years, plays his role to near perfection. Hidden behind the band and further reducing his presence by hiding himself behind his bass, Booher nevertheless, is clearly in evidence for those who appreciate his seemingly easy but absolutely necessary instrument.

Steve Gulley

Mark Newton
The Mark Newton Band followed. Newton plays and sings well and leads his band with humor and good grace. Beth Lawrence on bass is a standout, offering strong bass play, a pleasant if retiring personality, and a lovely voice in leads and harmonies. Dave Denman is a strong lead guitar player and singer. Tony Wray on banjo is a standout, a player I’d never heard of but came to appreciate more each time I hear him pick. Mark Newton’s band has announced that he is newly represented by the Angela Roberts’ booking agency, Sound Kitchen Productions. One can only hope this new association gets him more bookings and wider recognition.

Beth Lawrence (Mark Newton Band)

Dave Denman (Mark Newton)

Mark Newton Fan
Bradley Walker sang again, once more backed up by the Cherryholmes minus mom and dad. Walker only grows on me as I listen to his mellow voice and very clear diction. Known more as a country singer, Walker has indeed a first rate bluegrass voice. Singing with Cia Cherryholmes’ harmonies, he sounds even better. Although we weren’t there, he later brought down the house singing in the Schooner Bar on deck five after hours.

Bradley Walker

Lorraine Jordan and Fan Club President

B.J. Cherryholmes
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