My Annual Cruise to the Caribbean

by Patricia Mengel

John and Pat at dinner
John and Pat at dinner

For 358 days a year, my life is devoted to reality. Since I’m the kind of person who takes my work home with me, the heart patients I care for throughout the day are really with me all the time. Sometimes they even wake me up at night, as I toss and turn, worrying if a new medication will help or a surgery will be successful.

But for the other seven glorious days in the year, I “escape completely” on a Princess cruise vacation. It has become the highlight of my year, the critical space I need to clear my head and rejuvenate my body and spirit.

Don’t get me wrong! I love my career as a certified medical assistant at a busy cardiac practice. I’m proud that the patients know I care. But come winter, when the Michigan temperatures plunge and the hectic pace of the year reaches a crescendo, my husband, John, and I start counting down the days to our annual cruise.

The warmth, the sunlight and the carefree sea are just what we need this time of year. Since 2003, when John and I finally took the advice of his brother, Bill, and tried a cruise vacation, we haven’t missed a year. This year, I welcome the transition from stressed to serene as we head for a 7-day Caribbean cruise.

Day One: John and I meet up with Bill and his wife, Sharon, in Fort Lauderdale where we board our cruise ship. Wow. It’s always exhilarating to see the soaring central stairway and glittering, light-filled grand atrium. We check into our staterooms, which are next door to each other, and unpack. We call the cabin steward to unlatch the balcony divider so ours flows through to Bill and Sharon’s. We look into all the events, activities and excursions on tap for the week and get ready for our opening-night dinner.

Day Two: My long-awaited recovery begins. I’m still a little keyed up about the office, which makes sense considering I work with 12 doctors, each with their own personalities and way of doing things. Add to that hundreds of patients. As we cruise into open waters, I can’t help but begin to switch gears. We’ve turned off our cell phones and left our computers at home. No checking in with work for me. Instead, I head to breakfast at the International Café, where I’m thrilled to reconnect with some crew members from last year’s cruise. It’s amazing; one of them remembers exactly how I like my coffee!

Day Three: John, Bill and Sharon are really good traveling partners. We enjoy each other’s company but don’t feel compelled to be around each other all the time. No one’s feelings are hurt when I wonder off alone to take a stroll. On shore excursions, Bill and Sharon might go one way, John and I another. We have our little way of keeping in touch. We bring walkie-talkies from home and use them sparingly. “Want to join me for a movie by the pool?” “Drinks at 5 on the balcony.” We plan a wine tasting. John and I listen to the band from the bubbling hot tub. This is the life!

Day Four: Allow me a moment for an ode to the pleasures of a balcony stateroom. I have nothing against interior cabins, but having a balcony is like taking a vacation within a vacation. It’s a private perch on the open seas. We love meeting for a glass of wine every evening on our connected balconies. We share notes on what we’ve done that day and get ready for dinner. John and I keep our balcony door slightly ajar at night. I swear I hear the ocean in my dreams. The pure, fresh air cleanses me while I sleep. I wake up clear-headed and refreshed.

Day Five: I feel so happy. After breakfast, I go to my special spot, my favorite place on the entire ship: the top deck. Here, you can peer out and see nothing but water. The ship below disappears from sight. Up there, is a small track, 16 laps to the mile. I put on my tennis shoes and sunglasses and start walking, usually a couple easy miles a day. The air is clean, the sky is clear, the Caribbean Sea an undulating turquoise quilt. I’m not talking to anyone, just at peace in my own, placid world. The real-world me has gone and I have escaped completely.

Day Six: International Café, Sky-Deck walk, pool and hot tub. Finishing that book I wanted to read all year. I book a massage. It’s the last full day at sea and no time to delay gratification. Reservations are made for 6 p.m. at one of the specialty restaurants. John, Bill, Sharon and I meet for drinks on the balcony first. The cruise ship is heading back toward Fort Lauderdale, and as is the custom, we pack our suitcases and put them outside our cabins. It always hits me then that the cruise is ending, and I cry. I don’t want to go.

Day Seven: We meet for breakfast at the International Café. I take a few minutes to say goodbye to my crew friends. We say, “Maybe I’ll run into you again next year.” I hope so. There’s still time for me to head up to the top deck. Land is in sight. I wish we could stay longer.

Back in Fort Lauderdale, I turn on my cell phone. I’m touched that some of my patients have called to ask about my trip. They all know I live for my annual cruise vacation.  I’m happy that
they’re there for me as I’m there for them.

In just seven days, I’ve “Come Back New” and am ready to embrace the challenges and joys of the year ahead.

Pat lives in Brighton, Michigan, and has “escaped completely” on 11 Princess Cruises.