When I had been in NZ last year, we had talked about a cruise that my brother Jonathan and his wife Nicola were planning for April-May, which was to start in San Diego, travel south along Mexico and Central America, transit the Panama Canal, and then after a stop at Cartagena, travel to Ft Lauderdale, Charleston and Boston.
Then they were spending a week in Honolulu on their way back to NZ. I was certain the cruise ship itinerary would include a stop somewhere in the Bahamas, probably Nassau, and they promised to send me the final schedule.
When I got that from my brother, there was no Bahamas stop, but what looked to be a day stop in Belize between Colombia and Florida. I started to investigate travelling back to Ft Lauderdale where they would be docked for a half day, thinking I would try to meet them for lunch somewhere close to the cruise ship terminal. Flights were difficult and expensive, and I decided to wait till closer to the time, particularly given my brother’s health issues resulting from his multiple sclerosis, which might result in the trip being cancelled or postponed.
In the end, it was something quite different that almost stopped their travels, when Nicola was assaulted at the retail shop where she works in Christchurch. She had been knocked unconscious and was having headaches and vision problems. In the end however, they were cleared to fly to the US and boarded their ship – Maasdam – in San Diego.
The stop in Belize however continued to bother me, and I went to the Holland America website and found their cruise itinerary. After leaving Cartagena, they travelled for two days and then spent a day at Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas, not Belize. I was in Georgetown when I learned this, and knew that Half Moon Cay, aka Little San Salvador was only about 50 miles away at the top of Cat Island. We had planned to cruise Cat Island anyway and then on to Eleuthera so this was great news and a lot easier than flying to Ft Lauderdale.
We got to Half Moon Cay the afternoon before the Maasdam was due to arrive. Another cruise ship was just departing as we got there. This is an island that has been purchased by Holland America and is used by various cruise ships as a day stop “island experience”. Some people live permanently on the island but many more are ferried in each day when there is a ship due. Although technically private, we knew we could anchor in the bay and had planned to contact the island manager to seek permission to land our dinghy to meet up with Jonathan and Nicola.
Despite numerous attempts by VHF to hail someone on the island, we couldn’t speak to anyone that afternoon. We then attempted to launch our dinghy and found that our crane had stopped working. Despite hours of troubleshooting and trying replacement parts, we gave up as it got dark, and resigned ourselves to having to throw the kayaks over the side to get to the beach the next day.
We spent a rough night as the anchorage didn’t offer much protection from SW swells, and I was up at dawn to watch the Maasdam come around the corner and drop its anchor. I tried again to hail the island manager, with no luck. We watched support vessels come into the small marina and resort staff started to lay out thousands of deck chairs, water toys, and open up the bars and restaurants and private cabanas along the beach.
Then the large boat tenders started to ferry passengers to the beach. My brother is mostly wheelchair bound and we expected they would be on one of the first boats ashore. When we saw passengers start to descend onto the beach, we launched our kayaks and paddled along to the beach well clear of the roped off swimming area.
As we started walking I saw Nicola walking towards us. She told us that the staff on the ship had said it would be impossible for us to get permission to land on the island, so ironically it was probably a good thing that the dinghy stayed on board and we chose instead to kayak which meant we were just part of a group of people in kayaks by that time.
We sat on deck chairs and heard about their amazing adventures so far, and about life on board the ship. We didn’t want to draw undue attention by ordering drinks or food, which in any case had to be charged to a passengers cabin.
Both Ted and I thought my brother looked well, although his mobility is definitely limited and he sat in a large beach wheelchair made of PVC tubing and oversized rubber tyres. He showed us a leg wound which he had got at LAX when a clumsy porter had pushed him into something at the airport, but said the ships doctor had given him some drugs and they thought it was clearing up, although he was due to visit the doctor later that day when back on board.
We wheeled him as far as we could along the beach, said loud goodbyes and that we’d see them back on board, and we then wandered back to our kayaks and paddled back to the boat. We jumped in the water and saw Nicola waving to us from their tender as they returned to the ship. I figured I wouldn’t see them again until my next trip back to NZ.
The next morning we left for Eleuthera, and that evening I sent Nicola a text asking if they had enjoyed their day in Ft Lauderdale. But the response was unexpected – my brother had been admitted to hospital, partly due to the infected wound, but also due to a blood clot discovered in the other leg. Nicola had to pack and disembark the ship, and was now staying alone in a hotel in Ft Lauderdale. We exchanged some texts and I offered to join her. She initially declined but the next morning she asked me to come.
In the space of a couple of hours, I organized flights from Rock Sound in Eleuthera to Ft Lauderdale via Nassau, and we moved Southern Star to a marina where Ted would stay with the boat. I had no idea how long I would be gone.
Ted drove me to the airport the next day where both my flights were delayed and I didn’t reach the Ft Lauderdale Hilton until about 3pm. As I finished checking in I turned around to see Nicola wheeling Jonathan into the lobby – he had just been released from hospital. They had both had a miserable time. My brother scared and alone in hospital, and Nicola scared and alone at the hotel, both in a strange city, feeling a million miles from home or anything familiar. And with the worry of the mounting costs in the US, and whether their travel insurance would cover everything.
By the time I arrived however, Nicola was in fact well in control of the insurance situation, and was being supported by an agent in NZ who was dealing directly with the hospital on all medical costs. Their next concern was how to get back on schedule with their trip. I asked what they wanted: try to pick up the ship at Charleston? Try to get to Boston? Try to get to Hawaii? Or just go home? They wanted to go to Boston, and pick up their original schedule.
We spent the evening together at one of the Hilton restaurants, where we had a delightful waiter from Brooklyn NY, who entertained us and brought smiles and laughter which I knew had been lacking in recent days. The next morning, after introducing them to Einstein’s Bagels for breakfast, we sat in the hotel lobby and on the ipad I booked them flights from Ft Lauderdale to Boston, and a hotel in Boston for the following night. I booked myself back to Eleuthera for the following day also, a couple of hours after they were to depart.
With the business done, Nicola and I went shopping at a couple of my favourite stores, both close by. My brother rested in their room. The Hilton is located right in the area of Ft Lauderdale that I know best, close to the marina where we stay, and I wanted to show them that Ft Lauderdale isn’t all bad. So late afternoon, we wheeled my brother down to the bus stop and took the Beach Trolley Bus to Las Olas Beach. The bus has a wheelchair lift and Nicola and I watched Jonathan laughing with the driver as he was lowered onto the sidewalk. We walked a little way along the beachfront, and then had dinner at the Drunken Taco, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean.
The following morning after checking out, we took a taxi to the airport and I said goodbye to them for the second time that week, wishing them safe onward travels. I walked to my terminal, checked in and this time my flights were all on schedule back to Eleuthera.
I stayed in touch with them, and although they were delayed by a day getting to Honolulu, they ended up having a wonderful time there, and are now back safely in Christchurch, with lots of stories to tell.
It is one of the worst travel fears: having something happen in the US which puts you into the most expensive and confusing healthcare system in the world. In NZ we take our healthcare system so much for granted, that this alone is a scary thought for even seasoned travelers. But coming from the protected and safe environment of a small cruise ship, to be suddenly alone in a strange country, with the worry of a hospitalised spouse, facing unknown and unexpected costs, and with no-one to help, is a frightening experience. I was so grateful that I was in a position where I could be there to help get them back on their way.