Life on the High Seas Time to boogie on board: Blues cruise provides that motion in the ocean

February 21, 1993|By Robert O. Grover and Teresa A. Moore | Robert O. Grover and Teresa A. Moore,Contributing Writers

It seemed to be the perfect vacation for the dawn of the Clinton era, a rhythm-and-blues cruise to Mexico, Jamaica and Grand Cayman, featuring virtually nonstop entertainment from eight hot bands.

After all, the Clinton campaign had featured rock music and blue jeans, with the Democratic nominees even indulging in some spontaneous dancing on the podium. And, of course, we heard the man himself wailing tenor sax on "The Arsenio Hall Show." Well, maybe not wailing, but his heart was in it.

A 2-inch newspaper ad lured us to the "Ultimate Rhythm & Blues Cruise," starring one of our favorite musicians, Delbert McClinton. Although we had long dreamed of an island vacation, we never pictured ourselves as fitting the cruise mold. Pricey vacations featuring fancy clothes, elaborate meals and variety acts are not our style. Still, this cruise was particularly inviting.

Starting at $870 per person, double occupancy (airfare $200 extra), the cruise was expensive by our vacation standards, but it seemed a fair price for a week of pampered living and first-class entertainment.

The 700-passenger, 35-year-old Regent Sea rated four out of five stars in Berlitz's "Complete Handbook to Cruising" and presented the elements of a standard cruise, with elegant dining a central feature. The dining room had two seatings for each of the main meals. Breakfast and lunch buffets were offered for informal dining, and an afternoon tea and lavish midnight buffet were provided daily.

A first-run film was shown each evening, and passengers could take tours of the bridge, attend lectures and classes on cooking and napkin folding, participate in aerobic workouts and a talent show, or play board games, shuffleboard and pingpong. The ship contained a casino, duty-free shop, massage and beauty parlor, and rudimentary gym and pool.

The value of side tours, at additional charge, varied. Snorkeling in Cozumel and Grand Cayman was exotically beautiful, for example, but a 1 1/2 -hour bus tour in Jamaica was unremarkable and a beach trip on Grand Cayman that had promised volleyball yielded nary a net. Shoppers were hounded in friendly but impoverished Montego Bay and ignored in affluent but aloof Grand Cayman.

The Blues Cruise featured radical departures from standard cruise ritual. Casual attire ruled even on the traditionally formal and semiformal evenings. For instance, one guest made his own concession to Formal Friday by wearing a tie -- over his bare chest.

The cruise line's usual entertainment, contractually obligated to perform, was moved to afternoons and early evenings to make room for the blues folks. Four bands played each evening, two in the largest lounge and two on the outdoor deck. The featured acts ran as late as 2 a.m. and were followed by informal jam sessions and cabin parties that lasted past dawn. On days at sea, an afternoon show was also held on the outside deck.

For most of the blues fans on board, this was the first cruise. Typical were Harford County's Kathy Minke and Bob Sekinger, who used money saved for a roof on their house to take the cruise and deemed it the "best vacation we've ever had."

Not everyone was as pleased, though. About half of the passengers were not aware of the rhythm and blues theme when they purchased tickets and were distressed to find loud music and all-night parties dominating the ship's lounges.

At least one family left the ship halfway through the cruise because of the noise. But others were converted by the music and infectious enthusiasm.

Josephine Reynolds, 77, and her 84-year-old husband, Ros, from Fort Myers, Fla., were skeptical as they watched singer Marcia Ball's affable road manager, A. J. Latterell, stacking amplifiers and speakers, but by the time Ms. Ball started singing "Rip It Up," Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds were jitterbugging on the dance floor, putting many twentysomethings to shame.

The cruise hit an early groove the first night in a "Bayou Blast" with Ms. Ball and Buckwheat Zydeco in the main room and Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson and the BelAirs in the bow's lounge. The first night demonstrated perhaps the greatest dilemma to be faced on the trip: which lounge to go to.

Fortunately, it was easy to float in and out of the rooms; starting times and equipment changes allowed for some staggering of acts, and all the bands performed more than once, so no fan had to miss an act completely.

The cruise's musical high point came during the Tuesday night performance by Delbert McClinton, who won a Grammy in 1992 for "Good Man, Good Woman," a duet with Bonnie Raitt, and whose "Giving It Up For Your Love" went to No. 7 in 1980. His credits go back to Bruce Channel's 1962 No. 1 hit "Hey Baby," on which Mr. McClinton played the signature harmonica riff that opens that song.

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