My week on a Geek Cruise

One of the most frequent questions I got before leaving for MacMania V was, “What’s a MacMania cruise like?” Given that this was my first, I couldn’t answer. But now that the cruise is almost over and I’ve spent a week enjoying the Caribbean and teaching classes, I can tell you that I’ve had a great time. If the idea of a cruise itself appeals to you, I highly recommend coming on a MacMania cruise, and for two reasons. First, as I mentioned in a blog entry earlier this week, there’s a lot of free time while the ship is sailing between ports, and the classes are both fun and informative. But just as fun is sailing with a group of people who share a common interest — one of the best parts of this cruise has been spending time with other Mac users and their families. In addition to classes, we eat meals together, go on shore excursions together, and just plain hang out together, and I think all of the attendees would tell you that they’ve met and gotten to know a bunch of really cool people. Having “cruised” this way, I can’t imagine going on a cruise without being part of a group.

That said, if you’re interested in what the day-to-day of a Geek Cruise is like, read on. As I noted earlier this week, there are sea times and shore times. When you’re docked, you have the option of going ashore, either on your own or as part of a planned excursion — there are many such excursions available for each port. Classes are held when the boat is at sea, which is most evenings and on days when we’re sailing to the next port. (On this particular seven-day cruise, we had four shore days and three sea days.)

Classes have been a lot of fun. As I mentioned earlier this week, on Monday Rob Griffiths and I presented our “Cool (and Affordable) Software” session, where we covered nearly 50 of our favorite affordable apps and utilities, many of which long-time readers would recognize as past Mac Gems and past MacOSXHints.com “picks of the week.”

That evening, Rob, Ted Landau, Andy Ihnatko, and I discussed our “Mac Horror Stories” — examples of disasters we’ve had with our Macs, or dilemmas we’ve helped other people survive. It was one of the more entertaining sessions of the week, and I think attendees appreciated hearing that problems — and stupid mistakes — aren’t limited to Mac novices. (Of course, it’s easy to talk, and laugh, about your worst disasters when you didn’t lose data; the biggest moral of each story — and there were many “moral of the story” moments — was back up, back up, back up .)

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were excursion days — days when we were at port and enjoyed time ashore. On Tuesday, I joined Macworld senior contributor Ted Landau and a busload of other cruisers in a trip to Belize’s Sibun River. We each grabbed an innertube and hiked through the rain forest for about thirty minutes; when we emerged, we found ourselves at the mouth of a huge river-carved cave. We spent the following hour and a half or so drifting down the slow-moving river inside the cave, with the only light being miner-style headlamps. There wasn’t much wildlife — just a occasional bat, irritated that its nap had been disturbed — but the cave itself was amazing to see. Definitely a “When will I ever have a chance to do this again?” excursion. Afterwards we stopped by a local restaurant for a delicious lunch of Belize-style chicken, potatoes, and rice with beans.

We spent Wednesday in Guatemala where a small group — 22 people — took one of the more adventurous trips on the schedule. After an hour-long bus ride from the port at Santo Tomas, Guatemala, we arrived at Rio Dulce National Park, where we then took a small boat across the Rio Dulce to a nature preserve called Tijax. The preserve, over 500 acres in size, hosts a sizable patch of jungle, old rice fields that have been “naturalized” into grassy marshes, and even locally- and sustainably-managed rubber and teak plantations. Our hike began with wooden suspension bridges crossing marsh areas and proceeded for several miles through the jungle, where we saw scores of different species of flora and fauna, the ecological and medicinal importance of each explained by our guide. The preserve, which is actually owned by a local “eco-resort,” is dedicated to conservation and education, and our visit turned out to be one of the more educational vacation trips I’ve taken.

As part of the hike, we climbed a lookout tower with amazing views of the Rio Dulce, Lake Izabal, and the Guatemalan countryside; we could even see the neighboring country of Belize in the distance. Just below the lookout was a small rubber/latex plantation where we learned about latex being farmed. (In case you’re curious, the smell of latex isn’t artificial; the sap from the trees smells just like latex gloves.)

Finally, as we made our way back, we crossed a large valley by way of another wood/rope suspension bridge. Except that this one, near the jungle canopy, was several hundred yards long and nearly 100 feet above the jungle floor. That crossing was one of the highlights of my entire cruise. At the end of the hike we were treated to a huge Guatemalen meal that included chicken, shrimp, steak, and plenty of side dishes. (One thing we discovered over the course of the week is that it’s not just the cruise ship itself that goes food-crazy; we got lots of good food on our shore excursions, as well.)

Our last shore day was spent in Costa Maya, Mexico. Unfortunately, due to stormy weather and rough surf, many of the day’s planned excursions were cancelled. But for many people, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. For example, MacMania speakers Ben Long and Derrick Story walked ashore and found a local cab driver who gave them a custom tour of several interesting sites in the area, including Mayan ruins that are apparently not on the “cruise ship circuit” — they had the entire ruins to themselves, and brought back a slew of great photos. (Ben and Derrick are both expert photographers.) Another small group of us waited until the storm blew over and, thanks to a local shop, were able to spend the afternoon snorkeling at a fraction of the cost we would have paid had our original trips not been cancelled. It wasn’t the best reef we’d seen, but with water temperature of at least 85 degrees and plenty of fun surf, it was still a fun day.

That evening I taught a class on “Essential Mac Maintenance and Utilities” — basically, what to do to keep your Mac running smoothly and to avoid problems, along with a discussion of some of my favorite utilities for doing so. I had a good crowd of attendees, and I hope they all walked away feeling a bit more comfortable with the topic of Mac maintenance (or at least knowing that they were already doing a good job of keeping their Mac healthy).

Today is the last day of classes, and I’ll be involved with three. The first is a session called “The Best of Playlist,” where I’ll be talking about some of our favorite accessories for the iPod. (Although they don’t know it yet, those who attend will be walking away with some nice new toys: a number of iPod accessory vendors have donated products for us to give away during the session.) After that will be the final installment of the MacMania Ingenious Bar, where the MacMania faculty will be answering questions. Finally, all the speakers will be giving a panel presentation called “What’s the Latest,” where we discuss the Mac platform and where it’s headed. It should be a fun day.

That’s it for now from the M.S. Veendam; we’ll likely post our final thoughts over the next few days. In the meantime, we’ll be enjoying the ride home. Wish you were here.

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