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Wednesday, March 23, 2011 • Posted March 23, 2011

Our Canopy Was the Sky…

If cruise ships were circuses, there’d be no tents large enough for their hundreds of intriguing rings, many of them up and running at all hours of the day. The "big top" for vacations on the high seas is the sky.

This analogy came to mind as we sailed toward the Caribbean Sea from Florida’s Port Everglades on Holland America’s Zuiderdam for a 10-day cruise to the Panama Canal. As Fort Lauderdale faded from view, we perused booklets of "see/play/eat/do" options during the 3,200-mile adventure. Even with serious "picking/choosing," we knew that we could partake of a mere smattering of this splendid vessel’s offerings.

Soon, stars sparkled above us, blinking reminders to "tune out" the workaday world and to "tune in" leisure under the biggest of big tops….

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Much may be taken for granted by 2,000 fellow vacationers, most of whom have cruised on multiple occasions. Dining, featuring food prepared by master chefs who turn out some 110,000 meals on the trip, is memorable. Also anticipated on Holland America vessels are lavish floral arrangements at every turn, as well as antiques and art dating back to the 18

Classes covering numerous interests are offered, plus ports-of-call excursions, varied entertainment and "people-watching" extraordinaire.

There’s always the unexpected. On this cruise, ages varied from eight months to 95 years. The latter, perhaps the eldest, was Dr. C. Everett Koop, US Surgeon General appointee of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Finding cruises to be "helpful to his health," he was easily identified by his signature full beard. Dr. Koop graciously signed autographs and conversed with whomever wished to chat….

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Cruise entertainment was as varied and well-received as any in memory. In addition to comedy, singing, dancing and magic acts was a show-stopping musical group called Island Magic. Three members of the quartet "play" chrome-plated oil drums, with the fourth accompanying on a traditional drum set.

You read it right. The 55-gallon barrels originally contained oil. Bands with up to 100 members are common in the Trinidad homeland, where longtime drum "makers" now teach the conversion art in college. For starters, the barrels are turned upside-down, with bottoms "concaved" to produce 30-40 musical notes when struck by small cushioned sticks.

Julian Gibbs, founder and leader of Island Magic, says that such bands often include 10 members, but he knows of no other with as few as four. Steel drum music has been his passion for more than 25 years. His group is now in its 19

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The musicians, none of whom read music, have "paid their dues." Until recent years, Island Magic performed pool side, a common assignment for such groups. Gradually, their popularity led to featured entertainment venues. For the past seven years, Island Magic has enjoyed headliner status, the last three for Holland America Lines.

My wife and I agree that the quartet provided the most memorable entertainment we’ve experienced in a decade of cruising. The drummers produce marvelous orchestral sounds on numbers ranging from Broadway to Beethoven…and beyond.

It is easy to understand why the quartet ranks #1 in fleet entertainment. The Vista Lounge fills to near its 850-plus capacity for both shows on "Island Magic" night. Standing ovations are common, as they are for a voluntary "encore show" on the final day at sea. It was standing room only then, too, with intermittent "standing O’s," the longest for the Christian group’s gospel medley. It includes "To God Be the Glory," "Amazing Grace" and "When the Saints Go Marching In." All members of the group are refreshingly humble, freely mingling with guests throughout the cruise….

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A highlight, of course, was experiencing the Panama Canal, one of the world’s wonders. That this remarkable engineering feat was accomplished, now almost a century ago, boggles the mind. It is difficult to describe the work and sacrifice that made it possible. A stark example is the devastation of Yellow Fever and Malaria, diseases that claimed more than 30,000 lives.

Three years from now, a second canal 70 feet wider will become operative to accommodate the world’s largest ships.

To visit the Panama Canal invites additional research. A visit with Dr. Koop warrants the same. And the indescribable talent of Island Magic makes a search of YouTube for their musical numbers a "must."…

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Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Metroplex. Send inquiries/comments to: Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site:


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