Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance Of The Seas sat anchored at the cruise terminal in Tampa Bay. In just a few hours, the ship would be filled with over 2,000 Gospel music fans for the 45th annual Singing At Sea Cruise; and I couldn’t be happier to leave all the cold temps and snow at home for the sunny shores of Mexico! After parking our car across the street in the garage, we dropped our luggage off with the porter and got in line for embarkation. Y’all, I haven’t been in a line that moved so fast! Within the hour, we were on the ship headed to the Lido Deck for lunch. As we walked into the Windjammer, a huge sheet cake was displayed with the words, “45th Singing At Sea,” which the crew cut up and passed out to passengers as they came in to have lunch. I couldn’t wait to start the week on the water with my favorite groups, and as always, the Singing at Sea didn’t disappoint!
Monday – Embarkation
As our ship glided out of the channel toward the open waters, we made our way to the Minstrel Dining Room for first seating. On the fourth deck, we were sat at a table for 12 by the window and enjoyed being introduced to our table mates for the week. With menus passed out, I noticed that new items had been added since last year and was excited to try them! That evening, I ordered the Fruit Plate for my starter, the New York Strip Loin for the main course and the Warm Hazelnut Chocolate Cake for dessert. All tasted great! I was especially pleased with the dessert, it reminded me of Carnival’s Chocolate Melting Cake.
After dinner, I enjoyed my first concert on the cruise in the Centrum with The Kingsmen at 9:30 PM. They took the stage with their “cruising” songs like “I’ll Sail Away Yonder” and “Anchors Aweigh.” Chris Jenkins greeted the crowd with an enthusiastic, “Are you glad to see the Kingsmen back on the 45th annual Singing at Sea Cruise?” They sang “Hear The Word of The Lord” and “Oh Yes I Am.” Chris talked about their current radio single and how he loved the message of the ballad – and that message can be seen right from the title of the song – “Don’t Underestimate God’s Grace.” Two more songs, “Cost Of The Cross” and “Saints Will Rise” closed their set.
Before Chris Jenkins left the stage he brought on the following group, a fellow North Carolina trio, The Whisnants! Austin, Susan and Aaron walked on stage with their smooth ballad, “We Are So Blessed.” They went into “He’s Never Moved” and then Austin sang Jeff’s solo on the following tune, “Grave Mistake.” “Isn’t it good to be on the Singing at Sea?” asked Susan after those few songs. She went on to talk about Jeff’s absence and how he stayed home with his mom for the week, who had been in the hospital with health issues. After group introductions, Susan brought up Ethan, who sang “1+2+3” and then stayed on stage for a song he and Austin recorded together called, “Should Have Been There.” When that song ended Susan led the audience in a chorus of “God Is So Good” and reminded the crowd, “It’s easy to say God is good when things are going good, but it’s in the bad times when you know He is faithful.” They closed their set with Aaron’s solo, “Faithful” and “All Is Well.” “Hadn’t it been good?” asked Susan, signalling the end of their set.
When the Whisnant’s finished it was time to head to the big theater, the Pacifica, for The Mark Trammell Quartet. The quartet had just released a new album a week prior to the cruise, and I was pleased to hear several from the album that night! In fact, “Be Saved” and “Go Ask Moses” kicked off MTQ’s set. Their next tune was a request Mark had while walking down the steps to the stage awhile ago – “The Lighthouse.” When the track cued, the audience applauded before the the first line was sung! Up next, they featured Randy on, “Led Out Of Bondage” and then Mark introduced the group. “I love Dad Speer songs,” Mark began, “and this is one of them…” The song was “He Is Mine and I Am His,” and then “Jesus Is Coming Soon” and “My Faith Still Holds” followed. After that big ending, you would think they would have ended their set, but Mark asked the emcee, Dennis Swanberg, if they could have five more minutes. Why? Well, because Mark had a request for “O, Holy Night” and he wanted to do it for the sweet old lady who asked for it! So, they sang “O, Holy Night” and with that, the first night of the cruise came to an jolly end!
Back in our stateroom, we found a square chocolate on each of our pillows with a wrapper that read “Singing at Sea.” You can’t end a day any more perfect than that!
Tuesday – Sea Day
Tuesday was our sea day this year, and you know what that means – a lot of great music! My morning started in the Viking Lounge with my host group’s private concert. This time has easily become my favorite concert to attend during the week. We get to overlook the pool deck and the water, we’re packed into this half moon shaped room and for about an hour, we get to enjoy a casual time with our host.
After a quick lunch in the Park Cafe – which has this great three cheese panini – we took the stairs down to deck six where the Colony Club was to hear Bryan and Yvonne Hutson at 1:30 PM. I’ve been a fan of Bryan since his days with the Kingsmen and always look forward to hearing him and Yvonne on the cruise. They sang songs like “Mary Did You Know?”, “When God Ran” and “Blessed Assurance.” But my favorite had to be “Tell Your Heart To Beat Again,” where Bryan shared with the crowd about forgiveness. He said, “I’ve met so many people who are forgiven, but can’t forgive themselves.”
I slipped out of their set on the last song to make the trek to the front of the ship to hear the piano showcase hosted by Jeff Stice. This was such a fun session! Jeff had pianists from each group come and play a song for the crowd. That afternoon we heard: Eric Ollis, Luke Vaught, GW Southard, James Rainey, Trevor Conkle and Josh Singletary. At the beginning of the showcase, Eric Ollis began playing “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” and by the time they ended, all six pianists had a hand on the keys playing with him. It was a sight! Another highlight of the showcase was when Luke from the Inspirations played. Instead of a regular solo, he made a medley of all the famous “intros” Martin Cook made popular back in the day. It was by far the most unique solo of the afternoon!
At dinner, I was convinced to try something different on the menu. So I ordered Jumbo Tiger Shrimp and the Apple Pie for dessert. (Not that apple pie is so unique, but a friend ordered it the previous night and highly recommended it.) The shrimp was served with a cup of rice, asparagus and a garlic herb butter sauce on top. Very tasty. But my favorite part of the meal was when I heard one of the other waiters quietly singing “Amazing Grace” while walking by with a tray. It reminded me that sometimes it’s the little moments that make events like this so memorable.
As Tuesday evening was winding down to a close, I slipped in to see Tribute Quartet at ten o’clock in the Pacifica. It was my first time to see Gus Gaches with the group, and I couldn’t wait to hear his blend and see him out on the road again. Tribute came on stage with their upbeat “Move That Mountain,” “Everybody Come See Jesus” and “Standing On The Solid Rock.” Gary turned to Josh and asked him to play his grandfather’s favorite song on the piano, “Because He Lives.” He did! I loved how at one point Josh played the melody in the bass and accompanied it with arpeggios on the right hand – absolutely beautiful! Afterwards, Gary asked the crowd to sing that chorus with them. Their closing song was Gary’s feature, “His Tomb Is Empty Now,” and I don’t think anyone anticipated what would happen in the room when they sang this song. The presence of God descended on the theater, Gary got to preaching and they encored it seven times with the audience shouting, standing and raising up their hands. It was a powerful time of worship! Karen Peck and Jonathan Wilburn even joined Tribute on stage for a couple of the encores!
Wednesday – Costa Maya, Mexico
Wednesday morning I had breakfast on the back deck of the Windjammer, overlooking the sunny shores of Costa Maya, Mexico. This was my first time to be in this port of call, and I couldn’t wait to get out and explore! In the afternoon, we got off and went into port and enjoyed time on land. There was a lot of shopping, a place where you could swim with dolphins and taxis ready to take you into the main town a little further down the road. In the center of port, there was also a pool, complete with a sandy area with lounge chairs! Though we didn’t spend a whole lot of time in port, I really liked Costa Maya and would definitely do an excursion if we go back.
That evening, I saw Karen Peck & New River in the Pacifica at 9:30 PM. They came on stage singing “Hope For All Nations,” “Bound For The Promised Land” and “Gotta Be Saved.” After those tunes, Grant stepped forward and said, “We sang this song last night, but had a request to do it again.” It was his solo, “It Is Well With My Soul.” “Everybody’s Going Through Something” followed and then Karen took a few moments to share with the crowd what the Lord had done for them during the week. “It seems like this week, every room has been filled with the presence of the Lord,” Karen began. “That’s why we’re here and we love it.” She went on to talk about the Lord and how He’s all we really need; this led into her solo, “My God Will Always Be Enough.” Towards the end of the ballad, she came off stage into the audience. They closed their set with “I Know I’ll Be There” and “God’s Got A Blessing.”
Thursday – Cozumel, Mexico
Our ship came into Cozumel early Thursday morning, and by ten o’clock, we were on the island ready to shop. Now, you may be wondering why we would pass up a perfect beach day for shopping? Well, there was a 90% chance of rain forecasted and though we’ve been to Cozumel three times on this cruise, we’ve always went on excursions to the mainland and never came back early enough to see the island itself. So…a little shopping for the perfect Cozumel t-shirt, a walk downtown and some pictures around port made our day perfect. (Even if it did drizzle off and on throughout the day.)
After dinner, I went to the Pacifica Theater to see the Primitive Quartet. These men always have a genuine, heartfelt way they present their songs and I enjoyed hearing them sing and play. Their first song was “Didn’t He Shine,” and right away, the crowd was already in a shouting, hands raising spirit! Their set also featured songs like “Because He Loves Me,” “The Next Time You See Me,” “Highway That Leads Home,” Mike and Jeff’s instrumental “He Looked Beyond My Fault,” “He Didn’t Stay Dead” and a few more. Before closing their set, Larry shared this with the crowd, “This will be a week I will never forget. I’ve feasted off of earthly food and I’ve feasted on heavenly manna.”
In the same theater, the next group on stage was The Mark Trammell Quartet. Dennis Swanberg, the emcee, brought them on by exclaiming, “Don’t you love Mark Trammell?” as Mark ambled across the stage in the “old man walk.” The crowd chuckled and then their set kicked off with “Meet Me Over On The Other Side.” They went on to sing “Echoes From The Burning Bush” with just the piano, “Go Ask Moses,” “Thanks To Calvary,” “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now” and “The King Is Coming.” Trevor also played a piano solo, “Hallelujah Chorus,” which received a standing ovation.
After MTQ’s set I made my way back to the Centrum where the Perry’s just stepped on stage. It was the last concert of the evening for me and I enjoyed hearing familiar songs like “I Know It Was The Blood,” “I Rest My Case At The Cross,” “God Walks The Dark Hill’s, “I Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now” and a few more, ending with “I Wish I Could Have Been There.”
Friday – Sea Day
Our last day at sea we spent leisurely, knowing it was our last day to enjoy all the cruise had to offer. My Sis took the opportunity to go to the salon and I headed for the Solarium. The Solarium is located on Deck 11 towards the front of the ship is the perfect place to relax. There’s lounge chairs around a shallow pool, a hot tub and the Park Cafe is located in one corner in case you want a snack or beverage. Most importantly, the fountains running in the background gave the room a beach like atmosphere – quiet and peaceful, perfect for a sea day.
In the afternoon, registration opened to book for next year’s Singing at Sea cruise, which will be January 20-25, 2020. From what I could tell, it will probably be a full ship as well – the line stayed long and full most of the day!
To top off the cruise, we went to one of the ship’s specialty restaurants that evening – Chop’s Grill. Our waiter assured us that they had the best filet mignon on the high seas, and after a taste, I couldn’t deny it. The meat melted in your mouth! Our waiter told us that they get their steak from a supplier in Texas that sells meat to Ruth Chris. Now, I’ve never been to Ruth Chris, but that was the best steak I have ever had! They also served something called “Grilled Black Pepper Bacon” with a glaze that tasted like a sweet barbecue. Delicious!
To close the evening, I headed to the Colony Club to see a few more concerts before closing out the cruise. When I walked in, The Inspirations were on stage singing “Two Shoes.” Afterwards, Archie Watkins asked if anyone was hungry. The crowd laughed and then he asked Luke if he was hungry. Luke replied, “I’m not gonna eat for a month!” Archie went on to thank all those who cruised with them and then acknowledged Joe Arthur, who was on stage playing guitar with them. They sang “Roll On Jordan,” “Faithful Friend” and “When I Wake Up To Sleep No More.” Mark Bishop was the emcee in that theater and after that song he came on stage and said, “If you don’t like that kind of singing, you’re on the wrong boat!”
Last on stage at the Colony Club was The Mark Trammell Quartet, who came on and fulfilled as many requests as they could. They came on stage with “Leave Your Sorrows” and then sang a few from their new CD, such as, “Go Ask Moses,” “Be Saved” and “The Way In The Wilderness.” It wouldn’t be a MTQ concert without tunes like “Wonderful Time Up There,” “Too Much To Gain To Lose” and “Jesus Is Coming Soon,” and that’s what they sang next. Mark looked at the crowd and said, “I pray you have been refreshed and renewed by the power of God this week.” Then they closed the night with “The King Is Coming.”
Conclusion: Singing at Sea is the perfect winter getaway for folks who love Gospel music. With over 25 artists onboard, a few preachers and a week with warm weather, there’s no other place I’d rather be in January! This year, I really loved the ports of call – it was truly a Mexican adventure. Costa Maya is a beautiful port and if we get to go back sometime, I would definitely book an excursion to see some of the Mayan ruins in the area. Cozumel was fun too, and I can’t say how pleased I was to get off the boat and walk around, shop and just enjoy the island. (And yes, I did find the perfect t-shirt!) Most importantly, the fellowship and music on the ship was amazing. All the concerts were wonderful! Thank you, Templeton Tours, for organizing this cruise – see you next year!