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The Bellaire Birthday Boys go to Sea

Tracy L. Barnett
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Sandy Seth, Matt Hoffman, Utpal Mehta, Amit Desai, Rajiv Pandya, Vinny Khosla, Apu Thekdi

CARIBBEAN WONDERS Inside the caves of the Baths of Virgin Gorda are (from left) Sandeep "Sandy" Seth, Matt Hoffman, Utpal Mehta, Amit Desai, Rajiv Pandya, Vinny Khosla, and Apu Thekdi.

It’s been more than 40 years since a handful of boys, all of them the sons of immigrants from India, became friends. They would see each other at school, holidays, and community functions, and they gradually formed a bond that would carry them from their teens, up through the recent celebration of their 60th birthdays and beyond. 

Sandeep “Sandy” Seth and Matt Hoffman were roommates in college. Matt married Sandy’s sister’s roommate, Bela, and so was adopted into Houston’s Indian community and into this growing circle of friends. Holly, a travel nurse we featured in 2021, married Sandy and likewise became an honorary member of the club. As time passed, a dozen or so friends stayed in close contact, many of them settling in Houston, with four living in Bellaire. 

Over the years, they celebrated together their weddings, career successes, and the births, milestones, and graduations of their children. The friend group is now multigenerational. Their kids grew up as friends, went off to college, and they are now celebrating together at their own weddings. And so when Sandy and Matt started to approach their 60th birthdays at the end of 2023, their wives realized that a big celebration was in order. 

Also turning 60 in approaching months was Utpal Mehta, so his wife Samita was added to the planning committee. And of course they couldn’t leave out Utpal’s cousin Rajiv Pandya, also with an upcoming birthday. He and his wife Hina were on board as well. So with some of the couples’ grown children and their partners joining in, along with Hina’s brother Apu Thekdi, also from Bellaire, and a few more longtime friends from the group, the merry band of 24 people walked the gangplank to the deck of the brand-new, 16-story, eye-poppingly luxurious Celebrity Ascent on the last week of 2023. 

Sandy Seth, Matt Hoffman, Rajiv Pandya, Utpal Mehta

THE GOOD LIFE The multigenerational group of 24 decided to cruise together in celebration of the 60th birthdays of Sandy Seth, Matt Hoffman, Rajiv Pandya, and Utpal Mehta. The Bellaire group and friends at the beach on the island of Virgin Gorda after swimming into shore from the catamaran, seen in the background.

The ship would be sailing out of Ft. Lauderdale to Puerto Rico, Tortola, and St. Kitts. The travelers began arriving for the weeklong cruise on Friday before the Sunday departure, giving themselves time to integrate and enjoy a little of the city before heading off on their grand adventure. But by the time the group had stepped aboard and begun to peruse their new accommodations, it became clear that the major highlight would be none of the destinations, but rather the ship itself. 

“The decor was phenomenal, the food was amazing, the dining rooms were beautiful, the bars and venues on the ship were gorgeous,” recalled Sandy. “The rooms were really cool; instead of a balcony, the rooms have a floor to ceiling window that can be lowered halfway, so you can have the feeling of being outside or when sleeping, you can listen to the waves and get a little bit of breeze.”

Best of all for the group, perhaps, was the pickleball court. Their first day at sea they had a pickleball tournament, which remains a much-mentioned highlight. 


On the top of the catamaran.

Utpal Mehta, one of the birthday boys, chuckled at the memory of their tournament. “Everyone in our group kept talking about their skills in pickleball,” he said. “But we were up against these young tennis players from Colombia who had never played the sport and they smoked us.” 

The first night was New Year’s Eve, a fantastic ship-wide celebration with everyone partying into the early hours of the morning. Luckily the next day was a day at sea, for recovery. For the remaining nights, they decided to celebrate the birthdays one by one. So by the time they got to Puerto Rico, they’d already celebrated the first birthday boy: Sandy.

It was his first time in Puerto Rico, and he loved it. They began with a several-hour walking tour of the charming colonial capital city of San Juan, learning a bit of the island’s history while taking in the Plaza de Armas, the city’s central plaza, the governor’s mansion, and two impressive colonial-era forts, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal. 

“I loved the architecture in town, and the way it’s painted; the houses are super colorful, and the windows are actually doors,” recalled Sandy. “They’re huge, so they’re very breezy, and they really rely on the breeze for cooling. The fort was huge and beautiful, and it was a lot more hilly than I thought it would be, so there were great views of the water and other portions of Puerto Rico.”

Next it was on to Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, where Holly had booked a private catamaran called the Bad Kitty with captain and crew and an open bar with quarts of the delicious local drink known as the Painkiller, the official drink of the British Virgin Islands, with pineapple and orange juice, coconut cream, and copious rum. Their excursion was like a dream, taking them cruising through the islands, snorkeling in the crystalline waters and to the Baths of Virgin Gorda, a natural wonder composed of a series of caverns leading to secret rock pools and opening out into the majestic Cathedral Room. 

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

PUERTO RICAN SUNSET The Seth/Pandya/Mehta/Hoffman clan in front of the colonial-era fort, Castillo San Felipe del Morro.

Snorkeling in Bight Bay around the Five Indians rock formations was another standout experience as they entered an underwater world of gently waving corals and colorful tropical fish – and even an elusive sea turtle at one point.

Their final shore excursion was on the island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, where part of the group took a bus tour of the whole island to see points of interest like Brimstone Hill Fortress, Romney Manor, several churches and Independence Square. Sandy missed that, unfortunately, as he was taken down by a cold virus that was running through their midst. His buddy Rajiv had been sick for the first few days of their trip but by that time he had rallied. He and wife Hina, Utpal and Samita and others took a tour of the islands, while some opted to relax at a private beach. 

“We were really surprised to learn that Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson’s families owned sugarcane plantations there,” recalled Rajiv. 

Other sights in St. Kitts included the ruins of the Wingfield Sugar Plantation; the richly historic Romney Manor, once the site of the Indigenous Kalinago or Carib leader Chief Tegreman’s home village; and Bloody Point, where the British settlers staged a massacre of Tegreman and his people. 


Decked out for the final night party on the cruise.

Back on the ship, the friends would divide up and go to different activities during the day, and would meet together for meals in the dining room, where they had several tables grouped together. Then at night they’d attend shows and events together and, of course, celebrate their birthdays. There was comedy, acrobatic and Broadway-type shows, and a first-rate lineup of music presentations, always with a variety to choose from. 

One night they gathered in the ship’s nightclub, where Holly brought an ample playlist she had put together from the ’80s – the decade that the friend group had come of age – and passed it to the DJ, who indulged them by making it an unforgettable night of dancing. 

“We’ve done trips together – Iceland, Scotland, Costa Rica – but just the guys,” said Rajiv. “This is one of the few times where all the families got together and went as a group, and I have to say, as much as I enjoyed the others, I enjoyed this one more.”

Like Rajiv and others in the group, Samita felt the highlight was just spending time together and reconnecting. “As you get older, each person changes, and you evolve. What’s nice to see is that as we’ve gotten older, the commitment to this friendship hasn’t changed.” 

Hina agreed. “This group has known each other for so long we keep repeating the same stories over and over again, and even the events we weren’t there for, we feel like we were there.”

But as much as they all have changed over time, they’ve also stayed the same, Samita said. “They still tell the same corny jokes, they still behave like 20-somethings at times – that’s the essence of who they are in this relationship, I think. They’re greyer and they’re carrying a few more pounds, but these are the same people they always were.”

Tips from our Travelers

By the group

Worth the splurge: Private catamaran excursion with snorkeling and sightseeing in the British Virgin Islands.

Don’t miss: Anything on board the Celebrity Ascent!

Favorite restaurants: Le Petit Chef animated dining experience aboard the ship. 

Packing: Don’t overpack. You’ll never wear as many outfits as you think you will. Bring several swimsuits. 

Don’t bring: A book. You’ll be having too much fun around the ship to read it! 

Don’t forget: Your pickleball paddles and shoes for the top deck tournaments!

Local favorite: A local drink called the Painkiller. Dangerously delicious! 

Not really worth the trouble: Ship-sponsored excursions. Don't be afraid to plan your own if they sound exciting! 

Unexpected hit: Our good friend Amit Desai beating 40 other golfers to win the Celebrity Ascent chipping competition!

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