Sorry, but this isn't a sure-fire guide to picking up hotties. Rather, it's about the old-fashioned kind of cruising – on a big boat with a few thousand others who want nothing more for a week than to be fed and amused while the world drifts by.
Cruising is great for harried professionals, shifting their major decisions from client crises and firm profits to such weighty matters as when to arise and what to eat. It's even better with kids – a family getaway where each can impulsively do his or her own thing. And it's a fine value when compared to typical vacation costs for transportation, hotels, meals and entertainment.
Over the past several winter holidays, and again this summer, we've cruised the Caribbean on Holland America ("HAL"), Royal Caribbean ("RC"), Princess and Celebrity. In case you're making your own plans (and assuming there's anything left to see after the recent hurricane onslaughts), here are some thoughts:
- Food, Glorious Food – Recent studies have shown that the larger the portions, the more people tend to eat. Well, duh! They could have saved their research funds – no one on a cruise needs scientific proof as to why they've gained all that weight. Food is everywhere! In the dining rooms, you can order as many appetizers, soups, salads, entrees and deserts as you wish (and our kids, supposedly well past their growth spurts, often devoured at least two of each). If you can't even muster the energy between meals to get to the pizza stand, burger grill, ice cream bar or round-the-clock buffet, there's 24-hour room service. Quality varies but the displays are striking and each ship has one or two specialty restaurants where, for a modest supplement, you can find meals of a lifetime – the sophisticated décor, service and cuisine at the HAL Pinnacle Grill steakhouse, Celebrity Ocean Liners restaurant and Princess Sabatini Trattoria were truly spectacular. All the cruise lines now feature healthy fare with special menu items, but Celebrity takes the grand nutrition prize by serving a delicious "spa" spread at one end of their ship and a sushi bar at the other. (For those seeking a slim ray of hope amid depressing reports of the child obesity epidemic, let it be noted that the sushi line was mostly kids and teens.)
- Drink, Glorious Drink – Like those Vegas casinos where you can't get from Point A to Point B without passing a thousand slots, the only time you're more than a few yards from a cocktail waitress is when you're seated at one of the dozen or so bars. But the prices are reasonable, the pours generous and, judging from the percentage of adults with a glass perpetually in hand, the cruise lines know their clientele. Just so the kids don't feel slighted, for a mere $25 or so they can buy a pass to stay afloat all week with unlimited soda.
- Would You Be My Neighbor? – HAL, RC and Celebrity assign tables for early or late seatings in their main dining rooms, but Princess has "personal choice" – just show up whenever the mood or other activities suit you. If you're a ready-made group or cherish your privacy you may have to wait up to a half-hour, but if you're willing to share a large table you'll go right in and you'll meet a far more interesting variety of people each night than the boring strangers with whom you may be randomly and permanently stuck through traditional seating. (On Celebrity, we were matched with a lovely family just like us – except they spoke only Spanish (we don't), which made for lots of blank smiling and extended silences. Plus, I just know they were talking about us the whole time!)
- That's Entertainment? – Anyone with even a pretense of culture will need to put the word in heavy quotes when considering the shipboard version of entertainment. The lounge lizard singers, synth bands and even the headliners are mostly sad; one billed as a real, live classical pianist turned out to be a Liberace wannabe who mangled bombastic glitzy arrangements of concerto medleys (although, much to my chagrin, my fellow esthetes gave him a standing ovation). The two- and three-story main theatres are comfortable and attractive but their dazzling lighting, dynamic staging and enthusiastic young troupes are mostly squandered on numbingly trite clichéd revues of Broadway favorites and the like. Celebrity, though, had some quiet surprises - a roving a capella doo-wop group, a harpist, a string quartet. And the British accents of the Princess MCs can turn even the most prosaic interview into enchantment.
- That's Art? – Speaking of cultural pretension, there are on-board art auctions. To quote the philosophy of Marx (Groucho, that is): "Oh, how you can get stucco." According to the "consultants," every piece is a masterwork, easily worth many times the opening (and usually only) bid (although, to the patrons' credit, the vast majority go begging for even a single offer). Nearly all are signed prints in huge editions. Some are scraps from the junk bins of Dali, Picasso and other famed masters way past their prime, while others range from imitation Baroque to imitation Chagall, with plenty of cartoon characters, sports memorabilia and gleaming landscapes tossed in. As sheer diversion, the auctions trumped the theatrical acts, but my eyes began to ache from reflexively rolling so much. Here are a few choice howlers, all intoned by the auctioneers with scholarly aplomb: "Any edition of less than 500 is extremely, extremely rare." "This artist's work hangs in the collection of Sylvester Stallone." "Fine art never loses its value." (Yeah, urged my inner Groucho, but how about this stuff?) "This piece would look great in a bathroom." (Not on the wall, though.) "The frame alone is worth more than the opening bid." Actually, there's some truth to that last one – since most of this stuff is far more fit for decoration than investment, you are buying little more than an elaborate frame. Confirmed gamblers might do better at the ships' casinos (but only if they're immune to second-hand smoke) or, to lose money even more quickly, at the bingo tournaments, where the house odds really soar.
- Let's All Go to the Movies! – Some folks actually relax on a cruise – give my wife a chaise, an umbrella and a stretch of beach and she's in paradise. As for me, I feel devastated if I miss a single sight during my eight hours in port. So what's this have to do with on-board movies? Well, after a day of intensive tropical action, it's the perfect place to unwind. I really can't assess the programming, since I'm usually sound asleep after the opening titles. HAL and Celebrity have dedicated cinemas, while Princess runs movies mostly in afternoons while their main theatre and show lounge are otherwise idle. Although the process is video rather than actual film, screen size is decent and the quality is surprisingly good. And it's cool and dark and the seats are so comfy!
- Land, Ho! – Shore excursions (and even taxis to beaches) can be expensive extras, but it seems foolish to come all the way to an exotic land only to gaze down at its harbor. The world-weary stares of sweltering impoverished islanders as your air-conditioned bus zooms by can get depressing, but most of the guides are personable and informative hosts and the tropical gardens, snorkeling reefs, rain forests, waterfalls, gleaming beaches and lush scenery are unforgettable.
- One More Reason for the Rest of the World to Hate America – Every other port has an impressive array of security personnel, but Americans have to do everything bigger and better. So for St. Thomas (in the US Virgin Islands), all passengers – even those not intending to disembark – are roused out of bed in the early dawn and herded through a passport inspection. Reaction ranges from annoyance to the unprintable. Way to go, USA!
- The Handrails of Death – The threat of viral outbreaks led to some stringent sanitary precautions, including gloved waiters dispensing all buffet food and legions of workers constantly swabbing off railings, chairs and any other potential source of skin contact. That's now abated, but my dear wife, who actually shakes hands and eats unsterilized food, still won't let me touch the handrails when I climb a ship's stairs – great aerobic conditioning, by the way, if you try, as we do, to avoid the elevators – these ships have a lot of levels (nine from the theatre to the pools!).
- Crews Control – Until this year, HAL had a ridiculous "tipping not required" policy "to ensure that the professional and courteous service you receive on board is truly sincere and not simply … in return for tips. [Tipping] is entirely up to you." Right – their guys and gals want nothing more than to leave their homes and families for a year just for the sheer pleasure of serving rich foreigners who wouldn't even make eye contact with them on the street. Anyway, HAL now joins Princess in assessing an automatic gratuity of $10 per passenger per day, presumably to be spread among all the service workers and not just the most visible ones. Celebrity still opts for the venerable Ceremony of Palms, in which you hand your steward and waiters cash on the last evening, when the normally fine service becomes truly magnificent. RC treads a middle course, encouraging guests to charge recommended tips to shipboard accounts while permitting them to opt out. Incidentally, most crews are multinational, but if you'd like your travels to transport you not only in locale but back in time, you can relive the glorious days of colonialism on Dutch-owned HAL, whose staff hails entirely from the formerly Dutch-owned Philippines. Yet the sheer sincerity of the native culture concert they present puts the professional entertainment to shame.
- God Is Everywhere – Our 2003 cruise coincided with Chanukah, so between unpacking and the lifeboat drill (which, incidentally, is about as useful as checking sneakers for lethal weapons), we decided to check out Rabbi Sid, and thanks to all those years of guilt training, our kids barely complained. (And since we're speaking of religion, I'll make a confession – our ulterior motive was to check out eligible in-law material among the congregation.) All rabbis love to talk and Sid, suspiciously more bronzed than the natural pallor of his calling, thrived on his new weekly audience, even treating us to his out-of-tune guitar. As the latkes sogged, the apple sauce fermented and the wine evaporated, the promised brief candle-lighting stretched into a service of Reform content but Orthodox duration. Although warmly invited by Mrs. Sid to return for subsequent nights, we opted instead to seek the Almighty in swaying palms, hypnotic waves and vibrant sunsets.
- Santa Claus May Be Coming to Town, But We’re Getting Out – After enduring a solid month of unrelenting and ubiquitous seasonal muzak, store promotions, lighting displays and TV specials, we were understandably concerned that embarking on a voyage billed as a Christmas cruise would be less a well-earned escape than a plunge right into the eye of an even more intense and inescapable holiday marketing storm. Much to our relief, though, with the sole exception of RC, the religious core of the holiday was all but absent on our cruises and even the secular trappings were low key and easy to evade – HAL hung a plain evergreen wreath on cabin doors, each ship held a brief caroling program in their atriums and said mass in a lounge, and Santa paid a brief visit to give little gifties to the kids. Even ashore, all was just business as usual raking in the big tourist bucks. So, despite our misgivings, it turned out that we heathens got off rather easy.
- Rooms With a View – They used to be reserved for a handful of select elite, but nowadays cruise ships include balconies with over half of their cabins (or “staterooms,” to use the preferred euphemism for the cramped quarters where passengers dwell). Frankly, the difference between an interior room and an outside one with a tiny porthole seems hardly worth the price boost, but the sweeping view through glass doors opening onto a balcony greatly enhances the perception, if not the reality, of spaciousness. Unless you splurge for a suite (with a huge concomitant cost increase but few other enhanced amenities beyond sheer space) the size of the outdoor portion itself is barely enough to maneuver (about 50 square feet), the Princess furniture tends toward the flimsy K-Mart solid white plastic variety that defies even a pretense of momentary comfort, and the limited modesty panels and proximate neighbors discourage any thought of genuine privacy. One rather ironic benefit, though – when the upper half of the passengers flock to enjoy their balconies, they leave the decks and other public areas far less crowded for the peasants.
- The Sun Set – It would be naïve to assume that the cruise crowd would present anything but a microcosm of society, and, indeed, days at sea present a true test of conscience, justice and fair play as thousands of would-be sun-bathers jostle for a few hundred prime lounges. Each ship has its set of alleged rules, but as the old saying goes, rules are made to be broken, and they sure are here. So despite prohibitions against reserving extra seats or disappearing for lengthy absences, at any time at least half the lounges are given to towels, paperbacks or beach totes basking in the sun with no sign of their presumed owners. (Celebrity had a clever way to attract passengers to a less desirable deck – they posted a sign that the space was reserved for topless sunbathing, which drew lots of guys – and even a rainbow – but, alas, not a single honey.)
- Nature Can Be a Real Mother – The crowds are sparse, fares are a bargain, and the heat surely is no worse than in DC, so why not cruise the Caribbean in the summer? Well, here's three reasons from 2004 – Charley, Frances and Ivan. Even though we may have deserved divine retribution for having bailed on Rabbi Sid, this year we were lucky – very lucky. Those who sailed a week earlier or later wound up with refunds rather than repose. And don't plan on touring Grenada for a while.
Copyright 2004 by Peter Gutmann