Thoughts On Cruising

And by cruising, I do not mean an illicit sexual activity, nor do I mean the sort of thing that high school kids used to do in their cars up and down University Avenue in Cedar Falls when I was a teenager. Rather, I mean cruising as in aboard a ship at sea– specifically, a cruise aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line Getaway.

Here is a link to a set of pictures on Flickr.

This cruise was a gift to Annette and me (and Will, too) from Annette’s parents, Bill and Irmgard, to celebrate our 20th anniversary and their 50th. It was a generous and thoughtful gift, though I have to say that taking a cruise wasn’t exactly on my list of things I needed to do before I died. I’m glad I had the experience; it just never occurred to me as something I would ever do.

 

Very early in the trip (the night before we embarked from Miami), I quickly established with Annette and Will three personal rules I would cite again and again during the course of our trip:

  • If you put me in the tropics in the summer, I am going to be very very sweaty. I am a sweaty person in Michigan under normal circumstances; imagine me in the Caribbean with temperatures in the 90s and humidity about 1250%. So no one was allowed to say to me “wow, you look really sweaty.”
  • If I’m in a setting (say a cruise ship) where it is essentially all you can eat 24 hours a day, I’m going to eat– not constantly, but more than I should. So no one was allowed to say “do you really need to eat that?”
  • If I’m on a vacation where one of the main activities is drinking– especially tropical cocktails– I am going to drink them. Though I couldn’t really drink that much because, unlike the food, the cocktails weren’t free.  But again, this was the rule I cited when ordering that second (or third) mojito.

The itinerary was straight-forward: we left Miami on the last Saturday in June, were at sea for two days, stopped in St. Maarten/St. Martin, then to St. Thomas, back at sea for a day, then a stop at Nassau, Bahamas, and then back to Miami the first Saturday in July. All of the stops were less than 7 hours, and if I were to go on a cruise like this again, I’d want to go on one where there was more time ashore to actually experience and explore the places. I would have very much liked to have seen more of St. Thomas, but I thought St. Martin also had some potential for a longer stay. Nassau, not so much; as far as I could tell, the only thing of interest there was the Atlantis megaresort, and it seemed kind of silly to go from a cruise ship to tour a resort.

There were many things I enjoyed about the cruise a great deal.

I was relieved to find the “ride” of the ship to be very smooth; I’d feel a little shift or jolt once in a while that reminded me that I was in fact not in a big hotel but rather on a ship, and I am just now (two and a half days off the ship) losing the sensation of motion. But at least no storms or rough water. The blueness of the ocean while at sea was quite striking. It was far too hot (see rule number 1), but we didn’t have any tropical storm troubles.

The other passengers were interesting and international. About 1000 of the nearly 4,000 (!!) passengers were under 18, but I didn’t have the feeling of being overrun with children. The international flavor– particularly Latino/Hispanic folks, but lots of Europeans too– was nice, especially while watching some of the World Cup soccer matches in one of the main ship lounges. Watching along with hundreds of other real fans is infectious.

The ship itself was a marvel. It weighed over 145,000 tons, was (more or less) 17 decks tall and a kilometer long. When we left St. Thomas, we pulled vertically away from the dock and then pivoted 360 degrees in the bay before sailing out to sea– hard to describe, but freaky being aboard a machine like that.

The service was very good. All of the crew’s name tags included the person’s country of origin and early on we noticed most of the house keepers, waiters, servers, etc. were from the Philippines. Annette and I struck up a conversation with one of these many Filipinos, one of the bartenders in the casino (he remembered me from this conversation and the next times we saw him, he referred to me as “Mr. Steven” because of the name on the card I used to pay for things) and I asked him why there were so many Filipinos working on the ship. He said he didn’t know, but he also said that 65% of the folks working for NCL were Filipino.

There was a lot of fun stuff to do. Will took more advantage of it than I did certainly– water slides, rope courses, mini-golf– but I enjoyed the ship’s version of the musical Legally Blonde, we saw an okay to pretty good comedian one night, there was a pretty cheesy but pretty cool magic show, there were some good musicians in the bars and such, there were some nice meals (though see below), and there was always something happening.  The ship had a steady “HEY! HAVE FUN NOW!” vibe.

Which brings me to some of the things I didn’t like as much.

With all the things going on, it was difficult to find a spot (other than our own stateroom) where it was quiet, where there wasn’t some kind of upbeat/dancy background background music.  This made sitting quietly in a lounge chair with a book and a cocktail challenging. I had conversations with other book-oriented passengers who felt the same way.

The food was like the best cafeteria food you’ve ever had: that is, while it was “good” in terms of its general quality and variety and “all you can eat” quantity, it was still cafeteria food. Even the two meals where we had to pay a little extra (though these meals were a clear cut above what we had in the “all included” restaurants which were also a cut above the cafeteria-styled dining room), there was a sort of industrial kitchen quality to it. Annette’s parents have been on several different cruises over the years, and they contended that the food was better on those previous trips. I think the best meal I had on the trip was a late lunch Annette and Will and I had at Gladys’ Cafe in Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas.  Will and I both had the goat curry, Annette had a creole fish dish.

And then there were things about the cruise that were just strange.

As far as I can tell from what was on board and what was most immediately available in port, there is an obsession with duty free booze, perfume, cigarettes, and related items. I read someplace/was told that each person could bring back something like 5 liters of hard alcohol from St. Thomas duty free, which seemed odd since relatively inexpensive booze is pretty easy to get elsewhere, at least in the U.S. There were many places that sold expensive watches that didn’t seem to be that much of a better deal than I could get online or even at the mall– and why watches? Do habitual cruisers have an obsession with time? There was some sort of rule about how you could buy “loose gems” duty free in the various ports, and Will’s theory (perhaps accurate) was that this was a scheme for people to launder money.  And the ship had an extensive and elaborate “art auction” going on during the entire trip, “art” the consisted mostly of the kind of shitty art that only rich people like, not unlike the “art” I see in galleries in Naples.

“Cruising” is a culture, one even more foreign to me than the one of folks who go to Las Vegas a half-dozen or more times a year. We talked to a few crew people about the arrangements, and as one waiter explained to us, the service folks sign up for contracts that range from about six to ten months. The common thing is to send money home to places like the Philippines. I recall talking to this waiter for a long time about how much he liked being at sea, how when he was home for a couple of weeks after a cruise he yearned to get back to work and back at sea.

I ran into a piano bar musician in an elevator one afternoon; he recognized me from the previous night and we struck up a conversation. I asked him how this whole thing worked and he explained that he had a side business doing what I think was “head-hunting”/personnel kind of work and he had an open contract with Norwegian Cruise Lines to play on their ships. He got off when he wanted, though it sounds like he mostly stayed on. He told me that his kids were out of the house and he and his wife were divorced, so being at sea with a free place to stay and a chance to play music and to have cocktails without having to worry about driving around was an ideal lifestyle. I saw him the last night we were on board hanging around at a show with the comedian we saw along with one of the women from one of the shows we had seen.

Not unlike Las Vegas hotels, there was some sort of point system for frequent cruisers, and the ship advertised that there were people on this trip who had done 20 or 30 or even 40 previous cruises. There was an old lady we saw several times who had a toy poodle. I have no idea how she was allowed to have this dog on this ship– our hypothesis was she was very rich– but every crew member and officer wanted to greet her and talk to her.

It was weird.

Would I go on a cruise like this again? Well, my parents are talking about doing something like this with the whole family next year, so I might get the chance whether I want it or not. Annette and I talked about how taking a cruise to Alaska might be interesting, so maybe that’s in my future. I’m not a cruise hater, nor am I a cruise lover. It feels a little to me like I’ve seen a glimpse of a world I didn’t even know existed before.

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