Right at the start I should say that I'm not a cruise person. If you've never taken a cruise, you're probably not one either, but there's a whole universe of travelers who are most definitely Cruise People. One woman on our very own FSB art staff has been on nine cruises so far, and her mom, a professed "cruise-a-holic," has been on more than 30. I'd made it through my first few decades without much interest in the experience, but after recent world events sent rates to an all-time low and my editor started saying things like "How would you like to take a cruise?" the opportunity seemed impossible to refuse. I started calling travel agents.
Since September cruise lines have been suffering from a global slowdown in travel. In the fall both Renaissance and American Classic Voyages filed for Chapter 11, and two of the major lines, Royal Caribbean and Princess, merged to gain that ever-elusive "synergy." Scrambling to soothe jittery travelers, most companies have slashed prices and rerouted Mediterranean and European itineraries to the Caribbean and Alaska. Others are now leaving from ports like Baltimore and San Francisco to minimize the flying required.
Choosing a specific cruise isn't easy, given that travel agents and Cruise People alike tend to differentiate the companies into categories of "very nice" and "also very nice." Carnival Corp. is the biggest by far, with different lines aimed at different demographics. Its flagship line, also called Carnival, is branded as "Fun Ships" (think conga lines and blender drinks). On the higher end, Carnival Corp. also owns Seabourn and Cunard, which-along with Silversea, Radisson, and Crystal-represent the top tier in floating luxury and cost as much as $6,000 for a ten-day trip. Prices on many of the high-end ships are all-inclusive, meaning alcohol, tips, and most extras are covered. The mid-range lines, where you pay for those things out-of-pocket, include Norwegian, Celebrity, Holland America (another Carnival line), Disney, and the newly combined Princess/Royal Caribbean.
Seeking a balance between luxury and cost, I chose an eight-day, seven-night Caribbean trip on a Holland America ship called the Maasdam. While Holland America is known for an older clientele-an image the company is trying to shake-it's also renowned for elegance and quiet relaxation. Perfect. I went with a friend, and our tickets were $450 each, plus a $149 port fee (a surcharge tacked on by all lines to cover docking costs during the trip; $150 is about par). The total was about half what the trip normally costs for that time of year. I also saved by opting not to purchase the cruise line's "airfare included" package, instead booking my own flight to Fort Lauderdale, the ship's home port. Cruise lines purchase airline tickets in bulk, so they're locked into certain prices, which in our case was nearly double the fare I found on my own.
The process of getting onto a cruise ship is a lot less fun than being on one, and all conspiracy theories indicate this is a deliberate attempt to make you feel blessed to be aboard. The check-in process in Florida takes hours, during which we fill out customs forms, pass through a recently beefed-up security check, and vegetate in the waiting room. Room 640 on the Maasdam, a double, turns out to be small but comfortable. We have ample closet space and a constantly replenished bowl of fresh fruit (so there's no risk of scurvy). The curtains on one wall pull back to reveal the coveted ocean view, with a window of ultrasolid composite plastic looking out on the Atlantic. That window puts us one step up from the most basic cabin, which I find out offers the same curtain but with a purely decorative function-if you pull it back, you get an enhanced view of the wall.
After unpacking, I have to resist the urge to run around like a kid and check everything out. The Maasdam holds 1,266 people-1,198 on our voyage-with nine decks open to passengers. The 550-person crew eats, sleeps, and works on the lower decks (and unlike the steerage scene in Titanic, passengers aren't allowed down there-I asked). Most cruise ships have the same amenities: a casino, spa, library, disco, movie theater, several pools and hot tubs, and multiple bars. The Maasdam also has two KidZones filled with games, computers, and movies, plus an Internet center that charges the larcenous rate of 75 cents a minute.
Of course, the No. 1 activity on any cruise is eating. On Holland America, at least, all those rumors about the orgies of food prove true. Every day our ship has both formal and informal seatings for all three meals, plus hamburgers, hot dogs, and tacos served poolside all afternoon. On top of that there's an ice cream bar, a pizza parlor, and a "midnight" buffet that actually starts at 11 p.m. (dinner ends at 10:15 p.m.). And if none of that appeals to you, unlimited room service is available 24 hours a day, free of charge.
The food, although not life changing, is better than I expected. On my first day I have chicken tacos on the Lido Deck for lunch, then a four-course dinner of sweet tomato and buffalo mozzarella, chilled pineapple soup, broiled salmon with vegetables, and a slice of chocolate cake. The portions are relievedly small, so you don't feel so guilty about repeated four-course dinners. My only real disappointment is the peach flamb which arrives on the table sans spectacle, having already been preflamed in the kitchen.
Eating is also the main social experience of a cruise, and it's where we run into a lot of the hardcore Cruise People. Early in the week we meet Barb and Jim, an older couple from Florida who have lost track of exactly how many cruises they've been on (though Barb pegs it at "about 150"). We also meet a couple from Long Island (25 cruises; they met on one), and Lil, an 82-year-old traveling with her two daughters, who enjoys talking about her grandkids and also likes to gamble-during the week Lil will spend a significant chunk of her daylight hours in the casino. Curiously, we encounter only one other first-time cruiser, a woman who actually apologizes for her inexperience. Everyone is extremely friendly, though, and from then on Lil's daughters save us deck chairs by the pool each morning.
During the day the ship schedules group activities like Shuffleboard Challenge and Wet & Wacky Pool Games. Certain lines put together entire theme trips for things like bridge or blues music (diet guru Richard Simmons once ran a weight-loss option called Cruise to Lose). But the overall theme for most ships seems to be commerce. As Carnival CEO Bob Dickinson writes in his 1997 book, Selling the Sea, "The truth is that selling goes on all the time all over the ship and it makes all the difference in the world when it comes to the bottom line." Drinks on the Maasdam cost $5 or $6 each, and even a can of Coke runs two bucks. At dinner the wines range from $4 a glass to $135 a bottle. Our photo is taken repeatedly-while boarding the ship, before formal dinners, during regular dinners, during the lifeboat drill. The ship then develops all the photos onboard and sells them for $10.95 each. A videographer also puts a camera in passengers' faces and officially becomes a nuisance by the second morning. The video sells for $34.95, and though my friend and I don't buy a copy, a surprising number of people do.
There's also the spa, where crisply uniformed women perform treatments like the $56 milk nourishing ritual for the hands (basically a very expensive manicure). Inspired by the feeding frenzy of women booking appointments, I opt for something called the alpha capsule, a white fiberglass oval that looks like a giant breath mint. The idea is that you lie on a vibrating bed and get bathed by blue-green lights that trigger alpha waves in your brain and allegedly transport you to a state of deep relaxation. One of the attendants tells me that a single 30-minute session ($45) is equivalent to three hours of intense sleep. In the capsule I put the compress over my eyes and lie quietly, listening to recordings of wind chimes and waterfalls. When I climb back out, I ask the attendant how the blue-green light can possibly trigger my alpha waves if the compress keeps me from even seeing it. "It affects your brain in various ways," she says. Hmmm. Unfortunately the three-hour sleep benefit is unsubstantiated, as I retire to room 640 afterward and promptly fall asleep for, yes, three hours.
Every night after dinner the Crow's Nest disco heats up, and passengers converge on the dance floor. On the ship's schedule I read that different nights are supposed to feature different themes (Mexican Margaritaville, '70s night, etc.), but whenever we drop by the Crow's Nest the DJ is playing the same songs. "Macarena," "YMCA," and "Brick House" are reliable favorites, and no one seems to mind the repetition.
During the week we make port stops at Cozumel and Jamaica, where we have the option of taking guided excursions set up by the crew or venturing off on our own. It's worth noting that the guided excursions are also a source of revenue for the ship. In Cozumel I snorkel on my own at Chankanaab Lagoon Park for $25, including taxis, admission, and gear rentals. The ship offers that same excursion for $49.
By the time we get back to Fort Lauderdale I realize I'll probably never be a Cruise Person. Overall the fun was a bit too scripted and prepackaged for me. But I can understand the appeal, and I know why people like Barb and Jim and Lil will keep going back. Cruises take care of the three most stressful elements of a vacation: where to stay, what to eat, and how to entertain yourself if the weather's bad. As vacations, they're impossible to ruin. (In fact, on my trip we skirted the edge of Hurricane Michelle with minimal impact, other than two canceled port calls and some extended naps.) There's also the service element. On cruises you get treated like royalty, constantly attended to by extremely polite waiters and stewards, and the cabins get cleaned three times a day.
Above all, the Caribbean sun was able to blanch out the stress of working, commuting, and frowning at the evening news, and that alone made the trip worth taking.