Is Traditional Cruising Gone Forever?
Written by: Paul Motter
There are still a few cruise lines offering the authentic “at sea” experience: assigned dining times, afternoon tea and mandatory dress codes.
CruiseMates recently did an article to re-define cruising; “Defining Cruising 2.0,” which represents the new standards that have replaced the older traditions of cruising.
Traditional sea voyages, as originally defined by the great ocean liners, included reading a daily schedule each morning followed by lunch, daily afternoon tea and mandatory dress-code dinners in assigned seating restaurants, with the same tablemates and service people nightly. Shipboard games were bingo, bridge and shuffleboard. The entertainment included one stage show nightly, followed by drinking or dancing and the only alternative was a small casino or going to bed early.
For the most part, this style of cruising has been replaced on contemporary cruise ships with anytime, open seating dining rooms, much more relaxed and non-obligatory dress codes, a much wider range of onboard activities suitable for younger, more active people and a diversity of entertainment nightly after dinner.
While this style of cruising has not completely disappeared, it has become so integrated with new-style cruising that many traditionalists insist we are losing touch with the very definition of cruising as they knew it.
What Do We Stand to Lose?
Prior to the year 2000 taking a cruise mandated a complete disconnect from the “real world” for the duration. It was difficult and expensive to stay connected. There were no cell phones, email, Twitter or texting.
Cruisers enjoyed scouring the daily schedule for events like Captain’s Cocktail Parties, formal nights, days at sea and activities like trivia games and even bingo. Absent these activities, the only option was sitting in a deck chair and watching the sea go by. This was especially true on days at sea, which the vast majority of traditional cruisers insist they prefer to visiting ports of call. Cruisers were told what time to show up for dinner, where and with whom they would sit and what they were expected to wear.
Is Traditional Cruising Dead?
The question becomes – are there any cruise lines that still offer this traditional style of cruising? The answer is a qualified “yes.” There are some cruise lines that have changed the least, or in some cases they have older ships where the traditional style of cruising still prevails although some of the modern conventions are also offered. Here are the remaining traditional cruise lines, in order:
Crystal Cruises: Without a doubt, the cruise line that has retained the most traditional style of cruising is Crystal Cruises. With just two ships, each of them built before year 2000, the line still offers two pre-assigned dining times nightly, with pre-assigned tables, dining companions and the same wait staff each night of the cruise.
Crystal is a very formal, luxury cruise line where cruise traditions such as “High Tea” are done with exceptional attention to detail. High Tea on Crystal comes with a string quartet playing Mozart and Beethoven. Musicians and wait staff turn out in full dress powdered wigs, corsets and other robe a la Française. Piles of freshly baked cakes, pastries and scones with clotted cream are served with a vast selection of teas, each brewed to specific tea sommelier standards.
Crystal has mandatory formal nights where nearly every gentleman will don a tuxedo and ladies parade in the finest modern gowns. Officers in their dress-white uniforms join the passengers for pre-dinner dancing to standards played by a jazz quintet. Naturally, Crystal is a big hit with single ladies with the means to enjoy the best things in life.
Crystal’s two ships are not bereft of modern technology. They have excellent Internet access and even offer classes in computer programs. But the line also focuses on more traditional cruise culture such as arts and crafts classes, music lessons and always several guest lecturers speaking on a variety of topics.
Cunard Line: This British cruise line has three ships offering a very traditional style of cruising based on the golden age of ocean liners. Cunard ships are larger and more densely populated than Crystal’s, but with a wide variety of price categories that makes it possible to offer a classic cruising style without the luxury prices of Crystal.
But the people who want the luxury style of Crystal cruising can also find it on Cunard ships by booking either of two premium categories of staterooms and dining. These premium suites are known as the “Queens Grill” and “Princess Grill” categories which include much larger suite staterooms and privileged access to the corresponding dining rooms for every meal.
The rest of the passengers are assigned to the much larger “Britannia Dining Room” where they offer the traditional two pre-assigned dinner seatings nightly with the same tablemates and wait staff. There are formal nights on every cruise, generally on nights when the ships offer time-honored Cunard traditions such as the Black and White Ball and the Ascot Ball.
These balls are now a traditional part of the line’s 180 year history. They were born in the days when ocean liners were considered state of the art for world travelers. They feature a 10-piece band backing a singer crooning the dance standards of the great swing era.
So, while the difference is subtle, Cunard has a 180-year history of classic ocean travel traditions to which they continue to pay homage as a part of the Cunard cruise experience. Crystal is a modern cruise line that has brought the time-honored cruise traditions into the 21st Century. Both approaches are equally valid and rewarding, but it is fair to say that while Cunard has much more distinctly historic British element, Crystal is more immersive in luxury.
But the strict adherence to traditional pre-assigned dining and dress codes, including formal nights, has remained largely unchanged on both of these cruise lines.
Holland America: Our next contender is Holland America Line. For cruise traditionalists the older and smaller ships of Holland America, particularly the S-class named after the Statendam introduced in 1992, still offer most of the elements of the traditional cruise experience. However, on Holland America the traditions co-exist alongside many of the newer elements of Cruise 2.0; alternative restaurants, open-seating anytime dining and more relaxed dress codes.
The reason these older and smaller ships are still the most traditional is mostly by popular acclimation of the passengers. These ships tend to offer longer cruises in more exotic regions which attract older, very experienced cruisers. These older cruisers basically learned the traditional style of cruising many years ago which makes them much more predisposed to maintaining that traditional style.
Holland America offers the choice between traditional and open seating, anytime dining, but the two are offered in different dining rooms so the traditional cruisers are not exposed to the more casual modern style. The older ships also restrict casual dining to the Lido area nightly, so the recommended dress code is still taken very seriously by the other cruisers throughout the rest of the ship on formal nights.
Carnival Cruise Line: Although this may come as a surprise to some of you, the last cruise line we recommend for traditional style cruising is Carnival; rightly regarded as a contemporary and mainstream cruise line. While this is true, there are aspects of Carnival ships worth noting for traditional cruisers.
Carnival still offers traditional cruise dining as an option, along with open seating anytime dining which is now more popular. So, don’t expect the majority of cruisers to voluntarily adhere to a formal dress code or any dress code at all; but when it comes to activities and cost structure, there are still many traditional elements to Carnival Cruise Line.
For example, Carnival has never gone in for the added slate of alternative dining choices that other mainstream cruise lines offer. NCL and Royal Caribbean both have several added-cost restaurants on most of their ships. The newest ships from both of those lines have as many as ten added-cost restaurants.
Carnival has added many dining options over the years; but without the added service charges. There is Mongolian barbecue, sushi, New York style deli, pasta and seafood. Most of the Carnival ships have but one alternative restaurant, the Steakhouse. Three of the ships have no alternative dining at all. The recent dustup over Carnival’s decision to offer premium steaks in the dining room at a reasonable fee just shows how seriously Carnival passengers take the line’s adherence to traditional cruise pricing
So, with Carnival what they do not offer may be more important than what they do. Carnival has avoided what many people see as the new “nickel and diming” approach to cruise costs where cruise lines impose small fees for a number of little things throughout the cruise. Carnival still includes almost everything in the basic cruise fare as they have always offered; the only exception making gratuities a mandatory service charge rather than optional.
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