Everything I’ve Missed About Cruising in 2020
(Bloomberg) -- Cruise expert Fran Golden typically does 10 cruises a year, many to check out new ships, and has sailed on more than 150 voyages in total. This year, she squeezed in only two trips before the industry came to a screeching halt in March.
When a cruise ship departs the dock and heads out to sea, it’s like leaving everything behind and moving toward infinite possibilities. There’s a slight rumble under the ship’s hull, the coastline fades, and the ocean becomes both your only view and your highway to new places. The water sparkles in the sunshine. It moves. It’s breathtaking.
In that moment, cruisers become one with the ancient mariners and explorers that set sail before them. For many of us, that includes our ancestors: The ocean carried my forebears to America in centuries past, and I think of them voyaging in steerage every time I leave dry land. My experience, of course, is very different compared to theirs. Even if you book the cheapest cabin on the most mass-market cruise line, where the crowd is more Target than Neiman Marcus, modern life at sea implies culinary gluttony, boozy indiscretion, and a smiling room steward who makes your bed and straightens up your cabin twice a day, maybe even leaving towel animals on your vanity.
Few people live their normal lives with such constant, pampering care—especially these days. And decadence is certainly something I have missed in my months of being landlocked. Luxury has different meanings to different people. For my husband, it’s having his fresh fruit cut up by someone else every morning and a good steak at night; he’s among the many for whom constantly available food and drink is a big highpoint of cruising.
For me, it’s over-the-top indulgences, such as the butler on a Silversea cruise to Turkey and Israel who prepared my warm bath with strewn rose petals so fragrant I imagined they were picked from Middle Eastern fields the very same day. Nothing makes me happier than calling room service for a (complimentary!) snack of caviar and potato chips. And every time I sample the lobster thermidor or roasted free-range chicken at the retro-cool Thomas Keller grill on Seabourn ships, I say a little thanks to the culinary gods. I long for the bartenders who remember I like my martinis with Ketel One and extra olives, even if I haven’t seen them in days.
I have met people who book a top suite, and then spend most of their time there. One mystery couple on an Oceania Cruises ship ventured out only for special wine dinners. Sharing our table, they declined to give their real names. Generally, though, cruising is a very social experience.
Putting yourself out there and meeting people from all walks of life is part of the fun. While you may choose to dine as a couple at a table for two, a perfect table of eight, with everyone switching seats each night so they can get to know each other, is a glorious thing.
I have made lifelong friends on cruises. I have even cruised afresh with people I have met at sea. I have also spent a week hanging out with fascinating “cruise friends” I will never see again; sometimes, all we really have in common is the cruising part. On ships I have met a witch, a warlock, an expert on Jack the Ripper theories, and a man who worked for a “secret” government agency. I have also been forced to tolerate people I hope never to meet again, but from whom I’ve heard a different perspective.
Being at sea is romantic. Perhaps it’s the swaying motion, the fresh salt air, or simply the fact you’re away and free. Stealing kisses comes naturally. Out on deck on a sultry night in the Caribbean, I started salsa dancing with a fellow writer who would later become my second husband. We married on a Princess Cruises “Love Boat” off the Bahamas and honeymooned while sailing from Singapore to Bali on Crystal Cruises.
Given how much time I spend at sea, sailing has naturally become the backdrop for many of my life moments, birthdays, anniversaries. It also proved as convivial a setting as can be for divorce negotiations, which my first husband and I finalized on a Carnival cruise with our then-teenagers—a sailing we now refer to as our “dysfunctional family cruise.”
I miss exploring. Practically anywhere in the world where land touches an ocean, a cruise ship is sailing. I’ve visited more than 100 countries and hundreds of bucket list places by ship: New Zealand’s jaw-dropping Milford Sound, Monaco’s stunning yacht-filled harbor, the glorious Greek Isles, Alaska’s fascinating tidewater glaciers, the eerie jungles of the Amazon. You come to a port, you conquer, and you head back out to sea.
On days at sea, when there’s nowhere to drop anchor, joy is having nothing and everything to do. Sometimes I seek out perceived “danger” such as speeding across a zipline or screaming down Royal Caribbean’s 10-story slide–even go-kart racing on a track atop a Norwegian Cruise Line ship last year while traversing the Caribbean Sea.
On any given itinerary, I tend to indulge in a few organized activities, such as cooking classes and wine tastings (followed by a nap!), and especially trivia. People take their trivia seriously on cruise ships; on some it’s a blood sport. Hint: The entertainment team tries to appeal to all nationalities, so it helps to be prepared with knowledge about European “football” and the World Cup. Knowing the history of British royalty helps, too.
I miss having dolphins follow me out to sea—a common sight around the world—or whales showing off their tails in places such as Alaska and Hawaii. I miss soft adventure ships such as those of Lindblad Expeditions and UnCruise Adventures, where the atmosphere is like summer camp for adults and the destinations include jungles and wild areas best explored by kayak. I miss the sight of seabirds that indicate you’re finally nearing land.
On deck in the open air and sea breezes, I like to read and nap. I judge a good cruise by how many novels I devour, and how many times I fall asleep kissed by the ocean breeze, preferably in the shade as I burn easily. When I am in a stateroom with a bathtub, I also take more baths than I do at home. Something about traveling by water makes me want to spend as much time in it as possible.
I miss lying in bed in my cabin and bawling my eyes out to classic rom coms and every other genre of movie. Watching Titanic while on a ship? I don’t recommend it, though I do have faith in modern safety systems.
Then there’s the fact you can hit the spa, which is icing on an already relaxing cake and another thing I don’t do at home. I love a good thalassotherapy pool with steaming jets. (I wasn’t kidding about the water thing.) And I don’t complain about working out when it comes with ocean views.
Every night at sea is a night on the town, if you want it to be. I like to put on makeup, dress up, drink too much. I seek out fun, the cheesier the better—though cruise lines have made great strides in their caliber of entertainment. (On a recent Holland America cruise, I loved the way the Step One Dance Company used projection technology to make six dancers look like dozens.) I like a good laugh and have admired hilarious comics at sea, even if some can’t resist tired jokes about getting sucked in by the vacuum-system toilets. I dance more on cruise ships, because of live bands; joining a conga line on deck, under the stars, is an almost tribal experience.
If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s this: If you can’t let down your hair on a cruise ship, you simply can’t let down your hair.
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