The early morning calm before the storm of activity to arise by daybreak. The pool bar aboard the Navigator of the Seas, somewhere off the north coast of Cuba.
Upon evaluating my impressions of my first cruise one question came to me even before my first complimentary umbrella drink. These are huge ships. And they cruise around the tropical waters of the Caribbean. The first destination for patrons is the pool deck. It’s like a default setting. You check in, check out the cabin and say “let’s hit the pool!” By hour two of the cruise deck chairs are the most valuable currency on the ship and there’s an hour queue for the next available two foot square opening of pool water. On day one, one of my first thoughts was why is the pool deck so small? Especially, when just below there’s a three story indoor shopping mall occupied only by those needing to traverse it to reach the elevators to the pool deck. I’m sure there are all sorts of technically advanced engineering answers that I may never understand. But the question seems reasonable to me.
I’m one that always feels obligated to be honest when assessing my travel experiences. While I certainly may not have liked everything about my first cruise I feel just as obligated to give credit where credit is due. While I did feel that the possibility of additional invaluable pool deck space was tragically sacrificed for indoor four-cruise-ship-story shopping malls and two too many theaters – which were only occupied no more than 1% of the cruise – there was a concerted effort to make everyone happy. Seriously though, on a Caribbean cruise what is the real demand for an ice rink and a huge Egyptian-themed lounge that was used for nothing more than daily one hour senior’s bingo before 5PM dinner. I seem to be validated in my theory as the two main pools were packed to the gills from open to close daily. Children fought for a couple square feet of watery real estate while, I kid you not when I say, I witnessed two 19 year olds argue their fair rights for deck chairs which are all snatched up barely before the sun breaks the horizon to a cruise director. After a brutal 20 minutes and displaying skills of persuasion and patience of an experienced litigator, two chairs were delivered and impossibly inserted in an aisle.
But what they did get right was to set aside a wonderfully designed and appropriate corner of the deck for an adult’s only pool and bar. No matter how small, the Solarium was executed with the greatest of success and is a splendid and surprisingly peaceful refuge from the madness of screaming children and sardine tin conditions on the rest of the deck. For this I give a congratulatory “well done” to the designers of the Navigator of the Seas.
From inside the adult pinball machine that is the Navigator of the Seas Casino things are pretty twisted. Not since I last stepped foot into Las Vegas’ Circus Circus have I been overwhelmed ad nauseum with the candy-coated stimulants of light and sound. Combined with the gentle sway of the rocking ship the casino swirls like the most sinister children’s kaleidoscope. When fully immersed the definition of up and down becomes blurred and the perception of depth follows some alien laws of physics. After exiting some time is required to regain sea legs and once again return to adjusting to only the gently swaying waves.
Lots of people have been interested in my impressions of my first cruise experience. While I’m certainly no Samantha Brown and I’m not going to be giving all the juicy details of exactly how they fold those friendly towel animals and what sort of deals can be had on 2,000 year old Middle Eastern glass in international waters I do have some broad impressions. Probably for these stated reasons, my friends and family, some of which are in the travel business, are curious as to whether I enjoyed myself. To answer that simply – yes I did enjoy myself. That being said it should come as no surprise to anyone that cruising is not my kind of travel. In fact, it is just about the polar opposite from what I would deem the ideal travel experience. Aside from removing all free will and adventure and elevating the idea of “all-inclusive” to new levels, cruising poses many personal moral dilemmas for me as well.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of cruises has nothing to do with the cruisers themselves or the enjoyment level of their experiences. Instead I think of the shear damage that cruises cause to their ports of call. Think of some of Europe’s greatest Mediterranean gems such as the only recently traveler-discovered Dubrovnik or the already used and abused Venice which is in literal danger of becoming an underwater ruin. Now, open a flood gate of thousands upon thousands of trampling cruisers daily, eager to buy up as many trinkets as possible in their short 6 hours in port. These tourists literally spend zero energy or effort at actually reaching these destinations (hence the attraction of cruising). The all-powerful cruise ship acts as a magical teleportation device. Probably few could even locate the port on a European map if asked and some may never even know the name of the location (out of indifference or non-necessity not stupidity).
But it really doesn’t matter does it? After having their picture taken feigning to support the Leaning Tower of Pisa and purchasing the obligatory Carnival mask in Venice they’ll be back to judging hot body contests poolside on the ship within minuets. The next morning they’ll wake up in a whole new city in a whole new country and probably have to refer to their digital camera displays to recall where they were the previous day. There’s no need to even bother to own a map.
And cruise lines don’t want to give their passengers maps anyway. It’s in their interest to have ignorant and submissive subjects who have no interest in independent exploration. It’s best that they remain in the dark as to their exact where-abouts so that they can purchase excursion packages in order to be chauffeured to and from cruise line chosen attractions. And when a port of call is lacking in quality activities, there are even options to attend cruise-line-run museums to assure cruisers that they are actually in said country and that somewhere beyond the port there are fantastic things even though they won’t be leaving the docks.
So I was very conscious when first planning a cruise that I stay honorable to my strong personal moral obligations to never contribute to the destruction of the world’s great treasures. To never be a member of the locust swarms that overwhelm and devour the soul and charm of sleepy towns on a daily basis and who’s resulting scar tissue gradually replaces centuries-old markets with made-in-China T-shirt shops. The cruise we selected stopped in two cities, George Town on Grand Cayman and San Miguel de Cozumel, essentially built by the cruise ship industry. In essence these cruises have created and not destroyed these particular locations. These ports, limited in their historical and natural diversity, also made choosing activities quite simple. Personal exploration was thus not a greatly desired activity. Instead we opted for drinks on beaches and strolls around city zocalo.
With my conscious clean of guilt and desire free of wander-lust I could now relax, free my mind of worry and succumb to the will of the cruise line. However, we proudly did not partake in any planned excursions for additional cost. We instead utilized complimentary ferries to and from the moored ship, stood in line to hire local taxis and purchased food and drink from local bars on free public beaches.
For someone not familiar with the cruising lifestyle there were many things that were simply unnatural for me. Let’s take food for instance. Food is very important to cruisers. And no food is better than “free” food. And no free food is better than free food in mass quantities available at all times of day. Cruise ships perfect this. It’s kinda like having the Las Vegas buffet (complete with the blue and the yella) with you at all times and you don’t even have to pay for it. For dinner, in addition to the feed trough, every guest has a standing reservation in the semi-formal dining room. You are assigned a table, a waiter and an assistant waiter to serve you every night. Luckily, the menu does change nightly and, since it’s free, guests can order what they like without the need to contemplate price and tip. This may be nod back to trans-Atlantic ocean travel where the ship is a transportation device and the service is to make you as comfortable as possible until you reach your destination. Though I’m no foodie, I don’t take vacations to eat at the same restaurant every day. Also it can be expected that at some time during the meal the wait staff will form and parade (possibly sing) while the guests stand, clap and twirl napkins overhead. The chefs will then appear from sweltering kitchens and graciously bow to standing ovations and roars of applause. Certainly a dining experience as unique as the most foreign culture could match.
I could continue discussing all the oddities but it might wind up filling another book. And I’m not writing this to complain about cruises. After all, it is what it is and there are no real surprises here. Though Samantha Brown’s impressions from her first cruise may greatly differ from mine, on the surface the root of our enjoyment is the same. Being on a ship in tropical waters is simply nice. To sleep with the door to the balcony open and to hear the splashing water, smell the salt and see the stars is refreshing. To wake with the sun rising over either a featureless ocean expanse or a new and foreign land is a unique experience and quite a beautiful sight. These details alone would be attractive to anyone. While it’s likely I’ll not take another cruise outside of Alaska (since my wish list is already over-booked) I can say the experience was enjoyable.