There I was, out to sea on a steamy Caribbean night, cowering by the railing as the deck was commandeered by shrieking pirates. To my right and left they caroused, reeking of rum, stumbling through the flickering torch light, slapping at each other with their plastic swords.
Yeah. Plastic swords. It was Pirate Night on a cruise ship. And, it was supposed to be fun. But all I could ask myself was, "How the heck did I end up here?"
Well, I'll tell you how. When I booked the cruise I thought, in order of importance: Azure Caribbbean water...gentle sea breezes...fine french cuisine. My checklist did not include "eyepatch."
Don't get me wrong. I love seeing the world from a ship. To stay in a very nice hotel, enjoy truly fine dining, and wake up each morning in a new, interesting place-what's not to love?
Well, lots, the curmudgeons would say. The crowds. The cramped cabins. The force-feeding. The enforced hilarity of on-board games.
And you know, they're right. And they're wrong. Because besides the fact that some people are nuts about all-you-can-eat shrimp and belly-flop contests, one of the nicest things about cruises is you can tailor them to be — and not be —almost anything you want.
Take, for instance, Pirate Night. Your personal Pirate Night might be called Ballroom Dancing. Or Passenger Talent Show. Or Hike to the Top of the Tallest Ruin on the Island. To avoid (or find) them, it's essential to first know what kind of ship you want to be on.
In an age when online reservations are the rage, for cruises you still can't beat the insight of a flesh-and-blood travel agent. These people get invited on dozens of free cruises a year. They've fed at so many troughs of so many cruise lines' hospitality that they are virtually incorruptible. So you can actually trust them to size you up, draw from their unmatched freebie experience, and honestly put you where you belong.
"Getting on the right ship is extremely important," says Bonnie Habel of Fuller Travel in San Antonio, Texas. "I qualify first-time cruisers by the kind of hotel they like. Let's say they like the luxury of Four Seasons. I recommend Regent Seven Seas, Silversea, or Seabourn. If they like an upper-class Hilton or a Marriott, I'd recommend Royal Caribbean or Celebrity. And if they like to stay in a chain hotel like LaQuinta, then I'd put them on Costa or Norwegian."
And as for the world's largest cruise line, Carnival, "We're really no different in terms of across-the-board passenger demographics than Las Vegas," says senior VP Vicki Freed. So don't plan to curl up in the lobby with a copy of Anna Karenina.
For the best gossip about the the highs and lows of different ships, read the often down-and-dirty comments of experienced passengers on web sites like www.shipcrtitic.com or www.cruisemates.com, Or check out books like Berlitz's "Guide to Cruising," which review specific ships, detailing their amenities plus the kinds of passengers they draw (i.e. wild college kids on spring break versus well-behaved grownups).
The bigger the ship, of course, the larger the variety of activities — and the better your chances of stumbling across something that interests you. If you don't want to do a lot — and you don't like the hubub created by people who do — then sign up for a smaller ship. Sailing the Danube on a 140-passenger Viking River Cruise ship one summer, my wife and I faced the choice of taking a bus to a nearby church or staying virtually alone on the ship, sailing upstream to the point where the bus would meet us. We chose to sit on the deck, playing Scrabble (a German version, including U (with two dots over it) tiles and watching the castles coast silently by, imagining the strains of a Strauss waltz.
"Have you done the Canal?" barked Herb from Rockport, Maine, who'd been seated at our lunch table on a Caribbean cruise. He meant, of course, the canal in Panama.
"Well, yes," replied Carl from Houston. "Twice. In each direction. But it's really nothing compared to the Suez."
That did it. An all-out war of travel one-upmanship was inevitable.
Carl's wife Suzi upped the ante: "We were on a Solar Eclipse cruise off of Argentina when a blue whale breeched not a hundred yards from the ship."
"Well, the puffins of Antarctica..." interjected someone passing the table.
Now it was out of control. I wanted to tell them all of the time Jacques Cousteau invited me aboard the Calypso to follow Thor Heyerdal in a reed boat from the Galapagos to Tahiti. That would, of course, have been a lie — but how did I know they weren't lying? It was every man for himself.
For cruisers like my table companions, the destinations are what cruising is all about — especially destinations few others have visited. But even a cool-sounding port may not translate into a memorable stop, particularly when it's at the beginning or end of a cruise. I flew into Rome for a cruise, and the cruise line expected me to sit around at the airport until a bus left for the ship. At that rate I'd never even glimpse the dome of St. Peter's. So I hailed a taxi to take me into town for an hour (He ran out of gas. Long story).
The really smart lines find a way to make a port stop a personal experience. One of the nicest evenings I've ever spent was in Vienna, where the river cruise line arranged an intimate evening of Mozart performed in a drawing room at the Luxembourg palace. On its Alaska itineraries, the small ship line CruiseWest for many years stopped in to visit a commercial oysterwoman named Suzie, who brought some of her product aboard for shucking. And then there's Crystal Cruises, which may take passengers ashore in St. Petersburg to visit a Russian family in their modest Soviet-era apartment.
And what if your line doesn't offer personalized features like those? Remember that your crew has been to these places a zillion times, says travel writer Rudy Maxa.
"They're great sources on the best local beaches, restaurants, and shopping. They know the little back alleys, the unknown galleries. Ask where they go. Or better yet, invite them to go with you."
And no one says you have to follow the crowd. On the island of Cozumel, Mexico, for example, when just about everyone else stayed glued to the dock area to invest in straw baskets, we grabbed a taxi and headed across the island to explore a partially excavated Mayan temple. The guy who took our money at the temple entrance was, I swear, roasting an iguana for lunch.
"Taking a taxi from the dock is a great, economical way to personalize your visit to a port," says Maxa. "Before any cruise, pick up some tour books about the places you'll visit, and don't be afraid to strike out on your own. Just remember to negotiate your fare with the driver before you leave — and be back before the ship sails. If you're not on a cruise line-operated tour, they're not going to wait for you."
If you choose not to wander far from the dock, you'll almost certainly find yourself browsing at local shops. Believe it or not, there are actually good bargains on specific products to be found in some ports.
"In Australia, you'll find excellent strands of pearls selling at half the normal price," says Ethel Blum of cruisecritic.com. "But when you come back, make sure your receipt reads, 'Temporarily strung pearls without clasp.' That way you won't have to pay duty when you return to the US.
"Caribbean islands that fly the French flag have perfume prices that run 10 to 20 percent less than in the US. And in Italy you'll find soft leather jackets for as little as $35."
So, how do you know when to go ashore and when to stay on board? One good rule of thumb is to check out the brochure describing a port. If the word "shopping" appears as the main attraction, take it literally. This is a shop-till-you-drop stop. For the less merchandise-minded, it might be a good day to stay onboard and sample the spa.
If you play your cards right, you might even get to use the spa for free, says Jeff Kohl, director of spa operations for Princess.
Here's the trick: Board the ship as early as possible, make a beeline for the spa, and offer to be a model. "But don't expect privacy," he says. "For that service you're going to be on a table in the hallway." You usually can't choose the treatment either; they tend to be the more exotic services, such as body wraps and facials.
Sid chewed with his mouth open. After 30 years, that's basically all I remember about the guy, but it's a formidable memory nevertheless, because I looked into that gaping masticating maw for precisely 21 meals, aboard a cruise ship that insisted I sit directly across from him at a particular table for the entire voyage.
Table companions can't exactly make or break a trip, but since eating is such a central part of so many cruises, it's worth knowing some survival strategies.
First of all, we must acknowledge that for many people random placement at a large dining table is one of the great appeals of cruising. You meet new people, you share experiences, you get to tell all the stories that your friends and family are sick of.
But now cruise lines are racing away from that old formula. My experience with Sid occurred back in the cruise Ship Stone age, when lines treated diners something like extremely well-fed galley slaves. Now most ships offer open seating at different size tables. And many have alternative dining rooms that take reservations, like regular restaurants.
"When we first began Personal Choice dining on the Grand Princess, a third of the guests opted for it and two-thirds went for traditional dining," says Denise Seomin of Princess Lines. "Now we find those numbers reversed."
If you want a table for two in the regular dining room, show up when they open the place. They go fast. Alternatively, many people forget that in the fantasy life aboard a cruise ship, you can pick up your cabin phone and order dinner from room service at no extra charge.
After my week-long experience with Sid, I was determined to dine with people I actually liked. So my wife and I invited friends and family along on a week-long cruise to Bermuda. Not only did we all get a group rate for the trip — a nice 10 percent off — but at meal times there we sat, 14 people who already knew each others' back stories, actually engaging in conversation.
Conversation, you ask? How can you converse on a cruise ship when your mouth is always full?
That is such old-think. "Cruise lines are getting away from the midnight buffet," reports Laura Sterling of Cruisecritic.com. It marks the end of an era-and also of the classic cruising objection: "There's just too much food!"
I've heard that complaint dozens of times, and I think it can be best translated as: "With all that food being pushed at me, I know I will succumb to the demons within and gorge myself until stretch marks appear on my fingers."
And I do understand. There was this one time on a Royal Caribbean ship when, I don't know, I just wanted all the lobster tails I could eat. So I kept asking for more lobster tails. And the waiter, bless his soul, he just kept bringing them. Soon it became a game of endurance. I began to imagine a great conga line of lobsters snaking through the kitchen, all waiting to have their tails cut off just for me.
Anyway, there are ways to save yourself from yourself on a cruise. First, if there is a midnight buffet, sleep through it. Second, check out the back page of your menu, which almost always has a healthy eating section.
If you want to eat well — just not like Orson Welles — you might book a cruise line that offers cuisine by a leading chef. Seabourn, for example, long featured recipes by chef Charlie Palmer, who created Progressive American Cuisine. Regent's ships hhave menus and chefs from the famed Cordon Bleu. NCL's menu was prepared by longtime White House chef Henry Haller. Guys like these made their reputations not by fattening their customers, but by appealing to their discriminating palates.
Even better, many of the newer ships have themed restaurants offering the types of progressive cuisine that proudly offer little or no actual food. The servings are small, and mostly of acquired taste. Perfect for counterbalancing that shipment of prime rib you devoured last night.
Besides eating, many people find that on cruise ships they develop a drinking problem: There's nothing to drink for free...other than coffee, tea, and ice water. Alcohol is in plentiful supply, but also plenty expensive. My tablemate Sid brought along a doctor's bag crammed full of his "medicine:" a collection of clanking liquor bottles, with which he planned to beat the high cost of on-board alcohol. Lots of ships don't let you even do that anymore. But some upscale cruise lines — including Regent, Seaborne, and Silversea — pour free wine at dinner and also have free soft drinks. If you drink enough, that one feature can actually make a serious dent in the extra cost of sailing with them.
All cruise lines pour free wine for guests at the captain's table, says Maxa — and just a bit of strategy could land you one of those coveted seats.
"Before each cruise, most lines ask passengers to fill out brief questionnaires about themselves," he said. "Fill it out, and don't be modest. The more interesting you sound, the more likely you are to find an engraved invitation in your stateroom. Income and social status have little to do with it."
In fact, you'll be surprised at the economic and social cross section you'll find on a cruise ship. That's because lots of people have discovered the biggest cruising secret of all: Its affordability.
"The myth of cruising as a rich person's vacation is perpetuated, oddly enough, by the people who go on cruises," says Maxa. "They return, tell about all the food and facilities and destinations, and naturally their friends think they secretly won the lottery.
"And the cruise line brochures, with their sky-high list prices, sustain the image."
The fact is, booking a cruise is like buying a new car, or going to college. Hardly anyone pays the retail rates. Any good travel agent who specializes in cruises should be able to obtain a significant discount — sometimes as much as 50 percent off brochure prices for you. In late September, for example, one discount web site, www.vacationstogo.com, offered five days in the Caribbean on a Carnival ship departing from Galveston for $299 per person, based on two passengers traveling together. That's $60 per person per day including — need I remind you? — three sumptuous meals. Try matching that in New York City. Or Memphis, for that matter.
Even cheaper are the occasional last-minute unsold cabins often available on web sites such as www.cybercruises.com.
Cruise veterans also know that the best time to book a cruise is right now. I mean, right now, January through March, when the lines try to get the bulk of their reservations for the whole year. In the trade, they call it Wave Season.
"This is always when you get the lowest price," says Karen Evans of All Ways Travel in Valdese, North Carolina. "Plus, to spur early-year bookings, lines offer enticing extras, like onboard credit, free airfare, and even terrific upgrades, like paying for a regular cabin and getting a balcony instead."
Ah, the balcony — the new Holy Grail of ocean cruising. Forget that old image of cruise line cabins being just like phone booths, only less well-appointed. The biggest trend now in cruise ships is "suite" accommodations; larger rooms with big windows — and often private balconies. The newer ships of the upscale Radisson Seven Seas fleet are 100 percent balcony suites, and the mammoth new Princess ships are more than 90 percent balcony. Some older ships are even being refitted with room balconies where an outside promenade used to be. It's balcony mania on the high seas.
"A lot of passengers just spend most of their on their balcony," said Andrew Poulton of Regent. "They're not forced into socializing if they don't want to."
Sometimes an older ship — which can have a dizzying variety of cabin shapes and sizes — may have a balcony room that's just waiting for the taking, says Maxa. "When you make your reservation, have your travel agent or the cruise line reservationist check for balcony availability. They may not even be aware the ship has a balcony cabin until they look it up."
A cool new tool at the website Travelocity.com lets you see an actual photograph of every stateroom on most ships.
And who knows, standing there on your balcony, on the warm Caribbean breeze you may hear the faintly calamatous sounds of a far-off Pirate Night. And as you toast champagne with your loved one, perhaps you'll think, "There but for the grace of practical advice and sensible early booking go I."
This is an updated version of an article that appeared in Modern Maturity magazine in 2002