Cruising for a difference

The Thinker by Rodin

Is there really that much to distinguish cruise lines? This cruise is our fifth, and each has been on a different cruise line. In general, one won’t complain about the food on any cruise line. That certainly is not the case here on Holland America’s ship the Noordam, wending its way in a leisurely fashion toward the southern Caribbean. The staterooms on Holland America don’t look much different than staterooms on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian. They all have a promenade where those who prefer to move can stroll around the ship’s periphery, smell the salt air and get a little cardiovascular exercise. I noticed the picture gallery and theaters were in the very same spots on this cruise line as they were in the last two. Differences between cruise lines tend to be more of style than anything else. Carnival, unsurprisingly, has a reputation for partying, young adults and families with small children. Royal Caribbean is more buttoned down.

Holland America is definitely not a party ship. It is mostly a well-moneyed old people’s ship. There are a few middle aged people on the ship, by which I mean thirty or forty something, but just a few. By that criteria I no longer qualify. Still, I skew younger than the average age of a passenger on the Noordam. Sixty or seventy something is more par for the course. Expect passengers with canes, walkers and motorized carts. Holland America and the Noordam in particular is just more relaxed and quiet in general than other cruise lines we’ve experiences. There are fewer long waits at the elevators. There are fewer passengers elbowing you in the hallways. The staff doesn’t try quite so hard to ply you with booze (extra of course) or to petition you to buy overpriced art. Moreover, checking in was a breeze. We were expecting a ninety-minute process and long lines. Passengers tend to show up en masse as soon as the cruise line opens its doors. Two hours before sailing, at least for us, there was no line. It took ten minutes tops to get from our drop off point at the front of the Fort Lauderdale cruise terminal until we were walking onto the ship. Why do people show up early when for most other events people show up either on time or fashionably late? I believe it’s not the ports of call that attract most people to cruises. It’s the buffet and the promise of as much food as you can eat that really has them signing up, so the sooner you can start the mass gluttony, the better. And generally if you want to find someone that’s where they are. In the case of the Noordam, it’s Deck 9, the Lido (“Lee-doh”) deck with its mostly always-open buffet. And mostly business is hopping on Deck 9, which is also convenient to pools, hot tubs and lots of lounge chairs.

Beach at Hollywood Florida
Beach at Hollywood Florida

 

This time our cruise was out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It came with a bonus: the ability to finally see my sister Teri’s house in nearby Hollywood. She has been there for sixteen years with her husband, her dog and her boat. We avoid Florida except, apparently, as a place to catch a cruise ship. So we arrived a day early to see her and get a sense of Hollywood, Florida where she lives and the Fort Lauderdale area. My general impression was favorable. Florida has a lot of ugly beach communities, but Hollywood is not one of them. It has a long and impressive “broadwalk”, sort of like a boardwalk except it is not elevated, wider and not wooden. It has a charm to it, and tries hard to be the Florida you see in postcards, if you can ignore the condos, hotels and seaside businesses next to the ocean and broadwalk. Nearby Dania Beach to its north is also nice. We stopped at a pier for a quick lunch at a restaurant at the pier and marveled at the cool weather in the 60s and the dry and breezy winds. What soon became more interesting was a school of shark that appeared just off the pier. Everyone outside on the pier eating lunch quickly turned their attention away from their food to the sharks stalking a large school of fish nearby instead. The fish appeared to escape, but probably lost out when they went out of our range.

The Fort Lauderdale cruise terminals proved hard to get to, particularly since roads are under construction, which meant weird detours were needed. The cruise terminals are frankly in an ugly part of town, as freighters also load up there, which meant plenty of freight containers for scenery. The view was much more impressive once onboard the Noordam, particularly from the Lido deck. Fort Lauderdale looks great from that high up. It is a major city in its own right, certainly not as big as Miami to its immediate south but catching up quickly and with an impressive skyline.

Fort Lauderdale skyline from cruise ship
Fort Lauderdale skyline from cruise ship

So we quickly settled into our room on the main deck, enjoyed their four-star dining room, then went on our first of what will be many walks around its promenade. Miami was just a twinkling of light in the distant west. It seemed that nothing could interfere with this wonderful eleven day adventure. Then the lights went out.

Dead stop. Just an emergency light winked on near our cabin door. After about a minute the emergency power kicked in and the lights came on but there was nothing but silence from the engines. After a few more minutes the captain came on to announce us the obvious. There had been an electrical malfunction. Happily it didn’t last too long and was over in about ninety minutes. Eventually one engine came back online, then the next. Our arrival in the Bahamas this morning was not delayed, but no one will say or admit to a reason for the incident.

Cruise lines prove that they are major players when they buy their own private island in the Bahamas. Holland America bought theirs, and it’s called Half Moon Cay. It comes with the usual accommodations for cruise ship passengers: bands playing calypso music and singing Jimmy Buffet songs, white sandy beaches, gift shops and a huge outdoor barbecue where you can gorge yourself sick. That’s what most passengers were doing. Frankly, it made me ill to look at all that greasy food, so I opted for a short walk to the other side of the island instead. A fake shipwreck along the shoreline was actually a bar and allowed another opportunity to get plastered. Despite the sandy beaches and temperatures in the 70s, few were in the water. Empty beach chairs were in abundance. The water was an amazing shade of blue and closer to shore, colored aquamarine.

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas
Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

Next stop: Grand Turk Island.

Cruising for business

The Thinker by Rodin

A second cruise just months after our first cruise in fifteen years was my wife’s idea, not mine. She thinks that vacations should be about relaxation and pampering, not about hassling with hotels, rental cars and airlines. I am naturally more active than she is, but I concur that cruises have some major virtues. For me, their chief virtue is that while you visit lots of places, you unpack just once.

This cruise is on Royal Caribbean, which as best I can ascertain is the fanciest cruise line, at least among the major players. They certainly have great looking and modern ships, unlike Carnival’s, whose fleet is looking seriously dated. Fortunately for their competitors, I am not someone who puts a premium on fanciness. I do expect staterooms to be comfortable, clean and reasonably quiet, the destinations interesting, and the price not exorbitant. I don’t need chocolates on my bed pillow or (an increasingly alarming trend among cruise companies) animals created from folded towels posted at the foot of my bed.

Voyager of the Seas, in berth in New Orleans
Voyager of the Seas, in berth in New Orleans

If I had to pick two characteristics of cruise companies that I measure them by, it would be their food and the evening entertainment. The entertainment on Norwegian was excellent every night, and since my wife and I see plenty of shows, so we know quality from crap. Norwegian even brought in a troupe from Second City for one night of entertainment. I had not laughed so hard in years. Comedians are popular entertainers on cruise ships, I expect because they are relatively cheap compared to staging these Broadway-lite shows. Still, Norwegian has their own cast of singers, dancers and acrobats that truly dazzled. Our last show before berthing in Boston last August had a Bollywood theme with acrobats on bungee cords jumping from the rafters in time to the live music. It’s pretty hard to top that. As for the food, if they were still around then I’d be glad to cruise again on a dumpy old Dolphin Cruise Lines ship again as we did in 1995. We did find gourmet food last night on the Voyager of the Seas, but it was at Portofino, their specialty Italian restaurant that naturally cost extra. On dumpy Dolphin, there was just one main dining room but all the passengers ate gourmet food. You left the dining room hoping your licking the plate wasn’t too obvious.

Otherwise our cruise on Royal Caribbean seems about the same as our cruise on Norwegian. Both ships are immaculately clean and over the top opulent. Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas wins marginally over the Norwegian Dawn, simply because the ship is bigger and no expense was spared. This is because at the time of its christening in 1999, it was the largest cruise ship in the world. For a guy who tends to shop at Kohl’s instead of Niemen Marcus, opulence simply does not matter. I won’t be purchasing fine diamonds or fancy artwork at their promenade in either event. Yet, in many ways Royal Caribbean is more pedestrian. Their “specialty” restaurants include a Ben & Jerry’s and a Johnny Rockets. Whereas Norwegian had at least half a dozen upscale specialty restaurants, the Voyager of the Seas offers only Portofino.

Royal Caribbean is at least less in your face with announcements. Norwegian made sure we were aware of every single event via frequent and loud announcements. I grew to loathe my cruise directors, particularly the assistant cruise director for her endlessly annoying and obviously insincere whines promoting bingo. On Royal Caribbean they are more discreet, and generally limit themselves to a morning and noon announcement. Given their four-page list of activities we receive every day, we should have a good idea of what’s going on.

One thing I am discovering: no matter how nice things are for us passengers, the bulk of the cruise staff has it rough. Perhaps there is something exotic about working for a company like Royal Caribbean, but after asking questions of our waiter I have to wonder what sane person would sign up to work on a cruise line. Most Americans would whine about working on Saturdays. At least for the waiters in the Royal Caribbean dining room, there is never a day off until the cruise season is over or their contract expires. Our waiter told us he works ten-hour days seven days a week. I guess when you are in international waters, you don’t have to worry about any stinking union contracts.

Moreover, the vast majority of these jobs are mind-numbingly dull and tedious. I watched one guy today in the café doing nothing but filling up glasses with ice and pouring water and lemonade into them. There are whole crews in the café that do nothing but constantly take your dirty dishes to the dishwasher or smile and squirt your hand with sanitizers as you enter the restaurant. Just the thought of doing this for seventy hours a week sounds like enduring one of the lower levels in Dante’s Hell. Hopefully they at least get to rotate through positions to relieve the tedium. Most are away from family, but today’s newsletter “fun fact” tells us the ship has 134 married couples among the crew. I hope they work the same shifts.

Once the land recedes, your world shrinks to your cruise ship. You may become myopic like me and notice things you should not. Royal Caribbean seems anally obsessed with cleanliness in a Joan Crawford sort of way. I imagine that a major outbreak on a cruise ship can have a huge effect on a company’s reputation and its bottom line, so it perhaps justifies the omnipresent Purex hand sanitizer machines and crew endlessly applying germ killers to handrails and surfaces. But is it really necessary to refrain from shaking the hands of our fellow passengers, as they recommend? Are we really supposed to give them fist bumps instead? Even Martha Stewart would have to find this behavior extreme.

However, kudos to Royal Caribbean for making smokers’ lives inconvenient. Norwegian lets guests smoke in their staterooms. Here guests are allowed to smoke on their balconies, if they have one, and on the port side of the cruise deck. Also, kudos to Royal Caribbean for creating child-free zones. Up on the cruise deck there are adults only swimming areas, hot tubs and lounge chairs that are far away from the shrieks of children. Been there and done the child-rearing thing and once was enough.

My mind keeps wandering. What, I wondered, would cruising look like if Wal-Mart ran a cruise ship? The idea may seem absurd, but given all the money in this cruising lifestyle perhaps they will enter the market someday. If so, I can already picture it. Cruising, which at least strives to be a classy experience, would devolve into mediocrity but at least it would be affordable to those with more modest means than ours. Here are some features of a Wal-Mart cruise ship that I predict if it ever gets into the business:

  • Everyone on the staff including the captain would have a smiley-faced yellow button on their breast and wear the ubiquitous blue Wal-Mart uniforms. But most of the crew would actually be subcontractors hired from third world countries so Wal-Mart would not have to pay any health insurance or retirement benefits.
  • One deck would be a Wal-Mart superstore, with the added bonus that purchases would be duty-free. That’s keeping those prices low!
  • Main dining would consist of a food court that would probably contain the greasiest of greasy franchises that you see at Wal-Marts, and no it would not be included in your cruise price. Yes, there would be a 24-hour Pizza Hut in the food court, along with a McDonalds, but definitely no Starbucks. Too upscale. Wal-Mart would market their own brand of coffee instead and the coffee shop would probably include boxes of Krispy Kremes you can purchase. The coffee would probably be a Sam’s Club brand. Need a salad? Wait until you arrive at a port of call and keep your fingers crossed. Instead, it you would get to choose from grease and sugar, with every entrée guaranteed to be at least 500 calories and contribute toward heart disease.
  • Pretty much every object in your state room could also be bought at a Sam’s Club or Wal-Mart, including the furniture.
  • To keep prices low, you would use the same sheets and towels for the duration of the cruise.
  • You could save five percent if you cleaned your own stateroom. There would be scouring powder under the sink and $19.99 vacuum cleaner in the closet, but your cabin would have to pass inspection before you vacated to avoid a cleaning fee.
  • When you sat on the potty in your cabin, you would stare into a TV screen with compulsory announcements promoting ship specials.
  • Instead of a U.S. Coast Guard drill at the start of the voyage, you would be forced to sit in an auditorium and listen to Wal-Mart affiliated time-share pitches.
  • The premium beer in the food court would be Bud Light.
  • There would be deals for special airline fares based on an affiliation with Southwest.
  • A sampling of evening entertainment: wrestling, an abridged play based on the life of Sam Walton and a contest for the most convincing imitation of a Fox News anchor.
  • You would have an RFID chip embedded in your earlobe for the duration of the cruise, so you could always be found. You would see advertisements customized for you on electronic billboards as you walked around the promenade.
  • Only penny slot machines would be allowed in the casino.

I had better stop before I give Wal-Mart too many ideas.