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.

Fine cruising aboard the M-S Norwegian Dawn

The Thinker by Rodin

Saturday, August 6, 2011 somewhere in the Atlantic

Freestyle cruising, them marketers on Norwegian Cruise Lines call it. But as we waited in Boston Harbor to cast off for Bermuda aboard the M-S Norwegian Dawn, freestyle cruising apparently is mostly about being loud. Up on Deck 13 the bon voyage party was in full swing. The cruise director Johnny Cash Sanchez (yes, that’s his real name) and band have much of the teens, preteens and young adults aboard boogying to some frankly dreadful music, like “YMCA” by The Village People. Hamburgers and corn on the cob there are aplenty. Most of the people on the deck are dressed for weather ten degrees hotter. The weather in Boston is spectacular: blue skies, but with the weather in the mid seventies it is not quite bikini weather. Finally, about an hour later than scheduled, our thousand foot long behemoth cruise ship finally leaves its birth. Accompanied by the usual pilot boats but also state police boats, we slowly move out into Boston Harbor, our fourteen decks such an obstruction that we temporarily shut down a runway at nearby Logan airport lest an aircraft graze our mast on approach.

Bon Voyage Party aboard the Norwegian Dawn
Bon Voyage Party aboard the Norwegian Dawn

We last cruised fifteen years ago. We were overdue to reconnect with the cruising lifestyle. Fifteen years ago this size of cruise ship was more on the drawing board than at sea. Today it is a run of the mill cruise ship: supersized for the supersized Americans it carries. We are still astonished by the M-S Norwegian Dawn, built in 1998: its length, its girth, the number of decks, its opulence, and the attention to every detail. The cruising industry must be extremely competitive. This is good for customers. This seven day cruise was surprisingly affordable. Fifteen years ago a stateroom with a window was too expensive for us. Today with discounts we were able to book a stateroom with a view, roughly 200 square feet, for about $2300, about $600 of that just in port taxes.  It is clean, comfortable and with our window it offers a hypnotic view of the sea rushing past us.

Norwegian Cruise Lines wants us to know that everyone is at our service, and they sure are. It’s almost a fetish. As we pulled out of Boston Harbor Friday night, we enjoyed our first dinner in the Aqua Dining Room where we were obsessively fussed over. My wife’s sensitivity to pepper resulted in entrees that were made especially for her devoid of them. It was hard to take more than two sips from my water glass without a server trying to refill it. After finally deciding on chocolate cake for dessert, I made the mistake of telling the waitress I thought about of getting the apple pie instead. She brought both.

It’s no secret that food is plentiful on cruise ships. The most daunting task in this life of leisure is not to overeat. Judging by the girth of most passengers and their heaping plates of pizzas, burgers and fries, they will fail at this task. Twenty four hour buffets allow not just constant grazing, but constant gluttony. Having sampled the buffet for lunch, I found I preferred sit down restaurant instead with tastier entrees and smaller portions.

Top tier dining on the Norwegian Dawn comes at extra cost and requires reservations, but the main dining rooms Aqua and The Venetian won’t leave you feeling cheated. The Venetian restaurant offers a breathtaking view of the ship’s rear. We happened to get the table at the very back and center of the ship. Both the Venetian and the Aqua are classy places to dine; gorgeously arranged rooms and with linens replaced with each set of customers. The Venetian comes with its own pianist in a tuxedo with an appreciation for popular musicals. Yet I have had better dining on other cruise ships. The best dining I ever had on a cruise ship was on our first cruise in 1995 aboard the late Dolphin cruise line’s Seabreeze I, an ancient ship by cruising standards (built in 1958) but blessed with gourmet cuisine. True story: the S.S. Seabreeze I now rests on the ocean floor off the coast of Virginia, having succumbed to rough seas on its way north for a refitting.

Those older ships were missing stabilizers now common on cruise ships. The result was I spent a couple of days on that cruise seasick. Aboard the Norwegian Dawn, seasickness is not an issue. I get more turbulence on a gentle airline flight. It helps that the ship has stabilizers and that the Atlantic Ocean is relatively calm: four to six foot seas on our journey to Bermuda. There is a gentle swaying of the deck, but nothing that triggers any feelings of seasickness. Bonine is available in our stateroom just in case.

Everyone is at your service, but that doesn’t mean that they are not also looking for ways to get into your wallet. The principle method is to keep you plastered at one of the eight bars across the ship, but there is also the compulsory casino, bingo and duty-free shops where you can buy likely very nice but much overpriced jewelry. We won’t be adding much to their bottom line, as we tend toward being abstemious and gambling simply does not interest us. A massage does very much interest my wife, so this will be our one indulgence with this cruising vacation.

I wonder when a cruise company will take this “at your service” fetish to the next level. There are already cruises for swingers, so apparently cruise ship staff can work inured among naked clientele. Why not enhance the bottom line and offer prostitutes as well? After all, once you are in international waters the cruise line is free to decide what they will allow. I am sure there are plenty of undersexed people on these cruises who might want to get back in touch with their libidinous natures. Such a service would give room service a whole new meaning.

I did not need a prostitute but we did very much need a vacation. If we have a problem it is that we do not take more vacations. We live our lives generally stuck in the rut of working, paying bills, doing chores and when leisure allows surfing the Internet. Surfing the Internet here aboard the Norwegian Dawn is generally a privilege for those with deeper pockets than ours. Per minute rates range from forty to 75 cents a minute. So we will wait until we are in Bermuda and find an affordable Internet café.

For me, the most important aspect of cruising is simply communing with the sea again. By nature I am not a beach person, but there is something awesome and humbling about being a speck of a boat in an immense ocean. Cruise satisfaction for me simply comes from having a deck chair, a book and a nice view of the ocean. I treasure the gentle sound of the waves moving past the sides of the ship, the gentle slow sway of the deck beneath my feet and the meditative feeling that comes from standing while holding on to a handrail and gazing out at the immensity of the ocean.

Next: a report on Bermuda.

P.S. To Laura, from Terri: I am a medium well and having a wonderful time.