I just completed my 10th cruise, this time aboard Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas, a beautifully designed, if slightly older vessel. I teach photography aboard these floating hotels and have sailed aboard Norwegian Cruise Lines and Princess, too.
My Cruise Experience
Ten trips does not make me a cruise expert, especially since I regularly meet people with 30, 50 and more cruises under their belts (and we’ll get to what else is under those belts in a moment). But I do figure that my cruise experiences, coupled with the fact that I am a seasoned travel photojournalist, gives me some credibility to make some observations and recommendations (I’d also love to read your observations, and so will my readers, if you’ll kindly comment here on this blog).
First, I fought the cruise experience for decades, erroneously thinking that it was:
for older and/or more sedentary folks
for people with B-I-G appetites
all of the above
But, after much cajoling from my wife I finally succumbed and have been really enjoying them over the past five years.
Cruise Ship Observations
So, here goes with my observations. First, my hat is off to those younger couples that cruise with children. For those of you who have never cruised before, the cabins are efficiently laid out, but laughably small and I simply can’t imagine the challenges presented to families with little ones sharing the same cabin. Judging by the body language and dark circles under the eyes of those very same parents after about day three, cruising with young kids may not exactly make you a winner on “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”
Next is an observation my wife and I made when we once went on two cruises back-to-back. Since we were cruising for two weeks straight, we did an informal survey and here’s what we found: seventy percent of the kids at the dining tables either played video games during dinner or had earphones in or on their ears (many also wore a baseball hat, with the brim turned backward). Have our cultural norms really changed that much? Why do parents allow such behavior? Do I sound like an old fart??
Okay, enough about kids and families. Longer cruises- those over 10 days- tend to draw an older crowd due to the expense involved and the time required. Our recent 12-day cruise from Sydney, Australia to Fiji and New Caledonia included many retirees. As a result, the trip was pleasantly quiet, as opposed to two shorter cruises we have taken from New York City, where it was a far younger, partying and drinking crowd. Keep that in mind when booking your cruise.
Eat Your Heart Out
If you think that cruising is nothing but one big, fat eat-fest, you’re… well, actually you’re right. It’s the glutton’s version of The Grand Canyon. Let’s call it The Great Gorge. There are so many eating options, essentially 24/7, one could easily gain 10 pounds on a 7-day cruise. And it’s amazing to see how many serious over-eaters frequent these ships, from basic overweight-and-out-of-shape through obese to morbidly obese. There are the basic three squares a day that the dining service offers, which can be taken in a huge, gloriously extravagant dining room, served by a formal wait staff, or in a pile-it-higher-and-deeper smorgasbord buffet arrangement. In either case you can ask for, or get up and get, your own seconds, thirds or more. Of course, every meal includes multiple dessert options.
Then there are the multitude of little cafes aboard ship, where one can indulge without incurring extra fees, as well as specialty cafes, like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream shops, for example, where you pay extra. And again, there are the free midnight buffets or “Chocolate Extravaganzas,” where even sniffing the decadent desserts concocted by the pastry chefs can cost you beaucoup calories.
On our latest cruise, for example, the ship’s kitchen staff served 120,000 meals to 2,000 people and went through 48,000 eggs. I watched grown people pile four and five desserts on their plates, like Mom wasn’t watching. Of course most passengers exhibit restraint… many do… at least some do… but it is tempting, no doubt.
Another observation- and here I’m just curious… really!- but wouldn’t you think there were better things to do on a cruise than play Bingo for hours at a time? Yet that’s a big draw aboard ship (and big money-maker for the cruise lines). People typically wait in long lines to buy their cards, and then crowd into a lounge to play. I’ve got nothing against Bingo, but onboard ship? I suppose it’s just a way that many people let down their hair and have fun. Please enlighten me here if I’m missing some larger picture. Seriously.
So, what tips and recommendations can I make to those of you contemplating your first cruise (or even seasoned travelers wanting to try something different)?
Learn Something New
First, why not attend some of the informational presentations by the lecturers hired by the cruise ship companies? Their presentations vary, of course, from downright boring to exciting (of course mine fall into the latter category). But I can’t help but think that giving up a Bingo game or the Biggest Stomach contest (for real!) for a chance at learning something new is worth it.
Cruise ships are also great places to learn to dance or to try a new craft, all of which are offered onboard. Want to learn how to fold towels into animal shapes? They actually offer lessons on most cruise ships. So far I’ve managed to resist that one, but it might be cool for a family with young children.
Cruise ships also have some excellent exercise and spa facilities. The gym is free, but there are also specialty programs that allow the cruise line to earn extra bucks. The spa is also extra, but the prices are not unreasonable. Massages, for example, are competitively priced with any day spa.
I’ve got to say that it’s always an extra kick for me to work out while at sea. The gyms on every ship I’ve sailed on have wraparound windows, so the views are priceless. I once saw some whales cavorting as I climbed Mt. Everest on the treadmill (well, that’s what it felt like!).
Cruising is a great way to make friends. On every cruise we’ve been on, there are passengers who eat only at the buffet or in the dining room at a table for two, for the entire trip. Why not try sitting at a table for eight and meet some fascinating people? If you don’t get along with your companions, simply ask the maitre de to transfer tables. My wife and I have made some wonderful friends that way (here’s a shout-out to Mario, Glennis, Bill and Lisa, our amazing Aussie table companions!).
Believe it or not, many passengers choose to stay onboard when the ship stops in port, perhaps for financial or health reasons, which I certainly can understand. But the sheer number of people who remain onboard couldn’t possibly all be in bad health or financially destitute, unless they played too much Bingo or logged in too many pulls on the slot handle.
Ports of call present a terrific opportunity to see new sites, expose oneself to different people and cultures, tease your taste buds with exotic spices, or just find a remote beach where you can relax. I heartily recommend either booking on the ship tours or hiring a taxi for the day (make sure you get back at least an hour before the ship is set to sail).
Take advantage of the many shows and performances offered on every cruise ship. I am almost always impressed by the amount of talent shown by the performers, some of whom go on to careers on Broadway and other competitive venues.
The onboard shows have only improved in recent years, as competition for passengers has intensified. There are musicals, Broadway-type mini-shows, dancers, magicians, acrobats, singers, orchestras. On our last cruise we watched, spellbound, as an eastern European couple danced a modern ballet routine accompanied by music and a video that was evocative and highly emotional. The combination of fluid movement and incredible strength was mesmerizing. I’m not saying that every show is world-class, but enough are to warrant getting to the theater early.
If you are still a working stiff, there may be times during your cruise when you simply have to get some work done. Or maybe not. Maybe you just want to read quietly. I’ll admit I’m one of those who logs in some work time while under sail and I have to say that the view from the office can’t be beat.
Imagine reading on deck, with a cool (or warm) breeze gently blowing as you sail past tropical islands. Or imagine finding a shady spot on deck to open your laptop and send some emails to family or colleagues.
Every ship has a library, too, so on bad weather days it’s a great retreat. Quiet lounges are also good for getting some work done. My intention is not to encourage you workaholics out there, but simply to point out that one can get some serious work done if needed.
In any event, I have found the cruise experience to be far different than my pre-cruising biased assumptions. In fact, I find cruises fun, relaxing and rejuvenating. Oh, and did I mention the food?