Shipboard Notes From a First-Time Caribbean Cruise
TIP: The weeks from mid-December until Christmas are a good cruising time. Because so many people are planning holiday trips–or are planning a holiday-vacation cruise–the ships often sail below capacity, and it’s easier to get around. Plus, you’re tanned and back in time for Christmas with the family.
In Part Two of MvB’s first-time cruise series, he has adventures ashore.
When I think of vacation cruises, I tend to think of David Foster Wallace’s title, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The people I know just don’t go on cruises, unless they have an excuse: visiting relatives, hip destinations, all-you-can-drink offers. But when I was casting about for ways to beat Seattle’s December gloom, the prospect of a Caribbean cruise seemed worth considering. I had never been to the Caribbean before, so why not try the sampler of vacations? Cruise lines were just waiting to pounce.
It’s hard to beat the price. My trip on Royal Caribbean, with air fare, drinks, and daily excursions totaled about $300 per day for the seven-day cruise. For that, I arrived in Puerto Rico on December 10, and dined my way across the evenings between five ports of call: Grenada, Dominica, Antigua, St. Croix, and St. Thomas, returning to San Juan on December 17.
This is more or less all I knew about cruising before flying out of Seattle. I knew there was a formal night, that you were expected to eat dinner at either six or eight in the dining room (you had to choose), that I would have a bottle of Evian for each day of the cruise, and that on Thursday, I was going on a coastal bike tour. Royal Caribbean had provided me with a 119-page pdf of ship activities and shore excursions that so daunted me all I could manage to schedule in advance was the biking outing. I never managed to read the helpful What to Pack page, but I had found a few minutes for the online check-in.
We were met at the airport, and herded into a shuttle to the Serenade of the Seas, a ship nearly 1,000 feet long and just over 100 feet wide at its broadest. At check-in, after stripping for security, I gained possession of my SeaPass, an electronic key and on-board credit card that would collect all ship charges for me, billed at the conclusion of the cruise. (You can specify which card or cards you want the damage billed to; usually it’s from alcohol or visits to the gift shops) The first surprise was the size of the stateroom–I had been on enough boats not to expect a majestic expanse, but the balcony stateroom managed to feel positively roomy.
On the other hand, the Serenade–due for a facelift in 2012–showed its age a bit. The stateroom TV wasn’t a flat panel, but a tubed variety, sporting a distinctive green cast across the bottom third from years of use. (The projector in the ship’s cinema was also worn or in need of maintenance. There are parts of Thor I can’t describe to you because they were a muddy haze–which, of course, is both a plus and a minus.)
No one from a sunlight-challenged area will need me to explain the attraction of sailing around the Caribbean, but I think I have a supplemental theory on why cruises are so popular.
When you arrive on board a cruise ship, you may have nine or more stories to explore. There will be any number of lounges, cafes, bars, buffets, casinos, pools, libraries, business centers, cinemas, rock-climbing walls, sport courts, fitness centers, arcades, and so on for you to unearth. Because the process of discovery is related to rewarding spurts of dopamine, learning to navigate the ship is a strangely pleasurable experience. Everywhere you look in this particular maze, you find cheese. (To capitalize on our need to explore, Royal Caribbean charges $150 per person for “behind the scenes” ship tours that take you to the galley and engine room.)
Throw in your sudden re-exposure to sunlight, and you find yourself engulfed in a particularly heady neurochemical bath (I actually suspect the shock to the system of unsettling the digestive system of cruisers–dopamine is secreted in the gut, too–as much as exposure to different bacteriological flora.) That first afternoon, you spend your time navigating the decks, continually running into dopamine-dazed travelers laying down new neurological tracks.
Perhaps to counter the stress of the novel environment, life on board hews to a fairly rigid routine. You arrive in port around 7 or 8 in the morning, you sail at 4:30 or 5 p.m. There’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you want, you can schedule your day down to the hour with activities like bingo or trivia or foot “analysis.” These days you can also pay for packages that let you continue to yap on your cell phone while at sea, or surf the internet, though everyone who tried the internet complained of the dial-up-era absence of speed. I was happy for the excuse to unplug.
A few things that I assume are enshrined by cruising ritual didn’t appeal to me that much: dinner in the dining room, for instance. I don’t enjoy being fussed over each and every night, and there was a marked discrepancy between the air of fine dining and the actual quality of the meal. I tried the dining room for two nights (there’s a little social coercion, in that you are the tablemates of a group of fellow passengers for the cruise) but never had a memorable (or even quite good) meal there, and after being scolded mildly for choosing a wine that wasn’t “suggested” as the pairing for my dinner, I quit attending in favor of the Windjammer Cafe’s buffet, which at least allowed you the chance to see how the food was prepared, and to head back for seconds of anything you did like.
Ironically, we ended up bonding with two of our tablemates everywhere but in the dining room; they were on an anniversary cruise, found the dining room cooking tough to swallow, and decided the trip was too short to suffer through. Another vote for the buffet. I did try the specialty grill restaurant for a filet mignon, and that was more successful, but also more expensive. At the Schooner Bar, my happy hour hangout, I gave up on the relentlessly fruit-punchy drinks for Stella Artois, the best beer I could find on the list, which included no Caribbean beers except Red Stripe.
It’s possible to drop out of the shipboard social set fairly easily, if you want. Occasionally you will notice more tuxedos and formal gowns than usual, and will remember that it’s formal night. Posed pictures are taken on the staircase of ruddy-faced men in rented suits and middle-aged women dressed for prom, a contest is held for World’s Sexiest Man, a sort of dating game is held, and the David Foster Wallace allusion swims into clearer focus. I have no reason to think people weren’t enjoying themselves, but this is the cheesiness that makes other people defensive about taking a cruise.
Forsaking the Tropical Theatre’s entertainments–”Your Three Tenors” and a lot of show tunes–I spent a lot of time reading Game of Thrones on a chaise lounge, hit the stationary bikes in the fitness center to prep for my coastal bike tour, and hot tubbed.
Usually I was tired from my day ashore: I ended up going on tours every morning in our ports of call, snorkeling, hiking to a waterfall, taking a bus tour to scenic spots, biking the coast, and hopping a ferry from St. Thomas to St. John, where I bought swim trunks with anchors on them and walked out to Solomon Beach along a nature trail frequented mainly by tiny, hopping lizards. The weather was changeable, if always warm, veering between sudden showers and bright, hot sun, and usually I headed back to the ship for a noon shower and lunch, running through my supply of clothes faster than I’d thought. Thankfully, the Serenade had laundry service, and St. John had a boutique with a sale on boxers.
Ships of this size don’t give you much reason to worry about the sea below. One night we saw seven-foot swells, the next nine-foot, and it was only then that I started to hear people mention feeling queasy. If you are from an earthquake-prone area, you may jolt awake after a slow roll that feels just like a quake (in fact there were two 5.0 quakes just off Puerto Rico as we were heading back to port), but in general, it feels most like a waterbed, and gives you an excuse as to why you’re stumbling rubber-legged down the corridor after your trip to the bar.
Royal Caribbean, like most cruise lines, I suppose, tries to deliver “wow” moments of service. Hundreds of staff do their best to pamper you, or surprise you with folded-towel animals in your stateroom. They’re forever seeing you once and then calling you by name for the rest of cruise, as if you’re a long-time customer. They strike up conversations with anyone who looks the least bit lonely. Sometimes it feels desperate and needy; sometimes you have conversations with people from Bosnia or Nicaragua that give you slices of insight into other worlds. Every night I’d go up on deck and watch the sun set on the Caribbean, and each night it was a different spectacle. In the morning, there was that second where I struggled to locate where I was, a new island coming into view.
I could never quite believe it. The Caribbean. After all these years, it was right there. I could practically reach out and touch it.