Lessons From a First-Time Cruiser

The food is great and there's lots to do - or not; but bring your own soda and be ready to wait

WE needed to get away.

It was a big decision for our first vacation in three years, one my husband and I struggled with until the last possible moment: A week on Maui or a week in the western Caribbean?

The costs were comparable from Portland, Ore. - about $850 each on the quiet side of Maui and about $1,200 each for a Caribbean cruise. With the cruise, food was included. Not wanting to cook on vacation, we considered that restaurant meals - Hawaii style - add up quickly.

Another consideration: What if the weather was bad on Maui? A week of rain could spoil an island vacation, but surely we could count on a few days of good weather on a 1,900-mile cruise. (As it turned out, we had seven days of hot, sunny weather.)

The cruise it was. It would be just like the perky commercials with Kathie Lee Gifford. Right?

Not quite. The ads don't show the long lines to board, for instance, or the even longer lines to leave. No lifeboat drills on TV, either. But cruising is a wonderful way to sail away from it all.

There were two formal evenings, and we couldn't wear shorts in the main dining rooms. But otherwise, we could have gotten by all week with a bathing suit and a pair of sun glasses. That Caribbean sun is intense.

Carnival's M.S. Holiday is a hotel on water, a way to visit several countries without having to worry about luggage, hotels, or passports. You can eat as much as you want, whenever you want. Room service is no extra charge. Entertainment - from dancers and singers to magicians and jugglers - is right upstairs.

It's no Radisson or Four Seasons, mind you. For a nine-year-old ship, the M.S. Holiday looks dated, with some pretty cheesy lounges. The cabins, while not too cramped, are Spartan. The two twin beds can be locked together. There's a desk, a dresser, a closet, and a bathroom with a shower. (A great shower, in fact: hot, and with plenty of water pressure, not the water-conserving RV-like shower I expected.) There is a TV, with a different movie each day and satellite news if you can't stand to be out of the loop.

We had an inside room, which means the window is fake. To us, it wasn't worth the extra $200 for a real window: It's dark at night anyway, and you're not in your room much in the daytime. We saved the money for vacation goodies, and we had no problem spending it.

Cruising offers plenty of opportunities to spend money. Set a budget, then plan on doubling it. You don't have to leave the ship to be bombarded to buy: Photographers abound - as you board, at dinner, on deck, with a parrot for your shoulder. The video photo-grapher is everywhere, too, so you can take your cruise home on tape; soft drinks are $2; drop $20 for 30 minutes of bingo; make a donation in the casino - it's open till 4 a.m.

Then there's tipping: Cabin stewards expect $3.50 per day; the dinner waiter, $3; the busboy, $1.50. At least that's what the cruise line recommends. But don't worry. It's a vacation, right? Everything you buy on the ship is charged to your Sign and Sail card. The bill's in the mail.

And food (it's good food) won't cost you a dime extra. Eat eight times a day if you like, and that's not counting 24-hour room service. Breakfast starts at 7 a.m., and mealtime ends with a 1:30 a.m. buffet. Guacamole cocktail parties. Frozen yogurt after lunch. Lobster at midnight.

SHORE excursions, from island tours to diving trips, are big bucks, too. A four-hour trip to the Mayan ruins of Tulum was $64 apiece, pricey but worth it. A 90-minute tour of Grand Cayman, complete with a visit to the city of Hell, $22 each. Snorkeling off Ocho Rios, $29 apiece. Plan to go ashore early so you'll have the afternoons to explore on your own. It's a lot more expensive, though more convenient, to book your tours through the ship.

Our ports of call included Playa Del Carmen and Cozumel, Mexico; Grand Cayman Island, British West Indies; and Ocho Rios, Jamaica.

Grand Cayman probably is one of the most expensive ports in the Western Caribbean. Eat on the ship if you can. A hamburger and fries will set you back $12 on the island. Two sodas? $4.50. You can't get a box lunch from the ship.

And in Jamaica, if you want to say no to the omnipresent hawkers, say it and say it quickly. Otherwise you could suddenly find yourself with some unwanted beads dangling at the ends of your locks - and they're easier to put in than they are to remove.

But there's fun on board, too: Three swimming pools filled with sea water. Movies. Ballroom dancing lessons. A fitness club. Bridge and galley tours. A library. Massage. Trap shooting. Comedy. The Newlywed Game. The limbo. Las Vegas-style shows. Or you can just lay out on deck all day. Plenty of people do.

Don't go on a cruise if you want to be alone. That's just about impossible with almost 1,500 passengers and more than 600 crew members. Dining room tables seat four or eight. There were honeymooners; some even got married on-board. Second honeymooners. Couples. Singles. Friends. Families. A mixture of young and old from every one of the United States and at least two dozen countries. They all want to have fun and leave their troubles at home.

Next cruise, we'll be wiser. We'll bring our own sodas and skip the bingo. We'll also look for cruises that offer more time in port. And a nonsmoking ship would be nice.

Back in Miami, reality set in. Crowded into the lounges, we waited and waited, checked our watches, and waited some more to get off the ship. The cruise director emphasized that US Customs, not Carnival, was the cause of the delay. But when you have a plane to catch, excuses don't matter.

After two hours, we escaped. We left tan, with fat bellies and thin wallets. And a desire to return.

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