Cruising is cresting a wave. It wasn't too many years ago that the industry went virtually belly up. Today cruise ships are bobbing around like Cheerios in a bowl of cold milk.
I've sailed on more ships than ever saw the Spanish Armada. Or so it seems.
"Do you really like cruising?" I'm asked. "What do you do? Don't you get bored?" "Isn't it claustrophobic?" and "Isn't it terribly expensive?"
To which I respond, "Apparently," "Whatever I want," "Never," "That depends," and "It doesn't have to be."
To those who aren't sure how they will take to the sea (close to 95 percent of American travelers have never been on a cruise), several cruise lines offer three- and four-day, moderately priced sails; just enough time to get your feet wet, er, dry!
I just returned from a Nassau-CocoCay-Key West cruise out of Miami aboard the Royal Caribbean's 73,192-ton, 880-foot, M/S Sovereign of the Seas. The experience was quite typical of life aboard a luxury liner in a somewhat truncated time slot. The experience, I think, addresses the above questions in more detail:
Before Capt. Gunnar Oien pulls anchor, there's one activity that's compulsory on a cruise ship - the lifeboat drill. And there's no use hiding. A series of ear-piercing whistles drove passengers from their cabins and to their muster stations. There we stood sweating like Hialeah horses under the hot Miami haze, strapped into orange Mae Wests, and moving like a colony of king penguins.
As the officer-in-charge yelled out cabin numbers, we responded by shouting back the number of occupants in each room. "OK," he finally said, "now you're on vacation," dismissing us with a wave and a grin. And as tugboats nudged the mighty Sovereign from port, there was a stampede to, where else? - the duty-free shops.
Closed! "Sorry, shops don't open until 5:30," one of the crew members explained. All those adorable Hummel waifs locked up and homeless. Cruising can have its cruel side.
Nevermind, there's music in the air.
On the Poolside Deck, "Heat Wave," a three-man calypso steel band, is picking up the beat - with backup support from a bank of Japanese sound equipment. Everyone is loosening up and gettin' down as Miami's skyline drips into the sea.
After 5 p.m., when we set sail for Nassau, there were plenty of exercise activities available: the ShipShape Gym; fitness and nutritional consultation; aerobics; and a phenomenal abdominals workout.
Now the tough question. Eat or exercise? Ya, right.
The dining room was frenetic as the international staff of waiters busily seated hundreds of guests hungry as sharks.
Dining companions are assigned so you never know who you'll be eating along side. Though, usually, after a bit of witty banter and repartee - "This your first cruise?" "No." - conversation usually becomes more spirited.
My table was an interesting group of 12, including an English couple on their first cruise, several American couples, and a black, single mother from Seattle on her 19th cruise. "I brought my sister and friend with me this time, but I put them in first seating. I don't mind taking them, but I don't want to eat with them. When I travel, I like to do my own thing," she said giggling between sentences.
Service was fast and the waiters appropriately obsequious. The food was good and bountiful. The right side of the menu listed lighter, slimming fare. The left side was the good stuff. "You think I came on a cruise to diet?" one man remarked.
From Early Bird Coffee at 6:30 a.m. to the sprawling Midnight Buffets, you're always within striking distance of a bagel or chocolate eclair. There's a saying that you board as a passenger and leave as cargo.
After dinner there's usually time to catch a movie or Broadway-type show, take a stroll under the moonlight (especially popular among the 126 doe-eyed honeymooners on board), or dance to the tunes of Chuck Roast and the Mashed Potatoes. (Did I want to face that after a five-course dinner? I don't think so.)
There are some 17 public rooms on the Sovereign, including three lounges, a gym, a casino, a nightclub, and a rather British-appointed library with inviting Chesterfield couches. You can even nibble on beluga caviar in the Champagne Bar (at extra cost) while your teenagers shoot hoops on deck. Even with 2,600 passengers and a staff of 840, you can always find a corner where you can be quiet and alone.
Passengers here were a nice blend of ages, races, and ethnic groups.
The only time I've ever felt even the slightest claustrophobic was on a much smaller, more chi-chi ship where you were never out of sight of someone; the cabins were tiny, and public rooms tight. So if that concerns you, opt for the big ships.
One thing I especially appreciated on this cruise was the amount of shore time allowed at the three ports of call. Land destinations can sound exotic and alluring, but stops can be all too brief.
We docked in Nassau at 8 a.m. and didn't pull out until 3 a.m. Plenty of time for exploring the rather dog-eared downtown area, stopping at a local seafood restaurant, and taking in a night show in town. Best advice: Take an excursion to Paradise Island or the gardens and aquariums at Crystal Cay.
Our next port of call was a full day on CocoCay, a sliver of an island owned by the Royal Caribbean line. Finally a chance to unwind after those stressful hours at poolside. For $25 you can rent snorkel equipment and spend the day chasing parrot fish and sting rays, or bury your toes in the sand on one of the remote beaches.
Next day it was on to Key West, the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys - just 90 miles from Cuba, where we spent the better part of a day. I did a bus tour of the city; visited a museum, had a frozen Key Lime Pie on a Stick, and squeezed in a tour of Ernest Hemingway's cat-infested home. Everyone seemed to agree that we would have liked more time in this charming, eccentric town and less in Nassau.
If there is a downside to these quick cruises it's that there may not be time to take in all activities. There's always some activity going on, from bingo to fine art auctions; napkin folding classes to karaoke; and ballroom dancing to belly-flop competitions. Or you can kick back and percolate away in one of the hot tubs.
So, then are cruises expensive? As one passenger put it, "By the time you add up transportation, hotel, three meals plus a day, service, entertainment, dancing, sports, and the fact that they roll up a new island to visit every day, it's a deal."