A Few Words About My First Cruise

Smooth jazz equals smooth sailing.
Smooth jazz equals smooth sailing.
I’ve just come back from my first cruise, a four-day out and back from Port Canaveral to the Bahamas with Susan, her brother and his wife, and Susan’s parents. (Note: By “cruise,” I mean spending time on a cruise ship. I’ve done Boston to the Dominican Republic by sail, but that was something entirely different.)

I thought surely I’d have to write something about the affair, but really there’s not a whole hell of a lot to say that wasn’t said by David Foster Wallace in his essay for Harper’s way back in 1996.

The key differences between his and my experience: 1) I didn’t go alone. 2) While I can see where he’s coming from, I don’t know that I experienced despair (and knowing what we know now about Wallace adds a whole new layer to his essay). 3) Most importantly, ours was no luxury cruise.

Ours was a sort of entry-level cruise. Perhaps its entry-level status, short duration and cheap prices were the best explanation for the interior décor of the Carnival Sensation looking like something puked up from 1989. (A friend of mine went on a different Carnival ship last year but her photos are representative.) Hell, maybe it was someone’s idea of luxury at some point, but elevators should never be out of order in a luxury vacation and the pattern on the carpet shouldn’t make you as seasick as the actual sea does. And while I spent nine weeks at sea on a sailboat that had a hand-pumped toilet, when I think “luxury” I expect that the toilet will flush immediately every time.

That’s not to say it wasn’t fun. In terms of vacationing, I tend to be happiest among ruins or when at or near the sea. Also, when I’m well fed. It’s been forever since I’ve slept on a boat and slept I did. Long and hard, the movement of the waves rocking me gently, the only interruption the couple in the cabin next door, going at it like rutting animals (and good for them!).

What’s not to like about a 72-hour feeding frenzy in which people kiss your ass at all hours of the day? Besides, once you figure out the rhythms of the ship and which parts of it scare away the more obnoxious guests, you can enjoy yourself.

Some other observations:

* Many people, including Carnival staffers, seemed under the impression that this was a Caribbean cruise. The Bahamas are not, have never been and never will be in the Caribbean Sea. Grab a map. Have a look. The Bahamas are in the Southwest North Atlantic. The Caribbean doesn’t start until the south shores Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, etc. I’m going to assume that the officers navigating Carnival ships aren’t as dunderheaded (or duplicitous) as Carnival’s marketing departments.

* Speaking of lying employees, cruise directors — liked old farmers, sailors and cowboys — will take folk tales and legends and run with them as if they were their own. Our own cruise director told us that she had personally, on other Carnival cruises, been asked: at what altitude the ship cruised; if the crew sleeps on board; if one was required to get wet while snorkeling; at what time the midnight buffet is. Har. De. Har. Har. This is taken directly from Wallace’s essay: “I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the ship’s Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the trapshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is.” I’d bet good money he was appropriating an industry joke that was old and tired even back in 1996.

* The food! My god, the food. You just can’t really wrap your mind around it until you experience it. And while the concept of fat Americans feeding at the trough is an easy target for ridicule, it’s hard to escape the insanity when you’re in-country. Yes, even as I was slightly repulsed by slow moving herds grazing for hours at the buffet, by the end of the trip — and this was only four days — I found myself getting panicky if I knew I’d be away from food for more than an hour. MY GOD WHERE WOULD THE NEXT MEAL COME FROM?!?! WHAT IF I STARVED?

And the buffet was the least of it. I know how to negotiate a buffet without getting too crazy (except with the soft-serve ice cream). Oh no. The meals at the sit-down restaurant were the true killers. Handed your typical restaurant menu, you become aware that you’ve paid for it all already, so there’s no guilt in adding both an appetizer and a dessert to that entrée. And then the waitress tells you that, actually, there’s no guilt in adding all the appetizers. And if you can’t decided between the steak and the lobster? Have both! If you didn’t like the steak, or, hell, if you liked it, but are still hungry (or curious), you can order the Cornish game hen as well! You’re on a cruise! It’s paid for! No one will judge!

It’s just not safe, all this food. It’s like giving a top-line health-insurance plan to a hypochondriac. He just may kill himself from X-ray poisoning or unnecessary chemo-therapy.

*The crew is like the damn United Nations. Italian and Greek officers. Thai and Filipino servers. And representatives of all the Balkan states working side by side without killing one another.

*The entertainment. If Christopher Guest is ever looking to do a sequel to “Waiting for Guffman,” he should report directly to the Carnival Sensation and sit through a few of those numbers. The “Purple Rain” number during the second night’s show and the “I Feel Pretty” (sung by half-naked men in a baseball locker room) during the third night’s show were particular standouts. Who choreographs these things? How do the dancers and singers get through it with a straight face? Especially when even supposed rubes are killing themselves laughing as they drown in a sea of cheese. In an odd way, it reminded me of being in a strip club: whatever enjoyment I might get is overwhelmed by wondering what life choices the performer made to end up in this sorry situation.

* I’ve still never won a damn bingo game in my life.

11 thoughts on “A Few Words About My First Cruise

  1. Having No desire to spend any kind of money on a cruise, after reading your post, I still don’t. Thanks for the reaffirmation.

  2. Oh, Alecia, Alecia, Alecia,
    You say that now, but just you wait! 🙂
    But think about it this way. You’re in your 30s or 40s. You have to go on vacation with four to six other people, including your parents or inlaws.
    Now imagine just flying to, say, a vacation destination, getting there and then every night trying to decide where to eat dinner (let’s forget, for now, sight-seeing and other activities and just focus on dinner). Everyone’s got an opinion, a preference. Or someone ONLY eats a certain type of food. Maybe someone’s not hungry yet. Or, worse, everyone’s a fucking martyr: Six people saying, “No. Whatever you want.” By 9 p.m. you find yourself at McDonalds and everyone’s pissed off.
    You’re on a boat (I’M ON A BOAT!) and you have assigned seating at an assigned restaurant at an assigned time. (Also, a 24-hour buffet). You all show up on time, order from that menu, eat, and it’s done. And if someone wants to skip? So be it.

    That right there is some powerful temptation is it not?

  3. I’ve been on 20+ cruises, I can tell you that very little changes between the lower end ones and the higher end ones (though I’ve never done Queen Mary or anything like that). It’s cheesy, it’s crowded and there’s a ton of food that I barely go near because it’s all so gross. I live on hamburgers and hot dogs on the upper decks and generally avoid the main restaurants. My parents are cruising enthusiasts but if I have my way it will remain a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.

  4. Look at Karol dropping the literary allusion. 20 bonus points!
    The food at the sit-down restaurant ranged from average to pretty damn good. And don’t even get me started on the chocolate melting cake. I’d be starring in my very own version of Wall-E if I had unfettered access to that.

  5. 1) i felt despair on my cruise – the same despair i feel when i spend too much time hanging out at strip malls
    2) i’m sure the marketing dept. knows damn well that the bahamas aren’t in the caribbean… just like all those real estate agents that know that bushwick really isn’t ‘east williamsburg’
    3) did you get any Indian food buffets? those were the best.
    4) i’m with you on the floor show: how do they keep a straight face? we got a medley that included michael jackson’s Thriller, btw…

  6. No Indian food buffets! (I’m not a big fan anyway)

    Our show include Thriller, too. Not nearly as funny as the Purple Rain one.

  7. Funny, I said to my sister “How was it?” And I heard mostly about the flight delays on the trip home.

    I’ve never had the desire to be trapped on a huge boat with a bunch of other people. Everything I hear about it just turns me off.

  8. I have been on about a half-dozen cruises…(names of cruise lines withheld) but they were all for work-related reasons. Nevertheless, we always got to enjoy the meals, an after-hours hot tub soak and (to the degree that the next day’s responsibilities would permit it) some late-night libations.

    My problem is that I don’t “veg” well…even on land. And even as much as I like to read, I can’t even do that for more than about 3 hours. Casinos? Pffft.

    My strongest memory is from one cruise where, within a few hours of boarding, I had scouted the entire ship on every public deck…and suddenly realized, “OK, I’ve seen all the places to visit on this ship…don’t need to see most of them again…and now I’m going to be here 3 more days.” It wasn’t quite claustrophobia…but it was a close cousin, I’m sure.

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