Notes from Home: On Cruising
“I see skies of blue and clouds of white,
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night.
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.”
~Louis Armstrong, What A Wonderful World
I took my first cruise in the summer of 1994. It was a short, three-night affair on the Viking Serenade, a long-ago ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet. The big allure was a special promotion: Children accompanied by an adult could travel for $50 each. The cruise sailed out of Long Beach, California, which was also appealing because we could easily drive there from our home in the Bay Area.
My husband had been on a cruise on the SS Bahama Star as a young boy growing up in Miami and was excited to introduce our family to cruising. I, however, was a newbie to the whole idea, skeptical about traveling with so many people. A friend had advised me to book our dining reservations at a table for four. “You never know who they will seat you with at those big tables,” she warned. “And you’re stuck with them for the entire cruise!”
I heeded my friend’s advice, but after boarding the ship and stopping in the dining room, we discovered we were seated at a table for eight. It turned out that Royal Caribbean knew best, pairing us with another family of four who made our dinners a delight and who kept in touch for many years after the trip.
The cruise itself was a big hit. The four of us shared a cabin, with our kids – ages 4 and 9 – sleeping on stowed-away bunk beds that were pulled down at night by our cabin attendant and transformed into cozy nooks. We spent one day on Catalina Island and and another in Ensenada, Mexico, and had one day at sea. There were no climbing walls or water slides or Disney characters that are de rigueur on the family-themed cruise ships of today, but a sea day of children’s programs that featured scavenger hunts, games and ice cream parties kept our kids busy and happy.
We toured both ports on our own, opting out of Ensenada’s main attraction, La Bufadora, an underwater “blow hole” that sucks in sea water and spits it out like a geyser. Instead, we wandered around the town, taking in the atmosphere and looking at the shops, which all seemed to carry the same souvenir items – “a moving sidewalk,” the ship’s comedian had called it, “where you pass the same store over and over.” It wasn’t a fabulous port, but it was just right for our first family cruise.
Catalina Island, however, was a beautiful little world. As we sailed into Avalon Harbor, the overcast skies suddenly changed to a sunny azure blue, giving the impression that the island had its own special climate zone. We rented a golf cart – Catalina’s popular way to get around – and navigated our way into the hills and back to downtown Avalon. It was a pricy, charge-by-the-hour activity, but the views and the sheer fun of the experience were worth every penny.
Since those days on the Viking Serenade, we have taken quite a few cruises with our kids – who moved on from the tip-down beds to their own cabin – and now as empty nesters. I’ve learned a lot along the way, and I’ve found some things that always remain true.
Here are my Top Ten Cruising Tips:
1. Pick the itinerary first.
Almost any cruising expert will tell you the same thing: The ports of call are the most important factors when choosing a cruise. So many ships visit the same regions – and often the same major ports – but the amount of time spent in those ports as well as the other stops chosen for the itinerary will vary. On our recent Baltic cruise, we counted nine ships docked in St. Petersburg on the day we arrived! It’s also important to figure out how many days you want to be away. A cruise may be listed as 10 or 12 days, but when you add on travel time getting there and getting home and time to explore the cities where you embark and disembark, that can easily stretch to well over two weeks.
2. Pick the ship next.
Cruisers can become very attached to a specific ship. Like returning to a favorite cabin at the lake or booking the same condo at the beach, coming back to a ship you love is a wonderful feeling. Even if it has been awhile since you were last there, it feels like coming home.
We love the Crystal Symphony, an older ship in Crystal’s two-ship fleet, which is quickly expanding this year. The 900-passenger ship has been a perfect size for us. It has an overall happy vibe and an incredibly friendly crew that has always been top-notch. We sailed on the Regent Voyager one time based on the itinerary, but we happily returned to the Symphony a few years later. As we settled in that first day back on the Symphony, we recognized quite a few of the crew – and were surprised and delighted when they recognized us.
3. Finally, pick the stateroom.
Like a hotel, the cost of a cruise ship cabin depends on location. The higher the deck and the more mid-ship, the higher the price. Cabins with verandahs will also be more expensive, and suites and penthouses will be in a completely different pricing category. And don’t forget to consider the view. Depending on the direction the ship is heading, one side will have a land view and the other will be looking out to sea. This can change as the ship travels and heads in and out of ports, but the general direction does make a difference.
4. Vary your sight-seeing options.
The list of excursions offered by the cruise line can turn even the most seasoned traveler into the proverbial kid in a candy store. Add to that the option of individual private tours, small group private tours or touring on your own, and the result can be overwhelming. The biggest advantage of a ship’s tour is that you are guaranteed that the ship will wait for your group if there is a delay getting back. That can be a big comfort on a long excursion or in places where traffic is unpredictable. Private tours usually are smaller, more flexible and sometimes customizable, stopping at places you want to visit that aren’t on the planned agenda.
We’ve found the best approach is to mix it up. If the ship is offering a special access tour or a unique excursion, I will be the first in line. Crystal’s day trip from St. Petersburg to Moscow by high-speed train was probably my favorite excursion ever. I also like the ship’s tours for outdoor activities and adventures. Our family went dogsledding in Alaska and river rafting in Croatia – memorable excursions that would have been difficult to do on our own. I opt for private tours in places where I want to have an extra amount of time to really soak in the experience. And whenever we can either walk from the ship or take the ship’s shuttle into town, we like to go it alone.
5. Keep on a routine…
Unless you’re on a cruise purely to relax and mostly stay on the ship, it pays to keep on somewhat of a routine. Depending upon the destination, a cruise will mean some amount of jet lag and will often include a change in time zones during the voyage. Some cruises are also extremely “port intensive,” sailing from one place to the next without a sea day in between. We like to be off the ship early and have breakfast before we leave. I book our dinners around the same time every night. Having a bit of a routine helps us adapt quickly to our home on the sea and ensures we will make the most of our days there.
6….Except on a sea day.
This is the exception to number 5! Cruises lasting more than a week typically include at least one day at sea. Everyone is on board, the ship’s activities are in full swing and there is nowhere else to go. It’s cruising’s version of the weekend – without the “to do” list.
7. Try the specialty restaurants.
Cruise ship dinners are typically in the “main dining room,” but when a ship offers other specialty dining options – book them. These venues usually fill up quickly and sometimes have limits on how often you can dine there. Crystal’s Prego Italian restaurant is our favorite and a great place to celebrate a special occasion.
8. Be sociable.
Unlike the “sit by yourselves” warning before taking that first cruise, we have found that most fellow cruisers are a friendly bunch. My husband and I have met people on ship excursions, in the dining room and one time passing in a hallway when my husband stopped someone because he though he was one of the ship’s guest lecturers. He wasn’t, but after a brief, embarrassing moment, we found ourselves invited to join the man’s table for dinner. It turned out that a group of about eight had become fast friends on an overnight excursion and were happy to welcome us into the fold.
9. Learn the lingo.
There won’t be a quiz and you’ll never be asked, but it’s helpful to learn a few “ship phrases” before your cruise. You won’t be staying in a room – it’s a cabin or stateroom. And that stateroom will either be in the aft (back) or forward (front) of the ship. You will be assigned a muster station, the area you would go to get into a lifeboat in case of an emergency, and you will be required to attend a muster drill the first day on board. And the little boat that will ferry you from ship to shore when the ship is unable to dock in the harbor? That’s called a tender.
10. Never miss the sail-away.
The most memorable part of the cruise for me is the sail-away, that moment when the whistle sounds and it’s time to move on. Crystal has an added touch to the experience – Louis Armstrong’s What A Wonderful World. The ship begins to move, the music is cued and the song plays, serving as a perfect backdrop to the scenery we are leaving behind. I can still remember how I felt standing on the top deck that summer night when we sailed from Athens. As Louis sang, the Parthenon stood majestically in the distance, lighting the night sky as we made our way out to sea.
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. Oh yeah.