Bamboozled by tipping etiquette? Shore excursions? Want to know which cruise is best for you?
To say that I embarked reluctantly on my first cruise, a week-long trip to Bermuda, is actually to downplay the ambivalence I felt then about cruise ships of any size. I had as many reasons not to cruise as I had (and still have) fingers on both hands.
Who wants to spend their holiday cooped up in small spaces with irritating strangers? Why take a chance on rough swells that could make you sick at sea? What's the boredom factor? And finally, the biggest caveat: what are you going to see if you just go anywhere for just a day at a time?
After that first cruise, which was mostly quite fun though I did confront some of my pre-trip prejudices (at my assigned dining table I was stuck with a bunch of whiny single women and a tropical storm blew up, which meant that indeed I felt very queasy for a few hours), I've made my peace with cruising. If it's not the only way I want to travel, it's often delightful.
And now, when I hear people list the same excuses today for not cruising that I had then, some 15 years hence, I tend to think they must've been stuck on a desserted beach somewhere if it's still news to them that cruising has changed.
Case in point: last month I debarked in Southampton from a mini-cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line's new Norwegian Epic. On the 4,100-passenger ship, I had a superb meal at LeBistro, its gourmet French restaurant, saw a performance by the Blue Man Group, the avant garde mime performers. A massage using a collection of Thai herbs to sooth jangled spirits, the nightly performances by Slam Allen, a magnificent American bluesman, and sushi, sake and Singapore noodles in various Asian eateries onboard, were all part of the experience.
I never got around to bowling (the ship has two different venues for it) and really regret not taking a spin in the wild bowl waterslide but there's always another day and another cruise. And that novel I packed just in case I got bored? I read 14 pages.
Change in cruise travel has been revolutionary in the past 15 years or so. The introduction of affordable staterooms with private balconies, expansive spas and sophisticated fitness centers, boutique restaurants, elaborate kids' clubs, and Vegas-inspired entertainment are emblems of today's more contemporary styles of cruising. And the deconstruction of tradition at most lines (you can still find more formal cruises but are no longer limited to them) has wildly improved its appeal for a younger, more active-minded traveler.
And even the old cliché that cruising is "not real travel" is starting to lose heat. Sure, you can travel as mindlessly as you want on a voyage -- limiting your exposure to ports to banal shore excursions (which sadly still proliferate on many lines). But you're not stuck with just those options.
In fact, cruise lines are becoming more creative when it comes to shore trips. On a recent Mediterranean cruise on Disney Magic, our stop at La Spezia (one of the gateways to Florence) included a day long excursion to winery. The highlight? Hands deep into springy dough and white flour absolutely everywhere, we cooked an Italian lunch with a local chef, all the while sipping sangiovese starting at 11 a.m. White water rafting through canyons in the French Riviera and driving a 1967 Lotus 7 along the Upper Corniche outside of Villefranche are other lasting memories of that unforgettable journey.
Frankly, the biggest hurdle in choosing to cruise is the vast range of choices. Beyond the stereotypical big ship fun-in-the-sun cruise and the black-tie-required traditional sojourns, there's literally something to match just about every personality, from eight passenger barge trips through France's Loire Valley to sea kayaking from expedition ships off the tips of South America & Antarctica and from kid-friendly trips with legendary characters like Shrek and Mickey Mouse to five-star floating hotels.
Just remember to pack your seasickness remedy of choice. Because no matter how much cruising has evolved, and how many niches there are to explore, all ships do have one thing in common: They move through water. Consider yourself warned.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief. This article was first published by The Times, London.