"At the Captain's Table" is Cruise Critic's original series of stories penned by Joyce Gleeson-Adamidis. Joyce knows the ins and outs of life onboard -- both as a cruise ship staff member and as the wife of Celebrity Cruises' venerable Captain Adamidis -- and offers a behind-the-scenes perspective on issues facing cruisers and the cruise industry.
With lots of experience in onboard gab, I have learned from our first-time cruisers that their primary concerns are generally just a bad case of the jitters. Until the moment of embarkation, you are second guessing everything. And questioning. Did I get a good deal? Will I get sick? Will I say the wrong thing when meeting the Captain? You can get more stressed before embarking than you are in "real" life!
But listen to me. After selecting your navigational destination, your vessel and your stateroom, it's time to put your confused state of mind into a calm state of cruising. You have embarked on a venture of mystique and wonder. One of your "wonders," while strolling along the decks, may be this: Why is a ship called a "she"?
There is a long list of whys -- written by able sailors many, many years ago. Among my favorites? "Her initial expense for upkeep is at the cost of man's hard labor" and "it takes a good man to handle her whilst she knows her topsides, hides her bottom and, when coming into port, always heads for the buoys."
I did not know there was a mystique to cruising until I got onboard the first time, which also happened to be my first job. My mind was filled with questions and I especially wanted to learn more about this mysterious centrifugal force pushing me out to sea -- and away from land. Guess what? After years of countless perceptions and sensitivities, I gave up trying to answer the mystique and just lived it. Ultimately I realized that the mystique is a longing of unique awareness for each individual. Different people, different logic.
One of the hardest parts for me when joining my first vessel was finding my way around. I was intimidated and felt childlike. I kept going the wrong way (and, working onboard as opposed to vacationing, I'd get in trouble for being late for duty). My instinct was lost at sea. I finally got smart and started looking at the arrows and maps on the wall for my position. Later a kind sailor offered some noteworthy tips on what side (port vs. starboard) was what -- and it's not so hard to remember this way. "Port side has four letters," he said, "and so does the word left ... so make the connection." That left starboard for the right side. "When going toward the bow," he told me, "think of bowing for the Queen -- thus you are moving forward." All that remained then was to understand that stern is the word used for the back, or aft, of the ship. North, South, East and West was never a problem -- that's a worry that's left to the talent of the Captain!
Here are some simple tips to ponder while preparing for enhanced surprises.
Every cruise is distinctive. With all your brainpower, research and prepare as much as you need to -- but then try to forget most of what you have been told and what you have read. This experience is unique to you. It is best not to live someone else's desires; it could lead to disappointment.
Onboard Fashion. Do you wish to look like a million dollars? Those who have it, will. Those who don't, still can anyway! Take your best basic black dress and your favorite shoes, and splurge on a good onboard hair stylist. Put on your favorite jewelry, bring along your favorite shawl and you will look terrific. Men, put on your best suit, a conversational tie and go to the casino or disco. Whoops, haven't a suit? Take along a sport jacket.
On a mega ship, you will see everything from Yves St. Laurent to Nikes with Bermuda shorts and then some. Though it is respectful to the Captain and crew to dress for formal evenings, on many ships you don't have to -- there are casual dining options available to you. But for those who want to live the glamour, go all out.
One of the strangest -- and most fascinating -- lessons I've learned is how passionate cruise travelers can be about fashion. I've seen raucous debates from passengers about whether ships should casual-ize dressing standards. Actual fist fights with comical ramifications have broken out because of comments made about one's attire. One time, a man walking through the lobby made a comment to his wife about another poorly dressed couple. Overhearing him, the shabby bloke retorted to the dandy guy to "button up."
The dressed one responded with an epithet. Next thing you know, a bow tie was tossed, a tennis shoe was flung over the deck and a black tuxedo pant somehow got wrapped around two ankles. What started with a shot and ended in a flash had other passengers running in all directions, pressing hands against mouths to stifle impossibly held giggles.
Bottom line? Do what's right for you. Onboard you will see many types of people with many wishes. Just worry about fulfilling yours.
And while I'm on the subject, cruise lines rarely offer guidance on what to wear in ports of call. It's important, though -- very important -- to wear appropriate and respectful clothing, depending on the port of call.
You will spend extra money for unexpected pleasures. Cruising may be more all-inclusive than most vacations but there are still plenty of opportunities to spend a fortune. Plan for additional expenses for gratuities along with a variety of services: drinks (including sodas), spa treatments, shore excursions, extra gym classes, casino forays, wine tasting seminars, flowers, Internet usage, ship-to-shore phone calls, bingo games and other novelties the cruise lines have created implemented. If you are with kids, tailor their spending -- watch out for the video arcade (not to mention cyber usage); soda cards, in which you pay upfront for limited beverages, can be a bargain.
Ultimately, your spending onboard is in your control, and it's your responsibility, not that of the ship. So try to avoid any frightening morning-of-departure surprises when your onboard statement arrives.
Allow too, for shopping expeditions in port and onboard. Most passengers, veterans and virgins alike, will discover something extraordinary that they can not live without to commemorate their first cruise (or any other voyage, come to think of it).
And on a most serious tact: Plan too if something should happen requiring medical attention. Ships' onboard medical facilities, while quite comprehensive charge fees that often aren't covered by standard medical insurance. Just in case, though, make sure to have your insurance information with you and bring necessary medicines. It's also a good idea to buy travel insurance, which will cover medical costs, from a third-party provider.
Planning Ahead. These days, many ships offer pre-boarding online services that allow you to book shore excursions and make specialty dining reservations and spa appointments ahead of time. The advantage is that you can ensure, as much as possible, that you get your first choice (and you don't have to wait in line onboard the first day to make the reservations) -- and that may be especially important if you want to, for instance, celebrate a wedding anniversary or birthday. The downside? Do you really want to be locked in for your week of fun before you even board the ship?
The ship is your new home. Feel free to explore your ship, and yes, particularly on larger vessels, you may get lost and it'll take time to wander through the maze. Think of it as an adventure -- and don't miss checking out nooks and crannies you'll want to declare your own spaces. Do you want to be in the heart of the frivolity? Indulge in quiet moments?
And please (please) keep this in mind: Where the doors read "Do Not Enter" -- please don't. Goodness those cameras will spot you and your face will be ruby apple red when security arrives to escort you out! Know that people live and/or work behind these doors. Entering is invading their space and privacy, not to mention violating heightened security regulations onboard. In any case, would you want strangers wandering through your front door unannounced? Imagine your face.
The Weather Factor. Since you're on a ship sailing on the oft-unpredictable sea, anything can happen and there is no direct link to the system of frivolous weather. Whatever is reported can be instantaneously changed.
If you feel motion sickness, prior to ailing, eat an apple and some crackers. Slowly sip ginger ale and relax. (Or take a seasick medication of your choice!). The myth is to have an empty stomach, but no, you need substance. If feeling dizzy, take a walk outside rather than returning to your stateroom. Don't be uptight and allow your body to roll with the rhythm of the ship.
Deck Chair Wars. Prepare for fighting for deck chairs around the pool -- particularly on bigger ships. To reserve a good spot, get up early and plant yourself -- but expect, if you leave for more than 30 minutes or so, that your chair will be, er, "stolen." It is all part of the game. There will be those who do it just because they can.
Do you hear the creaking of the ship? That's a good thing! She is moving and the sounds are part of the secrets of her movements. Speaking of sound -- also beware that walls are often paper-thin between cabins (not to mention doors), and every word, gesture and thought are no secret when walking down the corridor or dealing with moments in your cabin.
The fun you will have is measured by what you participate in. The activities don't come to you, you go to them. The list is endless, from movies to bingo. From piano bar to pool bar. From casino to disco. From learning seminars to live shows and karaoke blasts. From sleeping off the night before to taking outrageous tango lessons. Or simply curling up in a comfy chair and reading a book.
The choosing is all yours!