There's a little-known secret about cruises -- they make great girlfriends' getaways. While kids bounce between pool parties, face painting and scavenger hunts, and couples stroll arm-in-arm on moonlit decks, girlfriends bunking together get a weeklong case of the giggles. That works for female buddies of any age, whether you're 20-somethings hoping to work in a bit of romance amid your shore tours and sun bathing or "ageless" wonders with laugh lines and light years of perspective on life's foibles.
Here are the top 10 reasons we've found for sailing with a girlfriend:
Hooting, hollering and bar-hopping are totally acceptable. Forget having to be a straight-laced "lady." On Carnival Liberty, we stomped and clapped for the contenders in the pool-side Hairy Chest contest, and whistled and cheered for our pick in the best male butt lineup at the ship's nightclub. As two long-married women, Diane and I are decades from our bar-hopping days, but onboard a ship, sampling the lounges is de rigueur -- and especially delightful on Liberty because of the whimsical decor. Sitting at the ivory and black keyboard counter of the Piano Bar, we sipped Cosmos. Perched on faux golf glove stools at Glove's sports bar, we watched football and drank Sam Adams, and amid newspaper blowups of celebrities' faces, we toasted each other with cabernet at Paparazzi's wine bar. No designated driver needed.
Inviting handsome men into your cabin is encouraged. That was the case with our cabin aboard Regent Seven Seas' Seven Seas Navigator, which came with the ultimate amenity: our tall, dark and handsome butler, Saurabh Choksi. At first my friend Diane and I felt embarrassed, not knowing what to ask of Saurabh. So we started small. Could he replace our lost shore tour ticket so we won't have to stand in line? Done. May we have more merlot in our cabin bar? Easy. Need your clothes cleaned? Crave special culinary treats? Wondering whether there are knitting needles available on the ship? Too lazy to unpack ... or pack? All in a day's work for Saurabh. And best of all, when we came back from a day of snorkeling too tired to dress for dinner, Saurabh served us a white table cloth, multi-course lobster and Champagne dinner on our balcony, which we enjoyed while swaddled in our bathrobes.
Being inept is okay. It's impossible to be embarrassed in front of a close girlfriend; after all, she's seen you at your best and worst. That made it easy to try new things. Diane laughed with me when I hung butt down and swaying on Voyager of the Seas' rock climbing wall and careened around the inline skating track looking like the Michelin man, wrapped in shin, knee and wrist pads.
Girlfriends know priorities: Go to the spa. Girlfriends know that the first thing you do on embarkation day after dropping your carry-ons in your cabin is make spa appointments. Nothing beats a soothing facial and a massage for pure sea day indulgence. That's why girlfriends -- as opposed to husbands and lovers -- never say "Forget the spa; treatments cost too much." Aboard Caribbean Princess, Diane and I relaxed before our aromatherapy by blissing out on the heated tile lounge chairs in the thermal suite. At the Mandara spa on Norwegian Dawn, Diane swam laps at the indoor pool before her hot stone massage, and I soaked in their multi-person bubbling tub before my favorite treatment: the four-handed massage (two therapists worked in tandem orchestrating Eastern moves with the smoothness of a 50's do-wop duo; two pairs of forearms rolled Lomi Lomi style along my back, and four palms applied Balinese pressure to my shoulders).
Juggling heaping plates of food at the buffet is fine. At mealtime when the ship morphs into the SS All You Can Eat, girlfriends give you the thumbs up on trying the fresh pasta, tasting the burritos, sampling the grilled mahi mahi, adding a dollop of tuna salad and for dessert, gobbling the chocolate brownie with a sliver of apple pie. No disapproving looks from significant others. Girlfriends know that food tastes that much sweeter when you don't have to shop, cook, serve and clean up.
Watching a chic flick is worthwhile. On a moonlit night aboard the Caribbean Princess, we leaned back into a poolside lounge chair, munched popcorn and watched "Something's Gotta Give." Girlfriends -- especially those of a certain age -- get the humor whereas guys most likely would ditch the movie and the sea breezes for blackjack in the casino.
You can never over-pack. Girlfriends know that playing dressing up is fun. So what if the evening gown with the layers of crinoline requires its own suitcase? You feel like a princess wearing it, and frankly, after cousin Cheryl's wedding, you really don't know when you'll get to sashay in it again if you don't don it on formal night. Then, there's the duffle stuffed just with shoes from Manolos and pink patent leather flip-flops to beach sandals, sneakers and black sling-backs. Cruise with a girlfriend and she knows why you just had to pack five suitcases for a seven-day trip. After all, what's the problem?
Finding the perfect bathing suit is possible. Face it: Few spouses, or boyfriends, are interested in spending precious shore time browsing for bargains when they could be swimming, diving, golfing or lounging in the sand. But a girlfriend knows about the joys of the hunt in a new locale. And with a girlfriend you can search for what you'd never, ever approach with a husband/lover: a new bathing suit. Beachwear boutiques abound in Caribbean ports, but who's going to squirm into a two-piece in front of a cranky beau? Forget about it. But a girlfriend will tell you if that re-enforced panel across the tummy really does make last night's cheesecake disappear. In Antigua, Diane and I confronted our worst selves at Sun Seekers, a shop with hundreds of swimsuits constructed for bodies from svelte to bodacious. We each came away with a cleverly designed piece that did wonders for our posteriors as well as our egos.
Gambling doesn't have to be a macho sport. Floating casinos are part of the fun. There are plenty of tables for high rollers betting on roulette and Blackjack, but on a cruise ship it's non-threatening for novices like us to plunk down $20 and wander from one slot machine to another, picking our favorite based on intuition. One night on Norwegian Dawn, by the time we had to leave to make the Broadway-style show in the ship's theater, we were up $15, which made going back the next evening and losing $15 just fine.
Life can be a floating pajama party. And best of all, bunking with a girlfriend turns the cruise into a sophisticated pajama party. We get all of the fun, none of the work, and no yelling parents (my mother would always threaten to kill me and my friends around 1 a.m. if we didn't quiet down). So Diane and I talked -- and laughed-- late into the night, sharing confidences about first loves, crazy neighbors, high school foibles and current husband quandaries. After all, sleeping in was fine and breakfast was brought to our cabin-- no worries about getting up early, making the beds and going to work.