It's no wonder world cruising has emerged as such a fast-driving industry trend. Imagine visiting over 100 ports across the globe over a three month period via your own floating luxury hotel. And yet, for many veteran world cruisers, the months-long journey is less about the destinations (in large measure because they've already been to them) -- and more about the community life onboard.
As we discovered on our recent three-week world cruise segment from Sydney to Shanghai on Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Seven Seas Voyager, round-the-world cruising attracts a fiercely social crowd. I should have been tipped off when our butler presented us with a calendar to keep track of our engagements. One passenger actually left his business card on my clothes bag in the laundry room one morning, inviting us to dinner.
Not surprisingly, most of those who were onboard Seven Seas Voyager's world cruise are retirees and a great many are repeat passengers. Out of nearly 600 guests, a mere 24 of us were "segmenters"; the rest were onboard for longer periods, if not the entire three months. With the average fare for a full world cruise ranging from $170,000 to $180,000, there is also obviously a good bit of wealth. Put it this way: No one seemed to be worrying about drawing down their nest egg. One Australian woman, commenting on the price of a particular piece of jewelry in the ship's boutique, observed: "The price is quite reasonable. I got one just like it last year for 22." Meaning, of course, $22,000 - - not exactly loose change.
Passengers, by and large, were of "a certain age" as they say in polite circles. Seven Seas Voyager's top brass, a bit defensive about the senior demographic onboard, declined to discuss what one officer described as the ship's "o-l-d factor." Indeed, there were present a lot of people in their 70's, 80's and up. As one 73-year-old real estate developer from Canada told me: "This group makes me feel young."
In all fairness we did meet a number of people in their 60's, 50's and younger -- including the self-described "baby on board," 38-year-old Graham Kelsall, a senior manager at a bank in England. Kelsall is at the end of a three-year career break and his partner is in the midst of a one-year non-compete agreement involving the sale of a family business. As Kelsall put it, "We didn't want to wait to see the world until we got old. We wanted to see it now while we're still young."
Interestingly, nearly everyone I talked to had already booked the 2009 world cruise on either Voyager or its sister ship, Seven Seas Mariner. It's worth noting that Regent Seven Seas Cruises will make cruise history in 2009, becoming the first line in the luxury category to offer two 100-plus-night world cruise journeys in the same year. That speaks volumes about the soaring popularity of world cruising.
And so does this:
When we met Mike and Sherry Kinne, a couple from Southern California, they were taking their first full world cruise though they have done as many as three segments in a row since 2003. In all, they've been on more than 30 cruises.
"Our dilemma is we have a group of friends on Mariner and a group of friends on Voyager and we can't decide which 2009 world cruise to do," said Mike Kinne, 66, who is retired from the movie business. "But we will definitely do one of them next year. I can't imagine not doing it. It's become such a part of our life."
World cruising -- it's another world.
Magic Moments -- Even in Gale-Force Winds
Half of the nearly 600 passengers onboard during our cruise were world cruisers. The rest, like us, are known as "segmentists" or "segmenters" because we're only onboard for a few weeks or so of the voyage. Our segment, one of seven, started in Sydney and ended in Shanghai with stops in Cairns and Hamilton Island in Australia; Madang, Papua New Guinea; Saipan; and Osaka and Kagoshima in Japan. They're fascinating ports and with 10 sea days built into the itinerary, there is this big bonus: the feeling that there is no need to rush anywhere.
At the start of each segment, Voyager hosts a "block party" to introduce world cruisers to segmenters. At precisely 6 p.m., the cocktail bell sounded and guests -- all of us in formal wear -- popped out of our suites and into the hallway to meet our neighbors. VaSant, our butler (looking most dapper in a black tux), served New Zealand wines while Marichelle, our stewardess, floated around with a cheese and fruit tray. There we met a couple who were being treated to the cruise by a relative, an heir to a paint manufacturing company fortune. We also learned that two people actually live onboard and cruise on Voyager all year around.
World cruises nearly always occur in the winter months (though some European ships, like those from Germany's Hapag-Lloyd, offer around the world voyages at different times of the year). Ours started in San Francisco in early January and ended April 30 in Fort Lauderdale. World Cruise Hostess Dana Logan likens it to having a winter home in Florida "except that the landscape changes, there are new people to meet and there is this life that goes on about us."
Vanessa and Karl Schubert, a 50-something couple from Wales, are second-time world cruisers. He likes the cruise because it gets him out of the harsh winter weather at home and allows him to fish worldwide. In New Zealand, shortly before we boarded, Schubert caught a 694-pound Blue Marlin, the largest fish caught in those waters since 1985. The marlin was later the focal point of a poolside lunch buffet. His wife, meanwhile, is drawn to the cruise for its social element -- late and long dinners, and laughs. "It's very rare I go to bed the same day I get up," she said.
Voyager is a ship with a huge personality - - and it's not just because of the social set, the fine dining and the stellar service. In large measure, it starts top-down with Captain Dag Dvergastein, a Norwegian who routinely reads poetry over the public address system along with the daily weather and navigation report (one memorable effort was a poem that began "I try to live each day in such a way that when today is yesterday..."). We mulled over the meaning of that one for awhile. There were other charming eccentricities. As we crossed into the Northern Hemisphere, he announced, "This is your driver speaking. We are passing the equator." During the voyage, we had a lot of "vind and veather," as the captain pronounces it. One evening, with gale-force winds and 15- to 20-foot swells, he assured us: "That pounding you hear sounds more severe than it is. We have something called wind and weather. It's not bad from a sailor's point of view." Still, when we returned to the suite from dinner that night, VaSant had secured anything that could roll or break -- including, thankfully, my husband's bottle of Scotch.
Captain Dag, as he is called, often rollerblades while in port. And how could you not develop an attachment for a man who has a framed photo of his English cocker spaniel on his desk?
World cruising, onboard Seven Seas Voyager and other ships that offer similarly lengthy trips, is very much an enhanced version of cruise travel. Itineraries include ports so exotic that they're rarely visited, like Madang and Saipan. Because world cruises involve numerous sea days, enrichment programs are upgraded to include not only experts on various topics but also celebrity speakers; on our trip these included former CNN anchor Aaron Brown and hostage negotiator-turned-hostage Terry Waite.
On our trip, we were particularly riveted by Waite's four lectures, in which he described his five years of captivity in Lebanon. Captain Richard Hayman, a maritime expert, also gave three presentations on the "famously rough" Pacific. Magellan didn't quite get it right when he named it La Mar Pacifico in honor of its calm. The tireless Sandra Bowern, a former BBC presenter who's now a highly regarded enrichment specialist, incorporated hundreds of images, music and film clips into her lively lectures. I'll never forget her talk, as the ship made its way to our port call at Papua New Guinea, about the strong tradition of headhunting and cannabilism -- or the photos she used to bring the message home.
Off the ship there were many memorable moments as well. On Hamilton Island just off the Great Barrier Reef, the grandly named Northwestern Highway is populated largely by golf carts. In Cairns, we visited an aboriginal center exactly one day after the Australian government made its first formal apology for mistreating the indigenous peoples, and especially for removing aboriginal children from their homes. In primitive Madang, we watched villagers dance, their teeth stained red with betul nut juice, a narcotic. In Saipan, we toured the cliffs where thousands of Japanese jumped to their deaths in World War II and in Nara, Japan's first capital, my husband and others on our shore excursion fed rice crackers to the revered domesticated deer that are icons there. He looked like an orchestra leader as a half-dozen deer gathered around him.
I'll never forget the cityscape of vertical Shanghai, with its silver blur of skyscrapers. And, tucked in between the ports, as we trawled through the Coral Sea, the Solomon Sea and the East China Sea, among others, I loved the respite of sea days. One moment at sea towers above all the rest: listening to a trumpeter play taps as we quietly circled Iwo Jima, the site of the storied World War II battle. The silence was absolute.
World Cruising's Nitty Gritty
How do you pack for a four-month cruise that visits some places experiencing summer and others in the midst of winter? You've got to be something of a logistician.
As an example, Sherry Kinne, 56, took a full month to pack the couple's eight suitcases. (One couple I talked to brought 21 bags aboard.) She secured four months of prescription medicine, met with the couple's accountant, and pre-paid the gardener, pool cleaner and housekeeper. The Kinnes' ongoing bills were taken care of via automated payments.
Some passengers bring their own artwork, furnishings and family photos to personalize their suites. Many also decorate their cabin doors with everything from beads to photographs of their dogs.
"Everyone asks: How can you stand to stay on a ship that long? The first year we did it, we were concerned, too," notes Pat Dolven, 72, a second-time world cruiser from Charleston, South Carolina. But repeat passengers, at various stages, get complimentary Internet access, some phone usage and the choice of over 600 same-day newspapers, which help take the sting out of a long separation.
Passengers with similar interests -- whether it's sketching, deck sports, needlepoint or even smoking -- tend to find one another, which makes the terrain instantly familiar. And people fall into routines, just as they do at home. I know my husband and I did. We would start each day at roughly 6 a.m. at the fitness center, along with a half dozen other workout regulars. After that, at least on sea days, enrichment lectures and meals commanded our clocks.
As is the case anywhere, a world cruise is not a venue that is exempt from whining or rudeness. In fact, it probably stands out more than it would on a short cruise because you're on the ship long enough to get the measure of people. One night, we overheard a man snap at his (we thought) solicitous waiter: "Whether you are ready or not to take our order, we are ready." Another man chastised his bartender because he had brought him a glass of ice water instead of a little pitcher of water to pour into his Chivas Regal -- and then he complained that it wasn't Chivas. "I know Chivas," he said.
One evening, we went to the specialty restaurant, Latitudes, which was featuring an "Upside Down Dinner" that started with dessert. It was clever and fun and the food -- as it was everywhere on the ship -- was fabulous. But a passenger at the table next to us complained loudly that the concept was too frivolous for a luxury ship like Voyager. Didn't the whiner notice that his wife, in keeping with the whimsical spirit of the evening, was wearing her sweater inside out? Then there was the famously unpleasant passenger who ordered staff around like servants and said she wouldn't be disembarking at cold-weather ports like Osaka and Shanghai because she had only brought open-toe shoes and no coat. Perhaps she forgot to read the itinerary before she packed for the trip?
And, my personal favorite: the woman who wrote to corporate headquarters complaining about the size of the bath soap bars.
Graham Kelsall wisely put it into perspective: Some people simply like to complain. Indeed, every morning, he would sit at the ship's popular Coffee Corner next to a group of elderly women who complained incessantly about the ship -- silly things like a speck of dirt on the carpet. The irony, he says, is "they're not likely to fill out a comment card. And each and every one of them has already booked for next year."
In the End...
Mike Kinne sums up world cruising best:
"You don't have a true feeling of the vast distance you are traveling. You wake up in the same bed, you have the same housekeeper, you eat in the same restaurants. There's no disconnect that you're at the end of the earth. And there's something exciting about not knowing what's just around the next corner."
--by Ellen Uzelac, a finance and travel writer who lives on Maryland's Eastern Shore.
Top image and image of deer appear courtesy of Ellen Uzelac.