Point A and Point B can both be exciting, but often times the best part of traveling between two points is the vehicle. And I’ve experienced a few: an elephant in Nepal; a camel in Morocco; a canoe in the Amazon; the back of a Peruvian truck, for three days, on a pad of burlap sacks laid atop stacks of crates loosely holding empty Coke bottles; severely underpowered Indian rickshaws belching blue smoke with each laughable burst of acceleration.
And a cruise ship.
Sure, in my backpacking days, I shunned such forms of transit. A college course on tourism taught me that there are “mass tourists,” who travel en masse on popular itineraries, and “alternative tourists,” who seek the road less traveled. Despite differences in herding behavior, they are both striving for the same goal: authenticity. Whether it’s Chicago’s best deep dish pizza or Thailand’s most pristine beach, all tourists are looking to capture the most authentic experiences abroad, and, tacitly, to have theirs be the best.
I’ve done a majority of my travel as a backpacker and it’s hard to imagine such experiences are possible when one descends by the thousands to a port city for only a handful of hours.
Backpackers, who have felt they’ve earned their destination through the grit of a dusty road, refer to themselves nobly as “travelers,” and pejoratively label any large group as “tourists.” And cruisers, who travel the most carefree—and in the biggest groups—of any tourist are, in the eyes of the backpacker, the worst of this lot.
To inflame the difference, the scant possessions of the archetypal backpacker—a dog-eared travel guide, a tattered collection of international beer T-shirts, and a handful of dollars to spend every day—are antithetical to the cookie cutter excursions, unlimited food, and black-tie formal dinners that await cruisers on board.
Will there be a time in my life for a cruise? Sure, I thought: when I’m older. I tend to pace like a caged lion when I’m confined, so I’ll at least need to wait until both knees are replaced.
My timeline however was accelerated in 2006 when I was generously invited to the wedding ceremony of my future father-in-law. He and his bride-to-be go on frequent cruises so their venue was a special one: a Princess ship from Alaska to Vancouver, B.C.
As I packed my bags—using, for the first time, a rolling suitcase—I could feel the impending cultural clash breathing down my neck. I was in my mid-twenties, maintained a healthy diet, and just completed my first marathon, so the target audience of the cruise company I was not.
But when I woke up refreshed on the first morning and walked out on to our balcony to hear the deep, resonating sound of glaciers calving, much of my apprehension melted into Glacier Bay several stories below. Setting up my spotting scope to show Kristi her first pair of Horned Puffins was the meringue on the Baked Alaska (conveniently available downstairs in the dessert buffet).
The most important part of this cruise was to be with family, but I found several ways to pay respect to my backpacking history without sticking out like an unused lounge chair on the top deck. Following my experiences on now three cruises—one in the Mediterranean and another on the Pacific coast—I’ve assembled some tips in my “Non-cruisers Guide to Cruising.”
Find the unbeaten path
Every cruise company will push a long menu of shore excursions at every port. They are a great and easy way to capture the quintessential experience of a particular location—cooking class in Tuscany, glacier walk in Alaska—but they are expensive, and attended by the busload. If you still have your traveling wits about you, there are plenty of alternatives—it just requires thinking outside the box.
On our Alaskan cruise in 2006, Kristi and I learned of a trailhead that was near the dock in the port town of Ketchikan. Found within minutes, the beautiful trail followed a moss-encrusted stream to a lake rimmed by mature evergreen forest. Despite the fact that two cruise ships had unloaded nearly ten thousand people at this base of this trail, we only ran into two other hikers. It was a special experience and, best of all, it was free.
Look at your itinerary and purchase the appropriate guidebooks, or search for reputable travel apps. My mother-in-law downloaded Rick Steves’ “Mediterranean Cruise Ports,” which gave detailed instructions on how to get from the mostly unassuming port towns to the main attractions. For example, Carnival Cruises had a “Rome on Your Own” tour that provided a private train car from the port city of Civitavecchia to Rome for $99 per person. With the help of the Rick Steve’s app, we were able to follow the exact same itinerary for $20. Sure, you run the risk of missing the boat—if you are late and not on an official excursion, the ship will leave without you—but who said travel should always be easy?
Get to know the employees. Learn how to say ‘Thank You.’
The staff on cruise ships represent many, mostly developing, nations around the world: from Croatia to Indonesia, Peru to Romania. Every staff member wears their nationality at the bottom of their name-tag. The service on cruise ships is exemplary; you won’t be able to walk down a hallway without being eagerly greeted with a thickly accented “Hello” or “Good Morning.” Everyone is fluent in English but take a moment to ask them how to say “hello” and “thank you” in their own language. I startled my bar tender one evening when I thanked him in Romanian (“moo-soo-mesk”), a phrase I’d picked up from our waiter the previous night. What resulted was an in-depth and genuine conversation about when I should travel to Romania, and what places shouldn’t be missed. If you’ve been to their country, don’t be shy about sharing your experiences: they will be delighted.
Active? Stay so.
Most boats have state-of-the-art gyms. Don’t have a routine? Ask for a trainer to help set one up for you. But if you want to sign up for the weight loss seminar, do so early: it will fill up very quickly.
I’m an avid runner but I strongly dislike treadmills; I’ll run in driving snow before I subject myself to the tedium of the slowly advancing red numbers on an expensive hamster wheel. The Carnival Sunshine featured an outdoor running track on its 11th deck, ten laps of which equaled a mile. Too monotonous? Head for one of the lower decks to see which one extends the circumference of the ship, or at least comes close (some may be closed in the back). If you run for distance (and not time), ask one of the staff about the distance end-to-end. If they don’t know, walk the deck and count the number of strides. Now go upstairs to the treadmill and count how many strides it takes you to walk 0.1 miles. I found that one length of deck three on the Carnival Sunshine was 0.25 miles (and 0.5 miles when you turned around to return to your starting point).
It may seem as if I’m just increasing the size of my treadmill, but I had deck three of the Carnival Sunshine to myself aside from the employees walking to and from work. As an added bonus, I got to see both humpback and killer whales on deck seven of Diamond Princess in Alaska, not scenery frequently experienced by runners.
Mission (Nearly) Impossible: Portion control.
Cruise ships are notorious for unfettered access to an excess of food. Indeed, it’s hard to maintain a healthy diet when you have 24-hour access to pizza kitchens and soft serve ice cream machines, and the surface area of buffet plates rival the hubcap of a Kenworth. But if you do watch what you eat, there are healthy options at every turn.
One note of caution: when you confide with the waiter that you are having trouble deciding between two different entrees, don’t be surprised if he just says “OK” and walks away. This delightful conundrum happened to me once and I wound up with both the steak and the lobster, plus all of the respective sides.
The alternative to portion control is to recognize that you’ll gain weight, and have a goddamned great time doing so.
Are you a birder? There are options for you.
I’m an avid birder and no matter where I am, I always have one ear cocked upward. There are several families of birds that spend nearly their entire lives at sea: albatross, petrels, storm-petrels, collectively called “tubenoses.” A cruise is an unparalleled opportunity to see some of these denizens of the sea, depending on time and location. While you can’t stop to “chum” seabirds (the act of throwing out fish oil and suet to attract seabirds), cruise ships offer viewing platforms stable enough for a scope, and high enough to see birds in the troughs between waves.
A repositioning cruise between Los Angeles and Vancouver (when cruise companies move their boats between the winter Mexican cruises and their summer Alaskan routes) provided opportunity to see Cook’s, Murphy’s, Hawaiian, and Mottled Petrel, Black-footed and Laysan Albatross, Cassin’s and Parakeet Auklets, and a handful of cetaceans included Baird’s Beaked Whale. We birded from sunrise to sunset during an exceptional year, but anything is possible under proper conditions. Less intense, and far less productive, early summer birding in the Mediterranean afforded views of Cory’s and Yelkouan Shearwaters, Common Dolphin, and a jumping Swordfish.
If you have a deck, use it. Common areas are perfectly fine, but be prepared to answer questions like “you looking for whales?” and, when you reply that you are looking for birds, to deal with the inexorable look of disappointment. One benefit of the common area, however, is the ease of moving from one side of the ship to the other to avoid the sun’s glare.
Unplug. Or pay the price.
Cruise ships have Wi-Fi, but the exorbitant prices will cause you to think twice before tweeting a picture of your breakfast (be sure to back up to get the entire plate in frame). Considering how digitally entrenched many of us are, a break will do you good. Don’t think it will be a problem? Wait until you need to think of something really important like, say, the name of Cam’s partner on ABC’s Modern Family. Go analog and think really hard. When that doesn’t work, ask people around you; it’ll be a great ice-breaker. If after several days neither you or the people around you still can’t think of the answer, spend $1.50 (for two minutes) to look it up (“Mitchell”? I totally knew that!). Question at what price search engines have enriched our lives.
Are you a non-cruiser who has been on a cruise? Got some tips for the rest of us? Please leave a comment.