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Last-Minute Vacations: Even With a Late Start, You Won't Miss the Boat

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By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Conventional wisdom holds that there are two types of people: those who love cruises and those who loathe them. But I am here to tell you that there's a third type: deeply conflicted souls who claim to despise the epic hokiness that is cruising, only to find that it's the only cheap trip they can take next Tuesday, so what the hell.

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It's risky to set sail on the S.S. Ambivalence, but it can be done, especially if you strike the correct balance of enthusiasm and ennui. With proper preparation, just days from now you, too, could find yourself love-hating a five-night cruise that costs just $600, a sun-splashed voyage that you'll enjoy from a prominent chaise longue on the lido deck, all the while skimming "The Sinking of the Titanic," just so everyone knows that you haven't abandoned irony completely.

There was silence just as the boat pulled out -- the silence that usually precedes the leave-taking. The heavy whistles sounded and the splendid Titanic, her flags flying and her band playing, churned the water and plowed heavily away.

I looked up. A heavy whistle had sounded, a Barry Manilow concert video was playing on an outdoor 12-by-22-foot LED screen above the pool, and the Carnival Triumph did indeed appear to be churning and plowing out of New York Harbor. The three-story spiraling water slide teetered ever so slightly; behind it, the Manhattan skyline slid away as smoothly as a muslin backdrop. Soon the ship picked up speed, sailing past the Statue of Liberty, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and out into the great Atlantic, embarking on a Canadian odyssey that would take us to Saint John, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, the latter just 700 miles west of where the Titanic hit its iceberg.

Majestic and beautiful, the ship rested on the water, a marvel of shipbuilding, worthy of any sea.

Thus spake "Sinking," a ripping if unreliable 1912 bestseller hastily cobbled together just after the Titanic sank. Was the Triumph a marvel? Well, it certainly was a marvelous deal. Whatever your view of the industry, cruising these days is an undeniable bargain, a consequence of both the economic downturn and companies that refuse to stop building ships, downturn be damned.

"The cruise lines are very astute at trend analysis," Karyn Todd of online merchant Cruise.com would tell me later, after I boasted of getting a last-minute cabin for peanuts. "If they see they're not where they need to be in terms of selling the ship -- if it's 120 days out and they're 30 percent off their sales target -- they're going to come out with a short-term great deal to change the percentage."

But deals can be had just a few days from a sail date, as I discovered when scrolling through Cruise.com's offerings on a recent Friday. Yes, the ship left on the following Monday, and yes, I had to settle for an interior stateroom on the lowest possible deck of the Triumph, but for little more than $100 a day I'd get a comfortably spartan room, 24-hour access to a smorgasbord that would have given Nero pause and a slew of entertainment options for young and old.

From far below the bridge sounded the strains of the ship's orchestra, playing a blithely favorite air from "The Chocolate Soldier."

Well, not exactly that kind of entertainment. What would a ship be like with an onboard orchestra, I wondered, instead of a reggae band endlessly covering "One Love"? (Or without an ersatz Jimmy Buffett or James Taylor, for that matter.) It would not be the Carnival Triumph, which, like most ships on most lines these days, seems locked in a loveless marriage with greatest-hits-of-the-'70s-and-more.

But in all other respects, the Titanic's entertainment options didn't hold a candle to the Triumph's. I searched the 246 pages of "Sinking" in vain, hoping against hope to find a single reference to a hairy chest contest, ice sculptures, '80s trivia nights, towel animals (they didn't even have towel animals??), onboard art auctions, daily drink specials or impromptu sales of tanzanite in all its myriad forms.

After a full day at sea and as much of this sort of entertainment as the passengers could stand, Triumph steamed into the Bay of Fundy, docking at the brand-new terminal in Saint John on a sunny, brisk Wednesday morning. Locals greeted us with an enthusiasm usually reserved for returning war heroes, thrusting maple-leaf flags and pins into our hands and entreating us to pose for pictures with men in Dudley Do-Right drag.


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