Whet Your Appetite for the High Seas With Microcruises

By Remy Scalza
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 4, 2009

Among certain travelers, few subjects arouse as much vitriol as that seemingly innocent holiday rite, the cruise. I know. I'm one of them.

Mention cruises and I think of floating islands chugging along in a daze of buffets and umbrella drinks. I think of Hawaiian-shirted armies swarming into foreign ports to gawk at overpriced ethnic bric-a-brac. And I think of cheesy excursions that reduce local culture to banana boat rides and tequila factory tours.

But am I being fair? We're talking about a vacation, after all: What's wrong with having a little fun? And considering the era of reconciliation we're living in -- with President Obama reaching out to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Kanye West making amends to Taylor Swift -- couldn't there be a middle ground where cruisers and non-cruisers can meet?

As it happens, the cruise industry has begun to offer an option for skeptics like me, for whom a seven-day Alaskan adventure would be unthinkable and even a three-day Caribbean cruise a bit dicey. I call it the microcruise: a new wave of one- and two-night sailings offered by Norwegian, Carnival, Holland America and other major lines that give passengers a glimpse of the cruise lifestyle without the costs and commitment associated with a longer sailing.

"They're great for first-timers," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruise Critic, the go-to online source for independent cruise information, because you're "not committing your whole vacation time or budget to something you're not sure if you're ready for. It's just one night."

Microcruises come in several varieties. There are "cruises to nowhere," which embark from coastal hubs such as New York, Miami and Los Angeles, motor around the open ocean for a night or two and deliver passengers back to where they started. There are also multi-destination options, mainly Caribbean round-trip circuits, and one-way jaunts between Seattle and Vancouver.

I chose the last option, an overnight sailing from Vancouver to Seattle aboard Holland America's Volendam, a mid-size "premium" ship -- neither budget tub nor luxury liner -- with room for about 1,400 passengers.

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The bon voyage party doesn't do much to allay my misgivings. Around 4 p.m., once the gangplank has been pulled, passengers start to migrate toward the Volendam's big stern deck, or "lido deck," in cruise talk. It offers great views of Vancouver's skyline and the forested shore that rims large parts of the city. But the main draw seems to be the discount margaritas, served in oversize souvenir glasses. Suddenly a horn blasts, the house band breaks into Kool and the Gang's "Celebration," and the boat begins to pull away from the pier. It has begun.

It's a mixed crowd on the Volendam. After the stop in Seattle, the ship continues on a month-long journey to Hong Kong, and most passengers seem to be retirees aboard for the long haul. The much smaller and much younger minority are the one-nighters. Over the strains of Abba's "Dancing Queen," I chat with Christina Faminoff, a hotel employee from Vancouver who's onboard with a group of friends. She, too, is a cruise virgin.

"I can't see doing this for more than one night," Faminoff, 26, says, quickly downing a Corona as the Vancouver cityscape slides away. "I think the people that are here are here to get away from people like me."

Across the table, her co-worker Jake Hamilton, a concierge and bartender, is more optimistic. "We're not here for a long time, but we're here for a good time," he says. "I already hit up the pizza bar, the taco bar, the kung pao chicken. I was all over it. You got to get your money's worth."

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