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CRUISE REPORT: Maiden Voyage
Can an independent traveler find happiness on a big mainstream cruise ship?

By Carolyn Spencer Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 1997; Page E01
   


On my first-ever cruise -- a week-long sailing to Bermuda aboard Celebrity's Zenith, chosen as an example of a typical, mainstream cruise ship aiming at upmarket travelers -- I had the opportunity to confront my prejudices.

There's the one that says cruises are for old people. That they attract only the venal and the gluttonous, who come to indulge in the all-you-can-eat buffets and omnipresent bingo parlors and slot machines. And a bias of more recent vintage -- that cruise lines, in a mad lurch to reach younger cruisers, have outfitted some of their ships to provide young revelers with something resembling a floating version of spring break, complete with toga parties and 3 a.m. conga lines.

The reality, as nearly always, lies somewhere in between, and yet also nowhere near. You certainly can feed slot machines till dawn, dance the Macarena until you suffer repetitive motion injury, drink apricot sours from a glass as long as your arm, play water volleyball until your entire body prunes, and gorge yourself to sleep every night at the midnight buffet. You can also stake out a lounge chair in a quiet corner of the Marina deck, sip a Corona and read spy novels, watch "The English Patient" on pay-per-view in the privacy of your own cabin, order breakfast in bed -- every day if you like -- at no extra charge.

The options are numerous, I was happy to discover, but I was bound by none of them. I found myself flush with an unexpectedly exhilarating freedom of choice, untethered to any corresponding responsibility. No schedules to keep, no taxis to flag, no list of sites nagging me along. And we hadn't even docked in Bermuda yet.

There were other surprises, most of them pleasant. Like the fact that my fellow cruisers looked more like residents of a randomly selected suburban block than of a retirement home. On board I saw plenty of people like me -- singles and couples in the 35-to-50 age range, with successful careers, money to spend, stress to elude. Because it was after Labor Day, few children were roaming the decks. I met passengers like Ray from California, with his high-pressure investment career; Don, a Hollywood accountant; and Jim, a young artist in New York.

Although Celebrity is not known for singles-oriented cruises, I met plenty of solo travelers, and some single women traveling together. And yet it was the married couples -- many of them first-timers too -- with whom I fell into the most interesting conversations, whether at dinner, in the hot tubs or over cocktails. There were great discussions with retired folk as well, particularly the U.S. Army couple that had lived in Bermuda -- as well as in the Azores, Turkey, Greece and Spain.

Another surprise: Experienced cruisers -- and there were many -- embrace this type of travel with the sort of passionate devotion and willingness to invest disposable income you normally associate with members of religious cults or militia groups. There are people who have undertaken crossings 15 times, 50 times -- and these are the younger passengers. It's as if there is a secret society that divides the veteran cruiser from the rest of the world.

May I confess? Despite coming into the experience with a preference for, and long record of, independent travel, I'm kind of a convert. True, I'd prefer a cruise more intimate in size -- one carrying half the number of passengers and offering fewer distractions. I don't see myself cruising exclusively from here out, like some of the converts I met. But I find myself looking forward to my next cruise.

Wherever it's headed.

Converting people like me to the world of cruising is not just an idle wish of the cruise industry. It's a requirement for survival.

According to the Cruise Line Industry Association, cruise lines accommodated 4.6 million passengers in 1996. That's not very many people, particularly when you consider that a relatively small Eastern Seaboard resort town like Ocean City, Md., logs in more than 8 million visitors annually. Only 9 percent of the U.S. population has taken a cruise, and despite recent success in bringing the age of the average cruiser down, it still hovers around 49. Cruise executives are making huge investments in the belief that cruising will move from a niche phenomenon to a mainstream form of travel over the next decade.

The fact that cruising approaches the millennium carrying the baggage of older passengers dates to the post-World War II era, when the popularization of commercial aviation suddenly meant that travelers could cross the Atlantic more quickly and economically than a steamship had allowed. As air fares became more affordable and air fleets expanded, the transoceanic cruise business devolved from the only mode of overseas travel into a niche market, serving the slice of the population with time on their hands and money to spare -- largely, affluent retirees.

"The perceptions continue today that at some level cruising is only for the older, the sedentary, and the wealthy," says Robert Sharak, CLIA director of marketing. Yet he says that, today, only 31 percent of cruise passengers are older than 60. And 45 percent of last year's cruisers were first-timers.

To hook a crowd of largely stressed-out, overstimulated baby boomers, the cruise industry is dangling the hook I refer to as transcendental convenience. It's not just that you pay one price for your lodging, dining, child care, shipboard activities and entertainment (you usually have to pay extra for tips, liquor, casino gambling and optional shore excursions). You can also visit five, 10, 15 ports on a trip and never have to repack your suitcase. Cruise staff design and plan your field trips, if you want them to. You can opt in or out of any activity. The bottom line: You don't have to worry about anything, whether you want to visit every shop in every port, learn how to scuba-dive, dance all night or lie on a deck chair and blow bubbles all afternoon.

To me, the 47,255-ton Zenith, launched in 1992 and capable of carrying 1,374 passengers, seemed like a pretty big boat. It has nine decks, seven bars, a two-story theater, a casino, two pools, a health club, a restaurant seating 650, a casual eatery, shops, library and rooms for video games, cards and meetings. It turns out that, compared with ships of more recent vintage, the Zenith is a dinghy.

Cruise lines are in a hectic expansion mode, and most are laboring feverishly with the idea that bigger is better. Carnival's 101,000-ton Destiny, which accommodates 2,642, is the biggest cruiser afloat -- until next spring, when the 109,000-ton, 2,600-passenger Grand Princess is expected to launch. These ships are too big to pass through the Panama Canal. They hold more people than 10 mid-size hotels combined. At 201 feet high, the Grand Princess is 49 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.

To fill these gigantic newcomers -- plus 26 other new ships on order or under construction, most of them closer to the industry standard of 80,000 tons and about 2,000 passengers -- the industry has had to alter some longstanding traditions. Cruise lines have introduced shorter, three- and four-day cruises and are exploring alternatives to the usual transatlantic or Caribbean itineraries. While the islands still represent more than half of all cruise destinations, Europe and the Mediterranean are hot, Alaska is huge, and Thailand and Vietnam are rising and French Polynesia and Tahiti are beginning to appear.

On board, the experience is changing, too. Where life in transit used to focus on a narrow range of amenities and activities, today's liners are more like full-service resorts, offering spas and fitness facilities, several swimming pools, raucous Broadway-style shows, menus designed by high-profile chefs emphasizing healthier food, play centers for kids and suites designed for families.

Of course, there is no guarantee that such amenities will draw a younger crowd. Think about it: How many people in a typical baby boomer's social circle have gone on a cruise? In my case, the number was . . . one. And she went reluctantly.

"I'm not a cruise kind of person," says Baltimore art museum executive Deborah Tunney, almost apologetically. But an astrologer friend who had been booked as a guest lecturer on a Costa cruise was allowed to bring a pal, free of charge. She invited Tunney, who initially declined. "I always had the impression that cruises were over the top, like Disney with sex," she says. But in the end, in spite of herself, she enjoyed it. Although, so far, she hasn't been back.

I had been warned about dinners. The evening meal, some cruisers' daily highlight, generally is held in two rather formal seatings. Unseen, unknown hands arrange dinner partners. "It's like living in a short story," says Joan McCown, a retired travel agent. "Night after night people reveal the most intimate details of their lives. Then the cruise ends, and you find you can't even remember their names." Or you could get lucky and meet someone who becomes a lifelong friend. It's important, then, to get assigned to a table full of interesting characters.

It helps to be lucky. My assigned table at the Zenith's late seating consisted of me, six forlorn single women and "Jim," a bachelor who arrived late and who fortunately rescued the table from utter oblivion. Ours was so obviously a "loser" table that one woman, an elegant blonde, bolted from the scene almost immediately after being seated. Her survival instinct was admirable.

The saving grace is that you can always request a table change. And people do it often. McCown regaled me with a tale about an ever-so-proper blue suit who found himself seated with a fellow who came to dinner in a tank top, his armpits and tattoos on full display. Early the next morning, her friend approached the maitre d' asking for relief from his ill-mannered dinner partner. "Sir," the maitre d' said crushingly, "he's beaten you to it."

It's easy to forget, with all the discos and cocktail lounges and multicourse feasts and Caribbean jamborees, that cruisers remain a guest of the unpredictable host that is nature. The sea can be a delightful or merciless companion. There is no money-back guarantee if you spend evenings retching from the rhythm of high seas or if weather forces your ship into a "vacation port" 30 minutes from your home.

On our first night in Bermuda after two days at sea, I slipped off the ship for dinner at a waterfront restaurant. Suddenly clouds obscured all but two stars. A lusty breeze turned into a gale, scattering menus and candlesticks, flinging detritus from the poinciana trees into wineglasses. People began whispering about Erika -- as in Hurricane Erika -- who was headed our way.

Back at the ship that night, the captain made an emergency announcement. "With your safety and comfort always as our primary concern, we have decided to leave Bermuda tomorrow afternoon." A bitter disappointment. And yet, despite the threatening presence of a natural disaster, life went gliding on. That night on the Marina deck it was "Island Night," where dancing the Macarena to the accompaniment of a live band and the gyrations of the youthful social staff drew a mixed and lively crowd. It was all possible because, when you cruise, you don't have to secure emergency airline reservations to get off the island. You don't have to wonder about the perils of waiting out the storm. You don't even have to contemplate packing or repacking, hauling luggage or canceling tee times. The cruise line's staffers, from the captain on down, are there to do the thinking for you.

Of course, we averted bona-fide disaster; had the hurricane caught up to us at sea, or even in port, I'd have a much more poignant story to tell. Erika veered away from Bermuda and our holiday was preserved. (For me, conditions got no worse than when, a few days later, the Zenith plowed the seas in the wake of Erika, and it suddenly seemed as though my belly had been set on spin cycle. Luckily, the seas calmed after two excruciating hours.)

But the no-worries nature of cruising revealed itself again later. Thursday, we were scheduled to depart at 2 p.m. for New York City (a day-and-a-half's cruise away). Instead of the independent traveler's normal get-away-day routine -- such as my experience recently in Vienna, when I woke early, packed, checked out of my hotel and wandered aimlessly through the city for the two hours before my cab came to take me to the airport three hours early to wait for a plane that was two hours late -- I rode a rented motorized bike and headed to Elbow Beach. I spent three hours sunbathing and swimming in a sea the color of which I'd only seen previously in a paint can. I returned, as directed, at 1:30 for reboarding and headed down to my cabin for a nap, where the slight jolts of the Zenith pulling away from paradise barely roused me.

I had been warned by a fellow passenger, who says he cries when he returns from his annual cruise, of "the cruise ship sting," an unusually vivid feeling of melancholy otherwise known as the post-vacation blues. Aside from the obvious longings -- no five-course dinners awaited my return, nor was there a Broadway revue to entertain me after supper -- what felt strangest was the solidness of the ground beneath my feet. I missed the (mostly) gentle rocking of the Zenith, the sense of being cosseted by the waves and the rhythm and the motion.

Back on land, though, what I like most is the idea that cruising is a kind of travel where the journey is as important as any destination. How many times have I rushed from airports to hotels to museums to theaters to restaurants, cramming ever so much into a few days off -- and then wondered why, after returning home, I needed a vacation to get over the vacation?

Life on a cruise ship is simpler. It permits you to move at a slower pace, if you choose, or no pace at all. You can veer between hedonism and asceticism on alternating journeys, days or even hours. Wherever I hanker to go next, I'll at least investigate the possibility of cruising there.

Carolyn Brown last wrote about Chestertown, Md., for Travel.

Cruising '97: Charting the Territory Ahead

Cruise lines are so confident that demand will continue to grow that by 2001 they will put some 28 new ships, with a combined capacity of 46,494 passengers, into operation. Add this to existing capacity -- 110,300 passenger beds in 123 ships (based on two passengers per cabin) -- and the industry is poised to increase its number of ships by 22 percent and its passenger capacity by 37 percent.

Upcoming launches this year include Celebrity's Mercury and Holland America's Rotterdam VI, which was slated for summer and has been delayed until later this month. In the first half of 1998, look for Carnival's Elation, Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas, the Radisson Seven Seas Paul Gauguin . . .

And, not least, the Disney Cruise Line (http://www.disney.com/ disneycruise), certainly the most hyped new line to enter the Caribbean's balmy waters. It launches the first of its two ships, Disney Magic, in March (its maiden voyage is fully booked); Disney Wonder will follow late next year. Disney cruises will be of the three- and four-day variety and dock in Nassau and at its private Castaway Cay in the Bahamas. Packages offer options that combine a cruise with a stay at Disney World.

Observers expect that Disney's ability to market to families with small children will open that niche wider to other lines as well, as they are forced to upgrade kids' programs and family accommodations. But the real Disney magic might be in popularizing cruising itself more widely, to every operator's benefit. In fact, Disney cruises are going to be extraordinarily expensive if undertaken by the very families at which they are presumably targeted. A mid-priced package for a family of four, including three days at Disney World and four days aboard the Magic, will cost around $6,100 -- and that's with an early booking discount.

With significant new capacity to fill, the industry must seduce first-time cruisers -- a pool that James Godsman, president of Cruise Lines International Association, says is around 64 million people in the United States. The industry's first-ever advertising campaign -- an $8 million effort with the theme "You Haven't Lived Until You've Cruised" -- is aimed at enticing these newcomers. It's a lifestyle-oriented approach that's a departure from cruise selling, which traditionally depends on price advertising and word-of-mouth referrals. The TV, newspaper and magazine ads will feature a toll-free number, 1-888-Y-CRUISE (1-888-927-8473), to dial to request a free, 48-page marketing brochure.

Cruise lines also are expanding their exotic itineraries to draw new customers. In 1998, the Radisson Seven Seas Paul Gauguin will travel to French Polynesia and Tahiti. CostaClassica will include Croatia on its Greek Isle itinerary. Cunard's Sea Goddess II will head to Bahrain, Oman and Dubai.

Meanwhile, the on-board experience is continually being upgraded with such amenities as family suites, food courts, larger swimming pools and "alternative" restaurants. Disney is introducing "rotation dining," in which passengers eat at a different restaurant each night while keeping their same table mates and waiter. The hottest amenity of all are cabins with private balconies. Down the road, look for even more unusual features. The Grand Princess, due next spring, will have a wedding chapel and an interactive television studio. Royal Caribbean's planned Project Eagle ships, due in 1999, will have ice rinks.

Which is cheaper -- a cruise or a land resort? Both offer similar all-inclusive approaches, wrapping air fare, lodging, transfers, dining, most entertainment and taxes into a single tab. CLIA insists that land and sea costs are comparable: Its figures for a Bahamas cruise vs. a resort stay show that the cruise costs $11 per day less.

We did our own comparison. At Paradise Island, a Club Med resort in the Bahamas, a seven-night stay costs $1,590 (per person, double occupancy), including air fare, transfers, lodging, meals, entertainment, and beer and wine with lunch and dinner. For single occupancy, the cost is $1,765. The Celebrity Century's seven-day Eastern Caribbean itinerary, by contrast, will put you in a mid-priced oceanview stateroom for $1,482 per person with double occupancy -- about a hundred bucks less than you'll pay for the Club Med land vacation (though on board you'll be buying your own beer and wine, and some cruisers' alcohol tabs really add up).

But if you're cruising single, look out: You'll pay a whopping $2,269 for the cruise package after absorbing the dreaded "single supplement." Per diems for Club Med: $227.14 (per person, double occupancy), $252.14 for singles. Per diems for the Celebrity Cruise: $211.71 (per person, double occupancy), $324.14 for singles.

The bottom line? Cruising with a pal or significant other offers genuine value relative to land-based vacations. On the other hand, cruising alone is bogglingly expensive, meaning you'll wind up either paying through the snout or having a stranger for a roommate. The single supplement is a painful topic for even the most committed solo cruisers.

-- Carolyn Spencer Brown

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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