FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — As we boarded the massive ship, with the lights of slot machines flashing from the deck above and fellow passengers shuffling by with walkers, I had the sinking feeling we had committed to spending the week confined to a mix between a casino and nursing home.
I had been wary of a vacation packed on a bobbing vessel with more than 2,000 people idling in long lines at the buffet or lounging beside overchlorinated pools. I was also acquainted with the frequency of norovirus outbreaks aboard cruise ships, which I had long viewed as cauldrons of communicable diseases.
But there we were, standing in a crowd on an exterior deck of the Celebrity Constellation, a behemoth of a vessel 965 feet long and 13 stories tall, complete with a basketball court, solarium, and Persian garden. When the foghorn signaled our departure for Cozumel, Mexico, I felt something of a white flag rise from within me, a conflicted surrender to package tourism and my new reality as a parent.
What lured my family aboard was a remark I once heard about how a cruise is like a floating hotel, with ocean views and lots of (hopefully edible) food. It was traveling without having to heave bags around. With a 16-month-old son and more than we wanted to carry, that sounded enticing.
Later in the day, J. C., the cruise director, stoked my hopes of a stress-free voyage when he urged us to abandon our anxieties and routines. “As long as you’re with us, you won’t have to cook a meal, clean up after yourself, or wash any dishes,” he said. “Sit back and relax.”
My wife, Jess, and I longed to let someone else steer the ship of our lives for a few days. With last-minute tickets at a reasonable price, we were just happy to have left the tundra of Boston behind and lap up the warm breezes. J. C.’s words were a balm.
As for our son, Wolfy, he would soon become the celebrity of the cruise.
Shortly after boarding, we were told to report to our muster station, the ship’s grand theater, where we would gather in the event of an emergency. As we waited for instructions, Wolfy became restless. He began running up and down the aisle, attracting attention as he spun around and plopped on the plush carpeting.
He seemed to be thriving on the attention. So I gave him a boost onto the stage, where he began to blush and spin some more. When the audience of several hundred people began to applaud, Wolfy clapped, too, sparking an even more rousing response.
Wolfy kept at it over the next few days, hopping around in a Zumba class, helping bang out a rhythm with a Latin drummer, and performing a solo interpretive dance for a trio playing classical music. He also had plenty of room to run wherever he wanted, with a forgiving crew of nearly 1,000 to help us keep an eye on him.
More than anything, perhaps, Wolfy was excited by our room, a snug nook of 170 square feet. For him it was like a funhouse, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, a cushy bed to roll around on, and plenty of drawers and other things to ransack, including the minibar. It also meant easy access to us when he awoke in the middle of the night.
There were limits to the bliss.
Our picky eater was less than impressed by the offerings in the main dining room, a carpeted cavern of faux opulence with a highly orchestrated ensemble of waiters in formal wear, offering everything from jerk chicken to a 1998 cabernet sauvignon for $3,950. Their patience and graciousness were enviable, as Wolfy tossed most of what they provided on the well-vacuumed floor.
The plentiful buffet on a deck above, with everything from omelet stations to sushi bars, was even less appetizing, with sauceless pizza bathed in grease, tasteless fruit that seemed just out of the freezer, and ice cream that had the flavor and consistency of Pepto-Bismol, which both Jess and I would eventually need.
And then there was the minor issue of the engine on the ship malfunctioning, marooning us on a stopover in Key West. The captain decided to abandon our excursion to Mexico; instead, we made a shorter jaunt to the Bahamas. He made it up to the passengers with a few hours of free booze and a gala barbecue by the pool, which would have been great had we not been enduring indigestion.
The destination, however, was irrelevant to us. We were just happy to absorb the trade winds from the balcony of our room and watch the waves go by. I got to take our boy for a dip in the ocean in Key West. We saw some shows at the theater, which ranged from impressive to earnest. They even left us chocolates during the turndown service, which we kept for when we could eat again.
After six days at sea, we arrived around dawn back in Fort Lauderdale. As we lined up to disembark, Wolfy remained enthusiastic to the end, running around, waving to his many new friends.
The truth was, for me and Jess, as much as we wanted to hate it, we could have spent a few more days aboard, especially with our recovering appetites.