There are two types of people: those amenable to vacationing on a cruise ship and those who’d rather stab needles in their eyes.
My husband falls in the latter camp.
A lifelong seaman who was raised racing Lasers on the North Shore, he dreams of someday sailing the globe but wanted no part of cruising — as he saw it, a crowded, overpriced, germ-infested hell on waves, catering mainly to buffet-bound gluttons and boozers.
He’s not the only spouse to resist: One travel article that hits my in box advises winning over cruise-wary husbands with promises of craft beer, televised sports, and hearty American fare. But my husband’s pressure points — fear of crushing crowds and sheer boredom — require a different tack. This boat certainly had the fix for the latter, offering activities such as rock climbing, surfing, and sky-diving — but potentially the pitfalls of the former: It teems with some 5,000 passengers, plus 1,500 crew.
So what would it take to turn this sailor into a cruiser? Come hell or high water, we were going to find out, when I connived, er, convinced him to set sail upon a seven-night family excursion on Royal Caribbean’s billion-dollar megaship Anthem of the Seas, cruising from Bayonne, New Jersey, to the Bahamas and back.
Each traveler was lured by his or her own personal thrill: for our 11-year-old daughter, a promised stop at Universal’s Harry Potter world; for the 8-year-old, a swim with dolphins. We brought along their two grandmas, one anticipating a day at the spa, the other shopping for baubles in port. Even the Hubby was intrigued by the entertainment lineup: a full musical production of Queen’s We Will Rock You as well as a Led Zeppelin cover band. For me, without a doubt, the ship’s greatest appeal was simple: seven glorious days of not having to cook a single meal.
Two months out, lured by what we hoped was a deal, we booked a balcony cabin, costing approximately $2,900 (plus another $400 in gratuities) for our family of four, and a second room for the two grandmas, $1,900 at a senior rate. We took a gamble, paying slightly less and allowing the cruise ship to assign our specific rooms; we ended up with unobstructed views but on two different levels. In retrospect, paying for the convenience of adjoining rooms would have been well worth the upcharge.
Pre-trip, we added some small but vital upgrades: $70 for a soda package so the Hubby could avoid caffeine withdrawal with unlimited trips to the Coke Freestyle machines, another $62.93 for Voom streaming Internet access so he could check e-mail and stock prices, plus a cruise-organized scuba excursion to sweeten the deal.
As with any popular vacation destination, outwitting crowds is a must. For our Disney World vacation (my story “Planning a trip to Disney? Read this first,” also appeared in the Globe Magazine), we relied on advice gleaned from the DISboards.com message boards. For this trip, we turned to the netizens of cruisecritic.com, who advised booking shows and restaurants as soon as possible. They also recommended disregarding our “assigned” boarding time of 12:30 p.m. and getting there at 10:30 a.m. to secure onboard activities that had filled up pre-cruise but could be booked once on the ship, and, of course, get first crack at lunch.
Long story short: From cabin design, amenities, and service to entertainment and activities, the ship delivered, and more, surpassing even the Hubby’s admittedly rock-bottom expectations. But was it enough to make him a cruising convert?
One appeal of this particular cruise is skipping the hassle and cost of air travel and departing directly from a port within driving distance. We make our way down Interstate 95 and park at Port Liberty ($20 per day) in New Jersey, the Manhattan skyline in view.
Boarding, via roving staff with iPads, goes fairly smoothly, but there are some minor unpleasantries: killing time in a packed nightclub with our carry-ons until we can access our stateroom and attending the mandatory muster drill to watch a short film covering hand washing and emergency evacuations.
Armed with Sea-Bands cuffed to our wrists to ward off seasickness, we finally set sail. We choose to view it from the glass-enclosed Solarium at the ship’s bow, where the Statue of Liberty waves us bon voyage and we scrape within feet of the underside of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
That minor thrill is quickly topped by our first activity: RipCord by iFly, a wind tunnel that simulates the experience of sky-diving. Imagine hovering 3 feet above ground, arms outstretched like Supergirl, while an industrial-sized hair dryer blasts you with air until your teeth chatter. (Enjoyable, I must admit, to the Hubby and the kids.)
After checking our daughters in to their first night at the kids’ club, we and other adults assemble in the formal dining room, clinking our glasses in a wave of optimism.
We’ve been at sea some 24 hours, and in addition to iFly, we’ve already checked out the arcade, lined up for a morning session of bumper cars, played hoops, foosball, and air hockey in the SeaPlex, the onboard “active space,” walked the top deck’s jogging track, tried our hand at shuffleboard, and scaled the rock wall.
Still to come in the afternoon: our ride in the North Star, a glass observation pod that lifts passengers 300 feet into the air, a distinction, one Royal Caribbean booking agent had bragged, worthy of an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records in 2016 for “Highest Viewing Deck on a Cruise Ship.” Although there’s not much to see beyond a brilliant 360-degree view of water, the experience does not disappoint.
Still on our week’s agenda: an escape-room puzzle challenge, roller skating, circus-school trapeze flying, a session of Harry Potter trivia, and checking out the FlowRider surfing simulator. (Amazingly, there are some activities we will run out of time to partake in. We also never make it up to the gym for a workout, about which I feel no guilt whatsoever. Sorry. I’m sure the facilities are lovely. Use your imagination.)
I check in with the Hubby on his assessment so far. “It’s not for me,” he says, “but I can see why it’s appealing to others. The value is incredible.”
It’s true. When you total up what all these activities would have cost on land, we would have shelled out roughly $634, even before accounting for the food or room fees.
Then there’s the nightly entertainment. We see two cabaret shows, one full-length Broadway-quality production, and a stand-up comedian. We dance to Latin music at the Boleros nightclub, boogie at a ’70s dance party in the Music Hall, and try a “Silent Party,” where dancers wear headphones to hear the beat in an otherwise eerily noiseless room. Throw in the Led Zepagain cover band, which the Hubby returns to faithfully for its three-night set, and we estimate we would have spent another $700 or so back in Boston.
Not to mention what we would have paid at home for three hours each night of child care (at $15 an hour, that’s $315). The onboard kids’ club is free until 10 p.m., and our daughters literally beg to return nightly — and even sometimes during the day.
True, there are a few duds — the casino is too smoky to lure this high-stakes gambler to the lone poker table, and we find the plot of one show, The Gift, so convoluted that when it stops midway due to technical difficulties, we seize the opportunity to dash out.
Still, as the Hubby put it, we two fortysomething homebodies crammed a decade’s worth of night life into a week.
And then there’s the food. Do we stuff our faces and roll off 5 pounds heavier? Oh, yes. While there’s no shortage of average-quality stuffers, there are also treats for the discriminating palate: lox with capers for breakfast, brie and prosciutto for snacks, crab cakes, French onion soup, lobster tail, peeled shrimp, baklava, and ceviche. And we try to expand our children’s palates (and our own) with delicacies from another era, such as escargots and baked Alaska.
For dessert, we enjoy a bowl of chocolate-covered strawberries, a hazelnut chocolate cake to die for, far too many creme brulees, a bowl of fresh blackberries, and delicate pavlova meringues. (On the not-so-gourmet front, the kids freely partake of the hot dog stand at the Dog House and fresh cookies nightly at Cafe Promenade, and they make roughly 237 visits to the self-serve soft-serve ice cream dispenser.)
There is also the undeniable satisfaction of phoning up “free’’ room service day or night. We order continental breakfast, sipping coffee and tea on our balcony each morning, and one late-night order of comfort food. Take that, Four Seasons!
Days 3 and 4
Only halfway through the trip and even the Hubby concedes that we’ve gotten our money’s worth. Now, can he find some peace and quiet?
It’s not looking likely, because we have inadvertently become “cruise famous.” The previous night’s escapades — dancing with a man dressed in a disco ball costume and snapping selfies with the cruise director — were captured by the ship’s film crew and aired incessantly on the onboard TV channel.
We dub my mother-in-law the “Mayor of Groovy Town” (a title I am hoping sticks) after she’s repeatedly recognized in the halls the next day.
When we arrive at our first stop, Port Canaveral, bound for Universal Orlando, the Hubby’s fears about crowds are confirmed and his mood takes a grumpy turn as we endure long lines and buses jammed with other passengers. (Worth noting: The boat is packed with “New Yawkers,” yet our shipmates have been quite civilized; we’ve witnessed no fights over hogging poolside loungers and, even with the free flow of alcohol from unlimited drink packages, no drunken disorderly behavior.)
For our next stop, the cruise line’s private Bahamian island, CocoCay, we book a time in the beachfront water park, which entitles us to one of the earliest slots on a shuttle to the island. As the crowd disperses across the island, with loungers aplenty, even the Hubby can relax and enjoy a gorgeous beach day, the kids zipping down the water slide while we all fry in the sun.
Still, the Hubby is not convinced we can find real refuge from the masses, so that night, we zig when everyone else zags. After dinner, we skip out on Mo5aic, the all-male a capella band, and slip into the adults-only Solarium, where we enjoy a hot tub all to ourselves.
“See,” I say, smiling at the Hubby as we soak in blissful solitude.
Days 5 and 6
After a final day of Bahamas excursions, where the Hubby communes with the fishes during his scuba dive, we race back to the ship in time to narrowly lose at Harry Potter trivia, but then win baseball caps (hurrah!) at Kids’ Bingo.
We are not bored, we’ve gotten our money’s worth, and we’ve certainly been entertained, but maybe it’s time to really put this trip to the test.
The heroic waitstaff in the American Icon dining room have gamely accommodated our party’s oddball off-menu requests (a bowl of black olives and sauteed spinach). But the Hubby is growing a little weary of eating nightly in the same room and the occasional entree that falls flat.
We decide to splurge on specialty dining, booking one extraordinary meal for a $100 upcharge at the whimsical Wonderland restaurant, where we stroke a paintbrush over our menus to make the words appear. We dine on “liquid lobster” served in a spoon and chocolate orbs that dissolve under molten caramel sauce.
By this time, the Hubby has also grown disenchanted with fighting the morning crowds at the buffet’s made-to-order omelet line, and he belatedly discovers a better option: a peaceful sit-down breakfast available in the formal dining room. Here, he happily partakes of blueberry pancakes and a bowl of fresh blueberries, only wishing he’d discovered this sooner.
Somehow the ship’s captain has defied the laws of nature, slowing time to a halt as we make our way northward. While the way down was chilly, this final day of the cruise remains balmy and warm, even as we barrel up the coastline toward Bayonne. Fellow cruisers visit the pool and top deck. We soak in the outdoor hot tub and swim in the circulating whirlpool before heading back to enjoy the balcony one last time and get ready for dinner.
Have we been fortunate? Undoubtedly. We dodged all the woes you hear about: hurricane-force winds, canceled excursions, norovirus outbreaks, forced quarantines.
My husband leans back into his balcony chair, basking in the late-afternoon sun. Now that we are heading north, our port-side cabin enjoys a stunning sunset view. “This is amazing,” the Hubby sighs, closing his eyes as I do a double take. Did he say . . . amazing? Five minutes later, he is sleeping like a babe.
Mission accomplished — until the kids’ squabbling rouses him from his coma-like slumber.
The Hubby determines that the best way to disembark is to again ignore orders, wake up obscenely early, and carry our own luggage off the boat rather than have the porters handle it. We arrive downstairs at 6, only to find a long line of like-minded passengers, those in front having queued at 5.
The doors are flung open and we are swiftly released down the gangway, the Hubby triumphant — we have reclaimed control of our destiny and beaten most of the crowd. By the time of our “assigned” departure slot, we’ve already crossed the Massachusetts border.
An e-mail from Royal Caribbean drops into our in box, asking us to evaluate the vacation on a scale of 1 to 10. I read over the Hubby’s shoulder as he rates the buffet a 7, the entertainment a 9, and the kids’ club a solid 10.
His finger hovers over the cursor at the last question.
Do you see yourself booking another cruise in:
Less than a year?
“Two to three, I guess?” he says with a shrug as we click. Visions of itineraries — Alaska? Nova Scotia? Cuba? — begin dancing in my head.
I’m declaring victory.