As a keen observer of human behavior, I’ve determined that all people can be divided into two simple categories: Those who love cruises, and those who despise cruises.
For decades I looked down from my sanctimonious balcony through cubic zirconia-encrusted binoculars at anyone who dared profess that they enjoyed cruising. The fact that I had never been on a cruise was inconsequential. I instinctually knew that cruises were tour buses at sea filled with garish, all-you-can-eat buffets, bad entertainment, and lots of paunchy gents in Hawaiian-print shirts.
My idea of travel had very little in common with this scenario. Why on earth would I want to be trapped in a floating retirement home when I could be out in the world? If I wanted to go on a cruise, all I needed to do was pop in a “Love Boat” DVD, preferably season five, episode 20. As far as I know there has never been a case of norovirus reported from watching “The Love Boat.” Herpes perhaps, but never norovirus.
But this etched-in-stone, I’m-right-you’re-wrong perspective was formed before I started writing about travel, and before I married someone who enjoys cruises. Faced with the option of losing my job and destroying my marriage, I slowly climbed down from my gilded perch and reluctantly went on a cruise.
Can I be honest? It was not love at first port. But slowly I softened. I was like a petulant toddler who refused to touch broccoli, and then realizes after a lot of grousing that he actually likes it. What I’m trying to say in my usual multiloquent manner is that I’m finally coming out of the cruising closet.
The truth is that I now like going on cruises.
After decades of blathering that cruises were an inauthentic way to travel, I’d now happily pack a steamer trunk and get on a European river cruise if the offer floated in my direction.
“People who say they’ll never go on a cruise have truly never done it,” said Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor at Cruise Critic. “I just don’t think they have the right picture in their minds of what it is.”
I’m not here to sell you a cruise with a side of snake oil and a bottle of OxiClean, but if you’ve never been on a cruise, should you really be walking around talking smack about it?
Not all cruises are created equal, and there are cruises for every taste. I haven’t been on many, but they’ve ranged from a ship of fewer than 200 passengers on the Great Lakes to a party at sea full of crazed, blitzed Patriots fans.
“People who have never been on a cruise envision it as something that’s confining,” Adam Goldstein, president and COO of Royal Caribbean, explained to me last year. “They’re adventure travelers, or they see themselves as individuals and not suited for a group.”
Last year, Royal Caribbean introduced Harmony of the Seas, the world’s largest passenger ship, which holds more than 6,500 passengers. As Stefon from “Saturday Night Live” would say, “This ship has everything.” There’s onboard surfing, casinos, an ice rink, rock climbing walls, more dining options than most small cities, and a theater with Broadway-esque shows.
“We’ve always had a challenge attracting young adults to cruise with us, but since the millennials are the ones who are young adults now, we have to try to address them on their terms,” Goldstein said. “We need lots of choices. We don’t want any regimentation. We don’t want anybody thinking that they have to do something because we want for them to do it. We want them making choices, and as much for millennials as anybody else.”
Harmony of the Seas was a way to see new destinations, but it was also a destination unto itself. There are luxury ships, such as Crystal Cruises, that use pampering as their draw, and much smaller adventure-based cruises designed to tempt customers with the allure of exploring far-flung locales. The experience on all of them is radically different. Some stay in port a few hours, others a few days.
“If cruising conjures the image of huge crowds, tons of bars, 20 restaurants, a shopping mall at sea, or whatever characterization you want to give it, it’s fair to say, ‘This is not for me.’ But that’s just one way to do it,” said Navin Sawhney, CEO of Ponant Cultural Cruises & Expeditions. “We’re all about small, luxury ships. We simply place you in the middle of an experience where you can be present . . . physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually; in whichever form you want you can be present.”
You can be emotionally and spiritually present in Antarctica (starting at $14,320) or Indonesia ($19,000). Not all of them are as posh and elegant as the Ponant line, but it’s fun to dream.
My sailing change of heart was not because I boarded a massive ship with all the bells and whistles, or because I took an obscenely opulent cruise. I warmed up to cruises as a result of the wonderful people and crazy characters I met. Go ahead. Shake your head and call me cornier than Kansas in August, but I’ve formed lasting friendships on cruises.
Let me give you one more piece of gristle to gnaw. Cruises are easy. If you want to visit multiple locations, but don’t feel like packing and repacking your suitcase and boarding a plane every other day, ships are a surprisingly pleasant alternative. Some of the stops can be far too short, but think of your cruise as a Whitman’s Sampler. You can get a taste of a place, if you love it, you can start planning a return trip the following year.
If you hate a port, you can pretend it’s a maple fudge chocolate, which, as we all know, is the worst candy in the Sampler. Take a bite, put it back in the box, and don’t bother with it ever again.