Weekend cruises are hot: According to a recent study, the number of people sailing for two to five nights has grown more than 600 percent since 1980. And why not? You get all the...
Weekend cruises are hot: According to a recent study, the number of people sailing for two to five nights has grown more than 600 percent since 1980. And why not? You get all the perks of longer voyages (excursions, shows, nonstop food) and don’t use up all your vacation time.
But with as few as 70 hours between the first walk up the gangway and the last walk down, is there enough cruise in a quickie cruise to make it worth the effort?
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Four travelers took a cruise from Miami to find out. And they came with a second question: Is an 880-foot, 74,000-ton ship big enough to entertain four workmates with widely different views of what constitutes fun? Stepping out of the yellow taxi into the shadow of Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas were four archetypes of the ocean holiday:
Joe Cruise, a longtime big-ships enthusiast, who never met a Michigan retiree he wasn’t ready to drink a frozen mudslide with.
His cabinmate, the Sophisticate, a creature of the cocktail hour who would rather eat pâté than par-tay.
Turbogirl, a high-energy vegetarian multi-sport princess whose idea of kicking back includes an hour in the gym and scuba tanks at 60 feet.
And the Curmudgeon, a bookish cruise misanthrope who comes aboard with expectations about as low as a sunken galleon.
On a fall Friday afternoon, this odd quartet entered the embarkation hall to begin their 2½-day voyage to the Bahamas and back.
Eat, eat and eat some more
The first order of business of any cruise is to eat a meal (which is also the last order of business and all orders of businesses in between).
The Majesty’s forward dining room, the Windjammer Cafe, is a vast, glassed-in hall with twin steam tables, a carving station and despite it being neither lunch nor dinner time a wall-to-wall crowd. It’s as bright and cheerful as a greenhouse, with a pleasing view of the behemoth ships lining Miami’s waterfront.
The Curmudgeon plunks her tray down and looks around guardedly at the parade of large bodies in small clothes. Several raucous groups shout from table to table. A chubby teenager with brown Bo Derek braids, Daisy Duke shorts and a tiny camisole top follows her father gold chain, tank top, mullet haircut back to the serving line.
There’s just time before the mandatory lifeboat drill to get their dinner-table assignments sorted out.
The foursome navigates the rat’s maze of passageways until they find the Blue Skies Lounge, where the maitre d’ holds court.
Trying to change your seating time is a hallowed cruise ritual the Sophisticate, for one, is aghast at the idea of dinner at 6:15, an hour God clearly made for whiskey and hors d’oeuvres. But gaining an audience is like petitioning the pope.
Finally, the foursome is escorted into his presence at a table, where he sits like a Mafia don, the master seating chart before him. He sighs heavily, mutters something ominous, but grants their change to a single table at 8:30 p.m.
Partying and posing
The poolside Bon Voyage Party is still going strong when the quartet reconvenes below in the Schooner Piano Bar, just off the gallery of duty-free liquor shops, perfumeries and jewelry shops in the atrium.
Time seems to collapse on a short cruise. At this moment, half the passengers are dining, there’s a Jewish Sabbath service in the Windjammer, a hair-coloring demo in the salon and slot lessons in the casino (“Goooood. Now pull the handle. That’s it.”).
They’re setting up an art auction on Deck 3. The bars are full. And photographers are everywhere, creating a blizzard of forced-smile images. Already, there are several hundred snapshots of the cruise-thus-far on display for purchase, of course in the photo shop.
Dinner at Table 85 starts badly. A family separated between two tables glares at the foursome apparently the maitre d’ fixed one table snafu by creating another.
As the staff scrambles to find everyone a seat, the Curmudgeon chats up Scott Cohen, 41, a Harvard architecture professor here with his family to celebrate their mother’s 70th birthday. He, too, is slow getting into cruise mode. “There isn’t any architecture on this ship,” he pronounces. “But that’s OK. The ship itself is a piece of architecture.”
And then he’s whisked off to another table, to be replaced by Joel Schecter, a volunteer firefighter from Fort Lauderdale who is traveling with his wife and two friends. In true cruise fashion, Joel, a friendly Jesse Ventura lookalike, orders not one but two entrees.
Turbogirl negotiates the vegetarian options with Helen, the funny and feisty Caribbean waiter.
More than half the menu is ruled out, but they plod through the possibilities. Mixed salad for starters good. Fish? No fins, please. Pork? Um, that’s meat. Grilled vegetables and rice? Perfect.
Helen then calls over the dining room manager who, in a thick Eastern European accent, promises a custom menu each night. Even Turbomom isn’t this accommodating.
A late-night revue
After dinner, it’s time for the 11 o’clock “Welcome Aboard” show. The eternally perky British cruise director, Nicki Stevens, attempts to warm up the crowd. She introduces a sweet couple from the audience, Florence and Abe, married 60 years.
“What’s the secret of your happy marriage?” Nicki asks. Abe shoots back with expert timing, “Two words: ‘Sorry, honey.’ “
Nicki turns it over to the Royal Caribbean Singers and Dancers, and guess what? Far from the tawdry Vegas-style revue the foursome expected, the troupe performs with energy, originality and some genuinely impressive sets.
Time for a little shore play
The group awakes in the Bahamas, and the Majesty is tied up alongside two other cruise ships in Nassau, a very small town with a really big dock.
By 8 a.m. the retired military types on board have been up for hours, and half a dozen people are jogging or walking around the Promenade Deck. This is shore excursion day, and the foursome is fully booked.
Only Joe Cruise doesn’t have an early departure. His breakfast ordered the night before arrives as promised at 9 on the dot. At 9:05, he gets a call asking if he’s happy with the meal. His $42 “Stingray Snorkel and Beach Break” excursion is hours away, so he’s killing time on deck with a frozen mudslide, chatting with an Ohio couple. The Ohioans are killing the entire day, with no plans to leave the ship, and proud of it.
Turbogirl, meanwhile, is a few miles offshore, sitting in a diving boat preparing for her $70 shark-sighting adventure. After the pampering on the Majesty, she didn’t expect this two-tank scuba excursion to include any heavy labor. Not so.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” demands Latimer Wood, the 21-year-old dive master. “Did you think I was going to set up your gear?”
A few minutes later, she’s deep in the Caribbean. She’s surrounded by reef sharks, but she’s surprisingly calm, trying to block out the strains of the “Jaws” theme song. Down she goes, toward the wreck of the Bahamama, a party boat that sank 10 years ago.
As Turbogirl sinks, the Sophisticate is an hour into his tour of historic Nassau (two half-ruined forts and the impressive Pirates of Nassau Museum: $12).
His jolly van driver idles outside the shell-pink parliament building. Through a scratchy P.A. system, he alternatively narrates the sights, evangelizes for Jesus and shouts pick-up lines at any buxom passerby who comes out of the many watch and jewelry stores.
The Curmudgeon, meanwhile, is on a catamaran heading for Dolphin Encounters, a lower-key version of a swim-with-the-dolphins program.
“You won’t be swimming with them,” the instructor confirms as the group of about 20 settles in to watch an instructional video. “But you will hug, pet, feed, dance with and kiss them.”
Half the group climbs single file into a sea-water tank, where Exuma, a 3-year-old, 175-pound male dolphin, awaits. One by one, they get their kiss as Exuma’s trainer doles out herrings as rewards. It’s a kiss assembly line, at $92 a pop.
The Curmudgeon isn’t under any illusions she knows Exuma’s prime motivation is the fish but it’s a sweet moment nonetheless.
Dressing up and down
Tonight, cocktail hour for the foursome is in the Viking Crown Lounge, a crow’s nest of a bar overlooking the pools. But Night 2 is also the captain’s reception and “formal night.”
Some are fully into it, with tuxes and sequins and hair carefully done. Most give a nod to the tradition with a sport coat, like the Sophisticate, or a Little Black Dress, like the Curmudgeon. Joe Cruise refuses to go beyond khakis and a button-down.
The Sophisticate dutifully shakes hands with the captain (you can’t get the free champagne otherwise), then the group troops to the dining room.
The after-dinner schedule, as usual, is packed, with karaoke, a game show, dancing under the stars and a late-night pool party.
But the Curmudgeon wants nothing more than to read in bed. She doesn’t even hear Turbogirl come in, after her own long night at the comedy revue (funny), the midnight buffet (funnier) and the disco (not funny at all).
Sunday is set aside for lots of nothing on the beach. Royal Caribbean runs its own little island, Coco Cay, a few leagues north of Nassau, and the tender begins shuttling passengers over promptly at 8:30 a.m.
By the time the foursome makes the trip at 11, the best chairs around the rocky lagoon are taken and the rental Jet-Skis are already swarming. But they walk to the island’s far end and find a stretch of secluded, nearly deserted beach.
It’s a private little haven, a perfect base for a day of reading in the waving palm shade and wading in the warm shallows.
Back on board, the pace picks up again as a sense of closure descends on the ship. Only a few hours after the captain’s welcome, seemingly, officials are asking for bags to be put outside of cabin doors in preparation for an 8 a.m. debarkation.
Diners fret over the complicated system of tips expected by waiters and stewards, and there’s a final run on duty-free booze.
But there’s still time for some cruise fun. Turbogirl plays some high-roller bingo. The big winner is a woman named Joan (who, remarkably, also took the bronze in that day’s belly-flop contest).
Joe Cruise snoozes to the sound of Sinatra by the pool. When he wakes, all the chairs but his have been stacked and the crew is hosing down the deck.
And the Curmudgeon, inexplicably, finds herself in the Blue Skies Lounge, where 13 passengers are engaged in the Battle of the Sexes, a game show modeled after “Family Feud.”
From a curmudgeonly point of view, it’s a formula for disdain. What could it possibly mean, she wonders to herself, that she enjoys it?
The mystery only deepens. The last dinner is pleasant. Even the singing waiters manage to entertain.
The next morning, during the frantic scrum to evacuate the ship, the Curmudgeon spots the Harvard professor, her fellow anti-cruise snob.
“Hey, I had a good time,” he yells to her over the mob by the stairs.
The Curmudgeon replies, with happy surprise, “Me, too.”