A Reliably Fun Thing I’ll Do Every Other Year Or So

The luxury cruise is, often, a vacation to be endured: the rigid structure, embarrassing pampering, forced interaction, the terrible predictability of it all. What could compel a person to keep shipping out, year after year?

Kirk Michael lives in San Francisco and writes ...

 

Fort Lauderdale

We are way down here on America’s Wang.

A Chili’s Too is not a real Chili’s, and the worst time to find this out is when you’re shuffling into the restaurant after a redeye flight. Chili’s Too is the kind of ungrammatical sequel that makes you question whether the original was actually any good. My parents and I find a restaurant staffed by people method acting the undead in I Walked with a Zombie. My mother patiently explains to a blank-faced waitress what a mimosa is and my stepfather and I almost begin to cry when it is revealed the breakfast menu is no longer available.

We arrive at the lineup of cruise ships at Port Everglades and taxi past Royal Caribbean and Carnival and Holland America, all standing before our sandpapery eyes like unwanted exes: the petite one, the trashy one, the one that reminded us too much of colonialism. In my younger years, I dabbled with other companies, but now I just walk the one line: Princess. After seven sailings together, we’re well acquainted—the terry-cloth robe and non-melon fruit assortment and 500 free shipboard Internet minutes all await me. And, thanks to the mandatory use of Purell dispensers before entering buffet lines, I’ve never caught norovirus while aboard—knock on wood laminate.

Friends often ask why my family cruises the Caribbean instead of renting a house or checking into a resort. The answer, of course, is that we’re cheap and lazy. But beyond the cost savings of cruising, there is the revivifying effect of turndown service with towels shaped like swans, unlimited meals as healthful or gourmet-ish as we like, and vast piles of tableware whisked away to dishwashing machines we’ll never see. Also, by visiting several places for a day at a time, we never get as sick of any spot as we might at an all-inclusive. You can get just as sunburned at Sandals, but think of all the island culture on which you’ll miss out.

Our Platinum cruiser status moves us past several hundred guests in the echoing sweatbox of the passenger holding pen. It’s not without satisfaction that we flash the clubby sparkle of our Platinum club cards and cross the gangway.

We enter the Crown Princess through the art gallery, and the first piece I notice is a painting of two golden retrievers composed of Caribbean sea foam, looking at another wave puppy running towards a little girl on the shore, who is herself building a retriever made of sand. The painting achieves a deep symbolic meaning: golden retriever puppies are cute and we all want five of them. I hope the bids don’t get too high for this Kinkadian masterpiece at the champagne art auction.

We’re here for a trivia game in spite of some serious misgivings. Yesterday, to decide a tiebreaker, Zoe had representatives from the winning teams run to her podium to answer the question, “What is the name of the famous clock tower in central London?” I like to think about the insurance implications for Carnival Corp. had one of the biddies taken a header while sprinting to her. For this offense she was booed offstage. Did I contribute? Heartily.

Your vacation can’t really start until you gather your flotation device and proceed to your designated muster station for a speech about life vests and lifeboats and in what order to use either. The captain pronounces the full ship name in iambs (“the STUNN-ing CROWN Prin-SESS”). His announcement proceeds with the usual scolding about improperly disposed of cigar butts and cigarette ends, but includes one new wrinkle about how you shouldn’t leave your mobility scooter blocking a passageway in the event of an emergency. I wonder how many mobility scooters there must be on board to merit specific mention.

The first night at the Botticelli Dining Room involves a terrifying wait at the doors of the artificially starlit restaurant, as maitre d’ Sandro and legion assistant waiters show guests to their assigned tables. As we’re only a party of three, we will be forced to sit on seven consecutive evenings with perfect strangers—or, more ominously, people who will no longer be strangers after tonight.

Eleuthera

On a morning picturesque enough to be the background on a piece of Princess spam mail, we board one of the ship’s tenders—which is such a better word than lifeboat—and aim for the private beach of a Bahamian island with a name too similar to urethra. This is a warm-up stop for non-Platinum cruisers, who might be unequipped to deal with the rigors of sunbathing in an actual foreign country. Eleuthera is a throw-in island to whet the appetite for the anchors of your 7-Day Eastern Caribbean Cruise: St. Thomas and St. Maarten.

The vistas onshore are striped and rippling: sea in teal and Tiffany and turquoise, beach chairs with white slats covered by blue towels. In palm-tree-shaped shade, the temperature is exactly right. Lifeguards circulate in red hats, white polos and red shorts. One oversees a six-by-ten-foot children’s pool, and another looks after a couple half-submerged on a sandbar, sunning themselves to the color of their own ginger whiskers.

Snorkeling feels like too much work, so I walk out to the reef (as much as there is one) and look into quilted water clear as that poured from a Brita pitcher. A school of wee silver fish flits between my ankles and flashes prismatic rainbows. I paw at them like an ineffectual cat. My stepfather says the larger, yellow and black watercolor-backed fish are Sergeant Majors—they wander the bare rock and wish with me for more colorful anemones and corals.

At Sea

Tearing myself away from the postcard out the window, I arrive at Club Fusion at the conclusion of the family dancing class, which culminates in an electric slide to a never-ending rendition of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” Is it a remix with only the chorus remaining, or were there never any other lyrics?

We’re here for a trivia game in spite of some serious misgivings. A dozen or so teams of daiquiri-sipping pop culture experts, not unlike preschoolers, must be led with a strong hand. We suspect the Princess associate called Zoe, who shares with other cruise quizmasters an unfortunate fixation on all things Disney, lacks the necessary steel. Yesterday, to decide a tiebreaker, she had representatives from the winning teams run to her podium to answer the question, “What is the name of the famous clock tower in central London?” I like to think about the insurance implications for Carnival Corp. had one of the biddies taken a header while sprinting to Zoe. For this offense she was booed offstage. Did I contribute? Heartily.

Today, by asking things like, “How many lives has the cat?” we are headed for another bloated final score. Zoe is new to the Crown Princess and believes that you can just roll out of your bunk and bullshit your way through 20 trivia questions. About this, especially, she is wrong.

In the inevitable sudden death overtime, it again goes pear-shaped for Zoe. It seems three teams are tied at an absurdly high 17 for 20, and it’s time for another poorly chosen question. Zoe settles on “What country am I from?” (For all the future quizmasters reading this, in tiebreaker situations, you want to use a question where the answer is a number, so one team will be closest to it.) Her accent tells you she’s from England, while her nametag says she’s from Canada; the answer she finally accepts is “England and Canada.” And with that, the sun sets on her trivia empire.

It seems the one part of the tour that’s nonnegotiable is a visit to the Oriente nude beach. There is much snickering from the front and exhortations to “exercise your eyes.” The usual Caribbean aqua breaks into emerald and forest green zigzagged by Waverunners. The eye-exercising is as I expected: no chesticles, all testicles.

Club Fusion is a cauldron of uncontrolled rage. Some vanquished, prime rib-colored Americans are displeased, hissing curses under their breath and shouting (perhaps not for the first time in a public setting): “Where were you BORN?!” I want to believe that I would have interceded before the mob dragged Zoe to her cabin and made her produce a long-form birth certificate. We’re dead serious about our “ship” prizes—floating keychains, coffee mugs, passport holders—no matter how many we already have at home.

I learn later (from an eyewitness stationed at the bar) that, after the crowds departed, Zoe was a sad vision in white deck shorts, sobbing into her hands.

St. Maarten/St. Martin

The White Swan water taxi takes me from the pier to the capital of St. Maarten’s Dutch side, Phillipsburg. My parents rejected a shore excursion that required a one-and-a-half-mile hike, but are indefatigable shoppers, hardly missing a storefront along the main drag. Put the bit of inexpensive jewelry and tea towels between their teeth and they’re good for five to seven miles on the trot.

I am rescued by Lissa “Big Twin” Gumbs. We approach her wondering if we want a driving tour of the island, but she already knows we do—it’s just a matter of how long to make it. You say her name just like a regular Lisa, though not just anyone would look so fabulous in head-to-toe faux Gucci. Like me, she has the high forehead prized by Elizabethan royalty for signaling high intelligence; unlike me, she has stars and cursive script RIPs tattooed down her forearms.

As we tromp to her taxi, there’s that giddy feeling of approaching an anonymous van when you feel you might be kidnapped. The delicious trepidation is aided by the appearance of a “cousin” to assist the driver (there are a great many cousins in the Caribbean tour industry).

Lissa’s cousin, Greggory, sports an eye-opening orange shirt befitting his status as a Dutchman and wears his hair in Maartenian style, shaved to the scalp but for a small patch in the back (this fashion is Drew Gooden’s only immortality). Greggory’s grown his hair area out into braids bound with brown beads. He really could be Lissa’s relation—he has her slim hips and brown loafers, if not the same gift of gab.

Lissa speaks five languages (you get a head start by growing up on an island where the official tongues are Dutch and French and you’ve got a mom from the Dominican Republic and a dad from Antigua). She spent her teenage years in the Bronx. She never lifts her Louis Vuitton stunner shades and is highly quotable.

Lissa on whether to get gas or not: “We tank up unless you wanna come out and push.”

On her driving style, which could best be described as me-first: “You gotta force people to stop.”

On her concerns about my skin tone as it relates to visiting a beach: “You wanna get burned and roasted?”

On the difference between the French and Dutch sides of the island: “To be honest with you we try to live as one.”

On the driver she’s just cut off at a roundabout: “What you tryin’ boy?”

On the side mirror she clips going the wrong way down an alley: “It’s no problem guys.”

It seems the one part of the tour that’s nonnegotiable is a visit to the Oriente nude beach. There is much snickering from the front and exhortations to “exercise your eyes.” The usual Caribbean aqua breaks into emerald and forest green zigzagged by Waverunners. The eye-exercising is as I expected: no chesticles, all testicles.

As we pull away from the beach, Lissa is on her continuously-ringing phone berating what one imagines to be a disappointing lover: “I come all the way to Oriente to show you love, and it looks like you was hidin’ mon.”

Megan calls us to attention for a speech about island life. When she cups her hands around her mouth for emphasis, I see she sports what I feel is an underused nail polish color: creamsicle orange. She points to the dot of land owned by Johnny Depp and the spot down the road where Kenny Chesney keeps the good stuff. She mentions it’s a 75-dollar ticket if you’re pulled over for not wearing a shirt in St. Thomas. Among the group is a Speedoed European walrus who insists it’s “against his religion” to wear a life vest while snorkeling.

Greggory has a certain Chad Ochocinco insouciance. He’s all smiles and cocked eyebrows over sunglasses that are only removed once, when he has to check out “una morencita.” As we aim back toward the ship, Lissa fills in more of her outstanding biography. She always dresses matching (mostly in pants, to avoid tan lines). She’s got 16 years of taekwondo under her black belt. She’s a movie star and a party planner. She has a little twin sister who is crazy: “the corrupted one.” As we separate at the pier she explains her family’s role on the island thusly: “we run the government.”

St. Thomas/St. John

Having taken St. Thomas island tours several times before, we decamp immediately to the marina for St. John-bound catamarans. I’m pleased to see the crew of the Adventuress is all adventuresses—things are always better when women are in charge. They tell me to take my shoes off as I step aboard, and I do so with total docility, even though barefootedness makes me nervous. Our Champagne Cat snorkel trip team:

Name: Brittany
Role: Mate/Fin and Mask Hander-Outer/Fashion Model
Style of Wayfarers: Black and blue frames, reflective lenses
Tattoo: Jesus Fish on the inner left wrist
Provence: Jersey Shore

Name: Megan
Role: Mate/Sail Raiser/Informational Speech Giver
Style of Wayfarers: White frames, yellow reflective lenses
Tattoo: “Sea Angel” script on outer right ankle
Provence: San Jose, CA

Name: Teresa
Role: Captain
Style of Wayfarers: Black frames, black lenses (secured by croakie because she means business)
Tattoo: Coral and fish explosion on back right calf
Provence: Unknown—perhaps she is risen from the Sea Itself

Brittany is the most talkative crew person and sings along to Shaggy without irony. She remarks twice how surprising it is that there are two people from Connecticut on board.

After departure, Megan calls us to attention for a speech about island life. When she cups her hands around her mouth for emphasis, I see she sports what I feel is an underused nail polish color: creamsicle orange. She points to the dot of land owned by Johnny Depp and the spot down the road where Kenny Chesney keeps the good stuff. She mentions it’s a 75-dollar ticket if you’re pulled over for not wearing a shirt in St. Thomas. Among the group is a Speedoed European walrus who insists it’s “against his religion” to wear a life vest while snorkeling. He also does not excel at the freeze game for head counting—he must be unfamiliar with the film Open Water. Captain Teresa gets him straightened out.

Lowering myself into the sea, I notice most corals and anemones are missing by hurricane or global warming or coincidence. But there are clown wrasses and loads of parrotfish in pastel spectra and yellowtail snapper and tangs outlined in their own electric blue lighting. I spot a used condom in the water that resolves itself into a jellyfish and Julio Cortázar’s black eel that is a star that is an eel that is a star that is an eel. I hang out in the water until a green turtle finally appears, and just before climbing back on board an enormous eagle ray glides underneath me with a straight tail that I swear to you was five feet long. It’s so beautiful I could cry into my snorkel mask. Honeymoon Beach is what I’m talking about when I talk about paradise.

As we motor back to port, Brittany disappears belowdecks and returns for a fashion show that generates the type of leering interest that’s led a surprising quantity of gentlemen to write five-star reviews of the Adventuress on Trip Advisor. It begins with the Jersey girl in a long-sleeved Champagne Cat shirt from “the spring collection” which is doffed (but not before she incites a chorus of “bow chicka wow wows”) in favor of a short-sleeved version. She turns around to reveal a backside line drawing of our catamaran that can be put in motion with a memorably smooth sideways shuffle. After more bow-chicka-wow-wowing, the intrepid model strips to a white tank top and at this point I’m really feeling flushed from the heat (it’s the humidity that gets you) and the quarter glass of champagne I’ve ingested since it’s the name of the damn tour, after all. I shake my head at the prurient, voyeuristic impulse that sends people scurrying for their wallets—it’s obscene that she would take such measures just to sell a couple of cotton tees.

I want readers to know—it’s important to clarify—that I was thoroughly disgusted by the whole show and that I bought my own Champagne Cat merchandise for entirely unrelated reasons.

Turks and Caicos

The approach to Turks & Caicos is a good time for circuits around the Promenade Deck, with its exact distribution of time in sun and shade. The clouds have really outdone themselves—one hung over starboard is a perfect charcoal relief with hammered gold edges. We land on Grand Turk and will miss all of the Caicoses. Before me is a small, flat island on which the largest structure is a sprawling Margaritaville.

Downtown is dire—an asphalt track with the ocean on one side and hurricane-battered buildings on the other. The first attraction to which we are led (and in which we are the only guests) is an abandoned prison. For a penitentiary, it boasts an excellent succulent garden, and many cells enjoy a sea breeze. When operational it was easy enough to escape, as friends of Pablo Escobar discovered.

Lisa, who hails from Dallas/Fort Worth (two cities pronounced with irritating frequency as a compound word), is eager to talk books. She explains how James Patterson’s sales make John Grisham look like a little bitch. She does not limit herself to grocery store fiction and insists that she reads “in all genre.” Lisa describes to me a book called Islands in the Stream (“by, I believe, John Steinbeck”), in which all the characters die in the end, depressingly.

On our way to the next attraction, I realize that I would enjoy watching a reality show in which my stepfather asks people in foreign countries for directions and then attempts to follow them. Perhaps cocky from his string of cocktail hour cribbage triumphs, he asks where the Turks & Caicos National Museum is in a volume I would normally reserve for the discovery that my leg is covered in fire ants. We are soon finished with our explorations.

What appears to be an inconsequential van ride back to the ship is interrupted by a sudden DeBurghian Lady in Red. Her cowboy hat, hoop earrings, sunglasses, bangles, and polka dot bikini are scarlet, and enhanced by a tattered black cover-up that emphasizes the voluptuousness of her coquettish waddle. Her mother, seated a row in front of us, is frantic that the driver means to leave without its most vivid passenger—she’s panic-stricken that her baby might become “a black Natalee Holloway.”

He gives the vague statistic I hear often around the Caribbean: “we have one-percent crime,” though he adds the more interesting benediction, “rum that is better than cocaine.” Safely ensconced in the front seat, our vision in crimson chats us up, explaining her travels around south Florida for work, which is hopefully described as “modeling.” She sways out of sight towards her enormous Carnival barque—it blocks out the afternoon sun at the beach adjacent to port.

At dinner, our waitress Svitlana explains that the seafood skewer is “some fishes on a stick.” Exactly. We’d noted earlier that Svitlana has spectacular penmanship and uses a different pen when writing our orders each night. She speaks in reverent tones of a passenger who signed his liquor bill with a Mont Blanc, and my mother suggests she might “get acquainted” with the man. I wonder in turn whether it’s preferable that she not suggest the wait staff whore themselves out in pursuit of expensive writing implements. Mother agrees to be less lascivious at the table, but I think she would rather enjoy her role as Madame of the Seas.

After hearing about my academic history, my table mate Lisa, who hails from Dallas/Fort Worth (two cities pronounced with irritating frequency as a compound word), is eager to talk books. She explains how James Patterson’s sales make John Grisham look like a little bitch. She does not limit herself to grocery store fiction and insists that she reads “in all genre.” Lisa describes to me a book called Islands in the Stream (“by, I believe, John Steinbeck”), in which all the characters die in the end, depressingly. I agree that this sounds like a bad book and the Rogers-Parton number is preferable on every level. The next classic she’s read involves a group of friends who travel across Spain and France drinking wine and doing LSD in a VW bus. As I prepare to take a stab at the title of this Scooby-Doo fan fiction, the real one comes to her: The Sun Also Rises. “That’s by Hemingway, right?”

At Sea

Complete cloud cover and steady rain are ruining our final tanning opportunity. Miserable people wander from bar to bar inside, their bright beachwear subdued by frowns. A woman wearing a behind-the-ear seasickness aid drives her scooter into a crowded buffet line, selects three mini cakes and reverses her way out.

Still, I’m too stubborn to miss my constitutional. I get genuine ocean spray in my eyes and sideways rain dampens my right side. A ragged aqua wash trails not just behind but on each side of the slow going boat—the Atlantic is on some Oed’ und leer das Meer shit today.

Walking around the puddles is simple enough until you reach the ripping wind at the bow and get a firm push to your back as you round the corner from leeward trying not to slide down all the way down the deck in the wet. But a smooth sea never made a skillful sailor and live every week like it’s shark week and all that. And anyway, what kind of a man can’t make it at least three turns around the sunless Crown Princess? So I do my mile and hope that one of the Filipino men in coveralls speckled from endlessly painting over rust spots on deck will tell me I have to go inside for my own safety.

The last supper of the cruise ends as it always does, with the dimming of overhead lights that makes me believe we’re having a power failure but really indicates we’ve reached the apotheosis of ship culture: the Baked Alaska parade! Assistant waiters conga along, balancing blue-flaming dessert volcanoes, ducking napkin-waving cruisers and gritting their teeth to the strains of “Hot Hot Hot.” The dessert is subpar Neapolitan ice cream with burnt meringue on top. I’ve been eating it every other year from age 16 to 30. It doesn’t taste good, but it doesn’t taste like anything else. I can never get enough.

Image via Mark Guim/Flickr

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