A dinner companion overheard me report that I'd just finished a Pacific Coast cruise aboard the Sagafjord and he was incredulous: "You actually like to cruise?" he asked. "How could you when cruise ships are so boring, confining, old-fashioned, claustrophobic, expensive, superficial. . . ."
I stopped his monologue mid-stream with a simple, critical question: "Have you ever sailed on a cruise ship?" "No," came his sheepish reply, "but my guess is I wouldn't like it at all. . . . Besides, I'll bet once you've done one cruise you've done them all."
Ah, I muttered to myself, better switch to a safer subject like religion or politics, for this exchange will surely result in a justifiable homicide. As my critical dinner partner persisted with his assault on cruising, I mentally dropped out of the conversation and the dinner and began to silently recall random memories of countless happy cruises.
A Tranquil Voyage
My mind drifted back a few months to an earlier voyage and the tranquil transit between Vancouver and Portland where, on the narrowest sliver of the Columbia River, I could smell fresh salmon and yell greetings to waving fishermen.
Entertained by nature's best quartet--clean air, spiraling forests, sparkling water and a collage of white clouds in a blue sky, I wrapped myself in a blanket, sipped bouillon and settled into a species of contentment that only cruisers truly know.
I stared, dreamed, drifted off aimlessly, and considered no decision weightier than what to order for dinner. And, as the Sagafjord slid serenely into San Francisco Bay carrying us (Fellini-like) under the Golden Gate Bridge, it seemed unimaginable that there was any other way to go.
On a cruise ship, any cruise ship, I will unpack just once, sleep on a generally comfortable bed in a typically immaculate cabin, awaken in an eminently discoverable port or to a rehabilitating day at sea, avoid hasty hotel checkouts and frantic airport check-ins, and safely know that however late the evening ends, I can walk "home" (in minutes) to my stateroom and not worry about the availability of taxis on dark city streets.
At sea I gladly delegate all responsibility because the "driving" is left to the captain, the itinerary is created by the cruise line, the cooking is in the capable hands of the chef and my social/activities life will be happily handled by the cruise director. Ah. . . .
And, though similar in their approach and desire to pamper passengers, cruise ships are as different from each other as the design of their decks, seas on which they sail and ports they plan to visit.
My silent reverie continued as I recollected an earlier cruise aboard Society Expeditions' World Discoverer that carried me (and 139 other inspired adventurers) to Morocco and West Africa. On that truly expeditionary voyage there was no morning "jogathon," "snowball bingo," "Roaring '20s party" or disco. Instead, an ambitious educational agenda included lectures--by shipboard experts--on "Deserts of the World," "Islamic Art and Architecture" and "An Introduction to Sea Birds." The latter provided me with a new non-marketable skill: the ability to distinguish between a whiskered tern and a red-footed booby. I was having a wonderful time.
Contrast that educational cruise adventure with the totally different--but equally exhilarating--experience of sailing aboard the 715-passenger Liberte, still preening after a recent $25 million face-lift. On it I will cruise to Tahiti and her islands in the comfort that comes with soothing pastel interiors in spacious air-conditioned cabins, two swimming pools and a fitness center.
In the wake of heartier "tourists" named Capt. Wallis, Cook, De Bugainville and Bligh, cruise passengers will swoon at aquamarine lagoons, then gasp at adjective-defying white-sand beaches fringed with coconut palms and condominium-size coral reefs whose underwater tenants dazzle.
Jagged volcanic peaks, whose sides are carpeted with lush green vegetation, will provide a nesting place for crowns of white and gray clouds.
Lush and Lazy
Aboard, a palpable Polynesian mood will be conjured by classes that suggest "101 ways to wear a pareu" (the Tahitian sarong) or how to dance the hip-thrusting tamure. Aloha-shirted and laid back for seven days, I will sun, snorkel, sail, swim and be carried by the Liberte to faraway islands with magical, musical names--Bora Bora, Huahine, Moorea--and be seduced, nightly, with front-row seats to the best performance in the Pacific . . . called sunset.
Unlike a train, bus or plane, a cruise ship is, after all, a nation at sea. Part of the inherent joy of each voyage is the cultural and personal exchanges that a cruise encourages between crew and passengers. Memories flood back of the gregariously Greek Stella Solaris, where I became an instant Athenian and apprentice Zorba as I learned to dance a spirited (ouzo-inspired) syrtaki.