Remember the end of the 1985 movie Cocoon when all the rejuvenated elderly folks went with the aliens to their world where people never get ill, age or die? Well, they’re back with a vengeance and I think I know where – Royal Caribbean’s cruise ship, The Navigator of the Seas.
It all started with an innocuous email in my inbox way back in April – an announcement that Royal Caribbean had made a sudden decision to reposition one of its ships (originally meant to winter in and around Dubai) from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean. This meant an entirely empty ship desperate for passengers with prices to match. Sitting there in my office, swamped with work, the prospect of quitting my job to travel the world looming large – suddenly the idea of spending days on end doing nothing but staring at the big blue sea, without a care in the world while traversing the Atlantic, book in one hand, a shrimp cocktail in the other, was wildly intoxicating. And since I would already be in the general vicinity at the time of sailing, the rock bottom pricing was impossible to refuse. For those who have never cruised before, a cruise vacation is somewhat like having a floating hotel, ferrying you to various ports-of-call to enjoy during the day, while filling up your nights with gourmet meals and slightly cheesy entertainment. In some ways, the ship is even a destination in itself with shops, bars, casinos, specialty restaurants and in the case of the Navigator, a rock climbing wall and an ice rink.
So it was that I found myself boarding the ship in Rome along with about 3,000 other cruisers, with stops in Livorno (Italy), Provence (France), Barcelona and the seaside town of Cartegena (Spain) and the archipelago islands of the Azores (Portugal). Days were spent taking excursions to Pisa (the tower was much prettier and whiter than I had imagined. Warning: Shameful confession ahead… This was one stop where I did the tourist thing I usually despise and took the requisite picture of me propping the tower up. Sad, I know, but how can you not, right?), Florence (a shopper’s paradise with high end artisan shops specializing in the most beautiful leather and paper products), San Gimignano (a medieval walled Tuscan town famed for its soaring towers), Aix-en-Provence (birthplace of Paul Cezanne, home to a delightful farmer’s market) and Marseille with its picturesque old harbor…
The sailing reached an exciting climax early on when we found ourselves in the middle of a weather phenomenon known as a medicane, a Mediterranean hurricane, with sustained winds in excess of 90 mph, forcing the ship to stay in port for an extra day in France and foregoing the stop in Portugal. The ship rocked back and forth so much that passengers looked like people badly failing a drunk driving test trying to walk in a straight line…
Something else I was apprehensive about was what to do on those 9 long days at sea. Turns out I shouldn’t have worried as every day was a race from one activity to another, including highly competitive trivia three times a day (“What is the literary collective noun for a group of owls?”) fighting tooth and nail for cheap Royal Caribbean promotional umbrellas and caps (if bought in the gift shop = useless junk. However, same items won in a trivia game = priceless heirlooms), crew vs. guest volleyball and line dancing by the pool deck. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen 60 seniors doing the Electric Slide… Aaaaaaand grapevine!
From my very unscientific data gathering, the typical transatlantic cruiser would seem to be comfortably retired, about 68 years old and possessing a propensity towards enormous buffets. It doesn’t help that there’s in essence a buffet 3 times a day, with options of ordering however much you want from a menu in the dining room (“Actually, I WILL have three appetizers, thank you for asking!”) to a casual buffet restaurant with at least 50-60 meal options, from miso soup to roast turkey to pizza and burgers and everything in between. Free food + non-stop food = an average weight gain of 2lbs per day (lunch literally starts half an hour after breakfast finishes, meaning it was physically impossible to feel any type of hunger for two solid weeks). The first few days, I found myself running around wanting to try everything (and feeling faint afterwards. Fried hashbrowns AND sauteed potatoes for breakfast? I’m talking Sophie’s Choice here). Sure, there are “healthy” options of salmon, grilled chicken breast, steamed vegetables, etc., but where’s the fun in that? I was finally home! I had found… “my people”.
All kidding aside, I found myself bonding with really nice people over trivia (shout out to teammates Efren and Maria!), the odd Scrabble game in the card room overrun by old Chinese ladies playing Mahjong much to the chagrin of the Balderdash / cribbage players (“They really need to have a separate room for those noisy games!”) and really long dinners.
The dining room table dynamic on a cruise ship is a strange one. Put ten people from differing socio-economic classes together every night for at least an hour and a half for 14 dinners (if you’re counting, that’s 21 hours of conversation…) and mundane dialogue centering on past cruising experiences imperceptibly move on to deep dark family secrets, youthful indiscretions and embarrassing stories. Perhaps it’s the thought that you’ll never see these people ever again? Or the camaraderie that comes from being on the same vessel in the middle of the ocean? In any case, scintillating…
Evenings were filled with shows ranging from the ship’s own singers and dancers to specialty acts brought on at various ports to perform magic, hypnosis, comedy, acrobatics, Motown, piano playing and more. While cruise ship entertainment leans towards the cheesy (hence all the Simon Cowell references), I found the few shows I did go to mildly-to-rather entertaining. There were even ice skaters admirably performing jumps and spins in the small but very popular ice rink onboard.
If you’ve ever exclaimed, “I wish there were more hours in a day!”, then a transatlantic cruise is for you. To make up the time difference, an extra hour is added on select sea days, meaning you could go to that 11pm karaoke competition or poolside buffet under the stars and still get your beauty rest.
Overall, the cruise was a great chance to decompress, do nothing & everything and travel in style back to North America. Oh, and by the way, a group of owls is a “parliament”. Just send me a Royal Caribbean keychain when you end up winning the trivia…
Editor’s Note: A few days after posting this blog and submitting it on CruiseCritic, it won review of the week. Totebag coming my way! Woo hoo!
Travel tips: (1) I first heard of this deal through Travel Zoo, a great weekly e-newsletter that scours thousands of deals to produce a list of the Top 20 travel values of the week. While you may rarely be able to take advantage of the deals, it’s worth signing up because you never know when something might come along. Besides, it’s fun to see what kind of deals are out there. Before seeing the email, taking a cruise wasn’t even on my radar. But I’m glad I did. I ended up paying a base fare of $499 (for a total of $890 including a single supplement and all taxes). I also got $100 shipboard credit which I applied towards the gratuities and a $60 dinner for two in one of the ship’s specialty restaurants. All said and done, the cruise averaged just slightly over $60 / day for accommodation, all meals and entertainment onboard. I also used 20,000 fewer frequent flyer miles for my around-the-world ticket which made the deal too good to pass up. (2) I found Cruise Critic a really helpful site providing cruise line / cruise ship reviews and forums to trade useful information. There’s even a forum for every individual sailing, which meant that months before the actual cruise, people were already starting to get to know each other – sometimes very well. This particular group was forum-happy, creating a total of 3,400+ posts, of which 1 in 20 were relatively useful. The rest was evenly divided between non-cruise items such as the weather where they lived, relating makeups and breakups, medical conditions and past sailings with arranging cabin viewings, gift exchanges, slot pulls and trivia groups. However, it was useful for finding people to fill a group for privately arranged tours. The tours I went on in Italy and France were both arranged by motivated people on the cruisecritic forum and turned out to be cheaper / better organized / more efficient than the ship’s tours. (3) There were three specialty restaurants on board. Portofino ($20 surcharge), a great Italian restaurant, serving up a delicious giant shrimp risotto, succulent seafood skewer of scallops, shrimp, lobster with a raspberry tiramisu served with a shot glass of heavenly kahlua topped with cream. I also had Johnny Rockets (old-fashioned diner food, $4.95 surcharge which includes gratuities but not drinks) one afternoon, ostensibly for a snack but wound up so full, I had to skip dinner. Bottomless onion rings / fries, classic hamburger with all the fixings, and chicken tenders, turned out to be a lot of food! Don’t forget to indulge in the chocolate sundae afterwards. Watch out for the dance the restaurant staff do whenever “Johnny B Goode” comes on… (4) Getting to the cruise terminal in Civitavecchia (Rome) was very easy to do on your own. Tickets can be bought on the day of travel at Termini via vending machine. My advice would be to pay the extra 2.50 euros and go with a first class ticket. Seats are plusher and there is room to keep your luggage with you, as opposed to fighting for a seat in 2nd class. Just note that Italian trains are notoriously late, so leave yourself plenty of time. When arriving in Civitavecchia, you’ll need to schlep your luggage down and up one flight of stairs and walk about 7 minutes to the entrance of the port where a dedicated shuttle bus takes you the rest of the way to the ship. (5) Barcelona is eminently easy to do on your own. Forego the ship’s $10 transfer and take the blue city bus all the way to La Rambla. The subway system is very easy to use, taking you to almost all the major stops at only 6.20 euro for the day. If you haven’t been there, arrange to get to the Sagrada Familia in the afternoon when the around-the-block lines die down. You won’t regret the relatively steep entrance fee to see this one of a kind building that’s everything a cathedral isn’t supposed to be.