Carry on cruising
Ship is the new hip but a bit of bluff is needed for passengers to maintain the image of a cool voyager, reports Rob Ingram Be particularly vigilant of the picture window cabin, as some will have a full-size vista of the lifeboat hanging outside
ELL, who would have believed it? Cruising is the new Noosa. More people than ever are taking a gangway to their vacation nirvana, and the spike in cruise business is being credited to a big increase in cruise first-timers.
More options in destinations and dining, activities and accommodation are changing the demographics, and the image of the cruise passenger from senior’s card to savvy. Suddenly, the ship is hip.
More than ever, the cruise industry is targeting those who haven’t cruised before. But while they may be the flavour of the month, rookies are still at the mercy of the regular cruise suspects. Few things are more galling for Tristan and Tamara, who have joined their first cruise for the cultural enhancement program, than to find that Norm and Narelle, who are there for the bingo, have gazumped them for the best dinner sitting.
This Bluffers’ Guide To Cruising will endeavour to equip the rookie with a little of the artifice and craftiness necessary to go cruising without being all at sea. Choose the cruise: Being in Sao Paulo on your birthday isn’t a good enough reason to sign up for any old cruise. Check it out thoroughly, and remember that the cruise industry can be very cute and coy with its euphemisms. When you notice that all the guys at the bar are gaily ordering foaming cocktails while the girls favour steins of draught beer, it might begin to dawn on you that the Broadminded Cruise you booked is code for gay and lesbian.
And if you’re the only one to dress for dinner (in anything) you’ll realise a No Pockets Cruise means clothing optional. It can get worse. Even some of the most sought after cruise ships occasionally do a geek cruise — esoterically dubbed Linux Lunacy or some such — which is populated by hirsute beings from Middle-earth attracted by the thrill of workshops on Digital Forensics Using Open Source Tools. Avoid large tables of them at dinner. The Booker Surprise: Book early or late. Book six months out and you can score early-bird discounts of up to 40 per cent, offered to get a bit of sales momentum going. You’ll also get the widest selection of cabin accommodation. Fares then become more expensive until a week or two before the sailing date when there’ll be a sale of unsold cabins. Less choice though, and you’ll miss out on early-purchase air fares if you need to make connections. Cabin fever: It helps to recognise cruise ship cabins tend to be smaller than hotel rooms, and to remember that the entire ship and its deck space are there for your leisure and social interaction.
With this in mind, you may save yourself the extra cost of a veranda or balcony cabin and spend it on a meaningful souvenir from a favourite destination: perhaps that unique armadillo breastplate of a Nicara- guan colonial freedom fighter. Be particularly vigilant of the picture window cabin, as some will have a full-size vista of the lifeboat hanging outside.
Use terms such as ‘‘ obstructed-view cabins’’ in your questioning to make sure you’re not taken for a rookie. Don’t, however, overreact like the honeymoon couple who phoned guest relations as soon as they reached their cabin to complain that they had paid for accommodation with a view but could see only the sheds on the wharf.
Some passengers prone to seasickness prefer cabins on lower decks near the middle of the ship. Dining-room dyspepsia: Menus created by celebrity chefs, and more casual and flexible dining venues, have revolutionised shipboard dining on many high-profile cruise liners. But others still have assigned tables for two or three dining sittings, and this is where the rookie can suffer heartburn.
Dining early may mean cutting short enjoyable shore excursions for the maelstrom of the family dining circus and a madhouse of cranky kids. It can also mean sitting in the middle of a dining room peering at a joyless menu while other passengers swan around the Lido Deck with a glass of champagne watching the skyline of Venice at sunset slip by.
However, as an early diner, you’ll be brushed up and ready to get the best seats for the cabaret when your cabin steward Ramon dances in the Folies chorus line. Late diners get the worst seats in the show lounge and suffer dining-room floor staff at the end of their tether, but at least they have been restored by a gin and jacuzzi before dinner. Nominate the middle sitting when there are three, the late when there are two. Looking after your interests: There are big changes on the activities agenda. The jolly entertainment officer who used to compere the bellyflop competition and the wet T-shirt spectacular is now called the cultural enhancement officer and introduces eminent authorities presenting lectures on 18th-century Spode underglazes or the mass and density of a comet’s nucleus (in return for a free cruise).
At least on some ships, bingo, trivia quizzes, aquarobics and line dancing still manage to survive. But if you do your homework on the activities menu of various liners, there’s little excuse to be bored on a cruise. Somewhere there’s one catering to your interests: cooking demonstrations, wine appreciation classes, digital photography, art history. But be selective: if you walk with a Zimmer frame, the extreme action climbing wall is probably not for you. If you like crashand-burn arcade games, don’t go to the 18th-century songket-weaving lecture. Staying afloat financially: Part of cruising’s appeal in this economic climate is that the cost is all inclusive. Or sort of. On checking in you’ll be given a cabin door entry card that will also serve as a charge card throughout the cruise. Maybe it’s the salty sea air but cruisers tend to develop terrible thirsts that can only be quenched by colourful alcoholic beverages, so there’s that cost to consider.
At some point in the voyage, James Bond fantasies could also propel you towards the casino, which also has a deleterious effect on your plastic. A photographer will snap you about 1500 times in the course of the trip and one of the shots will be the nicest. That’s a further cost, plus a surcharge for dining at the celebrity chef restaurant and wines at dinner.
Maybe the agent forgot to mention the fuel surcharge, which can be about $20 a day despite that fuel would seem to be fundamental to moving a ship about. (Some lines, such as Star Clippers, have dropped the surcharge in response to the economic crisis.)
Shore excursions, guides, shopping, souvenirs, day-today necessities and tips all need to be budgeted for. As you step away from the check-in desk, a staffer will step forward with a welcome aboard champagne. On some ships it’s complimentary. Don’t give the game away: OK, you’re fully equipped to pass as a seasoned cruiser. Just don’t blow it all with one dumb remark. Such as? Like the guy who asks if the ship generates all its own electricity. He’s usually told to look for the big extension cord at the stern. Like the woman who receives a final-night invitation to the captain’s farewell cocktails and asks why he is leaving and where is he going? Like the passenger who asks which elevator goes to the front of the ship.
Like the passenger who asks if you gain a day or lose a day when you cross the equator. Like the passenger who wants to know how the engines work if they are below water level. Like the passenger who asks what happens to all the unsold photographs at the end of the cruise. Bon voyage.