As a world traveler and first-time cruiser, I had no idea what lay ahead of me. Cruises had long intrigued me and I thought they might be an interesting way to see lots of destinations in a short amount of time. But beyond that, I didn’t quite know what to think.
Any expectations I had were smashed to smithereens—in the most interesting way possible. Cruising was like nothing I had imagined.
The Mystery of Embarkation
Cruise security is just like airport security, it turns out. I show my passport, drop my bags on the belt in practiced motion, pose in the body scanner, and pick my bags up again.
I walk on board and arrive in what appears to be a foyer with a bar, surrounded by chandeliers and staircases.
Where am I supposed to go? How do I get my room key? And why does literally everyone else know exactly where they’re going?!
I peer over my handheld map of the Carnival Vista, trying to figure out a pathway. If all else fails, I’ll ask one of the friendly-looking bartenders who’s already dispensing cocktails.
Eventually, I find my way to the sixth floor and a room attendant kindly points out that the odd- and even-numbered rooms are on opposite sides of the ship.
I find room 6261, my key waiting in a cubbyhole next to the door.
So that’s how they do it on cruise ship.
If You Cruise Once, You Cruise Again. And Again.
I think about backpacking around Asia, South America, and Europe, having the same conversations over and over. “Where have you been? Where are you going? How long are you traveling?”
That is not a conversation you have on a cruise. We do, however, meet people for whom cruising is the only way they travel. While a number of passengers are on their first cruise ever, it seems like many more are on their third, ninth, even seventeenth cruise. There’s even a desk on the ship where you can book your next cruise before your trip’s even over!
“Are you librarians?” a southerner drawls behind us. I turn to face a smiling gray-haired man gesturing to Kate's canvas bag emblazoned with GET LOST IN THE STACKS.
“Oh! No,” she says, flipping the bag over. “I got this at a bookstore in New York.”
Now that the ice has been broken, the man leans into us, lowering his voice and raising his eyebrows. “You want to know something?”
“What?” I ask.
“I have no idea where we’re going.” He punctuates each syllable with a gust of air and laughs uproariously.
“Nope! My wife books it with my credit card and I just show up!”
Turns out our new friend and his wife cruise a few times each year, and she does all the research and planning. At first, it sounds crazy—how could you not even be curious about where you’re going?
But the more I think about it, I realize it’s not completely crazy. There are plenty of world traveling couples where one person does all the planning and the other is happy to go along with any destination or decision they choose.
When we talk to our fellow cruise ship passengers, they talk about their favorite cruise lines and ships. I had no idea there were so many nuances in how to cruise. Having your favorite bar, the best entertainment, or even a slightly more extreme waterslide can make or break your trip.
The one thing everyone can agree on is that balcony rooms are the way to go.
For our fellow passengers, the destinations are all about activities. Snorkeling with stingrays in Grand Cayman, cave tubing and zip lining in Belize, horseback riding through the rainforest in Puerto Rico. And because most destinations have a wide variety of excursions, trips are as relaxed or wild as you wish.
We soon learn about cruise traditions that seem foreign to us but are known to these long-time cruisers. On embarkation day, it’s not unusual for whole families to wear matching custom t-shirts with “CARNIVAL VISTA 2017: GRAND TURK/SAN JUAN/ST. KITTS/ST. MAARTEN” on the back. As the cruise kicks off, everyone dances on the upper deck as music plays overhead.
It’s a different beast, this cruise. And it’s a magnificent one. It’s just a matter of learning how to tame it.
Our Favorite People: The Staff
Kate and I end up befriending many of the staff on the board. Having traveled to nearly all of their countries between us, we have two instant conversation topics: how much we love their country and how much we love their food.
There seem to be more staff from the Philippines than anywhere else, and we have dozens of conversations about their islands and beaches. I share stories from my time working in Melbourne bars with the Australian spa staff. Kate comes back from her facial with some gossip from her Slovenian esthetician: Melania Trump’s village recently named a sausage after her.
And when Kate and I learn that two Thai waitresses in the sushi bar hail from Chiang Mai, the four of us start gushing about our favorite northern Thai dishes (cough, khao soi, cough).
The staff aren't just friendly people — they are outstanding workers. Their service and conscientiousness are perhaps the biggest highlight of the cruise.
When Flexibility Doesn’t Work
It’s our last shore day in St. Maarten and Kate and I have one goal in mind: to see the planes land over Maho Beach, where the runway starts just meters from the sand. But why sign up for an organized shore excursion to Maho Beach when we could do it on our own?
The day starts off well. We take a water taxi to Philipsburg, shop a little bit, pick up some cool hats, then hop on the public bus that will take us to Maho Beach.
Now this feels like our kind of travel. We squish ourselves into the bus, pay two dollars each, watch the island go by, and dance to the driver’s loud Latin music.
When we get off at Maho Beach 30 minutes later, we ask some locals how often the buses run back to Philipsburg. Everyone shrugs. “It comes when it comes.”
Kate and I exchange a glance. “It comes when it comes” is fine when you’re backpacking on your own; in fact, being flexible will often lead to your best travel adventures.
But I’ve heard horror stories—cruise ships do not wait for passengers. If you’re not back in time, the ship leaves without you, and you find your own way home.
Maho Beach is a blast. The planes land just feet above us and the rush is far greater than we could have anticipated. You can almost reach out and touch the landing gear! We take photos, videos, snaps and selfies, knowing in that moment that this was one of the best things we could have done on the cruise.
But all good things come with sacrifice.
We stay on the beach until all the shore excursion groups have left, only to end up in gridlocked traffic. The ride that took us 30 minutes to get there on public transportation takes more than an hour in a taxi on the way back. And we only had about an hour to get back to ship before departure.
Thinking the boat is going to leave St. Maarten without us, Kate turns into a manic ball of stress. “Did you bring your passport?” she asks. “We’re going to need them at the embassy.” I joke with the taxi driver about how, if we don’t make it back in time, we’re spending the night at his place.
He laughs. Kate is not amused.
It all worked out, and we weren’t even the last ones on the boat, despite being a few minutes late.
Secretly, I loved the thrill of it, and secretly, I enjoyed watching Kate fall apart (sorry Kate!), but we probably should have just done the shore excursion all along. We wouldn’t have had to worry about travel planning or scheduling, and certainly not about making it back to the ship on time!
An Exercise in Learning to Let Go
I wonder if traveling the world turns you into a control freak. Whether you’re on your own or with someone else, somebody is keeping track of tickets, figuring out sights to see and deciding where to sleep. Because if you’re not in control, nobody’s going to help you.
Going on a cruise means ceding most of your control. Your days in port are strictly scheduled. You can grab food 24/7, but the dining room menu changes each day, and there’s a rotating schedule of restaurants that are open. Plus, you definitely need to plan ahead for some of the ship’s best activities, as some of them happen at only one or two specific times.
In other words, on a cruise, you have no choice but to let go.
And you’ll be gifted a freedom that you didn’t know you were craving. You don’t need to worry about booking the right tickets or getting ripped off by taxi drivers or ordering food that will make you sick. You don’t even need to carry around your passport. It all just happens.
It’s glorious to unpack once and not have to repack your luggage every few days. It’s fantastic to make a quick call from your room and have coffee delivered by a smiling attendant in just a few short minutes. And if you have food sensitivities, it’s a million times easier to have the onboard chefs serve food you can eat and not have to explain the proclivities of your limitations to food vendors on various islands.
I’ll admit that it took me a little longer than expected to let go. But once I did, I was struck by how relaxing it was to simply go up to Serenity, the adults-only deck, and relax on a day bed for a few hours. If I’m backpacking, I’d consider that a wasted opportunity. On a cruise, that is the opportunity.
Cruising and traveling are bucketed in separate sections of my brain. Traveling is for independent exploration; cruising is for letting go and relaxing. You still get to see various destinations along the way, but a cruise gives you a completely relaxed state of mind.
Now that I’m a newly experienced cruiser, I get it. And I can totally get onboard with returning in the future (see what I did there?).
This post was created for Away We Go with Carnival, the destination for getting in the getaway state of mind. Head on over.