Cruises weren't for me, I thought, until a seven-day "thinking person's" trip from Houston to Mexico and beyond proved I was all wet.
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MY HUSBAND, RICHARD, AND I were going on a cruise. Those who know us said, “You’re going to hate it.” Those who know cruising said, “You’ll love it. You only have to unpack once.”
Admittedly, we didn’t know cruising, although we had been to sea before. In 1981 we took a rusty Polish freighter, the F. F. Zubrinski, from Baltimore to Rotterdam, a nine-day crossing that starred potatoes at every meal and Russian movies with Polish subtitles. The second I laid eyes on Royal Olympic’s sleek, two-year-old Olympia Voyager last spring, I knew she had as much in common with the Zubrinski as the French Riviera has with, say, the Port of Houston. Still, I was wary of this week-long Caribbean journey. Aside from seasickness and sun poisoning, my greatest fear—one not limited to cruising—was being part of a herd.
Happily, the Greek-owned Voyager is the smallest cruise ship departing from Texas, with room for 836 passengers. (The Carnival and Royal Caribbean ships that leave from Galveston can accommodate around 1,500 and 2,500, respectively.) She’s also the fastest cruise ship on the planet, capable of barreling through the seas at thirty knots per hour. Her speed allows more time in ports of call, which translates into shore excursions that venture far beyond quick jaunts to shops and beaches. But 836 people—or even 600, in the case of our less-than-packed ship—is still a herd, no?
Despite my misgivings, setting sail was thrilling. The thrusters pushed the Voyager away from the pier, churning up the filthy water and attracting a few seagulls, and a couple of guys on the dock enthusiastically waved good-bye as Richard and I and a handful of other passengers peered down at them from an upper deck. I’d fantasized a send-off featuring cheering crowds, colorful streamers, and a brass band, but never mind: We were embarking, with all that word’s promise of exotic adventures in an unknowable future. As we headed south through Galveston Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, with a Coast Guard ship and helicopter keeping close watch on us until we reached international waters, we passed barges and freighters with Asian names, oodles of sailboats and other pleasure craft, and a shoreline bar where patrons sitting outside raised their beers in salute.
And where were most of the other voyagers all this time? Down below in the reception area, waiting in line for an audience with the man in charge of the dining-room seating chart. As I later found out, many passengers have a horror of being stuck—every night for the duration of the trip—at a corner table by the bus stand or, worse, with creepy table mates.
Luckily for us, our dinner companions were a gaggle of travel writers, each with more hours logged at sea than Leif Eriksson. Upon learning of our novice status, they generously instructed us in Comparative Cruising 101. I now know that on larger ships, like those that sail from Galveston, the rooms are generally much bigger, and many more of them have balconies. But while a balcony would have been delightful, our compact deluxe stateroom never felt cramped, thanks to its clean styling, a large window looking out on the big blue sea, and a wealth of mirrors. (More than once I glanced up and wondered what my mother was doing in my room.) I found out that the evening shows on the big ships are much more extravagant, although I was thoroughly entertained by the Voyager‘s little flock of feathered showgirls and the Bulgarian singers who belted out songs like “New York, New York” and, bizarrely, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which they had learned phonetically just the week before. In a nutshell, everything—pools, dining rooms, casinos, and discos—is bigger on the big ships, which even have room left over for jogging tracks and small golf courses.
But we didn’t need such frivolities. After all, we were aboard the self-proclaimed “thinking person’s cruise.” I rooted for my fellow passengers to live up to this highbrow standard. I wanted to stick a gold star in the passport of everyone who sat through the informative but endless lectures on Mayan culture instead of feeding quarters into the one-armed bandits in the casino. I cheered for the few souls I saw reading in the library instead of imitating iguanas on the sundeck by the saltwater pool.
And me? Okay, so I slipped a few rungs down the evolutionary ladder, indulging in a pedicure and a steam sauna at the Jade Spa, sneaking out of a lecture on “The Blood of Kings” to watch Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors on our cabin’s TV, and eating three éclairs for lunch. (The sacrifices I make in the name of research.) And Richard? My high-strung entrepreneur didn’t so much unwind as unravel; by day two I wasn’t sure if he was extremely relaxed or in a mild coma from which he would occasionally awaken to play roulette or join a bingo game at tea time, shouting out two false wins within ten minutes.
Of course, everybody wants to know about the food on a cruise. After one day we were as conditioned as Pavlov’s dog by the chime of the dinner bell. Breakfast and lunch were mainly belly-up-to-the-buffet affairs, where the food was plentiful and crowd pleasing, with loads of fresh fruit, made-to-order pasta, and heavy ground-lamb casseroles. The sit-down dinners, on the other hand, were as bumpy as a stormy North Atlantic crossing; planks of freezer-burned, sauceless fish might show up at the same table with fresh, perfectly broiled lobster tails. As you would expect, the chefs handled Greek specialties like moussaka and dolmas with flair, but their interpretation of Mexican food was hilarious; we ordered guacamole and were presented with two chips and a thimbleful of puréed avocado on a plate the size of a hubcap. The wine list was almost as funny, with descriptions noting a “taste of gunflint” or a “hint of brambles.” The two formal dinners—with long dresses, dinner jackets, and hairdos from a bygone era—were like some Twilight Zone version of an eternal senior prom, complete with stiffly posed photos in front of a dreamy backdrop.
The seasoned cruisers agreed that this was not the ship of foods. So what? On this cruise, whose shore excursions, according to Royal Olympic’s literature, “pique intellectual curiosity with physical exploration,” the destinations are the thing. But at our first port of call, Playa del Carmen, our intellectual curiosity remained stubbornly unpiqued. We’d been to this area many times since the late seventies (and my, how it’s changed), so we passed on the excursions—the Mayan ruins at Tulum, snorkeling, cave diving, and more. Instead, we spent the day on shaded deck chairs staring at the turquoise water of the Caribbean. We did manage to get with the program in the subsequent ports, however, trekking to Lake Yojoa and the Pulhapanzak waterfall in the lush mountains of Honduras, tubing through caves on an underground river in Belize, and exploring the magnificent Mayan ruins of Uxmal and Kabah outside Mérida, in Mexico’s Yucatán. Nevertheless, while the death-defying hike behind the roaring waterfall was unforgettable and our Mayan guide at Uxmal excellent, these were still the dreaded group tours; we shared the underground river with a couple hundred of our shipmates as well as busloads of other tourists. Can you say “moo”?
Curiously, it was on the ship that we enjoyed the most seclusion. More than once we watched the sunset from the aft deck with no one but a bartender and a couple of flying fish for company. At times like those, when the sea turned silvery pink and the breeze was warm—well, we hadn’t exactly fallen in love with cruising, but we were definitely smitten enough to consider a second date someday.
Royal Olympic Cruises, 800-872-6400; royalolympiccruises.com. After a summer in the Mediterranean and a fall based in Fort Lauderdale, the Olympia Voyager returns to Houston for a series of seven-day Mayaribbean Cruises beginning on February 22; a nine-day Mayan Equinox Cruise on March 15; a twelve-day Eastern Caribbean Cruise on March 24; and a fifteen-day Trans-Atlantic Cruise to Genoa on April 12. Prices range from $797 to $6,060 per person (double occupancy) for the Mayaribbean Cruise to $2,156 to $7,670 per person (double occupancy) for the Eastern Caribbean Cruise.