One of the first fellow travelers I encountered in Galveston was a woman wearing jean shorts, bright lipstick, and a T-shirt announcing, “Oh, Ship! It’s a Family Trip!” I quickly learned that wearing a themed-statement shirt to board your megaliner is a thing. Later that morning at the port, as my children and I wheeled our bags toward the Carnival Dream for a four-day round-trip cruise to Cozumel, we saw shirts proclaiming “I Like Big Boats & I Cannot Lie,” “Seas the Day!,” “Warning: I Bought the Drink Package,” and “Official Cruise Ship Buffet Inspector.” My personal favorite was worn by a tattooed fellow with gelled, spiked hair and aviator sunglasses. His sleeveless black shirt confirmed that he was “Single AF.”
My seven-year-old daughter, Nora, who had just learned to read, gazed at our fellow passengers. “We are going to have so much fun,” she said.
I’m a successful novelist, the best mom I can be, and a loving spouse, but one thing nobody ever calls me is “fun.” My therapist once insisted that “reading can be fun,” and if this is true, then okay. But for the most part, I’m the mom who is usually absorbed in a book next to the Black Knight waterslide at Schlitterbahn, the woman at the edge of the party clearly wishing she could leave, and the school volunteer most likely to be shelving library books. In other words: not so fun.
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One evening a few years ago, in the middle of a hectic week, I was looking through a travel magazine and saw an ad for a Mediterranean cruise. I could not turn the page. Something inside me screamed, “You do not belong in this kitchen wearing a bathrobe! You, Amanda, belong on that cruise ship balcony, gazing at a foreign sea!”
The next morning, I woke up with a fictional cast of characters in my mind, starring a seventy-year-old woman named Charlotte Perkins. Charlotte, like me, wanted desperately to go on a cruise. I began writing her story, which I knew would be called The Jetsetters. I whipped out a hundred pages in a frenzy: Charlotte entered a contest for a cruise and won, so she and her feuding adult children packed their emotional and actual baggage and boarded a plane to Europe.
But then I was stuck. I had never been on a cruise ship. What did the hallways look like? I’d heard there was as much food as you wanted, 24 hours a day—could this possibly be true? Buoyed by my New York editor’s enthusiasm for the novel, I booked a trip aboard the Carnival Vista, at the time the newest and most insane Carnival cruise ship, which was offering a few ridiculously cheap cruises in Europe that summer in 2016 before heading to its permanent home in the U.S. (it now sails out of Galveston). My dear husband, a research scientist who has devoted his career to mitigating carbon emissions that vehicles like cruise ships send into the atmosphere (and who also hates crowds and buffets), stayed home with Nora while I took our two sons, Harrison and Ash, to Europe.
Our ten days aboard the Vista, as we sailed from Athens to Barcelona, were among the most joyful of my life. Wearing a muumuu and a big sun hat, I carried paperback Sue Grafton novels around the ship as my boys ate burgers from Guy Fieri’s burger bar, enjoyed soccer with kids from around the world, and played mini-golf. Each day, I scribbled notes as we explored a new port: Rome, Naples, Marseille. I took hundreds of pictures of the ship—the carpet, the theater, the infirmary, the spa. Harrison said, “Mom, if someone found your phone and saw your pictures, they’d think you were crazy.”
After we returned home to Austin, I was able to confidently write my novel, exploring the fates of my characters and often referring to my photos for notes. As the outside world began to feel more chaotic and dark during that election year, being able to board a shining ship in my imagination was a balm, even when things got tough for my characters. But, oh, how I missed being on a real ship! As David Foster Wallace wrote in my favorite essay, “Shipping Out” (spoiler alert: he did not enjoy cruises), “mysterious invisible room cleaning is every slob’s fantasy, like having a mom without the guilt.” Since I am usually the mother irritably cleaning up after everyone else, this had been a welcome feeling indeed.
I had become, in the words of the online cruising communities, a cruise addict. I wanted more fun. And so, in August, with my work on The Jetsetters complete and publication set, I booked four days on the Carnival Dream out of Galveston with Nora and Harrison, twelve (Ash, who is sixteen, had a summer commitment). En route to the ship, my car battery died, and the mechanic who gave me a jump told me about a woman who drove her BMW to the port and was so excited to board that she forgot to turn off her car, leaving it running for five days. Another customer, he told me, got a flat tire in Houston but just kept driving, wanting to cruise and damn the consequences.
I could relate.
We spent the night before our ship set sail at the Harbor House, the only hotel where you can watch ships, including our 1,004-foot-long Carnival Dream, pull into port from your window. The cruise business is clearly booming here. In 2018, an estimated 1.5 million passengers and crew embarked from Galveston, which is the fourth-busiest cruise port city in the country. Royal Caribbean is investing almost $100 million in a new terminal, the Disney Cruise Line is adding more sailings, and next year, Carnival will add a fourth ship, the Carnival Radiance, to its Galveston fleet. But it still feels very much like a charming coastal town. We wandered around the historic district, sampling saltwater taffy and ice cream from La King’s Confectionery and taking in the late-nineteenth-century architecture. Swanning around the Strand, the Gulf visible in the distance, Nora said, awed, “I feel like I’m in Paris!”
At the hotel’s breakfast buffet the next morning, I met Kay Hall, from Midland. Hall was preparing to ship out with her family and her best friend, Lorri Glover, whose T-shirt read, “This Girl Loves Cruising!” Both women, who work for Texas Health and Human Services (Hall as a nurse, Glover as a social worker), told me they were ready for a much-needed break. While Glover confessed that, despite her sartorial proclamation, this was her first cruise ever, another woman, named Vicki Edwards, cried out from across the spread of eggs, bacon, and fruit. “Honey, look at me! I’m old, but it’s my first time too!” Edwards, who lives in the Fort Worth suburb of North Richland Hills, was celebrating her fiftieth anniversary with her husband, along with their children and grandchildren.
Afterward, as we boarded and began exploring the ship, my children grew frenzied. Our room was amazing, my son’s burger was incredible, the 24-hour soft-serve ice cream machine was the best thing ever. We surveyed the four waterslides at WaterWorks, the two main dining rooms, the Pizzeria del Capitano and Seafood Shack, the basketball courts, the glass elevator, and the Cherry on Top candy shop. Our tiny room opened onto a balcony, a “Choose Fun” banner laid over the bed.
A cruise is packed with contests, and my children love a good prize. That afternoon, we headed to the spa, where Nora and Harrison filled out raffle tickets and I breathed in the aromatherapy at no extra charge. When the spa manager pulled out the ticket for the grand prize of a $150 credit and said my name, my kids erupted into screams. I triumphantly chose the 75-minute “Aroma Stones” massage. That night, tucked between my children, feeling the slow thrum of the ship’s engine, I felt cozy and at peace. As a working mom in a frenzied world, I rarely feel this way; perhaps my disconnect from reality lay at the heart of my newfound love for cruise ships.