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.
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.
The next three days passed in a blur of activity. I remember snippets: My daughter, dressed up for dinner with a flower tucked behind her ear, turning to me to say, “Hey! They’re playing my favorite song, ‘Hey, Soul Sister’! Again!” A sunset with my arm around my almost-teenage son. A discussion about the many varieties of cakes in the dessert line with a woman in a strapless bodysuit and fur slippers. Hunting for towel animals around the ship. A Carnival comedian noting, “Every minute you ain’t eating, people, you are losing money.”
On day three, we stopped in Cozumel, the journey’s sole port, where the list of shore excursions was long. For free, you could disembark, have your picture taken with Carnival employees dressed as mermaids and/or Aztec warriors, meander through customs to the tourist shops, and buy items like Mexican vanilla, tequila, and sarongs. There was also a fellow with a giant lizard you could touch for a dollar, and a woman braiding hair into tight cornrows, adding colorful beads. For varying fees, you could book excursions with or without Carnival. Before the cruise, we had already chosen to save sea turtles with a group called Explora Caribe.
Our tour leader, a young Cozumel native named Israel, drove us and the other sea turtle lovers to the eastern side of the island, where we met a few members of a committee dedicated to the protection of Cozumel’s sea turtles. A coalition of biologists, volunteers, and civil organizations, the group monitors beaches and assists with marking and cleaning nests and releasing turtles. They had been up all night finding our nests, Israel said. We were greeted warmly and led across the sand to spots that were ready for digging. Many of the newly hatched turtles had made their way free, Israel explained, but we would gently find the stragglers and take them to the ocean. Israel showed us how to dig (slowly and sideways). We donned latex gloves and got to work.
My son found the first baby turtle. “I feel one!” he shrieked. He opened his palm to show us a three-inch miracle. My daughter lay on her stomach to reach deep into the nest, finding another baby and placing it in the red bucket with care. When I discovered a turtle, it felt soft and wriggly in my fingers. I named it after Ash, who I wished were with us. When we placed our turtles near the waves and watched them toddle toward the ocean, I was thankful and thrilled and giddy. This wasn’t just a trip highlight but a life highlight. I eagerly shelled out twenty bucks for a framed photo of us holding our turtles and grinning like idiots.
On the Carnival Dream, free of worry about carpools, cooking, cleaning, or groceries, I became a trivia champion and also won a trophy for a scavenger hunt. We attended a high tea with live violinists and petits fours. We saw three musicals and two comedy shows. Each morning, my son woke early to circle our day’s activities in the “Fun Times” newsletter, and every afternoon, we were surrounded by families spending time together. An internet plan was prohibitively expensive (though not as expensive as the drink package, with its fifteen-drinks-a-day limit), which allowed me to remember what life had been like before smartphones. People talked! To each other! It was wonderful. Typically an introvert, I morphed into a chatty cruiser. I even rode both the giant waterslides, the Twister and the Drainpipe. Damn it, I was fun.
On the last night, the cruise director, Chris Salazar, came on the loudspeaker. As he’d done regularly from sunup to sunset every day, he began his announcement with, “Hello, Carnival Dream Family!” It’s the kind of cheesy talk you’d expect on a cruise. But the crazy thing was that we did feel as if we’d somehow joined a giant family out at sea, made up of people from all over the globe. It was nice to be reminded of the possibility of connection. In the morning, we would wheel our suitcases over the gangway and back into the real world, with its myriad problems, to jobs we were sick of and dishwashers waiting to be unloaded. But for one more beautiful, starry night, we would gaze at the moon over the ocean. We would dance, or drink, or share popcorn with our kids as Waterworld showed on a screen the size of our houses. We would eat three pieces of cake and late-night frozen yogurt. As we slept, the captain would pilot us home.
Back on land, heading into the hottest September ever recorded in Texas, we’d all need to remember we were family. But for four days, it felt vital to know that despite our disagreements and polarized opinions, no matter what we believed about science or gas-guzzling cars or democratic elections, we needed to see one another, to fight to keep from going (metaphorically and, in some places, literally) underwater. After all, there’s only one ship, in the end—and we’re on it together.
Austin writer Amanda Eyre Ward’s latest novel, The Jetsetters (Ballantine Books), comes out March 3.
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “When We’re Cruising Together.” Subscribe today.