September 8, 2013

Recent cruise mostly positive experience


---- — There was a time when an ocean cruise was considered the ultimate in luxury vacations. Fine food, elegant settings, exotic ports of call.

Much of that luster has rubbed off in recent years, however, as the cruise industry has absorbed negative publicity. Norovirus outbreaks. Pirate attacks. A sinking off the coast of Italy. An engine fire that left 3,000 passengers without working bathrooms for a week.

Minor annoyances like raw sewage in the corridors, though, can lead to price slashing and great bargains, which led my family onto high seas for a trip this August.

My previous experience with cruise ships was limited to “Love Boat” episodes in the early ‘80s, but now I feel like an expert. I think it’s something most land-locked neophytes should try at least once.

With hurricane season looming, the deals this fall are even more unbelievable, so there’s no better time to try. Here’s what you have to look forward to:

The first thing that comes to mind when many people think of cruises is the food.

First, there are ample buffets available at every meal. Think of it as living above a Golden Corral for a week. There’s also free room service, at any hour. I set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. every day so I could order a steak sandwich.

Those — and the 24-hour pizza bar — are only supplemental, though, to the dining room. There you are treated to multi-course meals from a changing and extensive menu.

Each day there were old favorites, like lobster and pot roast, alongside fancier options. At least one dish would be something adventurous: Frog legs, escargot, alligator, haggis, swamp bat, pegasus.

Once upon a time, these meals were formal occasions, but cruises have relaxed those restrictions. Sure, you can still wear an evening gown or a tux, but one gentleman showed up for a dinner wearing nothing but a Speedo, flip flops, voluminous chest hair and a derby. No one said a thing.

The drawback of the sit-down meals is that you get used to them. Used to an appetizer and dessert at every meal, and used to getting up and leaving without waiting for a check. I’d like to apologize to our waitress at Applebee’s the night after we got back. Sorry about that.

A new cruiser will also notice the service. There seem to be three employees per passenger. They’ll wipe your face if you get a crumb on it, they’ll remake your bed when you get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.

I wondered how they were able to accomplish this, but I think I figured it out: the stewards wear clothes to match the walls. When they close their eyes and stand motionless, you can’t see them.

Entertainment on the ship can be hit or miss, and it’s hard to completely avoid the karaoke. Still, there’s a wide variety of music, dancing, comedy, movies and stage shows. Should be something for everyone, unless you’re looking for your daily dose of “Judge Judy.”

In many ways, you’re cut off from the electronic attachments that control us on a daily basis.

To dissuade us from watching TV, for instance, most of the television channels were in Spanish, or showed various views from the boat, Particularly creepy was channel 26, which showed a view of me watching TV on TV.

Also, while the Internet was technically available, it cost about $47 per minute. Just checking on baseball scores — the TV didn’t have a sports channel — cost $5,722.00 on the trip. Roaming charges on my cell phone were even higher.

All cruises these days also offer casinos, local laws and regulations be damned. Heck, once the ship is out in international waters, there are no rules and guidelines. In addition to gambling, our ship allowed passengers to fire shoulder-launched missiles at schools of dolphins, and hosted its own deadly version of the “Hunger Games.”

Certainly there are negatives to cruising.

You have to have at least one disaster drill on board, and the lifeboats are a constant reminder of what could go wrong. Thanks, Titanic.

The pools tend to get crowded with children, and I’m certain a significant percentage of them are peeing in there; the water was unnaturally salty and warm.

Speaking of which, there’s also the specter of what happened to the Carnival Triumph, the ship that lost power and bathroom facilities on the so-called “poop cruise.” We were told not to worry about that slim possibility — but each of us was given an emergency colostomy bag, and we were assured that crew members have now been trained to hold you while you, you know, do your business over the rail.

There are also hidden charges to watch out for. Most cruises automatically add tips to your bill. This can save you time and trouble, sure, but if you want to adjust a tip downward for poor service, it can be tricky. It can also be dangerous, since the steward hidden in your room could easily place a deadly coral snake underneath your pillow.

Still, all things considered, I say call your travel agent, right now.

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