[Author’s Note: This post got completely garbled when I tried to transmit it to the server using the terrible shipboard internet service in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. If you tried to read it before and gave up, convinced I had downed a few too many Bloody Marys, you might want to give it another shot.]
As I write this I am in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, just east of Hawaii, heading home on the final leg of a cruise on the Star Princess, 5 days from landfall. I am not an expert on cruising, as I found out during dinner conversations with other passengers, who casually admitted that this was their 20th cruise. Nevertheless I have bookended my life with cruises, starting out when I was a child, and ending up in my retirement. In between was work, and no time for chunks of vacation taking up more than a week of my time. But I do have fond albeit remote memories of those old ships and cruises, and would like to compare and contrast that era with today.
Back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, I traveled transatlantically or cruised in the Carribean on the Homeric, the Nieuw Amsterdam, the Rotterdam, and the Queen Elizabeth II. The Nieuw Amsterdam was the ship I went on the most, going on two Carribean cruises in the 1960s and a transatlantic crossing around 1970, just before it was retired from service. It was a vessel built in the 1930s and is typical of the design of the older ships. Staterooms were below, with portholes, not balconies. The public areas of the ship were on the superstructure: the Promenade Deck, Sun Deck, Lido Deck, and the like. The dining room was located in the middle of the ship, without windows, at the center of gravity to minimize rocking and presumably broken plates. Over the dining area a string quartet played on a little balcony. The ship had a gray and white hull, with two yellow, green and white striped stacks. It was a beautiful ship–seaworthy and sleek in design, unlike the topheavy behemoths of today.
In the public areas were shops, lounges, a movie theater, and a dance floor. There was no continuous buffet as is de rigeur on current ships. Nevertheless there were little buffets around the ship and no lack of food. There was no lack of activities, sports, and entertainment. In what would be considered an environmental horror today, I remember my father driving golf balls off the deck of the ship in a competition to see who had the best golf swing.
There was an open deck on which you could circumnavigate the ship and get fresh air, and a similar deck below, the Promenade Deck, on which you could do the same while protected from the wind and cold by windows. On this deck were pingpong tables and places to sit and play card or board games. I remember on my first cruise circa 1960 all the crew and sailors were Dutch (this was the Holland-America line), but even by 5 years later the economics of cheap labor had replaced them with crew from Thailand and Indonesia. Today the crew stem mostly from the Philippines and Eastern Europe, though the officers on this particular ship are Italian for some reason.
In contrast to the sleek ships of yesteryear, today’s ships are squat and topheavy with row after row of balconies. I like having a balcony (I am sitting on it now, watching the waves go by), but the result is an ugly ship. Life on the modern cruise ship is centered around the buffet, which operates non-stop and is always filled with people. Eating, drinking, and more eating and drinking seem to be the major activities on board. Because of the design of the ship, there is no deck that you can walk all the way around in the open air, without climbing up and down stairways. There is no Promenade Deck in the traditional sense. However, despite these changes over the years, the ocean is still the same, magnificent and mysterious. It has a vast calming influence and makes it all worth while.
Of the different modern cruise lines I have been on, Princess, Royal Carribean, Celebrity, and Cunard, only Cunard makes an attempt to uphold the sailing traditions of old. My experience is based on their ship the Queen Mary 2 (QM2), on which I have made several transatlantic crossings since retiring. The ship has clean lines and a better design. There are balcony decks, but there is also a deck around which you can walk in a continuous circle in the open. The ship has a large, beautiful library with comfortable chairs that face windows overlooking the sea. The ship I am on now, the Star Princess, has a puny library with just a handful of books. The QM2 has a tasteful decor, with less kitsch than usual. Overall it feels more like a real ship than a floating hotel, or floating buffet.
Make no mistake, I’m not complaining (too much)! Being gently rocked by the silvery Pacific Ocean and listening to the white noise of the waves is akin to Paradise. So enough of this! Back to the buffet!