Due to the extremely pricey and slow WiFi (a particularly bad combination) available on board, this post is being written in mid-ocean, but will be posted after I am back on dry land (but see update at end of the post). My wife and I are on the Royal Caribbean ship Explorer of the Seas. I’ve nicknamed the ship the “S.S. Geriatric” aka “The Golden Corral of the Seas,” for reasons which will become clearer below. Compared to my usual life of getting up early, working ungodly hours, taking call nights and working frequently on weekends, the shipboard environment of unlimited eating, sleeping, reading, strolling around the decks, and otherwise being idle is a form of Nirvana. I must also praise the staff and crew who are very friendly and solicitous. This is my first ocean cruise on a new style cruise ship, and my first ocean cruise since my honeymoon 36 years ago. Prior to that, when I was a kid in the early 1960s I went on two Caribbean cruises with my parents. It’s interesting to compare the current cruise with those remote but still vividly remembered cruises.
Back in the 60s the ship was the Holland-American line’s Nieuw Amsterdam (not the ship with the same name today), gray with white and yellow trim and two yellow, green and white striped funnels. The common rooms, bars and lounges were on the upper decks with names like the “Lido deck” and the “Promenade deck,” the latter completely enclosed with windows facing the sea and supplied with ping-pong tables. The lower decks, labeled A down to E were filled with cabins. Outside cabins had portholes. There were no individual balconies that I recall. The outside decks had wooden planking, and there was never an illusion that you were on anything other than a ship. The lines of the ship were sleek and the design was elegant. I don’t think the stabilizers were as good as they are nowadays. It was fairly common to get seasick on the second day out at sea.
The ship I am on now is certainly an impressive engineering achievement. But it looks nothing like the ships of that bygone era described above. All the staterooms have been moved to the top and outside of the ship, so that the vast majority of them have their own little balconies. This is very nice, but looks top-heavy and somewhat squat and unseaworthy compared to the sleek liners of old. The common areas have been moved down into the lower central part of the ship, without any windows to the outside. Here deep in the midsection of the ship is what could pass as a section of your local shopping mall, with clothing stores, liquor stores, bars, coffee shops, and so forth. If it were not for the gentle back and forth rocking, you would have no idea you were on a ship. And be forewarned that, other than the food at the restaurants (of which there is plenty, and pretty good at that), everything else costs extra cash. For example, even having soda required signing up for a “soda plan” that costs extra. I am so used to free WiFi that I was shocked that not only was there a charge, but the charge was ridiculously high. At 75 cents a minute, and being about as slow as dial-up, it cost about $10 just to check a few emails. There is also a Verizon roaming cell service available on board, but if you activate it you immediately get a text message suggesting you turn off your data plan, otherwise you will be charged about $20 a megabyte of data. So the phone and the Internet have been off, other than when I briefly turned on the phone in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the Verizon service seemed to work normally.
The biggest (no pun intended) contrast between cruising now and 50 years ago is the people. The average size of the passengers today is much greater than it was back in the 1960s. I remember as a child my mother pointing out a certain very rich but overweight woman on one of those long-ago cruises, amazed at how large she was. In retrospect I would say she probably weighed about 300 pounds, but this was quite an anomaly at the time. On today’s cruise she would have fit right in without anyone raising an eyebrow. I would estimate at least 80% of the passengers on the cruise are overweight, probably 50% in the extremely obese category. People propel themselves around in motorized scooters. At the buffet plates are piled high with the endless supplies of food available. A few younger people are seen in the gym or circumnavigating the track on the upper deck of the ship, but most are lounging on the deck chairs, waiting for the next meal time. Besides the heft of the passengers, their median age appears to be the late 70s. There are a few younger people on the ship, but not many. I guess cruising is a retirement type of activity. It was a reminder though that the median age has increased a lot since the 1960s. It’s a medical paradox that people live longer but seem less healthy than in the past. Finally, I think I probably am a little agoraphobic, so I am biased, but the ship is so crowded that it is hard to find a quiet nook to sit and read. Many people on board are loud and unruly, and, sad to say, the loudest and most unruly seem to be the Americans.
I don’t look back at the past as a golden age. I realize childhood memories are filtered so that we forget the bad and remember with nostalgia the good times. I know that in general things are much better now than they were then. But as is seen in the contrast between the people on my first cruises and of the people on this one, we have become a less healthy population who could use more laps around the deck and fewer visits to the buffet. And maybe we could be a little less loud and a little more polite.
UPDATE: Back on shore today. The last day of sailing was quite exciting, with up to 70 knots of wind gusts and 20 foot waves! The ship was rocking to the max, with food trays falling off the racks in the Windjammer buffet and plates crashing to the floor. I don’t believe anyone was hurt, thank goodness. But after such placid sailing this last day of rough seas was a reminder of the power of the ocean. If our mighty cruise ship struggled, it is hard to imagine what effect this weather would have had on those tiny ships of Columbus, making that transatlantic crossing back in 1492!