My husband and I are not cruise types. This was our first cruise, an anniversary celebration for his parents organized by his sister, with 12 family members in attendance. In other words, it wasn't our idea. Given that fact, I'd rate our experience as a positive one, with reservations.
I prepared by reading lots of online reviews--most written by cruise enthusiasts, which were not real helpful in calming my particular fears. That's why I feel compelled to write this: for those who, like me, are not really looking forward to their first cruise! I also read "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" by David Foster Wallace, and would recommend it to anyone who feels too crusty and misanthropic to enjoy such a vacation. At least you'll feel like you have company.
We took a three-day cruise to Nassau on RCI's Majesty on the Seas, arriving at the dock between 11:30 and noon on the free shuttle from our hotel, the HoJo Port of Miami. Initial check-in was a breeze because we were so early. My husband had packed his passport in the bag we checked at the curb but was able to get by signing an attestation of citizenship. I carried my birth certificate and was fine.
After receiving our cruise cards (which act as money cards, ID and door key), we went into the "lounge" to wait until our group number was called for boarding. The "lounge" was just an open cattle-call room with uncomfortable folding chairs that were almost all taken. My sister-in-law and her family, who are frequent cruisers and gold members or something like that, went into a real lounge with waiters. The rest of us sat on the floor in the big room, braced against the wall until a cruise employee asked us to move so he could set up jugs of warm lemonade and water. We waited more than an hour to board, by which time the room was S.R.O, filled with loud, annoyed people and shrieking children wearing shorts, flip-flops, Hawaiian shirts and logo t-shirts. I tried to keep buried in my reading to stave off the onset of creeping claustrophobia--my worst fears were being realized, and I wasn't even on the ship yet.
Finally we were called and proceeded down the long walkway, at the end of which was the first of the omnipresent photographers. My husband is NOT into this sort of thing and tried to run the gauntlet. The photographer physically grabbed his arm in an effort to retrieve him for a photo we had no intention of even looking at, much less purchasing. He managed to squirm free and run ahead. I'm more the "whatever" type. I got snapped and pushed through.
I had read much ooh-ing and aah-ing about the ship's atrium. The atrium, like most of the Majesty, is an onslaught of fake-gilt, fake-crystal, and island pastels. Very 80s Dynasty, and the ship is only about 10 years old!
We went to our cabins on Deck 2 (the lowest deck above crew quarters). I can't figure why a ship wouldn't want to look like a ship, as opposed to what it does look like (any anonymous 80s cheap motel chain), but I will say that all the things I'd read about how cramped the cabins are were exaggerated. To us, the cabin was cozy, and had everything we needed (including the classic you-drink-you-pay beverages; one $3.50 Evian bottle had a broken cap seal and had probably been consumed and refilled by the cabin's previous guests). There was plenty of room for our stuff, a hair dryer, nice lighting, a cute little TV that played at least three channels of cruise promotional ads, and a great porthole. The bed was about as big as our bed at home. The bathroom was a bit teeny but certainly nothing to complain about. We spent many happy hours in the cabin avoiding everyone else.
After a well-deserved rest we walked (yes, walked) up to the tenth level to get a bite at the Windjammer buffet. This is what I don't get about cruises: Why would anyone wait five or 10 minutes to ride an insanely crowded elevator when they could exert a little extra effort and walk? Similarly, why did all the people at the buffet crowd into the tenth-level seating area with its insane noise level when they could have walked up a spiral staircase to the eleventh level, where the seating was open-air and practically empty?
I found some other places to get away from the crowds, including any of the fore or aft decks (which usually are crowded only at sunset when the camera people come); the promenade deck on 7; the library (we LOVED the library, although they could do with better board games) with its big comfy leather chairs; the Viking Crown Lounge on Deck 14 with its quiet guitar music; the Schooner Bar with its quiet piano music; and the gym. And, of course, your own cabin (Spiderman dubbed in French!).
Places NOT to go if you are looking for peace and quiet: the casino; any bingo game or anything in the Chorus Line Lounge; the Windjammer between noon and 3:30 p.m.; the basketball court; the midnight buffet when pulling out of Nassau. Attending the latter was the one thing I truly regret: Everyone on the ship was there, there was bad calypso music, and it eventually erupted into my worst nautical nightmares, the conga line. We fled.
Nassau was also insanely crowded. Tourists from several ships in port were lured by the myth of duty free merchandise that you could get at any outlet mall for less--geegaws that I can find in any American dollar store, and Cuban cigars aplenty. The hair-braiders weren't as aggressive as I expected, but tiny children hawking dollar bamboo flutes were constantly underfoot. We walked down Parliament Street away from the retail strip to get a look at the older government buildings (the roundhouse library that was once a prison was beautiful) and then walked to the pirate museum and bar, which was quiet and kind of adorable. There was even a spiritual-singing bathroom attendant. Free local maps were very helpful and we didn't need guides of any kind.
We took the advice of our Viking Crown Lounge waitress Gita (a saint) and paid a dollar to take the No. 10 public bus to Cable Beach for some uncrowded, beautiful swimming and lounging under a bamboo canopy. On the bus ride back we passed several amazing floats that were going to be part of an island holiday parade--yellow, turquoise and pink spangles and characters out of a tropical dream.
Our other port was Coco Cay, which I understand is often cancelled due to rough seas. It was the best part of the cruise for us. We weren't exactly making like Rockefeller on this vacation. The cheapest shore excursion fortunately was the one that appealed to us the most: good old-fashioned snorkeling. I had never snorkeled before and can say that if everyone had access to a daily snorkel, no one would ever need to use mind-altering substances. I spent the loveliest two hours of my life holding hands with my husband while following a large, strangely colored fish on a feeding foray. We also saw a stingray and a sunken plane wreck (real? planted by RCI?). On a tip from a lifeguard, we ventured beyond the breakwater into the deep, rougher area where I saw terrain I had only seen in National Geographic. It was spectacular. Coco Cay also featured the best food on the trip, a spareribs and salads barbecue. The carrot-and-raisin salad was great, as was the corn-pea-black bean combo. The ribs were yummy, but I think they gave me a bad turn later, indigestion-wise.
More about the cruise food. It was nice to sit with the whole family (divided into two tables of six) and be waited on in the dining room (our waiter, whose name escapes me, was Turkish and very sweet, accommodating one very picky eater with much grace without being obsequious). But I thought it was like a college cafeteria version of luxury food. The filet mignon was like rubber and not evenly cooked. The apple pie a la mode was not warm. The escargot tasted like salt. While the strolling orchestra was great, the occasions where all the waiters had to walk in a circle clapping their hands and lip-synching were just embarrassing. And I would like to punch whoever thinks it's a good idea to send a chick in a pirate outfit around to pose for pictures with me while I am eating. Breakfast in the dining room is a waste. The food is much better in the Windjammer.
I don't drink, and this caused some alarm among my in-laws and made for a sometimes-interesting hunt for beverages (don't look for soft drinks in the champagne bar!). At one point the virgin daiquiri I received was NOT a virgin, but the waiters were very accommodating about the whole thing. For other recovering alcoholics like myself, rest assured that as long as you have some clean-time under your belt it shouldn't be too hard to muddle through. I saw little of the drunken loutishness I had feared, though most passengers did seem to be constantly, pleasantly buzzed. On Saturday and Sunday nights there are "Friends of Bill W" meetings in the library. One gent said on previous cruises he was sometimes the only one to show up for these. But rest assured it's there if needed.
Entertainment: I went to the opening night cabaret, "The Beat Goes On," with "Your Cruise Director Parker," which was HILARIOUS but seemed skewed toward Baby Boomers or younger. I can't imagine my 80-something parents-in-law got much out of it. I also did karaoke as my whole family watched to see if I'd go through with it. I'm a good singer but I'm no star. But on the Majesty I was Streisand compared to the other participants--hands down the worst karaoke I ever sat through! If you can carry a tune, please lend your gifts to these people. I also played bingo for the first time in my life. It was a waste of $15 but it made my heart beat fast and it was a fun thing to do with the other gals in the family.
Weather: The nights were chilly, so a sweater is a good thing if you're cruising in winter. The days were comfy high-70s. I am not a sun-worshipper (melanoma, anyone?) but was comfortable in pants and short sleeves. For hard-core protection in addition to 30 SPF block, I bought a Chinese paper parasol in Chinatown back home (Chicago) before leaving; it got lots of admiring comments and did a bang-up job keeping the rays at bay.
Turbulence: I definitely felt the ship moving on the first night. Maybe it calmed down, maybe I just got used to it. It made for a really deep sleep with bizarre, vivid dreams, and the strangers we ate breakfast with the next day experienced similar deep-dreams. Neat!
Salon: I got my first pedicure--expensive but very pleasurable, although not the miracle callus cure I was hoping for. Still, I felt it was my duty to do something decadent.
Gym: I paid $10 for a yoga class that nearly killed me. I do yoga almost every day. IT IS NOT AN AEROBIC WEIGHT-LOSS ACTIVITY! Someone needs to clue this guy in ("This guy" being the same shaved-head British buffo who runs the salon). Plus he had the breathing sequence backward on the cat pose, and was asking us to do difficult standing poses on a slippery wooden deck. I'm sure their liability is covered. Very dangerous, though.
Money: It's a minor miracle that my husband and I charged only $150 on the ship ($50 for the pedicure, $52 for two snorkeling packages, $10 for yoga, various virgin daiquiris and his alcoholic drinks and diet cokes). And we spent less than $10 cash in the casino (quarter slots) and $40 on Nassau (drinks and gifts at the pirate museum, bus fare to Cable Beach and back, and $26 for three Cuban cigars, one of which turned my novice husband absolutely green). These ships are total money sucks. You can't leave your room without your cash card because you need it to get back into your room (clever of them, no?) and it is very easy to blow money on this ship. In addition to the drink costs there is the mall, the art auction, the gym classes, the spa and salon, the games...and when one gets bored, there's the casino! Since they only stick your bill under your door right before disembarkation, it would be very easy to lose track. Beware!
Disembarkation: a breeze, due to our sister's VIP status we all got off in the first group and were back at her condo by 8 a.m. Monday.
Overall: My snotty attitude should be obvious by now. Still, I had a fun, if not a relaxing, time. It was easier to get away from the hordes than I had feared. The yuk factor in the shows was pretty good, and the transporting experience of being in Caribbean waters made the whole thing worth it. Would I do it again? Doubtful. I prefer roughing it to doing time on a floating hotel. But it wasn't quite the "floating Vegas" experience I feared. If timid first-timers can relax and go with it (and watch how much they spend), a cruise can be a good, once-in-a-lifetime vacation experience.