Back in the 90s David Foster Wallace wrote an essay for Harper’s about a seven-night cruise he took. Originally it was called “Shippin’ Out” and was later repackaged in a book of essays entitled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” Wallace, to say the least, did not care for cruising.
At the risk of having my Gen-X male card taken away, I will admit that I never read that essay. Of course, given that I’ve written at length about how useless a Gen-X male card is, it’s not really something I care about. I did just go on a cruise, however, and I do have feelings about it, and I now intend to share them. Whether I owe any apologies to David Foster Wallace for anything I say here is something he and I will have to take up whenever I join him in Gen-X male writer’s Valhalla.
My last travelogue went over pretty well, so I’ll use the same form: a series of somewhat disconnected observations. It’s a pretty good form when you write about a thing you just did because, contrary to what most essays of recent events would have you believe, a great deal of life just sort of happens and meaning cannot be applied until much later, if ever.
In the meantime, I’m just left with these random thoughts:
1. I had never been a cruise before this. I never really had a desire to go on a cruise before this, in fact. What changed here was that the cruise was themed: The Celiac Cruise. A cruise organized by people with celiac disease for people with celiac disease. Something like 500 of the 3,o00 people on board were part of the Celiac Cruise, and they had access to a dedicated gluten-free dining room, gluten-free buffets, celiac disease panels and speakers and all manner of events catered to their particular needs. One of those people with celiac disease is my wife Allison, who was diagnosed six years ago. I am a celiac disease fellow traveler, both figuratively and, in this case, literally.
2. Traveling with celiac disease, or any significant food allergy or dietary restriction, is a major pain in the ass. Until you do it, you don’t realize how much vacations revolve around food and how much the non-food events of a trip are dependent upon when and where you’re eating and vice-versa. Wanna go on that group hike? If so, you’re not eating the boxed lunch, bunky. Wanna go to the museum in the Old Quarter? Not unless there’s someplace nearby with a gluten free menu you’re confident about (note: there won’t be). Wanna experience a new city like a local? Sorry, 85% of the must-go restaurants are off limits. Oh, and totally forget rural or out of the way locales unless you’re able to get a rental with a full kitchen, have access to a grocery store and plan to cook for yourself, because that cute diner or cafe on the high street of Podunkton-Upon-Tyne is almost certainly not safe for you.
3. Allison and I have made traveling with celiac disease work well enough, but it’s been hard. Now imagine doing it with little kids who have celiac disease. I can’t imagine it. So when we got on that ship the first day and saw the scores of families with the little blue “I have celiac disease” bracelets sitting down for a big meal and not having to worry what they were ordering, it was positively heartwarming. The next morning I saw a little girl with her mother at the breakfast buffet, her eyes wide open and her mouth agape because she had literally never been to a buffet before in her life given how dangerous they are for celiacs. “I can take anything I want, mom? And as much as I want?” I almost cried.
4. Last celiac observation: while we didn’t go to any of the celiac disease-related events besides meals, it was still a very good communal experience. Celiac disease is an isolating disease. So much socializing, networking, and basic human interaction is done while breaking bread and that’s a big problem when you literally can’t break bread. Having so many people in the same place who get what you’ve gone though is a wonderful thing. People who, like you or someone you love, had to deal with medical providers who, as is so very often the case, didn’t take them seriously before they were diagnosed. People who have friends and family members who looked at them askance because they just assumed they were following some dietary fad. People who, for reasons that I will never understand, like to use “gluten free” as a synonym for “liberal” or “millennial” or “snowflake” or “weak” or something. Alternatively, people with friends and family members who, with the best intentions but with a lack of complete understanding, go out of their way to to cook for them without realizing that taking food someone gives you without knowing everything that’s in it or how and where it was prepared is like a low stakes version of Russian roulette. Whatever the case, just being around others who know your deal and to whom you don’t have to explain everything is pretty damn nice.
5. The first celiac event was a luncheon right after boarding. We were placed at a table with two other couples. Both couples were from Ohio too. You can’t go anywhere on Earth without running into Ohioans.
Now, on to the general cruise things.
6. Allison’s parents do not have celiac disease, but they do go on a lot of cruises, so they decided to go with us. You’re not exactly partying like hell when you’re planning vacations with your septuagenarian in-laws, but (a) they’re nice, fun people; and (b) they know their way around a cruise ship — it’s a culture unto itself — so it was a godsend having them along.
7. From listening to my in-laws and some other friends talk about their cruises over the years, I vaguely got that there are differences in cruise lines with some being low-end, some being high-end, some catering to families, some catering to adults, and that there were all kinds of tricks, rules, and strategies involved in planning the whole deal. There is also the “how many nights,” “what ports of call,” and “what onshore excursions” stuff to sort out. With the celiac thing setting the agenda, that was mostly taken care of. This was on Royal Caribbean (mid-range as far as a I can tell) and it was a three-night cruise out of Port Canaveral, Florida to the Bahamas and back (about as short and simple as a cruise gets). We got an exterior room with a balcony because people say you should do that if you can afford it. Even after going and coming back and paying our bill for it all I’m not sure we could afford it. But given that we weren’t sure if we’d ever take a cruise again, we figured why not. It was nice having the balcony.
8. Food is a big deal, of course, and unless you go to one of the higher-end restaurants on board it’s included in your price. You can eat in the main dining room — in our case the celiac-dedicated dining room, which was the same experience regular cruisers got, basically — for sit-down meals and order five entrees, two appetizers and three deserts if you want to. You can go to the big ass buffet and eat as much as you want early in the morning, late at night and almost any time in between. You can do both. You can just eat cake or pie from a cake and pie buffet or just grab a tray and put 5 glasses of pear juice, two plates of chana masala, 14 hot dogs and a donut on it. You can go to the chocolate fountain — yep, that’s a thing — and just fill up a bowl and lap it up like a goddamn dog. There’s no one to tell you no.
9. My understanding is that this ungodly food parade is a huge part of the appeal of cruising for people who love it and is a huge turnoff for people who end up not enjoying cruising. Personally I was prepared to be turned off by the gluttony but it was a non-factor either way. The dining room experience is a banquet kind of deal. A few set choices but a major operation, feeding hundreds, basically all at the same time. You may or may not like that, but it results in more reasonable, human-sized portions (things have to fit on a plate with those covers on it like the ones you get from room service, see). While the quality of the food is totally fine — the simpler you go the better it is, I found — it’s not SO amazing that you really wanna order 50 things. The buffet is a different story, but if you’re not into that kind of thing no one is forcing you to go there. I went up to it in the morning because it opened up early, the coffee was good and plentiful, I like to eat a banana in the morning before I have a proper breakfast, and it was a good place to hang out for that kind of thing before the celiac breakfast opened up downstairs. If I had kids with me it’d be a godsend. Either way, I can’t see how any of it is worth the judgey crap you hear about it from some people. Like what you like. There’s plenty to like no matter your taste and you are never under obligation to do things you don’t like when you have the choice. Let people enjoy things.
10. Booze is also a major consideration. You’re in the Caribbean in January. It’s sunny and warm and you’re stopping at islands and sitting by pools. If you’re the drinking type you’re gonna wanna be drinking — probably fruity rum drinks — and cruise ships have bars roughly every 11 feet, all of which serve fruity rum drinks in addition to whatever else you might want. I think cruise lines would run the risk of losing money on food if some hardcore buffet professionals infiltrated the ship with a well-vetted game plan, but they more than make up their money on the booze, jack. And they’ll get you no matter what your booze game plan happens to be.
11. The two booze game plans: 1. the pre-paid, unlimited booze pass; and 2. pay as you go. We did the math on the unlimited booze plans before we left and even though the idea is appealing — “drink all ya want, wherever ya want!” — you need to be a hardcore drinker and then some for it to make sense financially. It works out to like ten drinks a day at the very least, and they do not mix them weak on board which makes keeping up a problem. The only people I can even remotely see it working out for are those dudes on bachelor party cruises who wake up and crack a Coors Light first thing in the morning and then go the rest of the day chain-drinking like the old guys in the alley in “King of the Hill.” Even then you’re probably coming out behind. Or, like some women on a bachelorette party we saw, you’re engaging in some really messy scenes on the pool deck at around 4PM, God love ’em.
12. There are some higher-end cruise lines who include the booze in your price. I’m sure you’re still coming out behind with that, but it probably feels less like you’re coming out ahead because you don’t have a line item on your bill dedicated to the demon drink. If I ever go on another cruise I would consider this just for the fun of it. I’m older and more responsible now than I used to be so I’d probably survive. Probably.
13. We ended up doing pay as you go. It was still expensive as hell, but it was the right call. We also supplemented. Royal Caribbean does not let you bring your own liquor or beer on board — they search your bags before delivering them to your stateroom — but they will allow two 750ml bottles or wine or champagne. We did that, but ended up drinking only one of them, splitting a bottle of champagne with Allison’s parents on the last night onboard. We also brought two Tipsy Tubes — borrowed from a friend who cruises a lot — which are fake sunscreen bottles in which you can smuggle booze. We filled one up with vodka and one up with bourbon. The vodka one went untouched. The bourbon one started to spill a bit in the Orlando motel room we were staying in the night before we embarked, so I drank it that evening. Going forward I’d say that unless you’re the sort of degenerate who takes the all-you-can-drink package as a personal challenge as opposed to a bad choice, you probably don’t need Tipsy Tubes in your life as a matter of personal safety and general self-care.
14. We were warned before going that the staterooms are small. Pack carefully. Be prepared to not have any personal space. Suck in your gut a lot. This was not a problem whatsoever. The room was way larger than I expected. A queen sized bed, a couch, a closet and plenty of drawers and cabinets for storing clothes, and a perfectly adequately-sized bathroom with a shower. If you’ve ever Airbnb’d a studio apartment you’ve stayed in smaller places. If you’ve ever gotten a hotel room in Manhattan or London you have definitely stayed in smaller places. Maybe my expectations were skewed, but I can’t imagine coming away from a cruise and thinking the room was too small unless I was doubling up with people and using the fold-out couch or something.
15. Our particular cruise ship — The Mariner of the Seas — had something like 14 decks. It breaks down like this:
- The lowest decks accessible to passengers contain the entry from the gangway, a big club, and the casino;
- Decks 3-5 have the big dining rooms, bars and shops and things. This part of the ship sort of reminds you of small casino hotels in non-Vegas places like St. Charles, Missouri maybe. There’s an Irish pub! A bamboo tiki bar! A sports bar! A pizza place! An ice cream place! Some shopping that, I presume, appeals to your parents! Some theaters tucked away here and there for evening entertainment.!The place where all the drunk white people show up to at 1AM and dance very badly to a very average DJ and hope to God no one took video of them the next day! These are the “a little something for everyone” decks;
- Decks 6-10 are staterooms;
- Deck 11 is the buffet, the high-end restaurants like the steakhouse and the Jamie Oliver Italian place, the pools and the hot tubs (some for adults only, some for everyone else, and yes they do enforce it), and the workout facilities;
- Decks 12-14 are the crazy, over-the-top things like water slides, a sky dive simulator, a tank with fast-rushing water in which you can surf, basically, a running track and all of the other extreme attractions you see in the commercials for cruise ships. We’ve come a long way from Kathy Lee Gifford singing “if you can see me now” or Lauren Bacall saying, as smokily as ever, “you’ve got some Royal Caribbean coming.”
I’m still not sure how they squeeze all that crap on the boat because it never feels like you’re waking too far from one thing to another, but when you’re outside the boat looking at it, it does sort of look like a mid-sized city. They’re pretty well designed, I guess.
16. We got underway at 4pm on Friday afternoon. It was windy and the seas were pretty choppy just off Florida. The ship rocked a lot. The winds were so high that walking on outside decks after dark was almost impossible. I sort of took it all in stride. The only time I’d ever been on ocean-going vessels before that were a couple of charter fishing boat trips and on a family tour off of Norfolk on my brother’s Navy cruiser. Both of those tossed you around a good bit, so I just assumed that’s kind of what it’d be like on a cruise ship. Everyone else — including very experienced cruisers — told me that it was crazy and wild and that they’d never experienced anything like it. I saw a lot of people putting on those little anti-motion sickness patches behind their ears and noticed crew members putting stacks of barf bags near elevators and stuff so they’d be close at hand for passengers. I dunno. I didn’t get seasick and I slept like a baby.The next morning it was much calmer. Allison and I woke up early and watched the sunrise off of our port side balcony.
17. The Saturday stop was Nassau. If we had wanted to we could’ve done all manner of offshore excursions like hiking and swimming with pigs or dolphins — yes, those are things — but we were a little overwhelmed by all of that when it was time to plan it so we didn’t bother. Instead we enjoyed a half-empty boat for a couple of hours while hanging by the pool. After lunch we took a little walk off the ship and onto the main drag in Nassau, which seemed to exist solely to extract money from tourists from cruise ships. If you want a $15,000 Rolex, Cuban cigars, painted turtle shells, three touristy t-shirts for $30, or a quickie drug deal that the person making it didn’t think we saw, Nassau has you covered. We passed on the Rolexes, the cigars, the turtle shells and the drugs, bought some t-shirts, and took Allison’s parents to Señor Frog’s. After getting in there we immediately thought better of it and left to find a less intense place to get comically large rum drinks and to people watch.
18. Back on the boat that night we decided to eschew the gluten free dining room and eat at the steak house which, like all of the other restaurants on board, had been briefed by the celiac cruise folks on how to accommodate the celiac people. Steakhouses are usually the safest restaurants for gluten free dining, actually — meat and potatoes don’t contain gluten unless you’re unnecessarily complicating things — but they still went above and beyond, making Allison a special dessert and repeatedly mentioning what things were and were not safe without being asked. It was a really nice touch.
The steak house also made very good Manhattans. And the tiki bar downstairs after dinner made good zombies. And the pub where the guy was playing Steely Dan and Steve Winwood songs on his acoustic guitar poured stiff cocktails. And the club where all the drunk white people danced to a mediocre DJ — I swear, I was just there as an impartial observer — didn’t skimp either. By the time I stumbled to bed I was re-thinking my math on that unlimited drink package but doing a very poor job of it because math seemed beyond my capabilities at that point for some strange reason. The seas were calmer on Saturday night but I didn’t sleep as well for the same strange reason.
19. Sunday was “Perfect Day at Coco Cay.” Which is Royal Caribbean’s branding for the day spent at the private island they own. It’s kind of strange and super artificial but it ended up being a nice way to get rid of my hangover. There are a couple of private beaches on some crystal-clear water. You can rent snorkeling gear or take scuba lessons. There is a big water park with some pretty insane slides and ziplines and things and you can go parasailing if you want to. There are a couple of bars and restaurants, in one of which was a different guy with an acoustic guitar doing a comedy act, asking people where they were from and then saying “DON’T SAY OHIO!” before anyone could answer. Guess he had our number. We ended up just laying on the beach, starting with hangover-curing Red Stripe lagers (me) and Angry Orchard ciders (Allison) before moving on to Coco Locos which — shockingly — had rum and fruit and crap. I don’t even really like rum, but when in Rome, right? Best part of it all is that we planned well with sunscreen and had chairs with an umbrella, so we managed to lay on the beach and do nothing but read for hours on end and we didn’t even get sunburned. Pretty damn sweet.
20. Back on the boat on Sunday evening for dinner and relaxing. Most everyone else on board was watching the NFC championship game, so it wasn’t too crazy unless you were near a TV. Yes, they have TV on the boats. The big screens by the pools showed the games. In your room you get, like, two channels. Ours showed old “Doogie Houser M.D.” and “Family Ties” reruns which were way better than football. They also have Internet but it’s expensive and it sucks. We got it so we could text with Allison’s parents if we needed to — no cell service offshore, obviously — but it was mostly useless. Which is probably a good thing. I don’t need more Internet in my life than I already have.
21. We were back in Port Canaveral by 7am Monday morning. After one more quick gluten free breakfast we were off the boat by 8:30am, on a shuttle bus, and to the Orlando airport for our trip home to Ohio by 10am. Of course our flight wasn’t until after 4pm, so we had a long time to kill in the Orlando airport. At one point we were at a bar having lunch when a guy struck up a conversation with us. Wouldn’t ya know it, he was from Ohio too. What are the odds?
With that, the cruise was over. Since then, I’ve been thinking about it. Among my thoughts:
22. While I never considered myself a cruise person — and even if I still don’t know if I am a cruise person — I’ll have to admit, it was enjoyable. I’ll also have to admit that certain aspects of it all are good for me. I’m someone who has a hard time relaxing. Even on vacations I tend to over-plan and overthink and I tend to keep going and going when I should be stopping. I spend too much time online. Too much time thinking about this thing and the next thing. There is something to be said for the sort of forced relaxation a cruise provides. I laid by the pool and the beach a lot. I read a book and cleared my brain. You can do that on other sorts of vacations, of course, but I probably need a bit of a nudge to do it. The cruise helped me do that.
23. Service on the cruise was excellent, but I could not help but think about the people doing the serving and wondering what this all meant on an ethical level. Cruise ships are staffed primarily by people from South and Southeast Asia, South America and Africa. The ships are registered outside of the United States and they are thus able to avoid all U.S. labor laws even though they serve an almost exclusively American clientele operating out of American ports. The hours are grueling. The days off virtually non-existent. The pay low, though for some the tips can be substantial.
I talked with a bartender from India who said, quite genuinely, that he loved his job and I’ve read a number of things about how longtime cruise workers were able to save the kind of money which allowed them and their families to live happy and prosperous lives back home. I also observed a lot of servers and and stateroom attendants whose happiness I had no way of judging but who were unquestionably worked hard and have read a number of things about how the conditions can be so bad for them that cruise ships are called “sweatships” by human rights organizations. Cruise lines and frequent cruise ship passengers are quick to tell you that it’s all relative. That while these jobs are hard and low-paid compared to what we’re used to, they’re great opportunities for people from poor countries. I certainly had mixed feelings about it. It’s impossible to escape the fact that exploitation of poor brown people by rich white people has long been the way of the world. And, even if all service came with a smile, it was impossible for me not to think about that whenever someone brought me a meal or a drink or when the clean towels and sheets appeared in my stateroom.
24. Compartmentalizing that for the time being, I can say that I enjoyed the cruise more than I thought I would. I certainly appreciated that it was a trip that Allison could take without fear of getting sick simply from eating. Once again, I cannot thank the people at Celiac Cruise and the Royal Caribbean folks enough for putting it all together.
Where do we go next? Bermuda? The Caymans? Jamaica? Alaska? One of those river cruises in France with all the senior citizens who, frankly, are way more my speed than the drunk people in the club listening to the mediocre DJ? I’m not sure.
But I do know that the supposedly fun thing I had never thought of doing was, in reality, pretty fun. And I’d probably do it again.