A one of a kind experience
In a 1996 Harper’s magazine essay initially titled Shipping Out celebrated novelist, short story writer and essayist, the late David Foster Wallace was critical of cruising as a holiday option. David was also a professor of English and creative writing. This article of his appeared in the magazine with the revised title ‘ A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.’ That was David Wallace’s opinion.
However, there are literally thousands who are regular cruisers who beg to differ. Some have gone on five cruises; others have been on more than 12 cruises!
There is even one senior widow with means to match, who rather than stay in an upmarket retirement home, chooses to go on cruise after cruise in the same ship. She likes the way she is treated by the crew, all the cleaning is taken care of in a professional manner and the meals are excellent. There is nothing more she could ask for.
My wife and I embarked on our very first cruise some years ago when we went on a Royal Caribbean International cruise from Shanghai, China to Fukuoka and Kobe in Japan and then to Seoul and Jeju in South Korea before returning to Shanghai. It was a short cruise lasting a mere seven days. It was a unique and joyful experience.
Many Intriguing Stories
We had heard many intriguing stories about cruises… both good and bad and were, therefore, somewhat apprehensive. However, we both really wanted to experience this holiday option for ourselves.
We also took the necessary precautions and brought along some special pills to take to prevent sea sickness. We were joined on this cruise by a couple from Australia. The husband happened to be a schoolmate of mine from St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Both my wife and I took the special pills as a precaution before the ship sailed from the port of Shanghai. My friend and I enjoyed the experience but both our wives were initially affected by the cruise. It was not all that plain sailing for them.
They felt seasick, wanted to throw up and decided to retire to their cabins to lie down. By the way, cabins on cruise ships are given grand names i.e. stateroom. However, I must say that both recovered soon enough to enjoy the rest of the cruise.
Rough Seas and Stabiliser Fins
Crossing the seas to get to the Japanese port cities proved to be quite an experience as the seas were quite rough. However, modern cruise ships are equipped with huge stabiliser fins on either side of the ship. When conditions warrant it, like in this case, these fins were deployed and that helped a lot. I must also add that the rest of the cruise was plain sailing and enjoyable all the way.
Major Benefits of Cruising
We have gone on two other sea cruises since then and recently we experienced our very first river cruise. That is a whole different experience altogether.
So what are the benefits of cruising?
1.It is a very relaxed and enjoyable way of having a holiday
Yes, as you might have suspected most of the passengers are retired senior citizens… some in their seventies, others in the late eighties and a few in their nineties too! Quite a few are with their walking sticks and a some get around in their comfortable, high-tech motorised wheelchairs.
2.There is a wide variety of good food in the various dining locations on board the luxury cruise ships
Passengers can choose to dine in a formal setting for breakfast, lunch and dinner or they can choose to go for the informal, buffet options. We chose the formal settings because in the Royal Caribbean International cruise ships, you are assigned a particular table for all your meals. You are also assigned a particular waiter to serve you during the meals. In addition, there is no pushing and shoving especially by some uncouth passengers in the buffet locations. In the buffet locations too, you can also invariably witness a few passengers displaying their ugly side by piling food on their plates!
In addition, food is available at no extra charge throughout the day and even late at night, if you are still hungry. However, you will need to pay for beer, wine and martinis if those are your preferred poisons!
3.We were able to keep up with our exercise regimen throughout the cruise
We went for brisk walks on certain decks and were able to walk all around the huge ship. We normally aimed to complete three rounds. This was certainly a most pleasant way to exercise while taking in the lovely scenery and at the same time watching the ship sail majestically through the calm waters. At times, in the morning and also at sunset, the views were simply breathtaking.
4. The Eagerly Awaited Shore Excursions
We were able to make brief visits to interesting places when we docked at the ports of certain cities. These excursions were quite enjoyable but I must confess that these were often fairly rushed visits and somewhat overpriced. The best part, however, is that they are properly organised and comfortable transport is provided. The onus is on the ship’s crew to see to it that we return to the ship in proper time and before the ship sets sail again.
We are also advised by the ship’s crew in charge of the shore excursions on the difficulty level of each shore excursion. They even recommend the type of shoe to be worn for certain walking tours. In a few cases, even bicycle tours are arranged for the more athletic types!
There are cases of individuals who decide to go on their own to explore the city and in some unfortunate instances get lost or arrive late at the port. The ship does not wait for such passengers. It is their responsibility then to get to the next port of call in order to rejoin the cruise! Hopefully, it is a lesson well learnt.
5. Pack – Unpack – Repack
Unlike well conducted and escorted tours of cities with reputable travel and tour companies like Trafalgar and Insight in the United Kingdom, there was no need to pack, unpack and re-pack at each port of call. This was a real hassle during escorted tours. Here your stateroom travels with you and it gets properly cleaned and maintained twice a day by the housekeeping staff.
6. Entertaining Shows Every Night
Every night there are two shows that one is able to watch in the ship’s large, grand and comfortable theatre. If you decide to go for an early dinner, then you can opt to catch the second show for the night. Those who decide to go for a later dinner are able to catch the first show.
These daily shows last for about an hour plus and feature mostly talented crew members. Occasionally, some of the entertainers come on board at certain ports. Though these are not great shows, they are nevertheless quite entertaining. There is a different show each night. While the show is on, waiters and waitresses walk up and down the aisle taking your orders for drinks.
7. Other Facilities and Services
For those who love to gamble, all these cruise ships have casinos which only operate while we are in the open seas. The casinos are closed while the ship is in port. We gave this activity a miss because it is not our cup of tea! There were many who we noticed making a beeline for the casino when the ship was at sea. We chose instead to spend time in the comfortable library which was most conducive for some light reading. At other times, we joined a few passengers and played deck games.
8. Shop till you drop
And for those who like to shop, these big cruise ships have shops where you can shop till you drop. There are shops selling watches, pens, clothes, liquor, sweaters and shawls etc.
9. Swimming pools
There is also a decent sized gym on board and usually at least two swimming pools within the ship.
10. Personal care
In addition, these ships also have a beauty parlour for the ladies and a spa for those who wish to be pampered with a variety of massage options.
11. Delightful Champagne Jazz Brunch
Finally, for those looking for that extra oomph, there are usually a few speciality restaurants on board each cruise ship. One has to pay a fee of between US 10 to US 25 per head to dine in these restaurants. We felt the food was good enough on board the ship and so did not opt for this extra.
However, on one of our cruises, we opted for a promotion i.e. A Champagne Jazz Brunch for which we paid a mere US 10. It was well worth the price because the brunch and drinks were delightful and the jazz music by the 7 piece band was simply wonderful.
River Cruises Are Also Interesting
In addition to that first cruise, we also went on a Baltic cruise with RCI and a Mediterranean cruise with Norwegian Cruise Line. Of the three cruises, I rate the Mediterranean Cruise the best thus far.
It was simply very relaxing, the seas were super calm and delightful and the seas seemed to shimmer with a beautiful shade of blue and green. By the way, NCL is partly owned by a Malaysian gaming company that is based in Genting Highlands in Pahang, Malaysia. Cruising with NCL offers one the opportunity to enjoy their version of it, minus the formality of other cruise lines. They refer to theirs as “ Free Style Cruising ‘. They do not assign you a table, nor a particular waiter throughout your cruise. You are free to choose your table. In addition, there is less formality on board.
Cruising On The River Rhine
In September 2016, we went on our first river cruise with another company called Ama Waterways. This is a fairly established company and they offer cruises not just in Europe but also in Asia and Africa.
We decided that we wanted to experience a different type of cruising. We also thought that the majestic River Rhine would be a great way to enjoy this new experience. Our 7 night The Enchanting Rhine cruise began at Amsterdam and took us on a leisurely trip initially to explore the legendary canals of Amsterdam.
After that, the cruise proceeded to Cologne, where we were able to catch a city tour and view the imposing Cologne Cathedral. From Cologne, we moved on to Koblenz where we had the pleasure of a pleasant evening walking tour of the small city. From here we moved on to the impressive Rhine Gorge. We saw many quaint medieval castles here as the ship sailed slowly past them.
We had two options to choose from when we arrived at another ancient city called Rudesheim: either a Wine Tasting session or a Gondola ride. We chose the gondola ride and we were surprised when what was on offer was a ride up to a hillside in a cable car!
Well, I guess, the choice of terminology can sometimes give you a wrong impression. The ride up the hillside was exhilarating, to say the least, and the weather was just perfect for such an outing.
We continued on to other interesting towns like Heidelberg, Speyer and Strasbourg in France before returning to Breisach. The last leg of our journey was to Basel in Switzerland.
Differences between These Two Types of Cruising Options
In a sea cruise with the more established cruise lines like RCI, NCL and Holland America , it is quite common to have as many as 2,200 plus passengers on the ship together with a crew of 1,200. However, on a river cruise, the ship is much smaller and can accommodate only about 130 plus passengers with a crew of around 60.
The river cruise is much more sedate. There are no rough seas to deal with. There are, however, locks to contend with. So from time to time, we have had to patiently wait to go through locks before proceeding to the next destination. This marvellous engineering option allowed the ship to travel both upstream as well as downstream.
The staterooms are about the same size and like in sea cruises are thoroughly cleaned twice a day. On our ship, there was a tiny swimming pool, an even tinier gym where at the most only two people could exercise at the same time and a hair salon plus a spa.
All the meals were served in the main dining room which was small compared to the ones on sea going vessels. Those who did not wish to have a proper lunch or dinner could go to another part of the ship for a light meal. I must add that there was a free flow of wine and beer during lunch and dinner at no extra charge. At other times, one had to pay for a beer or a glass of wine. Water, coffee, tea and biscuits were always available for hungry passengers in the common and comfortable lounge.
As you can see, cruising is gaining in popularity and they even have cruises for young adults who wish to have a more rugged and less costly experience. In addition, to further differentiate, there are also cruises for the more well-heeled passengers …. these are more like 6 or 7-star cruises, with a much smaller passenger load and with loads of extras thrown in.
So do consider taking the plunge and go on a cruise. My advice is to opt for a relatively enjoyable and safe cruise especially in the Mediterranean, the Baltic region or even the Greek islands. Then go for a river cruise to experience the difference. And finally, if you are prepared to brave the seas and the unexpected, go for an ocean cruise.