Cruising is such a huge portion of the travel industry and one we as a family had yet to experience. I expect it’s because we prefer to roam and discover at our own pace and the thought of sticking to someone else’s itinerary seemed a nightmare. Cruise Line International Association’s State of the Industry Outlook Report projects that over 27 million passengers will set sail in 2018. Wanting to try everything at least once and living just 10 minutes away from Sydney’s Oversea Passenger Terminal, we jumped at the opportunity to experience this first hand.
I expected that my kids would love it. The pools, the kids club, the activities all day long, buffets and dessert bars – a wonderland of sorts to my little travellers. I pictured long days soaking up the sun and splashing in the many pools together.
I felt like an observer over the 10 days, as someone who has travelled quite a lot. It was interesting to educate myself on the phenomenon that leads people to choose to cruise repeatedly. Here are some things that I noticed that were unexpected and made it unique to other adventures we’ve had abroad.
- A sense of community – There were almost 3000 people on board but over the course of the holiday you got to know one another whether you ever spoke a word together or not. Between dancing, karaoke, competitions, comedy shows, jogging or dining near to one another, faces became very familiar. We knew people’s names, careers and intimate details thanks to the comedians on board. We knew who could carry a tune and who knew the most about Harry Potter. The sloppy drunks and the folks who would fill a plate with 15 desserts at lunchtime. The feel of a small village at sea made the trip quite comfortable and homey.
- Exposure to new activities – I knew the kids would be busy and I’ve heard about the non-stop activities but I wasn’t prepared for the variety. In a relatively short period of time my children developed a love for Bingo, took part in an art auction, performed karaoke, laughed with a multitude of comedians, experienced 10 days of theatre and musical performance, perfected (mostly) dining etiquette, competed in trivia and lip sync battles. I reflected on this and how much longer it would have taken to have these same experiences at home.
- The Staff – When you purchase a cruise vacation you make a decision by comparing
itineraries and ships. Of course, these are super important, however, the lasting impression you walk away with is based on the people who made it so special. We developed relationships with our room stewards who made sure we had everything that we needed, entertained the kids with cute towel art and made sure to call us each by name.The dining staff who knew our likes and dislikes and asked about our day with warm and genuine smiles that made us feel so welcome. Yes, gratuity at the end of the cruise played a part and so did the questionnaires that offer up a day off for many good reviews, however, it takes a certain type of person to live on a cruise liner playing the role of caregiver and friend. Our three were more than happy to return and spend a large part of their day at the kids club because of the fun and kindness of the staff. Each employee’s name tag shared their home country and in the end our kids knew where everyone was from. We were surprised to find a fellow Seattleite on board…it’s a small world.
- The food – Everyone always talks about all the fabulous food on cruise ships and the weight they gained as a result. I suggested we try an experiment to eat healthy on board, just as we would at home. Just because we were cruising didn’t mean we had to be gluttons. I was the only one down with this plan so I took it upon myself to follow through. As a whole we were not jazzed with the food. It was mostly unhealthy, fried, sugar, oil and salt laden. The salad bar was hidden in the back and was the same every day. Then shockingly, on Easter it was replaced with a second dessert bar, what? The menu in the dining room really didn’t cater to two of us and on the first night I slumped in my seat thinking about the duration. Our waitress sat down next to me and questioned me in great detail about what was important and from then on special meals were made for Fiona and I throughout. At the end of each dinner service we discussed the menu for the next day and pre-ordered all of our meals. These were by and large leagues better than the menu offerings as I noted my other-half grimacing often. I was treated to the most fabulous curries that I’ve ever experienced outside of India or Sri Lanka. The Head chef was Indian and so I felt as if I were in someone’s home being completely spoiled with flavour. He also made sure we were not left out of the dessert course and created something special every meal for us. So yes, we enjoyed more sugar than I can’t remember when but it is completely possible to choose healthy eating options on a ship if you have the inclination to do so. Judging by the size of some of the rest of the passengers, it wasn’t much of a consideration.
- The pool – Sigh. This was not great and not at all what we envisioned. The two family pools were very small and filled with children eating in them. Not sure how their parents turned an eye on their kid’s behaviour but it was not kosher. We did not step foot in a pool for the last 10 days. Amazing! The hot tubs must have had 25 kids crammed in each double-fisting a soft serve. There was so much talk of kids urinating and shitting in the pools that we stayed away from the Lido deck and all the riff-raff that came with it. Instead we passed our days playing on the sports deck: basketball, mini-golf, ping-pong or took advantage of the clubs, shows and events. I left home expecting family time but for the better part of the trip found myself alone as each one of us wanted to do something different. What a strange way to holiday.
- Casual cruising – I had always conjured thoughts of fine dining and dressy nights at sea mostly from the Love Boat and friends and family sharing their stories. This idea sounds conservative, old-fashioned and horrific. The last thing I want to do while on holiday is have to get dressed up. We chose a family cruise line with focus on cruise casual, one that didn’t take itself so seriously. Even though they did have two “elegant” nights most people didn’t bother, hallelujah! Each night halfway through our meal the lights went down and the entire room broke into dance. The Macarena, gangham style, and Sia pumped through the room as the staff stopped what they were doing to party. How awesome! We absolutely love the idea of not taking things too seriously and this felt just right. I was amused by the “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – Oi, Oi, Oi” chatter repeatedly throughout dinner. Banter between staff and passengers. Stephen and I couldn’t think of something similar in America to compare this with. One person with a microphone eliciting such a loud and bonded response. Well trained indeed.
- Comedy Club – Hands down the best benefit of the entire cruise. We were treated to top notch comedians offering several different shows most nights and a total of 6 different comedians all together. Family “PG” shows and mature shows later in the evening made the night something to look forward to. Probably my favourite thing to do is go to a comedy show and here I was being offered up sometimes 3 shows in one evening and as a bonus the club was on our deck. We were spoiled with laughter – the best medicine.
I see the appeal of traveling in this way, the human connection is strong and that made for an enriching experience. Will we cruise again? I couldn’t say for sure. I feel the need to explore by foot and immerse myself in a place. I suppose that’s what we did while on board but as for the countries we visited they remain unknown to me. The time in port is obscenely short and you are left wondering if you were even there at all. As for the entire experience, I am forever grateful and richer for it.