To the Statue of Liberty, it was a yawner. After all, the regal lady sees a daily parade of cruise ships heading for the Atlantic Ocean or back to their docks in New York City’s borough of Brooklyn. But on the decks of Princess Cruises’ Crown Princess, there was a noisy sail-away party in progress with merry singing, exuberant dancing and much picture-taking, especially as the ship slipped under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in the late afternoon sun. And yes, a few celebratory drinks fuelled the fun.

This shipboard chaos was new and exciting for my sister, Pat Doig, and me. As we would discover, we cruise virgins were in the minority. Almost everyone we met on the trip was an enthusiastic veteran.

Until this voyage to the eastern Caribbean, I had resisted the notion of setting sail with hundreds of strangers. The horror (to me, anyway) of being stuck on a ship with little to do but eat and lounge turned out to be a misconception. By the end of the nine-day trip, which included visits to Bermuda, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos, we’d found more than enough to do, including wine tastings, a digital photography class and almost daily use of the well-equipped gym.

“We used to try to do too much,” one man said. “My wife and I come to relax, so we’ve learned to pace ourselves. Sometimes, we just stay in our cabin and read or catch up on sleep.”

One activity was compulsory an hour before sailing. An alarm and a broadcast message told all passengers to “muster” at an assigned station, life jackets in hand, for instruction in coping with an emergency at sea. See someone fall overboard? Throw anything that will float to guide rescuers. Otherwise, throw nothing over the side, especially lit cigarette butts that may land on board and start a fire, a huge danger on any ship.

Ironically, it wasn’t fire that caused a problem on the Crown Princess‘s fourth voyage in 2006, its inaugural year. The ship suddenly tilted sharply in calm waters after leaving Port Canaveral, Fla., injuring more than 200 people. The incident was allegedly caused by a junior officer who took the ship off autopilot and mistakenly accentuated its turn, causing the dangerous list. The ship was swiftly put in order and was back at sea within days.

As air travel grew in the decades after the Second World War, ocean liners seemed doomed. Then people discovered the voyage, not the destination, could be a vacation: enjoy sun and sea and unpack once; stop at an interesting destination for a day but head back to the luxury of the ship at night. So popular has cruising become that the authoritative Cruise Industry News reports in 2007, 294 cruise ships with a potential capacity of 15.4 million passengers are operating throughout the world. Some 71 per cent of that volume is serviced by North American-based cruise lines. The Caribbean attracts almost 44 per cent of the passenger capacity.

Island destinations in the eastern Caribbean added spice to the cruise, but most pleasurable was life on board the ship.

Passengers come in all sizes, shapes, colours and combinations. Among them, we note intergenerational families, gay couples, newlyweds (some married on the ship), middle-aged and elderly couples and corporate parties. If you can’t have a high old time on a cruise ship, you probably won’t anywhere.

The Crown Princess can float a maximum of 3,150 passengers and 1,200 crew members – a community equal to the population of Oliver, B.C. On a clear Caribbean day, however, with blue skies and an empty horizon in every direction, my sister and I agree even a 113,000-ton cruise ship feels strangely insignificant. (Conversely, the hallway leading to our cabin seems endless.)

While passengers relax, hard-working crew members from all over the world (few North Americans) labour without seeing their families for months. They keep in touch through e-mail and satellite phone calls. Pat and I enjoy joking with George, the Romanian steward who keeps our cabin in pristine condition. Eli, from the Philippines, carefully serves our champagne dinner on the balcony. We ask, so he tells us of his young son at home, whom he frequently calls but only sees for a few months each year.
Proud of their work, crew members are energized by the perfect results of a surprise inspection by the U.S. Department of Health in St. Thomas. Feeding more than 4,000 people daily with consistently high quality meals requires intricate planning, scrupulous attention to food safety and downright hard work. In the largest galley, half-barrel-sized stainless steel pots brew beef and chicken stocks overnight for the next day’s recipes. Our nine-day cruise uses 35,000 eggs, 11,000 litres of milk, 2,500 kilograms of bacon, 12,000 lobster tails,10,000 kilograms of breakfast cereals, 10,000 kilograms of various melons and 35,000 bottles or cans of beer. Fresh ingredients are loaded in New York and other ports when needed. Each day, 52 men load 70,000 dishes and 21,500 glasses into the dishwashers. Leftovers scraped onto a conveyer belt are pulverized and incinerated. Nothing, we’re told, goes overboard.

In spite of all the pampering, some passenger or crew member inevitably needs medical care. The medical centre is essentially a seven-bed hospital small-town officials would envy for its laboratory, one-bed intensive care unit and two-bed wards that include an isolation ward. Its two doctors and four nurses all have emergency room and cardiac care experience. Modern communications allow consultations with far-off specialists if necessary.

Dr. Frederik Le Grange opens a door to show me the emergency “ambulance” – a well-equipped gurney that a doctor and trained staff can rush to an afflicted passenger. Ill passengers may be transferred to hospital on shore if those facilities at least equal the ship’s medical centre. I find myself thinking that while it’s comforting to know the medical centre offers good care, I’m glad I have travel insurance that will cover costs should the need arise.

We never feel crowded because there are so many areas to enjoy: several pools, restaurants, cafés, casino, lounges, library, art gallery, shops, poolside movies, a two-storey spa and a piazza-style atrium at the centre of the ship. Even so, we quickly learn to be seated early for popular events such as the shows in the US$22 million state-of-the-art Princess Theater.

While the Botticelli dining room is dedicated to traditional set-time seating, the Michelangelo and Da Vinci restaurants feature “anytime dining” (reservations are recommended during peak hours). Buffets are the rule in the Horizon Court and Café Caribe atop the stern. Sharing a table proves the best way to meet interesting people and keep up with shipboard events. Nancy Fong of Vancouver checked out the Crown Princess on the Internet before sailing. She and husband, Ming, tell us how to get to the wide deck atop the bridge – a great vantage point – and when to get free freshly made gourmet ice cream in a “closed” restaurant.

Shore leave
As the Crown Princess sets a southeasterly course away from New York toward Bermuda, the warming air promises hot, lazy days will follow. The western Atlantic is slightly rough, but it’s barely felt on board. Below our balcony, silvery flying fish sparkle in graceful arcs above the blue wake of the bow.

By 8 a.m. of our third day, a pilot has guided the enormous ship past the treacherous coral reefs surrounding Bermuda to a berth where it towers over the historic Royal Naval Dockyard in the west end. A local bus offers easy access to the pink sandy beaches on the south shore, but we decide to shop in Hamilton, Bermuda’s capital. We choose gifts and replenish my supply of Outerbridge’s sherry pepper sauce, a condiment I prize for bloody Caesars and spaghetti sauce.

Honking and waving at virtually every pedestrian and driver on the way back to the docks, our gruff bus driver returns us with just enough time to visit the Bermuda Maritime Museum inside the fortress keep of the naval dockyard. On this hot day, we watch enviously as several excited tourists encounter a group of bottlenose dolphins in the keep pond. Trainers cue the animals to leap, splashing everyone, or to swim like a shark with one flipper cutting the water.

At 5 p.m., powerful thrusters in the bow and stern allow Captain Nicoló Binetti to ease the massive ship away from the dock, through the channel and back into the Atlantic. Calm seas mean dancers in the evening’s original musical production of Destination Anywhere won’t risk life and limb on a rocking stage. We enjoy the high-energy US$3 million show so much I join a backstage tour of the theatre a few days later. I hold crystal and beaded dresses that weigh up to 38 pounds (17 kilograms) and can cost as much as US$30,000. I’m awed by the young lighting manager who also creates complicated lighting programs for the ship’s several entertainment areas, often for guest performers after a scant two-hour rehearsal.

As we sail for San Juan, P.R., our morning begins in the fitness centre, followed by a “Scholarship at Sea” digital photography class. At an afternoon wine tasting in the Michelangelo dining room presented by Generoso Mazzone, the ship’s elegant maître d’hotel, we like La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. We enjoy it again that night at a superb dinner in Sabatini’s, the Italian fine dining room high on the stern.

Word is already out that the comedian Sarge, performing in the Princess Theater, is not to be missed so we dine early to secure seats for his show. The self-described “fat, freckled, black Jew” is funny, challenging without being mean and, as we discover later, a dead-on impressionist and fine singer and pianist.

We’ve signed up for a hike in the El Yunque National Forest near San Juan, the rainforest named for the Taíno Indian spirit, Yuquiyí, or Forest of the Clouds. A computer problem slows our disembarkation but works in our favour. We miss our tour bus but end up sharing a guide with only one other couple. Manuel Ortero Viera, an energetic 60-something, roamed this rainforest as a youngster. As we walk up the U.S. Forest Service-maintained trail through the park, Manny shows us where heavy rains have washed out trees barely rooted in the shallow mountain soil, an indication of the forest’s fragility. We don’t see the rare Puerto Rican parrot, but there are two-inch snails on giant leaves, and we hear the bird-like ko-kee call of the coqui, a small tree frog that is Puerto Rico’s symbol.

St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands is known for its duty-free shopping. We’re not keen to buy expensive jewelry and watches (or liquor that would ultimately have to fly home in checked luggage) although judging from the swarms of tourists in the shops, we’re in the minority. Returning to the ship, we pick up bathing suits and sunscreen and, with a small group of Crown Princess passengers, spend the afternoon at a resort in a pretty bay. It’s our first swim in the tepid sea and it’s heavenly.

Grand Turk, one of the Turks and Caicos Islands, has a new cruise ship pier with a convenient shopping plaza that also features stalls where local entrepreneurs sell crafts and souvenirs. We bus into the island’s flat, scrubby interior to kayak through a mangrove-lined channel to an inland salina (salt-water pond). A biologist describes the channel’s function as a nursery for fish as we paddle clear-bottomed kayaks. It takes sharp eyes to spot fish in spite of brilliant colouring. The far side of the salina is being readied to farm conch, the mollusk so popular on Caribbean menus.

Later, as we rattle off to a beach where we’ll snorkel, our bus driver points out island houses are fenced to keep out feral horses and donkeys whose ancestors worked in the salt-raking trade that died in the 1960s. He adds with a laugh that the animals scrape off would-be riders by dashing down narrow pathways they’ve worn through thorny thickets.

Pat quells her fear of meeting a shark and, equipped with fins and snorkels, we follow a guide into the clear water. Suspended above coral, we’re entranced by vividly coloured fish foraging for food, dashing from potential predators and us. Our guide plucks a young octopus from a rock, and its one eye warily meets my two. When released, it leaves a cloud of black ink in the water as it makes its escape.

Too soon, the Crown Princess slips past Lady Liberty. Instead of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” contented voyagers, many planning their next getaway, crowd the decks.

My sister and I frequently reminisce about our Caribbean cruise, recalling the vivid blue of the water and the sky, the contrasting white of the Crown Princess and its be-as-busy-as-you-wish pace. Far from being bored, we discovered cruising offers something for everyone. Of course, now that we are old hands, we can’t wait for our next trip.

From the September 2007 issue of CARP magazine

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First time cruise tips
Full steam ahead

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Jayne MacAulay