Been enjoying Jay Nordlinger’s journal of National Review’s post-election Caribbean cruise featuring a whole bunch of NRO writers and contributors. Every now and then something he writes triggers a memory from the many cruises – has it been nine? ten? more? – Tracey and I have taken over the years. It’s been a long time since we’ve been on one – long enough that I really can’t remember the last cruise we were on. I think it was a Norwegian Cruise Lines Hawaiian cruise about 4-5 years ago. That wasn’t a great cruise, I was in a dark place mentally and spiritually, and made it tough for everyone around me. I owe Tracey one after that one, for sure.
Far happier, however, are the many memories I have associated with the earlier cruises we took. How times have changed! The first cruise we took was a Carnival cruise, to Cozumel, Grand Cayman, and Jamaica. If you go to Cozumel nowadays it is nothing like it was 25 years ago – no big port, no long strand of endless shops, jewelry stores and restaurants. I remember an incredibly humid, damp/dark night with few lights and the sound of rain dropping off the sheet metal roofs of the few shops there were; what a sense of being so far away from home!
Our favorite cruises were all on Royal Caribbean ships. I still remember the “island a day” cruise in 1989 aboard the little Sun Viking (hard to believe in these days of mega-megaships it only carried 800 passengers!); back in those days the only outside world news you got was from the ship’s newsletter slid under your cabin door overnight. That was the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the overthrow of Communist dictatorships all across Eastern Europe. I still remember saying to Tracey, “the whole world is changing and I’m stuck on this little ship!”.
Cruising (like traveling in general) has just changed so much, I’m glad I was around to see the tail end of the glory era of traveling. Nowadays, everything is done by computer, but I remember the excitement of going in to my Auntie Marge and Uncle Don’s travel agency to pick up all of our cruise documents, or, later on, opening your mail box and finding them all wrapped up and protected. That’s when your cruise really started!
Those who have taken cruises know what I’m talking about when I say there were few things more exciting than the day you traveled: being met at your destination airport by the cruise representative holding a sign with your ship’s name in her hand, the drive over to the pier and seeing your ship towering above the port, then getting in line for “embarkation” (isn’t that a lovely word!). Of course, on the other end no one really looked forward to the last morning on the ship during “debarkation”, hanging around in the various lounges now dark and closed waiting for your color code to be called. That was always really depressing!
On board ship I could never really sleep and loved to roam the ship at night. Tracey would be out like a light and I’d just walk fore and aft, up and down the stairs to the various decks, feeling the ship moving beneath your feet (it was at night when the ships always traveled the fastest), and drinking in the quietness and simple joy of knowing you were on a cruise ship in the tropics. I never took it for granted, and I still remember many of my night walks to this day. Sure, they all run together now, but the feeling of them is what is most precious. Sometimes I’d still be dressed in my tuxedo after a formal night’s dinner (something I doubt you see much of anymore); other times I’d have peeled off the confines of formal and roam around in shorts and a tropical shirt. Many a night I’d make my way up to the outside decks and see couples walking hand-in-hand, or drunks yakking the night away, or, in the best of times, see no one around – just me, the ocean, the wind, and the night. Occasionally you’d see the lights of some island pass by or another ship far in the distance, or, one time, lightning from a storm far off in the distance. I can remember many times just leaning against a polished wood rail contemplating life and my future; no matter what my life situation was at the time I never wanted to forget the feeling of those nights up on deck and how lucky I was to be alive and experiencing those very moments in time.
Tracey and I had some grand times on those cruises: there was the year we sat with a newlywed couple and he worked at a funeral home, telling us all the wild and crazy stories you’d never want to hear. The most memorable group we ever had at our dinner table was a police officer couple from the San Francisco area – I still remember their names, Bob and Sue DeMaria. A lovely couple. As were an elderly couple from the Deep South named Frances and Bob that we kept in touch with for a few years afterwards. And the cruise where we shared a table with a couple – he was an older gentleman, she was much younger; one night he and Tracey kept ordering trays of escargot one after another! There were other cruises where the company was not always so great, but you made it work as best you could.
One of the cool things about these cruises were the ship employees we grew so close to over a week together. We loved the “Touch Of Class” champagne bars aboard the old Monarch and Majesty of the Seas, and developed memorable (if brief) relationships with the bartenders and servers there. One anniversary we arrived to see that a server named Santos Orelios had hung up a “Happy Anniversary Doug and Tracey” sign and streamers on the wall for us. We dropped a lot of money in the champagne bars back in those days, but whatever we spent pales in comparison to the wonderful happy memories we have from them.
Back in those days (I highly doubt it’s like that today) people really dressed up for dinner on the high seas. Lots of gowns, cocktail dresses and tuxedos. You had to think when packing because there were two formals nights (the Captain’s Welcome Dinner and Captain’s Farewell Dinner), and, especially at second sitting, casual was only permitted one or two nights a cruise. For Royal Caribbean regulars you also had the special cocktail party! I remember the time Tracey and I knew it was all changing when we came down to dinner dressed nice (it wasn’t a formal night) and saw some dotard sitting at his table in a Harley Davidson cut-off T-shirt. Me? I would have tossed him overboard for shark food in a New York Minute. Those were the days of no cable TV and no internet cafes, certainly no cell phones. It was a vacation for vacation’s sake; a time to get away from your world and enter a world that could only be described as magical and enchanting, and a life experience now gone forever thanks to modern technology.
We’ve got boxes of pictures of many of those cruises in one of our closets. It might be nice to drag them out some night when there’s little on TV and a warm breeze is rustling the palm trees out in the backyard. It all seems so long ago, almost like a dream.