High point of the cruise, piano; low point, busted

Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2005

Mark Sabbatini

Cruisin' for a deal

It's formal night and I don't have a tux, so I can't eat in the dining room. Instead, I'm trying to indulge myself by barging my underdressed-self in and playing the grand piano at center stage.

I put on my tie and game face, and head for the nearest dining room on Carnival Cruise Line's Fantasy, now in the second day of a three-day Bahamas trip. It's still empty except for a lone waiter at the napkin station. I almost immediately get the "ask the maitre d'" routine about playing, which I know won't work.

My last resort: The second dining room at the far end of the ship is also empty except for a tiny young Indonesian woman who jumps with surprise at my quiet approach. She seems surprised at my request to play the piano, but turns into the saving angel of my trip and waves me toward the stage (hey, I just said on formal night, not during dinner itself). I improvise aimlessly for about 10 minutes, unable to focus enough to achieve anything worthwhile, but it doesn't matter. I leave promising to put in an exceptional word for her.

Such experiences often are the highlight for customers of the travel industry, where companies seek to turn fun into profit. Doing so means keeping guests happy, but often there's a strong effort to convince them that bliss is better when they spend more. Also, stepping outside seemingly harmless corporate-minded boundaries can have quick and dismal consequences, as I would discover before the end of the voyage.

Regimented merriment

The final full day features an "at-sea" itinerary that reads like an adult summer camp, including diversions such as pingpong tournaments, bingo and an "Austin Powers Groovy Dance Class." I look over the list before bed and decide to make the morning beginners' art class the first item on my agenda.

I oversleep.

Not feeling like a trivia contest or paying a hefty fee to meet with the golf pro, I do what comes naturally on a cruise when other options fail: head for the dining room. The bustle is constant, especially as the staff gears up for the supposedly famous midday chocolate buffet (better looking than tasting).

I head for the crowded deck for the midday activities, but Bill, a retired engineer among those sharing my dinner table, wanders by and we have a long discussion about cruising and real life. He was unimpressed with Nassau ("I'm glad I don't live there") and said the best part of the sparsely attended formal dinner was that the kitchen staff got a deserved round of applause. He added that the evening karaoke show was short on talent, but for the most part he was finding the trip enjoyable.

"It's nice in that you're pampered, and I like the efficiency of the staff," he said. "You never see this attention to detail anywhere else."

I make it on deck in time to catch a group of shirtless men singing "YMCA" at the end of the "Hairy Chest Competition." A dozen female passenger judges vote for Mike from South Carolina as "Mr. Danceability" and Mark from New York as "Mr. Hairy 2005." Melanie, a crew member in a different role than the art instructor she was a few hours earlier, lets the winners know their duties for the rest of the day.

"Whatever you're wearing, if somebody says 'show me the goods' what are you going to do?" she shouts. "Off comes the shirt!"

Among the judges is Kyle, a homemaker and part-time funeral home worker from Thomaston, Ga., celebrating her 40th birthday with a group of friends calling themselves the "Hartwell Honeys." They travel together twice a year, but this is her first cruise. They are part of the ideal Carnival crowd, impressed with the affordable prices and spend their day participating in nonstop activities and "eating and drinking everything in sight." She said she'd go on a cruise to Alaska "in a second" and might bring her husband and kids, but it would be a much different experience.

"It'd be all focused on (my kids) and I wouldn't drink," she said.

A gut-wrenching finish

If you want to test the theory of the pen being mightier than the sword, try wielding both in a controlled "happy" environment like the Fantasy's main deck.

Most of my note-taking had been low-key, but taking out my notebook in the high-profile presence of the Hartwell Honeys triggered security. A uniformed officer tells me someone has complained I'm bothering them with strange questions, highly unlikely since I haven't talked with anyone besides the Honeys during the past half hour. It's more likely a case of a person concerned about a guy with a notebook writing stuff down, or just an excuse to demand I accompany her inside to see her supervisor.

Another officer joins as we go to the main auditorium, where we're joined by a third - her boss - who asks me why I'm here and says any interviewing of guests must be approved in advance through corporate headquarters in Miami. I'd like to say I handled the situation better, but I was angry and let them know it.

I left 20 minutes later after telling them I understood their policy. I thought about hanging the "Do Not Disturb" sign on my cabin door and backing up my digital photos cards in case someone tried confiscating them. But I let petty thoughts such as canceling all tips drain from my mind and try to recover some of my good spirits.

The interior of the ship buzzes during the early evening as an increasingly harsh rainstorm drives passengers inside. The loudest crowd is in the sports bar watching the NFL playoffs and, since that's what I feel like doing anyhow, I decide my research skills are best utilized following what turns out to be an overtime thriller.

It's the last pleasant moment of the trip.

The waves grow worse as the game ends, with the rolling approaching nausea-inducing levels. I opt out of the final sit-down dinner and late stage show and retreat to my room hoping to pass the storm in unconscious ignorance. I'm only partially successful, as once-minor quirks with my cabin become severe as the rocking becomes too harsh to stand up against and the waves slam with a deafening crunch against the hull.

A broken night's rest and moderate seasickness are not the best way to face disembarkation, a jolting experience on most cruises as it is. After laboring to provide fun and relaxation during the trip, cruise lines send passengers off in nerve-wracking fashion: insisting everyone be up at 7 a.m. for a "hurry up and wait" departure process that usually takes two or three hours. Everyone is herded into subgroups that depart one at a time through customs, with the final reward being an emergence into a parking lot with driving rain and 60-knot winds.

Was it worth it?

Yes and no. That's a reflection of the extra cost beyond the basic fare. If I lived near the port, got someone to drop me off at the ship and took full advantage of every free on-board amenity while avoiding the pricey extras, it would be a decent bargain. As a matter of personal taste there are other voyages I'd prefer, including the Alaska Marine Highway through the Inside Passage and/or Gulf of Alaska.

At the same time, I'd acknowledge that's a minority opinion from someone more inclined toward independent travel than all-inclusive trips. Most passengers I talked to said they enjoyed the experience despite various quirks and nearly all said Alaska is a destination they hope to visit someday.

Expectations are modest, with most mentioning scenery as a bigger priority than shopping or specific activities. Few seemed concerned about the effects of crowds, whether head taxes are part of the fare or not, and whether they might provoke hostility among local businesses and residents - not because they were uncaring, but because such things simply didn't occur to them.

It was a chance to meet a group of oft-cursed people and be reassured that they're pretty much the same as everyone else.

• Mark Sabbatini is a freelance journalist and a former reporter at the Juneau Empire.

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