My first impressions of cruises came when I was young, listening to the adults around me critique the concept.
I remember someone likening large boats with, “RV’s on wheels.” I remember my Venetian relatives being aghast at the quantities of day-tourists overtaking their historic home. And I also remember the generally aloof vibes of those who said that they would never consider taking a cruise as long as their bodies and brains were still working. More recently, though, these sour judgments have been juxtaposed by multiple accounts by my American aunt and uncle of wonderful, long voyages to parts of the world that they might not otherwise have arranged to see. And so, with the less than stellar imprints now slowly eclipsed, I knew that it was time to explore this type of travel for myself.
In late May, I joined some friends on an eight day tour of the Caribbean in what I had thought would be a typical, fun-fest sort of cruising experience. And it was. “FUN”—yes, in all caps—was actually the pervasive theme of this particular boat and its activities. There was fun for the whole family, fun for retirees, fun for small children, probably too much fun for the not-yet-legal teenagers, and definitely a lot of fun for people who like to eat and drink, with as much emphasis on the eating as on the drinking.
Our ship housed about 3,000 people and was an ongoing source of entertainment and indulgence, reinforced by the constant loudspeaker announcements and each room’s real-time broadcasting of what you were missing out on at the main deck. Depending on what you like, this non-stop action and abundance was either heaven on earth, or much the opposite.
But then, port day mornings provided fresh starts, as leaving the ship was a unique undertaking each time. Our first stop was at Grand Turk of the Turks and Caicos Islands, which are lauded for their transparent water, white sands and exclusivity. Perhaps for this reason, at only this stop the cruisers were to stay within an isolated, faux village that had been constructed just for this sort of clientele. Cage notwithstanding, we were able to enjoy the beach and to entice a local to bring us some microbrews and real food (jerk-marinated and green curried meats with coconut-soaked rice and beans) from a nearby town. Regardless of our lack of contact with the true culture of the location, the simple process of spotting land from sea and approaching it slowly felt like an antique and irreplaceable pleasure, something akin to what the European explorers must have felt around the fifteenth century.
From there, the port stops brought an increasing sense of freedom to make the most of our short hours on land. The visit to old city San Juan, Puerto Rico felt like a glorious tease, showcasing how cruising can sometimes act as just a taste test of what you might like to absorb more of at a later date. Here, we disembarked early and went straight to Castillo San Cristobal, where we sat through a short video of the history of the country and the fortress’ role over the years. The landmark was vast and unmonitored, making it extra great for the kids to run around and for us to climb up on the old stone walls to best see the coastline. Soon parched, we found a local bar and later, a well known place for mofongo (a hefty stew of garlic-y green plantain topped with bits of fried meats or fish). We ambled along, taking photos of soulful street art and colorful, neoclassical buildings.
The two things that stood out most about Saint Kitts and Nevis were its unique topography and decisively zen inhabitants. With Saint Kitts’ diagonal positioning, drumstick-like structure and low mountains, there is a point at which the Atlantic and Caribbean are visible at the same time, and the differences are as obvious as they are spectacular. To one side sits the Atlantic, with its cold-water waves and stormy weather; on the other is clear blue tranquility and sunshine. Maybe having had to mitigate the two extremes (along with centuries of mixed colonial rule) has led to an easier going people, but analyses aside, it was comforting at this stop to have service that was informative, reliable and sincere. We took a scenic drive out to a special beach, stayed there the afternoon and returned for some more jerk and Johnny Cakes before corralling ourselves back onto the boat.
Our last stop at the small and nationally divided Saint Martin-Sint Maarten was by far our most comprehensive. As the first ones off of the ship at 8:00am, we found our way to the still sleepy shoreline of Philipsburg, the ‘capital city’ of the latter. Breakfast consumed and driver found, we spent the day exploring and stopping along the periphery of the 34 square mile land mass. The absolute best part about this ride was getting a proper picture of the culture and current events of the colonies. Our driver was islander-Dutch and told us without filter about his life there. In a nutshell, I understood that the Sint Maarten-to-Netherlands relationship is one of accepted reverence for its captor. Local schools bear Dutch names, King’s Day (a huge holiday in Holland, in celebration of the king’s birthday,) is also apparently big on the island, local youth benefit from holding Dutch passports and getting to study or work without problem in Europe, but also the islanders would prefer to be free, and resent not receiving help when they need it most, like with the recent hurricane Irma, of last fall. All along its coasts—Dutch and French alike, when crossing into the Northern side—homes and businesses are still dilapidated, in spite of the seeming hustle by locals to rebuild before high tourist season. Entertainment-wise, there was still something for everyone: a well known nudists’ zone, some big resorts, a foodie cove, a few casinos, and an equal amount of secluded and bumping beaches. After a late afternoon meal of Mahi Mahi and Carib beer at the Lay Back Bar & Grill, it felt as if we had gotten the best possible mix of reality, discovery and relaxation.
And so, cruising as a whole felt like a bit of everything. On the upside, I loved the simplicity of travel by boat: you pack and unpack only once, and the captain takes you exactly to where you need to go each day. The sighting of land from the sea is exhilarating every time; the daily adventures were nicely balanced by a sense of community when returning to the same bar on board each night. On the other hand, without the need to do any real logistical research, it’s fair to say that the majority of people traveling don’t care to learn about where they’re going or appreciate the subtleties once they get there. Leaving opinions of other travelers aside, it’s very likely—as with any experience—that cruising is what you choose for it to be.