Friday, December 15, 2006

Back on Dry Land 

I'm home from my cruise, a four-night expedition on Carnival's Paradise, out of the port of Long Beach, with one day at Catalina (one of the Channel Islands off the southern California coast), one day at Ensenada, Mexico, and a final 'funday' on board simply sitting out at sea, unmoving.

I've never been on a cruise before and I'm not sure it will ever occur to me to go on one again. It's somewhat analogous to going to a science fiction convention, in that you are isolated from the everyday world, enclosed in a pocket universe with its own protocols, except that on a cruise the goal is simply to have 'fun', with random strangers. That means eating and drinking and shopping and attending shows. The decor of Paradise is not unlike a Las Vegas casino -- in fact it does have a casino aboard -- with glittery lights and fancy furnishings everywhere, and a huge 5 or 6 story atrium in the center of the ship with glass elevators running up the middle. (And this is a nearly 10-year-old ship; newer ones are bigger and more elaborate, I've been told.)

My impressions of ocean cruises were formed by old movies and the TV series of Brideshead Revisited, I'm afraid, but I was not surprised by the many noisy children running around and obese middle-America couples aboard, taking advantage of every open buffet and splashing in the pools and jacuzzis dotting the decks. I have a friend whose partner is a cruise-ship aficionado, who sneered just a bit when I told of booking a cruise on Carnival. No doubt other lines cater to different clienteles.

On the plus side, I was fascinated by the layout of the ship and enjoyed exploring the decks with its many restaurants, auditoriums, bars, libraries, lounges, and other facilities. The top front deck held a gym, with huge slanted windows across the front like the windshield of the Jupiter 2, and on top of that, a running track (11 laps per mile) that I had to try out for 10 minutes, and inside that a miniature golf course. The evening shows were actually quite spectacular, song-and-dance revues with singers and dancers the equal of any I'd expect to see in Las Vegas. There were two stand-up comedians, doing open and R-rated shows on two nights each. Food, included sit-down dinners where in practice you can order as many items off the menu as you like, was fair to very good, and covered by the cruise fare -- but they charged extra for drinks, even Diet Cokes.

On the down side, I never found a quiet chaise lounge, away from the kids and bustle, where I could sit and read for hours at a time as the ocean slid quietly by -- my cruise fantasy. (I did get about 3 hours reading done, anyway.) The room was cozy, as you'd expect on a ship, but the window was sealed and unopenable, a frustration. (Newer ships have almost all rooms with balconies, I was told.) And the cruise format itself presumes that you need to be busy at every possible moment; thus daily stops at Catalina and Ensenada provided numerous 'excursions' onshore to tour or shop. Avalon on Catalina is a fascinating community, a mile-square city on a 26-mile long island that is otherwise almost entirely a wilderness preserve, bought by William Wrigley (of gum fame) in the early 20th century, whose family built the largest mansions on the hilltops of Avalon, where the number of autos is now limited and many of the residents drives around in golf carts instead. (Avalon was the location of a key scene in Chinatown.) I can't say much for Ensenada, however; some 400,000 population, supported by fishing (for legal reasons, high-quality tuna for sushi goes to Asia, but not the US) and tourism, hillsides around the harbor dotted with shanties and mansions, but nothing much to see in the city as such. Shopping -- a few nice shops selling silver jewelry and leather, and many many street vendors selling tourist junk. Well, there was also the tequila.

And the third day was a 'funday' at sea -- which meant that this huge cruise vessel, with 2000 passengers and a staff of 920, sat unmoving out in the Pacific (but within sight, barely, of the coast), for an entire day, bobbing up and down with the swell, so that the passengers could enjoy simply being aboard the ship, eating and drinking and seeing shows and splashing in the pools and playing miniature golf. More than anything about the whole cruise this struck me as bizarre, somehow metafictional -- cruising for the sake of cruising. Can you imagine buying a ticket on a 767 just to fly in circles for a day and enjoy the onboard experience? Or sit on a train unmoving on the tracks for the occasional pleasure of visiting the dining car? Of course the cruise ship is only incidentally a vehicle; moreso it's a destination, a resort on water, and the evident fact of the enormous cruise ship industry (the staff sign 6-month contracts to live on board and work 7 days a week, before a 2-month break and an option to re-sign, I learned; and can you imagine the employment behind the ongoing construction of these ever-bigger ships?) testifies to the popularity of this kind of experience. Which I enjoyed, pretty much, at least this once.
You ought to try an Alaskan cruise. Lots of spectacular scenery and many side trip opportunities to fish, whale-watch, visit glaciers, etc.
I think I'd go mad if ever forced to take part in a cruise of the size you described. I was on one of those as a kid with my parents, which is what kept me away from cruises as an adult. But then we went to the Galapagos Islands with Lindblad, on a ship with a maximum capacity of 80, and did Antarctica with a maxiumum capacity of 100, and just returned a few days ago from a Nile cruise on a ship that only carried 40. That sort of thing is small, intimate, and not filled with people only there for Vegas shows, casinos, and rock climbing.


Scott Edelman
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Mark R. Kelly

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