I recently spent two and a half weeks in the Mediterranean, starting off with five days in Barcelona and then cruising around in absurd luxury on a 12-day cruise that took me from Spain to France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Croatia. While the day-to-day activities have been recorded in too much detail, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a step back and summarize my feelings and findings from the trip.
We went on the cruise because a couple of my friends are cruise aficionados; they swear by Celebrity cruises, because they cater to an older and more sophisticated crowd. Last year, they went on a cruise to the Antarctic and had an incredible time; they brought back tales of on-board ad-hoc whiskey tastings, fine dining, intriguing activities, and great shows. This, plus the stories of Celebrity pampering told by David Foster Wallace in “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” got me really excited for the cruise. I know this is basically the exact opposite lesson to take from that essay, but I was prepared to be blown away by the incredible service I received.
Our cruise was … a little different. The cruise population was definitely older than any I’d been on, and that was nice (although there were still some 25-40-year-olds, and a total of like 5 bona fide children). But the service wasn’t noticeably better than the Royal Caribbean cruises I’d been on; as an example, the bartenders were best described as “rookie,” and we never really got close enough to any of them that we could have an ad-hoc whiskey tasting. The on-board activities were, for the most part, kind of sad and boring: bocce tournaments and the obligatory “men v. women pool olympics” (not that I didn’t enjoy bocce). I’ve previously mentioned that the food was not the 5-star dining I had been led to expect and the quality of the Equinox show cast. The non-cast shows are expected to be bad, but all of the comedians (even the Freddie Mercury impersonator, who at least shouldn’t be considered a comedian, even if he considers himself one) heckled people walking in late to their shows for the first 15 minutes, and they were 30-45 minute shows, so up to half their acts were just bullying the people who had come in to see them.
That said, I had an incredible time; we weren’t on the ship a whole lot, because we were in a new port almost every day, so the on-board activities didn’t really matter. We cozied up to a few of the specialty bartenders, and the fact that some of the drinks were downright awful was negated by the fact that they were free (for us). The show was easily avoidable, and wasn’t exactly a selling point anyway, and the food was, if not incredible, pretty good and incredibly plentiful. My biggest gripe is probably that our sommelier was terrible, and that only mattered for about 5 minutes at dinner, not to mention it’s the king of first-world problems. Combine that with floating around on an enormous palace going from interesting place to interesting place with a full staff of servants whose job it is to make sure you have a great time and that you get to your destinations in an organized and hassle-free fashion, and you can’t go wrong. Probably the weirdest thing that I most enjoyed was that when you wanted something cleaned up, you just had to put it on a surface. Any surface. Done with a drink? Put it on a table, or a railing, or on that pool chair, and it’ll be gone when you come back. I know it’s weird, but that’s probably my favorite part about cruises, and one of the reasons I’ll do it again.
On this particular cruise, we were in port enough that it wasn’t really relaxing, so much as sort of … educational? For instance, I learned that the entire Mediterranean is basically mountains on the sea, and that I find that aesthetic nontrivially pleasing. I’m seriously considering moving to the Mediterranean (or at least somewhere where there are sea-mountains), if I can find some way to be employed there. I also learned or remembered a boat-load (hah!) about ancient civilizations; I had no idea where Ephesus was, much less how large and important it was. I would probably prefer to spend a bit more time in each of those places; it’s impossible to really get the flavor of somewhere in 4-8 hours, and I intend to familiarize myself with many of them in the future. Most importantly, though, I learned that there are stray cats and dogs everywhere in Europe. Seriously, it was kinda weird, actually. The fattest ones are in Italy, where the dogs hang out near restaurants and get fed by patrons. The more you know!
I do, however, have a real gripe about cruises generally. It is 2014; I’m posting this from a bus in the middle of Maryland right now, and even my transatlantic flight had internet (it wasn’t fast, but it existed). It cost me about $25 to get 24h of internet above the middle of the ocean. On the cruise, we were never more than about 50 miles from land, yet $25 bought 40 minutes of internet. It’s inconceivable that cruise lines, who make such a huge deal out of the incredible service they provide, are being beaten into the ground by airlines, whose mantra is, “Take, take, take! Charge, charge, charge.” I get that you’re supposed to be on vacation, and that vacation is supposed to involve the relaxation of being able to let go of the outside world, but it almost stopped us from going on the cruise (because my entire team from work was on the trip, and we needed to have some connectivity), and as much as it kind of sucks, my generation finds it relaxing to be connected, to tell people about the stuff we’re doing, to have the time to read the news or download a book and read it, etc. I’m surprised that cruise lines haven’t tried to address this yet.
The other thing that’s strange about cruises is that they bring you to these beautiful, often quaint, sometimes remote places, but they do it in these huge floating tacky luxury palaces. Driving up a mountain and looking into a pristine harbor nestled below is kind of ruined when you see a quarter-mile-long skyscraper-high 21st Century monster ship sitting in it. On top of that, the places they go clearly have a love-hate relationship with tourism; a lot of the tour guides mentioned that tourism was basically driving the economy, but that it was completely changing the way of life for the people there, usually for the worse. The tourism industry is making people work on Sundays and otherwise disrupting the Mediterranean lifestyle of going to work around 11, eating lunch from 2-4, sleeping from 4-7, then eating dinner from 8-midnight, etc.; at the very least, it was clear that the cruise industry was disrupting a lot of people’s lives, some for better, some for worse, like a macro-manifestation of the observer effect.
That said, the cruise industry has come a long way even since the first cruise I went on about 12 years ago. My recollection of that cruise is that we were leaving a wake of garbage. The major cruise lines now make an effort to be more eco-friendly (although I’m sure they’re still burning fossil fuels at rates that violate the Kyoto Protocol), and I got the feeling that, aside from air pollution, view pollution, and human pollution, we weren’t making the waters we were sailing in any dirtier. I’m looking forward to finding out what other strides they’ve made by my next cruise. Maybe they’ll even have reasonable Internet access.