Thursday, January 31, 2008

To Cruise or Not to Cruise

Some of my friends tell me that they don't like cruises. Too much food. Too many people on the ships. Expensive shore trips that provide a glimpse of a destination with no real insights.

"Chacun à son goût," as the French say. But I rise to the defense.

I've said similar things myself in the past, and with the exception of a couple of trans-Atlantic voyages on the Queen Elizabeth 2 (which doesn't really count as cruising), have mostly confined my cruise experiences to small ships that go to out-of-the-way places like Cape Horn at the tip of South America and the Svalbard archipelago, 600 miles south of the North Pole.

However, I've just returned from a week aboard Cunard's newest ship, Queen Victoria, and I want to report that I had a good time. This is not a small ship. It carries 2,014 passengers and around 1,000 in crew, but I never felt as though I was on the Lexington Avenue subway at rush hour. If I wanted to be around others, I could be, but it was also possible to be alone — and there were quiet places, such as the 6,000-volume library, which gets more use on this ship than the casino.

Yes, there was a lot of food — but no force feeding and numerous exercise opportunities. Just walking around the ship would burn some calories. Deck 3, which goes most of the way around, is one-third of a mile. In addition, there are two swimming pools, a nice-sized gym, with classes and lots of equipment and those shipboard favorites, shuffleboard and paddle tennis. If you haven't tried shuffleboard, you might think this could raise as much sweat as a polite game of croquet, but a couple of Type A personalities playing shuffleboard will get a workout.

During my trip, we did a Panama Canal transit from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, which was interesting and something that you couldn't see unless on a ship. The transit was preceded and accompanied by lectures, which greatly helped with context and understanding of how the canal works.

And we had one day in Costa Rica — also interesting and sufficient to let me know that I would like to return. In the morning, I went on a jungle river trip and saw a lot of crocodiles and water birds and in the afternoon, visited a nature reserve where a gondola takes visitors from the forest floor to the forest canopy. Deep insights? No. But I learned that almost one-third of Costa Rica is a national refuge harboring examples of 6 percent of the animals and plants in the world. I also learned that the country is well off because of coffee and other agricultural products, has a high degree of literacy and has social programs in place for its four million citizens that include health care and retirement income.

Sounds good to me, and I didn't know this before.

But what I especially liked about the cruise was the soothing motion of the ship (yes, I know that you can hit rough patches, just as you can on airplanes, but mostly it was like being gently rocked, day and night), the sunrises and sunsets and the moonlit nights and — well, mostly just the sense that time pressures dropped away. After a while, I didn't know what day it was and I didn't care. We were going forward to some new port, and that was enough for me.