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Originally published Sunday, October 19, 2014 at 6:30 AM

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The unhip, unexpected joys of cruising

A writer confesses to his delight in cruises.

The New York Times


I have an embarrassing admission to make: I like cruises.

This is, of course, among the least hip things one can say. My friends look at me with incredulity. So be it.

There is a qualification here: I have worked on cruises, as part of the “entertainment staff.” This comes with the very real benefit of not paying, although there is the downside of having to work, and being bossed around a bit.

I’ve taken five of these cruises in the last eight years, to destinations as varied as the North Sea, the Greek Islands and Antarctica, and each one seemed to whet my appetite for the next. Admittedly, these trips have not been on shabby operations, nor have they gone to common destinations. That is part of the point.

Nevertheless, my first journey took some gearing up to, because cruising is so easy to put down.

Many of the common complaints about cruise ships ring true: The best of the entertainment is boring. Most of the food is mediocre, and it’s usually about as opposite of “local” as you can find. (Indeed most of the food is shipped in containers from the States or other central locations to ports of call.) The excursions are rushed, timid, overpriced. Many of the ports have nothing in them worth seeing. The companionship is limited. (The best cruise joke I know: “This cruise has the oldest passengers I’ve ever seen. And most of them brought their parents.”)

Some other things I have found: In general, the prices are not unreasonable, especially because they’re often discounted. The service is usually excellent, especially compared with hotels and restaurants on land. The food is as abundant as you’ve heard, and generally better than that in most hotels; furthermore, after a few days, you can probably strike a deal with a friendly cook to customize it as you like.

There’s also an odd level of equality: Everyone spends time in the public spaces, and those are shared, although there are no doubt exclusive lounges for the highest-paying passengers.

There is, of course, the cabin, where you get what you pay for, and that’s a big differential.

But there are two other factors that make cruising not only unusual but uniquely satisfying, at least to me. The first is completely obvious, and yet it tends to be overlooked. It is simply that the “floating hotel” means your vacation is structured like this: You get onboard, you unpack, you never change rooms again, and yet you go different places. Effortlessly.

Because the ship offers many options — you can be alone, you can play bridge, you can eat (almost always), work (if your work can be done independently, of course), read, watch movies, dance, go to the gym, be alone with your partner (or not), drink (at 7 a.m., if you choose), sleep, gamble, even shop, for crying out loud — there is a way in which you can craft your life the way you want to. And it’s a life that is free of most of life’s normal chores.

Time slows, warps. One sits inside looking out, the banality of the ship framing the sublime nature of the landscape. Often, the ship’s roll is soothing, as if you were placed in the hand of a walking giant. The sound of the ocean is constant; the salt air breezes through every opening. The “culture” is so middle-America (even on non-American cruise ships, it seems), and demands so little that you can actually think. What a change.

And then you go eat dinner.

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