I never thought about it at the time, but that scene has nothing to do with reality. Do you know how many passengers the average cruise ship carries? The answer ranges between 1500 and 3000. Later this year, this number will grow to 3500 when the MS Carnival Destiny is launched to become the largest ocean passenger liner in history. Fanciful notions of visiting deserted islands is truly an imaginary notion on the typical cruise!
Late this past August, my family and I joined 1800 others for the first sea voyage of our lives. As passengers on the Carnival Cruise Lines "fun ship" MS Holiday, we traveled on a three night voyage between the Port of Los Angeles and Baja California's Ensenada. Over 720 feet in length and grossing 46,562 tons, the MS Holiday proved to be an accommodating and gracious host.
Three night cruises are a relatively new phenomena in the cruise industry, offering travelers a great opportunity to stretch their travel dollars and test their sea legs. When booked early enough, adults can obtain fares of $219.00 for an inside cabin, with children in the same room traveling for as little as $69.00 additional. Four day cruises traveling the same route (adding a stop at Catalina Island) cost only a slight amount more. Both Carnival and Royal Carribean offer the trips.
A sea voyage offers the traveler several days of absorbing new experiences. Besides a relatively small but efficiently comfortable room, the passenger can't help but enjoy the delicious meals that are served throughout each day -- and night. Activities, including live music, swimming, gambling, and much more, take place daily. Cruises offer the splendid opportunity of breaking the normal routine to enjoy yourself, doing only what you like.
"I would recommend a cruise to anyone who enjoys high spirited, good fun," said Andy Arena, Hotel Manager on the MS Holiday shortly after the ship slowly slid from its berth. Arena has been employed by Carnival for over seven years, first working as a junior purser. As hotel manager, he is responsible for all the guest services and activities on the ship.
"There is no typical cruise passenger, for we host people from every age group," he said. "Carnival is more activity-oriented than most other cruise lines and we try to offer something for everyone."
Arena believes a primary benefit of the cruise experience is that it includes a great deal. Besides the food and activities, he points out that transportation to more than one destination prevents the traveler from having to repeatedly pack and unpack, allowing him or her to travel to a fresh destination overnight. A three night cruise, of course, differs from the more typical seven day or longer cruise, for it includes only one destination. Ensenada is 30 miles south of the Mexican border, so it offers an amalgam of the typical border town's tawdry tourism, the pleasurable resort elegance of a Cozumel, and the historic character of Mexico's interior. The tourist elements are gradually taking over, however.
The sea voyage to and from Ensenada is a smooth one, with little rolling or pitching of the ship. Retractable underwater stabilizers extend out from the sides of the hull to reduce up to 75 percent of the rolling motion. The typical speed is relatively slow, at ten knots or so, which equals about 15 miles per hour. This is partly due to the fact that the traveling distance between the Port of Los Angeles and Ensenada is not far.
Elaborately served luscious food is one of the most popular elements of cruise travel. Aside from three main meals served in one of two cavernous dining rooms, the ship features plentiful buffets and coffee on deck several times daily, an elegant midnight buffet, and 24 hour room service in each cabin. Mouth-watering menu items like broiled swordfish steaks, succulent roast tenderloin of beef, garlicky grilled jumbo shrimp, and tender beef wellington were just a few of the entrees offered during the trip. Of course, the price of meals is included in the ticket. Wine, beer, cocktails, and soft drinks are extra.
Nilo Babilonia, a 13 year passenger ship veteran, was one of the waiters inside the MS Holiday's Seven Seas dining room. A native of the Philippines, he is currently in the middle of an eight month work contract with Carnival. At the end of the contract, he will go home to the Philippines to visit with his family for eight weeks. After that, he will return to the ship. The ship's staff, about 600 in size for the MS Holiday, earns one week vacation for each month worked.
"I serve all three meals each day, and sometimes work on the midnight buffet," he explained. "Waiters need good people skills, but I've found that when you treat people well, you rarely run into problems."
Babilonia spends each night in a cabin shared with another worker. He phones home frequently, but rarely writes letters. Meals are prepared for the waiters each night after the last passenger dinner seating, but they can also prepare their own food if they desire. Because of the length of time he spends on the ship, Babilonia has developed close friendships with several others. In a way, they've become his extended family.
Arena's home is in Miami, Fl., but he visits it so infrequently he says it's almost become a vacation spot. At sea, he normally begins his work in the early morning, checking foods and attending meetings with department heads, and finishes late in the evening. He often looks in on the midnight buffets.
The cruise experience is a true vacation for the average passenger. It's so different from the normal routine, that a person truly feels he or she's had a real break when it's concluded.
The MS Holiday departs the Port of Los Angeles each Friday afternoon at 5:30 p.m., but boarding begins five hours earlier, so the traveler can easily lengthen the experience. A complimentary lunch in the ship's Wharf Bar and Grill is offered throughout the afternoon. The ship arrives back in port the following Monday morning, with debarkation around 9:00 a.m.
As a first time cruise passenger, I underwent a great many new experiences as the all-to-brief cruise took place. I picked the brains of others and read several pamphlets beforehand, but actually doing it taught me a few things. Following are a few pointers and tips to keep in mind when planning your own cruise.
Carnival Cruise Lines x-rays everything that goes on board the ship. The attendant refused to hand inspect the five boxes of film and two computer diskettes I handed him. I explained that I didn't want them x-rayed, but he replied that no exceptions to the policy would be made. My arguments were useless, so I submitted.
Bring along a passport when you travel. I didn't, which meant if I was to get in trouble in Ensenada, the cruise line wouldn't be able to prove I was a U.S. citizen.
Be prepared for expensive cocktails aboard ship. During our first lunch in the informal Wharf Bar and Grill, I must have been asked a dozen times to purchase the day's umbrella bedecked $5.75 drink special. A 15 percent gratuity is automatically added, so the final drink price totals over $6.00. In the course of a multi-day cruise, that can quickly add up to a great deal of money.
The second night out, Capt. Robert Volpi held a formal cocktail reception in the Americana Lounge, with live big band music, free cocktails and complimentary hors d'ouvres. It proved to be lots of fun and an event not to be missed.
When the ship specifies that formal attire is required in the dining room on formal night, unless you enjoy standing out like a sore thumb, you better do it. Business suits are fine, but there was a sprinkling of tuxedos throughout the crowd.
When we spent a day on the ship at sea, the morning bingo game was a disappointment. It cost $10.00 for three game tickets, and the first person to call "bingo" won the grand prize. That was it -- there weren't three games, as we expected, and the entire process lasted less than ten minutes. Players looked at each other with puzzled expressions as the curtain on the stage went down and another activity, also involving a monetary wager, was announced. Why was it so quick? Were we not a captive audience? Or was this just an attempt to make a few quick bucks?
The Las Vegas-style stage shows held each night are spectacularly good. They feature professional dancing and singing, with a live orchestra. Get there early to reserve your seats. My wife enjoyed it enough to see one of the shows twice in a single evening.
Each cabin contains a telephone for phoning others on the ship or making ship-to-shore calls. The ship-to-shore feature sounds great, but costs $9.50 per minute. Needless to say, I abstained from using it. Anybody out there ready for a three minute phone call for $28.50?
Exercise! My wife and I pledged never to use the elevators and to do plenty of walking each day, so we never felt overstuffed from the abundant food. And believe me, when I say abundant, I really mean abundant! No one leaves a cruise ship hungry. Magnificent food presentation is almost an art form.
Here's an idea for stretching your cruise experience, or at least acquiring a taste of ocean travel at a fraction of the cost. Reserve one of the over 300 rooms on the RMS Queen Mary, which has been anchored off Long Beach since 1967. The 3000 passenger liner was built in 1934 and is an art deco classic, with numerous restaurants and a cozy observation lounge. Overnight guests enjoy unfettered access to the ship's promenade decks, which once hosted the rich and famous and are great places to enjoy early morning coffee.
My overall recommendation? Booking a cruise is definitely entertaining. Cruises present a wide variety of experiences, to be savored and enjoyed. They offer an excellent break from the normal routine, and when you disembark, you know you've really done something special.
If you've never done it before, you owe it to yourself to try it at least once in your lifetime. Go on a three or four day cruise first, to see if it's your cup of tea. You might decide to join me later on a longer voyage!
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please