ABOARD THE NORWEGIAN DAWN
The Indigo Girls were playing some of their best-known songs when the fans joined in: "The less I seek my source from some definitive/ the closer I am to fi-ine/ the closer I am to fine . . . "
The lyrics were familiar to the crowd, but the setting for the concert was far from commonplace: the sprawling pool deck of the Norwegian Dawn. Audience members in tankinis and swim trunks dipped their toes in the pool or lounged on deck chairs arranged like tropical bleachers. They sipped rum punch and daiquiris and something called "Melon Madness," as words and chords were carried on the acoustics of the open sea.
My friend and I kicked back and took it all in. This was our first cruise. Neither of us ever imagined taking a cruise, something we associated with forced fun, show-tune revues and norovirus.
Then we heard about Cayamo, a themed cruise on which some of our favorite singers would perform during a seven-day jaunt through the eastern Caribbean. This was our chance to snorkel in St. John in the morning, then listen to John Hiatt jam on Have a Little Faith in Me in the evening. We could hear Lyle Lovett sing If I Had a Boat on a boat.
So here we were, on our first full day at sea, singing the chorus of Closer to Fine along with the Indigo Girls and several hundred people who love this music as much as we do. Closer to fine? Yes, we're close. Very close indeed.
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Once a small portion of cruise ship offerings, theme trips like Cayamo are now very much in vogue. Many first-time cruisers are signing up for trips based on themes as varied as NASCAR, scrapbooking (with 24-hour nonstop cropping rooms!) and Texas hold'em.
Sixthman, the affinity travel company that founded Cayamo, offers cruises featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Mayer, and friends of Elvis. The cost of theme cruises can vary and is generally higher than those without themes; for us, the trip cost a little less than twice what we would have paid for a typical weeklong cruise on the Norwegian Dawn.
The lure of theme cruises is obvious: You can indulge in your hobby, meet other like-minded passengers and take in the beauty of tropical islands or the Alaskan coastline.
On Cayamo (a made-up word meant to convey a love of the islands), six headliners and some 30 other acts were pulled together to draw in fans of singer-songwriter, alt-country and Americana music. In addition to the Indigo Girls, the main-stage acts were Lyle Lovett, Brandi Carlile, John Hiatt, Patty Griffin and Shawn Colvin.
As with music festivals on land, part of Cayamo's appeal was the chance to hear some of these artists perform together. Hiatt sang with Lovett, Ed Robertson from the Barenaked Ladies performed with fellow Canadian Kathleen Edwards, and Carlile harmonized with nearly everyone.
The setup would feel familiar to veterans of events such as South by Southwest, though on a smaller, more intimate scale. Think of it as Jazz Fest at Sea. Cruise Ship-alooza. South by Southeast.
The difference is proximity: Because the passengers and performers spend most of the week on board, it's not uncommon to see the famous people at the soft-serve ice cream machine, on the elevator and on shore excursions. And most passengers are respectful of the performers' time and space, allowing them to eat, lounge or swim in peace.
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Anyone who has experienced sea-sickness might wonder, is a cruise ship the best venue for a music festival? It's true that some things, like standing upright, would have been easier on dry land. The musicians cracked jokes about what appeared to be their altered states.
When a potent gust of wind ripped across the pool deck during a performance, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls took it in stride. "I'm glad we're substantial girls," she said with a laugh.
The ship's venues suited the format well; headliners performed in a thousand-seat theater, and other bars and lounges held as many as 450 people and as few as 50. And the schedule allowed us to go on shore in the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic during the day without missing any performances.
Cayamo is Feb. 21-26 next year, with most of the same headliners and a largely different lineup of other performers. My friend and I plan to go back, and we're likely not alone. Indeed, some of the passengers — and performers, for that matter — didn't want this year's cruise to end.
"I know everyone's heard enough of 'This is a fantastic boat, and all these artists are so amazing,' " Robertson said during a performance on the last night of the cruise. "It's not that I don't want to join that chorus, but I want to do something about it.
"I've done a little rudimentary math, and we way outnumber the crew on this boat. So if we want to keep going, we can keep going. Are you with me?"
And we were. Every last one of us.
Katie Vloet is a writer and editor in Ann Arbor, Mich.