Going on an ocean cruise seemed to me to be the epitome of luxury when I was a kid. Millionaires and movie stars went on cruises. They had bon voyage parties, a stateroom full of flowers and fruit baskets. They strolled on the decks in the latest designer fashions and wore evening gowns and tuxedos in the opulent dining salons at night. Steamer trunks overflowed with finery that made little girls like me wonder whether I would ever have enough beautiful stuff to take on a cruise.
Over the years cruising took on a more egalitarian aura. Ordinary retired people could take cruises if they saved up for it. Even widows of a certain age might hope for a shipboard romance. Images of women who looked like a mature Ingrid Bergman danced through my daydreams. Handsome, mysterious Italian men would be available for dancing and one of them might sweep her off her feet. I had never been on a cruise and I supposed I never would.
Then along came Darling Husband. About 10 years ago he suggested a trans-Atlantic cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Lisbon, Portugal. So we got our tickets and made our plans. We had one very large suitcase and a smaller one, plus a backpack. The large case carried my one long, elegant dress, requisite dress shoes and DH's tux, along with lots of other stuff I thought would be appropriate for cruising. Eleven days on the high seas. What an adventure!
We sailed on the Holland America Noordam, which at that point was an older ship that was headed to dry dock for renovations. (There have been several Noordams over the years, the most recent christened in 2006.) One passenger deck was unoccupied as they were refitting those cabins during the trip. So there were about 500 of us on that crossing. Many of the old traditions were honored on this elegant old ocean liner. Our stateroom was roomy, though it lacked bouquets and fruit bowls. There would be two nights when formal attire was requested in the main dining room. There was always a large buffet available on one deck for those who preferred not to dress for the occasion. There was an elegant reception with champagne before the Captain's Dinner, a formal affair. How elegant! How glamorous! I was loving this cruise stuff. We met lovely, interesting people, sunned by the pool, dined in splendor with charming tablemates, and enjoyed it very much.
A midnight buffet, all chocolate, under the stars was scheduled on the eighth night. DH was salivating days in advance of the promised chocolate extravaganza. That evening, as we were having dinner, the boat lurched. Of course I flashed on the Titanic and wondered how we had found an iceberg near the Azores. Then we lurched again. Dishes and glassware flew everywhere. People were thrown to the floor. It was bedlam. Finally the lurching stopped, the waitstaff started cleaning up the dishes, glassware and food, and the officers and staff raced around helping people up, checking to see if there were injuries. There were some minor injuries and a few broken bones. The captain's voice came over the loudspeaker urging calm and saying that we had lost our left stabilizer, but everything was under control and we need not scramble for the lifeboats. The maitre d' came around and apologized but said no more food could be served because the kitchen was in chaos.
"Vat about da chocolate?" asked my Swiss-born DH, panic creeping into his voice. Alas, no Chocolate Fest. Ever resourceful, DH volunteered to help clean up in the kitchen, no doubt hoping there would be undamaged goodies he could gobble up. But insurance considerations prevented them from taking advantage of his helpful offer.
The rest of the cruise was mercifully uneventful. I'll spare you our ordeal on land, dragging the giant suitcase full of "cruise wear" across Europe on trains for several days. That suitcase became know as "the tyrant."
Last year we went on another cruise. This time it was on a huge, modern Italian liner. We quickly discovered the difference between 500 passengers and 2,500 together in a floating city. Instead of middle-aged and older couples like us, this cruise was chock-full of families with children. So much for elegant meals and leisurely afternoons by the pool. We never even got near the pool, as I feared being knocked into it by racing kiddywinks. The gigantic ship pulled into picturesque Mediterranean island ports and disgorged us by the thousands. We completely overwhelmed every charming little port. The ship's food was mediocre, entertainment dull and in all it was a disappointing cruise.
If you long to go to sea, choose your cruise carefully. "Family Friendly" could mean "Codger Unfriendly." You might as well just go to a mega-mall instead.
Sheila Stoll is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. Write her at PMB No. 309, 7904 E Chaparral Road, No. 110, Scottsdale, AZ 85250.