I’ve been meaning to write about cruising for a long time. Cruises are great when previous trips have made you sick of packing and unpacking luggage and of dragging large bags over cobblestones and carrying them up staircases that never end. Suitcase weariness was mainly why my husband, Bill, and I decided to try another cruise last fall. Shipboard closets are reliably large and come with drawers. You unpack once and that’s it. And after a few days of walking six to seven hours on land excursions, you find that returning to your stateroom really does feel like going home. The plumbing is reliable and you don’t have to keep figuring out where things are or how to flush the toilet, and this time we even had a bath tub. What luxury! And then there’s the verandah, good for private moments with the ocean.
But cruising has its down sides, too. You don’t really have the time to soak up the cities you visit. It’s in and out. So it’s best to save cruising for places that are hard to get to from land. Pompeii, for example, involves a long trip to southern Italy, Positano, an unnerving drive along what has been called “the most precipitous road in Europe with vertigo-including vistas plunging down jagged cliffs to the azure Tyrrhenean Sea.” Not for those inclined to attacks of acrophobia when looking down stairwells. Still, just dipping in for a day does give you an experience of the place. You taste it enough to know whether you like it enough to come back. Pompeii, yes! St Malo, France, not so much.
It can be lonely on cruises, too, unless you’re traveling with family or friends. Yes, you can participate in Cruise Critic, an online site where people on the same cruise sign up for small group excursions with people they’ve never met. And those strangers can feel like friends during the moments you travel together or maybe dine together once. But, by and large, my husband and I don’t meet many people we can really relax with. It’s an unspoken rule that you don’t discuss politics, but there is often an underlying politically-based strain.
The people we’ve met on cruises have been overwhelmingly rich and politically conservative and, with the exception of a charming woman and her male companion whose company we truly enjoyed, despite the fact that they’d met at McCain headquarters in Orange County while Bill and I had met at a progressive club in Berkeley, we’ve found it hard to warm up to those who let it drop that they park their money in Nevada to avoid paying taxes or are thinking of leaving California because of its liberal politics. (Don’t let the door slam when you go.) Perhaps we’re on the wrong kind of cruise. Perhaps we need one of those educational (and truly expensive) cruises led by Berkeley Ph.D.s.
Ah, but the food! The master chef on our ship was Jacques Pepin, and the dining was sublime. My husband, who at home refuses to let anything containing sugar sully the purity of his lips, ate a variety of chocolate desserts every single night. That’s Chocolate Dessert with a capital C and D. I mean Nine Minute Baked Valrhona Chocolate Cake with Raspberries and Vanilla Ice, Milk Chocolate Mousse Macadamia Dacquoise, Dulce and Dark Chocolate Brownie Soufflé, and Raspberry Caramelized Mille Feuille with Madagascan Vanilla Cream, covered in chocolate.
I, in contrast, desperate to balance caloric intake with caloric expenditure, decided before we took off to eat lobster every chance I got, thus combining a protein-rich, relatively low- calorie food with a bit of gourmandizing. I never order lobster in the States because of its hair- raising cost! Maybe European lobsters are less expensive? At any rate it’s possible to eat lobster at every meal. And so I ate lobster omelets, lobster salad, grilled lobster, lobster thermador, lobster risotto (a carbo slip), and lobster and mascarpone pancake with baby carrot emulsion and rock chive cress. We paid for all of this in advance, of course, but it felt like being rich.
And there’s the rub. Cruising also felt downright colonial. Even if one rationalized that the hundreds of wait staff, from all over the world, were at least employed, even though an 18% tip was attached to each of our bills every single day, and despite the fact that the staff were receiving what seemed to be some elegant training, we never felt comfortable with an army of servants attending to our every need. The more expensive staterooms on ship came with butlers. The very idea of a butler made us break into a sweat.
So, once again, we’ve decided to return to packing and unpacking or perhaps to finding a low cost cruise on which we served ourselves from a buffet. That’s until we get sick again of hauling our suitcases on and off trains.