(Pictures aren't too good, we were too relaxed to take good pictures.)
For years I thought that going on a cruise would be a horrible experience. Between Kathie Lee Gifford's old Carnival Cruise commercials and an aversion to most group activities, I just couldn't imagine ever wanting to go on one. During my year-long experiment as a vacation planner in 2008 I learned a lot about the cruise industry, what kinds of of cruise lines are out there, what the ships are like, where they go, what they cost, etc. The more I learned, the more I was drawn to going on one, if nothing else just to see what it was like. Of course I also have a healthy fascination with all modes of transportation so the prospect of getting on a giant ship was rather appealing.
So last week we took the plunge and went on a 7-day eastern Caribbean cruise on the Celebrity Solstice and we had a blast. Lest you think we have sold out and turned in our independent traveller cards, here is how we survived (and loved) our cruise experience.
How to not make friends:
John and I travel very well together. We like to do many of the same things, our aesthetic sensibilities are similar and we really enjoy each other's company. We also have a healthy fear of being forced into conversations or social situations with people we may not particularly care for. I am sure there were plenty of folks on board our ship with whom we would have had a great time. But 7-days is not enough time to weed through 2,800 guests to find the ones who might be simpatico with us. Our undiscussed strategy was to keep to ourselves as much as possible. Our category of cabin had its own dining room that was a lot smaller than the main dining room so it was easier to get a two-top than it would have been in the big room. If you do end up having to share a table with people you don't know, you might want to try going for a really big table. With more people at the table your chances of getting along with someone increase or at the very least it makes it easier to ignore unsavory elements seated at your table. But there are other options as well for keeping to yourselves. Most ships have specialty restaurants where you can reserve a table for two, you can eat at the buffet and choose your own table, or you can order 24-hour room service (at no additional charge).
We did have a few pleasant interactions with other guests here and there, and the staff were all very friendly, but we pretty much kept to ourselves. Although our ship was huge there were plenty of places to get away from the crowds.
How to not get sick:
These are huge ships with lots of motion stabilizers, but I got news for you: they still move enough to induce motion sickness. We had fairly calm seas but still felt enough motion on the ship that we started to get a little sick. Thankfully Dramamine came to the rescue. The "less drowsy" version was particularly helpful. With the help of those little pills we managed to avoid any real discomfort. We saw plenty of people wearing the little patches behind their ears as well. Next time I am going to try those (but will still have my Dramamine just in case).
How to increase your chances of liking your experience:
It's all about the ship. I repeat, it is all about the ship. While cruise ships go to fabulous destinations all over the world, I think the way to approach it (especially for first time cruisers) is to try and get on a ship that you like enough that it doesn't matter where it is going. I chose the Solstice because it has a great spa, Celebrity is known for better than average food, and because the ship was practically brand new. Coming into service just last month, the Solstice still had that new ship smell. Everything was in perfect order, brand spanking new, and had all of the latest in cruising comfort. In particular:
- Ship Design. The decor of the ship was much more subdued and sophisticated than your average cruise ship. Lots of blues and neutral colors with typical cruise ship garishness kept to a minimum. And our cabin was really comfortable. With a better bed than many hotels and a verandah that was perfectly sized for two of us. For seven days we had a ocean front view and a wonderful spot to sit and enjoy it.
- The Art Collection. They actually had a real art collection throughout the ship. This was perhaps the biggest surprise for us. We don't expect to see "real" art in most hotels let alone on a cruise ship. Images in the cabins and cabin hallways were kind of abstract photo prints, but in the more public areas the Solstice was chock-a-block with wonderful art by Hirst, Dine, Bleckner, Hockney, Rauschenberg, Sugimoto, Nils-Udo, to name just a few. They also had a "gallery" with your typical terrible tourist, more money than taste, art for sale. That that is easily ignored.
- The Spa. As I have already mentioned the Solstice had a really fantastic Elemis spa. All of the staff and treatments were great, the spaces were beautiful and peaceful. A Persian Garden for relaxing in the steam or just looking out at the passing ocean, a relaxation room looking out the front of the ship for lounging after a really great massage, and a fitness center that was big and well-equipped.
- The Activities. In addition to all of the typical cruise ship activities the Solstice also had a hot glass show with glass blowers from the Corning Museum of Glass giving daily demonstrations, and an actual lawn for croquet and bocce ball. On top of that there is all kinds of entertainment, some of it kind of cheesy (and avoidable) but some of the musical ensembles that rotate throughout the ship were really enjoyable. I almost got John out on the dance floor.
- The Food. Celebrity has better than average food. With tons of options. You will never go hungry on a cruise. Thank god for the fitness center. Our only complaint was desserts. In general they were too refined. You know how sometimes the fancier a dessert looks the less it tastes like anything. That was kind of what was going on here. On the other hand they did have a gelato bar with easily some of the best gelato I have had outside of Italy.
How to not feel like a tourist:
This was our first time to the Caribbean (if you don't count our trip to fabulous Bermuda, which is not in the Caribbean, so why did you bring it up) so we really didn't know what to expect. If you don't know your destinations it is best to have some kind of plan before heading ashore. Most of these small islands cater to the giant ships that dock on their shores. This usually means lots of shops that cater to tourists. Not terribly pleasant unless you are into that kind of thing. In most cases it is best to choose one of the shore excursions offered through your cruise line. You may still feel like a tourist, but they can at least get you away from the worst of the touristy bits, depending on what you choose. In San Juan we just walked around the old city and looked at the forts. This was actually kind of fun. It is at least a port that exists for more than just the cruise ships that pull up. St. Martaan is a bit of an armpit. Thankfully we took a shore excursion to Orient Beach which gave us the chance to enjoy the beach without worrying about how to get there or the hassle of renting chairs and umbrellas. The rest of the island we kind of explored on our own, but man, wasn't much to write home about. Tortola we played with a Dolphin and didn't get to see much else. In Haiti we went on a crazy zip line that started 500 feet above the beach and whizzed over the water. You can also check out CruiseCritic.com to get more info on ports of call so you can make the most of your time ashore. Bottom line though, it really is about the ship and maybe getting a taste of places that you might want to visit in the future.