I took my first cruise in 1983, and all together I have taken more cruises than I can distinctly recall, including working aboard five different ships from three different cruise lines. When I started many people could not only name every cruise ship in service; many had sailed on most of them.
I started on staff, in the entertainment department, but graduated to cruising as a passenger when I started collaborating in cruise journalism in 1996. Since my first cruise I have seen the cruise industry transform from a very rare experience for a small number of avid followers to a very popular, affordable and high-value vacation option. These days most people have either tried a cruise or have someone close to them who cruises regularly.
Many of the old misconceptions about cruises have disappeared, and some new misconceptions have replaced the old ones. But one thing never changes: the surprises about the cruise experience that most first-time cruisers express after their first voyage. Here are some of the specific things first-time cruisers say they did not realize about cruising until they actually boarded a ship:
- The food is exceptional, and not just because it’s “all you can eat,” but despite that fact. While the words “all you can eat” conjure images of ordinary food, the repast on most cruise ships is excellent to extraordinary. The fact that it is “all you can eat” just makes it even more amazing.
Many first-timers recall every culinary delicacy they tried for the first time: escargot, caviar, foie gras, truffles, or a sautéed Chilean sea bass in a white wine and mango reduction with polenta; wild rice and a warm chocolate soufflé with hot vanilla sauce.
For a real epicurean adventure I highly recommend the alternative dining spots, such as a seven course Chef’s Dinner with wine pairings – a special occasion most cruise ships offer only once per cruise and limit to 10 people. Such special dinners absolutely take any cruise over the top for me.
- You see far more of the world than the skeptics think, because the convenience factor makes a dramatic difference.
The uninitiated often say cruises only offer “a taste of” a destination, but many provide more time for sightseeing than a regular vacation. The ship is your hotel, so you only unpack once, but you arrive in each new destination refreshed and ready to tour. Depending on the itinerary, you can see a new place every day, or you might spend several days in one destination to get a real feel for it.
Unlike unscripted travel, which practically guarantees bad experiences will come your way — overpriced restaurants, uncomfortable beds, surprise fees and even scam artists — on a cruise, every detail can be handled easily and expertly, at your discretion. Of course nothing is obligatory. You can do nothing but take daily naps, or you can play golf while your wife has a shopping expedition. On a cruise, it’s easy to for everyone in your group to do as they please, because they already know where you will be meeting for dinner.
- You don’t have be a “nautical” to enjoy a cruise.
The uninitiated often envision dock-like scenes with containers, greasy cranes and a “cruise director” using nautical terms through a bull horn. Vanquish that thought right now! The cruise milieu actually includes palatial theaters, restaurants and nightclubs; lavish accommodations, epicurean joys and a more dedicated service than most hotels. Just one example: Not only can you get room service 24 hours day, including a hot breakfast delivered to your bedside at a specific pre-arranged time, but there is no charge for room service on cruise ships.
Today, that kind of service is as rare as the Sumatran orangutan, something I hope to see on my approaching Asia cruise.
What You Really Need to Know
Maybe you have heard these things before, but I need to stress how much weight these differences carry. Many first time cruisers say, “We chose our cruise based on the destinations we wanted to see, but the surprise came in how much we enjoyed the ship itself.” Experienced cruisers already know the ship is as important as the destination, but that is not because cruisers are not serious travelers; it is because today’s cruise experience is truly that good.
Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.