Finding our place on a mega ship
Welcome to Season 4 of Nestless and Restless, as MLH* and I try travelling by water instead of by land or air.
This season’s Nestless and Restless is about that rather strange form of travel (to my mind), cruising. I found the experience of living in a floating community with 4,200 other people as fascinating as the places the ship visited. Sail with me!
*My Lucky Half, aka my husband. I’m the other Lucky Half. We were extremely lucky that this journey was in December 2019, just before Covid-19.
I spent £42.00 (about CAD$60) getting from Sharnbrook to Gatwick Airport by train and it took me 1 hour 45 minutes. I took the Tri-Line Train from Miami Airport to Fort Lauderdale for CAD$6, and it took me 1 hour. There are other ways that Florida is totally different from Sharnbrook, Bedfordshire. The buildings are white and square and huge. The streets are wide and flat and straight. The sun slashes the air and zings off the car tops, the sky is a spectacular unclouded blue. MLH was a wonderfully familiar and welcome sight waiting for me at the station. He’d been hanging out with a good friend from Egypt who lives in Florida and was relaxed and tanned. He drove me to the charming little motel two blocks from the beach where he’d been staying. Its new owners were renovating before the Christmas season, and MLH was on first-name terms with all the workers and seemed to have spent a lot of his time dispensing interior decorating advice and helping them move furniture around. As far as I could tell, he’d also completed a master’s degree in fashion. The motel wardrobe was dripping with shirts and shorts with the price tags still on them – clothes for MLH, not me.
Because I would much rather pick dirt out of a carpet by hand than go shopping, especially after 15 hours of travel, I was quite happy to let him curate my essential purchasing experience. I needed new sandals. He took me to an independent shoe shop with sandals wide enough for my short and stout feet which had deals of the century. It was the sort of place that has yellow film on the windows to prevent fading of the merchandise, and an ancient owner with brill creamed and dyed hair who was almost blind but too vain to wear glasses. You could suggest a price to him which could possibly be written on the price tag, and he’d sell it for that if it was vaguely right. He couldn’t read the proper price anyway. No bar code system. He was doing a roaring business. I needed some shorts. MLH had done a preliminary reconnoitre of discount clothes stores and planned a precise operation: drive right up to the store, accompany me to the correct aisle, scoop up a handful of possibilities, shepherd me to the fitting rooms, engage the fitting room assistant in banter, wait for me to emerge with ‘yeses’ and ‘nos’ hanging on either hand, pay with his seniors’ discount card. Wait – what – how? MLH has a seniors’ discount card in Florida? It’s worse than I thought, but no time to think. In and out with no collateral damage. Mission accomplished. Next stop a strong cup of coffee.
Why the summer clothes and why Florida? Well, our next journey was a cruise, leaving from Fort Lauderdale and visiting five countries. We’d been on one cruise before, so we knew a cruise is a unique journey, and that a cruise ship is an eco-system, a floating village. This is very interesting to observers such as amateur travel blog writers. I couldn’t wait. I bought a special new exercise book and packet of ball-point pens from the Dollar Store in order to take field notes. Cruisers and crew in their habitats. I have included some of these in this blog.
Observation #1: Passenger embarkation habits
Passengers who have done this migration before know that their cabins will not be ready when they board the ship at 1 pm, the previous passengers having disembarked only a few hours previously. They therefore head straight for the dining rooms to forage for food and drink; it has been a long time since breakfast. In the buffet-style dining rooms they find food and drink plentiful with little or no foraging required, and they eat their fill.
Our cruise ship has new electronic readers with passenger ID on it. In a feat of marketing genius, they have created a whole new class of ship: The Medallion Class. Before boarding the ship, they took our photos and uploaded them and gave us medallions on a lanyard to wear around our necks. These opened our cabin doors, charged our accounts for drinks and excursions, and connected to the ship’s intranet to send text messages. You could also see where members of your party were on the ship if, say, you had agreed to meet for cocktails at a certain bar, but someone had got distracted and was currently in the Crooner’s Bar* vying for first place in the karaoke competition. Presumably the crew can find you if you are doing any nefarious, or even if you told your family you were going to sing karaoke, but in fact you slipped into the Lotus Spa for a Swedish massage. I wish I’d had this system when the children were teenagers. The weird thing was that the medallions interacted with electronic directories; as you approached, your picture, name and place of residence flashed up on the screen. So sometimes you’d be looking at an enormous map of the ship by the elevators and trying to decide if you were closer to the stern than the bow, and blonde and smiling Marilyn from Maryland, would pop up next to you, figuratively speaking. In fact, she was two yards away, heading without hesitation for the Explorer’s Lounge, and her avatar just hung out with you for a couple of seconds as she passed by. This got so distracting that I memorized the layout of the ship as fast as I could and avoided the electronic screens. Plus, my ‘big brother’s watching me’ antennae were quivering like shaking jelly.
But if I left our stateroom without my medallion, I couldn’t get back into it, so I resigned myself to being electronically tagged. The cruise ship business is about upselling you on packages on the ship, getting you to lose money at the casino, and recognising your spending with loyalty rewards. They want you to book another cruise with them, and one way they do that is by giving you status. With the medallions, we realized different colours meant different levels of dedication to cruising with the same cruise line, like airline reward cards. We met people who had been on six or seven cruises in the last year alone. These afficionados wore their identifying red or blue medallions on specially designed watch straps, or bracelets which they had bought from the ship’s store. They were above us in hierarchy, and way above the large intergenerational family we saw lugging bottled water onto the ship, not realizing that cruise ships have their own water de-salination plants and that the water they provide for free is better than any filtered water you can drink from a bottle and tastes just the same – like water. Because we’d been on one cruise before though, we got a ‘gold’ medallion on a simple lanyard, and thus identified, stratified, and checked in, we and the other 3,000 or so passengers boarded the Caribbean Princess in an orderly fashion.
We went on deck to watch the rest of the provisions being loaded onto the ship. A steady stream of vans and trucks was hustling through right up to embarkation time.
Observation #2: All the provisions for up to 3,000 passengers and 1,200 crew members are taken on in port in the one-day turnaround from one cruise to the next. That’s about 150,000 tonnes of food and drink. It’s a smooth operation.
Then, up to a higher deck in the wind to watch the ship leave port. Cruise ships are so high it’s as though you are in a tall office building, looking down on the city of Fort Lauderdale, Port Everglades, the Intercoastal Waterway. Port pilot boats police the busy channel, keeping small boats out of the way with flashing lights and horns so that they seem to scatter like ants, we are so far above them. The vessel’s movement feels like slow motion. It’s a great pedantic propulsion. Only the relative movement of the boat to fixed points on the shore indicates the direction, plus blasts on the ship’s horn: “Two long blasts mean I’m leaving the berth” I say. “One short blast means I’m going to starboard”. I’m irritating MLH with my commentary, I know. He’s wondering how many blasts mean cocktail hour. “Oh – three short blasts – that means we’re going in reverse”. The ship straightens up ponderously and there we are, bow firmly pointed East, steaming past the Fort Lauderdale Jetties and out into the Straits of Florida.
*For my next career, I would like to be a Cruise Ship Facilities Namer.