The Zen of Cruising

| Nov 3, 2006

I've cruised four times, with another planned for December, and I still can't figure out exactly how I fell in love with this form of travel. I thought maybe if I tried to explain it as though I'm telling someone who's never been on a cruise and wants to hear about it, it might help me figure it out. Here goes:

First, I'm going to leave out the excitement of the planning, even though that's a big part of the whole experience for me. As somewhat of an Internet geek, I spend many, many hours researching everything about the ship. Before I set foot on board, I've read hundreds of reviews, looked at hundreds of pictures and chatted with hundreds of fellow cruisers on one of my many favorite cruise web sites. But let's get to the ship.

I won't say too much about driving or flying to the ship. Atlanta is a great place to live if you like to cruise: If you want to drive, it's only eight hours to the Florida cruise ports. If you prefer to fly, you're there in an hour. I have driven to three cruises, making my family crazy because they were stuck in the car with me for eight hours. Want to guess what I talked about for eight hours? Yeah, cruising. When I wasn't talking about cruising, I was reading to them from my beloved Frommer's guidebooks. We've been to Nassau, Freeport, Belize, Costa Maya, Cozumel, St. Martin and Grand Cayman, so there was a lot of material to cover. Much to their chagrin.

There are really three key moments that keep me coming back for more cruises. In order of occurrence, here they are:

1. There's what I call "the approach." Now, if you sail out of Tampa, there's not much of an approach. You drive through a grimy industrial area, turn a corner, and there's the ship. But if you cruise from Port Canaveral (next to Kennedy Space Center on Cocoa Beach), you take an expressway called "the Beeline." The Beeline is very long, and has lots of bridges crossing the water. As your brain starts to fuzz out (or you are concentrating really hard on ignoring my talk about cruising), you cross over yet another elevated bridge and there in front of you is the biggest darn ship you've ever seen! It's at that moment that it strikes me: I'm checking into a really, really big resort hotel -and then sailing away.

2. The second amazing moment is sail-away. As the ship begins to sail away from land, it's as if all your problems, your worries, all the nasty stuff that sometimes makes up your life stays on land. You wave. You wish it farewell. You giggle a little because you can sail, but the nasty stuff can't - you say goodbye. You know you're coming back, but for just a moment, you feel as though you aren't -- that your life has somehow changed and that magically, everything will be exciting and rich from now on.

Or it could have been that great big drink I just had talking.

The rest of the cruise is made up of things that probably won't surprise you: food 24 hours a day -- at the buffet area, in five courses every night in the formal dining room, at the specialty restaurants (Chinese, pizza, deli, etc.), at the midnight buffet, passed around by waiters in the bars at midnight, 24-hour room service -- you just can't escape it and you don't exactly want to. Entertainment -- there is something for everyone, from classical string trios to jazz quartets, big band orchestras, dueling pianos, karaoke, Broadway shows, Las Vegas shows, DJs and discos. Then there are the silly games, wine tastings, art auctions, trivia games, gambling in the casino, a video gaming arcade. Sports? There's basketball, shuffleboard, rock-climbing walls, ice skating rinks, inline skating tracks, a full gym, running tracks on deck, ping pong and more. There's a mini-mall, of sorts, so you get to shop. There's a spa (the massage I had on my last cruise was quite exceptional). My bar tab in three to seven days probably exceeds my six-month bar tab on land.

3. My third exceptional moment is simply standing on deck at night in the middle of the ocean -- no lights anywhere, except sometimes from another ship in the distance. I feel the way all people in that situation must have felt since the Vikings -- that amazing connection with something bigger and more powerful. That at any moment the ocean could win. Don't tell me I'm being morbid. The power of the ocean has always excited and scared me. It just feels like an adventure is about to begin when I'm standing on that deck! And if the ocean is a bit high and some waves are rocking the ship, so much the better. (I'm blessed and don't get seasick.)

Those moments in life -- when the bigger-ness of something makes you feel small -- are precious. I like knowing that it's not all about me. I'm a tiny little piece of the world. And I feel lucky when the ocean gives me a small nod and sees me standing there. Just looking. Just breathing in some salt air. Just there.

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