By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
There was a love story playing out on the dance floor of Club Fusion. While the band played rhythm and blues and rock and roll, Bobby and Brenda danced the night away.
Club Fusion was, perhaps, an odd place for the elderly couple, and the music to which they were dancing was out of their time. Or so it would seem. Standing still, they may have appeared to be a somewhat elderly couple but on the dance floor that night, they were a couple on an adventure and madly in love.
There is something entirely magical about being aboard a cruise ship at sea. Once you step aboard the ship and the dock lines are released, you have disconnected yourself from the normal world of work, deadlines, telemarketers and utility bills. As the ship moves away from the dock, you are fully separated from any stress or dreariness back home. In a way that is ultimately delineated, you are now most definitely on vacation.
Just as darkness fell over the city of Fort Lauderdale, the passengers felt the thrusters kick on and the Ruby Princess slowly steamed toward the inlet to the open ocean. Condominium towers lined the inlet and residents flashed their balcony lights and cheered as the grand ship made way out to sea. People aboard shouted back with cheers of their own. The adventure was on.
The first hours spent aboard a cruise ship can be overwhelming. Some ships are akin to upscale shopping malls with a wide-open expanse revealing the numerous decks. Others are geared toward children and family fun. Princess Cruise Lines takes a different course; their ships are grandeur afloat. The detail itself is almost too much to take in and the question comes to mind: How could anyone design something so intricate, so functional, and yet so intimate? The passengers ranged in age from young to olderly, all finding the environment much to their liking.
The first few days of a cruise on a Princess ship is spent finding your way around, but it is in the discovery where a great deal of joy may be found, along with, ultimately, the destination you seek.
On a cruise ship of more than 3,000 souls, it is remarkably effortless to find solitude and a place to call your own. A balcony cabin makes it easy enough — from the privacy of your own stateroom you can step out into the ocean environment and watch the world and numerous islands, ships, fishing boats and sailboats pass by. On a ship such as the Ruby Princess, the design itself lends toward peace and solitude with abundant windowed corners and stuffed furniture to lay claim to a quiet place of your choosing. Of course, if you want to mingle, to absorb the energy of a crowd, that is easy enough, too, in the cafes and the indoor and outdoor entertainment spots. The list of such venues is long. At the end of our cruise, I still didn’t know how many swimming pools the ship had.
In the main dining room, names and pleasantries were exchanged and, before long, conversation flowed as though among old friends. I was surprised to find that at our table everyone, with the exception of two friends traveling together from Canada, was from Florida. They saw the cruise as an economical and ideal way to escape their normal lives for a short while.
The cruise was billed as a “Caribbean Sampler,” four nights and only one stop at a Princess-owned section of Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas. At dinner, our companions discussed this as a seemingly new strategy for cruise lines in offering shorter cruises for those who couldn’t manage a full seven days or the slightly higher cost of a longer cruise.
Cruising is certainly one of the most cost-effective ways to vacation. For just over $100 per night, the ship provided all accommodations in a remarkably comfortable fashion, a mind-boggling and nearly infinite selection of food and near-endless entertainment. And then there is the service. It is outstanding.
There are typically a thousand or more crew members aboard a modern cruise ship and, for the most part, they remain somewhat hidden, almost invisible to most of the passengers. Yet meeting these dedicated and worldly people is, to me, a grand part of the adventure. More than two dozen nations were represented among the crew of the Ruby Princess and all came with interesting, often amazing, stories.
Our attentive cabin steward, Marlon, was from the Philippines and had been at sea for several months. He was counting down the days to a few months off to spend time with his wife and son. His son was comparably counting down the days to when his dad would come home, and to jumping up and down on his chest to the child’s squeals of laughter and the dad’s likely “oomph’s” of joyful windlessness. And then he would come back to the ship, as he has for the past decade, to continue to provide for his family. We asked him to pose on our balcony for a photo and sent an email to his wife and son with a note that said, “This is what Marlon looks like at this very moment!”
After dinner, we explored the ship, ultimately finding ourselves at the Skywalker’s Lounge on the 18th deck at the stern of the ship. At 8 p.m., it was completely empty save for one crewmember. Joy, also from the Philippines, walked over and introduced herself. She had a beautiful, shy smile but a warm and engaging personality. Somewhere in our conversation, she mentioned that the lounge didn’t actually open until 10 p.m. (we possibly should have gathered that, since we had to move a large sign to get in the door) but she would be happy to serve us anyway. In fact, she said, we were lucky as the bartender had not yet arrived and she made the best White Russians.
She did not exaggerate.
As we talked, we learned about her daughter and another photo seemed appropriate. Joy glowed in the image that we sent out to a young girl in a completely different world.
On the third morning I woke up stupid — and that was a good thing. No, it wasn’t Joy’s excellent White Russian from the night before but rather the tranquillity that had settled over me as the ship sliced through the ocean waves. Normally, I wake up with a start, instantly thinking and tallying the list of things that needed to be accomplished on that day. Waking up stupid was a pleasant surprise. My brain was relaxed and disengaged. Ahead of us was only a visit to a Bahamian island, and an upcoming knock on the door from a steward providing coffee and a light breakfast, all made to our specifications.Outside our balcony doors, the sky and ocean were purple with the rising sun, and the island of Eleuthera was a dark smudge on the horizon. I wished I could hold that moment forever.
Princess Cays is a tropical oasis of the sort that chambers of commerce in warm weather parts of the world only wish they could promote. There were sailboards and Hobie Cats, pedal boats with enormous water wheels, volleyball and thousands of lounge chairs stretching the length of the white sand beach, with free lunch buffets provided at each end. Just beyond the gate, however, was the Bahamas that Michelle and I longed to see, the one we had spent months visiting during a cruise on our own sailboat years ago. We hiked 10 miles, discovering villages, churches and abandoned buildings. Buried in the mangroves, we found a 1970s-era Chevrolet Impala station wagon and birds that spoke, sometimes sharply, as we passed.
After several hours we returned to the beach, retiring to shaded lounge chairs to enjoy ice-cold adult beverages. Again, I found myself wishing I could keep that moment forever. It was amazing to feel such tranquillity among a sea of lounge chairs, simply watching palm fronds wave in the Bahamian breeze, with the vista of the ship lying in the deep blue water, just beyond the turquoise shallow water off the beach.
If anyone says the food aboard a cruise ship is anything less than amazing they have either never taken a cruise or chose their cruise badly. The culinary staff takes great pride in their work and it shows. On board they are often celebrities, providing shows for the guests. The food provided at no additional charge with passage is worth the price of admission alone, and the options are staggering. But for those seeking a more intimate experience, ships such as the Ruby Princess provide specialty restaurants as well, for a modest additional price.
At Sabatini’s, the ship’s Italian restaurant, we met our waiter, George, from Romania. His charming, polished demeanor certainly would have over-qualified him for any of the finest restaurants in the Tampa Bay area. His professionalism and warm humor extended well beyond the service — he serves a variety of people and can guide his guests through the stunning courses with ease and comfort. The white chocolate mousse was the perfect complement to the artichoke soufflé, the seafood antipasti and the two fresh lobster tails. I was struck by the thought that, quite possibly, food should not taste so good.
Commodore Giuseppe Romano stood on his meticulously neat and expansive bridge among an array of electronic screens and controls. As commodore, he was not just the captain of the Ruby Princess but also the captain of the fleet’s captains. With four decades of experience at sea, he knew the ocean and he knew his ship. A weather station provided a continuous feed of information via satellite Internet (the ship also contributed, feeding in its own weather data to assist other mariners, both large and small), the controls provided data on every single function of the ship. On one LCD screen, he could look into the future, to see where and how the ship would be 10 or 20 minutes hence. And then he reached into a polished wooden drawer and pulled out a sextant — a centuries-old navigation instrument that he and his crew had mastered. They took no chances.
His first and foremost responsibility was the safety of his passengers, crew and ship. But he was also the host for 3,000 souls and could often be seen walking the decks, greeting his guests. His online blog reveals that his love and romance for the ocean and more, for his family back in Florida, simply does not diminish. He is a man of grace, a consummate host and a knowledgeable, charming person, a captain’s captain for whom the sea was not a job but a calling.
Cruise ships have become media fodder over the past several years. Just this week, one ship from a different cruise line suffered an outbreak of norovirus, an outbreak severe enough to cut that cruise short. Major media outlets are quick to jump on such stories, although they are highly unusual given the huge amount of cruise ship traffic. And the reality is that modern cruise ships are examples of outrageously spotlessly clean environments. Another reality is that norovirus isn’t necessarily the fault of the cruise ships as much as it is the passengers who bring it aboard. Everywhere you go on a ship are hand-sanitizing stations that, particularly near dining areas, are staffed by crewmembers posted to ask and remind passengers to use them. Not all do. When it comes to such unpleasant but temporary maladies, the best protection is simply a good defense, and cruise lines make that easy to do.
Shopping isn’t my forte but it is difficult for me to ignore events like “watch night” in which tables full of wristwatches are on display at below bargain-basement prices. Clothing, jewelry, and other duty- free items abound, although on Princess ships, the shops have the feel of an upscale walkable neighborhood rather than an overcrowded shopping mall. On the last day of the cruise, a day spent entirely at sea, the bargains came out.
The last night is difficult because it arrives too quickly. The ocean passes by quietly, each minute, each mile, taking us closer to home and back to the real world. At first we decided on a quiet evening, retiring to the balcony of our stateroom with a bottle of wine. But then we were struck with the idea of roaming the ship just a little longer, seeking just a little more adventure.
Eventually we found ourselves on the Promenade Deck, my favorite of all decks for the teak decking and the old world feel harkening back to the days of Atlantic steamships and boundless romance. Tearing ourselves away from the deck chairs and the passing ocean, we entered the Explorer’s Lounge to find Bobby and Brenda cutting the rug on the dance floor to the sound of a rock band. They were not only out-dancing people half their age, but they were inspiring them as well, as couples followed their lead to fill the floor. The band was excellent but it seemed as though half of the applause between songs was for Bobby and Brenda.
I asked one young woman if she knew who they were and she responded, “I don’t, but they are amazing!”
When the band took a break, Bobby and Brenda left the floor, but it wasn’t a quick escape as other passengers lined up to greet them and shake their hands. The young woman I had spoken with gave Brenda a big hug. And then, while the ship continued sailing toward home in the night, they made their way down the deck, off on yet another adventure. The cruise hadn’t ended yet and tomorrow could wait. Holding hands, they disappeared into the intimate grandeur of the ship.
Princess Cruises sails out of ports around the world, including Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, giving Florida residents a unique advantage in having access to last-minute cruises. For information, visit www.princess.com. Closer to home, Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian cruise lines sail out of the Port of Tampa.