I boarded a shop that went sailing on the sea, and oh, it was all laden with pretty things for me! There weren’t comfits in the cabin; but there were three flavours of ice cream (strawberry, chocolate, vanilla) flowing freely – and free – into cones on the top decks. Nor apples in the hold; though the 24 hour cafe amidships did have apple pie at night, apple muffins by morning, and apple cake in the afternoon. And what might have been a hold or a hatch on a cargo ship housed a marvel of an ice skating rink on a lower deck, carefully balanced (like its gyroscope-stabilized billiards tables) to make the already challenging balancing act by the ice-dancing troupes just a tad bit safer (read: possible) in spite of the rolling and pitching of the high seas. Nor did my fantastic ship sport sails made of silk or masts made of gold. But high overhead, overhead, where an elderly vessel would have had a crow’s nest – perhaps with four and twenty white mice, with chains about their necks, scrambling up the ratlines and the rigging there was a rock-climbing wall cantilevered over the sea, with brave young salts in knee-pads and helmets testing their mettle as the eager young lads and ladettes of the junior holiday club waited their turn below. More dignified and seasoned ships’ mates, on their umpteenth cruise vacation, putted about the golf course rather than attacking the multiple-deck buffets, shaking their head at the teatime scrambles for a plate and a seat that suggested food might go out of fashion sometime soon. Masts, of course, have in fact gone out of fashion, allowing the passenger super-liner Voyager of the Seas to pioneer an unique architectural feature – of a 120m skylit promenade, four decks deep, running all the way down the spine of its behemoth accommodation quarters, putting a high street of pubs and pizzerias, jewellery shops and impromptu musicians’ gallery where a tall ship’s spars would earlier have been rooted.
Indeed, the Voyager is laden with pretty things for three! So much so, that thee may forget that thou is supposed to be sailing, notwithstanding any deficit of sealegs. That is the best-and the worst-thing about Royal Caribbean’s 137,236-tonne Voyager. It can be all too easy to ignore the sea itself, with so much to see and do. Which is a boon, from a fairy godfather called Gordon (cruise director), for those easily bored by restless waves. And a bit of a culture shock to such as me, who imagine sailing on the sea, in the middle of no visible “where’, as a restful, passive break from a landlubber’s hectic un-holiday.
I tried walking a decks at night, once we’d lift Singapore’s new much-vaunted cruise terminal at Marina Bay behind for the first time, to see if that brought the more familiar aura of nowhereness and solitude; but the six outdoor pools on the Pool Deck were still full of the playful well past mid night and their eyes were certainly not counting stars. At dawn, there were more dedicated joggers with sights firmly on the tracks underfoot, rather than gazing up at the spectacular sunrise on the horizon. It took me more than a day, by which time we’d made anchor at Port Klang (38km from Kuala Lampur), to work out that the best chances to find a piece of peace coincided with the feeding frenzies of lunch and dinner, first service, as well as the sightseers’ scramble ashore – if the two were juxtaposed, preferably aligned also with a third star show in the La Scala Theatre and other entertainment arenas deep in the ship’s bowels, so much the better. Especially if I moved waaay fore and aft of the eats and entertainments, far beyond the spa and hot tubs, in the opposite direction from the kid’s play areas… Still, the best place to wave watch turned out to be the balcony of my own cabin, screened from the nest-door neighbours on either side but in my own deckchair in the sun, though the sunscreen-shy could usually find an empty chair in the little library, if not the quiet.
This nothing is a hard thing to do on board an all-inclusive cruise though.
After all, just this moment, while I rest here behind my sunglasses with a token book cracked open on my lap, down on the Promenade several decks below, the Cafe Promenade is being swamped by large families and lone wolves wanting to grab a quick bite without the elaborate course-by-course formality and pre-assigned seating of the three tiers of formal dining room or the Windjammer’s long queues at the buffet counters and small clusters of seating that enjoin splitting up or sharing a table at this busy time, as the case may be. All ten pools and whirlpools are full of unfettered kids, singletons on the prowl, mamas catching a much-deserved break, retirees finally letting their years of worldly-wise restraint sluice away… and the odd small family or couple is strolling past Johnny Rockets’ 50s’ – style diner, impatient for it to open.
There are early birds at the slot machines in the Casino Royale. There is a rugby game on TV at the Scoreboard sports bar behind the car, and pints are being drawn at the Pig & Whistle pub. There are cruise newbies eagerly queuing up at the movie theatre and the ice-skating rink, lest they miss the best seats in the house. There are jaded old salts catching a drink at one of the nine bars by way of morning-after breakfast. Somewhere there is an art auction in progress. Adrenaline junkies of all ages are climbing up the rock face propped high above the waves by the ship’s funnel.
Down in the belly of the beast, some crew members are practising their acts from the Madagascar parade this evening and the breakfast with Shrek and Fiona on the morrow; others are catching a kip after a record-breaking turnout at the Cafe Promenade last evening that caught the whole department short. But more are pulling 18,000 slices of pizza from the ovens across 8 kitchens, laying tables in the dining rooms, changing sheets in the dining rooms, changing sheets in the staterooms.
A very few (dozen) passengers are perhaps resting in their cabins after ordering a small room-service luncheon, saving their appetites for the Italian deliciousness of Portofino, where they have reserved a table for dinner. And fewer fevered brains still, like me, are out on the helipad or by the bridge, trying to find a hideaway to call their own.
And half the ship is out in KL, doing what best can be done before the ship very strictly leaves ou stranded ashore if you aren’t abroad on time. (A few may be up at Batu Caves, braving the bats at the top of a very tall and steep flight of stairs.)
Maybe it is in part the compulsion to squeeze out every pound of entertainment and edibles possible for your paisa – a major pitfall for the thrifty Indian always on the lookout for a deal, but seemingly a global phenomenon given the cultural mix on view when all 3,800 passengers turn up for muster stations that very first evening after finding their cabins. After all, who can turn down a ‘free’ lunch, high tea, ice cream, snack..? Or may be it is just the need to experience every last piece of equipment on this gigantic playground we’ve been let loose on. How do we know which we like best unless we go on all the rides, all the package inclusions, at this floating theme park?
But there’s no dearth of takers for the paid for treats either. Most are very reasonably priced, though of course the Italian restaurant’s cover charge can’t possibly match the $5 all you can eat burger joint, and there are drinks special galore.
Interestingly, excursions are both exclusions are well as the most popular things to do of all. Because what’s the point of going away without going any where? (To most people, the sea is clearly not a ‘place’, let alone a destination. It is to them as featureless as the air their plane hummed through on the way over to Singapore. I don’t understand it myself, seeing as I can happily stare out to the mood-changing sea and the colour-changing horizons for days on end.) And on shore is where the shopping and photo ops are.
Save several memory cards for the sea days though. Even a taciturn soul like me could not resist squeezing into an eyrie of a balcony to catch the Disney-themed parade. Or the view from the bridge (special permission to be requested!) and a shot of the skipper’s (name tagged) scooter there by his captain’s chair. Of the ice dancers who surprise us with a Bellwood ‘item number’ in the midst of an intricate Tarot-themed extravaganza.
And may be just spare a few pixels for the L200-strong crew – and not just their captain’s dinner. Because the cruise, while popularly conceived as an affluent indulgence or a retirees’ reward, is in fact a great leveller in some ways. It is impossible to stay aloof from the smiling Filipino steward who does your room and asks about your family back home while telling you about the two year old she’s left at home, whom she misses and can only meet online once a week or so between all the chores on her duty roster. Impossible, likewise, to not share the excitement of the Indian head waiter in your section of the dining room when he discovers his folks live on the same street in Mumbai as one of the dinner at your table.
Untill the end of the cruise, I was rather revolted by the gratuity envelopes we were told to expert. Now, as I seek out the ones not mentioned on them by name to say goodbye, with a shake of the hand and maybe a little something to buy a bag of sweets for the kid, it makes perfect sense.
It’s fairly easy step off the ship’s gangway, rolling your luggage along with the bottles of spirits they hold for you until you disembark. It’s not likely you will leave your memories behind of the fun you had on the food you ate. It’s pretty certain you got your friendly dining companions’ address on phone. But more than the lights and acts of the fairground, it is the entertainers it is hard to leave behind, I find. Even the crew members whose names and nationalities you never knew.