Phannie

Phannie
Photo taken at Winchester Bay, Oregon

Thursday, October 15, 2009

October 14-15: At Sea and La Baie, Canada and Musing on Cruising

It’s just as well that we were sailing all day on Wednesday, because I was still weak and lethargic from the illness that began yesterday.  I still had little appetite, and I devoted most of the day to writing and posting the journal entry.  I wasn’t hungry at lunchtime, so we went for an early dinner and once again, it was really good.  They served a very good egg drop soup and a wonderful tabbouleh salad.  Sandy ordered a steak again, and I ordered prime rib, but couldn’t eat much of it.  Dang!

After we ate, we skipped the entertainment and went to our stateroom to watch a movie.  Sandy conked out pretty quickly, and we both slept fairly well.

On Thursday morning, we docked at the smallish village of La Baie (pop. 18,000), a fairly bucolic little place where the Saguenay River empties into the St. Lawrence.  Its claim to fame is the Saguenay State Park, a very scenic rocky area with lots of trees and waterfalls.  The riverbank here was festooned with lovely fall foliage, the first we’ve really seen since Bar Harbor.  (This trip certainly did not live up to its hype as a fall foliage tour.)  Unfortunately, the global warming Al Gore invented seems to have been suspended here, because it is below freezing outside with snow flurries!  The ship’s crew told us it is very unusual to have such cold weather here this early in the fall.  Wouldn’t you know it?  Armed with this information, Frau Mills declared that there would not only be no going ashore today, there would not even be any going out on deck!  I must say that I felt little need to attempt to defy her, as I didn’t want a relapse of my nasty bug.  I took the time to post some shipboard photos:

Spirit dockside in Halifax

Beautiful decor inside

Center console of five on the bridge.  This room is massive, extending all the way across the ship.

The casino

One of eight restaurants aboard the Spirit

Looking across the St. Lawrence from La Baie

We had quite a lot of time these two days to reflect on the cruising experience.  Sandy and I talked at length about what we liked and disliked about this kind of travel, and frankly, we have been struggling to find positives that outweigh the negatives.  We have arrived at some conclusions which you, dear readers, may or may not find illuminating.  And, having only two cruises to draw from, one could easily make the argument that we may not have sampled the experience adequately to be able to make authoritative judgments.

The Cruise Mystique 

Invariably, when you tell people you’re going on a cruise, they respond with something like, “Ohhh, that is so wonderful; we wish we could do that.”  The mention of a cruise results in a picture in just about everyone’s mind, I think, of a huge ship with all its amenities, docked in an exotic port of call—usually at a tropical beach area—while the passengers frolic about with little care or clothing.  This image, of course, was artfully conjured up by well-paid advertising agencies and recorded in the subconscious minds of us, the target audience, where it is stored as the appropriate mental picture to be replayed whenever the word “cruise” is heard.

“Mike,” you might say, “what you’re describing is brainwashing.” Well, uh, yeah, I guess I am.  But what else would explain some of the peculiar answers I get when I ask fellow passengers why they like cruising?  For example, Sandy and I were seated at a breakfast table with a friendly and talkative woman from Plano, Texas, who was about our age.  (In this particular busy dining room, seating is boardinghouse style at large tables where guests must often take seats beside other passengers unknown to them.)  She was fashionably dressed with expensively coiffed blond hair and was wearing no small amount of stylish jewelry.   Making friendly conversation, we asked what she thought of this voyage, the ship, and her cruising experiences in general.  She was more than happy to talk about it, and we learned that this was one of many cruises she had taken.  She said this was her tenth cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines and her third time to sail on this itinerary.  Since Sandy and I felt that our experience so far on this trip was definitely not worthy of repeating, I found it fascinating that she would have made this journey multiple times.  I asked her if her obvious fondness for cruising was predicated more on the ports of call or was it more about the shipboard experience.  She paused for a very long time with a puzzled look while she contemplated her answer.

“I guess it would be the ports of call,” she said, tentatively.   I was dubious about her answer, because it was incomprehensible to me how anyone would have any desire to revisit such backwater destinations as St. John, Sydney and La Baie—places that the cruise line itself had difficulty promoting as attractions.  When she left the table, she still looked puzzled, as if this was the first time she had given any thought to the improbable logic of paying thousands of dollars to sit there, a coiffed and bejeweled captive on a ship docked at a meaningless one-horse town, talking to a perfect stranger while eating a bowl of oatmeal at a boardinghouse table.

While my armchair psychological analysis of this lady is likely little more than pure hooey, I’m thinking she supports my theory that some people, but not all, of course, are motivated to take cruises not so much because the experience has a definable rationale, but because of the mystique and, much more importantly, for the romance of it all!

The Romantic Connection

First of all, I fully understand the romantic experience of cruising for the young folks.  In their case, the sleeping quality of the beds, which we found atrocious on both cruises, is hardly the first thing that comes to their minds at lights out.  In their case, a cruise ship is not about destinations, food or showrooms; it is a floating gambling saloon and bawdy house where more than a few children are conceived, irrespective of whether on a Select Comfort mattress or not. 

So, that’s one kind of romance; but there is another.  It should be noted that, especially for a woman, the desire for romance and attention by her mate is something that doesn’t just go away with the libido.  A cruise, if the husband can be nagged into it, is the one place where she finally has a captive audience of the one who (hopefully) cares most for her.  A smart man will recognize this, go along with it, and contribute his best effort to maximize his attentiveness toward her during this time.  This will give him a good deal of credit in the bank when he next does something stupid.

This is probably why most cruise lines offer only formal dining for their evening meals, where evening wear is required.  While men would much prefer to wear a tee shirt and cutoffs, women love this stuff; they’ll get all gussied up with new and expensive shipboard hairdos, then coyly check out the other ladies as they are squired into the dining room by their men, who are adorned with jackets that don’t meet in the middle and ties whose ends hang only as far as the second button above their belts.  All of their hair atrocities (assuming hair is present), are resolved by a generous Brylcreem comb-through, and they may or may not be wearing deck shoes.  It doesn't matter, though; the women hardly notice the fashion faux pas.  After dinner, the couple attends the show in the theater, and this may be the ladies’ best week of the whole year, where fantasy and reality merge and they are, for a brief time, indeed, Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager.

The importance of the element of romantic fantasy probably cannot be overestimated as the reason most cruises are booked and, more than likely, booked by women.  I'm guessing it's the reason the woman from Plano couldn’t readily come up with the answer as to why she liked cruises.  For the duration of this trip, she was Bette Davis, and my boorish question had the annoying effect of turning on the house lights in the movie theater.

Now one shouldn’t infer that I’m making fun of romance; Sandy and I enjoy romantic evenings and dressing for dinner on special occasions but, when we go out, it is usually to a fine restaurant that has cooked our meal to order, not having prepared it assembly-line fashion alongside a thousand others in a ship’s kitchen.  And we both agreed that we don’t have a problem with attentiveness toward each other; Sandy has all sorts of subtle (and not so subtle) ways to let me know anytime this happens.  However, we have observed that most relationships not as close have a void that perhaps cruising serves to fill in some cases.  If that is so, it is a good thing, and it explains a lot about its popularity.

We find the cruise ship itself to be pretty cool, but largely because it is such a technological marvel—a leviathan that glides smoothly and quietly along while the passengers are entertained and cared for by, in the case of the Spirit, about one crewmember for every two passengers.   It is painfully slow, however; having had a career flying jet aircraft, muddling along at 20 knots is about as frustrating as trying to swim in peanut butter.  Even with the ship at full speed, the autos visible onshore look like race cars as they whiz ahead.  But, that’s just me…I am spoiled forever by a machine that travels at 600 miles per hour.  Somehow, though, traveling by RV at 60 miles per hour is okay; I’m having a little trouble figuring that out.

I was quite surprised how much I missed the technology to which I have become accustomed.  The cruise ships on which we’ve sailed have an incredibly meager choice of TV channels, and since we’re now used to HDTV, the tiny little CRT TVs in the staterooms are painful to watch.  We also disliked the sparse cell phone service and the rapacious internet rates.  We’re a little chagrined to admit that we have become gadget junkies and can’t be happy without them.

When you plunk down your money for a cruise, you must be prepared to accept the fact that the price of the ticket, which can be relatively inexpensive, in some cases, is not the final price you will pay.  In fact, I doubt if the cruise lines make any profit from the price of the passage.  Upon boarding the ship, the cruise line swipes your credit card and gives you a ship’s ID card that is linked to it like a hungry leech.  And virtually everything that you consume on the ship, other than food and drink at the basic restaurants, will cause you to have to swipe your ship’s ID card, and a hefty charge will be added to your final bill at disembarkation.   Even a can of soda will run you $2.25; a liter of bottled water is $4.50; a massage $100.  If you’re a drinker, alcoholic beverages are ruinously expensive, and believe me, we noticed a lot of drinking going on.  All cruise ships have casinos (whose games, it is rumored, may not be rigged in the passengers’ favor--gasp!).  Every expense goes on the card—the outrageous 75-cent-per-minute internet fees, the inflated-fee shore excursions, dry cleaning, haircuts, Band Aids, the list is endless—and it all accumulates, quietly unnoticed on the card while you are helplessly captive, much like a cow in a milking stall.  This probably has been responsible for more than one heart attack at the time the final bill is presented.  That having been said, this gouging can be easily rationalized, I suppose, when you’re on vacation and having this “exotic” experience.  It was not entirely easy for me, however, and my final bill did not cause any angina pain.  Of course, the only "sin" we participated in was the sinful cost of internet usage and a few sodas.

When cruising, you also have to accept the fact that you are giving up your freedom to do your own thing.  Everything on a cruise ship is programmed, and the more popular events are usually crowded.  If you’re going ashore to look around, you have a very strict deadline to return to the ship for departure.  The short time in port is usually not sufficient to take in anything more than the touristy things.  Frankly, we have found this aspect of cruising to be the least palatable of all.  When we are traveling, we abhor schedules and much prefer to take the back roads, stopping to gawk when we see something interesting.  We have found this to be impossible under the strict schedule imposed when cruising.

Beyond that, I’m still mystified by the draw for the throngs of rather elderly folks on this cruise, which was a sellout.  Perhaps it is for the mystique and romance mentioned earlier; perhaps it is because they are comfortable with everything being scheduled and all their everyday needs provided.  They like having a crewmember turning down their beds at night and appearing at their elbow, telling them where to go next and when.   That just isn’t us, and I hope it never is; it reminds me a bit of a floating assisted living center.  I’m still left with the nagging feeling, however, that many people who go cruising do so because they think they’re supposed to enjoy it and that something is wrong with them if they don’t.     

So, what do we conclude from all this?  Well, we have decided that, while we enjoyed some parts of this trip, we don’t think there will be many cruises in our future; it’s just too confining.  As a surprising result, we have gained a new appreciation for travel in our RV, and that will undoubtedly be our focus in the future.

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