Conscious Cruising

My dad and I and our small group swim out to a shipwreck off the coast of Grand Cayman.  Photo by Peggy McCreary (Mackenzie's Mom)

My dad and I and our small group swim out to a shipwreck off the coast of Grand Cayman.
Photo by Peggy McCreary (Mackenzie’s Mom)

I swear I’m not this person in real life.

In reality I hoard money, eat Top Ramen nearly everyday and am constantly working.

But if you were aboard the Independence of the Seas with me this past spring break, you wouldn’t know it.

The Independence is one of the ships in cruise line Royal Caribbean’s fleet, complete with surf simulator, mini-golf course, rock-wall and ice-skating rink.

Our cruise departed from Fort Lauderdale, Florida and consisted of two days at sea, and a day each in the islands of Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Haiti.

While the industry is currently sailing on eggshells with Carnival’s recent incidents, the experience offered by cruise ships is thriving nonetheless.

College students looking to let loose job-hunt and finals stress, retirees roaming the world and families wanting to break out of routine are the groups keeping this business afloat, pun intended.

It’s no wonder so many cruisers are seduced by the endless bounties of food, unlimited sun supply and staff happily waiting on you 24/7. Even the disconnected Internet and impossibly high bills you seem to accumulate over your trip can’t dim the bright fun of the cruise experience.

While these sea-faring cities make it easy to lose yourself, and any semblance of responsibility, they are the prime time to cross things off your bucket list.

Believe me — I have firsthand experience.

So here are eight ways you can make the most of your cruise without regretting that missed opportunity to parasail or try authentic native cuisine.

1. Acquaint yourself with your ship

I’m not telling you to know all the technical terms and processes of boating, especially for the floating metropolises that are cruise ships. But it is helpful to know which side of the boat your cabin is on so you don’t spend two hours running back and forth trying to find it. Trust me, that many trips through the onboard casino were not great for my head or my lungs.

You will also need to know where your muster station is, in case of a Titanic disaster. (Too soon?)

Your muster station is the place you will go if the ship must evacuate into lifeboats. Within the first few hours aboard the ship, a drill will occur in which you will need to muster, or gather, in your designated area for a brief rundown on evacuation procedures. I know these drills are a pain, but I will not be the one sipping champagne as the water rises.

Lastly: know where the buffet is.

2. Eat Everything

I don’t care if you’re on one or want to be on one, the word “diet” holds no weight on cruise ships. Everyone throws health to the wind; unless you are one of the weird people who came on a cruise to work out, you will eat everything and you will feel wonderful about doing so.

Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

Say goodbye to Top Ramen and hello to white tablecloths and duck.
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

I guarantee it.

Not only is the buffet open through breakfast and dinner, there are free soft-serve ice cream stands on the top decks to accompany the long hours spent hot-tubbing and tanning.

And dinner is always an experience.

On cruise ships dinner is served in dining rooms reminiscent of fine, gourmet restaurants. There are white tablecloths, chandeliers and they even do that thing where they swipe crumbs off your table before serving your next course.

These suppers do not consist of Hamburger Helper or pizza. They are gourmet meals of food you never thought of trying. So take this opportunity to try some food you would never otherwise have the chance to. On the Independence, I tried duck for the first time, along with a chilled watermelon and raspberry soup and some type of fish spread with a weird texture and delicious taste. 

You can order whatever you want and as many dishes as you want. Hell, you can stay in that dining room and try one of everything until they kick you out. My parents and I ordered two starters each, every night. And I’m not ashamed to admit I ordered two entrees one night so my father could have another lobster tail.

Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

New experiences requires adventurous dishes.
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

While this great cuisine will test your inner system, make sure you also eat local when you arrive in one of your destinations. One of the most delicious things I ate during this vacation was a jerk-chicken sandwich at the Breezes by the Bay restaurant just off the Grand Cayman pier.

You may think you have a stomach devoted to healthy eating, but once you step on board, that absoluteness will do more than waver.

3. Watch the moneys

Many cruise ships do not accept cash on board. Instead, you are assigned a card that functions as your room key, boarding pass and ship credit card. And when you don’t have to deal out the dough for each soda and gourmet coffee drink, it’s easy to order endlessly and just charge it.

Not to mention all the stores on board are incredibly expensive and all from high-priced, designer descent.

So make sure you keep your eyes on how many Jack and Cokes and cappuccinos you order. And if nothing else, the reality check on how often you drink soda will be enough to make you stick with ice water and call it “being healthy.”

Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

Purchasing souvenirs from local artisans will help the economic infrastructure of the country as well as the artists selling their wares to tourists.
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

However, while cash has no value on the ship, make sure you bring it ashore when you dock in the various destinations of your cruise. Not only will this practice allow you to buy local crafts and products, but also the money will go straight to the country and its people instead of back to the cruise line.

On the Independence’s visit to Haiti, my parents and I paid for our souvenirs with cash to help the village rebuild from tsunami damage the country sustained three years ago.

Let’s face it: Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines are already squeezing so many pennies from you. Why not let some of those pennies go toward bettering a struggling artist or village?

4. Sanitize constantly

The day before we were supposed to fly to Florida to board the Independence, my parents and I heard about the Royal Caribbean ship on which several cruise patrons caught a virus and were sick.

We packed a few bottles of hand sanitizer and hoped for the best.

Luckily our ship was equipped with hand-sanitizing stations at every turn and automated reminders to wash your hands after finishing your business in the bathroom.

Cruise ships are extremely communal places and germs can travel quite easily. Even if you’re not a “germaphobe,” don’t be afraid to get obsessive about sanitation while on board.

While it is still a mystery to me why some women left the restroom without washing their hands, I certainly didn’t want to fall victim to the “cruise ship flu.”

I used more hand sanitizer than necessary and I’m proud of it.

5. Check those stereotypes

Several cruise packages offer locations in poverty-stricken countries with questionable stability. I’ve heard about gangsters stashing away drug-money in tourist bank accounts on the Cayman Islands. I donated quarters in a school fundraiser to help Haiti after its disaster. And, honestly, Bob Marley was the only image I had to compare with Jamaica, yeh-mon.

Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

A Hatian woman continues to pund peanuts into a fine paste of roasted peanut butter.
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

But those preconceived notions can dampen your experience while in port, even if you don’t interact with the true native culture.

In Haiti our ship docked in a village named Labadee, which is a town that Royal Caribbean bought out solely for its cruising purposes. I knew this slice of paradise wasn’t the “real” Haiti — ravaged by natural disaster and political unrest — but I still couldn’t get over the gorgeous landscape or the fascinating native culture.

Worrying about what might be in the water or dreading possible crimes that may befall you will only make you more prone to these imaginary pitfalls.

Instead, keep an open mind and a positive attitude. By doing this, you will see the humor in your tour bus getting a flat tire and the beauty in a Jamaican family stopping to help when most neighbors won’t even jump start your car back in the U.S.

Stranded on a Jamaican highway, I never felt in danger — everything was “irie,” (the Jamaican word for “everything is alright”).

6. Go on adventures

My first cruise was a 4-day trip to Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico. We didn’t really know what we were doing, so we didn’t take full advantage of the excursions available to us.

But believe me, we did this time.

I went scuba diving around a sunken shipwreck and then in a coral reef teeming with tropical fish that gaped at us just as we gaped at them. I zip-lined through the Jamaican rainforest, in which the foliage was so dense I couldn’t see the roads or the jungle floor below.

Zip-lining through the Jamaica rainforest.  Photo courtesy of  Chukka Caribbean

Zip-lining through the Jamaica rainforest.
Photo courtesy of Chukka Caribbean

 

It was amazing.

So make sure you break out of your comfort zone a bit when deciding what to do while in port. There’s no shame in lying on the beach, but you don’t want to bear the weight of regret in missing that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim with stingrays.

If you plan well, you can squeeze two excursions into the single day you have in port. Cultural tours can enhance your experience of the location and provide you with some information for your next game of Trivial Pursuit. My parents and I went on the Haitian cultural tour, in which we learned about the history of the island and how villages support themselves. One of the most amazing things we saw and tasted was peanut butter a local woman had been pounding out for three hours.

And honestly, I would take that peanut butter over my childhood Skippy-brand any day.

If your cruise visits particularly conflicted countries, it is likely your only chance to experience them. Making the most of the offered excursions will enrich your diary entries and your knowledge of the world.

And if nothing else, you’ll have exciting stories to tell next Thanksgiving dinner.

7. Go out on the town (or ship)

You’re in for a rude awakening if you signed up for a cruise expecting lots of time to sleep.

Events constantly crop up all over the ship, and your cruise director won’t let you forget them. The cruise line does everything from Vegas-esque, song-and-dance shows to disco dance parties to lounge trivia games — our ship even had a belly-flop competition.

The dancers of the Independence and cruise director Joff Eaton pose during the Dancing in the Street 80s Dance Party. Photo by Peggy McCreary (Mackenzie's Mom)

The dancers of the Independence and cruise director Joff Eaton pose during the Dancing in the Street 80s Dance Party.
Photo by Peggy McCreary (Mackenzie’s Mom)

Nearly every night, my parents and I didn’t get back to our cabin to sleep until 1 a.m. But I never laughed as hard as I did watching the makeshift game shows hosted by our cruise director.

Even if you just go to a movie screening in the small theater on board, don’t stay cooped up in your cabin.

You’ll be claustrophobic before you leave the pier on the first day.

8. Make time to relax

The days your cruise ship spends sailing open waters are the days you should take time to relax. Whether in the pool, deck chairs or the air conditioning of the lounges, make time to relax and enjoy the entire scene.

By some turn of events, you have landed yourself on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean where your responsibilities to work, school and home fade into the background.

Listening to the waves and smelling the salted, humid air, you are left with a wonderful sense of complete contentment and you should take a moment to soak it in. There are few things more pleasant than sipping a frozen drink on the pool deck with the waves flowing in the background and a new story open on your lap.

 

Reach the writer at mamccrea@asu.edu or via Twitter @mackenziemicro