The Uses of Leisure, or, Reflections on a Cruise
I got back from my first cruise a little while ago. It wasn't a terribly thrilling experience, but as an incidental by-product it has helped me understand what I really want to accomplish during my free time. Unsurprisingly I've come to the conclusion that free time is best spent in activities which are relaxing and enjoyable as well as a corollary: Going on a cruise isn't necessarily either.
The crusing itself was done aboard Holland America Line's ms Zandam. We took along our daughter, now 10 months old, exposing ourselves to charges of undue optimism in the process. Cruising with a small child is, to put it charitably, a challenge. She didn't sleep well, we had to leave several formal meals early because she was freaking out, and so on. There was another couple on the cruise with twin toddlers; it was easy to tell when they were about because their huge stroller would be parked somewhere in the proximity. You have to wonder how, with two small children, they found any time for themselves. Even with my in-laws along to provide occasional babysitting we found our activities on board and in port significantly constrained by our child care needs. But even if that had not been the case it's not clear to me that I would have found the experience that much more entertaining.
The gestalt of the cruise experience was a lot like being in Las Vegas with the added bonus that the food is (mostly) already paid for. As such one of the big draws seems to be the ability to stuff your face more of less at will. This is accompanied by Broadway-style shows, live music, activities, shopping and, of course, a casino.
The main restaurant on board the Zandam (the "Rotterdam Dining Room") was decent and the fact that its already paid for means you can have what would be a fairly extravagant meal (appetizer, soup/salad, entree, dessert per person) and not feel tremendously guilty. The food was pretty good but showed a lot of the signs of mass preparation; when they're preparing 7000 meals a day they simply can't take the time to do those things which take a meal from "fine" to "excellent"1.
The buffet, on the other hand, was nothing to write home about. It was essentially what you'd expect from a mid-range establishment on The Strip, which means that you end up eating more that you intended but somehow end up leaving unsatisfied anyway.
One of the things that I found interesting was that, given the vast and obvious differences in the quality of food and level of service, there wasn't any obvious attempt to steer people away from the restaurant and towards the buffet. Access to both is included in the cruise price, though one would expect that its more profitable to Holland if people eat in the buffet. Though it occurs to me that perhaps the dining room dress code serves as a subtle steering mechanism. The dress code effectively raises the bar with respect to the level of effort needed to dine at the restaurant versus the buffet; I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if a number of people simply find it too much trouble to get dressed up.
Otherwise the dress code strikes me as fairly stupid, especially given that its spottily enforced at best. The ambiance of the restaurant on "smart casual" vs. "formal" night wasn't appreciably different; as a consequence there seems to be little practical value in maintaining a dress code. On one formal night I saw/heard the dining room staff doing the stupid clapping-and-singing for (presumably) someone's birthday, so there seems to be no concern for actual decorum. It may simply be that the dress code is a vestigial holdover from cruising's better days.
Apart from the food the rest of the cruise was something of a disappointment, though I get the feeling that's partly the result of this particular trip rather than an idictment of cruising in general. My wife had hoped to meet interesting people, but the crowd skewed old and wasn't particularly dynamic. That may be what we get for choosing a cheap cruise at the last minute, but it could just as easily be the case that on a more expensive cruise you meet dull retirees who have more money. And Alaska, in particular, was transparently lame. The scenery was beautiful and getting to seem some glaciers up close was quite fun, but the ports of call left a lot to be desired. We stopped in Juno, Sitka, and Ketchikan, but we could just have easily stopped in any of them thrice and acheived the same effect. In all three cases the area around the port amounted to a giant strip mall for cruisers; I expect that experience might be idiosyncratic to the small ports of call in Alaska.
Apart from some scenery the cruise didn't offer me anything that I couldn't get a home. What I enjoyed most were the brief periods where I could sit and listen to myself think; being able to do so on a balcony overlooking the open ocean with a glass of wine was definintely a plus, but not worth the price of the cruise. I spend so much time commuting and working that merely having some uninterrupted hours to myself without pressing chores is vacation enough. Had I stayed home and spent the same amount I suspect that it would have been a far more enjoyable experience.
1 To this end there's a smaller restaurant on board as well, the "Pinnacle Grill", access to which requires an additional fee on a per-meal basis. Though the execution to be found therein was no doubt better we didn't bother because the menu didn't look all that interesting.