A lament … elegant, sophisticated and genuinely relaxing cruising has alas almost gone the way of the Dodo bird!

windsor castle

The 37,648 ton Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Windsor Castle (above) of the Union Castle Steam Ship Line sailed a regular route from Southampton UK to Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban, South Africa between 1960 and 1977. She had a passenger capacity of 191 1st class and 591 tourist (2nd class) passengers.

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The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) is an extinct flightless bird that was once
endemic to the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean

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By David Wesley Tonkin

I once loved everything about cruises.  The palpable excitement of discovery as exotic tropical islands rose from sunlit azure seas ahead of the Ellerman & Bucknall or P&O Orient ship’s bow. Bustling quaint little harbors crammed with Arab trading dhows with brilliantly colored lateen sails and yachts and grimy tramp steamers from all over the world. In the days of my late 1950’s to early 1960’s youth it was Mauritius, the islands of the Comoros archipelago, the Seychelles, huge mysterious Madagascar and intoxicating spice fragrance drenched Zanzibar.  Islands that brought spine tingling recollections of the pirate stories of R M Ballantine, R L Stevenson, and Georges Remi’s TinTin series to the fore.

Later, during the pre-teen and teen years it was the “Grand Tour”; which was my mother’s name for our yearly voyage down South Africa’s Eastern (Indian Ocean) coast from Durban south to East London, then Port Elizabeth and finally to what Sir Francis Drake (English sea captain, privateer, and navigator of the Elizabethan era) described as the fairest Cape in all the world … Cape Town.

In addition to the heady privilege of visiting these glamorous ports ‘o call the other abiding memory was the sense of elegance, style, good manners and an adherence to what was “proper” (The UK-English word for civilized) behavior. Everyone seemed easily able and eager to utterly enjoy themselves without adversely affecting or negatively imposing their boorishness on the enjoyment of those around them … even on the smallest 20 passenger, mainly cargo ships! I suppose you can say that I was fortunate to experience the last of the cruise POSH era (Port Out Starboard Home)!

Headlong now to the mid to late 1990’s … blessed with being somewhat economically well-off and living in the USA, I convinced my wife that she should experience the pleasures of cruising … in the Caribbean! Our first cruises on the Celebrity and Royal Caribbean’s ships that carried around 2,700 passengers still provided that sense of delight, elegance and style, greatly enhanced by the ship’s technological evolution and advanced levels of luxury and comfort. When you visited any of the islands of the Leeward and Windward passages the ship you were embarked upon was usually one of the two ships visiting that day. Shore excursions on Scuba and snorkeling adventures or Reggae music inspired and rum-fueled sailing ketch sunset trips usually numbered between 10 and 20 of your fellow travelers.

You could peacefully enjoy the flavors of the local cuisine in little cafes and stroll narrow cobblestone streets that once echoed the footsteps of Blackbeard, Henry Morgan, Calico Jack, François Le Clerc, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.  Some of our favorite new amenities in the new generation of cruise ships were staterooms with balconies, vastly diverse and imaginative culinary choices, several different theme bars, spectacular stage shows and the continuation of a sense of style and elegance; as characterized by occasions like the formal dining evenings and the cocktail receptions hosted by the Captain.

We were fortunate to experience the spectacular arrival of the new millennium on a ship of the same name … it weighed 91,000 tons and carried 2368 passengers. It was by-and-large a vividly memorable event: however, the ship just seemed a little crowded. We put it down to the popularity and uniqueness of the occasion and accepted the shrinkage of personal space, elevated decibel levels and noticeable reduction in the quality of the personal service.

The 2002 Christmas cruise was the last straw.  The ship was new and weighed in at 126,000 tons and carried 3030 passengers. The ship was, we were informed, one of eighteen (other sources said twenty-three) that sailed on Christmas cruises from the Port of Miami and Fort Lauderdale on the same day! The seaborne equivalent of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Expressway (Interstate 76) at rush hour with a Phillies evening baseball game scheduled at “The Bank” (The unique new Citizens Bank Park) plus a rock concert booked for the Camden waterfront.  Can you say gridlock crawl? The duration, frustration and cattle-pen gracelessness of the boarding process was a (deleted, deleted and deleted) test of patience and temper!

Going ashore at the islands on the itinerary “inspired” me to develop the expression “tourist tsunami”. Sometimes it took 20 minutes to just shuffle off a docking area as each of the eight or nine ships that swarmed the island on that day disgorged their immense inundation of passengers.  In the dockside shopping precinct of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas (United States Virgin Islands) the store that sold the worst imaginable “touristy trash” souvenirs had a line that stretched around the block! It is also highly embarrassing when you have to listen to the loud and obviously drunk yahoo two tables away vindictively berating the staff of the quaint little café that specializes in local cuisine for not having cheeseburgers and chili encrusted fries on the menu.

Once aboard, the public core of the ship rivaled the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. Some of the staterooms and suites even had views of this credit card bacchanalia. Public rooms, lounges, cafes, bars and other passenger amenity spaces were all of stadium dimensions. The volume of people and the noise level was equivalent to the crowd at an Eagles versus Redskins football game in a 2 seconds to go, third and inches situation!

Are you beginning to believe that things were going downhill from here forward?  You would be correct!  The fierce and unsmiling, brutally mustachioed matriarch of the indeterminate-location European family at the next table in the huge dining salon was most upset; she glared at us with hot eyes and muttered darkly in a strange language and made strange hand gestures when we politely objected to the fact that one of their children had crawled under our table and was systematically searching and looting the ladies’ purses on the floor between our chairs.  One of the people at our table … a very interesting and charming gentleman from the Municipio de Medellín in Columbia … shrugged elegantly and expressed the hope that the fierce lady would not stick pins in dolls that bore an uncanny resemblance to those around our table! When we mentioned the incident to the maître-d, he shrugged and instantaneously offered to move us to another table. I decided to strike a blow for freedom and insisted (by the powers invested in me by my Captains Club VIP card) that he exorcise the European contingent. We liked our table’s location and were not going to give it up in dread of the vulgarity of others!

Then there was the Longgeyelandd Bombers “family” (no, that was not their name; just our description of their behavior and deportment … derived from their admitted place of origin).  They firstly had a unique (read bizarre!) choice of wardrobe.  The four of them flaunted ample and expansive signs of mass consumption of their favorite food; and all wore skintight black spandex ninja-type suits.  They sported yellow plastic belts with enormous walkie-talkie radios dangling from them … it seemed that you always heard them loudly discussing their “location vector check-check and ETA” on the devises everywhere on the ship!  They had a great way to beat the lines of people going ashore or anywhere … Awjeezdad (that’s what the kids kept calling him), the leader, would lead a Bombers bunch elbow charge to the head of a line and announce that they needed to get ashore first as that would enable them to return in time for the little woman (his words not mine) to get back in time to take her medication. It worked for them … as most people in today’s society are inherently so polite that they let this type of person get away with such deplorable tactics. However, I was pleased to witness that one of the crew had a discreet and discernibly forceful word with them and then escorted them to the very rear of the line; to a hearty round of spontaneous applause from us former victims.

At the first formal dinner I stare in awe at the sommelier’s inventory list and wonder if I have the fortitude and sense of adventure to order a bottle of “Champagne” by the Wieczorkowski Bros. of  Poznan (a city on the Warta River in west-central Poland).  Or will it taste like the Monty Python description …” a wine that should be carefully laid down … then avoided or alternatively only used for hand-to-hand combat”. Coward! I sit back and blissfully sip my chosen nectar from the Bollinger’s collection. Resplendent in my double-breasted Hardy Amies dinner jacket I look around the dining salon.

Somewhat sadly there is today a cruse myth that needs to be dispelled. In the brochures, magazine and TV ads and on the various cruise-related websites it is pictorially portrayed; and explained in words that “formal night” means gentlemen in black tie dinner jacket style and ladies in evening wear. It is also explained that a dark business suit is perfectly acceptable.  It does not depict or hint that the Bombers previously explained dress style is acceptable (which they are wearing this evening). It also does not say that jeans and an un-ironed multi-floral hued tropical shirt is acceptable. However, the maître-d or dining salon manager did not or will ever turn these people away … they paid for their trip just as I did. I enjoy those rare occasions in today’s increasingly casual society when I can break out the Hardy Amies rig. All I ask is that I not be misled. Tell me truthfully and actually that anything goes … and that the “formal” descriptive is more fond hope on the part of an out-of-touch dreamer in their ad agency, rather than reality! Then I can choose what to pack.

Times are tough; fewer and fewer people have the discretionary funds to spend on rapidly increasing priced occasions like cruises. So I guess it is to be assumed that some of the cruise lines will turn a blind eye to the escalation of behavioral excesses.  They might be barbarous and socially undesirable; but they are paying passengers!

A plea; tell us candidly the actual standards acceptable to the cruise line. Then people like me can choose to find another cruise line that really and still caters to my sense or expectation and anticipation of what is enjoyable and cultured.

Yes, they are out there … and they have substantially inflated prices because they know that those who dream of a more elegant and restful cruise experience among people with a sense of consideration and deference for others will pay the ransom.

It is a trifle sad that the anarchical pricing is a not so subtle form of punishment for dreaming of elegance, peace, service quality, and a modicum of sophistication with a soupçon of nostalgia!

I refuse to take the advice of the woman who occupied the two bar stools next to me at the Pool Deck Bar when I asked her to stop sloshing her umbrella-topped drink on my shirt; she said “Yah, well, like, git used to it like man” My friends were mightily impressed that I did not for once respond … “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” … which incidentally is incorrectly attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette.

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5 thoughts on “A lament … elegant, sophisticated and genuinely relaxing cruising has alas almost gone the way of the Dodo bird!

  1. Walt Lapinsky

    David,
    Unfortunately, every word is true. However, if you stay on the smaller ships with no more than 1,400 passengers and go to the little more out of the way places, you can at least slow down the decay. And, as you say, prepare to pay for civility and elegance.

    On one of our last trips on, to us, a big ship (about 2,000), life boat drill was held in a lounge. OK, it was New York and chilly, but somehow … Anyway, this grandma-type was explaining to an apparently related grandchild-type person that we all had to put on life-jackets so we would know what to do “when the ship sank.” My wife was able to soothe the troubled, and crying, youth with “highly unlikely that there will be any serious event, but the exercise is required by the government.”

    Red sails.
    Walt.

    Reply
  2. Steven Jones

    David, you need to learn to express your true feeling about how you feel about this situation. Ha. I have never been on a ship that did not involve the use of water skiis or fishing poles. After reading your commentary, I think that I shall never be on a ship that does not involve the use of water skiis or fishing poles. It sounds like an evening in a canoe with a chilled can of Ginger Ale and a PBJ sandwich would be more enjoyable that dinner on one of the new floating cities.
    Rude is the new norm,
    Steve

    Reply
    1. David Wesley Tonkin Post author

      STeve my dear fellow!

      It is sad … you are correct … rudeness is a growing new norm.

      Make two PBJ’s and grab two cans of Ginger Ale … I will join you in the canoe. Then I can be on a cruise with two polite people!

      Thank you for the input!

      Cheers!

      David

      Reply
    2. Walt Lapinsky

      Steve,
      Even on the bigger ships, there are places of civility. You just have to know where to look. They all have one or two more expensive restaurants (i.e., they have an additional fee beyond the “package” rate) that are quiet and have, almost always, impeccable service. Some even do have a dress code and won’t let the jeans and t-shirt team in (except on the first night). These are the places which have a much lower ambient light level.

      Just going to the standard places at a later hour can make a big difference. Allow the young urchins to get to bed and the older urchins to be in the casino or the show or numbing themselves in a bar. Although, they may just be numbing themselves from themselves.

      There is no hope on the lines getting on or getting off. Take a book.
      Walt.

      Reply

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