The reluctant cruiser
With a last-minute booking, he set sail with Titanic ambivalence.
It's risky to set sail on the S.S. Ambivalence, but it can be done, especially if you strike the correct balance of enthusiasm and ennui. With proper preparation, just days from now, you, too, could find yourself love-hating a five-night cruise that costs just $600, a sun-splashed voyage that you'll enjoy from a prominent chaise longue on the lido deck, all the while skimming The Sinking of the Titanic, just so everyone knows that you haven't abandoned irony completely.
There was silence just as the boat pulled out - the silence that usually precedes the leave-taking. The heavy whistles sounded, and the splendid Titanic, her flags flying and her band playing, churned the water and plowed heavily away.
I looked up. A heavy whistle had sounded, a Barry Manilow concert video was playing on an outdoor 12-by-22-foot LED screen above the pool, and the Carnival Triumph did, indeed, appear to be churning and plowing out of New York harbor. The three-story spiraling water slide teetered ever so slightly; behind it, the Manhattan skyline slid away as smoothly as a muslin backdrop. Soon the ship picked up speed, sailing past the Statue of Liberty, under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and out into the great Atlantic, embarking on a Canadian odyssey that would take us to Saint John, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, the latter just 700 miles west of where the Titanic hit its iceberg.
Thus spake Sinking, a ripping if unreliable 1912 bestseller hastily cobbled together just after the Titanic sank. Was the Triumph a marvel? Well, it certainly was a marvelous deal. Whatever your view of the industry, cruising these days is an undeniable bargain, a consequence of both the economic downturn and companies that refuse to stop building ships, downturn be damned.
"The cruise lines are very astute at trend analysis," Karyn Todd of online merchant Cruise.com would tell me later, after I boasted of getting a last-minute cabin for peanuts. "If they see they're not where they need to be in terms of selling the ship - if it's 120 days out and they're 30 percent off their sales target - they're going to come out with a short-term great deal to change the percentage."
But deals can be had just a few days from a sail date, as I discovered when scrolling through Cruise.com's offerings one Friday. Yes, the ship left on the following Monday, and yes, I had to settle for an interior stateroom on the lowest possible deck of the Triumph, but for little more than $100 a day, I'd get a comfortably spartan room, 24-hour access to a smorgasbord that would have given Nero pause, and a slew of entertainment options for young and old.
From far below the bridge sounded the strains of the ship's orchestra, playing a blithely favorite air from "The Chocolate Soldier."
Well, not exactly that kind of entertainment. What would a ship be like with an onboard orchestra, I wondered, instead of a reggae band endlessly covering "One Love"? (Or without an ersatz Jimmy Buffett or James Taylor, for that matter.) It would not be the Carnival Triumph, which, like most ships on most lines these days, seems locked in a loveless marriage with greatest-hits-of-the-'70s-and-more.
But in all other respects, the Titanic's entertainment options didn't hold a candle to the Triumph's. I searched the 246 pages of Sinking in vain, hoping against hope to find a single reference to a hairy-chest contest, ice sculptures, '80s trivia nights, towel animals (they didn't even have towel animals??), onboard art auctions, daily drink specials, or impromptu sales of tanzanite in all its myriad forms.
After a full day at sea and as much of this sort of entertainment as the passengers could stand, Triumph steamed into the Bay of Fundy, docking at the brand-new terminal in Saint John on a sunny, brisk Wednesday morning. Locals greeted us with an enthusiasm usually reserved for returning war heroes, thrusting maple-leaf flags and pins into our hands and entreating us to pose for pictures with men in Dudley Do-Right drag.
Meanwhile, across the street, a man in a lobster suit waved us over with his giant claw. He was fronting for Steamers, a restaurant that boasts great fish and chips, lobster pots on the patio, and a karaoke troubadour.
This being a cruise, there was barely time to explore Saint John before the Triumph called us back. Bagpipes played softly as the ship backed away from the city and headed south to Halifax, the Canadians bidding us heartfelt adieus as I settled back into my favorite deck chair.
As the Titanic steamed out of the harbor bound for her maiden voyage, a thousand "God-speeds" were wafted after her. . . .
"Excuse me," said a fair-skinned woman wearing a large, floppy hat. "Are you reading that book?"
I looked down. It was in my hands and opened to Page 13. "Yes," I confidently concluded.
"Because that book gets it wrong. I came on this cruise to - I mean, one reason I came on this cruise was to see the real Titanic."
"Um, it's at the bottom of the ocean, isn't it?"
The woman was referring to Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, which has a permanent Titanic exhibit that includes one of the ship's surviving deck chairs.
"You can't sit on it," she said.
"No," I agreed.
"But they have an exact copy of it that you can sit on."
"Get me to Halifax!" I proclaimed.
Throughout the journey, our passage had been utterly smooth, though it's impossible to say whether that was due to the weather or the remarkable stabilizing apparatus that modern cruise ships employ. Still, that night, we did experience some rocking and rolling, each jolt of my cabin only magnified by my reading material.
The shock was almost imperceptible. . . . None of the passengers had the slightest suspicion that anything more than a usual minor sea accident had happened. Hundreds who had gone to their berths and were asleep were unawakened by the vibration.
I lay awake all night, my eyes wide as saucers, listening for icebergs. The ship creaked as it rose and fell, a sound punctuated only by drunken next-door newlyweds who argued and then made up at regular intervals.
The next morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted, I joined the line disembarking in Halifax; at the front was the lady with the floppy hat, excitedly anticipating the day's events. I was excited, too, and so were the Haligonians, as the city's residents are known. They greeted us with yet more bagpipes.
I made my way on foot to the maritime museum, passing through the archway leading to "Titanic: The Unsinkable Ship and Halifax," discovering to my shock that they were all there: The guy who'd won the hairy-chest contest, the people who'd kept blocking my view of the ice sculptor, the woman who'd decided against bidding on the Picasso, the woman in the floppy hat. We were all there, passengers lucky enough to sail on a cruise that had proceeded without incident, but nonetheless obsessed with a cruise that had gone horribly wrong. So much for my being the only one on board with a sense of irony.
We crowded around a Titanic newel post and a piece of paneling from one of the first-class lounges, took turns viewing the shoes of a 2-year-old boy who had died in the tragedy, looked quizzically at the rolling pin and cribbage board that had been carved from pieces of Titanic wreckage. We peered at the fragile but stately deck chair protected by glass, then lined up to sit in the replica and pose for pictures.
"Move it out a little so I can get a better shot," a man said to his female subject. She turned the chair so it appeared to stick out from a large photo of a Titanic deck.
"So, we're rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?" I said with a sly grin.
The man and woman just looked at me, smiled weakly, and went back to their picture.
Is that you, Triumph? Quick, I'm sinking!
With a little research and a lot of flexibility, it's easy to scare up a cruise bargain these days. But there are plenty of potential pitfalls. Here are things to keep in mind.
"Booking within a narrow window presents its own challenges," says Karyn Todd of Cruise.com. "You're always going to be in immediate penalty if you book within 60 days" of your cruise, for one, which means you could lose all or part of your money should you be forced to cancel. Accordingly, "you've got to think about insurance. Remember, anything can happen," Todd says, "and the cruise lines have gotten very tough on cancellation. I know it's an additional cost, but the value of having insurance when you're booking a product that's nonrefundable is huge."
"Before you make a booking, get your documentation in order," Todd advises. Any American wanting to travel to a foreign country is required to have either a valid passport or a U.S. passport card (the latter is good only for travelers returning to the United States by land or sea, but not air, from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, or Bermuda). Check to be sure your passport isn't about to expire; go to www.travel.state.gov for information on obtaining or renewing one. And take a second look at the name on your documents. "You really have to know what everybody's legal name is, what everybody's birth date is," Todd says, and present that information correctly on your cruise documents.
"Before you jump on that great deal for a cruise at the last minute, make sure you can get to the port in a way that's economically friendly," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of CruiseCritic.com. You may see deals on Alaska cruises, for instance, but remember that when one begins in, say, Vancouver, B.C., and ends in Anchorage, you might have to buy two one-way plane tickets, which can be expensive.
"Keep in mind the importance of flexibility," Todd says. "Sometimes an eight-day cruise can be cheaper than a seven-day cruise. Sometimes you can get a great deal if you can leave on a Thursday rather than a Saturday." Brown adds, "Last-minute works for some people and doesn't for others." Such cruises are best for people who "really don't care what kind of accommodations they have" - meaning, usually, they'll get an interior stateroom with no windows - "and who aren't concerned with things like whether they have an early or late seating" for dinner.
When you're traveling with children, be aware of the cruise lines that have reduced fares for the little ones (for example, MSC, Costa, even Disney). "That can take a premium product and change the price point on the whole thing," Todd says.
"Most importantly, when you find a deal, take it," Todd says. "It may not be there tomorrow."
on Last-Minute Cruises
General travel booking sites such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz
- Scott Vogel