Testing the Waters: How I Learned to Love Cruising

May 27, 2016
I wasn’t at all sold on the idea.

My mom had passed away a few months before and my dad wanted to take the family on a Caribbean cruise. It was something he and my mother had talked about doing with their kids and grandkids, but hadn’t gotten around to. Mom was gone, but my father wanted to take everyone on the cruise she had talked about.

I wasn’t about to disagree under the circumstances, but I had long been one of those folks who swore off the idea of a cruise. Too structured, I thought. Too formal. Too cooped up.

Wrong. Wrong. And wrong.

We ended up taking a Royal Caribbean cruise for a week out of Miami, and it was fantastic. My kids, aged 13, 15 and 18, could sleep in and order room service. They couldn’t really get lost. And every afternoon we’d meet by the pool and then have dinner together.

A SeaDream trip, or any Caribbean cruise, provides plenty of downtime for reading or snoozing in the sun. JIM BYERS PHOTO

My dad and my wife loved the shows. I toured the bridge. We did a family scuba tour in St. Thomas. We played mini golf together. My son won $650 in the casino on our final night.

I finally did another cruise about 10 years later, when my wife and I did a Mediterranean trip with Silversea. That was followed by two more in the last four months: a small ship Caribbean cruise with SeaDream Yacht Club and then my first river cruise, a Viking River trip on the Danube in April of this year.

The island of Malta is a popular stop for cruises in the Mediterranean. We had a fantastic guide on our trip with Silversea. JIM BYERS PHOTO

I get why some folks are reluctant. And I understand why some folks want no part of it. But I’ve grown to love cruising, for several reasons.

You only unpack once. If you were to take a driving trip along the Danube River to see towns in Germany, Austria, the nearby Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, you’d probably lug your suitcases up and down the stairs of a European hotel or squeeze it into those tiny elevators five or six times. On a cruise, you unpack your first day and forget about it.

In a similar vein, you don’t have to struggle with a map or a wonky GPS telling you to turn left on a divided highway, like mine did in Ireland a few years ago. Instead, the captain does all the work. You might go to bed in Passau Germany and wake up the next day in Melk, Austria. Or watch the sunset in Thailand and the sunrise in Cambodia. No muss, no fuss.

Many Caribbean cruise lines stop in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which has some of the prettiest beaches in the world. This one is Trunk Bay in St. John. JIM BYERS PHOTO

The food is great. You might still find some cruise lines with those giant buffet tables, but the ones I’ve done have been more sophisticated. There’s a nice variety, and generally the cruise lines know how to read their guests. On my Viking trip, for example, folks tended to skew to the older end of the travel market and food portions were reasonably sized. They also provided free wine or beer with your meal, with an option to spend more and upgrade to finer drinks. I’m a bit of a wine snob, and I found the stuff they poured for free pretty good. Not amazing, but fine.

My wife and I marked sunsets on our SeaDream Yacht Club cruise with a free glass of Champagne. JIM BYERS PHOTO

You meet great people. No longer do cruise lines put you at the same table night after night. We sat as a family on our Royal Caribbean trip, but the three cruises I’ve taken since have allowed us to sit with who we want, often at times of our own choosing. We’ve met some folks we’ll be lifelong friends with. Then again, if you don’t want to meet anyone, you can usually find a table on your own.

The formality is mostly gone. I brought a tux on our Royal Caribbean trip and enjoyed getting dressed up. Ditto for our Silversea trip a few years ago. But the Sea Dream Yacht Club trip was quite casual, as was our Viking River cruise last month. Most times you can get by with shorts and that loud Hawaiian shirt your wife wishes you’d never bought, let alone packed in your suitcase.

A cruise with Silversea is one of the most luxurious travel experiences you can find. The food and entertainment are outstanding, and the ship is wonderful. JIM BYERS PHOTO

There’s plenty to do. Ships usually have slow but fairly reliable internet if you want to surf the web. They almost always have libraries and on-board entertainment. I got into a pretty good karaoke set on the last night of our SeaDream trip. The Silversea cruise had good stage shows, as did the Royal Caribbean cruise. Our recent Viking trip featured a couple of entertaining shows and a wonderful lecture on Austrian history. I would’ve liked a more raucous piano player in the lounge at night, but maybe that’s just me.

The land tours I’ve taken on my cruises have been mostly outstanding. We didn’t do many with Royal Caribbean, but the Silversea tours were small groups led by interesting and entertaining guides. Ditto for Sea Dream and Viking, where we met some very engaging locals with real pride in their communities. I sometimes hear folks talk disparagingly about Caribbean cruises, saying things about how all the islands are the same. They’re similar, for sure, but they have distinct charms. The ports might look alike after a while, with their duty-free shops and tacky bars, but touring a rum distillery in Jamaica is nothing like a walk through the dusty streets of Mayreau or Bequia in the Grenadines. Be sure to check on the price of tours and other extras. Viking included very good tours in the price of our cruise package, but tours provided by cruise companies are often expensive.

A small Caribbean cruise line such as SeaDream Yacht Club can stop on tiny islands such as Mayreau, part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. JIM BYERS PHOTO

As for what type of cruise you want, that depends. A Caribbean cruise probably will mean more time spent reading in the sun or swimming at the beach. But you can do fine cultural tours if you wish. A European tour will give you the chance to wander through hilltop villages in Italy and admire 500-year-old churches in Germany. But you also could go in summer and spend half your time in the ship’s pool if that’s what you want. Different cruise lines cater to different economic levels and styles, so do your research.

The charms of Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic are only a one-hour bus ride away from folks taking a cruise on the Danube. I was able to visit the city in April on a tour with Viking River Cruises. JIM BYERS PHOTO

A river cruise has a couple of advantages over an ocean voyage. One is that the scenery is often just a few feet away. The other is you won’t get seasick. I don’t mind a bit of rolling on the open water, but for many folks that’s the definition of terror. If you’re in that category, try a river cruise first.

A Danube River cruise might include a stop in Durnstein, Austria; a favourite hangout of Princess Diana back in the day. JIM BYERS PHOTO

There are some disadvantages to cruising. Rooms tend to be small. For a week I can manage, but I do miss having room to spread out and work at my desk. I rely more on the internet when I’m cruising as I’m working at the same time. But most folks only need to check their email now and then. Slow internet isn’t a major problem for most travellers.

We had several menu options each night on our Viking Cruise, but there was only one main restaurant and an outdoor/casual spot. If you want a big variety, try one of the larger ships. Often they feature a variety of foods -- almost certainly Italian and Asian.

Long story short, cruising may not be what you think.

About Jim:

Jim was the travel editor for 5 years at the Toronto Star and has his own travel blog, JimByersTravel.com. He also writes destination stories for several publications, including the PostMedia network, Zoomer magazine, The Australian newspaper, Air Canada rouge and now the Travelzoo Canada blog. You can email Jim at jim@jimbyerstravel.com or follow him on Twitter at @jimbyerstravel. Jim also can be found on Instagram @jimbyerstravel1.

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