Self

Journal of a virgin cruiser

Or: how not to be a successful cruise influencer

Words & images © Paul Ransom

Are cruises all about sex? Is cruising only for old people? Do cruise ships specialise in cheesy, corporate blandness? These and other questions may (or may not) be answered below, as our intrepid newbie cruiser takes to the high seas for a fortnight of drinking, dining and dusting off the dance moves in rooms full of frisky retirees. Then again, he may just indulge in a heartfelt outpouring of oceanic existentialism. All aboard!

A day prior

Ever since we1 booked the cruise seven months back I have been trying to keep my expectations in check. I want to hit the deck with as little pre-conceived idea as possible. Simply turn up and let it be. Tomorrow, it begins. Whatever ‘it’ is.

At the time of booking, the cruise idea was impulsive enough to be charming. Hey, why not. And so here I am about to venture into a world I never imagined entering.

To be clear, my gut instinct is that cruising is corny. Like a floating mall. Old people and Love Boat cheese. And now here I am. Single, middle aged guy on maiden voyage. Virgin cruiser.

I wonder what will become of me.

Departure, mk 1

Did I say corny? OMFG!

As for the cheese…like thick goop. A mash-up of Florida retirement village and Blackpool bingo kitsch. A mall-shaped theme park, where Filipino chefs carve vegetables into imaginative shapes while mask-wearing superannuants upload souvenir photographs to Facebook and Raaaa-bee the Assistant Cruise Director tries to amp up the nearly dead breakfast crowd by welcoming us all – with excruciating insincerity – to our Princess ‘adventure.’

But, of course, even on this first morning, the beauty of the ocean, the organic and maternal sway of the boat, the air so crisp, the light so blue. Land departed. My hilltop home and its ring of forest replaced by the 360° sweep of sea and sky. The feel of a planet. An oceanic sense of scale far removed from the sales pitch aesthetic elsewhere. A glorious juxtaposition.

*

Aside from the lovely azure light and omnipresent tackiness, the dominant first day impression is of 2020 re-hash. Return to Covid! At sea! Masks ahoy and hand sanitiser at the ready. And yet, ten seconds later, drink in hand, no mask is no issue, as polite viruses spontaneously evolve to avoid interacting with boozers and diners. The rules of transmission are obviously a little different here at sea.

Drifting

Currently in the belly of the Tasman Sea. It rolls impassively. Even the triple shot macchiato I had earlier has not interfered with the settling sense of drift. There is a destination – New Zealand – but out here this afternoon it doesn’t feel like it.

Away from the various bars and pool decks, and the chintzy soundtrack and sugary spritz of slot machines, we float in a lush, satiny quiet. Being lulled. Coaxed. Drawn down, as if by opium, into an agreeable and soporific miasma. There is indeed a mist at sea. It is in my head.

Are we really floating, or is this the prelude to drowning?

*

If this were a proper cruise journal, I would already be regaling you with amusing anecdotes about amorous grannies, enlivening dinner table conversations, and coffee queue Covid bust-ups. I may even be tempted to critically evaluate the show I endured last night; except that all I can honestly say about what transpired in the Princess Theatre yesterday was that it was a candidate for ‘form of the awful.’

In its detail, the ‘adventure’ has thus far been more like living inside an infomercial; which, to be fair, could be considered rather adventurous. Therefore, to counteract the taste of game-show vanilla, I am seeking brief refuge in the sexy Doom Metal paganism of Ms Chelsea Wolfe.2 She said: I’d save you, but I can’t.

Imagine if I were to bombard the entire ship with Chelsea right now. What a wakeful and witchy subversion that would be. So tempted.

Day tripping

As I type, the ship is inching away from the dock at Port Chalmers, where we have just spent a few hours idling – walking up hilly streets to lookout posts, taking photographs, and meeting (yet more) old ladies in local cafes. It wasn’t spectacular or mind blowing but it was another country. Its differences, the nuances, fascinating to behold in such quiet and familiar form. Town centre. Supermarket aisle. Secondhand bookshop, (with its dusty smell and solitary owner/operator). Like looking at what you have seen a thousand times prior but perhaps not noticed. Not truly. And in this refracted mundanity, new details. Soft awakenings.

*

Meanwhile, the onboard cheese level has risen. The cheap tinsel horror of Christmas now adorns bannisters and atriums, lurking in corridors to remind us that – if we were anything like decent, mask wearing human beings – we should be loading up with gifts for our far flung loved ones.

The company’s dedication to exploring the various sub-categories of corn is breathtaking at times. We are up to our necks in sanitised, sugarised sludge. American capitalism as vanilla extract. (Make that replica vanilla.)

Yet we shall not drown. In fact, it’s all part of the fun. As indeed are the attentive grandmas, a couple of whom we have now clearly befriended. With them we shall doubtless drink, dine and disembark at various points along New Zealand’s east coast.3

Even the melted cheese overload and incipient Covid paranoia cannot prevent the chance fusion of new friendships – that wonderful ‘bumping into’ that draws strangers towards recognition. The gravity of our humanity overwhelming the atomising megaphones of status signalling consumption and viral phobia.

Indeed, now that the boat has edged into the choppy, blue-grey Pacific, we shall neglect to don our masks and spiral downstairs to reunite with Julio and Nino, our new favourite bartenders, and await the arrival of our serendipitous holiday companions for yet another round of cocktails and shipboard cuisine.

Decadence & debauchery

Someone told one of my travel buddies that cruising was renowned for its debauches. Given that the Grand Princess looks more like an aged care facility than a swingers’ party, you may well doubt it. And yet…

A couple of nights ago, literally moments after bidding our onboard lady friends a platonic good night, we heard a man’s voice cooing, “Ooh, hot guys.”

Complimented, and a tad tipsy, we smiled and sauntered off, only to be alerted shortly thereafter by footsteps behind. “I’m not following you, boys,” said the svelte, unmasked blonde man as we made our way up the stair well.

As it turns out he was, and a minute later was standing outside our cabin insisting rather sweetly that all he really wanted was “a cuddle.” Indeed, he only backed off after he had followed us inside and been politely shoved back out into the corridor. “Naughty boy,” we trilled in tandem, doing our best camp routine, and to his credit he took the hint (and his cuddly intentions) off into the Pacific night.

Less amusing, however, were the intoxicated attentions of the gaggle of ‘dancing’ grannies at the shipboard disco. Stupidly, I had hoped for something younger, more coordinated and less like a Gold FM horror show. In the end, the blotchy-skinned, boozy-breathed groping and insistently 20th century playlist got too much and, prompted by my roomie, I fled down the nearest available corridor to the safety of my single bed, where I flopped gladly into the arms of Ian McEwan’s latest – perhaps ironically entitled Lessons.

Maybe it is unfair of me to opine about the stench of desperation, especially when I may well be accused of similarly malodorous proclivities. Luckily, we have strong sea breezes to blow away our alcohol fuelled follies and freshen us up for other pursuits. Like over eating.

As a minimal breakfaster, the notion of beginning the day with burger, fries, fruit salad, cranberry juice and triple shot macchiato, all in bed, all whilst watching World Cup football, seems both bizarre and massively unlikely. And yet…

Of course, the natural offset for such out-of-character excess would be to work off the extra calories on the dancefloor and in the stairwells. Makes sense, right? Except that opportunistic cuddle hunters and hyper-sexual grannies have rendered such activities rather more risky than previously imagined.

I may not get my cherry popped on this vessel but my expectations will surely continue to be defrocked. What next, I wonder.

If only there was an appropriate D word with which to begin this section

I write today because our planned shore excursion has been ‘rained off.’ The sea is undulating. A fine salty mizzle surrounds the ship. Bow waves churn the water into creamy foam. The vibe is decidedly North Atlantic; grey and steely, our cabin pitching and tossing. We are on a giant surfboard, riding the constantly shifting centre of gravity. If one had a lover, it would all be rather romantic, because today is perfect for stumbling along the Promenade Deck, arm in arm, huddling close for warmth and balance. Instead, I shall kiss my darling in her conspicuous absence – and doubtless drink her drinks for her. There is, after all, little else to do, and the lure of the Espresso Martini will shortly prove irresistible, despite my already unsteady footing.

Departure, mk 2

Having left our final port in New Zealand – Auckland – we are again out of sight of land, churning towards Melbourne through lumpy swells, the boat lurching and rolling. All that remains are three sea days between the microcosm of ship board fantasy and the Terra Firma of our everyday lives.

If I have appeared critical, or not to have enjoyed this adventure, let me correct the record. However much the onboard aesthetic may not be to my taste, the Grand Princess and my entrée to New Zealand have reminded me what travel can offer us – which is more than photo opportunities, over-eating and relaxation. Indeed, as we rock our way home, I am already plotting other odysseys. True, they will likely not be aboard floating shrines to Floridian tackiness, and neither will they include the gruesome spectacles of hypnotist stage shows4 and plastic dolphin sculptures, but I do hope they serve up the kind of happenstance and holiday friendships that this journey has engendered.

As my cabin mate says: this will be a memorable fortnight, a damn sight more memorable than it ordinarily would have, World Cup drama notwithstanding. Perhaps, in this – and in forms I cannot quite predict – there will later emerge treasures of immense value.

*

Often, I have felt like an alien on this boat. There is a world here to which I do not quite belong. It is not simply the corporate cheese but the obesity of consumption.

In saying this, I cannot pretend not to have indulged. In the last few days I have imbibed more cocktails, eaten more restaurant dinners, and flirted with more Filipina waitstaff than I care to count. If not for routine stair climbing, multiple fast laps of the top deck, and three rounds of aging disco contortion, I would be weighed down with the sheer bulk of it.

Yet, for all that, I will not feign guilt. Unease perhaps, but definitely not the tick box self-flagellation of the Western bourgeoisie. Even as I soak in G&T’s and lap up the dutiful attentions of coquettish, underpaid attendants, I shall not pamper myself with the insincere luxury of middle class shame.

I have lately come to embrace the value of discomfort, of fracture, and for all its Disneyfied kitsch, the Grand Princess has nudged me out of my usual groove. Here again, we approach the true beauty of travel: its doorway to otherness.

Day 13

In Bass Strait, nearing home. The seas have only just quietened, having shuddered and juddered us all night; the cabin door banging, salted spray dowsing the balcony and speckling the window panes. In the stormy clatter I dreamt of rocking ships and serendipitous kisses in swaying stairwells. Kisses which, in truth, I have neither enjoyed nor sought upon this vessel.

That said, our travelling trio1 have formed a surprisingly intimate cruising friendship with two women.3 Although it is fair to suggest that we would not have bonded in normal circumstances – differing outlooks, mindsets, interests, etc – on the ocean we have welded together, such that I will miss our light-touch bonhomie. Dinners will not be the same without them.

This too speaks to the joys and unearthings of travel, of the breaking of regular patterns, and of living briefly in another vein. Try as they might, the smear of corporate America and the constantly reiterated mask mania have not dimmed the chance affection we have shared this past fortnight. We will surely drift quickly apart once we resume our everyday lives, but tenderness and simple enjoyment do not have to be lifelong in order to be beautiful. That flowers succumb to autumn does not diminish their value.

Goodbye, ladies…and thank you for the gift of your attention and the pleasures of harmless flirtation. Truly, it has been a rare delight.

Disembarkation

Back on land, surrounded by trees. Everything solid, missing the sway, feeling vaguely at a loss. The Captain will not speak to me from the bridge. Horny gay boys will not ogle my bottom as I ascend the stairs. Masked grandmas will not offer me massages. There are no more episodes of The Wake Show5 to tickle my funny bone. I will eat alone tonight. My meal will not be chased by a Cartagena Cool or suffixed with a Bangkok Mule. The towels will not be crisp and new. Neither will they be folded into the shape of a turtle.

A day after leaving the ship, part of me is still at sea. Curiously, it is not the part that misses room service and being lulled to sleep by the rocking ocean, but something deeper. Closer to home. I may well have been amongst the youngest passengers but the overwhelming taste was of years – and although I did not embark with fantasies of romance I have returned to Terra Firma with the hard reality of its nigh impossibility.

Age is many things. Swoonworthy is not one of them. For just as my fire was not lit, I did not set fire to anyone’s else world. There were not even cuddles – flirty homosexuals notwithstanding. Here in my room, after a novelty filled fortnight at sea, I sit in regulation solitariness feeling further than ever from the beach head of love.

Still, this desk is an island, and it is all mine…and here in the eyrie of self I am safe from drowning in cheese or giving anyone Covid.

*

In answer to the question ‘would I cruise again?’ the answer is likely not. Does this mean that the voyage was unpleasant or not worth the cost or effort? Again, not. It was a wonderful disruption. An adventure. An indulgence. A curio.

Without intending to, it has opened my eyes to the various possibilities of creative aging. Perhaps not sexual or romantic but something beyond mere decline. Beyond fear and pharmaceuticals. On the sea days, when the ocean seemed boundless, I too felt the lifting of anchors. The lure of the beautiful vastness.

Why sit in a room? Why stay in a place? Why hold onto the habits of practise and character? Why have roots instead of wings – or indeed sails?

There is an ocean. One day I will end up in it. And then I will surely be free.

PS: Somehow, I resisted the temptation to throw myself overboard. After all, I could hardly check out before the World Cup Final – and knowing now that both Messi and Mbappe will feature appears to have underlined the wisdom of that choice. (To quote the great Martin Tyler: only football can make you feel this way.)6

1: I am travelling with two life-time friends, Guy & Arthur. We have been a trio since high school, our friendship surviving lengthy separation, troublesome co-habitation, and many differences of opinion.
2: The song in question is 16 Psyche.
3: Sue & Sharon. We sat next to them at dinner on night two and quickly formed a cruising quintet.
4: The hypnotist show we endured onboard was one of the most tasteless and cringeworthy hours I have ever spent in a theatre. Quite why anyone would conceive of, participate in, or program this kind of thing is beyond me. The people at Princess Cruises should be congratulated for taking crassness to stratospheric levels. It is a noteworthy talent.
5: Hosted by our Cruise Director, Aaron, The Wake Show was a daily ‘what’s on’ piece produced in-house and available on the cabin TV. It was a kitsch classic – so bad it was unmissable. As for the interludes with Nikki The Navigator…wow. So sweet, so condescending. Prim, yet strangely erotic. Like Disney does porno; fully dressed and churchy cute, but seriously naughty underneath.
6: The cruise featured in this piece took place from Dec 1-14, 2022, and thus coincided with the World Cup finals in Qatar.

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