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Sail of the Century

cruise
Don't Fence Me In: A passenger relaxes above deck as the "Song of Norway" cuts through the azure blue waters toward Mexico. This week's ports of call include Mazalán, Puerto Vallarta, and Cabo San Lucas.

Life aboard a cruise ship is a lesson in scheduling, snoozing and surfing the surreal opportunities to break out your "cruise card"

By Kelly Luker

This being the '90s, many people have lost the concept of vacation. For them, vacation is a time to run a marathon, ski the Alps, save the rain forest--you know, accomplish something. The cruise experience is not for these vibrant young souls. It is for the rest of us, those down to their last nerve who must choose between taking a week away from it all or giving in to the voices that insist we purchase that MAC-10 and 5,000 rounds of ammunition.

Window-shopping at Markley's Gun Store in Scotts Valley was my clue to pack my bags and book a cruise down the Mexican Riviera--which, by the way, resembles the French Riviera about as closely as Fresno resembles Paris, but that's another travel story. With my friend Miss Susie in tow, we boarded Royal Caribbean's Song of Norway in Los Angeles, ready to sail the ocean blue and hit the ports of Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta.

For those not initiated to cruising (yeah, yeah, I can't help but think of lowriding down Beach Street, either), it is admittedly an acquired taste. That is, if you think around-the-clock room service, crisp, clean sheets, tropical ocean breezes and nine meals a day take some getting used to. And for some ex-hippies who still romanticize the crashing on friends' floors or sleeping under the stars with bugs and dirt, it could be a bummer.

MetroActive Goes Trippin' . . .

Don't Miss Saigon: Playing the Pacific Rim by bike requires stamina and good wheels.

On the Road: Traveling doesn't have to mean planes and trains. Automobiles and thumbs can get you pretty far.

Southern Sunshine: Paradise found on Mexico's tropical beaches.

Romancing the Romanesque: Scouring France in search Crusader ruins.

An Idiot's Guide to the Universe: How to keep Europeans from thinking you're completely hopeless.

Queer Across the World: Transcending homophobia in search of another buck.

Packing Heat: Paranoid or not, it's always a good idea to keep an eye out for danger when you travel.

Virtual World: Armchair travelers can feed their wanderlust on the web.

But the rest of us will be pleased to know that ocean cruises have set their marketing sights on people just like you and me--the other ex-hippies who turned into Baby Boomers with jobs and money. Just like Oldsmobiles aren't your father's car anymore, neither is this form of R&R your granny's shuffleboard-in-the-sunset scene. Yes, they are still floating binge-barges, with enough food to feed several Third World countries. And yes, they still have bad lounge singers, but these big boats have been dropping their prices and raising their fun quotient to get the pre-bluehaired set aboard.

Don't roll your eyes at me, Mr. and Miss Twentysomething. Hardbodies like you are the bread and butter for cruise lines like Carnival, whose price tag is geared for your wallet. Rumor has it that Carnival cruises party like nobody's business--just ask my travel agent, who now refuses to book grownups on that particular line out of fear for their safety.

Which is why Susie and I were at Song of Norway's prow when it pushed off for first port of call--Cabo San Lucas--happily ensconced in a swirl of middle-aged paunch and receding hairlines. They no longer throw confetti over the side upon departure as they did in those great '40s movies (ecologically incorrect), but it's still de rigueur to lift a frosty piña colada as the engines kick over. Immediately afterward, we retired for the first of many, many naps.

cruise
Bridge Over Untroubled Waters: Miss Susie takes the helm with the help of the ship's captain and first mate. Besides touring the bridge, guests can visit the galley to see where their nonstop meals are created.

Schedule Conflicts Horror

Some vibrant young souls apparently made their way onto the ship, because Song of Norway, like virtually every other ship, has found it necessary to book activities from morning to night. Line-dancing lessons, napkin-folding lessons, high tea, walkathons, skeet shooting--you name it, they got it. Unfortunately, about every activity except Big Bucks Bingorama conflicted with our nap schedule, tanning schedule or feeding schedule.

Which brings us to the food. We're pretty sure the food is what sucks everybody aboard. Aerobics classes notwithstanding, cruise ships resemble waterborne feedlots with an abnormally high percentage of widely girthed customers. But forget what you hear on those dreamy TV ads, it ain't gourmet. First of all, you have to give credit to any place that even thinks it can deliver about a thousand Epicurean delights at one sitting. It's good, but not great. Trust me, institutional crème brûlée is a frightening thing. The secret is to stick with the high-priced basics--lobster, shrimp, filet mignon, etc.--and don't be afraid to ask for seconds ... and thirds. Remember, you'll never see these people again.

Which leads us to the question of whether you will want to see these people again. Unless specifically themed as a singles cruise, forget about finding Mr. Right during your oceangoing experience. Both Miss Susie and I subscribe to the Anna Nicole Smith school of dating, and had hoped to find a couple of rich fossils amongst the bounding main, but alas, it was not to be. Clearly, our future was in Bingorama. And a good future it was, to the tune of more than 200 bucks one afternoon with our winning card.

Going Native

An average cruise trip includes at least two, usually more, ports of call. Know that these towns plan their livelihood around your boat's arrival to the dock, so relieve yourself of any illusions that you will see how other people live, that you will find super shopping bargains--in short, that you will really be experiencing anything remotely foreign. We took a pass on Cabo San Lucas, and instead blew our unexpected bingo winnings on tourist trinkets and overpriced grub in Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlán.

And, speaking of blowing money you hadn't planned on, the initial cost of the cruise is merely down payment--figure on spending at least that much again on bar tabs, shore excursions, gift-shop purchases, gambling tokens, you name it. Cruise ships understand well that if it don't look like money, it don't count, so cash is verboten on board. Instead, passengers are issued "cruise cards" (guaranteed by credit card) to use for purchases.

Like Las Vegas, reality aboard a cruise ship becomes eerily twisted. Time doesn't exist. Money doesn't exist. Taste doesn't exist. One afternoon found me in the gift shop, ready to buy one, two--no, a dozen gaudy cocktail rings, recently reduced to $19.99. Thank God sanity and Miss Susie intervened.

The highlight for many is the evening entertainment. But not for those who start sawing logs by 8:30pm, the better to get an early start on the following day's naps. Rumor has it that the Broadway-style shows are tacky, fun and sure to help passengers work up an appetite for the midnight buffet, which, needless to say, also missed our inspection.

Cruise planners know what they are doing when they make the average trip last a week. By Day 4, one starts feeling vague twinges of homesickness. By Day 5, deep meditation reveals that we really are nothing--useless protoplasm--without our job. Day 6 finds us promising to be nicer to co-workers, family and friends if we can only get away from this herd of grinning goons, midwestern yahoos and obsequious waiters.

Weeks after returning to dry land we will be scanning the travel section, looking to get away from it all once again. But for now, we'll enjoy the best part of any vacation--being home, showing snapshots and telling lies.

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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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