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June 11, 2010

Stuff My Dad Says… On Transatlantic Cruises

Cruise ship in Ensenada (Tomás Castelazo/Wikimedia)

I never write about family vacations. It’s not that I haven’t had some of the best times of my life traveling with my mom, dad, three brothers, and one sister. Or that I have anything against kids, even if I’m a single (not so) young man without little ones of my own (or, really, any designs on having them anytime soon). But last week, an editing assignment and my parents’ annual pilgrimage on a transatlantic cruise had me ruminating about all those awkward-yet-ultimately-rewarding family travel moments.

First, I was editing some theme park travel guides written by one of our family travel experts, Meagan Francis. Like my own mother, Meagan has five children and has without complaint schlepped around mega-theme parks across the US. (Also like my mother, she deserves a medal for doing so.) It’s been ages since I’ve been to Disneyland, but I was able to close my eyes and smell the musty inside of the Big Thunder Rollercoaster’s underground waiting line, even feel the rush of air and shock of water on Splash Mountain. I emailed my brother to ask what we’d found so freaking funny about the restaurant in Epcot’s Germany pavilion, and he wrote back saying he couldn’t remember but was laughing aloud just for my bringing it up. I was laughing, too. Though theme parks are soft targets when it comes to traveler ire, it’s easy to forget how these places can bring families together despite the long lines and over-priced food.

I was reminded of a line in a travel essay by one of my favorite writers, Tracy Ross, an editor at Backpacker magazine, which described a single ski day with her two sons as providing more family bonding time that “the sum total of 10,000 Carnival cruises.” Thing is, though, cruises aren’t just for the “overfed, newlywed, or nearly dead,” to cite a favorite phrase of Caribbean dive instructors. My mother and father are big cruise people, though they prefer Celebrity to Carnival and often take eastbound transatlantic cruises from Miami or Fort Lauderdale to the Mediterranean.

Their most recent voyage was underway last week, and my dad began sending dispatches once a day. He is simply consumed by travel. He’s the guy that on a quick business trip to Phoenix will drive four hours north to the Grand Canyon, hike the Kaibab Trail, and drive back to catch his evening flight. The last cruise I went on with him (Carnival, if you must know), he trekked out on a three-hour boat ride, each way, from Cozumel to see the ruins at Tulum. (I opted for the booze-cruise catamaran sail.) Even three years later, he raves about that experience every time I mention Mexico.

So with Father’s Day coming up, and in the vein of Sh*t My Dad Says [family warning, explicit content], one my favorite all-time Internet memes, I wanted to publish a few excerpts, not just for those who are curious what you do for 7 to 10 straight days on a boat with no land in sight, but also to share our family travel experience. My dad isn’t nearly as crass as the SMDS father, but he’s no less entertaining.

Cruise: Day 1

We sailed on Friday at 5 p.m. from Miami. The Century was the only cruise ship in port so we got on early and watched the dockworkers scurrying along in forklifts to load all the luggage and supplies. Mom was worried our bags were left at port. During the life boat drill, we watched one of the dancers demonstrate the proper way to wear a life jacket while he danced on top of a roulette table, and then went to presentations on renaissance paintings in Florence and on Buckingham Palace. We are getting cultured and it beats getting the smell of dog pee out of the carpets at home. Tonight is the first formal night so I get to wear the penguin suit and drink scotch. The ocean is still very blue and the seas are pretty calm. We saw some lights from the Bahamas last night and that’s the last land we will see for a week until we get to the Azores.

I should note here that the cruise they’re on goes from Miami to the Azores in Portugal, before continuing on through the Mediterranean and ending in Barcelona. Day to day life on the cruise revolves around wine tastings, shopping, informational sessions on art and culture, and, yes, shuffleboard. My parents like transatlantic cruises, I think, because they enjoy the pace of cruise life. Pick out a few onboard activities during the day, sit out in the sun reading for a bit, take in a class or an auction in the afternoon, then head to dinner, a show, and maybe a nightcap.

Cruise: Day 2

Today we listened to a travelogue on what to see in Lisbon, which is our second stop after the Azore Islands off the coast of Portugal. In the afternoon, Brenda, John and I went to a great wine tasting. We are enrolled in the Master’s Degree program in Mixology and started with Wine Tasting 101. The sommelier and three guests used a sword to open bottles of champagne. The final exam consisted of drinking all the remaining wine on our table. I think we passed with flying colors. While we were getting educated, Andrea went on a backstage tour at the theater and met the singers and dancers from the great show last night and saw their dressing rooms. One guy said wanted the job of zipping up the dancers’ costumes. Oh well, you can go on a high-class Celebrity cruise but you still get some of the guests from The Jerry Springer Show.

My parents are joined by my aunt Brenda and uncle John, and they’re all members of The Big Chill generation (University of Michigan alums, to boot) in that pre-retirement, post-little-kids era. Too young for shuffleboard, or so I thought…

Cruise: Day 3

People think a transatlantic cruise will be boring with nothing to do but reading a book and looking at the endless ocean. Not so. Recapping Saturday night, we saw a piano player who was a Liberace devotee and dressed and acted like him on stage. The crowd loved it. Sunday, we got another dose of culture from a woman from the Smithsonian, who discussed Michelangelo’s life and works. She was an excellent speaker and interjected all sorts of interesting facts about his personal life. No yawns there. Then it was time for lunch and we went to the ice sculpture buffet. One of the waiters is named Jose knew my name and I can’t remember ever meeting him. Guess old age is kicking in. In the afternoon, Andrea and Brenda went to an open mike session where passengers told jokes.

While the girls were busy with comedy, John and I entered the shuffleboard tournament. I am happy to say that we are the undefeated champions on this cruise having knocked off five other teams to claim the title. We won what we deserved: nothing. Then we topped the evening with a five-course meal at the Murano restaurant. The Murano is a replica of the first class restaurant on the Titanic. We had lobster, duck, cod deboned at the table, and flaming crepes for dessert. We end every day playing cards. Andrea has won in Hearts two days in a row. After 38 years, she is getting it down and won by shooting the moon on the last round.

Maybe 13 year-old me would have been embarrassed that his dad was shuffleboard champion of the ship. Thirty-year-old me? Darn proud. My father and my uncle John met at U of M’s engineering department in the late 1960s, and even introduced each other to their future wives: Andrea (my mom) and her sister, Brenda. Still, being engineers, they’re not always great at things like point of view, and many of the “blog posts” they sent from the ship (MS Word documents sent as attachments to our family and friends) blend first- and third-person without much indication of who the narrator is. I believe this entry comes from uncle John.

Cruise: Day 4

We have seen whales spouting both yesterday and today. They must like the ship. Maybe they’re attracted to the sound of the engines, or maybe the wake stirs up the food supply. There was a small sailboat passing yesterday (est. 35 foot). Hard to imagine being so far from land in such a small boat. We were at least a day from Bermuda at the time. We’ve found several staff members we remembered from last year. Our sommelier, Antonio, is back, as well as our former waiter, Xavier, and assistant waiter, whose name we can’t recall. Must be a good crew if the turnover is not too high. Brenda got a manicure and got the lady to admit that the staff talks about the guests. Well, we have to run to lunch now. God forbid we should miss a meal. The ping-pong tournament starts shortly thereafter. Gerry and John are looking for a repeat of our domination.

In truth, I’m jealous of this trip. Not because of the waiters or the shows or the games. Not even because I’ve always wondered what it’d be like to be out in the middle of the ocean without land, boats, or birds in sight. But mostly because after nearly 40 years of marriage, kids, car trips, kids vomiting on car trips (you get the idea), my parents are still traveling the world with their best friends, and finding simple moments on those travels to act like kids again. No matter how many remote places you go or countries you visit or “life list moments” you cross off, it’s these moments that get to the heart of what it really means to travel. That is, to share experiences with those whose company you enjoy.

Cruise: Day 5

After our smashing success at shuffleboard, John and I thought we would do well in the ping-pong tournament. Were we wrong! When guys showed up with their personal paddles, it spelled trouble. John got beat in the first round and I was almost skunked in the second. As a consolation prize, we both got a keychain with a rubber Bingo ball attached to it. The girls went to a Pilates class and liked it. I finished my last class with the personal trainer on Wednesday. It was brutal as usual but he promised to write down exercises I could do at home. I didn’t go for the seaweed extract he was trying to sell me to detox my body. Alcohol and a bar of soap will do nicely.

Tomorrow, we hit dry land at the Azores. We know we are getting close because a bird flew by today. First one we saw all week. No storms so far and the weather has been mostly sunny with the temps in the low 70s or even 60s. Andrea and I are ready to touch ground but I think Brenda and John could keep sailing on the water for another week.

I can only hope that when my (yet to be existence) family is grown and out of the house that I’m still sailing with the same fervor as my parents.

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Find the venture of exploring foreign ports and shores, while going back to the ease of your stateroom every evening with transatlantic cruises. This vacation trip is actually worth every penny.

Funny! My dad doesn't go on cruises, and he doesn't say stuff. Ah, well.

I really liked your website, when I'm depressed or bored, change my humor is very entertaining

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