Airlines & Airports
Brian Major | November 24, 2015 2:59 PM ET
The Best Part of the Cruise
A contemporary large-ship cruise is the only vacation that incorporates an ocean voyage. Yet today’s cruises are sold as much on the name and number of the ports of call as on the ocean experience itself.
That’s easy to understand. Travelers, especially first-time cruise vacationers, are invariably impressed with exotic-sounding ports that conjure intoxicating images of sun-splashed splendor.
In fact most of the ports on today’s cruise ship charts are magnificent places, hand-selected to encompass the very best a destination has to offer. But after dozens of sailings over the years I don’t believe the ports are the best part of the journey.
The day at sea is the best part of the cruise. On a day at sea, early risers can go onto the deck at any time and witness the sun’s emergence from an endless horizon, while the ship churns, often without any evidence of movement other than forward, across the vast expanse of water.
On the best days, warm ocean breezes accompany the transition from morning to day, and the ocean’s full scope is in evidence. Viewing the endless stretch of deep blue water in every direction, with literally nothing else in sight, is a life-affirming and humbling experience everyone should have a chance to enjoy.
Jules Verne said the ocean is “An immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides." Watching the peaked whitecaps emerge amidst the sea’s endless cobalt carpet one witnesses Verne’s words come to life.
And no ocean voyage is complete without some time spent at the ship’s stern (back) gazing through the sunshine at the wake (the trail of water churned by the ship’s propellers) extending for miles and miles back to the voyage’s starting point.
At the end of day, sitting in a lounge chair in a secluded spot high on the ship’s upper deck, passengers can eye the sunset as it fades across the vessel and slips below the horizon in a blaze of colors.
In past years as a reporter covering the industry, I discussed this aspect of cruise travel many times with marketers and itinerary planners. Sure enough, nearly all said the best-selling cruises, the ones with the highest percentage of first-time passengers, included several ports of call.
Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, most of those officials and the travel agents and experienced cruise travelers I spoke with in those days felt as I did. We all enjoyed days at sea most of all.
Now it’s no mystery why a cruise-line executive would enjoy days at sea as part of an itinerary. Today’s cruise ships are modern entertainment meccas, with onboard facilities, activities and amenities ranging from casinos, bars and restaurants to wave-surfing machines, zip-line courses and bumper cars. Although the main elements of a cruise — accommodations, meals and transportation — are included in one rate, there are plenty of onboard options available for a price. Thus days spent at sea are naturally lucrative for cruise operators.
However it’s worth repeating: a modern cruise vacation is the only form of travel that incorporates an ocean voyage. In the many cruises I sailed aboard over the years, I shared the excitement the many travel agents and passengers I met who appreciated the rare opportunity to travel across an ocean. We viewed it as a-once-in-a-lifetime experience that modern cruise ships had made seem routine.
After all, how many people ever have an opportunity to sail in a massive ship along one of the world’s oceans? The answer is relatively few.
About 22 million travelers took cruise vacations in 2014 according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Those are record numbers for the cruise industry but just a fraction of the global, land-based tourism market, a drop of water the vast ocean of international travel.
Today’s cruise industry developed from the remnants of the trans-Atlantic shipping era. From roughly the 1890s to the late 1960s, millions of people crossed the world’s oceans on large ships every year. The majority of those guests were utilizing the vessels as transportation for immigration to other countries, although some traveled for pleasure as well.
The modern passenger jet replaced the trans-Atlantic ocean liner as the premier form of international travel in the early 1970s. That development also killed the trans-Atlantic shipping business, ans some of those suddenly desperate vessel operators re-emerged as cruise companies. Perhaps fittingly, millions of people today experience air travel but have never been aboard a large ship built to cross an ocean.
In the days before steam power revolutionized it, cross-ocean travel was considered a daring and audacious gamble. Sailing the ocean aboard a modern cruise ship is nothing like that, but it's still something special. To me it's the best part.
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