Mark Bittman, the food columnist for the New York Times, has discovered the glories of cruise ships. I'll wait right here while you go get a drink.
Are you back? The great thing about cruises is that, if you're the food columnist for a major newspaper, you can travel for free! Mr. Bittman recommends the experience wholeheartedly.
Nevertheless, my first journey took some gearing up to, because cruising is so easy to put down. I was like that: too sophisticated to consider it.
If there's one promising start to a New York Times lifestyle article, it's the writer explaining that he is far, far too New York to consider this exotic and foreign -- but not in the sophisticated, world-traveller way -- experience. Within a few sentences, we know, the finest in upper-middle-class condescension will be on tap.
Many of the common complaints about cruise ships ring true: The best of the entertainment is boring. Most of the food is mediocre, and it’s usually about as opposite of “local” as you can find... The excursions are rushed, timid, overpriced. Many of the ports have nothing in them worth seeing. The companionship is limited. (The best cruise joke I know: “This cruise has the oldest passengers I’ve ever seen. And most of them brought their parents.”) There are the risks of illness, although my experience is that the industry has become germophobic and ships seem safer than most workplaces, contagion-wise. Then there’s the issue of safety, although there’s not much to worry about. You might hit rough seas, and even become seasick.
Sign me up, baby. "I am a professional food writer, but I've decided mediocre food isn't all that bad."
Some other things I have found: In general, the prices are not unreasonable, especially since they’re often discounted.
"But so much of it!"
The service is usually excellent, especially compared with hotels and restaurants on land, at least most of the places I frequent.
"I, Mark Bittman, need to get out more."
The food is as abundant as you’ve heard, generally better than that in most hotels; furthermore, after a few days, you can probably strike a deal with a friendly cook to customize it as you like.
"...if you're the food columnist for the New York Times
There’s also an odd level of equality: Everyone spends time in the public spaces, and those are shared, although there are no doubt exclusive lounges for the highest-paying passengers. Much of the food, too, is the same for everyone.
"It may be mediocre, but I am comforted by the knowledge that nobody else is getting anything better."
But there are two other factors that make cruising not only unusual but uniquely satisfying, at least to me. ... It is simply that the “floating hotel” means that your vacation is structured like this: You get onboard; you unpack; you never change rooms again; and yet you go different places. Effortlessly. ... it’s an incomparable luxury to put your suitcase under the bed and not think of it for days or, if you’re lucky, weeks. To keep your toothbrush parked in the same place; to not search for your cellphone charger among your belongings; to leave your magazines in a stack; to recover from jet lag once, at most — all while actually traveling — this feels inconceivable.
Allow me to introduce you to the concept of vacationing in a short-term apartment or house. I bet you could discover this while reading any travel essay in the New York Times in the history of mankind. Protip: Search for "Tuscany".
At the beginning of those seven days, we — I was traveling with my wife — were cautious. Seven days at sea? With these people? And yet, these days were fantastic. [it. mine]
These are hours spent staring at passing islands or shorelines, wildlife, the sky and sea.
These are hours spent not doing these things: reading, catching up on long-term projects, binge-watching shows that everyone else watched two years ago.
What, you didn't bring any books or DVDs? (Leaving aside the concept that reading is a chore.)
Time slows, warps. One sits inside looking out, the banality of the ship framing the sublime nature of the landscape. Often, the ship’s roll is soothing, as if you were placed in the hand of a walking giant. The sound of the ocean is constant; the salt air breezes through every opening. The “culture” is so middle-America (even on non-American cruise ships, it seems), and demands so little that you can actually think. What a change.
[it. very very much mine]
And then you go eat dinner.
"Which, as I may have mentioned, is substandard."
I always thought Mark Bittman's cooking column was substandard, but that's just me. Perhaps it's because I am (although living in California) middle-American.