(Budget Travel) -- When a friend first e-mailed me about something she called "cruises for commitment phobes" -- and suggested I take one -- I couldn't help but wonder if I was stepping into the middle of an elaborate joke at my expense. I think I actually looked behind both shoulders while sitting at my computer, as if there might be a candid camera hovering somewhere out of sight.
The winner of the hairy chest contest shows off his goods on the Carnival Destiny's lido deck.
The idea of a ship packed to the gills with people like me (you know the type, annoyingly resistant to getting tied down to anything, from dinner to relationships), all of us working out our issues together at the midnight taco bar...it just seemed so unlikely.
But then I learned more. What we had here wasn't the sort of floating group-therapy session I had envisioned. Turns out there's a new trend in the cruise industry of offering shorter, more adventurous excursions at remarkably low prices.
The seeming goal is to attract a new, younger clientele -- people who would never consider a typical cruise because of the time commitment (a week, 10 days, 2 weeks) but who might get on board for a briefer foray.
In other words, the target audience is me: a young, single professional who never would have imagined myself on a cruise. Why? Well, I don't know. I didn't have specifics beyond the usual, "Can you imagine being stuck on a boat for two weeks?"
But once that concern was moot, what excuse did I really have left? I certainly didn't have any biases against pools, the ocean, bikini-clad women, or Coronas with lime. Budget Travel: Choose your cruise
Before committing, though, I wanted to get some words of advice, if not straight-up encouragement, from a professional (no, not my therapist). I called Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of cruisecritic.com. Turns out I had another commitment phobe on the line.
"My husband and I never plan in advance," she said. "What happens when you book that four-o'clock spa treatment and you end up splitting a bottle of wine at lunch?" Her main suggestion to me was to go with the flow and not plan too much. Oh, and: "Don't go on a traditional ship."
Having grown up on a steady diet of Kathie Lee Gifford commercials -- "In the mornin'! In the evenin'! Ain't we got fun!" -- I figured Carnival was my best option. And the hilarious and not-so-traditional-sounding Carnival Fun Ships, some of which max out at a manageable five days, made it an easy choice.
After convincing my friend and fellow cruise virgin Sheila to take the plunge with me, I got on carnival.com and found a room on one of its Fun Ships for $349 per person. Did we want an ocean view? That would be $140 more for each of us, but yes. A balcony? Another $100 each. Grand total for two, with taxes and fees: $1,330.
We'd be going from Miami to Grand Cayman, then on to Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and back. One confirmation click, and I was scheduled to meet my fate aboard the Destiny.
The first few hours of the cruise experience play through like a surreal movie montage: sneaking past the Carnival photographer and his sunset backdrop upon embarkation; and watching the crowds on the lido deck (the term for "pool area" that I thought existed only on The Love Boat) as they down the Fun Ship Special, a punch drink of vodka, rum and amaretto that will undoubtedly lead to punch-drunk.
Then taking a tour (which lingers for a suspiciously long time in the casino and shopping areas, where passengers can dispose of their money); watching a lifeboat instruction, during which Sheila and I stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow passengers while wearing life vests; and then, finally, topping it all off with a beer (that Corona with lime) back up on the lido, as we admire the Miami sunset (the real one this time) retreating in the Destiny's wake.
By 6 p.m., it's time for us to make the first of our five dining appointments at table 443 in the Universe dining room.
In addition to Sheila and me, there are three couples: late-20-somethings Meg and Brent from Indiana; mid-20-somethings Garret and his five-months-pregnant wife, Casey, from North Carolina; and early-30-somethings Dr. Heather and her husband, Jay, who hail from Florida but reside in Georgia. The getting-to-know-yous are polite, if stilted, and I feel a tinge of panic about dining like this for the next four nights.
When we get back to our room, on the bed and spotlighted by the wall lamps is what at that moment seems to me the single greatest thing I've seen in my adult life: a bath towel folded into a walrus. Yes, a walrus -- all perky and cute and staring right out at us as we walk into the room. Maybe it's the Fun Ship Special working its gooey magic, but I smile. Sheila shrieks with glee and snaps a photo. Everything is going to be all right.
Behind me, ready to present her Fun Pass, is a woman of about 50, reading over some of the options: "Liqueur coffees, Baileys, Grand Marnier...it's a little early for that!" Next to her is an older woman I take to be her mother, who nods in agreement, eyeing the list with derision, and then adds with sitcom precision: "Mmm hmm." Pause. "It's Bloody Mary time." It's just after 9 a.m.
Nothing happens on this ship without the Fun Pass (officially called a Sail & Sign card, but not referred to as such by anybody I meet on the Destiny). All other forms of identification and money are rendered obsolete by this little blue plastic card that you present and swipe everywhere you go.
Passport when you get off the boat for a shore excursion? Bah! Fun Pass. Round of beers by the pool? My Fun Pass will cover the tab! (At least until my AmEx takes over at the end of the cruise.) Two cups of coffee at the Coffee Shop Company? You got it: Fun Pass. (All of our meals are included in the price of the cruise; a halfway-decent cup of coffee in the morning is not.)
As I read this morning's edition of Carnival Capers, our "daily guide to FUN" (the only thing available on board that resembles a newspaper), I see why the matron might feel like she needs a little fortification. Following the 1 p.m. ice-carving demonstration on the lido deck ("lovebirds" will be the subject for the aqua artist) is the Men's Hairy Chest Competition. Sheila and I are not going to miss it.
This event offers the first real snapshot of who's with us on the cruise. Looking at the contestants, mostly broad and gray-with-age men gyrating to "SexyBack" and "U Can't Touch This," you'd think the Destiny was booked largely with recent retirees; but one scan of the sea of bodies not on the stage and it appears that this cruise is mostly made up of people under 30.
The thing is, every young guy on this boat is body-shaved within a millimeter of a baby's bottom. If the competition were for tattoos, the tables would most certainly be turned as to who'd be onstage. Incidentally: the prize for the gorilla-like old man who wins? A body shave at the spa.
I'm happy I did some Google research before the cruise. The most formal thing I was going to pack was a pair of flip-flops. I definitely would have been underdressed for Elegant Dining night and for predinner drinks with the captain -- the dashing Antonino Sammartano, native of Italy.
Dinner conversation seems even more stifled by our combined elegance this evening (I upped my wardrobe to include a tie, thank you very much). Our waiter, who the previous night asked if I was on a diet when I ordered a fruit plate for dessert, punishes me by bringing me a second spiny lobster with shrimp. As far as punishment goes, I know, it's not exactly waterboarding.
The post-dinner show is, ahem, a bit eye-opening -- G-string-clad women dancing French-revue-type numbers. It reminds me of when I was on vacation with my family in New Orleans and sneaked into a strip club. I was 5 years old, and I recall feeling something between excitement and utter confusion -- a range of emotions on display with the crowd here, too.
Mothers who thought the family might enjoy a show turn red-faced as it dawns on them that their kids are in for an evening of anatomy lessons. Next to them, their wide-eyed men look dumbfounded by the sanctioned debauchery.
After a nightcap at the Apollo, the Fun Ship's inexplicably ancient-Greece-themed piano bar, and a pretty enjoyable sing-along to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," we return to our cabin and find a towel elephant waiting for us on the bed. It's hard to go to sleep without a smile on your face when there's a terry-cloth pachyderm in your room to wish you sweet dreams.
Per the expert commitment-phobe advice of Carolyn Spencer Brown, Sheila and I haven't scheduled ahead for any of the dozens of shore-excursion options for our two days of ship leave. We wait until the last minute, only after another passenger asks us what we've got planned for the next day.
We stick with the boat theme for Grand Cayman day and sign up for a kayak safari and snorkeling. The mangroves and close-up views of the water are a welcome departure from the festive-if-tiring vibe of the lido deck.
The next day, in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, Sheila and I skip the rain-forest bobsled excursion and swim with dolphins. Having a 500-pound mammal named Mitch let me ride on his belly is satisfying in a way that's beyond explanation. As is the photo of Sheila kissing him that she will later show friends.
As the cruise goes on, I become more and more in sync with its rhythms. Dinner conversation is easier, even fun; late-night line dancing on the lido deck is festive and shameless in perfectly equal measures; and the view from our room is surprisingly mind-clearing.
It finally clicks that a cruise is perfect for a commitment phobe. You can snack on a little entertainment, a little day trip, a little food (or a lot, thanks to the 24-hour pizza bar). It's a whirlwind of having to, really, commit to nothing.
Even though I'm feeling ready to head home by the end, the towel-animal stingray on that final night is -- sniff -- a beautiful and bittersweet good-bye.
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