Barbara and I parked our car and took a shuttle to the Miami docks where the Norwegian Sky, a small cruise ship awaited us. We were anxious. This was our first cruise and first time to the Bahamas. We were facing security, and I just remembered I had a Swiss army knife in my pocket.
We got through security (they let me keep the knife), and we headed up the gangway to see our room and explore the ship. We had booked a two-day, three-night cruise with one day at the Great Stirrup Cay, a small island owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines, and one day in Nassau. We sailed at night.
Great Stirrup Cay offers gorgeous beaches with the famous green and blue waters of the islands. We spent most of the day at the beach taking in the palm trees, sand, and water, which was bracing but clear. We met a couple from Minnesota who couldn’t stop talking about the snow and cold. They wanted a two-month cruise, not two days, so they could forget what they came from and were returning to. That evening we weighed anchor for Nassau.
Nassau is an old city and the capital of the Bahamas. It has about 240,000 people or 70% of the population of the country, and its two most important industries are tourism and finance.
We wandered around the port area then took a city bus out one of the main routes. It stopped at caves once lived in by the Lucayan people, who were the native people encountered by Christopher Columbus. The Spanish enslaved them and took them to other island and back to Spain. As a separate people, they are apparently now extinct.
Our bus was a city bus, and it stopped often to accept local fares: mostly afro-Bahamians who were friendly and joined the tour cheer and banter.
Our tour guide chastised the Chinese who were building a new resort complex on the northern coast of the island. The Chinese imported their workers from China rather than use local people. And they were requiring Bahamians to learn Chinese if they wanted to work at the resort after it opened.
Nassau seemed familiar—English language, western clothes, city buses, shops and cars, and we returned to the ship feeling we had met people related to people we knew.
The essence of a cruise economy is a la carte. The booking price is low and alluring, and that entitles you to a room, meals, and access to the ship’s facilities. But there are a near endless array of extras: alcohol, meal upgrades, massages, facials, gambling, jewelry, art, and more. The extras are pricey, and a 15% gratuity is added to every purchase.
The extras are all charged to your room which is linked to your credit card. Prices aren’t emphasized, at least not until you see them on your account at the end of the cruise.
Drinking alcohol is encouraged. Customers can buy an “all you can drink” package each day for $50, and we met several people who bought it. Naturally, once guests get well oiled, they are more likely to buy a new watch, have a massage or play roulette.
In the mornings, as we walked around the ship, we saw a large number of rooms that had empty food containers outside their doors. The guests had ordered food to their small rooms, which involved more extra charges and cramped eating. Yet the Garden Cafe, which had plenty of space and was complimentary to all cruisers, was available most hours of the day.
The last morning of the cruise, about three hours before disembarking, we received our final accounting. Norwegian included a $12.00 per person, per night room service charge, which was $24 per day for us, or $72 for the three nights.
Our final tab ran to half a printed page, totaling $140. That final morning, I had breakfast early on the rear deck, and I took my coffee to the rail overlooking Miami. Next to me was a couple scanning through five or six pages of charges. I listened to phrases like, “holy shit,” “wow,” “massage?” “did you buy this?”
Their five or six pages must have exceeded $1,000 and may have been $2,000 or more—for three nights and two days.
Cruising invites people watching. We joined maybe 1,800 guests and 934 crew members.
The crew hailed mostly from Asia: the Philippines, Thailand, China, Indonesia, among others. Some were European and some were African. They were unfailingly quiet, courteous and helpful, and they were all small. We wondered what they thought of their American guests who were sometimes loud and mostly large.
Most guests appeared to be middle-class Americans from urban areas who love partying. There were several older people like us, and a few families with children. Most of the young men were with wives or girlfriends, but many young women were traveling with other women in groups ranging from two to eight.
People hung around the pools, soaked in the hot tubs, danced on deck, ate from the buffet, worked out, played basketball, shuffleboard, gambled in the casino, and baked in the sun. Everyone seemed to bob and sway constantly with the rhythmic island music that was broadcast throughout public areas. Life’s problems faded. Even without alcohol it was intoxicating
The ship’s library, which was small, stayed empty.
Were the cruise guests imitating their vision of being rich, living cavalierly from pleasure to pleasure? We watched “The Great Gatsby” while onboard, and the parallels with cruising struck me immediately. One line from the book and movie lingered. Here it is, adapted to cruising: “They were careless people, these cruise guests—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their charge cards or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let the crew clean up the messes they had made.”
Unlike the wealth attending Tom and Daisy Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby,” the cruise wasn’t an enduring feature of our lives. It started and ended abruptly, forcing us to disembark into our regular, limited worlds. Yet I had to think that for three nights many cruisers were imagining themselves wealthy, living where money blots out troubles and pains and where there is only the party. Of course the rich have genuine problems like everyone else. But middle-class people pay real money to the cruise lines to fantasize differently, if only for a weekend.