Personal Journey: Veteran cruisers have lots of food for thought

Posted: March 11, 2012

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Maybe in the old days cruising was string quartets in the Palm Court Lounge and nowadays it's more like amplifiers and strobe lights in the Upper Deck Disco. Maybe now it is more of a one-size-fits-all, something-for-everyone kind of deal.

But underneath, and only slightly underneath, in fact sometimes so slightly underneath as to be hardly underneath at all, many things are just the same as they ever were.

Everyone loved eating, drinking, dancing, romancing. So what's new?

Black dinner jackets once could not even have trim round the lapel, even if it was all black, too. Tuxedos now can be yellow, orange, and purple tints, maybe even with spangles. No point in being sniffy about it - dressing up is just dressing up. In cooler waters, ladies used to appear on deck wearing tweeds and hats with chinstraps. Now, think combat trousers and puffa jackets.

Old cruise ships were, if not polo club, at least golf club. But the plumbing was appalling. The new ones are more health club and nightclub. But the plumbing works.

I sailed to South Africa many years ago not as a holiday-maker but en route to my first job on leaving university in England, so I was more of a young observer than a confident passenger. Mornings seemed to be bridge followed by meat tea followed by sherry. Afternoons were bridge and sherry with maybe a break for shuffleboard, but definitely back to more bridge. And more sherry.

In the evening there were no lurid colored drinks made with huge quantities of tropical fruit but, rather, whiskey and water and the occasional pink gin. I had the impression that no one seemed to have a proper job or to work at anything. Everyone seemed to be "in" something. In construction, in finance, in shipping.

And it was remarkable how quickly a social pecking order was established among people who had never met before and who would never see one another again. It seemed as if points were earned for its unwritten, arcane ranking system by attending the correct lectures and piano recitals and avoiding the popular movies. There appeared to be no place in the hierarchy for anyone who, through no fault of their own, was foreign. The summit of this artificial, transient, ersatz society was attained by those who had anything to do with the captain - in ascending order: speaking to him, having drinks with him, or eating at his table.

Compare this with a more recent odyssey in the Baltic. A handwritten envelope was pushed under our cabin door with a personal invitation to predinner drinks with the captain. We found ourselves in an exclusive queue of a couple of hundred passengers waiting to share a glass of wine with the great man and, via the queue grapevine, we learned that another exclusive couple of hundred had attended an earlier session.

But going back to what remains unchanging over time, it is my experience that there is one activity that is not only the most durable, but also the most common. No, it's not eating, although on our last cruise breakfast was served from 7 to 10, snacks from 10 to 12, lunch from 12 to 3, tea from 3 to 5, followed by a simple 10- course dinner from 7 to 10. Then there was the midnight banquet and the all-night room service for light meals.

No, it's not that.

What I have in mind is talking about it all. Sea travel seems to be addictive, and on any cruise or voyage the huge majority will be cruisaholics on anything from their second to their 20th trip. And they want to talk about all of them. It was the same all these years ago and it is the same now. "The cabins were smaller/ larger/ cooler/ hotter/ noisier/ quieter on the Princess/ the Victoria/ the Voyager/ the Caroline. The steaks/ lobsters/ salads were larger/ smaller/ better/ worse in the Aegean/ Caribbean/ Mediterranean/ Pacific."

Don't ask me to analyze why everyone does it. We're just like that.

I, myself, remember one occasion in the Indian Ocean - but there I go, talking about it.

Alex Ninian has swapped being a businessman for being a travel writer. He writes from his home in London.

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