Travel is flight and pursuit in equal parts.
– Paul Theroux
I am sailing on the Anthem of the Seas, Royal Caribbean’s newest Quantum Class sea-going colossus, on my way to the Bahamas.
Why, you might ask, would any sane person want to go on a leisure cruise on a vessel with (a) a capacity (passengers and crew) of SIX THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED AND FIVE, (b) a departure from Port of Liberty, NJ (aka Bayonne, New Jersey) in winter weather, (c) a totally mediocre itinerary, and (d) a thousands of New Yorkers and New Jerseyites clawing for bar stools, deck chairs and restaurant and event reservations?
I hope to answer that existential question over the course of my journey.
But first, let’s deal with some essential stats about the Anthem:
She is 347.8 meters long…longer than an aircraft carrier, longer than the QE2, much, much longer than the Titanic (and yet astoundingly, not AS LONG as her sister ship in the Royal Caribbean fleet, the Oasis). She took six million hours to build.
She has 2,090 cabins, including a unique category that lured me … namely, a solo passenger “studio stateroom with veranda”…as far as I know, the first of its type in the cruising world. Inside staterooms on the Anthem feature “virtual balconies”…floor-to-ceiling ultra-HD screens with real-time views of the ocean and destinations.
She has 17 restaurants and 7 bars and lounges, including another first…the Bionic Bar where your beverages are prepared by robots. Of the restaurants, four are the traditional mass-feeding operations, eleven others are “specialty” restaurants, some complimentary, some charging extra. I intend to try as many as I can.
She has 15 stories of glass and steel that make her look like a flopped-over high-rise office building.
She has two spectacular theaters and three pools (I’m sure I’ll at least get a pool chair upon our departure from Bayonne, particularly if it’s snowing), bumper cars, roller skating, FlowRider surfing and flying trapeze lessons. She has a skydiving simulator and something called “North Star”, a capsule that rises 300 feet above sea level.
She has her own satellite that provides more bandwidths than are available on all other cruise ships in the world combined. She has the “Royal Esplanade”, an indoor shopping world that’s a cross between the Mall of America and the lobby of a Disney World hotel.
And she has your faithful correspondent on board, ready to “meet and mingle.”
And so it begins…
…with an effortless boarding process and an awaiting luncheon at the ship’s Windjammer buffet, a spread equal to a Wynn Las Vegas or Bellagio with remarkable variety and food quality. Before entering the buffet, all guests are required to pass through a little tunnel with five “Wash Your Hands” stations…nice idea.
Now I head to my stateroom, the aforementioned single studio with veranda, a one-of-a-kind creature in today’s cruise world (unless you count Norwegian’s 100 sq. ft. inside studios that resemble prison cells more that guest accommodations). At first glance, there’s a moment of shock. I take pause…this is a very, very, very small room, made so because the designers had to allow for my quite generous balcony with a nice ocean exposure and a spacious little bathroom with walk-in shower. Very tight closet and drawer space, no chair (an ottoman-like stool takes its place), a 2’X2’ “desk”, and a double bed that eats up two-thirds of the room. But, you know, once I unpack and get everything into its place, it becomes quickly livable.
It’s the first day and I’m a little lost. I do a cursory tour of the ship’s public areas and settle for my first activity: a trivia contest. Unlike most vessels that have one trivia event a day, the Anthem has five per day…is this place heaven, or what? I follow it up with the requisite nap, then have an early dinner at one of the ship’s hot spots, the Mongolian Corner, where the faithful line up for Mongolian stir-fry that hits the spot. Off I go to the Music Hall to listen to some good-and-bad karaoke, followed by a performance of a Journey tribute band called Resurrection who are nothing short of terrific. (I like them so much I go to their 10:30-12:00 performances three nights in a row.) Besides the rockers, we have a Disco DJ who performs to a jam packed dance floor, a salsa group, a Caribbean steel drum band and three piano players, one a Woody Allen type, one a crazy Bette Midler type and the other a kid who looks about 16.
I came on this cruise expecting to find atrociously garish décor and trumped-up events and a ship full of misfits in our society…only to find a beautiful architectural creation, with a bright, fresh feel and expansive floor-to-ceiling ocean views, beautiful sweeping staircases, nice hallways, two impressive theaters, attractive carpeting, and a pretty normal group of people. In keeping with the season, there’s even a very tasteful Christmas tree with ornaments the size of cannon balls and poinsettias all up and down the hallways of the Royal Esplanade.
The crowd on the Anthem? Well, they’re “the public.” They’re not the obviously affluent cruisers you find on Seabourn or Silversea, but more like the everyday folks you’d find at a ball game or shopping mall or a Fourth of July parade. Some a little rough-hewn, but nice people. By the way, no need for any Diversity Task Force on the Anthem. We’ve got 150-200 of EVERYBODY on this voyage (did you know that the Amish go on cruises?). Every continent except Antarctica, every ethnic group, every nationality, every language is heavily represented. Comporting with the complaint most often voiced about cruising, i.e., “just a bunch of old people”, this passenger list is indeed weighed quite heavily in favor of the ancient set, especially the New York and New Jersey attendees, whose wheel chairs, walkers, crutches, canes and limps clog the thoroughfares, and whose heavy accents permeate the atmosphere. Hey, they make me feel young. There are a very substantial number of cruisers in their twenties and thirties, most of the ready to party hearty (the nighclubs and music venues are packed every night), although quite a few were dumb enough to bring along their little kids whom they have to drag or carry up and down the lonnnnnnng corridors of the Anthem. Also, a surprising number of 5-12-year-old kids, and I mean hundreds… what are they doing here? As for the ultimate fact…number of tattoos? Actually, not that many.
Even though there are 4,900 passengers on board, only five show up for the Solo Travelers’ “Meet & Mingle”…Caroline, who heads the Selective Service (yes, it still exists) in Delaware, Jo, a Navy “mustang” who has just been promoted to Commander, John, an elderly guy from New Jersey who interrupts every topic with “Where’s that?”, Lee, a young guy in his twenties who clearly doesn’t want to hang with this crew of oldsters, and me. We chat for a while and agree to gather at a future trivia to form a team.
By the way, it is important to note that Royal Caribbean ships are not “all inclusive,” meaning that you pay extra for everything, including drinks (even soft drinks and water), internet, shore excursions and some specialty restaurants, all of which results in hundreds of dollars being added to your cruise bill. They offer a range of beverage packages, but at the “Meet & Mingle” I go through the economics with Caroline and Jo and we conclude we would have to have a daily intake of seven glasses of wine, in their case, or nine beers in my case, to make the beverage deal pay. I’m going a la carte.
The first thing I realize is that my dining strategy (more on the culinary experience later) is going to have to be altered. Instead of having a group of Solo Traveler “buddies” to meet for group dinners, I am going to go with Plan B, which is to tell the host or hostess at any given restaurant that I want to be seated at a “sharing” table. I end up doing this at sit-down breakfast and dinners and the results are mixed:
Day 2 breakfast – I meet Matthias, a German guy who reviews cruises and has a show on German TV. Interesting guy.
Day 3 breakfast – I dine with Staten Island Donna who doesn’t approve of anything in the world and lets you know it, and Philadelphia Susan whose husband has had Alzheimers for the past nine years. Very uplifting.
Day 3 dinner – I’m at a shared table with Don and Mary from Pennsylvania, whom I suspect are Amish even though they don’t wear the garb. They don’t drink, don’t go to any of the ship’s entertainment, don’t really do anything, in fact, except eat…they were thinking about going on the North Star capsule, but were rejected because each of them weighs 19 pounds over the 300 lb. limit.
Day 4 breakfast – Share table with a couple from Long Island on their 63rd cruise, another couple from Baltimore on their 20th or so who complain that the Anthem doesn’t have a re-created Central Park like the Oasis does, and a sanitary engineer from Indiana on his 20th or so whose main interest in coming on this cruise is to take the behind-the scenes tour of the ship’s plumbing and power system (for which he’s willing to pay $200 extra).
Haven’t done any casino time yet. I’m too scared to. The table minimums are $10 and $25—as many of you know, I’m strictly a $5 table guy—and my $$100-$200 bankroll will be blown away in one sitting at those rates. Still, I’ve taken an opportunity to peek in. This is no ordinary cruise ship casino. I would estimate the slot machine count as somewhere in the 300 range, and the room is four or five times bigger than the standard box assigned to the casino on most ships. Besides the slots, they offer one craps table where I will probably donate my money, a Three Card Poker table (where is John Winter, the king of Three Card, when I need him?), two roulette tables and maybe 8-10 blackjack tables. Worse than gambling losses will be my cleaning bill, as the Casino Royale gladly allows smoking and the place is totally unventilated as far as I can determine. As usual, the casino staff is largely made up of Russians and former residents of the various “-Stans” who conduct their trade with cold stares and phony smiles. I’ll get there eventually.
But, you say, I’ve heard there are some really tacky events on these types of cruises? There surely are.
The Art Auction would definitely qualify. During my morning dead period I stop by the Art Auction on the Royal Esplanade where the auctioneer’s opening quote goes as follows: “Ladies and gentlemen, on Royal Caribbean we have people who cruise exclusively to collect art.” Uh- huh. The first painting offers is a “unique” Peter Max creation which our host claims has a retail value of $41,000, after which he starts the bidding at $36,500. Stone silence throughout the room of about 150. He quickly announces “Pass,” and proceeds to bring out something more moderate, a Thomas Kincaid (“Look at the light in this work!” he croons) print where the bidding starts at $25 (yes, $25), although with his frenetic urging the saps in the room actually bid it up to $400. Now that he has them in the mood, he goes back up the ladder to a copycat Matisse-esque print by some Israeli artist supposedly worth $11,000, but where the bidding would start at $9,000. Silence, then one hand goes up. “Sold” comes the call as the hammer instantaneously slams down. And so forth, as he parades out a host of paintings and begs for bids, most often resorting to the refrain “Pass!” then going on to the next one. This is all followed by the “Mystery Auction” in which the works of art are hung backwards to the bidders. It is all too complicated to explain, but it ends with a row of eight unseen paintings being sold to people in the audience. I have to cut my visit short because it’s time for trivia. (I think the Kincaid will look perfect in our dining room.
The other qualifier is the “$10 Sale” in which dozens of boxes of goods–all covered by red sheets– are piled on tables in the center of the Royal Esplanade, everything to be sold for $10 per item (five for $40). At the opening bell, the sheets come off, revealing hundreds of scarves, shawls, sunglasses, watches, handbags, etc., and the three-deep crowd surges toward that cornucopia, jostling each other out of the way, tossing favorite items across the room to their friends, trying on hats and scarves. The New Yorker standing next to me calls out to his wife: ”Honey, don’t pay $10 for a $3 watch!”, but to no avail as she forges on. Fortunately I am able to score some nice Christmas gifts at the sale.
Finally, I am witness poolside to the first International Belly Flop contest (use your imagination), filmed and scheduled to be shown on ESPN and won by 325 lb. Steve from Ireland, a thrilling result in the mind of Cruise Director Abe because that makes the competition truly “international”. Steve’s water displacement was impressive.
All the while I do my best to keep up with the NFL, my emails and the Republican debates.
To be continued…