"There's something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that's unbearably sad," wrote David Foster Wallace in his essay "Shipping Out." Published in 1996 in Harper's Magazine, Foster Wallace's piece is filled with detail upon detail -- most of them describing banal and saccharine moments -- of life aboard mega-liners, vessels the author dubbed "floating wedding cakes."
For critics of the cruise industry, Foster Wallace articulated through satire and keen observation all the reasons we dislike massive ships that manage to take you somewhere and nowhere at the same time. The argument is that even if nothing goes wrong, cruises don't actually give you a travel experience so much as a contrived and shellacked slant on luxury and excess. If you could capture the modern cruise experience in a photograph, it would be of an overweight and aging model whose cellulose, frowns and wrinkles have been Photoshopped away, creating an attractive and marketable vision. When a cruise passenger is confronted with the reality that his or her purchase is fake, superficial and achingly blah, then Foster Wallace's words resonate. The sadness sinks in with the knowledge that your money would've been better spent on a multi-night stay at a luxury hotel exploring one of the world's great cities and attractions close to it, or on a riveting experience like an African safari, or being satiated by a culinary adventure where you get to taste fresh food and culture, rather than dishes prepared for the Western palate and sometimes reheated multiple times because it's difficult to obtain fresh supplies once a ship has set sail from its main port of call.
The best cruise ship experience I enjoyed had everything to do with the activities on land. During a cruise of the Galapagos Islands, I visited eight of Darwin's islands, trailing a naturalist who informed an intimate group of passengers about the delicate ecosystem on each. The boat was a small luxury yacht susceptible to the Pacific's mighty waves, which would assault the ship so hard it sent it into the kind of spastic motions you only want to encounter at an amusement park. I never got sick, but most others on board needed Dramamine or some other aid to keep their guts from spilling over. Still, the rocking ride was part of the experience, and not enough of an inconvenience to make the trip regrettable for anyone. Seeing the Galapagos is an event of a lifetime and one of the few reasons why I am glad cruises exist.
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I travelled with Ecoventura, which has also hosted Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and their kids. It is a superb company with a stellar record and as accommodating a staff as you will encounter.
Foster Wallace's trip was aboard Celebrity Cruises' m.v. Zenith, a 47,255-ton behemoth he nicknamed the Nadir. That name would also fit the Carnival Triumph, which crawled into an Alabama port over the weekend after being stuck powerless in the Gulf of Mexico following a fire on February 10. Its toilets overflowed, its passengers panicked, its record of mechanical troubles made headlines. After last year's sinking of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Tuscany and other cruise incidents in recent years, the industry is facing greater and greater criticism.
Like all forms of luxury travel, a cruise isn't inherently dangerous. Since 2005, there have been 48 fatalities aboard large cruise ships, and 32 of them occurred during the Costa Concordia disaster. Considering there have been more than 120-million cruise passengers during that timeframe, the fatality rate is low. But those of us who observe the travel industry point out that luxury hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and Kempinski have rarely, if ever, faced questions over safety and crime. That fact is relevant because the amount of money cruise passengers spend on a sailing often equates to a stay at a fine hotel.
CruiseMarketWatch.com says the average cruise passenger shells out $200.85 US per day while on board. That's lower than the average nightly rate at a five-star hotel in most North American cities, but on par with what a four-star hotel room would cost, with breakfast included. You can get deals on cruises just as you can on hotels. Believe it or not, you can book a four-night sailing on the Carnival Triumph starting at $479 (or $120 per day) for a May 16 departure to Cozumel, Mexico.
Something tells me, the cruise line won't be able to give those cabins away. These days, buyers need to be more aware than ever when making their cruise purchase. My advice when someone asks about going on a multi-day cruise aboard a mega-liner is always the same: Don't go. Find a better, more authentic and ultimately more rewarding travel adventure elsewhere. But if you do insist on going on a cruise, Vacay.ca has advice to save you money and potential aggravation.