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I approached my first-ever cruise with conflicting feelings. On the one hand, my vision of what big-ship cruising was all about -- endless amounts of food, group activities every minute of the day and theme bars galore -- was sort of enticing. You must understand how hard that is for me to admit. I am a self-proclaimed independent traveler -- in my mind, the antithesis of the stereotypical cruiser.
But here's the conundrum: What intrigued me about cruising was exactly what scared me a little too. What would I have in common with my fellow cruisers? I have never played bingo in my life and to tell you the truth, buffets seem overwhelming. I worried that my stateroom would be so tiny it would feel claustrophobic. I felt a little angst about being trapped in a theater forced to watch cheesy Broadway renditions. I imagined lines, lines everywhere. Add to that the fact that I would be sailing on a Carnival ship -- the cruise line that has dubbed its fleet the "Fun Ships."
"We'll just see about that," I thought.
But I promised my husband I'd take a chance on cruising -- and go with an open mind.
The day finally came to board the ship, Carnival Triumph, which was sailing a four-night cruise to Canada from New York. I was first struck by the size of the ship -- when my taxi pulled up to the ship's terminal, all I could see was what looked like miles of white steel dotted with circular windows (it actually measures over 100,000 tons, has 13 decks, and carries nearly 3,000 passengers plus more than 1,000 crew members). I would soon find out why the ship needed to be so big -- it boasts four swimming pools, seven whirlpools, nine bars, a giant casino, a theater and two dining rooms.
Off to a good start. But in the elevator on the way to my stateroom, an obviously intoxicated woman looking for the buffet (we hadn't even left the port yet -- how did she have time to get so drunk?) was a bit ... startling. And she wasn't the only one. A quick lap around the main pool revealed several already-sunburnt cruisers in the same predicament.
Lesson #1: Turns out that although passengers must be on the ship 30 minutes before the scheduled departure, it is possible to board the ship hours prior to setting sail and take advantage of all the ship's amenities while still in port. Call your cruise line to see just how early you can get onboard and start your vacation.
I found my stateroom and things began to look up. It was quite large -- there was a king-sized bed plus a sofa that in my cabin was transformed into a single bed. The balcony (my favorite spot on the ship) was large enough for two chairs with room to spare. Inside the cabin, there was no coffee table, but a desk, long and narrow, ran most of the length of one wall. There was ample closet space, but few drawers, though each closet did feature a shelf.
The decor inside the cabin was very plain and mostly muted peach in color. While the king bed had a lovely, fluffy duvet and plenty of pillows, the single bed had only a thin wool blanket and one pillow -- it resembled a Navy cot though much more comfortable. The bathroom had no bathtub, only a standup shower that, nevertheless, was roomy enough. It offered plenty of counter and mirror space for product storage and applying makeup, etc. All in all expect to find a bathroom smaller than that in a hotel room, though.
As anticipated, there was a lot of food on the ship, at all hours of the day and night. What I had not expected, and was pleasantly surprised by, was the variety and quality of the choices. Besides the buffet, which featured standard carving stations, pasta and salad, there were several themed eateries -- a New York-style deli with sandwiches made to order and an Asian noodle shop among them -- that were actually worth the lines that came along with them.
Lesson #2: If endless food lines begin to make you feel like a pig at the trough, eating in the dining room (there are two on Carnival Triumph, London and Paris) is a lovely, civilized alternative. The menu is small (usually four or five choices plus a similar menu for the health conscious) but of good quality, featuring everything from seafood and pasta to prime rib. There is a children's menu available at every meal.
I was surprised not only by the length of the wine list, but also by the reasonable prices -- well below the typical mark-up found in on-shore restaurants. A wine steward is available to help you pair wine, whatever your price range, with your meal.
To combat seemingly inevitable weight gain is the ship's gym -- the biggest surprise of all. The state-of-the-art facility housed every imaginable piece of equipment, all arranged around a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows to allow you to gaze at the sea while running, rowing or lifting. In addition, there is a range of classes offered daily.
Lesson #3: The most popular classes -- yoga, spinning and Pilates -- have a $10 surcharge attached to them and often fill up early. If you miss out or don't want to pay the surcharge, a great way to stay in shape at sea is by taking advantage of the track that runs along the top level of the ship. Whether you take a leisurely walk or a rapid-paced run, I can hardly think of a lovelier way to start your day than by soaking in the sea air.
But even though the ship had thus far exceeded my expectations, it occurred to me that I wasn't having much fun. Everywhere I looked, other passengers were smiling, laughing and making friends. Though I had been to the spa, taken a yoga class and even ordered the day's special cocktail -- and drank it out of a ridiculous pink cup -- I knew I was missing something. And then I realized why. Everything I had done so far, from reading on my deck to having a massage, was an individual activity, and on this type of ship participating really hones your experience. It was time to take the plunge and join in on one of the several activities going on at any given moment on the ship.