Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

CHAPTER 40: A CARIBBEAN CRUISE IS NOT A VOYAGE BUT AN EXPERIENCE

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I’m now back to wearing socks and long-sleeved shirts and making my own bed. Of course, I don’t have to tip myself at the end of the week with what is euphemistically referred to as “customary gratuities,” placed in small white envelopes printed in English, Spanish, French, Italian and German, so there are some upsides to leaving a large ship behind and sleeping in one’s own bed.

It isn’t the tipping for good service that burns me, it’s the practice of mandatory tipping that seems a bit cheesy. After paying thousands of dollars (in American currency, although given the current exchange rate, that has proven not to be a huge difference) for the privilege of a cruise vacation, I am expected — nay, demanded — to subsidize the salaries of Royal Caribbean’s employees. But that ship has sailed — forgive the metaphor — a few generations ago. Tipping is now an accepted part of being waited on by other people.

So, regardless of whether the service was good, surly, or indifferent; regardless of whether some exceptional request was performed; regardless of whether one has developed a relationship with an employee of the ship’s company or have never laid eyes on the person who cleans your stateroom every day — everybody gets the same base (as in foundation, not as in amoral or ignoble) top-up of whatever salary he or she receives from the employer.

Then, of course, you are “invited” or urged “at your discretion” to hand over more. To their credit, the ship’s crew/hotel staff are unfailingly polite, usually friendly and only occasionally bored with having to smile at every passing face. Still, you couldn’t pay me enough, even with gratuities promised at the end of every week, to do their jobs.

The late Globe and Mail columnist, Richard Needham, an irascible curmudgeon and flirt (he seemed to like the company of any woman over the age of majority and under the age of senility) once wrote: “There are four classes of travel — first, second, third, and with children.”

The staff has to deal with all four, while the passengers have a choice. There are activities for children of all ages, special programs and areas on the ship and even a quiet, adult pool set aside for those of us who like children, but not all day, every day.

Cruising on a ship the size of the Liberty of the Seas is not dissimilar to checking into the Four Seasons Yorkville Hotel in Toronto or the Fairmont Palliser in Calgary and then having the hotel weigh anchor and float off on a voyage, carrying with it its entire staff, all of its guests, a week’s worth of entertainment and shopping, and all of the food and other comestibles needed for a cruise on the ocean.

Personally, the idea of checking into a hotel and having it take you places amuses me. That’s why I like cruising and have done it before. It is also an escape from the tedious business of having to find a designated driver. But all things being equal, it is a bizarre experience. Not that it can’t be a wonderful experience if you are on the right ship with the right mix of people and the right attitude.

But it can also be a horror show played out with thousand of one’s newest BFFs. When the Liberty of the Seas had to cancel its scheduled stop at Grand Cayman because the whitecaps were too large to safely tender the passengers ashore, everyone who had scheduled a shore excursion there – like Ted’s daughter and her husband who had his heart set on swimming with the sting rays — had to find something else to do for the day. That meant that everywhere on the ship was crowded, especially the swimming pools.

I’m blaming F. Scott Fitzgerald for my expectation that going on vacation should not have to mean dealing with hordes of people. Actually, I’m blaming his creation, The Great Gatsby, and the era in which sea voyages flourished. No one could imagine Jay Gatsby standing in line at a buffet table and then schlepping his piled-high plate (no trays in sight) back to a shared table.

But then Fitzgerald and his 1925 creation could not have imagined a ship like the Liberty of the Seas. (It’s the second-largest in the world, exceeded in size, capacity and kitsch only by its sister ship, the Oasis of the Seas. The bad-taste component cannot possibly be described in less than the length of an Atlantic Monthly essay. Google the ships’ names and take a look at the pictures. If the dictionaries had photographs instead of words, these would be used to describe this kind of inoffensive vulgarity.)

But it isn’t the size of this cruise ship or its curiously middle-class pretentiousness that’s in question, not really. After all, in 1912, the Titanic carried more than 2,000 passengers and crew on its doomed voyage while the much larger Liberty carries 5,730.

No, Fitzgerald could not have contemplated how ships are no longer the means to get to the south of France, but an end in themselves.

Fitzgerald’s characters went on voyages to destinations where they encountered people of like mind and social status and where the serving staff knew how to mix a perfect martini.

The Jazz Age author would not have recognized modern sea travel. Sailing (now there’s a misnomer) on today’s high seas, he would have to write today that money, not class, rules all travel. But, then, Fitzgerald already knew that money could buy just about everything but that elusive quality identified in the 1950s as U and non-U. (A British university professor coined the term to identify the differences between the upper and middle classes and their usage of language.)

We went on a cruise that was an end in itself. Different and more democratic. There’s no longer such separations as first- and second-class, at least there are no chains across stairways keeping the steerage passengers away from the high-paying customers. But lest we believe that a true classless society exists anywhere, consider that as in life, money matters.

Today’s Jay Gatsby, should he choose not to eat lunch in the main dining room, would still have to schlep his own plate from the myriad of buffet stations, but he would have access to one of the “specialty” restaurants that serve only dinner, but are open at lunchtime, reserved for passengers who are in suites. Access is controlled by the gold colour of the room card. Then, too, he likely could have had whatever he wished delivered to his suite and set up on his own table.

But true democracy is seen in all the public areas of today’s cruise ships, with a single exception. If you don’t like crowds, don’t like to lie on a lounge in the sun with equally sunscreen-slicked strangers an inch from either elbow, stay away from the swimming pools and the solarium and the decks. A ship with the capacity of 4,000 passengers is going to be crowded when the sun is shining on the Caribbean Sea and there’s nowhere to go.

The one exception to shipboard democracy? Despite large printed signs around all of the pools “prohibiting” the saving of deck chairs or lounges, there was rampant disregard. This comes from a mind-set, I presume, that believes rules apply to everyone else but the person flouting them. As a result I spent one entire morning next to six lounge chairs, each holding a towel and a book or some personal item. They were six of at least 20 around the pool that sat unoccupied for the entire time while other passengers searched in vain for an empty spot.

And what a mix of passengers there was. Because the only qualification for such a trip is the money to pay for it, there was a polyglot assortment of nationalities, personalities, manners, cultures and attitudes. The best item to pack for this kind of a vacation is a sense of humour. Sharing a breakfast table one morning with a couple whose grasp of elementary table manners did not extend to the concept of chewing with one’s mouth closed, was an exercise in trying not to stare, like one does when encountering a train wreck.

The week passed too quickly and too expensively. How? Simple: Royal Caribbean is precise about its “rules” and one of them is a ban on personal liquor. (While on a tour of Mayan ruins near Belize, one wit remarked that the ever-efficient staff and their x-ray machine had confiscated his still-sealed bottle of Mountain Dew “just in case” it wasn’t pop, but contraband liquor.) As a result, while the drinks in the various bars were reasonable in cost — $8 martinis, for example — they were still an added expense and came with a hefty 15 percent gratuity automatically added on. And, of course, wine at dinner was additional.

As the best food on the ship came not in the dining room or the cafes, but in the so-called “specialty” restaurants where the cover charge was an additional $20 to $25 per person, it didn’t take long to rack up a hefty bill.

It also didn’t take long to gain three pounds, despite my walking the deck and trying not to stuff my face at every opportunity. As for Ted? Not a pound. What is it with men and their metabolism?

NEXT: Half-way through this campaign and what’s been accomplished?

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Written by Catherine Ford

March 18, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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