Susan Crandell, the former executive editor of Travel + Leisure magazine, had avoided cruises her whole life. Then last month she finally tried one:
Sitting on the balcony of my stateroom, watching the sea glitter in the morning sun, I am wondering how I could have been so wrong about cruising. As I attack a plate of fresh-cut mango, I reflect on what a boob I’ve been. This is awesome. This is sweet. Oh, cruising, why have I avoided you all of my life.
Let’s back up a few months from that sun-struck epiphany somewhere in the Ionian Sea. We all have our travel identities and I had never seen myself as a cruiser. The only reason I said yes to this trip was because it offered the chance to spend a week with my daughter, who lives 3,000 miles away. An editor at WendyPerrin.com, Brook had been invited on the shakedown cruise of the Seabourn Ovation, traveling from Genoa, where the ship was built, to Venice, where it would set sail with its first paying passengers after we disembarked. Our lap of Italy would take five days at sea, and we would spend one day in port, in Montenegro (new country, ka-ching!).
If not for the opportunity to ride along as Brook’s plus-one, I probably never would have stepped foot on a ship like the Ovation. I couldn’t understand my friends’ enthusiasm for vacations at sea—chasing down every last island in the Caribbean, exploring the Mediterranean.
A cruise didn’t fit my image. With 40-odd countries stamped in my passport, I consider myself experienced and independent, someone who craves vacations brimming with challenge. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, gone gorilla trekking in Uganda, soloed a tiny white rental car across the deserty expanse of South Africa’s Great Karoo, kayaked the Sea of Cortez. My motto: Any activity that requires helmets and waivers is bound to be great.
Cruising, I thought, puts training wheels on your trip, gold-plated perhaps, but training wheels nonetheless. And the crowds! I pictured thousands of passengers herded on and off the ship for shore excursions where they trailed after a guide waving a follow-me flag. People getting juiced at the open bar. Assigned-seating dinners with the same inane small talk night after night. Get me a lifeboat, quick!
Okay, I’ll admit it. I thought I was too good for cruising. I was a traveler, not a tourist.
If this sounds familiar, I’m not surprised. I suspect there are a lot of high-mileage travelers like me who think that cruising is for lesser mortals. If you’re among them, listen up. You just might be snobbing yourself out of one of the most satisfying vacations of your life.
A few days before we sailed, I began confessing yet another concern to my friends. “We’re five days at sea. What am I going to do!” As a hedge against boredom, I packed six books and downloaded the first season of The Last Post on my iPad.
Then I boarded the Ovation and my reeducation began. The insight was simple and so obvious I couldn’t believe I’d missed it: There is more than one kind of wonderful trip. I had always adored adventures of the body—hiking, climbing, rowing, paddling. Turns out five days at sea is an adventure of a different stripe, an adventure of the mind. It confers a rare chance to spend unstructured time, like the dreamy cloud-chasing afternoons of my childhood summers. We all complain about the lack of play in our lives, we read essays by writers who unplug for various periods of time. We know we should meditate. But life keeps getting in the way.
On the Mediterranean, the days slipped by. I couldn’t account for my time, but it didn’t feel boring at all. It felt delicious. There were just enough activities to ground each day: a yoga class, a tour of the bridge, a visit to the galley, classical guitar in the observation bar. Turned out our stateroom was prime real estate, just steps away from the gelato bar, where the flavors changed every day.
When I spent lazy hours on our balcony, watching the blue line of the horizon, I was alone with nature in a brand-new way. I didn’t have to climb this or hike that. Cruising was the savasana version of nature travel. Just be present; no action is required on your part.
In fact, my transition from cruise-avoider to enthusiast reminds me of my journey from yoga newbie to devotee. I began taking classes to improve my balance and flexibility. Early days, I was all about the physicality of the poses, and I fantasized ditching class before the final meditation. Call me spiritually challenged. But over the years, as I continued to practice, a change crept up on me. One day I realized I was looking forward to savasana.
And as for the disadvantages of cruising, on the 600-passenger Ovation, they just didn’t materialize. The crowds I had imagined weren’t there. No morning rush to secure a spot by the pool. Sun or shade, there were plenty of lounges to go around. Likewise, a water-view seat was always available at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Eat when you want, choose who you sit with. Only one of the Ovation’s five restaurants (The Grill by Thomas Keller, the Michelin-starred chef behind the French Laundry and Per Se) even needs reservations. And the day we made port in Montenegro, I could choose to join one of the guided excursions or go ashore and do my own thing until it was time to catch a tender back to the ship. I could even hire a private guide if I wanted to.
At sea, my cellphone was just a camera. I did read five of my books, but The Last Post had to wait for my transatlantic flight home.
I love my new identity as a traveler: I am a creature of many dimensions. I can like a big, scary adventure. I can also like a calm sweet experience. I am checking out the Ovation’s future itineraries. Next time, a cruise with lots of ports—but some sea days too.
Susan Crandell, the former executive editor of Travel + Leisure magazine and the founding editor of More magazine, is also the author of Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife.