Which Way to the Promenade?

Spud Hilton: On the changing cruise industry and the joys of promenades past

05.24.10 | 1:19 PM ET

Photo by BrentOzar via Flickr (Creative Commons

Just so there’s absolutely no confusion about this: The Queen Mary, the Mauritania and the Normandy didn’t have twisty blue waterslides, Bucket-o-Bud bar specials and a poolside “artist” applying airbrush tattoos. 

This is not a judgment, mind you—I rather enjoy twisty waterslides and, truthfully, I’ve sported enough airbrush tattoos to hold my own in a biker bar, well, at least a hotel lounge full of surly moped riders.

No, the lack of those modern diversions on the classic ocean liners of yore is just a fact —one of many that might begin to explain how I came to be wandering bleak and endless corridors in the bowels of a modern ship 100 miles off the coast of Belize, completely without hope of ever seeing my cabin again. Lost at sea.

In my defense, cruise ships are bigger than they’ve ever been. A few of the newest models easily carry 5,700 passengers and crew, and one behemoth is about the size of Pittsburgh (but with cleaner air and better restaurants). And while I don’t get lost on ships often, their increasing enormity pretty much guarantees that’s going to happen more frequently.

In the case I mention, however, I was a victim not of scale, but of cultural and structural change.

The problem, it turns out, was that the promenade on this ship didn’t form a complete loop. Or even much of a partial loop. It was a promenade not intended for, well, promenading.

The evening had started in the Eagles Lounge at a cocktail party for repeat passengers, a pep rally fueled by complimentary mai tais, blue margaritas and mini egg rolls that allows the cruise line to show its appreciation for customer loyalty—and explain in depth the benefits of buying your next cruise before you even get the sheets mussed on this one.

Common sense tells me to avoid these events, but with some cruise lines, turning down free drinks would be akin to saying, “No, thanks. I’ll catch Halley’s Comet next time.”

After a while, the party lost what little charm it started with (they ran out of mai tais) and my mind wandered to the promenade. For several days I’d been trying to locate a door for what seemed to be the outdoor walking deck—I could see it from the windows of the dining room and the lobby, but I couldn’t find a way out.

Promenades have been one of those reliable holdovers from the days of the Queen Mary and the Normandy: open-air, teak-decked walkways with nothing between you and sea but a railing with a few too many coats of all-weather paint. Sure, there are plenty of places to “be outside” on modern ships, but most are 10 to 12 stories up, too far to feel the salt spray on the breeze, to hear the soft white noise of a wake in the making or to connect the ship’s rise and fall with the singular will of the sea.

Even after teak was forbidden on new ships (fire hazard) and shipbuilders started using the grainy rubberized stuff, the promenade held most of its charm, as a place to amble (with purpose or not), to meet shipmates or to wrap over the railing and get lost in the horizon. In general, the promenade is a loop, a complete circuit on which avid walkers and joggers might meet head on—again and again.

The problem is that at some point during the past decade’s freakish growth in cruising, some guy from a corporate office said, “What exactly is the purpose of a promenade? Isn’t that space we could use for more balcony cabins?” And, he likely continued: “If passengers are going to stroll, shouldn’t they stroll past the art auction and shops selling T-shirts and gold by the inch?”

Since then, the promenade has lost much of its prominence, not to mention its circular properties. Such was the case on the ship in this saga—valuable insight I could have used a little earlier.

After being misled by the ship’s advertised “Promenade Deck,” which turned out to be an entirely enclosed level full of shops, bars and the theater, I found the real promenade two floors lower, an outdoor walkway that, according to a cryptic deck plan in the hallway, is the clinical-sounding “Exterior Deck.”

Despite the signs proclaiming it as a mustering area, clearly it was the promenade. For an hour I stood at the railing and basked in the salty mist and the warm nighttime Caribbean breeze, watching another ship sparkle in the blackness, like seeing the lights of a small city from a red eye flight over the Midwest.

It says something that my best shot at getting a sense of the ocean—and the romance of a sea voyage—was on the Evacuation Staging Area of the Exterior Deck.

The trouble didn’t start until I tried to find my way back. From the outside, the doors were locked; I could only peek through the windows to see other passengers having yet another set of portraits taken. The only option seemed to be to walk the loop and look for open doors on the other side.

Seconds later, I was in a corridor that, instead of coming out the other side of the ship, led through a seemingly deserted maze of hallways full of watertight doors and miles of pipes carrying all manner of fluids (including, probably, the tapioca from the buffet). After 20 minutes of this, I began to wonder if they would find my dusty skeleton, crouching in a corner, still clutching the empty mai tai glass. While the idea of spending an extra week or two aboard a ship in the Caribbean no doubt seems appealing, this was not what I had in mind.

Finally, I peeked through a door with “CREW ONLY” emblazoned across it, only to find a young waiter whose name tag said he called the Philippines home. Despite being on a rare and precious break, he smiled broadly and asked if I needed anything.

“Um, hi. Uh, how do I get back?” I asked.

“Where would you like to go, sir?”

“Um, back.” Wherever that was, I wasn’t sure.

He smiled patiently and pointed to a spot in front of me. “Just use that door, sir. Pull hard; it’s heavy.”

It led to the Eagles Lounge, where the host was still talking about the company’s fabled history (all the way back to the ‘70s) and the repeat customers were still trying to hoard free cocktails by hiding them in their cheeks (a trick that, apparently, only works for squirrels).

I turned back to the steward, ashamed to monopolize another second of his break time.

“Um, which way back to the promenade?”

He just smiled.

Spud Hilton is Travel Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and he blogs at Bad Latitude. His stories have appeared in more than 70 papers and magazines in North America -- a few of which still publish. He has been hopelessly lost on five continents.

1 Comment for Which Way to the Promenade?

Natasha Garrett 05.26.10 | 10:11 AM ET

Interesting read, but I must add, it doesn’t look like you have visited Pittsburgh in the past few decades.

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