Where no Travel Writer has Gone Before

Travel Stories: In a five-part series, Rolf Potts joins Trekkies aboard a "Star Trek" theme cruise to Bermuda

Rolf Potts Cruises With Trekkies, Part 2By Doug Mack

“The missus and I went to the ‘Cooking With Anal’ demonstration yesterday,” Dale says, waving his fork at me. “We shouldn’t have to put up with this kinda crap.”

MORE: Part One | Video

Dale, a retiree from Ohio, is not with the “Star Trek” sea-cruise contingent. I met him exactly four minutes ago, when he and his wife joined my table in the Garden Café, a buffet-style restaurant on Deck 12 of the Norwegian Dawn. I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“‘Cooking With Anal’?” I say. “I don’t think I know what that is.”

“Not what, who,” Dale says. “Anal. You know, the head chef. Mexican fella.”

I think for a moment.  “Oh, right. ‘Cooking With Anil.’ Actually, I think that’s an Indian name.”

“I don’t care if he’s Geronimo raised from the dead, when I see a sign that says ‘PIZZA’ I want there to be some gosh-danged pizza sitting underneath it. I paid good money to be here; I don’t want to have to stand in line again just to get myself a decent lunch.” Dale jabs his fork over his shoulder for emphasis. I follow the angle of his silverware to the buffet, which to all appearances is overloaded with a massive selection of food. 

I’m only two days into my first-ever leisure cruise, but I’ve quickly learned that complaining about the food is one of the most popular diversions for rank-and-file passengers. Having been reared in the travel ways of backpacker hostels and street vendors, I think the food on the Norwegian Dawn is consistently tasty and insanely abundant—but every time I voice this sentiment some fellow passenger tells me how the Jazz Brunch on Deck 6 ran out of muffins this morning, or how Holland America cruises stock a better variety of gourmet mustards. 

Though in principle I’m participating in a “Star Trek” cruise, only 100 or so of the travelers on board this 2,000-passenger ship are Cruise Trek participants. This makes me feel slightly schizophrenic as I shuttle between “Trek” and non-“Trek” environments. Fifteen minutes ago, for example, I fled the scene of a “Star Trek” trivia contest in the Deck 12 conference room (sample question: “What song was playing in the radio store in the final episode of season one, ‘The City on the Edge of Forever’?”); now I’m beginning to miss the dignified sense of focus that surrounds my Trekkie travel companions. 

Since embarking, I’ve learned many things about the Norwegian Dawn. I’ve learned that it weighs 92,250 gross register tons, spans 956 feet from bow to stern, and travels at a top speed of 25 knots. I’ve learned that it has 15 decks, 13 restaurants, 11 bars, 1,126 crew members and bright blue high-impact hall carpets that are embossed with pictures of seahorses. I’ve also learned that—unless, like the “Trek” fans, you bring your own activity agenda—life onboard this ship feels less a part of a terrestrial journey than a placeless ritual of shopping, amusements and low-key gluttony. At times it seems as if the ocean itself isn’t all that necessary; that this experience could just as easily be replicated at a well-appointed shopping mall in Glendale, Arizona.

Yesterday, when I was first getting to know my fellow Cruise Trekkers, I pointed out that our sea voyage on the Norwegian Dawn might bear metaphorical similarities to a space voyage on the U.S.S. Enterprise. None of the “Trek” fans seemed all that impressed with this analogy, and now I’m beginning to understand why. Were this cruise an episode of “Star Trek.” it would probably go something like this:

CAPTAIN KIRK sits on the bridge of the USS ENTERPRISE, staring moodily into the middle distance. 

KIRK (v.o.)

Captain’s log, stardate 2713.5. There have been reports of cold waffles at the “Early Bird” brunch on Deck 7. I’ve ordered Mr. Spock to investigate.

Enter DR. MCCOY, who strides in with an exaggerated grin on his face.

MCCOY

Captain, might I interest you in a Frangipani Conditioning Hair-and-Scalp Rub? Or perhaps you’d prefer a Japanese Silk-Booster Facial. Please take this colorful brochure, which outlines our many health-enhancing services. Note our “Final-Frontier Special” on Botox treatments!

 

KIRK
(reading from the brochure)

“We will cleanse, polish, masque and massage you into sweet oblivion.” Bones, what’s the meaning of this?

The bridge’s VIEWSCREEN flashes on, revealing the face of MISTER SPOCK.

SPOCK

Captain, there’s a peculiar art auction in progress on Deck 7. They’re selling what they claim are works by Picasso and Rembrandt alongside autographed pictures of Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali. This is not logical.

Kirk is about to respond when LIEUTENANT UHURA bounds in and yanks Kirk up out of his captain’s chair.

UHURA

I’m Uhura, your assistant cruise-director, here to invite you to the “Fun-in-the-Sun” pool party on Deck 12, featuring the sizzling steel-drum sounds of “Caribbean Plus”! C’mon everyone, let’s work together to make this the longest conga line EVER!

Uhura and McCoy trap Kirk into a short but energetic CONGA LINE. Kirk peers back at the viewscreen with a look of panic in his eyes.

KIRK

Spock, return to your station and order a general alert!

UHURA
(with a sly wink)

Is it just me, or is it getting “HOT, HOT, HOT” in here?

Bridge officers SULU and CHEKOV leap up and join the conga line. Kirk’s panic gradually dissolves into a look of GLASSY-EYED RESIGNATION as the crew sashays its way across the bridge.

Bizarre as this screenplay scenario might seem, it’s not much of an exaggeration. (I literally heard our assistant cruise director use the “hot, hot, hot” line this morning.) Were the Norwegian Dawn teleported to, say, the year 2250, it could serve as a living-history museum of American middle-class hedonism and anxiety. Never before have I seen so many people trying so hard to have fun while simultaneously worrying that they might not be having as much fun as they paid for. 

To their credit, the cruise directors of the Norwegian Dawn have proven themselves savvy in predicting what passengers might enjoy doing onboard, as well as convincing said passengers that the activities on offer are exactly what they came here to do. A typical day offers cruisers the opportunity to play basketball or bingo; to practice yoga or Pilates; to learn swing-dancing or magic tricks. There are special-interest meeting groups (including “Friends of Dorothy,” a GLBT gathering), special-interest performances (including “Dancing Through the Decades with Jose and Patti”), and special-interest cosmetic procedures (including Restylane®, “for a fuller, more natural-looking pout”). Each morning the ship distributes an on-board newspaper, the Freestyle Daily, which lists entertainment options that variously sound exotic (“‘Bollywood!’ with the Jean Ann Ryan Performing Co.”), domestic (“Towel-folding class: Learn how to make more than just a snake!”), and inadvertently pornographic (“Jose and Patti do Neil Diamond”). With worries about the H1N1 virus at near-panic levels, the crew has dispatched a commando-style squad of cheerful Filipino ladies to ambush passengers with well-aimed squirts of hand-disinfectant. 

While such micromanaged attention to recreational-hygienic needs can at times make the Norwegian Dawn feel like a floating daycare facility, the only consistently annoying aspect of the cruise is the relentless sales pitch that shadows every facet of on-board life. Each day is peppered with intercom doublespeak about how you can get $100 of on-board credit by putting $250 down on a future Norwegian Line cruise, or how $10 can buy you $20 worth of slot-play in the casino, or how internet access is $0.35 cheaper per minute if you buy time in $100 installments. The ship’s “Art of Collecting” classes appear to be run by the same people who sell the art, and the on-board “personal shopping expert” seems to focus all of his vaunted expertise on a single jewelry store. Despite this seeming conflict of interest, both the jewelry store and the art auctions buzz with activity whenever they’re open.

Shopping and “Star Trek” aside, the most remarkable aspect of life on the Norwegian Dawn is its utter lack of cultural and generational hierarchy—its curious ability to assimilate people of all ages, races and body-types into a collective vision of recreational corniness. 

I am reminded of this at the end of the day, when I join a small group of Cruise Trekkers on a late-night foray into Dazzles Lounge on Deck 7. There, on the dance floor, I spot Dale and his wife boogying to “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles. It’s been less than 12 hours since I listened to him kvetch about how the lack of buffet-pizza was ruining his vacation, but now he’s happily engrossed in shaking his moneymaker.

Suddenly a new song kicks in. The 60-something Ohioan cocks his eyes at the ceiling and concentrates as Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” booms out over the dance floor: “If you feelin’ like a pimp nigga, go and brush your shoulders off.”  Dale reaches up and makes a tentative hand-sweep at his shoulder.  “Ladies is pimps too, go and brush your shoulders off.” Dale smiles at his wife, pantomiming the dust off her shoulders, then gives her what appears to be a full-on freak-dance pelvis-grind. The two of them giggle at each other, swaying to the hip-hop groove.

As I watch this, I’m reminded of a lesson I keep learning again and again in different travel environments: Don’t make too many assumptions about who in this world is capable of doing what.

This is a truism I’ll encounter again tomorrow, when my travel companions don their Starfleet finery for a “Star Trek”-themed wedding-vow renewal.

Next Page »


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


26 Comments for Where no Travel Writer has Gone Before

Megan Hill 11.16.09 | 1:18 PM ET

This is amazing. I can’t wait to read tomorrow’s piece!

Alison 11.16.09 | 1:18 PM ET

Loved this piece, very well-written!

Trisha Miller 11.16.09 | 1:50 PM ET

Well-written piece, as I expected it would be, but I’m a little surprised to learn that Rolf didn’t dig into some pre-cruise research by watching hours and hours of old Star Trek episodes, in order to understand the Trekkies culture and language, the way he would before any other trip. :)  But no matter, I’ll still enjoy his series, and I’m still envious of him and this assignment!

Lindsey 11.16.09 | 4:14 PM ET

Rolf,
You are a brave man, for voluntarily being captive on a floating ship like that!

Makye Ame 11.16.09 | 10:51 PM ET

Where’s the travel?  I mean there is so much good writing out there that goes unpublished and then to have a piece like this that is nothing special and doesn’t involve any real journey or exploration.

Is this series of articles supposed to be some cheap David Foster Wallace knockoff?

I really disliked the piece and am starting to feel that Worldhum has fallen into the comfortable groove of publishing mediocre work by writers they’ve already published before.

Makye Ame 11.16.09 | 10:57 PM ET

I just realized that this is going to be a five part series.

Mix it up a bit for heaven’s sake!

Epiphanie 11.17.09 | 1:05 AM ET

Dear Rolf,

What a brilliant idea! I think fan culture is a phenomenon worth exploring from a lot of angles, and I love your self-reflexive style, as always. Keep up the fab work! :o)

Marcy Gordon 11.17.09 | 3:13 AM ET

Ha! I wonder if the travel agent that recently booked a straight Italian couple on an all gay cruise had a weakness for counterintuitive travel strategies? I’d be suspicious of Rolf too if I was a Trekkie and found out he was writing about my theme cruise from a non-Trekkie perspective. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see how the story unfolds.

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 11.17.09 | 11:04 AM ET

Interesting post about Trekkies at sea.  Who knew there was a Star Trek themed cruise.  It definitely is not the “normal” travel writing that we’re used to reading.  Kind of refreshing…

Aaron H 11.17.09 | 12:37 PM ET

I can’t think of two thinks I care about less than cruises and Star Trek, but this is a great article—funny and full of insight.

Lindsay 11.17.09 | 3:11 PM ET

I laughed so much while reading this. Love it!!! Great piece.

Mike Costantino 11.17.09 | 5:32 PM ET

What with all the interviews and “observations” I hope Rolf found some time to really enjoy himself. It’s gotta be tough spend all your energy channeling Lévi-Strauss.

Matt Stabile 11.18.09 | 10:52 AM ET

Nice work Rolf, really enjoying the piece. It’s always great to read travel pieces from a different angle.

@Makye Ame : I think you’re missing the point. To say that this piece “doesn’t involve any real journey or exploration” is quite narrow-minded. As most travelers know, it’s not the destination but the journey. What better way to look back on a lifetime of travel and exploration than to view it through the prism of a mundane, prosaic cruise? Yes, David Foster Wallace did this in his own way, and Rolf is doing it his.

Sure there are plenty of articles and ideas out there about the next off-the-beaten-path destination, but the danger is losing the thrill of enjoying those places and cultures. Perhaps a cruise is needed every once in a while to remind us all of that.

http://www.TheExpeditioner.com

Grizzly Bear Mom 11.18.09 | 1:27 PM ET

I loved the Wayne and Rita part of the story.  Aren’t people fascinating? 

But confess, Rolf.  Considering the adventure in your travel stories I find it difficult to believe that you volunteered to go on a cruise.  Aren’t you really serving time for some offense?

travel agents indonesia 11.20.09 | 2:17 PM ET

nice share and website..thanks for the tips.I loved to the Wayne and Rita part of the story


http://travel-tour-indonesia.com

Ben 11.20.09 | 11:51 PM ET

Rolf,

Thanks for showing, yet again, that a good travel writer is every bit as savvy as an academc anthropologist—but more entertaining and often more honest.

Well done.

Eric Stillwell 11.23.09 | 1:13 PM ET

Rolf—

This is a fantastic series of articles. My wfie and I have been on nine Cruise Treks over the years—including the original Bermuda Cruise Trek many moons ago—and you really captured the heart and spirt of this wonderful group of people. Unfortunately we weren’t on board for this Bermuda cruise, but we did go on the Blue Danube Cruise Trek in 2008 and are booked for the Mediterranean Gateway Cruise Trek in 2010. I encourage those who are interested—or even just curious—to check out the Cruise Trek fan page on Facebook!

Aly 11.23.09 | 11:27 PM ET

This was a great piece (series). Very upbeat, humorous, but I must say I was most moved by the last part.  You really did Trek fans right by including the testimonials by the fans who were not the ‘extroverts.’  I am a very extroverted life of the party kind of person now; as a jr. higher and teenager though I was just as much an outcast within my family and school as any kid could be.  Star Trek helped me hold onto my values and beliefs, and not compromise myself and who I was in some effort to ‘fit in.’  I am quite ‘normal’ now socially, and I have Star Trek to thank for it.  And I would not be embarrased in the slightest to wear my uniform at any situation.

James L. Moore 11.24.09 | 2:33 PM ET

This is an excellent piece of writing and a great idea for exploration.

There are so many communities ‘out there’ and I have always thought there should be a book just about these odd, random, eclectic communities of people—- RV parks in Arizona, Philadelphia Eagles fans tailgating before a game, WoW guilds online, bikers gathering in Sturgis, etc. etc.

All of these sub-subcultures throughout America.

Write on.

Melanie Sargent 11.25.09 | 12:34 AM ET

What a fun, interesting read!  I never dreamed that I should explore the sci-fi arena before as it has never really compelled me.  However, after reading this, I’m thinking that the underlying theme is all about the “what if’s” of life, and that’s what I’m interested in.  I liked the cultural tie-in’s as well.  Like attracts like, and we tend to “like” people when we are “like” people, sometimes it just takes a cruise ship to get in touch with the commonalities. 

And, speaking of cruise ships, I have off and on been contemplating taking a cruise (I like the idea of getting a taste of different places and then coming back later to the ones I liked the best), but they sound too much like Vegas, and I’m not crazy about Vegas…!  So, you helped convince me that it wouldn’t be a good fit for my personality. 

Thanks for sharing a great bit of information and humor with us!

Panama Hotel 12.03.09 | 10:45 AM ET

Love the piece. When I initially saw the title,  it touched, in a thematic sort of way, on a bigger theme in travel which is our need/want to go places that are ‘undiscovered’ or ‘unknown.’ For those who haven’t read it, a specialist named Stanley Plog did a report for Cornell Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly in which he defines certain destinations as well as the people who like to go there into varying categories of “adventure.” Our boutique hotel (http://www.loscuatrotulipanes.com) here in Panama is located in Casco Viejo - a slightly offbeat colonial city with quirks and downfalls. It’s gorgeous and culturally rich, but not for everybody. The people it attracts are venturers - and not the type you’d see in Cancun. Inevitably, the unknown destinations become known, and the undiscovered spots get discovered. According to Plog,  if you’re aware of the factors at play, you can manipulate a destination on this curve.

kha 12.08.09 | 2:19 AM ET

who paid for this piece—the writer or the cruise or pr company?

Michael Yessis 12.08.09 | 7:04 PM ET

Hi kha. World Hum paid the writer for this piece.

Wendy 12.18.09 | 2:34 AM ET

We need to find the new island.

Wendy 12.28.09 | 10:45 PM ET

Thanks for sharing a great bit of information and humor with us!

Onelia Herriot 12.31.09 | 9:22 PM ET

I loved this piece. I am just an ordinary Joe (or should I say Jane) I went on Cruise Trek 2007 New Zealand. I am also Australian but Star Trek is a multicultural environment so I didnt feel left out.

2007 was my first experience of Cruise Trek although I had heard of this group for many years. I was traveling solo and was amazed at how easily and quickly I was embraced by my fellow CT cruisers. Everyone made an effort to welcome the new comers and then it is up to the new comers whether they wish to mix or just have a cruise. I must admit knowing that knowing there is 100 other people on a ship of 2000 that I had something in common with was comforting.

I am far from the “hard core” trekkie that many would think would join this crowd, for example in the trivia contest I only could answer 1 out of 50 questions and that was an extremely easy one, so you dont need to be a uniform wearing card carrying trekkie to enjoy the activities. And from my perspective its not about the “stars” so much as the feeling of family among my other companions that was the best part, although I will admit that having breakfast and having a star of your favourite show ask if they can share your table was pretty cool as well. (and one which I think most people the world over would love to have occur)

I enjoyed the experience so much that i am attending the 2010 Mediterranean Gateway cruise.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.