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
“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.