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

11.16.09 | 10:21 AM ET

By Doug Mack

I’m 30 minutes into my lecture in the cruise ship conference room when I realize the audience is beginning to sour on my travel presentation. I was doing fine when I was telling tales and sharing photos of faraway places—but when I switch to the topic of travel writing, folks in the crowd begin to tense up.

Share this on Facebook?

A man in the back raises his hand. “If you’re a travel journalist, does that mean you’ve come here to write about us?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I’ll be writing about everything that happens on this cruise.”

A woman in the front row wrinkles her brow at me. “So that means you’re kind of like the Talosians from ‘The Menagerie,’” she says.


“Yes, the Talosians,” she says. She gazes at me for a beat. “You’ve come to observe our behavior like we were animals in a zoo.”

MORE: Video

I give the woman a neutral look; I’m not sure what she’s talking about. 

“Season one, episode 11,” the guy in the back offers. “Original series.”

“I guess I didn’t see that one,” I say finally.

Fifty or so people stare at me with a mixture of pity and disbelief: It’s as if I just told them I’ve never seen a sunrise. 

I’ve been at sea with these folks since we embarked from New York a little more than 24 hours ago. Two days from now we’ll sail into port at Bermuda, but most of my travel companions are less focused on our earthly destination than on more far-flung corners of the universe—places like Vulcan, Romulus and the Klingon homeworld. 

Indeed, this journey is not your average vacation—it’s “Cruise Trek,” an annual sea-pilgrimage for fans of the “Star Trek” TV and movie franchise. For the next week I’ll be sharing passage on the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship with over 100 gung-ho sci-fi fans. In addition to the standard cruise amenities (bingo, shuffleboard, all-you-can-eat restaurants), I’ll be participating in “Star Trek” trivia games, attending Q&A sessions with mid-level “Star Trek” celebrities, sitting in on science fiction writing classes, and witnessing a “Star Trek” theme wedding. 

The twist to all this is that I’m not much of a “Star Trek” fan. I enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Trek” movie—and I’m familiar with the old TV series from years of cultural osmosis and syndicated reruns—but the show’s universe is largely uncharted territory for me. In a way, the “Star Trek” franchise is like a country I’ve visited a few times en route to other places: I can recognize the basic landscape, but I’m not familiar with the customs, nor do I speak the language. 

All of which leads to a valid question, which the woman in the front row asks after a few moments of uneasy silence. “If you don’t know that much about the show,” she says, “why did you choose to spend a week at sea with a bunch of ‘Star Trek’ fans?”

I knew this question would come up eventually, but I have yet to prepare a concise answer. I want to confess that I’m fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of Trekkie culture in the same way some people are intrigued with Inuit or Maasai culture. I want to admit that I have a weakness for counterintuitive travel strategies, and this seemed like a wacky, entertaining way to enjoy my first-ever sea cruise. 

Instead I say something about exploring imaginative landscapes in the context of physical landscapes. I talk about how the travel sensibilities of Trekkies can hold a mirror up to American ideals, just as the travel sensibilities of Herodotus held a mirror up to Greek ideals. I mention that, metaphorically, a cruise ship is kind of like a space ship. 

All of which is true enough, I guess, but the woman in the front row isn’t buying it. “And I bet you want to poke fun at the weird people who bring Vulcan ears and Starfleet uniforms on their vacations.” 

She says this in a playful tone, but in truth I very nearly wasn’t allowed to come on the cruise for fear that I would write the kind of glib, “Trekkies = über-dorks” story that has characterized four decades of mainstream reporting on the “Star Trek” phenomenon. Cruise Trek organizers interviewed me by phone two separate times before they would sell me a ticket—and my travel writing lecture this afternoon is as much a method of identifying me as an outside journalist as it is an educational seminar.

Photo by Rolf Potts

I’ve assured the Cruise Trek gatekeepers that I haven’t come to cherry-pick flamboyant Trekkie clichés for my story—but to be honest, exotic preconceptions are half the fun of travel. Take a trip to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, and you’ll be disappointed if the Mursi tribeswomen turn up wearing sneakers and blue jeans instead of lip-plates and goatskins; journey into the jungles of Papua New Guinea, and you’ll want to take photos of the locals who wear penis-gourds, not the ones wearing soccer shorts. In the same way, I’m hoping this “Star Trek” cruise will yield a cornucopia of color and eccentricity—not just Vulcan ears and Starfleet uniforms, but Klingon-speakers and Cardassian-costumed cross-dressers. I’m hoping for “Trek”-themed folk-band sing-alongs and angry three-hour arguments about starship registration numbers. And, as much as anything, I’m dying to know what it’s like to experience a sea voyage to Bermuda when your travel companions would rather be making a space voyage to Romulus. 

Of course, I don’t admit this to the “Trek” fans in the audience. Instead, I assure them of my sober journalistic objectivity, and proceed with my presentation about the ins and outs of travel writing. When I’ve finished, the woman from the front row comes up and introduces herself as Irene Nemster.  Her husband, a soft-spoken fellow who stands behind her, is named Stuart.

“I didn’t mean to sound cynical during your talk,” she tells me. “I guess I’m afraid you’ve come here to stereotype all Trekkies as oddballs.” 

“She and I definitely qualify as Trekkies,” Stuart says. “We’ve evolved to the point where we had to designate an entire room of our home just for ‘Star Trek’ collectibles.”

Irene furrows her brow at Stuart. “But we do have lives outside of ‘Star Trek’!” she says. “We’re parents, we’re musicians. We’re active in church and synagogue. We play tennis and go fishing.”

Stuart gives me a wry look. “She owns a book of Leonard Nimoy’s poetry.”

“OK, that’s true,” Irene admits. “And believe me, Mr. Spock cannot write. But at least it’s autographed!” 

After several minutes of listening to Stuart and Irene detail their collection of “Trek” memorabilia (including a life-sized Klingon cutout that spooks unsuspecting houseguests in their basement), I ask Irene to clarify the story behind the Talosians.

“The Talosians are highly evolved observers,” she says. “They study emotions by keeping a menagerie of more primitive species, including humans. And they can control their captives’ behavior by altering their senses.”

“How do they do that?” I ask.

“Basically, they use telepathy to make people see things that don’t really exist. They use people’s own ideals and expectations to create seductive illusions that have no basis in reality.”

When I first hear this it sounds like a nifty little critique of consumer travel writing—but in coming days I will discover that it just as readily applies to the baffling idiosyncrasies of the leisure-cruise industry.

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.


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!


(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.


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.


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.


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

(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.

By Doug Mack

To understand how the old-school Trekkies on my cruise ship regard J.J. Abrams’ 2009 blockbuster “Star Trek” movie, it’s useful to make a religious analogy.

MORE: Part One | Part Two | Video

Imagine how it might be if, as a lifelong Christian, you suddenly had access to a lost New Testament manuscript that outlines Jesus’ life as a young adult. The Jesus in this newfound text preaches the same gospel and performs similar miracles—only this time around he has wicked karate skills, six-pack abs, wisecracking disciples, a sexy Asian girlfriend, and an endorsement deal with Burger King. Just as devout Christians might find these hip new affectations unsettling, my “Trek”-loving travel cohorts seem simultaneously inspired and bewildered by Chris Pine’s bar-brawling portrayal of Captain Kirk, Zachary Quinto’s babe-snogging version of Mr. Spock, and J.J. Abrams’ alternate-reality time line. 

“The old fans are going to get nervous anytime you try to do something new with the franchise,” Richard Arnold tells me. A former assistant to show creator Gene Rodenberry, Richard is a walking encyclopedia of “Star Trek” trivia and a perennial Cruise Trek guest-speaker. He and I are sitting in the back of a Norwegian Dawn conference room where, in a matter of minutes, New Jersey “Trek” fans Wayne and Rita Applegate will renew their wedding vows wearing crisp white Starfleet uniforms. This ceremony is the most eagerly anticipated event of the week for many Cruise Trek veterans, and—for the first time since the ship left New York three days ago—the majority of my travel companions have traded their civilian casual-wear for “Star Trek” regalia.

“Look around and you’ll notice that most of these people are in their 50s,” Richard tells me. “We were adolescents when the show first came out. We’re the generation of fans that saved the show from getting canceled in the 1960s; we’re the ones who pushed science fiction into the mainstream and made it possible for films like ‘Star Wars’ to get made in the 1970s. For all the money Paramount has made from the various ‘Star Trek’ movies and TV series, none of it would have been possible if these kind of people hadn’t gotten together and stood up for the show from the very beginning.”

Richard goes on to explain how, despite their past triumphs on behalf of the franchise, the sci-fi pilgrims on the Norwegian Dawn are the loyalist legacy of a “Star Trek” fandom that has seen a low ebb in recent years. In the early 1990s, when new episodes of “The Next Generation” had a strong TV following, there were “Star Trek” conventions most every weekend of the year. By the mid-2000s, however, as sequel movies like “Nemesis” flopped and TV series like “Enterprise” were canceled, the “Star Trek” franchise foundered. As a result, fan conventions, which “Trek” enthusiasts had transformed into a booming business the 1970s and 1980s, began to focus on more current fare, like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and—most recently—“Twilight.” 

Hence, whereas the first Cruise Treks in the 1990s focused on the celebrities, recent cruises have skewed more toward the fellowship of the fan community itself. Our cruise features guests like Dominic Keating (who played an armory officer on the “Enterprise” TV series) and Robin Curtis (who played a Vulcan lieutenant in a couple of 1980s “Star Trek” movies), but many of the Trekkies on board seem just as excited to reunite with old friends as meet with celebrities. Indeed, at this moment the Cruise Trek spotlight belongs not to the stars of the franchise, but to a land surveyor and a daycare worker from New Jersey.

The wedding-renewal ceremony begins with a song and a brief processional; the audience stands at attention in their Starfleet uniforms. Wayne and Rita Applegate’s real wedding happened 30 years ago, but by all accounts it was a disaster. Neither family was supportive of the union, and the young couple had to pay for the ceremony themselves. Wayne’s parents didn’t want to take pictures with him, and Rita’s father didn’t want to walk her down the aisle. The newlyweds decided they would one day renew their vows in a more loving environment, and—nearly three decades later—they’ve chosen to reboot their marriage at sea, in the company of Trekkie friends. The vows are to be administered by veteran sci-fi actor Vaughn Armstrong, a self-described “Where’s Waldo” of the “Star Trek” franchise, who’s played 12 different characters (including three Klingons, two Cardassians, and a Starfleet admiral) on various TV episodes. In honor of the occasion, Vaughn has donned a black tuxedo and pointy plastic Vulcan ears.

As Rita walks up the aisle she begins to sob with happiness; Wayne beams shyly at the head of the conference room. The ocean sparkles outside the windows as Vaughn greets the audience with a few opening platitudes before instructing the couple to recite their vows. 

“As captain on this journey, and ‘til God beams us up,” Wayne says, “we will venture onward exploring and experiencing the many wonders in this vast universe.” 

“As first officer of this journey, we have seen and done many things,” Rita says, her voice cracking with emotion. “Your love for me is worth more than anything that any planet or universe can give.”

“Now by the power vested in me by my authority as an admiral of Starfleet,” Vaughn announces, “I congratulate you on your 30-year voyage. May you live long and prosper during the next 30 years.” 

Image courtesy of Wayne and Rita Applegate

Over the years I’ve had the privilege to witness weddings in all manner of cross-cultural settings—India, Korea, Cuba, Latvia—but I can’t recall having experienced an event so unexpectedly affecting as this quirky “Trek”-jargon ceremony. Even after 30 years of marriage, Wayne and Rita’s love for one other feels unselfconscious and powerful, as does their gratefulness at being surrounded by people who care about them and share their interests. There are few dry eyes in the audience. 

The journalist part of my brain is already at work assembling a tidy narrative to make sense of what I’ve just witnessed. To all appearances, this is a perfect “Trek”-dork love story: Wayne and Rita are heavy-set and graying; Wayne is shy and sometimes has trouble looking people in the eye, and Rita’s joint problems often force her to use an electric cart to get around. I start formulating a headline in my mind—something along the lines of: “Adorably Nerdy Pair Find Life-Purpose in ‘Star Trek,’ Each Other.” 

During the reception, I corner the bride and groom and ply them for quotes to support my thesis. At first, the interview goes exactly as I’d expected: Wayne and Rita are, without a doubt, first-rate “Trek” nerds. The doormat in front of their house reads: “Beam me up, Scotty,” and they own so many Hallmark “Star Trek” ornaments that they require two separate Christmas trees each holiday season. Some of the ornaments talk, including Wayne and Rita’s favorite—a Borg cube that, when activated, says: “We are the Borg, enjoy your holiday. Resistance is futile.”

After a few minutes of chatting, my template is almost complete. “One last question,” I say.  “Would you say that your mutual love of ‘Star Trek’ has made your marriage easier over the years?”

“Well in 30 years of marriage we’ve never had a fight,” Wayne says. He glances over at his wife. “Except for tae kwon do, I guess.”

“Tae kwon do?” I hadn’t expected to hear this.

“Used to be, whenever we decided we needed to fight, we’d just put on the sparring equipment and go. Rita has better technique, so she’d usually win.”

“We ran a martial-arts school for 10 years,” Rita says.

“Besides tae kwon do, Rita holds belts in kung fu, bōjutsu, muay thai, shōrinji-ryū, tai chi and arnis, which is Filipino stick fighting. Before she got into martial arts she was active in tap, ballet and modern dance. She’s also studied things like sign language, Hebrew, Chinese and Japanese.”

“Wayne knows some Japanese too, but not as much as me,” Rita says. “Sometimes I’ll say something to him in Japanese, and he’ll answer me in English.”

Realizing that my would-be “Trek”-misfits could probably whip me in a street fight (and out-bargain me in a Tokyo vegetable market), I flip to a new page in my reporter’s notebook and start the interview anew. As it turns out, Rita designs greeting cards and has studied theology at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary; Wayne is a square-dance caller, an amateur karaoke enthusiast and a member of the Titanic Historical Society. The two of them host regular murder-mystery dinners (“Death by Chocolate”), and they perform song-parodies as “Lord and Lady Middlesex” at Renaissance Faires. Both of them belong to the New Jersey 14th Volunteers, a re-enactment group based on an actual unit that fought during the Civil War. Rita doesn’t practice martial arts anymore because of her joint problems, so she makes up for it by inviting the young trainers from her wellness center over for monthly game-nights of Taboo, Trivial Pursuit and Cranium. 

“You name it, we’ll play it,” Wayne says. “Here we are in our 50s and most of the people who come to our game-parties are in their 20s. I like to say that I’m still 18 from the neck up.”

Wayne pauses for a moment, fixing me with his shy grin. “People think that those of us who love ‘Star Trek’ don’t have lives,” he says. “Well I say ‘Star Trek’  has nothing on things like Facebook or Twitter. I don’t understand how some people insist on living their lives through an Internet connection and a keyboard. What good is a hobby if it doesn’t inspire you to get out and do things?”

“We have a plaque hanging in our home,” Rita adds. “It says ‘There is never enough time to do everything you should. The thing is to make the most of the time you have.’”

Inspired, I pocket my notebook and head off to my cabin to prepare for the Norwegian Dawn’s impending arrival in Bermuda.

By Doug Mack

I’m sitting at a bus stop in a downtown stretch of Hamilton, Bermuda’s tidy capital town. It’s been raining off and on all morning, and the sky is the color of television tuned to a dead channel. Three seats down from me, a Bermudan office worker is wearing knee-length shorts with a blazer and necktie. He looks like one of those jokers who shows up to his high school prom wearing his tuxedo with flip-flop sandals. I’m getting ready to ask the guy what wacky occasion would inspire him to wear shorts-and-a-tie to work when I spot another fellow wearing knee-length shorts and a necktie on the opposite side of the street. Then a bus pulls up, and three more men wearing suit jackets, neckties, shorts, and knee-length socks disembark. 

MORE: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Video

In one of those painfully lucid duh! moments that characterize so much of travel, I suddenly realize what’s going on: This is Bermuda, and in what is probably the most storied gesture of style on the island, local men are wearing Bermuda shorts with their business suits. For some reason I had just assumed that knee-baring office-wear would be as dated and anomalous in downtown Hamilton as togas in downtown Rome, or Viking helmets in a Stockholm business meeting. 

After a few minutes of rubbernecking at the Hamilton fashion scene, I’m joined by Irene and Stuart Nemster, two “Trek” fans from my cruise ship. Irene was the one who gave me a stern warning against depicting her fellow Trekkies as weirdos at my on-board travel-writing lecture a couple days ago. Since then we’ve become friendly, and the pair has invited me to join them today on an improvisational walking-and-bus tour of the island. This morning we took a two-mile hike along an old railway bed cut into the island’s coral-rock landscape; now we plan to take a series of buses out to explore some beaches and tide pools along the island’s central coast. 

Back when I was first planning this journey, I fantasized about a cruise ship full of “Star Trek” fans disembarking at a place like Bermuda. I imagined bars full of cruise-tourists pretending that the local black rum was really Klingon Bloodwine, restaurants full of Trekkies insisting that the Bermudan fish-chowder had a flavor similar to Romulan jumbo-mollusks. I envisioned plastic-eared Spock lookalikes on rental scooters giving “Live Long and Prosper” salutes to Bermudan traffic cops. Instead, the Cruise Trekkers have descended upon Bermuda wearing discreet vacation-wear, seeking out the same diversions (carriage rides, aquarium excursions, glass-bottom boat tours) as the other Norwegian Dawn passengers.

To assuage my disappointment, I’ve requested that Irene and Stuart don “Star Trek” T-shirts for today’s outing. Stuart’s T-shirt sports a picture of Spock; Irene’s shirt bears an image of the entire original-series TV cast. Starting this morning from the Royal Naval Shipyard (from which British ships sailed to burn down the White House back in 1812), we’ve made our way halfway across the fishhook-shaped, 21-mile-long island. Palm trees line the coves where snorkelers bob in the aqua-blue water; houses in pastel shades of yellow, pink and green dot the contours of the landscape. Action-packed “Star Trek”-episode analogies are in short supply this morning, if nothing else because our landing party has yet to encounter anything resembling a conflict. From what we experienced so far, Bermuda is a user-friendly realm of white-sand beaches, polite schoolchildren, well-maintained villages and cruise-tourists happily wandering down the middle of the streets. The most dangerous aspect of the island would seem to be its lack of sidewalks.

Our bus driver, a trim black guy wearing aviator sunglasses, has noticed Stuart and Irene’s T-shirts. “I like ‘Star Wars’ better than ‘Star Trek,’” he says. “But my wife loves that movie with the whales in it.”

“‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,’” Irene says. “That’s a good one.”

“Kirk isn’t my favorite captain, though; he’s too impulsive. I like Captain Picard. He’s more of a diplomat.”

This is the third time today some random Bermudan has started talking to us because of Stuart and Irene’s T-shirts. It’s as if the world of “Star Trek” has, over the years, become its own universal dialect; even people who claim to dislike the show seem curiously familiar with its characters and episodes. After awhile, our driver’s Kirk/Picard analysis segues to a discussion of his children (his daughter is a whiz at math; his son is addicted to video games), which then segues further to a recommendation of some less-touristed beach areas near Harrington Sound. Stuart cross-references this information on his tourist-bureau map while Irene strikes up a conversation with a grocery-toting woman across the aisle from us. Irene is a naturally gregarious traveler, but I joke that she’s only chatting up the locals because she wants me to depict her in print as the kind of traveler who chats up locals. 

“I’m not sure if that was you talking just then, or if it was the Hawthorne Effect,” I say to her. The Hawthorne Effect, as Irene and I have recently learned, is when the subjects of a study alter their behavior in response to the fact that they are being studied.

“Stuart will tell you I’d act the same way on a bus in New Jersey,” Irene counters. She stops and thinks for a moment. “What’s that other rule—the one that makes the Prime Directive impossible?” 

“Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle,” I say. The Prime Directive she refers to—which is a key ethic in the “Star Trek” universe—states that space travelers should observe but not interfere with alien societies, whereas the Uncertainty Principle suggests that observers interfere with whatever they are observing by the simple act of observing it. 

“Well then by the terms of the Uncertainty Principle you had already altered my behavior before I had the chance to experience the Hawthorne Effect.” Touché!

I usually don’t discuss quantum physics when I travel—and I suspect Irene doesn’t either—but for the past few mornings we’ve been attending Cruise Trek’s science-fiction writing classes, and the sci-fi concepts we’ve discussed there have seeped into the way we’re deciphering our experience of Bermuda (including my “color of television tuned to a dead channel” line above, which I cribbed from a class handout on William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”). 

The science fiction seminar is taught by Curt Duffy, a Los Angeles college instructor, with input from Lolita Fatjo, who served as script-coordinator for several TV incarnations of “Star Trek,” including “The Next Generation.” A dozen or so studious Trekkies have been attending the class in a Norwegian Dawn conference room each morning. One of the first exercises was to write a six-word story in the style of Hemingway (“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn”), and many of the students’ micro-tales proved intriguing:

“Implant exchange. Brains for brawn? Deal!” 

“Fate closes doors. Break the windows.” 

“Dog knows all, tells us nothing.”

“Lost in darkness. Opened my eyes.” 

It’s been years since I’ve read much science fiction, so as we’ve delved into the genre I’ve been surprised at how much ethical and philosophical common ground it shares with travel writing. Just as postmodern travel reportage attempts to make sense of an ever-changing world, science fiction is less an examination of things happening in outer space than a critique of developments and dangers right here on Earth. There are other thematic crossovers as well. One of Curt and Lolita’s lecture topics was epistemology, the study of how we know what we know. At first this subject resulted in a discussion of the “Star Trek” “holodeck” and the illusion-world of “The Matrix”—but soon (after a bit of travel-dork nudging on my part) the class began to ponder which aspects of our experience in Bermuda qualify as “authentically Bermudan,” and which are tourist fantasies that have been created for our consumption. 

I am reminded of this distinction later, during the “Harbour Nights” celebration in Hamilton, which I attend solo after my day of exploring the island’s trails and beaches with Stuart and Irene. Cosponsored by Norwegian Cruise Lines and the Bermuda Department of Tourism, Harbour Nights is a weekly waterfront fair featuring art exhibitions, souvenir stalls, food vendors and musical performances. The most transfixing event of the night is the Bermudan gombey dance, which blends African, British and New World influences in a colorful masquerade performance. I sit on the seawall and watch as two-dozen feather-plumed Bermudan men leap through the street to the accompaniment of fifes and snare drums, swinging axes and brandishing crossbows. Front Street is draped with strands of Christmas lights, bathing the dancers in a warm nighttime glow. 

Midway through the performance I’m joined by Brian Moloney, a 20-something Canadian who has been tagging along while his autistic brother David participates in Cruise Trek activities. Brian isn’t much into “Star Trek,” but he’s become intrigued by the concepts we’ve discussed in the science-fiction class—most notably the distinction between authenticity and simulacrum. As the gombey dancers wind up their act, Brian and I begin to speculate about which aspects of Harbour Nights are a true expression of Bermuda and which have been invented for the benefit of people like us. 

“What do you make of the dance performance?” Brian says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “This morning I saw businessmen wearing Bermuda shorts to work, and they weren’t doing it to impress tourists. I’m guessing they put on gombey dances even when cruise ships aren’t here.” I pause and scan the waterfront. “How about the hair-braiding booths?”

“Not real,” Brian says. “Not for random white people at least. Children’s train?”

“No. But the fact that it’s full of adults right now is just goofy enough to make it seem more real somehow.”

Brian and I go back and forth with our little game for 15 minutes before he gets up to find his brother. When he leaves, I listen to a trio of Bermudan teens playing a local variation of the same game 10 feet down from me on the seawall. Instead of trying to figure out what is authentically Bermudan, the three girls are delivering a giggling commentary on each of the tourists walking past—which of the young males are cute, which of the old males are fat, which of the couples are dressed in clothes they would probably never wear back home.

Listening, it occurs to me that the events along this waterfront are real in a way Brian and I hadn’t considered. If “Star Trek”‘s Prime Directive really is an impossible goal—if local communities are fated to be impacted by the mere presence of outside observers—then events like Harbour Nights are a rather shrewd way of quarantining the crush of short-term cruise-ship visitors that arrive each week. Tourists here get a small but appealing taste of Bermuda; Bermudans get to showcase aspects of their culture in a way that shields the quieter parts of the island from the mass-tourist gaze. The whole of Harbour Nights thus becomes more real than the sum of its parts. 

The events on the Hamilton waterfront begin to wind down, and I catch a ferry back to the wharf. A re-entry queue stretches alongside the Norwegian Dawn, and as I’m waiting in line I overhear a young couple comparing notes on their day.

“I ran into Randy when you were in the gift shop,” the husband says. “He told me there’s a group of like 200 hard-core Trekkies on our ship.” He pauses to give his wife a covert look. “Apparently they’ve been traveling incognito this whole time.”

I walk up the gangplank with a sudden feeling that the trip home could get interesting.

By Doug Mack

Were I to write a science fiction movie, it would be about a spaceship full of aliens who like to eat humans. As their intergalactic spaceship circles Earth, the aliens ponder how they might discreetly harvest humans for their cosmic smorgasbord. They’ve determined that humans don’t taste as good when they’re pasty and stringy and stressed-out, so they start researching ways to create a device that tricks people into becoming tanned, plump and docile. After several months of trial and error, the aliens unveil a foolproof trap—a giant, box-like contraption that separates Homo sapiens from their home-habitat and subjects them to an entire week of inactivity, constant eating and sun exposure. This ingenious device, the aliens announce triumphantly, is to be called the “cruise ship.”

MORE: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Video

As I enter my final day aboard the Norwegian Dawn, I can sense a change of mood among the rank-and-file passengers. Bloated and blissful after six days of cruising, everyone seems at a loss for what to do now that Bermuda has receded into the distance. The ship still provides a massive array of activities, but even amidst the shopping and the stage shows (“Flashback to the ‘60s with Jose and Patti!”) I detect an edge of anxiousness that can arise when leisure-overload bumps up against the creeping realization that workaday life is about to resume. A week of isolation from reliable Internet and cellphone services has left people with nothing new to talk about, so the default social activity among passengers seems to be a running commentary on everything that’s happening on board. Given the public-yet-enclosed nature of the ship, this has made for great eavesdropping.

Now that word has gotten out that there are Trekkies onboard, an increasingly popular conversation topic among non-Cruise Trek passengers is “Star Trek.” This at times proves confusing. While I’m eating my lunch by the swimming pool on Deck 12, for instance, I hear two men in the hot tub arguing about why Klingons in the original series look different from the Klingons in later incarnations of “Star Trek.” The guys look to be in their mid-40s, and they occasionally pause to yell over at their children, who are splashing around in the pool. I don’t recognize them, so I walk over, introduce myself, and ask them if they’re with the “Star Trek” contingent. The instant they realize I’ve taken them for Trekkies, their eyes go blank with a look of hard-wired adolescent terror. They eventually regain their composure and explain that they’re just taking a regular cruise-vacation with their families—but for a brief moment the awkwardness is palpable: I feel as if I’ve just walked into a junior high locker room and asked a couple of boys if they’d like to kiss each other. 

Indeed, showcasing one’s “Star Trek” fandom can at times be a delicate endeavor. Despite the overwhelming sense of affection the show garners from most all corners of American society, nobody (not even the Cruise Trekkers I’ve met) wants their affection to be taken the wrong way. It’s as if there’s an archetypal über-fan out there—a snuffling, virginal 47-year-old who spends his waking moments building balsa-wood models of Starfleet battle-cruisers in his mother’s basement—and nobody wants to be mistaken for him.

If anything, however, my time on the Norwegian Dawn has confirmed that a visible “Trek”-fan archetype doesn’t really exist. Since my fellow Cruise Trekkers rarely wear their “Star Trek” costumes for general cruise events, they’ve managed to blend seamlessly with the other passengers. Last night I attended a karaoke contest at Dazzles Lounge, and a young couple sitting next to me spent the entire night singling out “Trekkies.” Apparently the wife’s criteria encompassed anyone who was overweight, poorly groomed or given to singing off-key (I didn’t have the heart to tell her that all the Cruise Trekkers were off attending a group dinner in the Venetian restaurant at the time). Moreover, some of the most spontaneous expressions of “Star Trek” fandom haven’t even come from the self-identified Trekkies. I spent my second day on Bermuda in the company of “Trek”-actor Vaughn Armstrong, and the only true moment of stalker-style hysteria came during a visit to the St. George wharf, when a random group of teenage Norwegian Dawn passengers shriekingly identified him as “Admiral Forrest from ‘Enterprise’” and demanded he pose for photographs.

On a few occasions, cruise passengers have noticed me taking notes at Cruise Trek events and asked me what it’s like to spend a week in the company of Trekkies. I tell them that Trekkies are pretty much like anyone else, they just happen to be fixated on a certain science-fiction show.

This seems a reasonable enough answer, but as the final day of the cruise progresses, I come to discover that it isn’t entirely accurate. 

Photo by Rolf Potts

For travelers and journalists alike, a central strategy in encountering other cultures is to get out and meet people. The odd catch to this endeavor is that, as a traveler or a journalist, you tend to meet the same kind of people over and over again. In countries where you don’t speak the language, you invariably end up hanging out with local English speakers; in esoteric subcultures like Cruise Trek, it’s natural to gravitate toward the extroverts. And in doing so, it’s easy to miss out on the introverted perspective of people who don’t feel always comfortable in social situations.

I learn this quite tellingly after lunch, when I stand up at a Cruise Trek trivia event and announce that I’d love to interview anyone who feels they’d like to share something about how “Star Trek” has affected their lives. The response is unexpectedly overwhelming: I spend the rest of the afternoon meeting unfamiliar Cruise Trekkers—people I’ve seen here and there, but didn’t really notice. Most of them confess that they would have been too shy to approach me had I not offered the pretext of a formal interview (as well as a reassurance that I was not there to make fun of them).

In the process of speaking with this new group of Trekkies, I hear a common refrain: “If I seem normal to you, it’s because ‘Star Trek’ has helped me feel normal.” The sentiment comes in a number of variations:

“When I was a teenager I was a bit of a social outcast and I really identified with ‘Star Trek’ and its inclusion for others. I always liked Data from ‘The Next Generation’ because as an android he didn’t fully grasp the human condition. Since I’m autistic I don’t have as many social skills, and sometimes I struggle with the same issues as Data. It’s encouraging to know that such an intelligent and well-liked character also has problems understanding social situations.”

“Growing up black and female in the 1960s, it meant so much to turn on the TV and see a woman like Uhura portrayed with intelligence and strength, working as an equal alongside white men and an Asian and a man of mixed race. ‘Star Trek’ showed me that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you look like: You’re valuable just the way you are, and anything is possible if you find your talents and work hard.” 

“You have two families in life, the one you’re born into and the one you choose. ‘Star Trek’ is the family I’ve chosen. It’s not just a show about gadgets and space battles; it’s about the camaraderie of the people on the spaceship. Coming from a dysfunctional background, it was important for me to see that kind of goodness and caring between people. At some point I just decided I wasn’t going to live like the people I grew up with; I was going to live my life like the people on the U.S.S. Enterprise.”

As I listen to one person after another talk about how “Star Trek” has helped them make sense of life, I recall a passage from “Understanding Other Cultures,” an old 1960s anthropology primer I discovered on my father’s bookshelf when I was a kid. “The most profitable way to look at a culture is to see it as an adaptive mechanism,” the introductory chapter read. “In this sense a culture is a body of ready-made solutions…a cushion between man and his environment. ...It is our culture that enables us to get through the day because both we and the other people we encounter attach somewhat the same meanings to the same things.” 

I begin to see that, for all of my glib, quasi-ethnological pronouncements about experiencing Cruise Trek as an outsider, “Star Trek” fandom truly is a human culture in the purest sense of the word. I feel privileged to have experienced it for a few days.

The final event of Cruise Trek is a sci-fi themed pajama party, which takes place in the Deck 12 conference room. Everyone shows up dressed in nightgowns, Starfleet uniforms or some combination thereof. One married couple shows up in nightshirts, slippers and full Vulcan and Klingon makeup. After a few final trivia contests, everyone ends up huddled around folding tables, engrossed in a sprawling, collective game of Uno. Some people clutch teddy bears as they play their cards; others hold beers or cocktails. One couple cuddles in the back of the room, half-awake under a blanket patterned with Starfleet logos. 

Scanning the tables, taking note of everyone who’s told me their story, I’m impressed by the diversity of the group that has assembled here: not just male and female, urban and rural, black and white, but conservative and liberal, gay and straight, introvert and extrovert, religious and atheist, healthy and handicapped. Office workers rub shoulders with retired soldiers, shoe salesmen with physicians, businessmen with the unemployed. The charm isn’t that these people share a love of “Star Trek,” but that—apart from “Trek”—they don’t necessarily have all that much in common. It’s a weird little travel moment; all of us playing cards in our pajamas and chatting informally with the same kind of people we might ignore back home. 

We end up playing well after midnight. Nobody keeps score.