Why You Need to Go on a Cruise More than You Know
In the sweeping 1965 Stanley Kramer film Ship of Fools, adapted from the Katherine Anne Porter novel, one of the characters proclaims that there are three reasons why people go on cruises: “travel, health issues, escaping.”
The Quantum of the Seas is as big as a Resurgent Star Destroyer.
It was easy enough to appropriate these reasons when I was conscripted to go on a cruise; not only had I not been away for quite a while, but I was also beginning to feel physically ill from work, as well as from the daily political grind on social media. And when I finally saw it, The Quantum of the Seas, also dubbed “the world’s first smartship,” bigger than I could ever have imagined it, I felt these reasons sort of slosh and crash into each other and dissolve into one: why wouldn’t I want to go on this huge, improbable thing?
The Quantum of the Seas, owned by Royal Caribbean International, is the lead ship of the third largest class of cruise ships in the world by gross tonnage, weighing in at about 170,000 tons, with 18 decks and a capacity of almost 5,000 passengers. Regular homebodies like us who use the internet mainly to watch legal and illegal entertainment and dutifully redistribute memes may shrug their shoulders at these abstract figures (what are human-scale numbers on the internet but mere statistics, right?), but hear me out: In Star Destroyer terms, it would be a First Order-era Resurgent Class Star Destroyer. Now, what do you think of that!
The act of cruising is an anachronistic pleasure that will ease your arteries.
But for that special reader who is quick to raise an eyebrow—or feign ignorance—over anything mass-produced, franchised, or even faintly pedestrian, know that the modern-day cruise, enjoyed correctly, can be a relaxing, anachronistic pleasure. For couples and families, it’s one of those 21st-century throwback luxuries—like slow food dining or glamping. For lone travelers, such as I was, it becomes the ultimate trip to one’s interior, like writing novels on typewriters, or smoking two packs of cigarettes while observing the moon.
You can’t smoke on your balcony on the Quantum of the Seas, but during my cruise I did appreciate the moon for more consecutive nights than I ever have in my life—who knew it was so round and shiny! And one day out from Shanghai on our way to Fukuoka, our first stop, I felt my arteries begin to ease.
For one thing, I was not as interested in checking Facebook for what my frenemies were up to as I was in making sure I had tried every restaurant onboard. Which proved to be quite a chore because there are 20 restaurants on the Quantum, covering everything from “American Icon” to “Kung Fu Panda Noodle Shop,” with most of them included in the price of the cruise.
And for another, I didn’t feel that harried fear of missing out (sorry, won’t use the acronym) that traveling usually endowed me, especially when it was somewhere I had never been before. I nonchalantly passed the various delights offered at the main deck, strangely more glamorous and eventful than a hotel lobby in the center of town, knowing that I would still be around to look into them the next day, or the next, or the next.
The best onboard attractions are odd activities like smiling with Shrek.
Instead, I went for the oddest attractions—the things I would never be seen trying in my life. Since I was literally out at sea with people I hardly knew, I broke from the herd to line up for a photo-op with Shrek, which almost made me cry because I find Shrek to be one of the most poignant and well-formed character franchises ever.
I found myself eagerly waking early for my turn at “The North Star,” which is an exhilarating glass bubble that takes you up over the ship and to the side and makes you feel almost exactly like a bubble would. It was awesome, in an unexplainable way, to look down and see a ship so bright and full of life, pushing on alone in its greatness in the middle of an unfathomably deep and oblivious sea.
If I had brought my rash guard, or more precisely, if I actually owned one, I would have tried the “Flowrider,” a surf ride that boggled the mind because it simulated water activity on a vessel that was on the very ocean. And if I had brought some nerve, I would definitely have tried the “Ripcord,” a vertical wind chamber that offered more level-headed thrillseekers a skydiving experience.
What I found myself repeatedly seeking, instead, were the drinks served at the Bionic Bar, where a one-armed bartender—literally a terrifyingly articulated robotic arm that seemed overqualified and overpowered for the job—served me multiple Jack-and-Diet-Cokes with quantum precision. I didn’t know if I was drawn to the instant gratification provided by the simple act of swiping your room-card-slash-charge-card and having your cocktail mixed with digital precision, or to the fact that I was getting hammered on such a basic college-level drink and the robot did not judge me one bit (or byte, as it were) for it.
The Quantum is filled to the gills with thrills and surprises.
At almost half a kilometer long, the Quantum is assuredly filled to the gills with thrills—and surprises. Besides a casino, luxury shops, and a music lounge, which I imagine are increasingly standard features of every large cruise ship, there’s a full-size basketball court, a movie theater, a bump car arena that doubles as a roller-skating rink.
And besides Shrek, there is another giant imaginary character in the form of a shockingly magenta-colored stainless steel polar bear, created by artist Lawrence Argent, perched on an exterior deck, that is 30 feet tall and weighs eight tons, and that gazes outward, presumably toward the North Pole, where his magenta-colored brothers all miss him dearly.
Equally colorful was a show at the Two70, the Quantum’s multi-level great room that by day served as a grand lounging area looking out at a 270-degree view of the horizon from the ship’s stern—in other words, everything and everyone that one has left behind in the real world, and to hell with them all, because really, you should only take the ones you really love and can bear to be with for a whole week on a cruise.
By night the Two70 lends itself to a show of monstrously imaginative heights and depths, part Cirque du Soleil and part cabaret, featuring acrobatic and operatic singers, cybernetic LED screens, and Italian dancers sprouting from the floor, but strangely leaving one hungry for more.
Land trips are for friends, ramen, and ear problems.
At our Fukuoka stop we—and by we, I mean my friends and myself, because one does make fast friends when you’re all on a ship, even one this big—genuflected at a temple, walked in a park, took in a panoramic city view, and ducked into a ramen bar, because that’s what you do when you go see a new Asian city.
I had only been out at sea for three days, and it was as if I had all but lost my footing; it took a weird couple of hours for my inner ears to find their balance, and I suddenly felt lost in such a big, sprawling space.
It was strangely comforting to see the Quantum at the end of the city tour, reassuringly and patiently sitting on the water at the edge of the dock, a white edifice so impossibly huge that it formed a temporary skyline all by itself, and yet so improbably mobile that it seemed to be completely sentient.
It didn’t need us to survive and have meaning—we needed it, and a heavily supervised visit to the bridge the next day confirmed it. There was the crew, in their crisp no-nonsense whites looking like a million bucks compared to us regular folks in our sweats and our goofy sneakers, attending to the vast arrays of screens and control panels—not as though something would horribly go wrong if one of them dared look away, but as though the giant ship had so many magical thought processes that it demanded the constant rapture of the crew.
The Quantum is a vast temple that provides spiritual solace.
Where I had expected a weathered captain, or at least a peg-legged first-mate, barking “sheet home!” or “unstep the mast!” or some other specialized command, it was as quiet as a church, and the captain, they told me, was somewhere else at the moment.
So it was also pretty easy to liken the Quantum itself to a vast temple, where 5,000 faithful gathered for weeks at a time, seeking solace from their daily lives, hoping to nurse their health and mend their relationships, wanting to find meaning in their lives—or in the case of myself and certain Buddhist sects, rediscovering that life has no meaning at all.
It’s only human, after all, to imagine something huge as possessing its own mind, and to see a place that feeds you and shelters you as a spiritual solace. In fact, on the next morning, as we toured Nagasaki, the second city on our itinerary, I began to think of the Quantum not as a plain old ship, but as my very harbor.
At the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, I gazed wordlessly at the reminders of man’s boundless capacity for cruelty and, like many people do these days, tried desperately not to think of the statistics as real people—up to 80,000 men, women, and children killed and 60,000 injured—even as busloads of schoolchildren filed past increasingly disturbing artifacts and photographs of the carnage.
The cruise life is hard to leave behind.
Later, having returned onboard at the end of that harrowing tour, feeling the creeping, lumbering movement under my feet as the Quantum quietly unmoored itself, without a judder, any announcement or fanfare, to head back to Shanghai, I imagined that the ship had chosen to dock there because it had wanted to tell me these things, it also wanted to give me some perspective, but it also wanted to pull me back into the familiar.
I had a good meal and a good and proper drink, this time served by a Filipino bartender who had nothing but great things to say about his 20-year stint as a seaman. I enjoyed a round of conversation with my new friends that extended itself into the late hours because by this time they had become real friends, before finally retiring to my cabin, startlingly spacious and opening out into a frigid winter balcony, to watch some TV. In the middle of the night, on a whim, I headed down to Sorrento’s in my pajamas for some free 24-hour pizza.
On our last night before we arrived at Shanghai, we gathered for a really nice dinner at Jamie’s Italian, a Jamie Oliver franchise that thankfully never feels like a franchise wherever I dine in one. There was really good cheese and really good wine, and by that time, we had gotten so familiar with things on the ship that it felt strange to be back on land the next day, be handed back our passports which they had collected when we boarded and to pass through immigration and to say goodbye to each other.
Now we had to pay for things as we got them and we couldn’t just head down for free pizza or choose to eat Chinese over Italian. We couldn’t just talk the chef to hoard cookies for us or whip us up a Filipino dinner. We couldn’t just sit in a bump car or go to bed knowing we would be in a new place the next morning, a totally new city, without having had to move a muscle.
I suppose—I hope—that the bunch of us that went on the cruise are all real friends now. I mean, we all follow each other on Instagram and we’ve got a Viber group and all. It’s as real a friendship as you can have these days. And that might be the reason why it’s not just them I miss.
If I could have a real relationship over Viber and IG, why couldn’t I be friends with an intelligent, self-aware floating behemoth? Call it a sort of kinship, for the sake of the pun. The Quantum and I had something. I miss that robot bar, that lonely pink bear, that cold balcony that looked out at so much empty ocean that I kept the curtains closed most of the time. I miss that ship that really knew me so well.