Cruising isn’t what it used to be
I don’t entirely ‘buy’ the nostalgic view held by some ship enthusiasts that travelling by ship in the past was a wonderful experience and modern day cruising is an inferior one by comparison.
Yes I know that those majestic Ocean Liners of the past, with multiple funnels and sterns which resemble a woman’s hips, rather than the back of a bus, can easily be regarded beautiful in comparison to many of today’s box-boats. However, the facilities and creature-comforts on board modern ship are so superior to those of the past.
Just imagine having a cabin like a rabbit hutch. sharing a bathroom down the corridor or not having air conditioning. Imagine little in the way of formal entertainment or sports facilities. There were no Balcony Suites or state-of-the-art theatres with large casts of professional singers and dancers. As for food, the Norwegian Cruise Lines newer ships have 13 dining options, with ‘freestyle’ flexibility. The great Ocean Liners of the past could not match today’s range of on board choices and flexibility.
I also don’t entirely subscribe to the idea that the large size of modern cruise ships automatically degrades the experience. Although we have certainly seen the biggest ships ever built, entering service in the past few years, big ships as such are not a new concept. Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth’s (1938 ) was not exactly small, having a gross tonnage of around 83,673 and carrying around 3,600 passengers and crew. With the exception of the recently introduced mega-cruise ships, this is not so different from the passenger/crew capacity of many current cruise ships. Queen Elizabeth was not superseded in tonnage until 1996 when ‘Carnival Destiny’ entered service.
I think the fundamental change from voyages in the past is that many modern ships no longer offer a ‘nautical’ experience. The mass-market ships in particular are no longer designed to be intercontinental transport like the great Ocean Liners; they are floating ‘resorts’. They have more in common with ‘Disneyland’ and ‘Las Vegas’ than they do with seafaring tradition.
Massive state-of-the-art ships like Royal Caribbean’s ‘Freedom’ or ‘Voyager’ class are designed to be what I call ‘inward facing’. Much of the ships focus is on the ‘Royal Promenade’, a street running down the centre of the ship. This is a great space and a real focal point, like Disney’s ‘Main Street USA’ or market square in a small village. This space is served by shops, bars and cafes, just like in a real street is. However there is no sea view or natural light. From a modern cruise ship perspective, this space is more important than Mother Nature herself.
There are even cabins that overlook the ‘Royal Promenade’, giving them a very man-made view, rather than that of the passing ocean or land. There are also dual atriums, an ice skating rink, a big theatre and the giant three story main dining room. Many of these public rooms do not even have windows. Even in those in those rooms that do, the spaces are so vast, passengers may well be seated a very long way away from a window and have virtually no view.
Royal Caribbeans forthcoming ‘Oasis of the Seas’ is very much a resort with many land based influences, such as ‘neighberhoods’: ‘Central Park’ and the ‘Boradwalk’ (inspired by Coney Island). Cabins will overlook the park (and each other) and will not have a connection with the sea, but a connection with the sky. The Royal Promenade will have natural light for skylights, a great improvement, but no sea views.
Modern marinr architects have done a very effective job of severing much of the passenger’s connection with the sea. Passengers are clearly meant to connect with the fantasy style interiors created by designers such as Carnival’s Joe Farcus. Farcus, is of course the godfather when it comes to designing mind blowing ‘entertainment-architecture’.
All is not lost, however. There are still plenty of opportunities to have the wind in your face even on a mega-ship. You can book a cabin with you own private balcony, and the mega ships have thousands of them on offer. Once again this idea is not a nautical one, but taken from hotels and apartments.
For some passengers, the ports of call are not particularly important either. They may not even leave the ship in port, preferring to enjoy the uncrowned pools, whirlpools, endless food options, beauty treatments, gym or on board sports etc. The ship is increasingly becoming the destination itself. It reminds me of a passenger that once overheard asking the captain of the original Queen Mary; “What time does this place get to New York”?
Of course cruising on most modern ships is also a less formal event these days. Many passengers are less inclined to want to dress up and some possibly don’t even own clothes of a formal nature. Even the dining experience is becoming more ‘Freestyle’ with expanded choices of dining times, rooms and menus.
I’m not suggesting that cruising on a giant floating resort is in any way a ‘negative’ experience. If you are looking for a family holiday and a means to entertain the kids, these ships are ideal. If you want a vast range of facilities and entertainment options they are also ideal. If you want party afloat, you will almost certainly find one on board.
Big modern ships certainly offer a very different experience to that of old and it is aimed at a different clientele, the modern mass market. It’s by no means inferior, just very different.
See my review of ‘Oasis’, the world’s biggest ship here: