Sunday, April 24, 2011

Caught in a Net of Wonder

Several years ago, my mother had a brain hemorrhage and I found myself suddenly in charge of her finances. She and my father had worked hard all their lives to save a modest nest egg. Imagine my shock when I looked at the numbers and realized that their 40-plus years of savings would be used up in five years if she entered a nursing home.

Luckily, she recovered and that didn’t happen. But the experience served as a wake-up call for my husband and me. We were in the process of saving money for our retirement. The realization that what we were really saving for was to pay a nursing home to take care of us was disturbing. That inspired the decision to take our first substantial vacation in years.

One of us, for health reasons, is not able to fly, so cruising seemed like an ideal mode of travel. Many people recoil at the idea of being "stuck" on a ship. To the contrary, we fell in love with cruising. Sitting on our balcony with a good book, listening to the lapping of the ocean against the ship and feeling the invigorating sea air was a little piece of nirvana. Sometimes we just fell into an alpha state watching the undulating ocean waves.

"The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever."—Jacques Yves Cousteau

Our cruise ship as seen from a museum in the port of Tortola, BVI.
We have seen schools of dolphins frolicking near the ship and witnessed the marvel of flying fish gliding above the waters. From the main decks, we have tracked storms as they traveled from the distant horizon all the way to our ship. We have seen incredible rainbows, breath-taking sunsets, and a night sky filled with sparkling rivers of stars. All this, between ports along the Atlantic or Caribbean coasts. The pace is slow and we like it that way.

Passenger liners originally were a way of transporting people long distances prior to the development of air travel. The concept of pleasure cruising came later and was generally an off-season way of keeping ocean liners full. Cruising has only been around since the late 1800s. Here are some highlights, thanks to Paul Timmerman at
Blazing sunset off of Maine.
  • 1867—the paddle wheeler, Quaker City, makes the first transatlantic cruise from New York to Europe and the Holy Land. One of the passengers on board was Mark Twain, whose book (1869, The Innocents Abroad) offers a detailed account of the voyage
  • 1881—the Ceylon, one of the first real cruise ships, sails under the English shipping company, Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) after being converted from a liner to a cruise ship. Ships were organized as “excursions for travelers who look for adventure
  • 1899—the American Line SS Paris (former USS Yale) sails on a three-week voyage to the West Indies to visit the battle sites of the Spanish American War (not sure why battlefields of a ten-week war would be a draw; perhaps the same reason why history buffs flock to Gettysburg and Omaha Beach)
  • Post-1900—passenger liners returning from New York and Canada to Europe were often half empty. So, gradually, these return trips were marketed as pleasure cruises. On-board standards were improved, and liners were built with an emphasis on luxury rather than speed: White Star Line's Adriatic in 1907 introduced the first swimming pool on the high seas. HAPAG Lloyd's Amerika featured the first a la carte restaurant, the Ritz Carlton, and the first electric elevators aboard a passenger vessel
  • Between WWI and WWII, new liners were built for the transatlantic route including the Normandie, Queen Mary. Rex, Conte di Savoia, Nieuw Amsterdam, Bremen and Europa. Passenger ships, referred to as “Floating Palaces,” were lavishly decorated, reflecting the interiors of land-based hotels or country estates. The luxurious accommodations were meant to draw the attention of the traveler away from the raging seas they had to cross. This style of passenger ship interiors lasted until the beginning of the 1930s
  • 1920-1933—America’s Prohibition, banning the consumption of alcohol, made cruises to nowhere, or the so-called Booze Cruise, very popular. It offered Americans an opportunity to drink legally outside US territorial waters. Ships like Cunard’s Mauretania and Berengeria offered these trips between their Atlantic crossings
  • 1922—Laconia, owned by British Cunard Line, made the first ever world cruise. She departed from New York, transited the Panama Canal, then visited Japan and other countries in the Far East, and continued via the Suez Canal, through the Mediterranean and back to New York. The following years, Cunard offered world cruises with a duration of six months, almost twice as long as a world cruise offered today
The fog envelops our ship off a New England port.
  • 1927—the world’s first purpose-built luxury cruise ship, the Norwegian Stella Polaris was introduced. This vessel resembled a large yacht, and 200 passengers were looked after by a crew of 130. The impeccable service and her long cruises to remote places, only to be enjoyed by the happy few with enough time and money to spare, set her apart from other cruise ships and made her probably the most famous cruise ship of all time
  • 1927—the French introduced the Ile de France, which is regarded the first passenger ship completely decorated in a modern, contemporary style. This ship introduced the modernistic art-deco style. The Ile de France marked the end of the Floating Palaces
"I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky; and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by." —John Masefield
When a ship can't dock, a tender boat carries passengers to shore.
  • 1930s—The German Labor Ministry organized cruises for German workers (a kind of incentive cruise). The NAZI-fleet included the Wilhelm Gustloff and Robert Ley. They were called the Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) ships. These ships introduced a new feature in cruising: large numbers of cabins with exactly the same layout, found today on every cruise ship afloat. All cabins were outside cabins, making the Wilhelm Gustloff and Robert Ley forerunners of the All Outside Cabin layout, re-introduced by Royal Princess in 1984
  • 1948—After WWII, most surviving passenger ships were still engaged as troop transports, and after their service in this role ended, they were returned to their pre-war owners. Among these ships were a handful of full-time cruise ships, mostly in the luxury segment, like Cunard’s Caronia and Bergen Line's Stella Polaris
  • 1959—Six months after the first commercial flight crossed the North Atlantic, for the first time, more people flew across the Atlantic than sailed; the passenger liner era came to an end
  • 1950s-1960s—The standard of living improved significantly and more people had money and time to travel. Cruising wasn't just for the rich anymore. Borders between classes on board diminished
Rainbow after a storm.
  • 1964-1972—four companies that today are often referred to as the Big Four were founded: Carnival Cruises (now includes Cunard and Holland America), Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (now includes Celebrity), Princess Cruises and Norwegian Caribbean Line.
"At night, when the sky is full of stars and the sea is still, you get the wonderful sensation that you are floating in space."—Natalie Wood

Of course, this all transpired long before we stepped across our first gang plank. From our maiden voyage, the sirens of Titan mesmerized us, as surely as they had woven their magic with previous generations of travelers. Our adventures have instilled a deep sense of kinship and respect for the restless power of the sea. As John F. Kennedy once observed, "We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch, we are going back from whence we came."

No comments:

Post a Comment