Cruises

Making friends at sea — or keeping your distance

French Country Waterways’ Nenuphar on a barge canal in Burgundy, France.
French Country Waterways’ Nenuphar on a barge canal in Burgundy, France. TheTravelMavens.com

When my wife and I boarded Crystal Cruises’ Crystal Symphony in Singapore last year, we asked the maître d’ to find us an interesting dining room table. He was a master arranger. During our 12-day cruise in and around the South China Sea, we thoroughly enjoyed lively dinner conversations and laughter at our table for eight — four couples who still swap emails in attempts to arrange a reprise.

Cruise line leaders and travel agents know that many vacationers choose their ships for more than the amenities onboard and the destination itineraries. A primary goal is to match potential cruisers to a ship that will provide them with the experience they desire, along with like-minded fellow passengers. The cruise industry does not want vacationers on the wrong ship, because they might lose that client forever.

For instance, passengers on smaller, intimate ships typically place high value on opportunities for conversations and shared travel experiences with engaging fellow passengers. Passengers on larger ships may be more interested in flash and splash, or special programs and facilities for families. Some ships appeal more to people from the U.S. Midwest, while others fill with folks who live on the East or West coasts.

Passengers on smaller, intimate ships typically place high value on opportunities for conversations and shared travel experiences with engaging fellow passengers. Passengers on larger ships may be more interested in flash and splash, or special programs and facilities for families.

David Molyneaux

You could call this “cruising with people like us,” which is about preferences in lifestyle, not personal prejudice, as cruise ship passengers are a highly diverse group. Many people want to spend their precious disposable vacation time and money in an atmosphere that engages them, whether that is sunbathing by day and disco-dancing deep into the night; serious guided destination tours and lectures to an educated crowd; or something in between.

Some vacationers are even more specific about their needs. That’s the reason for the growing popularity of themed charter cruises, such as the ones for nudists, rock band enthusiasts, or gay and lesbian groups.

Travel experts say that once vacationers are comfortable with specific cruise lines, they tend not to stray to others. So, you may want to do a little homework before booking your next trip to learn with whom you will be cruising. Ask friends and colleagues, a travel agent who specializes in cruises, and get online to check out some of the many cruise forums and message boards.

You will find that each cruise line has its own style and atmosphere, some with small differences, some miles apart.

Cunard, for instance, is one of the most formal cruise lines, and men will want to pack their tuxedo for an Atlantic crossing on Queen Mary 2. As hotel director Robert Howie explained to me last summer, “First-timers should be prepared for the formality. Our regular guests keep coming back because they don’t get many opportunities at home to dress up and socialize among like-minded people.”

Conversely, male passengers on the new, Scandinavian-modern ships of Viking Ocean Cruises need not pack even a sports jacket. The 930-passenger Viking Star and Viking Sea are patterned on the casual style of the longboats of Viking River Cruises, with onboard lectures, educational destination tours, and comfortable living rooms to encourage conversational gatherings.

The popularity of themed charter cruises, such as ones for nudists, rock band enthusiasts, sports fans, movie buffs, wine drinkers or gay and lesbian groups, is growing in popularity.

The smaller the ship, the more difference your fellow passengers make. On a French Country Waterways barge — one of my favorite cruises ever — we were 11 passengers in six cabins floating for six days through Burgundy with an amazing chef, an unlimited wine cellar, and rolling conversations that sometimes picked up where we left off during the previous meal. Breakfasts and lunches were at small tables in the dining room, but at dinner the table was set as one, and we got to know each other quite well.

All Americans, we talked current events, especially politics, which I loved, not because we all agreed on candidates — which we didn’t spend much time discussing —but because the group was so smart about opinions. Each day I learned of an issue or point of view I had not earlier considered. In the end, no one declared as a Democrat or a Republican.

On big ships, your fellow passengers may not seem of major importance, but don’t make the mistake of believing that big ships all have the same atmosphere. They do not. While passenger lists typically have great diversity of age and backgrounds, some ships are like a big party where a huge portion of the passengers are engaged in activities, others more laid back. Some are more like a hotel where everyone goes his own way.

If you want a ship just for yourself (or as a couple) and plan to spend your cruising days behind your personal moat, drawbridge raised, earbud volume turned up to ward off the outside world, book a balcony cabin for privacy outside, on a vessel that also has lots of indoor nooks and crannies.

My experience is that people often have more fun on a big ship if they come aboard as part of a small group of friends — card players like to cruise with card players — or a family of several generations who will find opportunities for frequent get-togethers while allowing space for personal time.

You can form your own group, perhaps from people you meet on other cruises. Two years ago, on the Viking River Cruises’ Forsetti out of Bordeaux, France, my wife and I met a couple from Miami and a mother-daughter from Illinois, all of whom later read my article on the new Viking Star in the Miami Herald. We decided we should meet again, this time on an ocean voyage. Our reunion group (with extended family from Illinois who had never cruised before) sailed from Barcelona in February on Viking Star, for a delightful week’s voyage to Rome.

My family played at sea in 2014 when Fran Golden and I were married on the 3,560-passenger Regal Princess. One of the highlights of the three-night voyage out of Fort Lauderdale was the opportunity for dozens of friends and family members to get acquainted. We spent the first day on Princess Cruises’ private island in the Bahamas. By wedding time on Saturday, we were quite comfortable with one another. And we are all still talking.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of TheTravelMavens.com

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