Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)
What’s Changed in the Last 30 Years?
We look at the changes to the cruise experience during the 30-year reign of this book - and beyond.
Throwing thin brightly-colored (bio-degradable) paper streamers is still very much a part of the ‘Bon Voyage’ sail-away in Japan, when a cruise ship leaves port, but in most other countries this tradition has been lost (due to ‘Health and Safety’ regulations), along with a number of other maritime customs. Over the 30-year lifespan of this book, a lot has changed in the cruise industry, to the ships, and the cruise experience itself, so I thought I would take you back to what ships and cruises used to be like.
Relatives and friends would come to a pier, excited to see you off, and they were always part of pre-sailing ’Bon Voyage’ parties and festivities. Just a half hour before sailing, an announcement would come for all visitors to leave the ship. Frequently, a visitor (or two) would drink a little too much bubbly, miss the announcement, and the ship would depart (on time) with them still on board - all part of the fun of embarkation day. Thankfully, the pilot would allow them to disembark via a ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (quite an experience from a moving ship) and on to the pilot boat to be whisked ashore. There’s no chance of that today - at least not without a hefty payment!
Little and large
Although I started my own seagoing career in 1965 aboard one of the largest ships in the world at that time (the 83,673-ton, 2,283-passenger RMS Queen Elizabeth), by around five years later - when modern-day cruising was considered to have been born - the ships became much smaller. Since those formative years of ships taking passengers to sunny destinations, the ships have grown in size, becoming more and more like self-contained resorts.
Stewards preparing a cabin on Queen Mary.
At the start of the ‘modern’ cruise industry (c.1970), there were almost no travel agents, because passengers booked a cruise by going to a cruise line’s office to ‘book passage’ directly. Royal Caribbean Cruises, for example, operated from a pokey little office on Biscayne Boulevard, Miami. Holland America Line had offices in New York and Chicago, while Cunard Line had offices in New York and London. Shipping agencies started taking bookings for several different lines, and the modern-day cruise travel agent was born.
Back then, there were only two dedicated cruise terminals, at the two ends of the ocean liner crossing route: the Ocean Liner Terminal in Southampton and the Passenger Ship Terminal in New York. In the Caribbean, many islands still didn’t have an airport, so cruise ships were almost the only way of getting to them. In those days, there were no lines for security checks, and immigration checks were minimal. Today, it’s a different story, of course: there are security checks everywhere, adding time prior to boarding (or returning to) large resort ships.
Cruises of yesteryear
In the early days of modern cruising, a white-gloved crew member would escort you to your cabin and carry your hand luggage (including hat boxes) at embarkation. Ship’s senior officers (captain, staff captain, hotel manager/chief purser, chief engineer, and doctor) would host ‘private’ cocktail parties for the ‘regular’ passengers. The crew would typically be of a single nationality, sailing under their own country’s flag.
Ships had real telephone exchanges, and receptionists would connect plugs with sockets on a vertical motherboard to get you connected. Cunard Line’s famous Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) had a dozen such receptionists, and they were constantly busy, working in a window-less room.
Radio officers, who used to connect your (crackling) radio-telephone call, are no longer part of the cruising world, although some have morphed into IT (information technology) officers, taking care of all the computer systems aboard today’s ships.
Entertainment on board the Blue Star Line’s SS Arandora Star, 1929.
The Print Collector / Heritage Images
Ships had large baggage rooms, where passengers could store their steamer trunks or other large luggage for ocean crossings and long voyages, overseen by a ‘baggage master.’ Bridge, engine room, and galley visits were always free, and were a regular part of the cruise experience.
Passengers would receive their ticket documents and pre-cruise information packs directly from the cruise line or (in more recent years) via their travel agent. Nowadays, those cruise document folders have almost disappeared, except for a handful of smaller and niche market cruise lines and river cruise companies.
One of the biggest activities, in which many passengers participated, was the ‘Daily Tote’ (‘totalizer’ - guessing the ship’s nautical mileage from noon one day to noon the next). The excitement that built up was tremendous. The true mileage would be announced by the bridge at noon, when the winning figure on the tote board would be worth a lot of money (aboard RMS Queen Elizabeth and RMS Queen Mary, it could be as much as US$10,000 or more - every day - enough to pay handsomely for your drinks and other niceties). Today, cruise ships tend to travel less than 200 miles (322km) overnight, and are in port almost every day; nowadays, the cruise staff (who used to run the event) don’t tend to know what distance has been covered.
Ships had proper ballrooms with large wooden dance floors and proper dance bands. (Cunard Line ships and some ships of P&O Cruises still have them, but few others do.) Ships also had a ‘social directress,’ who would help you to deal with things such as birthdays, anniversaries, illness, or even a death on board. Ships not only had good libraries (and knowledgeable, bibliophilic librarians), but writing rooms, and notepaper, usually with the ship or cruise line name as heading on it. Postcards were free (most ships had a mail ‘slot’ near the purser’s desk, and mail would be taken off the ship at the next port or call by the port agent). There were masquerades, and hat parades, and ‘Pink Nights,’ and ‘Black and White Balls,’ and passenger talent shows. Sadly, most have gone by the pier-side (wayside).
Back then, ships generated DC (direct) current, rather than the AC (alternating) current they now have. Musicians needed a DC-to-AC converter unit - a big thumping thing that hummed - and it generally required a couple of bottles of Scotch to be given to the chief electrician to obtain one. Visiting musicians often blew up their amplifiers, because they plugged them in and turned them on without knowing about the difference in voltage.
Lighting on the open decks was softer back then, and a ship’s navigation officer would give ‘The Sky at Night’ observations on the open deck. Today, open decks have harsh fluorescent and other lighting. Clay pigeon shooting has definitely gone, along with the 12-bore shotguns that were stored and maintained by the quartermaster (an acting security officer).
Back then, many ships had a bell-push/pull-cord in the cabin, so that you could call for the steward at any time of the day or night. The night stewards waited in the ship’s pantries for room service orders, or to deliver tea or coffee to cabins, or just to pop in for a chat with the ‘regulars.’
Port talks were always done by experienced shore excursion managers (not port lecturers), who were expected to have in-depth knowledge of the destinations being visited, even on long exotic cruises. When ships were at anchor, shore tender schedules were posted at the purser’s desk, usually next to the day’s news.
Ships had passenger lists, smiling staff on the purser’s desk (now often called reception), daily programs that were informative (not just sales tools), good information for independent travelers, and free shuttle buses in ports of call. There was no recorded music in hallways (or, indeed, in the saunas and fitness centres). Passengers were called ‘passengers’ (not ‘guests’), cabins were called ‘cabins’ (not ‘staterooms’), and ships were nautical vessels (not ‘hotels’). Cabins had quiet, non-vacuum toilets (unlike contemporary ones, which can sound like a barking dog), and real human beings answered room service calls. Almost all ships had a promenade deck on which you could walk completely around the ship in the open air.
But beds were fixed and couldn’t be moved like they can today (twin beds pushed together to make a queen-sized bed, for example). And gone completely - thank goodness - are cabins that backed onto each other and shared bathroom facilities.
Aboard some ships, young bell boys would announce that the dining room was open. They would walk along all the passenger hallways playing the tune Come to the Kitchen Door on their portable five-note glockenspiel. Those same bell boys also operated the ship’s elevators - there were 12 each aboard both the RMS Queen Elizabeth and RMS Queen Mary, for example.
At noon, the ship’s bell would be sounded (very few cruise lines still carry on this tradition), and the captain would announce the mileage for the ‘Tote’ (see above) and then give his navigational update for the previous 24 hours, together with the expected weather conditions (navigation updates are still given by officers on the bridge).
Dinner time aboard RMS Queen Mary.
Being invited to dine at the captain’s table was a much-appreciated privilege, partly because he would have the biggest budget for fine wines; those not quite so fortunate dined at the chief engineer’s, or the chief purser’s/hotel manager’s table, or the ship’s doctor’s table, which were usually jollier and less formal. There was always an evening dress code for officers, who would change from day uniform to evening uniform.
Restaurant managers (maître d’s) were always in proper ‘tails’ and wore carnations on their lapels. Headwaiters were artists at table-side cooking and flambéing (and perhaps good at getting some ‘off-menu’ items such as foie gras or extra Beluga or Sevruga caviar). Mid-morning bouillon would be served from a trolley on deck at 11am, while bar snacks and warm hors d’oeuvres were provided each evening - now you only get nuts or potato chips when you order a drink, if you’re lucky.
In those days, passengers dressed smartly to dine (no tracksuits or sneakers and definitely no jeans). Aboard many ships, if men didn’t have a tie on for dinner, the maître d’ would take them aside and produce a tie for them to put on before they were allowed in the dining room.
Sadly, some of the items that used to be standard on the ships’ menus are seldom seen today. Breakfast items such as scrambled eggs à la reine, eggs en cocotte, basted eggs, and shirred (baked) eggs can rarely be found coming from today’s production-line galleys.
Lunch buffets often used to feature items including galantine of capon, boar’s head, roast pigeon, Scotch beef with remoulade sauce, steak tartare, veal pie, pig’s cheek, and pressed ox tongue, often with Fines Herbes dressing.
The tune Teddy Bears’ Picnic always signaled the start of traditional afternoon tea (at 4pm), with loose tea (no teabags back then) in individual teapots, and scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam.
Midnight buffets (replaced today by ‘light-bites’) were popular in those days.
Sadly, silver service has almost disappeared, as have waiters who know how to describe how the gravies or sauces are made. And real glasses (not plastic) were also the norm on open swimming pool decks at any time.
Cruise ship passengers visiting the Caribbean island of Saba in 1970.
Following afternoon tea, Bingo was the popular afternoon pastime. The numbers always went up to 99, following the British system, and not just up to 75, as in the American system. ‘Horse racing’ was conducted in the evening in the main lounge, with uniformed sailors moving six wooden ‘horses’ mounted on sticks along a ‘track’ to the cries of the excited passengers; bets were taken on favourite horses. During the day, shuffleboard or ring toss were the order of the day.
All this shows how much has changed in the time that I have been sailing the world aboard cruise ships. Many things are for the good, of course, but some traditions and approaches are sadly no longer part of the cruise experience, and remain purely as fond memories to us fortunate few who experienced them.
Reading in Ryndam library, 1968.
We look at what has been introduced aboard the cruise ships of today and in the cruise industry during the 30-year life of this book.
My nostalgic review of what’s changed in the last 30 years might read as if all the romance and elegance of ocean cruising is long gone. Certainly, cruising has evolved extraordinarily in the three decades that I have been producing this book, with holidaying in this style becoming one of the biggest success stories in the travel world, even through the most recent recession.
In addition to considering what traditions and facilities are no longer onboard your average cruise ship, however, we now review what improvements have been made - what upgrades in terms of facilities, amenities, and how cruises are run. And is it all good news?
The whole business of cruising has evolved, even down to how you buy your trip in the first place. Nowadays, cruising is such big news that there are cruise-only specialist travel agents. Then, once you have your ticket (perhaps received in digital format), you can usually check in online too.
The range and standard of the accommodation on cruise ships nowadays can’t fail to impress, although there is a huge difference in terms of quality depending on specific ship involved and your price point. If your budget allows, there are even exclusive private accommodation areas (gated communities) and private concierge lounges. There are multi-room suites for multi-generation families or friends, and increasingly improved facilities for the physically challenged, including specially outfitted cabins.
Operations within rooms have become increasingly high-spec and hi-tech, from electronic (touch or insert) cabin key cards to personal safes as standard to touch- and flat-screen cabin televisions (infotainment systems). Then, there are touch-screen deck plans and restaurant availability boards - a growing amount of passenger information quite literally at the tip of their fingertips. And, of course, there are Internet-connect centres, Wi-Fi, and e-mail facilities on most ships.
Safety, of course, has evolved enormously since the early days of cruising. Every cruiser must be haunted by iconic images of the sinking Titanic, but rest assured that nowadays there are fully enclosed ‘roll-over’ lifeboats, smoke detectors, and sprinkler systems to help keep you safe en route. And if you are ill at sea, a Medivac helicopter can give you a lift for medical emergencies, although it helps if you have the right insurance.
So, what else is new? Ships have greater choice of dining venues and eateries, including pay-extra dining venues. At the less sophisticated end of the market, there are huge, self-serve, stuff-your-face buffets (camping at sea, with plastic and paper cups, and teabags, not loose tea), while, at the top end, there are exclusive, pay-extra dining venues and celebrity (sometimes even Michelin-starred) chefs.
On board sports facilities include fresh-water swimming pools, water slides, hot tubs, and huge spas and wellness centers. Some small ships have aft platforms with watersports toys including jet-skis, kayaks, and boats for water-skiing. Drier facilities include climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, rope courses, golf simulators, bowling alleys, boxing rings, and race car simulators.
Evening entertainment options might lack some of the romance of yesteryear, but again the range is ever-increasing and designed to impress, from high-tech production shows, to vast casinos, to poolside movie screens. Not to mention the range of themed lounges in which to relax…
There’s a far more sophisticated range of shore excursions than the simple city tours and local folk dancing shows of the early days of cruising. These include flight-seeing, cross-country four-wheel drive trips, mountain biking, zip-lining, dog sledding, and overland safaris.
Onboard, there’s absolutely no excuse not to be busy - there are culinary classes at sea (including ships with dedicated culinary kitchens for demonstration and participation) and lectures on a wide range of subjects. And if you want your whole trip to be a learning experience, there are special theme cruises on subjects such as architecture, dancing, food and wine, gardening, and rock ’n’ roll, etc. Language shouldn’t be a barrier either: a growing number of cruise lines are branching out with ships dedicated to language-specific markets, notably to Chinese-, French-, German-, Japanese-, and Spanish-speaking passengers. Cruises for gay and lesbian travelers, singles, and other minority groups are also proving popular.
And for youngsters? Facilities for children range from age-specific play centers, dodgems, and carousels for little ones up to video arcades and adult-free chill-out zones that might be perfect for teens. Many of the major cruise companies have formed partnerships with children’s entertainment companies and their famous characters: Carnival Cruise Lines with Dr. Seuss; Norwegian Cruise Line with Nickelodeon; and Royal Caribbean International with Barbie; while Disney has its own cruise line - Disney Cruise Line - with its own classic movie characters. And if kids are not your thing, don’t worry - there are sometimes pay-extra adult-only retreats or even complete child-free ships.
And to pay for it all - cashless cruising.
But a few things have also put a damper on today’s cruise experiences, particularly aboard the large resort ships. These include sunbed hoggers, crew members with a limited degree of fluency in your language, and waiters who don’t deliver what you ordered. Aboard the large resort ships today there can be a distinct lack of contact between senior officers and passengers; this is because too much of the former’s time is spent tackling paperwork, flag-state requirements, regulatory reports, and various maritime authorities.
Further, rearing its ugly head are the norovirus (a never-ending story that always seems to grab media attention, because the cruise industry is the only travel sector that is required to report it), and ‘overboards’ (passengers going overboard, whether for crime, accident, ‘assisted’ suicide, or insurance money).
Also today there are lines, lots of lines - waiting for tickets to shows, shore excursions, and those awful security checks. Finally, the cruise brochures of major cruise lines now include behaviour sections on how to act appropriately onboard ship - something that it’s hard to believe would have been necessary in the earliest days of cruising.