We met up with some dear, dear friends recently and were reminiscing – as one does over a gin and tonic or three – about our cruise memories of the “rebirth” of cruising in the 1980s and 90s.
For those who are relatively new to the whole idea of hedonistic holidays of a sea-going nature, this was the period when several companies discovered – much to their surprise – that people actually liked the idea of cruising just for cruising’s sake.
It was a major revelation, in fact. Through the 1960s and 70, the death of travel by ship had been loudly proclaimed by the scream of the aviation jet engine. Mr Boeing and his cohorts were sending people around the world in hours, instead of weeks, much to the chagrin of those who savoured the experience of leisurely days on the briny doing a whole lot of not-very-much.
Ship owners looked on with increasing despondency as their vessels plied the waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans with ever-decreasing passenger numbers. After all, if you could get from London to New York in barely six hours, why would you want to take six days?
Especially when you could get an equally good martini on a 707 or VC-10 as an RMS.
The bigwigs at Cunard, Home Lines, Compagnie General Transatlantique (otherwise known as the French Line), the Dutch-American Steamship Company (aka Holland America), Blue Star Line and others were all sitting in large boardrooms, wringing their hands and foretelling the death of their industry.
It was a time of great wailing and gnashing of nautical teeth (And you thought that was just confined to The New Testament!). It was also the time of Theodore Arison, newly arrived in Miami and looking to make his mark as a businessman.
In South Florida, he met the grandson of Lauritz Kloster and a whole new industry was born. It was a significant meeting of business minds. One came from a rich Israeli family, a former lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defence Forces, while the other hailed from a Norwegian lineage that dealt in shipping of various kinds, from oil tankers to Scandinavian ferries.
Together, they created Norwegian Caribbean Line – and, hey presto, traditional cruise ships suddenly had a new lease of life.
Okay, so it wasn’t quite that simple. Ted Arison and Knut Kloster had a major falling out, with the former going on to create Carnival Cruise Line while the latter rebranded as Norwegian Cruise Line. Arison’s fledgling fleet also had some significant teething troubles. His very first voyage hit the rocks, or, more literally, a sandbar, just a few hundred yards outside Miami harbour. But, in a masterstroke of which we fully approve, Arison simply opened the ship’s bars on a complimentary basis, and a jolly good time was had by all until high tide arrived.
Now, with more than 25 ships in the current Carnival fleet, Arison’s legacy is writ large in the story of cruising’s renaissance. Along with things like the midnight buffet, towel animals and Baked Alaska on Parade.
Which is where we have to draw the line.
While we still raise a glass to folks like Ted and his son Micky who genuinely saved cruising from an ignominious end, we shudder at some of the traditions that have become part of the experience as lines looked to attract a mass market audience.
For those of us brought up on elevenses, afternoon tea and broaching the drinks cabinet once the sun soared over the yardarm (our favourite time of day, obviously), the idea of a midnight buffet was true anathema.
Not only did it encourage the kind of eating one would normally only see at Gluttons Anonymous, it produced monstrosities such as the chocolate fountain, which still gives the germophobic Treadwell nightmares to this day. After all, it is the dessert that launched a thousand grubby fingertips.
For those who stayed up late enough for this mythical buffet (and, yes, it was typically the minute after 11.59pm, hence the old cruise director joke about “Who knows what time we open the Midnight Buffet?”), there was usually the sight of the Golightly family stampeding for the dessert line at the appointed hour, to stagger away from the food table with plates the size of small barges.
Let us briefly introduce the Golightlys. You will have seen them on practically every cruise. Mr and Mrs weighing in at roughly 18st each, Junior Golightly doing his best to emulate them, and Ms Golightly bucking the trend by existing on a diet of lettuce and carrots, a complete waif compared to the rest of the herd. They would always be first to the buffet, and last to finish.
For years, they seemed to exist only because the Midnight Buffet did. But, with the advent of alternative dining and the ‘Freestyle’ spirit pioneered by Norwegian, this mass-feeding event has become a thing of the past.
Hopefully, that will also be the case with the final night ritual of the galley staff parading through the dining room in a bizarre culinary conga line of Baked Alaska. Now, we have nothing against the USA’s 49th state, but turning it into an oversized pudding fiesta is tantamount to celebrating Spotted Dick on St George’s Day. It’s just embarrassing.
Finally, when we compare cruising’s modern traditions with those that are tried and trusted over decades – the Timeless vs The Worthless, if you like – the mania for towel animals in your cabin at night simply has to go.
Tread well has been known to enter our cabin, inspect the flannel origami on the bed, and snort derisively, “What the hell is that supposed to be?” Not only is it a major stretch to figure out what they actually are, wouldn’t your cabin steward be much better employed making sure the ice bucket is properly filled to support the next bottle of Moet?
And damned if the last towel ‘creature’ didn’t scare the life out of us as it hung from a coat-hanger suspended over the bed on a recent voyage. When we want to see a mutant monkey up close and personal, we’ll go to the bally Masai Mara!