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"It's not exactly in the middle of nowhere." That's what I find myself saying whenever someone says to me, "I'd never go on a transatlantic cruise."
I have to admit, while not exactly in the middle of nowhere, there isn't a whole lot of activity going on around you, except maybe for an occasional whale or dolphin sighting. You do feel like you are out there all alone. Kind of.
Never mind my very first transoceanic trip in 1961 aboard the petite Matsonia, from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Fast forward to my first "grown-up" transatlantic crossing in 2005. This would be a litmus test for latent agoraphobia. When you think about it, visualize a tiny cork gently bobbing or violently tossing around in an Olympic-sized swimming pool, with no swimmers in sight. Yes, I was a bit nervous.
When my first transatlantic ship, the Celebrity Century, quietly slipped through the channel in Ft. Lauderdale and out to sea, I drew a deep breath and said to myself, "you can do this."
And "do this" I did.
Since then, I've done a total of eight transatlantic "voyages," as Cunard prefers to call them. What's it like and do you really feel totally stranded out there? Here are some of my thoughts and advice to help you with your first trip across an ocean.
- Be prepared. Channel your inner Boy or Girl Scout and be prepared. Not only in your mind, but with lazy day diversions. With a minimum of six consecutive sea days, even the most entertaining of the mega ships will have a lull in the activities. All of the ships have some sort of library. For the best selection, get there when it first opens. By the second or third day, the choice for best sellers has dwindled.
Not a reader? Bring your home craft project (providing it fits into your suitcase.) You'll find knitters, needle-pointers, scrapbookers meeting each day in some public space, as unhosted activities.
Wine tasting has expanded into single-malt scotch, craft beer and tequila tastings. There is a fee but what else do you have to do?
- Smell the roses. If you find yourself on the verge of activity-overload, scout out a quiet spot to watch the sea. I usually search for both an indoor viewing area as well as an outdoor, wind-blocked vantage point. Sunny days with flat seas warrant an outdoor vantage point. On foggy or rough seas days, you'll want to curl up in a comfy chair near a picture window. Yes, you will want to look out and see what's going on. Mid-ship on a low deck and you'll hardly feel those thirty-foot seas and gale force winds!
- Keep moving. On some ships, you can almost walk your way across the Atlantic. On Cunard's wraparound outdoor walking track/promenade, a mere three times around is 1.1 miles. On other ships, you can walk in circles ten or eleven times to finish one mile.
If a good fitness center is important, head on over to the cruise line's website for photos of their workout facility; the bigger the better. A tiny gym means to use one of only five treadmills for 1,000 passengers on a transatlantic crossing is going to take some planning.
The legendary weight gain. With a stretch of six to possibly ten sea days, one of the biggest concerns is weight gain. I've come to realize over time that it isn't the actual over-eating that is the cause but the amount of salt in the food that is the culprit. Also, I hear a lot of people complaining about swollen feet and ankles. Again, it's the sodium in the food.
Solution? Tell your dining room waiter that you would like to be on a sodium-free diet for the cruise. Here's how it works: every night at the end of your dinner, the waiter (or head waiter) will present to you the menu for the next evening. You choose your entire dinner and the order is brought to the kitchen where there are other special diets orders (gluten-free, allergy requests etc.).
By eliminating the "built-in" salt, you will avoid retaining water and thus not blow up like a puffer fish. But be forewarned: if you order salt-free, your dinner will be salt-free. This means that the gorgeous bowl of steamy French onion soup will arrive sans toasted French bread and cheese. You can always do a modified salt-free when something sounds too good to pass up.
A transatlantic is a great time to do nothing. This isn't a "If It's Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium" experience. Transatlantic cruises are generally not "port intensive." But if there is a port you would like to visit, chances are you can find a cruise that stops there en route to where you will disembark.
- With careful planning, you can find an itinerary which will visit two to five ports along the way once you've crossed the ocean. Some cruise lines are eliminating the "cruise" portion and are almost mainlining straight across with only one port visit before debarkation in Europe.
- Hop on the bus, Gus. Important to note, Cunard's Queen Mary 2 is the ONLY cruise line offering regularly scheduled non-stop transatlantic crossings nearly year round. The Queen Mary 2 is also the ONLY purpose-built actual ocean liner, not cruise ship, in service today. She's built for transatlantic voyages and sails them beautifully.
- Make a new plan, Stan. My suggestion is that once you've decided on which transatlantic voyage to take, book yourself into back-to-back cruises so that you stay onboard for either the first cruise once you arrive in Europe or the last cruise before the westbound crossing. That way, you not only feel "special" in saying that you are "continuing onâ€¦", but you get to spend time in many wonderful ports throughout Europe.
- What time is it, anyway? One of the best advantages of a transatlantic crossing is the elimination of jet lag. Yes, you arrive at your destination either in Europe or the U.S. without needing two or three days to catch up to the local time zone.
- Which direction is better? Personally, l prefer a westbound crossing because it results in 25-hour days. Here's how it works. Say, for example, you are booked on a crossing with seven sea days before you get to Florida. Starting on the first or second night after departure from Europe, clocks are set back one hour at bedtime. You continue to do this for maybe two consecutive days, take a break to adjust and set the clocks back again until you reach your debarkation port. I find that I do wake up a bit earlier than usual towards the end of the voyage, but I'm well-rested and ready to go.
Going eastbound with 23 hour days, you might find yourself at the buffet at 2am because your body is telling you it's only 9PM! If you are sensitive to time changes, be sure to check that the ship you are on will have a 24 hour food option, even if it's only room service. Otherwise, you might find yourself, like I have many times, 2AM at the 24 hour coffee and tea location, getting a flavored tea to bring back to my room to have with cookies that were saved from the afternoon.
- Is anyone out there? For a little piece of mind along your journey, remember that the ship travels in shipping lanes. You are never too far from another ship, even though it may not be visible.
However, there is a portion on the north Atlantic where you may find yourself in "no-man's-land" for a day or so depending upon the route that your captain decides to follow. Be prepared for a brief blip in satellite communications which affects the internet and television.
On my recent Cunard voyage, we never lost a second of communication via wifi or TV. Ships' satellite technology (meaning the company that they contract with for access) vastly improves every year.
- Roundtripping. Finally, if you have the time, why not do like I do and make the transatlantic crossing in both directions? This does take a bit of skillful planning and occasional maneuvering but it is quite frankly, the best way to visit Europe.
For example, cruise from Ft. Lauderdale to Barcelona. Continue onboard for a Mediterranean cruise, which returns to Barcelona. Spend a couple of days in Barcelona and then make your way via train from Barcelona to Paris. Depending upon your schedule, spend a night or two in the City of Lights. In 9:00AM, take a taxi to the Gare du Nord Eurostar train station. In two and one-half hours, with twenty-one minutes of that spent zooming under the English Channel, you arrive rested and relaxed at St. Pancras train station in London. Walk a few yards from your train to the departure hall, find the Cunard representative and board their motor coach to Southampton. In another two hours you'll board the Queen Mary 2 for your voyage home.
With the mystery of a transatlantic crossing hopefully solved, why not start planning your trip today? If you would like the convenience of staying in the same cabin for back-to-back cruises, book early. Otherwise, your room attendant can help you change cabins on turnaround day. But if you can remain in the same cabin, it's so much easier and less stressful.
Once you've experienced the exhilaration and excitement of crossing an ocean, you will be hooked. For a very memorable experience, sail into New York City. Cruise ships arrive into New York harbor at dawn, pass under the colorfully lit Verrazano Bridge and quietly sail past the illuminated Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Everyone is out on deck at 5:30am to view this amazing sight. I'm sure many passengers reflect on how their ancestors might have felt hundreds of years ago. I've seen grown men cry and overheard people speaking in hushed voices with thick Irish brogues. Others blankly stare at Ellis Island. It's a very moving moment, indeed.
Now that you know there is nothing to fear and know what to expect, it's time to plan your trip.
Here's to your first crossing!