This week's commentary by TravelPage.com's European Cruise Editor, Malcolm Oliver examines the differences between traveling by ship today compared to the days of the past.
Cruising isn't what it used to be
I don't entirely 'buy' the nostalgic view held by some ship enthusiasts that travelling by ship in the past was a wonderful experience and modern day cruising is an inferior one by comparison.
Yes I know that those majestic Ocean Liners of the past, with multiple funnels and sterns which resemble a woman's hips, rather than the back of a bus, can easily be regarded beautiful in comparison to many of today's box-boats. However, the facilities and creature-comforts onboard modern ship are so superior to those of the past. Just imagine sharing a bathroom down the corridor or not having air conditioning. The onboard entertainment is far more professional and is performed in comfortable, high-tech theatres. The early Ocean Liners had very little formal entrainment apart from maybe some music and dancing. Entertainment teams were unheard of.
I also don't entirely subscribe to the idea that the large size of modern cruise ships automatically degrades the experience. Although we have certainly seen the biggest ships ever built, entering service in the past few years, big ships as such are not a new concept. Cunard's Queen Elizabeth's (1938) was not exactly small, having a gross tonnage of around 83,673 and carrying around 3,600 passengers and crew. With the exception of the recently introduced mega-cruise ships, this is not so different from the passenger/crew capacity of many current cruise ships. Queen Elizabeth was not superseded in tonnage until 1996 when 'Carnival Destiny' entered service.
It is the opinion of some on our 'CruiseTalk' forum that modern ship names are also inferior to those of days gone by. However when challenged to come up with some more original and exciting names than the current fleets, it was no easy task.
I think the fundamental change from voyages in the past is that many modern ships no longer offer a 'nautical' experience. The mass-market ships in particular are no longer designed to be intercontinental transport like the great Ocean Liners; they are floating 'resorts'. They have more in common with 'Disneyland' than they do with any seafaring tradition.
Massive state-of-the-art ships like Royal Caribbean's 'Freedom' or 'Voyager' class are designed to be what I call 'inward facing'. Much of the ships focus is on the 'Royal Promenade', a street running down the centre of the ship. This is a great space and a real focal point, like Disney's 'Main Street USA' or market square in a small village. This space is served by shops, bars and cafes, just like in a real street is. However there is no sea view or natural light. From a modern cruise ship perspective, this space is more important than Mother Nature herself.
There are even cabins that overlook the 'Royal Promenade', giving them a very man-made view, rather than that of the passing ocean or land. There are also dual atriums, an ice skating rink, a big theatre and the giant three story main dining room. Many of these public rooms do not even have windows. Even in those in those rooms that do, the spaces are so vast, passengers may well be seated a very long way away from a window and have virtually no view.
Modern designers have done a very effective job of severing much of the passenger's connection with the sea. Passengers are clearly meant to connect with the fantasy style interiors created by designers such as Carnival's Joe Farcus. Farcus, is of course the godfather when it comes to designing mind blowing 'entertainment-architecture'.
All is not lost, however. There are still plenty of opportunities to have the wind in your face even on a mega-ship. You can book a cabin with you own private balcony, and the mega ships have thousands of them on offer. Once again this idea is not a nautical one, but taken from hotels and apartments. If fact in some circumstances balconies and rough seas do not mix very well. The large glass doors that allow access to the balcony have been shatter on rare occasions by big waves hitting them. The Queen Mary 2 has balconies on the lower decks protected by steel surrounds, affectionately known as 'Hull-Holes' by creative ship enthusiasts.
For some passengers, the ports of call are not particularly important either. They may not even leave the ship in port, preferring to enjoy the uncrowned pools, whirlpools, endless food options, beauty treatments, gym or onboard sports etc. The ship is increasingly becoming the destination itself. It reminds me of a passenger that once overheard asking the captain of the original Queen Mary; "What time does this place get to New York"?
Of course cruising on most modern ships is also a less formal event these days. Many passengers are less inclined to want to dress up and some possibly don't even own clothes of a formal nature. Even the dining experience is becoming more 'Freestyle' with expanded choices of dining times, rooms and menus.
I'm not suggesting that cruising on a giant floating resort is in any way a 'negative' experience. If you are looking for a family holiday and a means to entertain the kids, these ships are ideal. If you want a vast range of facilities and entertainment options they are also ideal. If you want party afloat, you will almost certainly find one onboard.
it is certainly a very different experience to that of old.