As I pulled the lever on the giant slot machine inside the ship's glitzy casino for a chance to win our next cruise for free, my wife and I shared a nervous glance that said -- for once -- we were on the same page about our vacation ideas.
Neither of us wanted to win.
"Oh, you've got to take a cruise!" We had been hearing that for years from friends and relatives, including a few people whose opinions we actually trust. So we eased in last summer, when we took one of the shortest, most middle-of-the-road excursions we could find: a three-night trip from Miami through the Bahamas on Norwegian cruise line, priced at about $280 apiece.
Finding our short test-pattern cruise was easy, because major cruise lines are uniformly trimming back the lengths of some itineraries as customers cut back on their travel budgets. The ship we cruised on, the Norwegian Sky, had been recently reassigned to three- and four-night Caribbean excursions from Miami after a decade of making much longer and pricier sails around the Hawaiian Islands (which explained the gaudy murals of volcanos and hula dancers in the ship's passageways).
In fact, everything about the cruise was easy. It was as easy to do absolutely nothing as it was to always have something going on. Easy to make dinner plans. Easy to not make dinner plans and still stuff your face like Bacchus. Incredibly easy (but not cheap) to get drunk. Easy to have your picture taken with some poor schlub in a puffy sea-creature costume. Easy to hear music that was so apropos for the occasion it made you want to vomit (i.e., "Time of My Life," "Kokomo").
Life aboard the Sky was so easy that laziness spread over it oil after a tanker crash -- infecting us, too. You don't have to think about what food, drink or entertainment you want, it's all right there to consume. This is obviously the main appeal of cruising, but it was part of why, it turns out, cruises are not our thing.
Your mind and taste buds start to go numb after your third trip to a buffet line in two days. And your body and overall sense of ambition can become comatose without the need to walk off any of that food. On our cruise, the same glass elevator carried us to all the wildly different attractions on board: casino, batting cage, "art" gallery (with a Dan Marino jersey as a centerpiece), comedy show, yoga studio and library.
Suffice it to say the wife's yoga class and the library were virtual ghost towns. The bar areas, however, were usually crowded by noon.
Hook, line and sinker
One day we accepted the cruise operators' invitation to their "private island," which is cruise-line speak for "cornering the market." Since Norwegian is the only vendor on the island, we were at their mercy to pay $30 to rent a snorkeling mask, $20 for a floatie mat and $6 to not die of thirst.
The excursion turned out to be one of many clever methods used to milk more money out of us once we climbed aboard. It seemed as if we'd paid less upfront to pay more in the end.
They also employed cheesy and crass sales techniques, such as having a team of Vince Vaughn-like waiters jovially urge us to order another drink every couple minutes, or staffing photographers to snap shots of us every few hours (and then hitting us up to pay $19.95 for each photo).
The most annoying instance of this relentless salesmanship came while we were dining in the ship's frou-frou French restaurant, which turned out to be quite a classy joint and well worth the $15-per-person fee over all the free dining options. Its gold veneer wore off quickly, though, when the photographer yet again insisted on shooting us, followed by a woman hounding me to "buy a rose for the pretty lady" -- the kind of offering my wife associates with cheap, touristy Mexican restaurants.
The most amusing case of the sales gimmickry came when we got back to our room one night and found a bath towel on the bed rolled up to look like an elephant. Next to the big-eared towel was an order form for a $9.99 DVD on how to learn this magical and oh-so-useful towel-rolling technique. We're hoping to Netflix it instead.
Norwegian Sky staffers also milked us the old-fashioned shyster way: by overcharging us for certain things and hoping we wouldn't notice. Twice they did this for wine (once a bottle and once a glass). We also tipped waiters and bartenders, not realizing that a 15 percent gratuity was included in the tab.
We also had to ask the reception desk to remove two $39 charges for a shore excursion on our first port-of-call, Nassau. It was supposed to be a boat tour of the harbor that led to a snorkeling dive at a nearby island, but after a long wait on the pier and a long walk through town, we came upon the boat only to learn it had broken down. That was a major disappointment on such a short trip, as one of our two days at port seemed blown. In the end, we felt like Norwegian owed us. But until we inquired about the botched excursion charges, the cruise staff was saying we still owed them.
Port side, bright side
Lest you think we spent our whole cruise complaining, my wife and I shrugged off that debacle by opting to make our own excursion around Nassau. So we pulled out the map graciously provided by the Norwegian staff.
"There's nothing on here but jewelry stores," my wife said of the map. I laughed, thinking she was tricking me into a shopping trip.
Sure enough, the only thing our cruise staff wanted us to see on Nassau were jewelry and perfume shops, plus the requisite local Hard Rock Cafe and Señor Frogs. The cool little pirate museum wasn't on Norwegian's map. The two historic forts weren't there. Blackbeard's Tower wasn't even on there (I'm still not sure exactly what that is). Forget about finding locally owned restaurants or the less tacky market areas.
So we winged it. We asked around among the locals, who pointed us to a small, rickety city bus with a great sound system (Bob Marley's "Kaya" album out of a cassette boombox). The bus took us to the fascinating Fort Charlotte -- who knew the Bahamas had ties to the American Revolution? -- and then to a cool little beach village on the west side of the island lined with rows of funky seafood joints serving fried conch and whole, eyeball-popping snapper.
Our made-up excursion wound up being better than any experience we had on the ship. Which probably explains why the cruise line avoided pointing us there.
Despite the outrageous charges, we did enjoy the second port-of-call on Norwegian's own Stirrup Cay. A private island is not so private when 2,400 other passengers come ashore, but it was pretty easy to ignore the masses while soaking in the crystal-blue waters and soaking up the surprisingly good reggae band employed by the cruise line.
There were assorted bright spots aboard the ship, too. The food was about 75 percent terrific, even including some of the buffet fare but mostly including that fancy French spot.
We also found cool little alcoves on the ship to get away from the crowds. One of the best was the smaller pool on the top deck (12th floor) at the bow of the ship, which was fun until a group of forty-something women took over the hot tub and lined up their daiquiri glasses like trophies -- right next to the kids' pool, mind you.
And we really enjoyed strolling the sixth-floor outer deck at night after dinner. That's the deck with the white railings and lifeboats overhead and little else, the one that provided the most flashbacks to watching "The Love Boat" on TV as kids. Just try getting that theme song out of your head on a cruise.
Best of all for new parents (our toddler stayed at Grandma's), we slept surprisingly well in our little port-side cabin -- save for the night when a gaggle of drunk women came down our hall tee-hee-heeing as they bumped into our "doorbell," which is actually a bright flashing yellow light. I woke up thinking the ship was going down.
We hated pretty much every form of live entertainment on board. The comedy was incredibly rote. The electronic bingo was as boring as cardboard bingo. And the singers were lounge-act-bad (especially the guy singing Neil Diamond songs with a sharp Filipino accent).
The exception was "The Newlywed/Not So Newlywed" game, in which a couple married 59 years trounced the competition on such questions as the most unusual place they did you-know-what. Their answer (a pool table!) was especially funny, given that their kids and grandkids were there.
In the end, it might take 59 years and a bundle of grandchildren before my wife and I consider taking another cruise. We would certainly never do it by ourselves, but might consider trying it with a group. Nowadays, the major cruise ships are party boats, not love boats.
Our other stipulations: We would probably try a different cruise line. And we would definitely bring our own maps and floaties -- and maybe a T-shirt that reads, "I'll kill you if you take my picture."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658