The Travel Issue: Opulence and the Illusion of Overseas Adventure

Or, how we learned to stop worrying and love the Love Boat

The Ruby, a veritable floating hotel.
Sara Eckel and Mark Holcomb

Nothing stokes fantasies of escaping a hot summer like dazed nights in front of an air-conditioner and TV screen, inhaling evaporated freon and absorbing fondly remembered childhood shows on DVD.

Last August our nostalgia-blast of choice was the first half-season of The Love Boat, the second season of which will release on DVD in August. True, the show is outrageously corny and embarrassingly dated, but we found ourselves suckered by its happy mix of stale vaudeville and ersatz glamour nonetheless. It was the perfect antidote to the summertime blues.

But we never figured we had anything in common with cruise-ship travelers televisual or otherwise. Sure we’d both read David Foster Wallace’s first-person cruise expose “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and heard less-than-glowing reports from friends who’d cruised. On such trips, they told us, you’re far less likely to encounter faded Hollywood B-listers than pudgy middle-Americans roaming from one grossly over-endowed feeding station to the next.

Still, we were surprised to find ourselves tempted: Would a trip on The Love Boat—or a love boat, anyway—provide the kind of zany adventures we were enjoying on the show? Would we discover that Mark’s ex-wife was also on the cruise, and would the old flames reignite a la Loretta Swit and Robert Reed in “Ex Plus Y”? Would Sara get so deeply involved in writing her account of the journey that she totally neglected Mark, driving him to seek solace with a leggy blonde, as happened to Eva Gabor and Leslie Nielsen in “Dear Beverly”? Would our attempts at intimacy be cock-blocked by a gaggle of batty old coots, as in pretty much every episode? More important, would we have such a rollicking good time that we’d stop comparing our adventures to old TV show episodes we knew well enough to identify by name?

It would take us until the middle of the following February, but we decided to find out. After talking our way onto a seven-day “media tour” of the western Caribbean graciously arranged by Princess Cruises, we flew to Florida to sail on the Ruby Princess, the newest ship in the line.

One thing we should make clear: The trip was 100-percent comped by Princess. Even when we bought sunscreen and Tums in the ship gift shop, no charge appeared on our bill—in fact, Sara was mind-bogglingly refunded $18.67 at the end of the cruise (which we donated to a food bank). We were given free massages, bar drinks and tickets for costly day excursions. We were cut to the front of lines, seated at the best tables and stuffed with lobster, caviar and veal tenderloin. When we started this project we agreed that we would write an honest account of our experience, even if it got us blacklisted from any future press-junket extravaganzas. That’s still our intention, but if you’re looking for a truly objective account of the Ruby Princess’ facilities and services, look elsewhere.

Day One: Life’s Sweetest Reward

Because of the timing of our flight to Fort Lauderdale we arrive on the ship a couple of hours after boarding begins, possibly explaining why the experience is so different from Wallace’s—it couldn’t be easier. True, the ship’s cruise director, doctor and yeoman purser aren’t waiting for us with big smiles and clipboards as on The Love Boat, but there are many friendly stewards to help us find our “mini-stateroom.”

A view from the deck at launch time - no confetti or streamers, alas.

Inside, the ship has more in common with luxury liners past than with the show’s drab, utilitarian interiors, and the room itself is leagues nicer than the claustrophobic cabins in which Meredith Baxter Birney and Robert Urich parked their Samsonites. It’s a slightly narrower version of a moderately upscale hotel suite, with a private balcony. It takes a while for the luxury of the digs to sink in, what with unpacking and the mound of cruise-related documents awaiting our scrutiny, but within a couple of hours we’re installed on our veranda, sated by cruise grub and guzzling the Princess Kool-Aid (the first of many complimentary bottles of champagne). We wonder what the hell Wallace and our friends were so torqued about—a cruise, it turns out, is one of the only things in life that’s more glamorous than the TV version.

Next we change into our Princess-mandated smart-casual finery and make our way to an aft bar called The Adagio. We gather here for cocktails and canapés with our fellow media tourists, and also meet Michelle, the independent PR agent who orchestrated this press jaunt, a soft-spoken Long Island native who’s nothing like the glad-handing flacks we’re accustomed to dealing with.

Sara and Mark with Cruise Director Lisa Ball.

Cruise Director Lisa Ball has sent her regrets, and there’s no sign of the captain, a ship’s physician or a purser, either. We are, however, swarmed by a succession of stewards and Princess officials in dapper white uniforms, and a distinction surfaces: Although the Love Boat appears to be run by about five people, this love boat has a staff and crew that’s 1,200 strong.

One of them is Sam, the young assistant cruise director. Like Julie McCoy, Sam is pretty, blond and winningly lovelorn. “I didn’t get any flowers,” she says wistfully, jarring us into remembering that it’s Valentine’s Day.

The other journos listen politely to our pitch, but being travel-section novices co-writing a piece from a pop-culture perspective sets us apart. We’ll have more such gatherings with these folks, most of whom turn out to be friendly, hard-working travel critics who take their jobs seriously without harboring illusions of their work’s wider social significance. A couple of them do prove to be staggeringly self-important junketeers with elusive credentials, but we’re all here on Princess’ dime, united by an unspoken dependence on the comped and the cadged.

As we stand around sizing each other up, the Ruby Princess quietly leaves port with a subdued announcement from the PA system and a subtle sense of motion. No iconic horn sounds, and we don’t toss streamers and confetti off the side of the ship, a disappointment mitigated by the steady stream of cocktails and canapés coming our way.

Day Two: Let It Flow

Only slightly hungover from too much free food and hooch, we start the first of two “sea days” (no scheduled ports of call) with, what else, more food: a light breakfast on the balcony, where we linger for a couple of hours. From there we set off on a more extensive self-guided tour of the Ruby, and it feels every bit as big as it is—roughly 950 feet long and 118 feet wide, with space for (as a sign we later see in the bridge puts it) over 4,500 “souls” on its 19 decks. On the Promenade Deck exercise walkers circle the ship and older passengers read quietly in the shade. The Lido Deck, much bigger and posher than its TV twin, is the action deck—it has hot tubs, a pizza parlor and an ice cream shop. Its two swimming pools are much bigger in real life but, sadly, aren’t clover-shaped.

This ship has one distinct disadvantage from Isaac and Gopher’s hangout: There’s nowhere to sit. On The Love Boat there appears to be only about 16 passengers per cruise, so there’s always a good spot to conduct a domestic dispute or meet cute. But on the Ruby, nabbing a nice lounge by one of the five pools at 11 a.m. is pretty much impossible. Getting a prime seat requires rising before dawn to place a personal item—a beach towel, a book, a pair of sunglasses—on a choice chair. To everyone’s credit these unofficial reservations are respected, but it leaves us on a raised and very windy portion of the Lido nowhere near water, cooking like strips of bacon in tight rows of our fellow stragglers.

So we grumble a bit and then remember it’s February and we’re sprawled in the sun. Mark, a reluctant urbanite who dislikes crowds, realizes that if he closes his eyes he can tune out the throng. Too well, it turns out: Hastily sunscreened, he wakes up with a mottled burn that leaves him looking like a red-and-white Holstein.

The mobs and sunburn aren’t the only cracks in his earlier impression of perfection on the high seas. There’s new and increasingly confusing cruise lit to peruse every time we return to our room, and at one point he overhears a man bark to his wife, “There’s plenty of room if you go over the side of the ship!” As we leave the deck to get ready for the media-group event du jour, The Love Boat theme that’s been running through his head begins to fade.

Tonight is the first of two “formal nights,” so we see men in suits strolling arm and arm in with women in long, beaded gowns. While the passengers on the Ruby aren’t as beautiful as the svelte twenty-something extras on the show, it’s heartening that the Princess dress code is respected: There’s a hideous new trend in our neighborhood that has residents wearing pajamas with shoes that look like baby booties in public, while jeans and flip-flops have become common attire at Broadway shows.

We meet up with our fellow puff journalists at an English-style pub called The Wheelhouse, where we eat too many canapés before moving on to dinner at one of the ship’s premium restaurants, The Crown Grill, which charges an extra $25 a person. So long as a family is careful with the many extras offered on the Ruby—bar drinks, soda pop, professional Olan Mills-style portraits—it’s worth the splurge. The restaurant is an elegant, upscale steakhouse with good service and excellent food. The only problem is there’s too much of it. By the time we’ve finished our salads, soups and appetizers, we’re not even remotely hungry and find ourselves struggling to finish what would otherwise be a delicious lobster and excellent cut of beef.

Later, while having a nightcap on our balcony, Mark says, “I’m glad we’re going on land tomorrow. I’m getting a little stir crazy.” Sara pours him some more champagne and tells him, “Sweetheart, I hope you never have to go to jail.”

Day Three: A (Mostly) Friendly Shore

We wake to find the ship already docked in our first port of call, Ocho Rios, a tourist haven on the northern coast of Jamaica. We disembark and hop on the bus to Dolphin Cove, an enclosed bay and beach where visitors can interact with the seagoing mammals, plus stingrays and/or a trio of placid nurse sharks. The setting is dolled-up to resemble an 18th-century pirate hideout, complete with carefully ramshackle structures and an amputee in Long John Silver garb “arrrrrrr”-ing over a too-loud mic to the amusement and terror of patrons.

We’ve signed up for the “dolphin encounter,” a meticulously managed affair in the small bay with about 10 encounterers for each of the three dolphins. It’s thoroughly documented via still and video cameras, the results of which will be for sale at the far end of the Cove’s gift-shop gauntlet.

Our young guide hands out bulky life vests, gets us in the walled-off ocean pool, and instructs us on how to get “our” dolphin, Calypso, to perform. She dances and leaps and pulls each of us a short distance on her belly, but she’s clearly in it for the fish snacks that come after every trick. When it comes time for the money shot—everyone gets a perfunctory peck on the cheek for the Cove-cam—it’s obvious that no interspecies bonding has occurred.

True, it’s the ultimate in tourist gimmickry posing as wildlife adventure, but it’s also fun and surprisingly moving. The rigid, slippery tenderness of Calypso’s skin and her matter-of-fact physical power are a revelation, and even her focused indifference to this latest gaggle of nature-starved bipeds is somehow inspiring. Our elation lasts the rest of our stay here, which includes a delicious lunch of jerk chicken—one of the few reasonably proportioned meals we’ll have this week.

Best of all, we find a near-deserted beach at the far end of the park where we spend the rest of the day lounging, the Ruby Princess bobbing in the distance. The warm weather, unhurried pace and foreign setting are starting to return Mark to his initial euphoria, and a Red Stripe beer and a few sips of Sara’s pina colada (the best one either of us has ever had) help. We leave reluctantly as the sun begins to set.

The 8 o’clock dinner, delivered to our private balcony, is all deliciousness and glamour, but also a little awkward. Our young South African waiter hovers for much of the meal, and our efforts to move him past his Princess-approved script go unrewarded.

We never have to do anything as gauche as reach for a canapé with our grubby, dolphin-encountering fingers—with a simple, “I’ll try the tomato one” he delivers it to our plates with silver tongs. We realize that being treated like this all the time would either make a person very nice or unbearably awful.

We both eat and drink so much that we end the evening in physical pain, and lapse into a near-argument about the overabundance we’ve experienced since coming onboard. It’s spurred in part by our current discomfort, but also by some ethical issues Mark’s struggling with.

Specifically, in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades, and off the coast of one of the poorest countries on Earth, we’re sitting in an absurdly luxurious room on a sumptuously appointed floating hotel, barely able to keep down the massive amounts of rich food we’ve just been fed by a corporation that—we presume—expects nothing in return except that we write nice things about them. And while the cruise itself may be relatively cheap (for paying customers, that is), onboard costs for fine dining, souvenirs, minor necessities and especially drinks can’t be paid for with cash but are instead applied to a nebulous “cruise card” account that’s settled up when the ship docks back in Florida. How is that anything but a grotesque mimicry of what killed the economy in the first place?

Sara knows Mark is making fair points. She’s well aware that we’re being lulled into a submissive stupor, and that blowing in and out of impoverished countries for photo ops and canned encounters with the indigenous fauna won’t broaden our horizons. She’s cognizant that the world is falling apart and that her normally pretty strong criticisms of capitalism are being seriously undermined by the extraordinarily well-run company footing our bill. And she understands that the minute her Bjorn sandals hit dry land she’s viewed by locals as a walking ATM machine or worse.

But she’s also having an excellent time. She’s enjoying the sea air and the rest of our latest bottle of champagne and the prospect of being gently rocked to sleep by the Ruby. “Is it there something wrong with wanting to have a good time?” Sara asks. Mark replies with an unconvincing, “Of course not.” As we climb into bed, he wonders if what’s really bothering him is his inability to just let go and join the fun.

Day Four: Triumph of Gluttony

Our second port of call is Grand Cayman, a bland, 100-square-mile chunk of coral west of Jamaica that’s shaped like a crab claw; it’s also part of the fifth-largest banking center in the world. That’s due to the Cayman Islands’ lack of corporate taxation, which makes it an attractive headquarters for the likes of UBS, Goldman Sachs and the other usual suspects. We arrive in George Town, the country’s capital and a little slice of Anaheim in the Caribbean. All duty-free strip-malls, noisy chain restaurants and sprawling condos and hotels, George Town doesn’t hold much appeal. But the crass commercialism doesn’t incite Mark to take up last night’s debate—he’s more interested in the day’s snorkeling trip.

We take a bus with 20 or so others to a small boat waiting in a nearby harbor. A storm blew through this morning and the lingering currents make snorkeling rough, so after half an hour we all reboard and the boat moves a few dozen yards toward shore to the much-ballyhooed “stingray city”—a wide sandbar that, from a wildlife-encounter standpoint, is somewhere between Dolphin Cove and a rush-hour subway platform. The spot is mobbed by snorkel boats, and there are easily 100 people flopping around in the waist-high surf, squealing as a couple-dozen rays weave through the crowd. Like Calypso they’re here for the food handouts and are surprisingly unafraid of humans.

At one point Mark sees a middle-aged woman in a yellow bikini surrounded by them, and a 3-footer that jumps onto her back sends her dog-paddling in a panic back to her boat. He asks first mate Neal if anyone ever gets stung out here—Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin’s name is on everyone’s lips—and is told that it happens only when someone grabs hold of a stray tail. The consensus: Irwin fatally overestimated his luck by cornering the ray that ultimately killed him.

So we jump in, hanging back from the mass of swimmers to touch the rays that wander into the periphery. They’re soft, slick and otherworldly, and Mark is content to do his encountering from a distance without contributing to the animals’ daily feeding frenzy; their calm presence and the open water are

lulling him out of last night’s sour mood.

Sara, however, decides to get into the thick of it. The rays flock to her, brushing against her legs like cats, and her delight is something to behold. Mark wonders how he got so lucky to find a girl who’s giddy instead of panic-stricken when swarmed by slimy sea creatures.

After returning to the ship and washing off the stingray grime, we assemble with the media group for a tour of one of the ship’s 18 kitchens, followed by dinner at the chef’s table in The Botticelli restaurant. As VIP as this makes us feel at the time, we later learn it’s an extra anyone can buy; Princess is nothing if not egalitarian. We’re met outside the restaurant’s pantry by Generoso Mazzone, the Ruby’s enthusiastic Austrian head maitre d’, who fits us with white smocks that make us look like a group of med-school interns on rounds.

In the kitchen we’re greeted by Chef Michele Cozzoli—whose bio, we later discover, indicates that watching The Love Boat inspired him to become a line cook for Princess Cruises in 1987. Sara snaps photos and attempts to take notes, but it’s hard because she needs one hand free to take the caviar blini and lobster puffs being doled out, and the other for the excellent champagne that’s flowing.

We’re ushered into The Botticelli for our meal, which from the yard-long menu appears to consist of 14 courses. Listed about three-quarters of the way down is something called—we shit you not—“Triumph of Gluttony.” It’s a misnomer: The massively portioned braised-veal main course and deep-fried chocolate-wad dessert and everything in between conspire to make us feel more triumphed over than triumphant.

Extravagant showmanship with champagne and glasses.

Next we waddle off to check out the bar scene. On The Love Boat, passengers either have cocktails on the Lido Deck, at a chintzy folding table near one of the pools, at the lone unnamed restaurant bar, or in the corny Pirate’s Cove lounge, where waiters wear puffy shirts and headscarves. The Ruby has a dozen bars, five restaurants and a couple of cafes, and the wait staff isn’t forced to dress in humiliating costumes at any of them. At The Wheelhouse, we ask Roman, the genial Slovakian tending bar, if customers ever compare him to Isaac Washington, the head bartender on the show. He has no idea who we’re talking about—like every other Princess employee we’ve met, he’s not American. There are at least 40 different nationalities among the staff and crew, and everyone’s nametag specifies his or her homeland. “I think I saw about 20 minutes of that movie,” Roman tells us.

Day Four: Das Love Boot

Since our beach horseback-riding excursion in today’s port of call, Cozumel, Mexico, doesn’t begin until around 11 a.m., we have a leisurely buffet breakfast on the Lido then kill time at the unenclosed shopping mall adjacent to the cruise terminal. The shops are a mix of duty-free liquor and tobacco outlets, Tijuana-style junk-souvenir emporiums and the odd gift store with genuine folk art items from around the country.

At about 10:45 we notice that no one else has gathered at the designated equestrian rendezvous point, and there are no more tour group leaders hanging around waiting for confused gringos to amass. We find the Princess excursion organizer sitting at a back table that’s all but hidden, and she tells us the trip was rescheduled for 9 a.m. and that we should’ve been notified. We weren’t, so she offers a half-hearted apology and a make-up outing to a folklore museum that’s just about to get under way. It’s a beautiful day and our hearts are set on being outside, so we pass.

We’re both disappointed—riding a horse along a Mexican beach sounds fun and somehow Love Boat-esque (although shore excursion were rarely part of the show). But since we paid nothing for the ticket we can’t feel too sorry for ourselves.

We decide to go into the adjacent town, San Miguel de Cozumel, instead. The main beachside avenue is, as expected, a bigger version of the terminal mall, all jewelry stores and Cuban cigar shops with sidewalk hawkers enticing patrons in bored, expert English. But a few blocks inland the town has some of the ragged charm of other midsize Mexican cities. We check out the Hacienda San Miguel, a small, charming hotel north of town, and exercise our high-school Spanish over tacos and stewed chicken at a hole-in-the-wall loncheria. It’s a nice respite from cruise fare; simple meals like this are always somehow more satisfying than an acclaimed chef’s truffle-infused cheese whatsit or minted-pear spaghettini doodad.

Later that evening we make our way to the elegant waiting room of the ship’s Lotus Spa, where we sit bathrobed and saunaed, sipping cucumber water and awaiting a comped couples massage as the ship leaves port. After about half an hour, a massage therapist tells us our appointment was for an hour earlier. We’re pretty sure this isn’t true, but she and her colleague are adamant. They accommodate us anyway.

We’re led to two cots in a cabana in The Sanctuary, an adults-only, pay-as-you-lay outdoor space on the bow. Sara thinks it’s nice to get a massage outside, where she can listen to the waves and hear the wind, but the massage itself is just okay—akin to what we’d get at our local quasi-corporate yoga/spa complex—and much of it is spent fretting about how we mixed up the time. She’s also not sure she gets the whole concept of a couples massage. She’s lying naked on the table as a pretty young woman massages her, and Mark is lying naked next to her as a pretty young woman massages him. While this doesn’t exactly bother her, it’s not inducing any relaxation or feelings of romance, either. Four’s a crowd. Is the point of a couples massage to be a turn-on for the guy? Are male masseuses ever invited to the party?

We shower and go back to our room, and when we check our itinerary we see that we were right about the massage time. Sara calls the spa to let them know, and later informs Michelle, our PR escort, about this mix-up and the one with our horseback-riding excursion. But we’re not being spoiled journalists, right? We’re just documenting information people should have. Right?

We have more pressing things to worry about anyway: The Ruby has picked up speed since leaving Cozumel in order to compete with strong currents, and the resulting chop-and-roll has made Mark seasick. He downs a Dramamine tablet and sacks out for the night.

While he convalesces, Sara checks out the crew talent show in the packed Princess Theater. A film clip shows a Thai steward named Karanyot on his daily rounds. In it, he says he wants to sing so that people on the ship will know he speaks English. He then comes onstage dressed in a tuxedo and belts out Lionel Richie’s “Suddenly.” Next up is a clip about Alex, a chef who works in the Piazza’s International Café, in which he says, “I would like to enjoy the song, and show the passengers that I have talent.” He comes out and sings “Quando, Quando, Quando.” Sara finds herself overcome by love for Karanyot and Alex, and for pretty much the entire Ruby Princess staff and crew. Despite today’s screw-ups, the hospitality onboard is excellent—to the point that the day excursions are slightly jarring; the stone-faced immigration officials and sublimely distracted sales clerks always provide an immediate reminder that people in real life aren’t nice to you for no reason. On the Ruby, the cabin stewards, busboys, deck attendants, and various crew members always greet you with big smiles and hellos—and they’ve got talent!

Day Five: This Is Your Captain Speaking

It’s the cruise’s second sea day, and Mark joins Sara poolside on the Lido in a couple of lounge chairs she got up early to nab. The water is refreshing and the sun feels great, but after a while we both begin to feel sluggish. So we decide to burn off some calories by going to the running track on the Sky Deck, the ship’s topmost level.

Mark’s skepticism seems to have passed with last night’s seasickness. His ethical reservations from the other night, horror at the sense of entitlement of a few of our press-group comrades, and frustration at yesterday’s scheduling fuck-ups now seem as indulgent as the quantities of food and drink he’s consumed over the past few days. His reservations haven’t evaporated completely, but compared to Wallace he’s becoming a regular cruise Pollyanna. Maybe all that guilt was just from not tipping enough.

Sara with Capt. Tony Draper.

At 3 p.m. we meet for a press-pool bridge tour (yet another perk available to anyone willing to shell out the dosh) courtesy of the up-to-now mysterious Captain Draper. Wearing a dashing double-breasted blue uniform, the perfect-postured, BBC-toned Brit turns out to be more like Mad Men’s Donald Draper than The Love Boat’s Merrill Stubing. Sara desperately wants to ask him if he’s ever compared to his TV equivalent, but Draper’s too dignified and austere for that.

That evening we reconvene with our fellow scribes for cocktails and (of course) canapés at The Adagio, where we finally introduce ourselves to Cruise Director Lisa Ball. She’s been a ubiquitous yet elusive presence since we first boarded: She hosts a chat show for the ship’s TV station every morning at 7, and several times a day enthuses about upcoming quizzes, bingo games, water sports and 50-percent-off jewelry sales over the loudspeaker in her cheerful English accent. In addition, Ball teaches dance lessons and hosts revues and goes to cocktail parties and answers dubious questions about her relationship to a decades-old Yank sitcom.

She does the latter with good cheer, affirming that she’s compared to TV’s Julie all the time. She does have that Julie-like energy and enthusiasm the job requires. Small wonder—she’s one of only three women cruise directors in Princess’ 17-ship fleet.

Later, chatting with Roman over cocktails at The Wheelhouse, we see our fellow journalist Rhonda exiting tonight’s Princess Theater show. “We’re going to the champagne waterfall,” she says with an urgency that makes us feel like we have little choice but to follow.

If we were disappointed about not getting to toss confetti as we left Fort Lauderdale, now’s our big chance: Everyone gathers around the Piazza stairway and throws streamers as our pal Genoroso and his comrades pour champagne over a delicate pyramid of glasses without spilling a drop. A band plays oldies, and on each level of the cavernous corridor dads, grandmas and teenagers are all rocking out to “Shout!” and “Mony Mony.” It’s the height of goofy, middle-American cheesiness, and everyone is having a blast.

Including Mark. Okay, he’d rather not be in a suit, doesn’t like crowds and isn’t all that keen on parties—generally not the type to get excited about champagne waterfalls at all. But as the bubbly literally flows, he glows like a (half-drunk) schoolboy. Just watching Mark's unreserved happiness makes Sara's heart swell.

Days Six and Seven: The Love Boat Regained

Our final excursion is to Princess Cays, a small, beachside plot on the Bahamian island of Eleuthera that’s owned by the cruise line. On the launch over we sit next to a couple from Iowa whose daughter wants to leave their farm and live in New York City. “She didn’t think we’d fit in on a cruise,” the wife says. This is strange, since they couldn’t fit in more. “Well,” Mark tells her, “the nice thing about a cruise is everyone fits in.”

This is true: Cruises offer elegance and glamour for families and couples—Love Boat-style swinging singles being a rarity on the Ruby—who can afford the relatively low price tag. (This fall’s western Caribbean jaunt will cost $599 per person for a cabin with no windows and $1,099 per person for a mini-suite like ours; the May-October Mediterranean tour is pricier at $1,399 and $2,299, respectively.) That still leaves a lot of people out—including, under most circumstances, us—but we’re struck by how unpretentiously middle-class the passengers on the Ruby are.

On land we claim one of the for-rent “clamshells” (two-person collapsible canvas covers over lounge chairs) lining the beach, soak up some sun before the clouds roll in, and swim for a last time in the Caribbean before going back to the ship.

In the evening we meet for champagne with Draper, Ball, the media folks and a few of the ship’s other muckety-mucks in The Sanctuary. Karanyot is here, too. Sara tells him his performance had her humming “Suddenly” the whole day after the talent show. “Next time you’ll see me on American Idol,” he says.

Mark watches as one of the snootier members of the press group picks up a deep-fried crab leg, puts it in his mouth, and snaps, “There’s nothing in here!” before putting it back on Karanyot’s tray. (Vote Karanyot, people!) Meanwhile, Sara screws up the nerve to ask Draper her Captain Stubing question. He takes it in stride and says that, yes, people sometimes call him that. If this were The Love Boat we’d seek his guidance on some personal problem, but it’s not so we don’t.

After a mercifully light dinner on the Lido we take one last spin around the ship, winding up at the “Oceans of Talent” passenger contest in Club Fusion. Joe from Florida tells “a couple of jokes,” which range from slightly off-color to nauseating. But Canadians Maureen and John, a plump woman with a sensible haircut and a bald guy in a striped golf shirt, are total pros when she sings “All That Jazz” to his piano accompaniment; it’s exciting to see this unexpected side of our fellow buffet-grazers.

The real showstopper is Margaret from Roanoke. An octogenarian in pearls, sweater set, pumps and a cloud of white hair, she belts out “Back in the Old Routine.” Then she dances, slow and stiff but with utter grace and in perfect time to the music. She is, in a word, jammin’. The crowd loves her, and Sara is moved to tears. It’s the perfect end to this weird, unexpectedly wonderful vacation. We don’t know who Margaret is or what she does in her regular life back in Virginia. We only know that she has the crowd transfixed, and tonight she’s not just an anonymous old lady on a nice, safe vacation—she’s a star.

It occurs to Mark that this is the main reason his city-stoked cynicism has melted away on the cruise. Wallace may have been right, the poor bastard, that cruise-goers are coddled like helpless, overfed infants so that they’re more susceptible to all the shipboard stuff for sale and rent. But providing a few days of opulence and at least the illusion of overseas adventure to people who aren’t likely to experience much of either on a regular basis is commendable, even kind. And from what we saw on the Ruby, being treated with the dignity and respect typically reserved for the well-off brings out the best in people (a few snotty journalists notwithstanding). It’s more than just a vacation, then—like the theme song says, it’s love.

Tomorrow we’ll go home. It’ll be cold, and the newspaper will tell us that “Girl Scout Cookie Sales Crumble,” and our upstairs neighbor’s plumbing will fail and leak into our apartment. Sara will find out that a story she spent a month writing was killed. Mark will board the crowded subway and slog to another interminable staff meeting. We’ll give up alcohol and carbs in order to lose all the weight we gained. We’ll worry about money.

Our memories of the abundant food, champagne, sea air and warm sun will fade. But we’ll always have the memory of this moment with Margaret. And she’ll always be dancing.


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