In the pre-pandemic era, I was too cool for cruising.
“You really have to take your family on a cruise,” my mother and mother-in-law, enamored with their cruise ship experiences, have urged me over the years. “I don’t want to be held hostage on a ginormous ship with a million people,” I’ve said to them. My ideal vacation is flying to a place as quickly as possible, then hitting the ground to explore, unencumbered, on my own.
A cruise was a great vacation for them — people of a certain age and limited mobility, I thought. Or people with small children who need a somewhat contained space and don’t want the headache of trying to be an adventurer while lugging strollers and diaper bags and frustrated toddlers. “Maybe I’ll take one when I’m 70,” I joked to my mom once. “No, I take that back,” I said, laughing. “Make that 80.”
She recently had the last laugh.
A week before Thanksgiving, I was invited on a media cruise as part of Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas ship’s first cruise out of Los Angeles for a preview sailing of what travelers can experience during a three-, four- or five-night getaway to Catalina Island or Ensenada and Cabo San Lucas. The simulation cruise was slated for just two days, docking in Ensenada before heading back to the port in San Pedro. I loved the idea of getting away for a couple of days with my family, but I remembered the cruise ships that were stranded at sea when the shutdown first happened and could feel a sense of claustrophobia clogging my throat. We are still in a pandemic.
But cruise organizers helped put my fears at ease. Before boarding, everyone had to be fully vaccinated and show recent negative COVID-19 test results. On the ship, further precautions were in order, including an increased proliferation of hand-washing sink stations and hand sanitizer stations throughout the 1,024-foot-long, 160-foot-wide ship.
I texted my mom: “Well, looks like I’m going on a cruise before retirement, after all.” I could hear her laughter through the number of ROTFL emojis she sent back.
Once we boarded, though, I was the one giggling. A bartender handed me a jeweled-colored shot glass of an orange-flavored drink, and the vacation mood was on. After checking out our cabin with a balcony that, thankfully, looked out over the ocean instead of the ship’s interior, my husband Marcus, son Sol and I toured the showroom suites, swept through the buzzing casino, swooned over the solarium where folks were already bobbing in whirlpools, then climbed to the Caribbean resort-style deck, which was dotted with pools, including a splash pad for tots.
“Oh,” my son said, realization dawning in his eyes, “the vacation starts now! See, this is what life should be about. Not all that corrupt political stuff and ‘edumacation.’” Marcus and I shook our heads. We had promised his teachers he would do some schoolwork on the ship (don’t ask me how that went).
We snatched up some burritos (and a margarita for me) and sat next to a band playing reggae favorites. I allowed the last bit of inner tension that had me feeling like I was supposed to “be doing something” to slip further and further away, leaned back on my lounger and watched the sun make its westward descent — an invisible hand seemed to brush the sky in strokes of gold and flamingo pink.
By the time the ship set sail, the sky was purple-black and the near-full moon was zig-zagging its light along the indigo ocean. This, I realized, this unencumbered view of the ocean and sky, was going to be my favorite part of cruising. I thought of the words from “Sea and Fog” by Etel Adnan, the Lebanese-American poet and artist who had died just a few days earlier: “The sea is to be seen,” she wrote. “See the sea. Wait. Do not hurry. Do not run to her. Wait, she says. Or I say. See the sea. Look at her using your eyes. Open them, those eyes that will close one day when you won’t be standing. You will be flat, like her, but she will be alive. Therefore, look at her while you can. Let your eyes tire and burn.”
As the temperature dipped, we left the deck to explore more of the ship. There’s a dry bar and spa, ice skating, movies, comedy shows and karaoke. Sol was excited about the arcade and laser tag options. We were hoping to pair up and play against other families to solve mysteries in the Royal Escape Room, but it ended up not being available during our trip. After so much walking, our stomachs were growling anyway, so we headed to Hooked Seafood restaurant, where our waiter, who is from India, fawned over Sol, one of the only children on the media cruise. “Have more soda,” he told him. “Have all the dessert you want.” Turns out, he, too, has a 14-year-old, and while the shutdown was tough financially, it had given him the chance to spend more time with his family than he had in years.
The next morning, my husband and I were working out in the expansive gym when the ship pulled into Ensenada. We decided to disembark and take a bus tour to La Bufadora, the blowhole located on the Punta Banda Peninsula. As we walked through the flea market on the way to the blowhole, the impact of the pandemic was palpable: Very few tourists milled about.
We grabbed mouthwatering shrimp tacos from Lidia’s Tacos and Grill and piña coladas from a merchant in the market. The frothy concoction was stuffed into pineapple “bowls,” and we slurped the icy, sweet avalanches of coconut and pineapple while enjoying the occasional cool sprays from La Bufadora.
“Come on in,” a merchant pleaded, motioning to his open space lined with all manner of items. “Come get all the stuff you don’t need.” I bought a wool poncho and a hand-painted casserole dish. Sol bought a cap and beaded wooden bracelet, and Marcus found a mask sculpture made of lapis lazuli for a real estate client who had just closed on her first house.
Back on the ship that night found us trying to make noticeable holes in our hearty pasta dishes at Jamie’s Italian restaurant, but the portions were mountainous, and we failed. We sipped cappuccinos for staying power, then dropped Sol off at the cabin before heading to a lounge to don headphones and enjoy a “silent disco.” Marcus left the dance floor to rest after a few songs, but I danced for hours with new friends until my feet throbbed.
The next morning, the teen dragged us to the water park, his first water park experience since the pandemic. I watched the little kid that’s still inside him emerge. He loves all theme park thrills, and this one includes The Blaster, the cruise line’s longest waterslide at sea, with more than 800 feet of dips, drops and straightaways that extend over the side of the ship. Sol went straight for that one and came out shivering, his body glistening with cold droplets. “Again!” he yelled. The area also boasts the Riptide, a headfirst mat racer waterslide, a surf simulator and rock-climbing wall.
We’ve been back on land for a couple of months now, but the three of us — all far from retirement age — remember our first cruise with fondness. “I loved it because you’re having a vacation while traveling in motion,” Sol says. “You’re literally on a boat having fun, spending quality time with family while in motion through the ocean.”
Looks like moms are always right after all.
Cassandra Lane is editor-in-chief of L.A. Parent.