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Confessions of a cruise ship virgin

Editor’s note: Originally printed Oct. 9, 2005

By Kathleen Purvis

So there I was, skimming over the waves in a ship so large, it felt like a Las Vegas resort had pulled up stakes and sailed off over the sands.

And, yes, I was on assignment - I was paid to do this. In spring, an editor dangled this assignment like a shiny bauble. "You do travel writing, " she said. "You write about food - aren't cruises just buoyant buffet lines?"

And: "You've never been on a cruise."

In the travel world, there are cruise people, who measure their shore time as "time to save money for the next cruise."

And then there are the rest of us. The ones who see those jazzy, snazzy cruise commercials and shudder. But who sometimes wonder if, maybe, they could enjoy a cruise.

Confirmed cruisers will immediately scoff. What's not to like about cruising?

Well There are the lines everywhere you go. There's the floating frat-party atmosphere that pervades any area of the ship near a pool.

And most of all, there are my fellow humans. No, not you. You're fabulous. It's all those other people, nearly 3,500 of them on the 12-deck CarnivalTriumph.

On a ship the size of a city, you wallow in humanity. You sit with strangers at meals, compete with them for deck chairs, and rub more than elbows in the hot tubs.

This is not a bad thing. But it's not everyone's thing.

My assignment, over six days from Charleston to the Bahamas in late May, was to make it my thing.

Early on, no smooth sailing

Part of my assignment was to test the 2-year-old cruise business in Charleston, where 90,000 people climb onto ships yearly.

The verdict: The city and the cruise lines need practice. Carnival only cruises from Charleston a few times a year, and nothing in the fat stack of paper with my ticket even addressed the place.

On the phone, I was told I could arrive at lunch, park leisurely, hit the buffet and prepare to relax.

Reality: Arriving at 12:20 p.m. after the three-hour drive, there was no evidence of cruise ship parking, just a guy in a folding chair wearing a Lawrence of Arabia sun hat.

"Come back at 3, " he yelled, and waved me off to kill time in parking-challenged Charleston.

By 2:45, every street near the docks along East Bay Street was crammed with cars. According to rumor - the only source of information, shouted from car to car - this was "the embarkation line."

Once the cars start moving, you're passed from one point to another like a bean bag: Under a shed to drop your bags (don't forget to tag them), into a warehouse to drop your car, onto a shuttle to the ship.

Then more lines: Purse X-rays, passport checks, paperwork checks, checks of checks.

Online, I had printed out a "fun pass" that promised "quick check-in." No one in the terminal even knew what it was.

Finally, photographed twice, peered at and prodded, I made it to the door of my cabin.

At the first-night steak dinner, fellow diners shared the same story. One woman who had flown in had just as much trouble.

"You can ask three people and you never get the same information from any of them."

With a six-story atrium, glass elevators, a spa and gym, two dining rooms and a theater big enough to swallow the Booth Playhouse and still have room for a dessert bar, it's hard to believe this baby will even float.

There are art auctions in the galleries, nightly Vegas-style reviews in the theater, daily bingo games, a water slide and a full-size casino. There's even a showy marble staircase with a pianist at the bottom. (Sadly, he never played "Nearer My God to Thee." That's a Titanic joke. Work with me, people.)

Even with all that, my favorite entertainment came the first night: Lifeboat drill.

It's the great leveler. No matter how thin, how young or how rich, there is no one who doesn't look ridiculous in the life jacket, a large orange rectangle with a hole for your head.

Taking a cruise for romantic reasons? Don't plan an amorous adventure your first night. It will take more than a few rum drinks to erase the memory of your loved one's face, framed in what looks like a giant slab of fluorescent cheese.

Still, by the time the ship left the dock at 10 p.m., backing up as slowly as a new driver getting Grandma's Buick out of the driveway, I had found my salvation:

Deck six, forward, right in the prow. It was open to everyone, but largely undiscovered.

It became my quiet place. I could stand right in the center, leaning into the wind like a bow sprite - if homesick sailors had carved bow sprites to look like overweight, middle-aged women in strappy sandals.

For six days, I spent hours right there, watching the sea. Hit the hot tubs, Kate and Leo: This spot is taken.

Food? Why yes, please

That's what you really want to know, isn't it? How's the food?

Plentiful. There are two dining rooms, decorated to the rafters. On the pool deck, there's a sandwich station, an excellent pizza station and hot food lines three times a day.

While it is food for the masses, crafted for simplicity, I'd give the kitchen staff credit for trying. They know most people just order steak, lobster, pizza and burgers, but they still toss in a few exotic choices: Wild mushroom ragout, tamarind-rubbed prime rib, lamb and curry all turned up on my trip.

Everything comes from the kitchen under a plastic cover, so everything is a little overcooked. Lobster leans toward pencil-eraser, steaks are one stage beyond what you ordered, eggs Benedict have a crinkly coating of dried hollandaise.

You pay for drinks separately, but there are rare deals. On the Triumph, you could buy a bottle of wine the first night and they would cork it and save it for you.

For breakfast, I'd vote for the omelet stations by the pool. The eggs won't be overcooked, and you won't have to chat with strangers before your first cup of coffee.

Since 85 percent of the passengers who leave Charleston are from the Carolinas, the mostly South Asian kitchen staff found us a learning experience. On the first day, they ran out of grits, but no one touched the oatmeal.

What I wish I'd known

So would I do this again, even if I was footing the bill?

Surprisingly, yes. Even for a confirmed introvert, a big ship has plenty of nooks, so you can get away from it all while you're getting away from it all. The Triumph even has a tiny library.

But I learned a few things:

Take money. Despite the "sail cards" you use on board, you'll need some cash. Parking at the dock was $10 a day in advance, cash or checks only, and the hard-working ship's staff depend on tips. If you run short at sea, the ATM fee is $5.50.

Good deals come to those who wait. On the last night at sea, everything apparently must go. Prices are slashed in the duty-free shops, and that massage and facial I got on the first day would have been almost half-price if I had waited until the last day.

The best entertainment isn't on the stage.

One night, a deep rocking was obvious even through the massive hull. I went to the window and discovered a thunderstorm gathering steam.

Wrapping the curtain around me to block the light from my room, I sat for an hour, watching a stage show more spectacular than anything in Las Vegas.

On a cruise ship, I decided, the best things in life are the sea.

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