The bartender who changed my mind about cruising
Everyone has their hero. That person they emulate, if only in the beginning. Steve Jobs had Edwin Land, J.Lo had Selena and I had David Foster Wallace. As far as careers rearranging the alphabet go I thought his looked pretty good. I devoured his books and assumed I too would be bemused by tennis, idolise David Lynch and detest cruising. Or as he called it: a supposedly fun thing I'll never do again.
I was 28 years old when I was informed I would be going on a floating RSL. Informed, as it wasn't a choice as much as it was a decree. I went begrudgingly, rolling my eyes so much I'm surprised no one thought I was having a stroke. In an ironic sartorial jab I packed the most ridiculous outfits I owned - a sequin gown worn for a costume party, a Hawaiian shirt I'd originally purchased for my dad and a Bunnings hat which had been doctored with a Sharpie to read 'Cunning'. I was going to Foster Wallace the hell out of this thing. Before we even set sail it was exactly as I imagined: the elderly couples, the queues, the nasal Floridian accents. Afterwards even more so. The buffet and the towel animals were not tropes it seemed - they were real and they were brashly unapologetic.
After inspecting my room - which wasn't train-carriage cramped but was certainly Tokyo-hotel-room cramped - I walked the two minutes it took to get to the closest bar. I sat at a small table and inspected the menu which predictably included a Pina Colada and a Mai Tai. Then out of the corner of my rolling eye I saw a flicker. It clocked that it was a bartender, flipping cups. He was fast too. Like a hummingbird of the sea. I went in for a closer look and met Alan; the bartender who changed my mind about cruising forever. He mixed me drinks, taught me tricks and educated me about Aristotle, of all things. His wasn't an Australian-style of service, laid-back and jokey. Nor was it American, peppy but pushy. It wasn't even European-style with a haughty insistence you don't order the bruschetta. This was something new. This was the razzle dazzle of international waters.
A trip to the dining room saw lobster and steak arrive on the same plate. Lobster and steak, I was reminded, that had already been paid for in my ticket price. I then sang along to show tunes in the piano bar until they closed at 2am. At this point I was far too giddy to be acerbic. On the way back to my room I felt sheepish. Like a child who whinges all the way to grandma's house then has a ball playing with her dominoes and eating her brownies. It was exactly like a floating RSL. What a magical concept.
Four hours later I woke up, disoriented and dehydrated. My head was throbbing and cantankerous. Had I just been momentarily tricked by the smoke and mirrors? Then I remembered that this glorious ocean-going bucket had 24-hour room service. Free around-the-clock cheeseburgers. No, I was wrong the first time. This was magical. I looked up at the ceiling of my stateroom in the way a parishioner might look upwards in church, and apologised for ever having doubted the nobility of the journey.
The next few days were spent getting used to life as a born-again cruiser. The omelettes, the margaritas, the theme nights. All that plus days spent snorkelling and eating road mangoes in French Polynesia. It's no wonder thousands of people want to do this en masse: it's glorious. Of course, like absolutely everything in life it is what you make it. I realised the most disparaging person in the world could make a trip to the Côte d'Azur seem dreary while the most cheerful would make a day spent in the chemo ward an unbridled joy. I know, I've been both those people.
On my last night - much to the chagrin of the cruise director - I held my own unofficial trivia night. How fast does your average cruise ship go? How many eyes does a starfish have?*
I wanted to spread the good word. I even briefly considered leaving my old life behind and becoming a cruise director myself. Such was my complete and utter turnaround on the subject in seven short nights on board. I renounced David Foster Wallace and pledged my allegiance to King Triton. Or whoever it was these sea folk worshipped. I was still new, I wasn't sure. But I was adamant this was the path for me. If you're currently toying with the idea of converting, remember… we have free lobster tails over here.
* That would be 20 knots and eight eyes for those playing at home.
The author originally travelled as a guest of Holland America Line.
A 14-day Pacific Treasures cruise with Holland America Line starts at $1107 per person - an itinerary which differs slightly in duration and destination from the seven-day cruise featured in this story.