by Susan Mary McReynolds

Ever stick your toe in the water to see how you like it? Well, it’s a bit like taking your first cruise.

For years I’ve listened to jingles and seen the commercials. But it took a historic deluge to make me take the plunge. They say there’s a bright side to just about everything bad that happens. The rainbow that appeared after the floods for me was my initiation into a new world of travel.

Here are a few tips to make your first cruise fulfill its pleasure potential:

1. Book the Right Cruise for YOU

Are you stressed out at work and long for lazing in the sun? Or would you rather bundle up for a bracing week of glacier spotting? Cruising offers such an extensive variety of destinations that it pays to focus on your time allowance and why you want to travel.

When my daughter and I booked our mini-cruise aboard Carnival’s Paradise, we had just endured the longest, most depressing spell of wet weather in San Francisco’s history. We desperately needed sunshine but didn’t have a whole week to spend on the beach in Hawaii. By trolling the internet we found an excellent special on a three-day round trip cruise to Ensenada, Mexico.

Working half day that Friday, we were able to make the final boarding time of 5:00 p.m. If you book your air travel and cruise together through the Fly Aweigh plan you are guaranteed to make the gangplank before it rises. An additional timesaver is the Fun Pass. You simply fill in all your personal data online on the cruiseline website. They email you a boarding pass that allows you to sail through Homeland Security at the dock.

*It should be noted that as of December, 2006 all passengers will be required to have a passport. Go ahead and get yours now. You’ll be glad you have this vital document and breezing through customs is an important part of your relaxation package.

2. Be in the Mood to Have Fun

You must, and I repeat this, you must forget about your tummy muffin or the size of your behind the minute you set foot on board the ship. You are sure to see all shapes and sizes of real folks around the pool and, to be brutally honest; most people are too drunk to care what you look like. Let go of your mental baggage and be a kid again. Otherwise you are wasting your time and money.

And be ready to party. The drinks on board average about five dollars and pack a serious wallop. We found the special drinks of the day to be a bit sweet, but those mango daiquiris are the bomb!

3. Consider Scopolamine

I once had a friend that told me that Scopolamine had made the difference between connubial bliss and Divorce Court when her husband bought a 50-foot yacht. This tiny patch behind your ear can make or break your vacation. Despite all the latest stabilizers and pulse jet engine technology, a ship still rocks and rolls at sea.

Don’t let queasiness spoil your bon temps. Most of the action is on the upper decks where you feel all the motion. A patch prescribed and worn in advance beats the heck out of having to run for the little dispensary as you swallow back your nausea.

4. Run Don’t Walk to the Spa

As soon as you grab your first drink, make a beeline for the spa. Appointments are limited and in high demand. Our ship’s parent company had recently spent over a million dollars renovating the spa on board and it showed. While everyone else was milling around the piano bars we were unwinding every last kink. Since this was our first cruise, Stephanie and I went whole hog and booked Total Pedicures AND the Balinese Hot Stone Treatments.

Of the two, I came out feeling that the pedicure was the best value. Lasting almost an hour, this leg massage, exfoliation, and traditional pedicure in a state-of-the-art heated chair was a bargain at fifty-five dollars. The stone treatment was excellent, but the ambiance was constantly broken by the pounding from the basketball court directly overhead.

One note of caution. The spa personnel are terrific and the products they use wonderful, but you may want to save an extra hundred bucks by politely declining their recommendations. I ended up happily buying the Elemis De-Stress Aromatherapy oil and the fancy salt scrub, but if you need to stick to a budget don’t be afraid to just say no.

5. Book Your Excursions Ahead of Time

As soon as you prepay your cruise you are given a password that allows you to view and pre-book shore excursions online. For the really limited kayaking and horseback riding day trips, it’s not just convenient, it’s essential. Being exhausted to begin with and just wanting to veg out, my daughter and I booked the Shopping Trip. This actually included a brief tour of a defunct casino built by the original odd couple, Jack Dempsey and Al Capone.

The bus then took us to an in-town winery where we sampled some of the most dreadful wine ever. (There is a Wine Tasting Trip to countryside wineries that other guests raved about, but I wouldn’t count on it.) Then it was on to an hour of shopping downtown. The bus operator gave us tips to avoid rip-offs, but you will still have to keep repeating “No, gracias” to all the people who shove brochures from La Farmacia in your face. I really wasn’t there to get any drug under the sun with no prescription.

The so-called safe shops only featured high end silver and leather goods, so be brave if you want kitschy take homes or embroidered clothing and wander through all the shops. The salespeople all speak some English. Be courteous and you will be repaid with genuine help and courtesy yourself.

6. Down Low is the Way to Go

No, I’m not suggesting gender bending for the weekend. What I’m talking about is booking a less pricey cabin on the lower decks. Those folks in the Penthouse Suites may enjoy their bathtubs with an ocean view, but they are being tossed around like Caesar Salad up there. The lower you go and more centered in the ship your stateroom is, the more comfortable you will be.

An inside stateroom on our cruise ran a mere $299. These cabins can hardly be called tiny. There’s plenty of closet space and the bathrooms are clean and commodious. And those updated beds and linens! Even in the cheapest rooms you are treated to distinctly posh duvets that cover super comfortable beds. This change has been so popular that some ships now offer trademark bedding for purchase, but don’t you do it! Sleep on your old stuff at home and save your money for your next cruise.

7. Spare Moments

Truth be told, there are no spare moments on a cruise. From the 6 a.m. yoga class to the R-rated midnight comedy show, you always have more than enough to do. Okay, so the Parker family hogged the karaoke bar every night. And maybe afternoon towel folding lessons seem a bit staid. But those lessons are at the same time and on the same deck as the Reggae All-Stars. So “You’ll Be Jammin’ while you carefully craft terrycloth gorillas.

Remember, you’re here for a mood adjustment so try everything. Line dancing by the pool, slots at the casino, and yes, towel folding. It’s all in the spirit of fun. Our ship was smaller and less intimidating than some of the mega-ships so the activities were centralized and had a flow to them. Sundays are “Fun Days at Sea” meaning just eat, drink, and be merry. It will do you a world of good to slow down and not have to plan a thing.

8. Pace Your Drinking

Cruises can be grownup fun parks. Rip roarin’ thrills and chills. The mixed drinks flow like Splash Mountain on the Fourth of July. But be careful. They are deceptively refreshing. Bathed in fabulous fruits the alcohol sneaks up on you. Our first night out, Stephanie and I passed a gal in the hallway who had already gone comatose and it wasn’t even seven yet. Have fun but don’t bite yourself in the butt. Keep a happy buzz on, but never get sloppy. If you feel your lips going numb slow it on down.

After all, the night doesn’t really unwind until 3 a.m., so keep that in mind as you sip your martini at the Hollywood Revue and your gimlet at the disco. Besides, hangovers are for amateurs. One of the most memorable moments we had was early morning hot tubbing with a flock of tiny parrot-green finches. They came right up to the edge of the whirlpool and fluffed their feathers in a steamy stupor. If you’re smart you will not rob yourself of a minute of pleasure nursing a horrible headache below decks.

9. Use the Buddy System

Over smoked salmon rosettes at dinner, one of our tablemates remarked that a cruise was a lot like Vegas. What happens on board stays on board. Which can amount to giving the Parker family a run for their money at the karaoke bar or hooking up with that hot Armenian who was pouring champagne over his bare chest at the disco. Do bear in mind that, in rare instances, the fun can go too far. The best way to enjoy yourself and stay safe is to use the buddy system.

Book your cruise with a friend who’s not afraid to break it up when you are wet-kissing someone’s hoary old grandpa at 2 a.m. And if you do give into that primal urge (meow!) make sure your buddy knows exactly which one of those hot Armenians you took off with. If you’re a no show at Home Base by 10 a.m. the next morning, at least the purser will know whose cabin door to start knocking on. Best of all, a good friend is way too much fun to people watch with. And if there are no crazy Armenians handy, you always have one terrific dance partner.

10. Save Up and Book Another Cruise

You’ll start planning your next cruise before your first one is over. It’s a bet! Cruising can be the best bang for your travel buck right now. And if you are single, you will never be lonely on a cruise ship. Several passengers we spoke to went on at least two mini-cruises a year. I know there are fancier and pricier ships out there, but don’t forget your agenda.

Know why you are cruising. It may be that two tons of fun in the sun is not for you. So go online. Read passenger reviews at sites like Cruisemates and Let other people tell you their stories and use them as your guide. Whichever cruise you choose to go on jump right in! The water’s just fine.