by Felicia Kamriani
Although I’ve traveled to more than twenty-five countries, I recently took my first cruise and found myself discombobulated in unfamiliar territory. As with any mode of travel, cruising comes with its own set of challenges and surprises. Being a jet setter by choice, I’ve endured most travel bumps including the memorable mid-route Los Angeles to Pakistan mishap when a distracted flight attendant accidentally spilled a tray of beef stroganoff down the front of my white shirt. From this unforeseen mess sprung a slew of handy travel tips themed, How to be Zen When Traveling. Thus, each subsequent trip offered new opportunities to amend, refine and develop new strategies. Navigating one’s way through a cruise can be easy(er) with a little preparation, a flexible disposition and some Zen-preservation tactics. Otherwise, one runs the risk of doing the worst imaginable thing anyone could ever possibly do on a vacation: complain.
For my maiden sail, I chose Holland America’s 12-day Mediterranean Romance aboard the Zuiderdam. The trifecta of breezy ocean air, hypnotic rippling waves and encompassing horizon lines unequivocally produced a tranquilizing meditative Zen like no landlocked hotel could… but first, one had to get to the ship. Seasoned travelers may be able to effortlessly adapt to a series of fiascos and remain calm, but for most novice globe trotters seeking a well-deserved getaway, the word vacation doesn’t include lost luggage, flight delays or missed ships. Not to state the obvious, but since people have, in fact, failed to show up in time for embarkation, handy tip #1 is to arrive in the port city two days prior to sailing. Consider the cost of the overnight stay in a Venetian hotel as insurance. Naturally, I allotted my standard two day buffer and thus had the luxury of giving up my airplane seat for a free ticket anywhere in the world and still arriving with a day to spare.
Much like fans who attend live sporting events and grumble about traffic, cruisers must get a grip in reality and discard the flawless vacation myth (#2). Just because one is going to paradise, doesn’t mean there aren’t bugs. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment as there is no magic ratio between the amount of time researching and planning a two week European cruise and the ensuing amount of seamless experiences. No need to voyage expecting a daisy chain of disasters, yet the mental preparedness of the possibility of long lines, kooky guests and minor inconveniences- diminishes their impact. Hiccups are an integral parts of any floating hotel with 2000+ guests, so pack some mental remedies like a this-will-make-a-good-story-back-home attitude (#3) along with a travel mantra (#4). Mine goes something like this: “I’m on vacation and everything is fine.” Say it religiously, frequently and sincerely throughout the travel process, not just in moments of tension. Never underestimate the power of equanimity. Tactile tips, never wear white when traveling (#5) and always have a weekend’s worth of clothing/necessities in your carry-on (#6) are simple measures to make misplaced luggage less catastrophic. And to make one’s entire trip more manageable, pack light (#7). Two-week cruises stop in a multitude of ports, all of which boast treasures one might like to take home. Arrive with a half-full suitcase, so there is room to fill. Ship-board laundry services are not only economical and speedy, they magically turn a week’s worth of clothing into two.
Interestingly, cruising, gave me anxiety for a completely unforeseen reason. As it turns out, I was a bit of a scaredy-cat. I actually had to start using the “Everything’s fine!” mantra while still on land since crazy visions of sinking and pirates and falling overboard seeped into my pre-sailing days. Once face-to-face with the vessel, I was newly intimidated by the monstrous size of the ship not to mention the thousands of pounds of guests and crew milling about. My capsizing suspicions were confirmed once I glimpsed forklifts swirling about the loading dock carrying tons (literally) of supplies. Deep breaths (#8). It sounds silly, but there is something to it, and most of us don’t do it unless exacerbated. All of those yogis are poised and composed for a reason- they practice deep breathing. This tool aids in most nerve racking situations, including bumpy flights, rocky tenders (those motorized boats that whisk cruisers to and from shore), and bickering tablemates. A sure thing for unruffling feathers.
For some, cruising conjures the image of sedentary types foraging on all-you-can-eat buffets. Well, just because every type of food imaginable is available anytime of day or night, doesn’t mean that one has to eat it, right? The decadent smorgasbords exemplify the abundance of cruise offerings that stretch far beyond the dining rooms to activities, music, classes, shopping, excursions, fitness, drinks, parties, games… that tip#9 quickly unfolded: balance. Balancing one’s day must be tackled only after balancing one’s equilibrium. So the first order of business is to get the boat to stop swaying. For types who cannot read in a moving vehicle or experience a mili-ounce of car sickness, my recommendation is to pack non-drowsy Dramamine, ginger pills AND a prescribed patch– just in case. Clueless me, never knew that car sickness was the long lost relative of sea sickness, and the second-cousin of bus sickness, so I traveled remedy-less. The ship-board-infirmary Bonnie was superbly effective in wooing me to sleep while standing up; the green apples (a crew member tip) no doubt kept me healthy, but did not remove my hangoverish motion-headache in the least; beer (a passenger tip) only exacerbated the unsteadiness; and the pressure point bracelets did nothing but annoy me and remind me that they weren’t effective. A nice, fellow passenger gave me ginger pills, which magically made the waves stop. Ta da! I was then steady enough to tackle all of the activities the cruise had to offer. Or so I thought.
The numerous selections sent me into such a bewildered state, that on my first day at sea, I found myself heading out of my stateroom, only to turn back around again and regroup. I sat dazed and perplexed trying to untangle the daily schedule. It was easy to get swept up in trying to do it all, especially when the animated cruise director’s contagious energy ignited the urge to partake in all that he described. I reworked my action plan to include meal breaks and rushed off to my day: fitness guided mile walk, humus/tahini/falafal cooking class, creating towel animals workshop, art-history talk, movie screening, kitchens tour, ping-pong tourney, pre-dinner cabaret show and post-dining musical entertainment. After a thoroughly packed first day, I collapsed into oblivion, missing the band, the betting and the late night Lido snack. I knew I couldn’t keep up that pace for eleven more days. I awoke groggy and as I dizzily fumbled for my ginger pills in search of balance, out popped an epiphany. Erase the try-to-do-it-all misguided efforts of the previous day and start with a clean slate, and a new motto, moderation (#10). This word, normally helpful at buffets or happy hours, is actually quite useful for schedules too.
As I sat on my veranda, sipping my room-service piping hot decaf, reviewing the delivered-daily newsletter, and discerning how to minimalize my running to and fro, I realized, that what I was doing at that very moment was not listed anywhere among the swell of options. The often overlooked simplicity of relaxing on the veranda (#11), was indeed the secret key to a relaxing cruise. Certainly people do this on Embarkation Day, but come day nine, many are glued to the tv or the roulette wheel and have forgotten the effortless way to a quick Zen. So regardless of the day’s itinerary- before, during or after the hustle and flow- take a time out, grab a hat, a drink, a mantra or sunglasses, lean against the rail or chill in a chair and stare out at sea. It will unclog the pores in a way that no aerobic class or deep-cleansing facial can.
Nonetheless, the fitness center and Greenhouse Spa were on my Zen-inducing list. I found no excuse to overeat when the fitness center beckoned with an array of calorie-fighting remedies and sweeping bow views to boot. Since no other 5-star hotel can offer a treadmill workout and a simultaneous Venetian skyline view, why not take advantage of the two-for-one? Plus, the state-of-the-art fitness center gave me an excuse to transform my two week cruise into a cardiovascularly healthful retreat. The cost? Free! (That is, included.) For those who find exercise (#12) to conflict with the essence of vacation, a visit to the spa (#13) is in order because massages, steam rooms and whirlpools are quintessential Zen producers.
With little effort, time on the ship can be relaxing and carefree, but what about when it stops in exotic, strange ports? Explorers need not feel unsettled as ships offer a wealth of excursions to whisk groups off on organized outings. Holland America had shore excursions down to a science. There was a tempting shore excursion guide for guests to peruse at their leisure, daily digests of the next port of call (with maps, highlights, history, shopping ideas and restaurants suggestions), ship-wide announcements of upcoming destinations, and organized talks about the various jaunts. Groups disembarked and boarded transportation with such precision that it never seemed like 2000 people were indeed trying to reach land at the same time. The only anxiety-ridden thread was determining which tempting shore excursion to take. Do not neglect the option of wandering solo and discovering a new country guideless. For some, this alternative is more relaxing than a bus group, for others it is terrifying. One’s anxiety level will help determine the ideal route – one course being not getting off the ship at all! My recommendation (#14) is to pepper the cruise with a little culture and get a taste of a new region. After all, most ports of call are only about eight hours, so might as well wander for a few and soak up a new vibe. It will either whet the appetite for a return visit or help one appreciate the ship more. Alert- be savvy about the ship departure times. Tardy types will either delay sailing or be left ashore- and both options are Zen-busters.
I whittled down my routine to a few favorites, the informative art-history classes, Captain talks and exotic cooking classes. Instead of rushing around in search of the next fun activity, I used my open afternoon to discover a Zenful space (#15). Surprisingly, despite thousands of guests milling about, I not only found a secluded spot, but the same lounge chair (with footstool) kept opening up with impeccable timing as if it were waiting for me to arrive and occupy it. Every night, après As You Wish dining, my Merlot companion and I retreated to my favorite place on the Zuiderdam. Of all the cozy spots, guess which one I adored the most? While I’m famous for my bingo playing, it wasn’t the Casino; as a former Netflix fan, twas not the screening room; despite my football madness, I skirted past the Sports Bar. Piano Bar? Nightclub? Ping pong? Nope, nope, nope. There was only place I could be found nightly. My ultra-favorite place on the ship was the Explorer’s Lounge. Bliss on any ocean. This library slash internet café drew intermittent streams of typists wishing to connect with landlocked types, caffeine deprived sailors celebrating the mirage of cappuccinos, and flick aficionados scouring the latest DVD releases. With rows and rows of books it was a haven for the curious, wordsmithy folk- or for those of us seeking an escape. A nook of serenity for crosswords, daydreaming or snoozing. Must mention- top deck bow- not an ideal place for those of us sensitive to waves. Therefore, my diehard presence should emphasize how much I loved it as I was fully willing to take extra meds just to curl up there and hibernate.
To view even more of Felicia’s stunning photographs from this trip, visit her Picasa album.
Catch her if you can, Felicia Kamriani is a California-born, Wisconsin-bred, half-Mexican, half-Pakistani globe-trotter. Having experienced the thrill of Mach 2 on the Concorde, Felicia now finds it hard to sit still. She’s traveled to 25 different countries and keeps on going! On a break from gallivanting the globe, Felicia studied serious subjects at UC Berkeley and then Stanford University, but decided upon graduation to continue on grass hopping. When not exploring other continents, Felicia writes about Los Angeles happenings, Hollywood news, celebrity charity events, film festivals and luxe vacation spots. Where in the world is Felicia now? Hmmm?