After Nearly a Month at Sea, Learning to Be Happily Adrift
For some people, taking a cruise is about what you see when you’re off the boat. But not for the author, whose voyage across the Atlantic taught him the beauty of being all at sea.
The stated promise of 24 summer days aboard the Seabourn Quest was the raw Arctic scenery of the “Route of the Vikings,” a 6,410-mile crossing from Copenhagen to Montreal via Iceland and Greenland. Sailing through fields of icebergs and past pods of whales would be undeniably thrilling, though not nearly as thrilling, to me, as the bigger, unwritten promise of spending nearly a month at sea.
These days, cruises are sold either for their jam-packed itineraries or their over-the-top amenities—as if being at sea were a constant struggle against boredom. Not everybody who gets on a ship, however, sees it this way. Cruising was once the definition of leisure. Years ago, trips like a winter sailing to South America from New York aboard one of the great Moore-McCormack liners, or an around-the-world voyage on Cunard’s iconic Caronia, were long, lazy, aimless affairs. My idea of a cruise was formed by the character of Charlotte Vale in the Bette Davis classic Now, Voyager: you go up the gangway a dandelion and, after a few months of sea air, come down it an orchid.
I still believe in the curative powers of the ocean’s changing colors, a big sky full of stars, true quiet and darkness, and the rock-a-bye motion of waves. For me, here was the right itinerary on the right ship, combining eight full days at sea with a string of mostly minor ports. I’d never even heard of Arendal, Norway; Tórshavn, in the Faroe Islands; Sisimiut and Qaqortoq, in Greenland; or Bonne Bay, Newfoundland. There would be little reason to rush off on the next shore excursion. Provincial church, vista point, fish market—who really needs to see another? I’d rather be that steadfast passenger who, while everybody else runs for the gangway, stays put, goes to lunch, and orders a bottle of wine.
You wouldn’t last trying this on just any ship, and Seabourn, more than most cruise lines, is tuned to the seasoned marathon cruiser. Too much high-voltage fantasy would exhaust anybody beyond a week. Too much heavy-handed luxury is not easy to endure either; it quickly turns cloying. On Seabourn Quest, the meaning of luxury leaned less toward a parade of 50 flaming baked Alaskas and more toward a shot of Irish whiskey in my hot chocolate. (That never wore thin.) With just 430 passengers on board, the atmosphere was quiet. The Italian-built ship felt like a yacht outfitted by Bottega Veneta. My suite, No. 614, was deeply calming, with blond wood and leather furnishings, a balcony, a marble bathroom, and a walk-in closet big enough to absorb the three seasons of clothing this itinerary required, from linen shirts to a puffy Uniqlo vest. My cabin very quickly became all the world I needed. Some days I never left.
When I was drawn out, it was usually by the soothing, periodic announcements of our South African cruise director, Handré Potgieter, about some impending caviar party. Or to hear “My One and Only Love” sung by Elise to Dmitri’s jazz piano in the bar before dinner. Or to try Seabourn’s new kayak-and-Zodiac-based shore excursion program, Ventures, with its attractive young team ever ready to reveal some new fact about the habits of Arctic puffins. I forced myself to stop Instagramming the unchanging, unexpectedly calm Atlantic to attend at least a few of the 45 lectures about the challenges of Viking life or the politics of the Faroe Islands. There I was in a darkened lounge at 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, listening with sincere interest as a professor in a bad Harris Tweed jacket said, “By 850 there was a parliament established in Tórshavn.” I saw someone write that down.
On a ship, anybody can meet anybody. Slip in line behind your object of fascination while waiting for a plate of freshly sliced jamón ibérico, or maneuver into the next table during afternoon tea, and you’re in play. I spent the entire first week looking my fellow cruisers over, studying the passenger list, and inventing outlandish stories about people based on absolutely nothing—former model, third wife, diabolical oligarch. I identified the passengers I was determined to meet. In a lifetime of Manhattan dinner parties, I’ve never sat next to a Boeing 747 pilot, a grande dame from Johannesburg, a Memphis couple who fly around the world chasing the Rolling Stones, tax refugees from Monaco, people who assumed I was a Republican, people who didn’t assume I was gay, or the widow of the Swedish Fish candy magnate. “Doze feesh ah de reason I am on dees ship,” she told me.
By week two, the break with reality was complete. It was a new me, earnestly identifying seabirds. The first week’s overenthusiastic eating was dialed back; I no longer felt the need to order a soufflé at every meal. A shipboard routine was established, whereby the crew knew what I was going to do before I did. I took note of other passengers’ patterns, too, because by then I’d identified the people I wanted to avoid (and there are always a few of those).
Weeks two and three were spent in the far reaches of Iceland and Greenland, and offered the added excitement of many sights that cannot be scheduled, like calving glaciers. One night at 1 a.m. our captain stunned us out of sleep with a ship-wide announcement. A few people misunderstood and thought the ship was going down, but he was simply urging us to go on deck for a rare show of the northern lights, dancing pink and green across a crystal-clear sky.
Ominous floodlights scanned the black water through the night as we approached Ilulissat, Greenland, about 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where one of the world’s most active glaciers steadily pushes icebergs into the North Atlantic. (The Titanic was very likely sunk by an iceberg from this glacier.) When the sun came up, 10 of us sped around the ice-choked fjords in a Zodiac for two hours, bundled up against the spray and the just-above-freezing air. We dodged avalanches from 10-story icebergs, watched smaller icebergs shift and roll, and passed around a so-called growler, a small chunk of ice so clear it looked like a diamond and so dense it could damage a ship.
I’d have made the whole trip for this one pure, perfect outing. Just as I was thinking, My mind is as clear as it has ever been, a phone rang in a backpack. “I can’t believe it, my phone hasn’t rung in two weeks!” a deep Southern accent announced to all of us. It continued to ring while my fellow passenger checked the screen. “Honey, it’s Chrissy in San Antonio!” she bellowed at her husband, as if he hadn’t been sitting next to her in a rubber raft. She took the call and we all had a nice catch-up with Chrissy. For the rest of the cruise, I glared at this woman every time I saw her.
On night 23, my cabin steward laid a brown vinyl sheet over the duvet on my bed, the signal it was time to get out my luggage. It came as a shock. Potgieter explained to me that any voyage this long has one essential distinction: “On a one- or two-week cruise you are thinking, ‘Only x days left,’ from the moment you board the ship. On a long cruise there is no countdown. You never think about the end. Until the end.”