High Tea On Carnival, And Other Anomalies On The Seas

The mass-market cruise lines have long been identified by their customer base: young partiers on Carnival, middle-aged types and families on Royal Caribbean, old folks on Holland America and slightly more well-to-do people on Princess and Celebrity.

There’s some truth to the stereotypes. The various lines market themselves to certain demographic elements. But other factors can be more important in determining who takes a cruise and what the atmosphere is like.

Carnival’s reputation for floating wild party boats took a serious hit with me last fall. Much to my delight, our cruise on the Carnival Spirit from Vancouver to Honolulu was as sedate as afternoon tea. In fact, tea was served on days at sea, with a string trio playing classical music. I kid you not.

It seems that the itinerary and time of year have at least as much to do with the atmosphere as the brand name. (And brand names aren’t all that distinct from each other. Keep in mind that Carnival owns Holland America and Princess, as well as the very upscale Seabourn line, and Royal Caribbean owns Celebrity.) 

I’ve talked this over with many cruise ship staffers, and they can always predict how lively a crowd they’re going to have on any given trip. What matters is the time of year, the destination and the length of the cruise.

Take the Hawaii cruise. Yes, it was on Carnival. But the cruise began late in September so there were very few children on board. It was a 12-day voyage, and most Americans are no longer inclined or able to take vacations that long, so a lot of the passengers were retired. And it was relatively expensive, including the cost of returning from Hawaii by air, which ruled out spur-of-the-moment party-hearty youngsters.

There also happened to a very large and rather serious-minded contingent of British ladies from a church group on board. Hundreds of them.

The mellow atmosphere suited us perfectly, but being curious journalists, my husband and I went out and about on the ship one night around 11 to see what was happening. And we found: nothing. The atrium was abandoned. The disco was empty. Most of the bars were closed.

Royal Caribbean has a somewhat more sedate reputation, but I’ve been on much livelier cruises on its ships — as well as fairly mellow ones. Cruises to the Caribbean and Bahamas tend to be lively, but we took one in early December that was practically comatose. A four-day cruise out of Miami to the Bahamas in the summer, on the other hand, was hopping all night long.

So if you want to take a mass-market cruise with a more relaxed atmosphere, I’d recommend a one-way to Hawaii. If that’s too much, try a cruise of at least seven days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. (Prices tend to be pretty low then, too.)

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