What is it about stepping across the threshold from solid land onto the teak deck of a large floating structure that seems to cool the senses, churn-up feelings of adventure and romance, and magnify the urge to kick-back on a deckchair with a good book? Those were the days, in the late seventies and early eighties, when I set aside reality, and made numerous journey’s to Miami for short visits aboard these lovely white cruise ships. At an early age, I developed a unique passion for cruise ships, but unfortunately, as a young man, living in my parent’s house, I could not afford on my own to go on a cruise and my folks, although well traveled, were not about to take a cruise as a family vacation. I would, however, make my way to Miami on an occasional weekend trip to visit the cruise ships, but this only teased and fueled my desire to one day go to sea on one of these ships. To me it was like stepping into a fantasy world even as a visitor on these early cruise ships, and it was so hard to leave the ship, knowing all these passengers were going to live-out what I only dreamed of doing. The idea of “the voyage” and cruising to exotic destinations, and being on a ship at sea was so intriguing to me. I still recall the many times I would fly into Miami, rent a car, and immediately make my way to where the cruise ships docked. I loved the humidity in the air, and driving over that bridge seeing cruise ship row with several ships docked. I remember the haze in the air with the cruise ships in the distance, and I could hardly wait to park the car and get on the ship. My home was Minnesota, so seeing these big cruise ships lined-up was so exciting for me. The ships were bigger-than-life from my point of view, and I would just be giddy as I made my way into the cruise terminal to register as a visitor and go aboard to look around. In these days it was rather easy to obtain a visitor’s pass and go aboard the ships for a look around. Of course I always enjoyed the free lunch usually served onboard for the passengers that were boarding the ship that day to begin their week-long vacation. The atmosphere was always festive, and all these lucky passengers were also giddy with anticipation as they familiarized themselves with their ship and home for the next seven days or more.
It seemed I was always a visitor and never an actual passenger. Sometimes I would explore one ship then move on down the line to the next ship, and the next…I would often visit three ships in one day. What I found interesting was even though I would go from one cruise ship and one cruise line to another, there was always that same festive feeling of anticipation onboard. Now, back then in the late 70’s and early 80’s, most of the ships were around the same size, about 20 – 30 thousand tons. I think what really made my ship visits special was the fact that some of these cruise ships were real ships, older ships or liners converted for cruising. The moment I stepped aboard I felt I was on a ship. I can still recall that familiar smell mixed in with the humidity and the air-conditioning onboard the ship, with hints of fresh paint, sea air and fresh luggage stacked in the corridors, I knew I was in my element and those smells were invigorating for me. It was ships like the Mardi Gras or the Festivale, the Emerald Seas, and even the newer Nordic Prince that were really fun to explore and those ships had such an interesting charm. My interest in ships started with ocean liners, which is why the older ships were so appealing to me…but that’s another story.
I would spend hours on a ship exploring the public rooms, hanging out by the pool and the lido area where the food was, I took many pictures and sometimes I met with friends in Miami and brought them aboard with me for a tour. I really couldn’t get enough of these ships and wished that someday I could be a passenger. After a full day of hanging out on the ships, I would usually jump in my rental car and head out across the channel and towards the beach where I would watch the ships leave the port of Miami and cruise out into the sunset off on another voyage full of eager passengers. You can’t help but wave at the ships as they pass by. There truly was something romantic and exciting about seeing these ships that were bigger-than-life cruise by and out to sea. The longing inside me to one day stand on the deck of one of those ships as a passenger was tremendous and I brought that feeling all the way home with me back to Minneapolis and back to reality.
The history of the cruise vacation industry starts back when ocean liners were the only way to get across the Atlantic or the Pacific oceans. Occasionally liners, or ships of state, deviated from their usual routes to visit warm and exotic ports of call. These liners weren’t really designed for such excursions to the warmer climates because many didn’t have air-conditioning, and it would get hot onboard these big floating steel boxes.
The great liners had their heyday and then the airplanes started to carry more passengers than the ships and the shipping companies struggled to maintain business. Some of the strategies by the big shipping lines was to send their vessels on more cruises. Finally, the ships could no longer compete with the airplanes, and the ships were either scrapped, redeployed or made into cruise ships. The cruise industry as we know it today started in the 60’s where a few companies gambled with old remodeled ships, and some entrepreneurs even built new ones. The cruise industry made its home port out of Miami, primarily, and the ships that ported there were called the “white ships”. The base of cruisers was mostly the elderly and their parents, which created somewhat of a stigma that cruising is for older people. A cruise was indeed a luxury and the elderly seemed to be the only people who could afford this type of vacation.
Life onboard the ships in the early days, was mostly about warm-climate cruising, exotic islands and destinations, and great food. It was a simpler life onboard during these early years, with many fun activities, but nothing like we see today on the big 100,000+ ton ships with huge show lounges, water parks, rock-climbing walls and multiple dining venues.
Barry Vaudrin is the Host of Cruising Authority, a multi-media series of content for the cruise consumer. Ever wonder what a Hawaiian cruise is like? You’re not going to want to miss our four-part series featuring a Hawaiian cruise aboard the Pride of America.
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