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A cruise skeptic hops aboard ... and finds fun

Around day four of our cruise, I realized that I was having fun. I hadn't expected this to happen. My husband and I are explorers. We prefer leisurely stays to hit-and-run visits. We'd rather hike than hit the 24-hour buffet. We like to find adventures, not have them planned by a cruise-sanctioned “excursion” company. And Steve and I really needed a vacation alone — not with colleagues, and certainly not with 3,000 strangers.
Our cruise got off to a shaky start. But then the Grand Princess docked in Roatan, Honduras — and that's where the story changed.
Our cruise got off to a shaky start. But then the Grand Princess docked in Roatan, Honduras — and that's where the story changed. Ido Magal

Around day four of our cruise, I realized that I was having fun.

I hadn't expected this to happen. My husband and I are explorers. We prefer leisurely stays to hit-and-run visits. We'd rather hike than hit the 24-hour buffet. We like to find adventures, not have them planned by a cruise-sanctioned “excursion” company. And Steve and I really needed a vacation alone — not with colleagues, and certainly not with 3,000 strangers.

So when we got a chance to take a free Princess cruise to the Western Caribbean, we were appreciative but wary. Steve and I both believed this trip, a gift from his company to the employees and their families, would be something we'd endure, rather than enjoy.

Boy, were we wrong.

We had a shaky start. We arrived in Galveston, Texas, armed with hot-weather clothes —  only to find cool temperatures and a brisk breeze. The massive Grand Princess, viewed from the bus that shuttled us to the port, looked imposing, greedy and frivolous. I couldn't imagine having fun there.

I was dizzy and uncomfortable as we plowed through the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I was irritated by the ever-present pump bottles of hand sanitizer and our stateroom steward, who called out to greet us every time we crept from our room. “Hi Steve! Hi Kristin!,” he'd yell as we beat a hasty retreat. “Can I be of assistance?”

We were used to doing things ourselves, including choosing when we ate and what we wore to meals. We chafed at the “smart casual” and “formal” dress requirements for dinner, and that we had to sit with the same people every night. Our waiter kept coaxing us to order appetizers and desserts we didn't want. A member of our group contracted the dreaded Norwalk virus and was quarantined in his room. And our first port of call, a made-up town on the Mexican Riviera called Puerto Costa Maya, was about as authentic as Chevy's. After an afternoon on a packed beach with the soothing sounds of motorboats and jet skis, we were ready to swim back to Seattle.

Zip it
But then I found myself zipping down a cable through a Honduran rainforest, and everything changed.

I was actually pretty scared to zipline. I’ve been on safari in South Africa and I prefer my ski runs to be the black diamond variety. But dangling from a pulley over a rainforest? No thanks. Yet there I was, strapped in and helmeted, oversized gloves on my hands.

“I think once you get through the first five seconds, it's OK,” I told Wyatt, my new 11 year-old friend. He looked at me doubtfully, but then we were zipping — through the trees and above the trees, over a rickety rope bridge and a murky brown river. As we glided from platform to platform, I felt jubilant. When else would I ever get to do something like this again?

The cables and pulleys deposited us on a near-deserted beach in Gumbalimba Park. The sun was hot, the water was warm and the lounge chairs were plentiful. For the first time in a long time, I felt my jangled nerves start to uncoil. My job at that moment was to do ... nothing. There was a bus waiting to take me back to the ship, and a ship’s captain ready to pilot us to our next port. The bed was made, dinner was handled. I could take a lazy nap, or go for a dip in the turquoise Caribbean. I could do, or not do, whatever I wanted.

And that, ultimately, is what turned me into a cruise fan. Back in the real world, I'm a planner. I make lists. I multi-task. I’ve been told to “work on relaxing.” Yet after just three days on a cruise ship, I didn't know what day it was. I had no interest in keeping up with the news. I turned off my cell phone and didn't think to check e-mail. I drank a few pina coladas.

Karaoke, shuffleboard and line dancing
Despite the planned “excursions,” cruise-speak for the tours and activities available at each port of call, the trip had a relaxed, unstructured feel that I’d never experienced on a vacation. Once, after a “smart casual” dinner, we ran into a couple we knew and decided to hit the karaoke competition. Karaoke, an activity I usually avoid on dry land, seemed appropriately silly — and perfectly fun — on the Grand Princess.

Karaoke was just one of the many activities on board the moving city that was our ship: You could play shuffleboard in the afternoon, or catch a screening of “Cars” by the pool. You could learn to line-dance. You could take a spin class. You could catch a magician-comedian in the Vista lounge. Yes, it was ridiculous. But at some point, you had to embrace the silliness, or be endlessly irritated by it. I chose the former.

On day four of our seven-day trip, I was seated on the sun-drenched deck of a speeding catamaran. We'd been snorkeling that day at Belize's barrier reef, the second largest in the world. We'd seen bright-colored fish and purple coral that waved to us like fingers. We’d encountered stingrays and nurse sharks. As we churned toward the hulking ship, parked offshore in the glistening Caribbean, I sipped rum punch and posed for pictures with people I hadn't known five days ago. I was the happiest I’d been in a long time.

Would I do it again on my own dime? I’m not sure. I have equally great memories of trips we’ve planned ourselves. I like spreading out guidebooks and maps and plotting an attack: Museum on Wednesday, trekking on Thursday, shopping on Friday. But no matter what vacation Steve and I take next, our got-to-see-everything time will be liberally balanced with got-to-do-nothing time.

And plenty of pina coladas.