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Saturday,  April 13 , 2024

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From the Newsroom: Cruising? I’m back on board

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: March 2, 2024, 6:05am

If you’re reading this, I am on a cruise!

Regular readers of this column might recall that my wife and I are frequent cruisers. Last year we took two longer destination cruises. The first was from San Antonio, Chile, to Los Angeles, calling at ports in South America, Central America and Mexico. The second was a round-trip cruise from Southampton, England, visiting eight ports in Norway and one in Belgium.

These destination cruises are an easy way for people beyond middle age, such as us, to see some amazing places without a lot of the exhaustion of travel. No youth hostels for me!

This time we were just looking for some warm weather and a week with our grown-up kids, so we are on a big ship, Regal Princess, and familiar trip, the Western Caribbean.

After a couple of years of pre-cruise COVID testing, masks and social distancing, the cruise industry has recovered and is growing again. The big ships that were idled from 2020-2022 are back in service, and they are all very full. Major cruise lines like Royal Caribbean are reporting occupancy rates in excess of 100 percent, which means that all the staterooms are full and a number of passengers are using sofa beds or bunks that pull down from the ceiling. We used to do this when our daughter was younger. If you are tempted to do so, be aware that four adults in a standard cruise ship cabin will make for very tight quarters indeed.

The trade group Cruise Line Industry Association projects 36 million passengers will take a cruise this year. That compares with 29.7 million in 2019, the year before the pandemic. To accommodate this growth, cruise lines are taking delivery of a bunch of new, and mostly enormous, ships. In January Royal Caribbean International broke its own record for operating the world’s largest cruise ship when it placed Icon of the Seas into service from Miami. It carries anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 passengers per cruise.

Do you remember the old TV show “The Love Boat”? Icon of the Seas is about 10 times the size of that vessel, which was named Pacific Princess, and also carries 10 times as many passengers.

Speaking of Princess Cruises, last month that line took delivery of Sun Princess, its first of two ships that will compete size-wise with some of Royal Caribbean’s fleet. This is the third ship named Sun Princess; it carries 4,300 lower berth passengers. The second Sun Princess, which I was lucky enough to sail several times, debuted in the mid-1990s and carried about 2,000 passengers. And other lines, including Norwegian, Carnival and MSC Cruises, also have new megaships on order or on the water.

The big ships offer a lot of experiences, many of which come with a fee. But compared with the 1990s, the cruise fares are less, particularly when you consider inflation. If you don’t want to go ice skating, ride the bumper cars or indulge in high-end whiskey tasting, you can cruise for not too much money. A seven-day Alaska cruise from Seattle starts at about $600 per person this summer.

Because these big ships pack in so many people, and are just plain large, they tend to overwhelm ports. Some places, like Cozumel, Mexico, have expanded their docks to handle big ships. But the latest trend is for cruise lines to build and operate their own ports, such as Disney’s Castaway Cay or Royal Caribbean’s Perfect Day at CocoCay. On our trip we’re visiting Carnival’s Mahogany Beach, which is on the Honduran island of Roatan. I’ve been there a couple of times and it’s a fun place for a swim; at the far end of the beach there is a hut where you can buy local beer and a lunch of a whole fried fish, plantains and salad.

I’ll admit, these megaships aren’t for everyone. But it will be a fun week, full of opportunities for relaxation and entertainment. Maybe we’ll go snorkeling. After three months of winter, it will be fun to get my swimsuit wet again.