Filling days at sea needn’t be a sedentary pursuit

The redesigned Atrium on the Golden Princess. The redesigned Atrium on the Golden Princess. (Princess Cruises)
By Richard P. Carpenter
Globe Correspondent / September 27, 2009

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Even now, after decades of traveling, sleep can be a stranger the night before. It’s hard to slumber when my mind buzzes with thoughts of the wonders waiting at my destination. And on this particular trip, I had a double destination: a big ship named the Golden Princess and the golden islands of Hawaii.

Can a cruise ship be a destination? It can if you are scheduled to spend eight days at sea or even, as it turned out, 10 days. With that kind of time aboard, a cruise ship becomes like a city replete with activities and attractions that can sparkle and crackle with sounds and excitement and at other times be a place of profound peace. And while such a prolonged time at sea can make some passengers bored and grumpy, I like to think they are few.

The Golden Princess, which carries 2,600 passengers, was sailing from Los Angeles to Hawaii and back, with four sea days scheduled in each direction. But, to the disappointment even of those who love shipboard life, wind and waves canceled a port visit in Kauai, Hawaii, and one in Ensenada, Mexico, en route back to Los Angeles. Come along anyway for a peek into the ways of a city at sea.

Let’s start by going to school. A cruise may have once been an excuse for checking your mind at the gangway, but nowadays there are ways to learn and to have fun doing so. Princess Cruise Lines calls its program Scholarship@Sea, and on this cruise, the topic is often Hawaii.

Take a seat in the Vista Lounge as historian Harry Soria holds four sessions on topics ranging from the hotels of Waikiki to the movies, bogus and otherwise, that featured the islands, while his wife, Holly, demonstrates the hula. Or learn from another husband-wife team, Lealoha and Bruddah Dave, how to eat and speak Hawaiian. You can even take classes in hula dancing and ukulele playing.

It’s almost always showtime aboard ship, with movies shown on cabin televisions, in the Princess Theater, and, after a recent revamp, on a Movie Under the Stars outdoor screen by one of the three pools. But it is the live shows, concerts, and competitions where cruise ships distinguish themselves. The main shows can be glossy and spectacular, with singing, dancing, and changes from one glittering costume to another. Or they can be more modest, in intimate lounges, with a solo singer or a musician. Yet it is the amateur competitions, be they karaoke or American Idol-type contests, that can surprise, amuse, and provoke the most rousing cheers. For me, though, none of those could compare with the sweetness of a one-night-only show featuring Hawaiian children singing and dancing.

There are, of course, the cruise-ship staples. You can play trivia games morning, noon, and night, sometimes dashing from one to the other in hopes of winning a puny prize such as a pen or tote bag. There are the well-equipped exercise room and the spa. There are activities with a price tag attached, such as bingo and mock horse racing. There is the casino where, odds are, you lose. There are art auctions (but know what you are doing if you bid on high-priced items) and dance classes, where you can learn such steps as the “tush push.’’ There are cooking and floral demonstrations. Take them or leave them.

There is time to dine, and then dine some more. On the Golden Princess, as on many ships, food - good food - is available 24 hours a day at the two main restaurants, the buffet area, from room service, and, for a slight extra charge, the two specialty restaurants, one specializing in steak dishes, the other in Italian fare. A rarer culinary experience, for $75 a person, is an Evening at the Chef’s Table, with insight into cooking for thousands aboard a ship, with hors d’oeuvres and champagne in the galley during the busy time, and with a multicourse tasting menu at a VIP table in the dining room.

All this time at sea gives you many chances to meet and chat with fellow passengers, and learn from them. On this trip, for instance, a woman from Bangor, told me that Stephen King is sometimes seen around town wearing pink sneakers. And a resident of Alberta, Canada, persuaded me to add the annual Calgary Stampede to my “bucket list.’’

But maybe the best part of sea days is the quiet time, when you leave the chatting and dining and bustling behind and walk along the promenade deck or pick up a book and read by the pool or in a comfortable chair inside. Soon you become oblivious to the parade of people passing by. Your mind is elsewhere.

Ten days at sea. Sometimes I think that 10 times 10 days would be all right with me.

Richard P. Carpenter can be reached at