Travel

Things I Wish I Knew Before Embarking on My First Cruise

How a clueless land-lover learned to navigate the all-inclusive open seas.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

My people are not cruise people. Between an easily seasick mother, a landlocked Midwestern childhood, and an inner circle more interested in exploring the land under their feet, the notion of cruising never really came up. I’ve been whale watching and fishing, taken ferries to barrier islands, and partied on moored speed boats and pontoons. But spending the night on a boat? Never.

That was until August 26, 2022, when I stepped onto the brand sparkling new Norwegian Prima and settled in for eight full days on the water.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

I flew to Reykjavik, Iceland, where the ship would depart, armed with a few changes of clothes (“You’ll be lounging, bring stuff to lounge,” my coworkers consulted me), my work laptop, an international roaming plan, and absolutely no clue what to expect. But on the plane, I frantically Googled things I realized I couldn’t answer. Like, what happens if I’m hungry at 3 am? Can you just walk off a cruise at port or do you need special permission? Can you watch broadcast TV on a cruise ship? Are there doctors on cruise ships? What exactly is maritime law?

The fact that, on land, I’m rarely hungry at 3 am, don’t have or need cable television, rarely ever go to the doctor, and haven’t had a brush with the law since high school failed to soothe my last-minute spiralling. I was about to be confined to a single vessel for more than a week. I steeled myself for this bizarro all-inclusive resort, where instead of a road leading back to town, there’s just miles upon miles of frigid, shark-infested waves (okay, probably not shark-infested, but still).

That’s not to say I wasn’t excited. I’m a big fan of boats, and the route promised to unveil a lineup of cities I would’ve probably never visited if travelling by air. Places like County Cork, Ireland, with its rabble-rousing past and pastel-coloured row houses; England’s curving seaside, a region known for its rich history and healing breezes; and La Havre, France, a Normandy port town dominated by crisp mid-century architecture and a killer beachfront skatepark.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

I also knew I’d be treated to Vegas-quality live entertainment by way of headliner Katie Perry and closing act Chaka Khan-ship christenings are a big deal, I gathered, and they spare no expense when it comes to star-studded events. There’d be celebrity chef-helmed restaurants, infinity pools, a full thermal spa, and-no joke-a three-tiered go-kart speedway perched high atop the ship’s uppermost deck. (According to the online brochure, the track promised to be “longer, larger, and zoomier than ever.”)

But what I didn’t know? As it turns out, that could fill acres of the seemingly endless ocean ahead of me.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

For one week, my brain took the form of an infant-like sponge, soaking up every cruise ship detail that came my way. I peeked out of every porthole, strolled each deck from aft to stern, mastered the breakfast buffet line, and baked in charcoal saunas stashed deep in the vessel’s belly. My fellow passengers, all 3,000 or so of them, seemed to all be wizened cruisers, spouting ship-related facts and figures with the casual confidence of a seasoned MLB announcer talking balls and strikes.

Eventually, I got my sea legs. After a few days, I stopped reaching for my wallet after ordering a drink, and my designated cabin steward’s cheery “Good morning, Meredith!” no longer made me jump as I exited my room pre-coffee. I was comfortable, content. I was cruising.

Are there more cruises in my future? Perhaps. I can’t say I’m a total convert-to me, travel is all about encountering the unexpected, detouring off the itinerary, and engaging in the kind of cultural immersion that usually takes longer than a day at port. Plus, I really love dive bars. But if I ever do find myself taking to the seas aboard a towering cruise liner, at least I know I’ll be prepared.

Here’s everything I wish I knew before embarking on my very first cruise.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

First thing’s first: Pack the essentials

It took me five full days onboard to discover the ship’s convenience store-well, more like a convenience section, stashed inside a very upscale boutique stocked with designer apparel, sunglasses, watches, and the like. You had to kind of duck around the front displays to locate the alcove offering Advil bottles, breath mints, soaps, toothbrushes, sunblock, tampons, and Band-aids.

Could I have asked my cabin steward to replace a forgotten pack of dental floss or comb? Probably, but that seemed like more effort than I could muster. And what if the missing toiletry item was a bit, shall we say, sensitive? If you don’t want to roam the ship to track it down or wait until you reach port to buy it, you better make sure it’s in your suitcase before you hit the deck.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

Get to know the local lingo

Ships of this prestige and magnitude come with their very own vocabulary, and it’s helpful to take note of some key terminology if you intend to comprehend the messages belted out over the loudspeakers every so often.

For the sake of brevity, bow and forward basically mean the front of the ship, while stern and aft refer to the back of the ship. Port and starboard refer to the ship’s sides (if the bow is to your north, port is west and starboard is east). Speaking of ships, it’s always a ship, and never, ever a “boat.” Furthermore, ships apparently identify as female and demand she/her pronouns at all times.

Embarkation takes place when you first climb aboard, while disembarkation only occurs on your final day. A port of call is a stop along your journey (or “crossing”), while the cute little lifeboats affixed to the ship’s exterior walls (or “hull”) are called tenders. Guest rooms or cabins are called staterooms, the ramps used to board and deboard are gangways, the Lido Deck has the biggest pools, and your cabin steward is your point person throughout your stay, making sure your room is (literally always) spic and span. The captain steers the vessel from the bridge, floors are called decks (as in, “My cabin is located on Deck 15”), and the cruise director is the embodied version of that voice booming over the loudspeaker.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

If there’s an onboard spa, make good use of it

I’m not huge on spas. Saunas and steam rooms have a tendency to make me claustrophobic and public nudity has never been my cup of tea. But damned if I didn’t enjoy the bejesus out of my foray into the Prima’s Mandara Spa on Deck 16.

The Thermal Suite progressed through a variety of hot and cool rooms, meant to get your blood flowing, before culminating in two shallow soaking pools kept at a pleasant bath water temperature. One undulates sleepily, courtesy of some sort of gentle jetstream configuration I couldn’t quite pinpoint, while the other is salinated to create a floating sensation. Submerged in those waters, buried in the centre of a giant ship that itself is submerged in a body of rolling water, I have never in my life felt so much like a baby in utero-not a sensation I necessarily knew I wanted, but wow, what a ride. 10/10, would recommend.

Photo by Chris Hill, courtesy of Tourism Ireland
Photo by Chris Hill, courtesy of Tourism Ireland
Photo by Chris Hill, courtesy of Tourism Ireland

You can pretty much do your own thing at port

I’m not jazzed about riding around in buses full of strangers, while straining to hear a guide call out information about the scenery zooming past. Because of this-and because I generally didn’t have my shit together before heading out-I did not book any organized shore excursions in advance. It wasn’t until I saw how very strict the boarding and deboarding process was, with its complex dock configurations, security screenings, and out-of-the-way ports of call, that the dreaded realization hit me: If I hadn’t signed up for a sanctioned outing, would I be able to get off the ship at all?

The truth is, in short, absolutely. Most cruises will allow you to pop off the ship as soon as the gangway’s been secured and the cruise director gives the go-ahead. The rest of the journey depends on the port-more remote locations are often equipped with free shuttle buses ferrying cruisers to and from the nearest city centre, while others, like the ones in Cobh and Amsterdam, are close enough to town that you can simply wander right off. Just make sure you’re back onboard before the posted call time, lest you watch all your belongings drift away into the night while you stand humbly ashore, hands-in-pockets. (Just kidding-the crew will definitely try to find you, but it won’t be fun for anyone.)

Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line

You will never get hungry-like, ever

Between cafeteria-style buffets, food-hall-style setups, sit-down options, poolside bars, and specialty dining destinations (AKA high-end restaurants not always included in your pre-purchased meal plan), cruise ships are veritable floating supermarkets. Feeding opportunities can easily dominate your itinerary, from omelettes and cappuccinos to midnight munchies like personal pan pizzas, French fries, and wings. There’s usually at least one 24-hour operation, with other spots covering early and late shifts and every meal, snack, or other edible hankering in between. And if that weren’t enough, there’s always room service, oftentimes available 24/7 and always arriving at your door with the utmost expediency.

Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line

Or thirsty, for that matter

And then there are the drinks. Aboard the Prima, that means 16 full-service booze vendors, ranging in style from beachy to buttoned-up and each overflowing with their own allotment of beer, wine, spirits, and specialty cocktails, plus soft drinks and bottled water. In one dimly lit hideaway, a colourful character in a bedazzled cowboy hat whipped up craft cocktails using sustainable and recycled ingredients. In another, tuxedoed barkeeps poured top-shelf whiskey in front of a panorama of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to sea. And in yet another-my personal favourite for an early afternoon burger and beer-a jovial group of Brits ordered up six shots of Sambuca with their lunch.

Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line

And it’s not just quantity-these bartenders truly know their stuff. No liquid desire is off-limits. No order is met with a quizzical look, no one behind the sticks is Googling a recipe, consulting a book, or throwing even a quarter-ounce of shade. I once heard a woman order an off-menu Brandy Alexander-a Brandy Alexander!-and the bartender simply nodded and got to work. Later, I watched that same bartender field a Blue Hawaiian, a round of Jager Bombs, a Harvey Walbanger, and a Vesper (all off-menu) with the same humble precision, efficiency, and confidence. I’ve been to some of the best cocktail bars in the world, we’re talking multi-award-winners in Tokyo, London, and Paris, and these martini-slingers? They easily could throw down with the best of them.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

Make reservations early and often

Not immediately hitting up the Guest Services counter on Deck 7 upon my arrival is perhaps my biggest regret. There you can snag tickets for live entertainment acts, everything from the Katy Perry-lead christening ceremony and Fleetwood Mac night at Deck 8’s disco to a live taping of The Price Is Right, complete with real prizes. You can also book shore excursions, make dinner reservations at the specialty dining restaurants, and plan out your time onboard within an inch of its life. I didn’t know reservations were required for these things, and thus didn’t make any, meaning I spent the next eight days scrambling to get my name on a list or my butt in a seat. Don’t be like me.

Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian Cruise Line

Mind the dress code (seriously)

In his 1997 collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, late essayist David Foster Wallace writes of his first cruise ship experience: “Look, I’m not going to spend a lot of your time or emotional energy on this, but if you are male and you ever decide to undertake a 7NC Luxury Cruise, be smart and take a piece of advice I did not take: bring Formalwear.”

Foster Wallace, deeming the suggestion to pack a tuxedo “absurd,” opted instead for an ironic tuxedo-motif t-shirt, and when he sported it to formal events, became the ship’s uncomfortable laughing stock. I, having not read Foster Wallace’s essay before my trip, also ignored the directive to bring nice clothes. Sitting down to dinner in an upscale French brasserie outfitted in jeans and Adidas Shell Toes, I soon learned that when these folks say fancy, they’re not messing around.

Here’s a rundown: Cruise casual is chill but not too chill-sports shirts and slacks, possibly loafers. Cruise elegant is trickier, mostly dress pants and cocktail dresses. Formal, on the other hand, is full on black tie. And while it’s not officially required to adhere to the black tie standards for the occasion, you’ll feel pretty silly in a cotton button down and the aforementioned Adidas Shell Toes.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

Believe it or not, landsickness is a thing

Going into this, I didn’t think motion sickness would be an issue, as I’ve never had any trouble with it. I was right, thankfully, and even enjoyed it when the waters grew slightly choppy, leaning into the ship’s swaying as if I were bobbing around a water park wave pool. But climbing ashore after two days at sea was a different ball game altogether-my legs were wobbly and my balance was slightly off. Once we disembarked, it took a few days for the nausea to wear off. It wasn’t terrible, but I certainly didn’t expect it.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

The daily newsletter is your friend

Every evening, you’ll receive a neatly typed, full-colour printout on your bed detailing everything you need to know about the following day onboard. Time zone shifts, weather forecasts, updated venue hours, entertainment lineups, even fun facts about the next port of call-it’s all covered, and honestly, it became one of the highlights of my nightly routine. Don’t even think about tossing it aside.

Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line
Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

Rest assured that your toilet is not trying to kill you

You know that loud, somewhat unsettling suction-type commode you find in airplane lavatories? Get used to it, because that’s exactly what you’ll be dealing with onboard a cruise ship. Upon first usage, I was not prepared for the flush’s booming intensity, and jumped backwards, crashing into my stand-up shower’s (thankfully sturdy) glass door. Be warned that the public toilets scattered around the ship are even more Herculean in their flushing efforts-I’m assuming it’s a volume thing-and the ones equipped with auto-flush mechanisms make for quite the squatting experience.

Olena Ivanova/Shutterstock
Olena Ivanova/Shutterstock
Olena Ivanova/Shutterstock

Don’t forget to tip the staff before departing

After spending more than a week not paying for a single goddamn thing, remembering to leave a cash tip for the cabin steward can easily slip a cruiser’s mind. But, as with hotels, tipping at the end of your stay is expected whenever a cruise company hasn’t explicitly included gratuity in your final bill. American currency is favoured here, and a good rule of thumb is $10 to $12 per day, per passenger. If you’re unsure whether or not gratuity is included, just give those friendly folks at Customer Services a buzz and they’ll assuredly set you straight.

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Meredith Heil is a Senior Cities Editor at Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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