First-time cruisers test the waters—and the ship's nightlife—with super-cheap overnight sail to Seattle
Walking around Canada Place on a late summer’s day, my partner and I lean out over the railing into the cool breeze that never deigns to enter our Downtown Eastside apartment. The breeze whispers of the Salish Sea and Howe Sound—it smells salty and green. As we imagine escaping the mainland, a pristinely white cruise ship comes to berth.
We’ve never thought of ourselves as the cruising kind. Cruising is something that my parents do—we’re more railways and rickshaws than packaged tours and pampering. But when we get home, we get online. Imagine our surprise when we find out that a repositioning cruise—a one-day, one-night journey from Vancouver to Seattle—can be had from about $50 per person, roughly the same as a ride on the Greyhound.
A few days later, we find ourselves at Canada Place again—this time, waiting to board Holland America’s MS Volendam. Having walked in the pouring rain from home, we’re sopping wet and our luggage is muddy, but nobody bats an eye. At the front of the line, our host is as sweet and friendly as my elementary-school librarian. Because the cheap rooms are overbooked with travellers going all the way to New Zealand, we’re upgraded to a Verandah Suite for the night.
“Have fun, dears!” she says with a wink, and waves us onboard.
At the sight of the mirrored elevator and crystal chandelier, our secretly greedy hearts fill with glee. We feel we’ve stepped into an art deco alternate reality. We rush up red velvet staircases, eager to see our cabin. It’s smaller than our co-op apartment, less than 400 square feet—but it’s elegant, with a tiny balcony that looks out over the ocean. We freshen up in a closet-sized washroom and set out to explore the ship.
As if in a microcosm of the world, everything onboard seems to come in two varieties: first class and 99-percenter. The free coffee is okay, but the espresso-based drinks cost dearly. The pool on deck is free, but the hot tub is part of a spa package. Still, access to the public space on the ship is the same for everyone, and everyone seems to get along. People smile and chat spontaneously, and a couple of experienced cruisers give us our first insider tip: the Italian restaurant onboard has a particularly good menu that evening—pizza Napoletana—and if we’re interested, we’d better book early.
When we bend the maître d’s ear about our vegetarian diet, we’re pleased to find out that it won’t be a problem. Though over the phone we’d been warned that special requests could only be accommodated by the main dining room, she’s sure that the pizza and salad shouldn’t contain anything we can’t eat. She double-checks by calling the kitchen, and in the process secures us a vegan-friendly dessert. It’s not quite Italy, but the food is well-made and presented with care.
As the sky darkens, we finish our meal and follow a crowd into the comedy lounge. The ship’s comedian is a cross between Woody Allen and Andy Warhol, with thick black glasses and an emaciated frame, topped by a shock of unkempt white hair. We’re surprised when he goes straight for the jugular. His jokes about falling in the washroom and impotence make us fear our own senescence, even as we laugh until our guts hurt. But when he pulls out the ukulele, we decide to make a discreet exit.
We arrive at the theatre just in time for a Broadway revue. It’s sweetly earnest but inadvertently camp, like all good cabaret. Unfortunately, when “Summer Lovin’ ” gives way to a country cover of “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, things go awkwardly burlesque—the performers take off dusters and gyrate in sequined leotards and cowboy hats. First whistles, then off-colour remarks erupt from the crowd around us. My partner’s hand clenches my arm as she fights the urge to either break out in laughter or slug the worst offender, who’s seated right behind us. Thankfully, they’re soon on to the finale—Céline Dion set to Muzak. It involves the whole cast, a rotating stage, disco lights, and smoke effects, and it leaves us giddy and hyperstimulated.
Looking for more thrills, we find the nightclub almost empty, but we dance anyway. Soon skirt-suited ladies and gentlemen in three-piece suits filter in to join us and sway uncertainly to Deadmau5 and Skrillex. When the DJ drops the electronic dance music and turns up some Top 40, the room takes on a wedding-party atmosphere.
A particularly wizened fellow approaches us and asks us if we’re married. I’m hesitant to confess to living in sin, but when I do, he just claps me on the shoulder and tells me to put a ring on her finger. My partner laughs, but there’s a glint in her eye. The room suddenly seems small and overcrowded. I remember another insider cruise tip, this one from my parents—by night, the kids-only area is abandoned and offers the best views onboard.
I drag my partner to the top deck, then up even further, into a plastic jungle landscape at the very tip of the ship. It feels like just the two of us under the stars, even as the ship goes on its humming way beneath us. We crack open a bottle of wine (you’re allowed to bring one each in your carry-on), and drink to our future. We wonder: would life a little more settled be so bad after all?
Access: Repositioning cruises are offered by all major carriers, primarily in late spring and early fall. Because these cruises fill gaps in ships’ itineraries, rates are significantly reduced. Check with travel consolidators; at the right time, you can pay as little as $30 to $80 per person per night. Rates exclude taxes and a daily gratuity, and may be subject to fuel surcharges. To make the most of an overnight cruise, arrive well before scheduled sailing time, as you may board and enjoy the ship amenities hours earlier.