Floating City

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Some people get on a ship and don’t care where it takes them. That was true of a couple I knew who booked the same Caribbean cruise on the same ship ten years in a row. It was the vessel and the life aboard it they loved—the liner itself as destination. For other travelers, lured by the musical names of ports like St. Lucia, Martinique, or Antigua, today’s cruise ships, the megaliners, pack as many stops into a week’s journey as possible. To cater to everyone—a mostly American audience numbering five million and growing— ships are also getting bigger. The newest ones carry more than two thousand passengers and are easily the length of three football fields. They can look fairly unromantic when viewed from shore, especially when several are lined up in port at the same time, but aboard they offer every comfort. With great economies of scale possible, this new gigantism is a way for cruise lines to profit, and no one seems to mind. Waiting in San Juan for my flight home after a week’s cruise aboard Celebrity’s Galaxy , I heard a fellow passenger say to someone waiting to go aboard, “There’s not one thing you won’t like; it’s perfect.”

The Galaxy , holding about eighteen hundred passengers, and three years old, belongs to Celebrity Cruises, which was bought in 1997 by the Royal Caribbean cruise line. Celebrity was the creation of Chandris, a Greek shipping company, in the late 1980s. The huge letter X adorning all Celebrity stacks stands for the Greek C , as a reminder of the company’s origins. The line was formed with the idea of offering the very best, particularly in dining and service, at a mid-range price. It has succeeded to the point that Berlitz’s cruise-ship guide, the crankiest and therefore most believable of many such books, writes, “For a big-ship cruise experience this one has it all.”

I sailed on the Galaxy because I wondered what the big-ship cruise experience could offer someone with an interest in history. Beyond simply enjoying being at sea, I asked myself what I could possibly get to know of the culture of five Caribbean islands on a seven-day cruise. The answer: relatively little. But it was fun trying.

The Galaxy ’s first stop, St. Lucia’s capital city of Castries, has been destroyed by so many fires that travel writers dismiss it as holding little interest. There I came upon a handsome three-story brick building that had clearly withstood the city’s century of conflagrations. It was, of all things, a Carnegie Library, built by that American millionaire’s beneficence in 1916. Inside, tables were occupied by readers of every age, and in one corner the island’s minister of education was giving a television interview. Hanging over the front desk was a portrait of Andrew Carnegie, who had presented six British holdings in the Caribbean with libraries.

“They call St. Lucia the pearl of the West Indies,” Alec Waugh quotes a local as saying in his 1949 travel chronicle, The Sugar Islands . “But very few people ever see it. … Many ships call there. But only for an hour or two.” Nothing much has changed in this respect. I selected one of three possible ship’s excursions; it included a pointless hour at an undistinguished beach, but it also stopped at Pigeon Island, St. Lucia’s most important historic site. I didn’t know that the visit would last all of ten minutes. Now linked to the mainland by a causeway, and the future home of a massive Hyatt hotel, Pigeon Island has been restored to showcase its eighteenth-century past as a British navy garrison. From there Adm. George Rodney launched his fleet of a hundred ships to defeat the French in the decisive Battle of the Saintes on April 12, 1782. There is a nice small museum telling of this history, and ruins of stone buildings dot the hilly, beach-fringed landscape. It’s an appealing place, with a restaurant built to resemble an eighteenth-century pub, picnic grounds, and wonderful views. It wouldn’t be the last time that I longed for a more flexible schedule, but the cruise ship’s imperative would not be denied.

The Caribbean’s only remaining eighteenthcentury naval dockyard was a headquarters for Admiral Nelson.

Although a fairly experienced traveler, I tended to put myself in official hands when visiting these unfamiliar places, partly cowed by the admonition on page one of the Galaxy Daily : “If you miss the ship, it is your responsibility to make arrangements to rejoin Galaxy.” Now that would have been an adventure!

If it was by now Thursday, this must be Antigua, so off we went in a minivan to see the Caribbean’s only surviving eighteenth-century naval dockyard, named for Admiral Nelson. En route we passed a soberingly littered, impoverished landscape that gradually gave way to small tidy houses and then villas, indicating we were coming into the high-rent district. Indeed, the superb restoration of the quarters Nelson occupied from 1784 to 1787 has become a prime yachting center and the site of Antigua’s world-renowned annual regatta.