I went on my first cruise at 31-years-old and two weeks later I’m still recovering. Probably because it was not an average cruise.
I arrived at the Groove Cruise terminal in Long Beach — where glitter coated the pavement in mirage-like puddles, a DJ dished out house music, and empty bottles of cheap vodka lay strewn about. A few unsolicited thoughts instantly flew to mind: What am I doing here? This is not my scene. These people are already wasted and we haven’t even embarked yet! It’s gonna be a rough weekend.
And finally: Was this a mistake?
In retrospect, I can safely say: No, Groove Cruise was most certainly not a mistake. It was a game-changer.
I began my festival career at the almighty Coachella in 2005 then quickly moved on to underground warehouse parties that would either go all night or end abruptly with police in riot gear. Soon, I started attending large-scale events like the HARD parties, Electric Daisy Carnival (when it was still in L.A.), and anything produced by Insomniac.
I was deep in the scene — where people popped ecstasy like skittles and you could still festoon yourself in glow-sticks without getting lectured about how bad they are for the environment.
Then I went to Lightning in a Bottle in 2010 and everything changed. Over the next few years, I transformed from a bouncy raver kid to a crunchy, hippie woman. Glow-sticks were replaced with crystal pendants and I traded my bedazzled push-up bra for flowy, handmade, fair-trade, cruelty-free, gluten-free, vegan garb. I went from one extreme to another.
Aboard the SS Groove Cruise, I finally found my happy medium.
We boarded around noon. The ship’s décor was awash with garishly psychedelic carpets and reflective surfaces at every turn. An ancient scent of cigarettes lingered in the air, as if it had existed there for decades, like a ghost with unfinished business. As I navigated my way through the labyrinthine corridors, spasmodic C major chords rang from slot machines in typical casino fashion, with the thump of EDM throbbing in the background.
The partying began before we even shoved off, as I met with members of the Desert Hearts crew at one of the ship’s many bars. This motley collective — known for its annual Desert Hearts Festival which takes place in northeastern San Diego every spring — brought their funky, offbeat vibes to this mainstream EDM event in the form of a Desert Hearts stage takeover on Saturday night.
At the bar and amongst friends, my photographer boyfriend and I were met with a line of tequila shots that looked more like full cups of water. Two watery eyes and one burning throat later, I finished my tequila and it was game on. I did not know at the time that I would both begin and end my Groove Cruise experience partying with the Desert Hearts gang, but that’s how these things go: one experience leads to another then all of a sudden you’re $20 deep in an arcade claw machine game with a row of empty glasses by your side.
Night one (of three) consisted of acquainting myself with the layout of the ship and shaking off any last remnants of cynicism. I discovered the all you can eat buffet which was both a blessing and a curse — as my diet does not usually consist of a mountain of egg rolls followed by various types of mousse-like cakes that all shared the same viscous texture. Several drinks later, I found myself officially getting into the Groove Cruise spirit. The booze helped, but watching the moon rise over a sea of black velvet as the deck rattled rhythmically beneath my feet also contributed to my attitude shift. I was traveling on the open seas with good music and even better company. I was content, I was grateful, and I was ready to party my aft off.
Being accustomed to slogging miles back to camp at standard land-based festivals — only to pass out on a lumpy substrate beneath a dusty bed-sheet and wake up in a furnace — I was actually excited for bedtime on the Groove Cruise. Fresh, white sheets on a bed that was made every day? A pitcher of coffee, cups of juice and little boxes of Frosted Flakes delivered to my room each morning? A hot shower whenever I wanted and fresh towels sculpted into frogs and elephants? An ocean view? Air conditioning?
This was not my typical festival experience. I absolutely lapped it up.
As to be expected on a floating festival vessel, many things transpired over the course of the weekend—single serving friends, poolside cocktails, brief stints of seasickness, deep house yoga, various intoxicants, some good music, some bad music, lots of dancing, et cetera. There was no shortage of envy-evoking activities and experiences but it is the final night that stands out like a warm, dazzling beacon of joy in my mind.
Sunday night began as many do—around the dinner table. Running into team Desert Hearts and Doc Martin at the buffet, my little crew pulled up some chairs, squeezed into the booth and joined them. After a few buckets of beer and shots of malt vinegar, our colorful, amorphous crew jiggled through the swaying halls in full raging mode.
Skipping from deck to deck, hooting and hollering at the top of our lungs in an attempt to “speak the Groove Cruise language,” we bonded. We had a moment. We had fun. Like pirates at a dance party. And without even a hint of cynicism.
The more I interacted with my shipmates, the more I realized how unfounded my pretenses were. The very girl I sneered at for her raved-out fashion choices passed me in the hall and told me I was beautiful. The shiny, shirtless guys I assumed were jerks gave me smiles and high fives on the elevator. It’s always humbling when you find yourself letting go of judgements. It makes you admit that you had judgements in the first place.
Leading up to Groove Cruise, I thought of the trip solely as “work”—describing it to myself as being “trapped” on a ship for three days. Leaving Groove Cruise—with preconceptions dashed and expectations exceeded—I was surprised to find myself sad it was over (and subsequently excited about the next one).
As a music journalist who frequents festivals, I often have peak experiences with artists, performers, attendees and other festival folk. A few turn into long-lasting friendships but the majority just become ephemeral apparitions in my memory. With my newly assembled Groove Cruise family, I think there’s staying power. Our adventure seemed meaningful in these fractured times.
Forget the music and the sparkle shorts for a second. If Groove Cruise had just been one big social experiment asking “what happens when you put 2,000 people and a bunch of DJs on a boat together for 72 hours?” the answer wouldn’t simply be “partying.” It would be “connection.”