How A Week-Long Jungle Cruise Changed Everything I Thought I Knew About Travel

“But, we’re not cruise people,” I heard my girlfriend, Jenelle, say from across the produce section.

We’d crossed into Texas earlier that day, three months into a road trip across the U.S., and we’d both fully embraced van-living. Every turn offered a new surprise, and we awoke each day not knowing where we’d rest our heads that night. We were free.

I relayed Jenelle’s point to my editor over the phone. I told him that Windstar Cruise’s Star Breeze just wasn’t our scene.

“We’re Travelers,” I explained.

Through the phone, I heard a chortle, but I meant what I said. Travelers have loose, malleable schedules. Travelers aim to experience other ways of living beyond the cushy, sterilized environments of cruise ships and tour groups. Travelers sleep under the stars, and toast to Jack Kerouac and live a life of uncertainty.

Vacationers, on the other hand, stick to their tight itineraries and continental buffets. Vacationers fly halfway around the world to sunbathe and sip mai tais beside over-chlorinated pools. Vacationers wear sandals with socks and toast to retirement while Jimmy Buffet plays in the background.

Vacationers, those are the cruise people.

By the time I’d reached the canned foods aisle, my mind was made up.

“We’ll sit this one out,” I said into the phone.

The words echoed in my head and I thought about how long I’d been working toward becoming a bona fide travel writer. Here was my first real chance and I was passing it up so that I could have more days of roasting corn over a brushfire somewhere in east Texas.

“Think about it for an hour,” my editor said, “I’ll call you back.”

As Jenelle and I made our way from the checkout line back to our van, we handed my phone back and forth, looking at pictures of the ship and scanning the itinerary that started in Costa Rica and continued through the Panama Canal.

“I feel like cruise people are just chasing the parties that they never had when they were young,” Jenelle said, as we loaded groceries.

As Jenelle recoiled against us ever growing into “cruise people,” I started to warm to the idea of going on the trip. It would be Gonzo journalism: I’d be like David Foster Wallace or Hunter S. Thompson, embedded amongst the conga dancers and buffet lines.

Jenelle and I would study the pool loungers and their screaming kids like Jane Goodall studied chimps. We’d sit at the bar and listen to overweight retirees discuss how Donald Trump will make us all rich. We’d go on excursions to the overpriced trinket shops and dolphin experiences while scoffing with youthful smugness at the “Vacationers.”

“It might be fun,” I said aloud, partially to convince Jenelle, but mostly to try the words on for size and decide whether I actually believed them. Do it for the story, I thought. It’ll be my Decadent and Depraved, but on a boat.

I heard myself coming around. “Yeah, this’ll be fun.”

As promised, my editor called back an hour later. I looked at Jenelle. She was checking on our finances and looking at flight prices. She shrugged.

“We’re in,” I said.

“Good call,” my editor answered.

At that moment, he and I both thought we were doing each other a favor.

Weeks later, Jenelle and I arrived in San José, Costa Rica, with a day to spare before our cruise. A  representative from Windstar picked us up from the airport, along with three other couples who would be joining us on board the next day.

“It sounds like it’ll be one hell of a boat ride,” I said in an effort to start conversation.

Ship, sweetheart,” a busty, Southern grandma chided. “Cruise people hate when outsiders mess that up.”

I glanced at Jenelle. Cruise people.

That one comment had me totally primed to cast judgement…but I never got the chance. During the 30 minute drive from the airport to our hotel, we were forced to admit that our fellow passengers didn’t fit the hokey clichés we had in our heads. The woman who corrected me would be setting off on her fourth Windstar cruise and described past experiences the way Jenelle or I would talk about living in a van.

“Heaven on earth,” she gushed.

“Food to die for,” her husband added.

“That’s one hell of a way to describe a cruise buffet,” I thought.

Others in the van who would be cruising for the first time expressed their excitement for hiking on private islands and crossing the Panama Canal — the sorts of things that backpackers and people living in vans never get to try. A kindly (and shockingly hirsute) man well into his 70s told us of the last time he was in Costa Rica before his kids were born. He recounted stories of smoking hash and searching for undiscovered waves along the Pacific coast.

Everyone talked enthusiastically about the extra week or two they’d allotted after the cruise to explore Panama or to backpack up north to Costa Rica by way of Colón. Maybe these people were a unique sample within the cruise-going lot, but I hadn’t expected to spend time discussing the Latin American backpacker trail with a group well into their AARP benefits.

When Jenelle and I arrived on the ship the following afternoon, we made a point to do some investigating. I wanted a galley tour. I wanted to see the shuffleboard court for myself. I wanted to taste the soft carrots and put wilted lettuce on a sandwich. A self-righteous part of me wanted some reassurance that our limited expectations would be affirmed.

As it turns out, Windstar prides themselves on smaller cruises which, among other things, allow them to serve better food. People who opt to eat at the breakfast or lunch buffet instead of going ashore get decadent Eggs Benedict or slow-cooked short ribs.

The excursions that the staff described sounded just as legit as the food. There were strenuous, four-hour wildlife expeditions into UNESCO heritage sites or snorkeling trips with a mandatory water landings at beaches where we would feast on local produce.

Our cynicism was shattered. My god was it shattered.

Compared to mega cruise liners, our ship was modest and unique. If every cabin and suite were occupied by a couple, it would still only amount to just over 200 guests — not exactly the floating cities that we’d been worried about. Our room was standard for the Star Breeze, but it put the closet-sized Brooklyn apartment I used to live in to shame.

As we entered the room, I dove for the complimentary bottle of champagne resting on ice in front of our bay window. I’d just popped the cork when Jenelle called to me from the bathroom.

“This is real marble!”

This was not the ship we’d expected — there wasn’t even a shuffleboard court. Instead, there were softly lit lounges and spiral staircases accented with floral scents and smooth jazz. There wasn’t a nightclub, but as Jenelle ordered our first round of cocktails from the deck bar, I looked around and heard myself say, “This is… comfortable.”

It wasn’t a party ship, but it wasn’t a party crowd, either. This was a place to relax, and I can say — with all the authority of a man who lives in a van — it was put together tastefully.

As comfortable and accommodating as the ship was, we were encouraged to go ashore every day to explore what each port had to offer. An excursion could be booked through the cruise, but we were welcomed to explore on our own too. If none of it sounded appealing, the day could be whiled away by sitting on the deck of the ship with a glass of guapa or rum. Any seed of a plan you had for the coming days would be meticulously researched by the staff, who eagerly reported back with glowing smiles and copious notes.

Day by day, our rough travel exterior gradually eroded to accommodate schedules and following itineraries. Our waffle-weave robes wore down the calluses of van life. I grew to accept the turndown service and softened to the fresh fruit and daily greetings of, “Good morning, Mr. Hilton.”

As a preemptive send-off, the crew throws a party for the guests the night before the ship reaches the Panama Canal. I was gingerly making my way back to the dessert line — delicately working around the ache of a sunburn — when one of the staffers invited me to dance.

I declined and dug into my second helping of bread pudding with vanilla sauce instead. The next time I glanced up, I saw Jenelle waving at me from a crowd. She was doing the Macarena. Yes, the Macarena.

That’s when it hit me. Windstar!” I said to myself in Seinfeld’s, “Newman” voice. They’d got us! We’d become the very people we’d ridiculed just days earlier. We were…cruise people.

The next morning, as we approached the Panama Canal, I replayed the six day cruise over and over in my head. When had we converted? Was it the Egyptian cotton sheets with an astronomical thread count? Was it the Corcovado nature excursion? Dammit, was it the omelet bar?

Or was it the constant smiles—those warm, ever-ready smiles from every single staff member aboard?

At breakfast, our coffee was waiting for us with the perfect amount of sugar pre-portioned out to our individual likings. My omelet was dead solid perfect, just like it had been the previous five mornings. Damnit. Instead of worrying about where to park the van, I found myself excited about which towel animal would be waiting for us on the bathroom counter after breakfast.

For one week, all of our day-to-day concerns had been handed over to a team of efficient and resolute waiters, hosts, bartenders, chefs, and attendants. Was it indulgent? Sure. But travel doesn’t have to be so rough. Maybe a little indulgence isn’t a bad thing.

By that point, we’d already fully embraced cruise life. We’d begun to accept the pampering: Jenelle had her hair cut in the ship’s salon, and I drank a third caipirinha and took a long midday nap.

That night, I left my oxtail soup to cool in the dining room and followed the other guests to the main deck. We’d reached lock number one of the Panama Canal.

As our ship slowed to a stop in the northbound channel of the canal, an oil tanker slowed in the southbound channel. Over the next few moments, we rose as the tanker delicately fell, and we passed, literally, like two ships in the night. We waved at them and they waved back. Then, as the tanker disappeared into the Panamanian darkness, we made our way back down to the dining room.

There was a buzz to the crowd descending the stairs. They were alive. They were in the moment. I forgot about my awaiting oxtail soup and glass of cab and focused on what was going on around me. I recognized a feeling from adventures past: a feeling of being completely in the “now.”

“Maybe I could be a vacation person…” I said to Jenelle. “Vacationers, Travelers, Cruise People — when did we become Labeling People, that’s what I want to know? Isn’t it all about the people? Isn’t that why we travel?”

“It’s cool, huh?” The voice of an elderly man pulled me out of my Deep Thoughts moment. “But it’s got nothing on the time, last year, I sailed through a storm in the Drake Passage. Now that was one hell of a boat ride.”

I smiled at the man. He didn’t give a damn about labels. Boats, ships, whatever. He was just a human, experiencing life, riding on a big boat. (Sorry, on a big ship.)

All of our assumptions had been wrong: The cruise had been an adventure and the people aboard were clearly adventurous. Cruise people hadn’t missed the party, they just didn’t want the party to ever stop.

After a week aboard the Star Breeze, I couldn’t blame them a bit.