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Bob Hoelscher’s Memories From Five Decades of Cruising

No segment of the travel business is better described by “Changing Horizons” than the cruise industry. Much has evolved over the years: the companies involved, the itineraries, the inclusions, the options, the marketing strategies, and the ships themselves.

What we take for granted today bears scant resemblance to the origins of cruising as a standard vacation choice. The modern cruise industry as we know it began in 1966 with efforts by both Norwegian Caribbean Line — now Norwegian Cruise Line — with the original Sunward, and Commodore Cruise Line — bankrupt by 2001 — whose Bohème offered the first year-round schedule of weekly cruises from Miami. Although I didn’t get “on board” until the early 1970s, readers might enjoy some of the interesting memories I’ve accumulated during this, the year of my 100th cruise. Overall, it’s been a great voyage.

My inaugural cruise was aboard NCL’s 17,000-ton Southward, unfortunately during a week with bad weather so widespread in the Caribbean that it snowed in Freeport, Bahamas, and we were unable to disembark at the first two of our three scheduled ports, arriving in Grand Cayman only by tethering to a deserted beach on the lee side of the island.

One of my biggest surprises came in Amsterdam when boarding a river vessel and realizing that it had no pilot house, since the previous week’s apparently asleep-at-the-switch captain had sheared it off when passing under a low bridge. And I, happily, was standing under an awning when the malfunctioning engines of Royal Viking Sea belched out a massive amount of greasy diesel fuel, covering just about everything and everyone on deck aft the stack.

My first Alaska cruise on Cunard Adventurer over Independence Day during the 1976 Bicentennial Year prompted some of the women in our group to celebrate with sparklers in our “‘party’” cabin, so we had to be careful not to activate the sprinkler system in the process. There was the Chinese captain of Universe who inspected everyone and their life jackets personally at the precruise drill, a far cry from the procedures followed today. There were the days before security became an ever-present concern, when one could browse the ships lined up at the Port of Miami on Saturdays and play Let’s Make a Deal to get a last-minute bargain on an unsold cabin.

I remember being entertained by both Tony Bennett and the late George Burns on brief, preinaugural travel agent introductions to new Princess vessels. And I took showers on a classical music cruise accompanied by Rachmaninoff and Chopin, since my cabin was directly below the practice room of one of the world’s great concert pianists, Vladimir Ashkenazy.

I nearly “missed the boat” twice due to airline foul-ups and was only able to board at the very last minute using crew gangplanks. I witnessed thousands and thousands of penguins wandering around on the ice of Antarctica, and experienced “light sweater” weather above the Arctic Circle in Norway during the first days of April. On Princesa Amarosa, one of the most tired, mechanically challenged old rust buckets I’ve ever seen, I enjoyed one of the most outstanding cruises ever.

Finally, a puzzling port call at a remote, virtually unknown Indonesian island that had no tourism infrastructure whatsoever prompted my colleague and me to explore the local hardware store, which was extremely primitive by U.S. standards. The storekeepers spoke no English, and we, of course, knew not a word of the local dialect, so we all just pointed at each other and enjoyed a hearty laugh.