Were the 70’s the Golden Age of Cruising?

I look back so fondly on my first cruise experiences as a kid in the 70’s and it makes me wonder, were the cruises really that great, or did the wonder of traveling in such an elegant way at such a young age color my memories. We cruised on the BonVivant, Costa’s World Renaissance, Commodore’s Boheme, and Holland America’s old Stattendam.

My memories of these first cruises are wonderful, and yet, when I look at the pictures and see the tacky and sometimes shabby decor, the dark utilitarian looking ships, the cramped accommodations, and the minimal amenities, I sometimes think “What was it that made these family trips so wonderful?”

With all the beautiful ships sailing the seas these days, some would think that glamorous and flashy ships are what make cruising great. Let’s first look at the decor of these ships in the 70’s. Well it was the 70’s and every thing was relatively pretty tacky in the 70’s. So when I, for example, compare the decor to my own house in the 70’s or maybe the Jungle Room at Graceland, the burnt oranges and harvest golds in curtains and carpets don’t seem too out of place.

I look at the modern ships of today with grand frescos and themed interiors and think “Wow this ship is spectacular.” Even with adjustment for the strange styles that were popular in the 70’s, the interiors of the ships today are truly more beautiful than anything ever on a ship in the 70’s. Today’s cruise ships have a vast array of grand interior design, with styles ranging from Las Vegas Glitz to European Chique. So it probably wasn’t the decor that made the experience so special. Maybe it was the thoughtful layout of the ships?

Most likely not! The ships of the 70’s were definitely more dark and utilitarian than the multi-purpose built ships of today. Most were acquired by a particular cruise line and fixed up a bit for the pleasure cruise market. Some had been car ferrys, others passenger transport type ships, and still others had already had three or four incarnations in some sea going capacity. The older style ships didn’t have balconies, and very few cabins had more than a small port hole of a window. There might have been a main lounge that had a combination dance floor and stage, but often the smaller ships didn’t even have a theater. The dining rooms were small and often only had small window or maybe even no window. When I remember the dining room on the World Renaissance ship, for example, I remember a spacious room with lots of tables and plenty of open space. I look at the pictures from that cruise and see a very crowded room where tables were so close together that a whole section of passengers could join in one conversation. Well, since the spacious interiors of the cruise didn’t make it wonderful, maybe it was the luxurious state rooms that made these vacations so special?

Well, I don’t think that is the answer! The staterooms of these old cruise ships were often very small. This fact was exaggerated by the total of 4 people in our room. Mom and Dad used to say that it wasn’t really any big deal because we didn’t spend any time our room except to sleep. Our rooms, usually lower level inside rooms, had two upper and two non-movable lower bunks and a small closet space. I would describe the furniture, lighting, and bedding as institutional.

It’s an old joke, but the bath room was so small you could shower, use the toilet and brush your teeth all at the same time. Sometimes we’d get a glimpse of the upper level rooms as we walked down the halls. They usually had a small port hole or sometimes a window and were a bit more spacious than our cabin, but in my memory they seem much smaller than the standard cabins sizes of today’s ships. However, back in the 70’s, our family made sure that the small quarters didn’t deter our fun, so we found a couple of novel ways to deal with the cramped accommodations. First, Dad would go down the hall in the morning to use the public restroom so the three ladies could have more privacy. Next, getting ready for the evenings was usually not a problem. Most of these ships did not have outlets for US appliances, so rather than running new wiring to all rooms, they had set up “vanity” rooms in several spots on each floor. They had counters, good lighting, and most importantly, outlets for blow dryers, curlers, and curling irons. Mom, sis, and I would utilize these rooms to get ready for the evenings. Another trick was that my Dad would usually go to the room first and get dressed for the evening and then head out to the bar to wait for the three of us to arrive. Except when we were asleep, we tried to not all be in the cabin at the same time. We usually were so busy enjoying the activities and meeting other people, both day and evening, that we spent very little time in our cabin.

So that must be the answer… it was the fun activities and social atmosphere that made these cruises so much fun!

Those activities, as corny as they may seem today, were really the part that made those cruises of the 70’s such a great time for my family. The ships were pretty small and had a much lower number of passengers than the large ships of today. The coziness of these small ships is perhaps what I remember most fondly. I’m thinking that most of those cruises we went on had no more than about 700 passengers, some maybe even less. Often, the evening activities were corny party games where they got a group of military veterans to play a “Musical Chairs” type game passing hats back and fourth to drill sergeant commands.

They also had races where the ladies had to sit on their gentleman partner’s laps and pop balloons. These silly party games were for passengers of all ages, not really for the kids at all. There were usually only a handful of other children on board and no childrens activity programs. During the day, we kept busy either relaxing by the pool or swimming with other kids in the pool. Sometimes, they would have activities especially for kids, but in general, the cruise directors just made sure that they included the kids in as many of the activities as possible. I remember that on one cruise they had a game of 4 corners and the cruise director got me and three other kids to stand in each corner of the dance floor and hold up cards with the name/number of the corner. During the horse race dice game, the kids got to man the horses and move them across the board in the mock race. In the evenings, the kids were included in all the entertainment activities.

The other focus of the activities were to get people mingling with each other. On one cruise, they had a contest to get passengers mingling by announcing that there was a secret Mr. and Mrs. Ship Passenger. If you discovered who they were first, you got a special prize from the ship’s crew.

None of these ships had a formal theater, but instead had “show lounges” as the main gathering area. These areas were where the cruise director talked to the passengers, pre-dinner appetizers were served, the captains reception was held, and the orchestra played before and after dinner for dancing. They usually had a group of singers and dancers perform their shows right there on the dance floor. On other nights, variety acts like jugglers, comedians (always clean), or violinists would perform.

It was more like a small cabaret theater rather than a Vegas show. This lounge was the place to be in the evenings. Though the Boheme had a small disco in the upper deck, that was rarely used. The Stattendam did offer a disco and a piano lounge on the same level as the main lounge, but in the evenings, the main lounge was the focal meeting point. This set up was fantastic for meeting people, sharing conversation, and relaxing with the other passengers. What I remember enjoying about these venues was the intimacy of the shows. Passengers sat around cocktail tables in low chairs while the entertainers graced to the stage with their various acts. I remember going to every one of the shows and thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere. Todays ships have so many evening entertainment options and so many passengers, that I’ve found it a bit harder to meet and mingle. You have lots of choices, but less coziness and often won’t meet up again with the couple with whom you enjoyed conversation on the previous evening.

I still love cruising, but I have to say that with the new bigger and better ships that try to be everything to everyone, they lose some of that gracious charm of those older smaller. Some of the the lines are bucking the trend of the bigger better ships and purchasing or building a few smaller ships to cater to the crowd that prefers a more intimate experience. However, the cruises on these ships don’t have the economies of scale that the bigger ships have, and hence the price is often about two to three times that of a mass market large scale ship.

If you have some experiences cruising on the “old” ships, or have cruised on some of these newer small ships, please share your thoughts with us. We’d love to hear your feelings on the subject.