Cruises that fit the (modest) bill

Cruises that fit the (modest) bill
Colin Markland relishes the feel of an ocean breeze as it musses his white hair. The 80-year-old retired doctor lives in Charleston, S.C., not far from his beloved Atlantic Ocean, a sea he has crossed by ship more times than he can remember.

His first sailing -- from Liverpool to Boston -- was in 1953, when the young Englishman immigrated to America for an internship. Cunard charged him 50 pounds -- the equivalent of $140 back then -- for a bunk in steerage.

Fifty-six years later, I met Markland on another transatlantic crossing. We were among 2,110 passengers traveling from Miami to Dover, England, aboard the Norwegian Jewel. I was on board to report on my experiences, but Markland was there for a very different reason: to brag about how little the 11-night cruise had cost him.

"I paid $219," he told people. Of course, that's per person in a double-occupancy stateroom. But at less than $20 a night for a cabin -- with unlimited meals, an array of activities and, of course, transportation included -- this was a bargain worth boasting about.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," he said of opening an e-mail about a month before last April's sailing and reading the offer. "I never could have imagined crossing at this price."

Many people find repositioning cruises fit the bill for a vacation, because of price and because of what the cruise does -- and does not -- offer.

When I booked early last February, the going rate for an inside cabin was $389. NCL needed to move the Jewel from its winter home in Florida to a summer base in England. Rather than cross the ocean with empty rooms, the cruise line offered great deals to entice us to join the crew on this one-way journey.

A novice at this sort of trip, I found myself in a sea of "repositioning" veterans. For them, the ship is the destination.

"They've pretty much seen it all, done it all. They know what they want," cruise director Rick Schwartzenburg told me.

This isn't the typical many ports/many stops trip. "We like the transatlantics because it gives us more time to use the ship's facilities," said Pat Lonergan, who with her husband, Chris, was returning home to Britain. "On a normal cruise, you're on and off."

For travelers like the Lonergans, the big waves -- much more common in the mid-Atlantic than in the relative shelter of the Caribbean -- are old hat. For first-timers like me, they were unsettling.

At dinner on the sixth night, television monitors reported "rough seas" of 7 1/2 to 12 feet. After eating a light meal, I clung to the handrails on my way to the Stardust Theatre for a show.

"I know why most of you are here," announced the cruise director. "[It's] because the seas are rough and you want to see how this will go."

Indeed, many of us were curious to see whether that night's performer -- a German juggler named Hilby -- could pull it off. He amazed us by keeping two clubs, a knife and a toilet plunger in midair while pedaling a unicycle across the stage.

Later, the shaking and the creaking kept me awake. I switched on the TV to discover we were in a Force 11 "violent storm." The winds were 58 mph. The sea was full of fury. Eventually, I lapsed into fitful sleep.

"I just want to get to Dover," a fellow first-timer said after that rocky night. Actually, she might have said, "I just want to get it over with." Either way, the sentiment was the same.

After nearly a week of gray seas and white foam, we see land on the horizon. We were approaching our first port of call: Ponta Delgada in the Azores.

Living on islands more than 900 miles west of the European continent, the locals welcome visitors from the cruise ships that occasionally stop for a few hours. Sure, there are shops selling cheap souvenirs, but there are also delightful cathedrals and squares to visit. The Jewel's passengers seemed to outnumber residents in the narrow streets.

After two more nights at sea, we arrived in Vigo, Portugal, a bustling port that, on a Sunday morning, was much quieter than usual. Having "been there, done that," many people chose to stay on board for an aerobics class or a poolside barbecue.

Underway again, there were whispered warnings about the typically rough seas as we approached the Bay of Biscay. Thankfully, on this trip, the waters were unusually calm.

When we reached Dover at the end of our 5,100-mile voyage, Chris and Pat Lonergan were just 150 miles from home. They had spent the trip reading, playing trivia games and catching up on sleep.

Colin Markland later told me the cruise was "the best holiday I've ever had." Then, he quickly added, "That's probably because it was such a steal."