As 20 Harley-Davidsons growled across the asphalt at the Maryland Cruise terminal Monday morning, "Easy Rider" met "The Love Boat."
After a briefing from their tour leader, the bikers inched their machines up the ramp and into the yawning hold of the 2,200-passenger Enchantment of the Seas. Next stop: Labadee, a private port resort on the north coast of Haiti.
Motorcycle cruising might be the ultimate surf-and-turf dream, a chance for bikers to ride off a passenger ship and onto sun-drenched Caribbean back roads. It's also part of the hottest segment of the market — theme cruises, travel experts say.
"I've ridden everywhere you can be on land, and when someone said a boat, I said, 'Sign me up,'" said Chuck Pemberton, 66, a former firefighter from Ocean City on his third cruise.
Theme cruises come in all sizes and flavors: wine tasting and cooking are popular. There are sober cruises, cruises for people who collect Pandora jewelry, cougar cruises for women and men of certain ages, and cruises for members of the military.
They have become crucial to the cruise industry that has sought to widen its customer base, as cruise lines compete for a growing number of passengers and seek to lure customers of all ages after largely attracting an older clientele. The themes, most often dreamed up and booked by travel agencies, help create an instant onboard community.
"You may not like cruising, but you love to quilt and there's a quilting cruise. Or you really love John Mayer, and he's having concerts on board all week," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of CruiseCritic.com.
"These attract people from all over the world who like what you like and are interested in what you're interested in. They have events that are not open to the rest of the cruise, and you really get to feel special. You get intimate time with experts in the field you're interested in."
Riders came from as far away as Ontario, Canada, for the 12-day voyage from Baltimore, including one couple, Denis Barnea and Karen MacKinnon, who will be getting married when the ship docks in St. Thomas. Almost everyone had done a motorcycle cruise before.
The allure is simple.
"You're the first ones off the ship. You get away from the crowds in town and see the islands as they are," said Richard Philpot, 61, a retired police officer from Roanoke, Va.
On their island jaunts, bikers often become the attraction, with people from small towns lining the streets to get a glimpse of the roaring parade. Sometimes they stop at schools so kids can climb aboard and have their pictures taken.
"It's special. It gets you closer to their culture," said Pemberton.
The trip from Baltimore was posted a year ago by Entertainment Travel Alternatives Inc., a specialty travel service, and sold out in less than two weeks, said company owner Steve Wallach. The price started at about $1,600 per person. The bike fee was a flat $300.
Motorcycle-themed cruise ship bookings are popular, said Brown, of CruiseCritic.com.
"When you think about it, why the heck not? If you like to ride and you can put your bike in the hold, and at every port, you just get out and go — wow," Brown said.
The cruise industry generated more than $40 billion in economic activity in the U.S. in 2011, according to Cruise Lines International Association. And about 17.6 million people are expected to take a cruise this year, up from 7.2 million in 2000, the trade group of cruise lines serving North America reported.
The sky's the limit when it comes to themes, travel experts said, but sometimes when you have multiple groups sharing the same ship, cultures clash. Carnival Cruise Lines, which dropped cougar cruises after a single voyage, also offered full refunds last December to any passenger who did not want to mix it up on Drag Stars at Sea — Revenge of the Wench Cruise.
Back by popular demand this fall is KISS Kruise III, a floating rock review aboard the Norwegian Pearl complete with a poolside Q-and-A with members of the rock band. Prices for the five-day trip start at $1,200 per person.
"For something like that, you take over a whole ship," Brown counseled.
The idea of bringing together bikers on a cruise ship came to Wallach in a dream nearly two decades ago. But it took the motorcycle enthusiast and former cruise director years to negotiate long-term exclusive deals with island governments to allow visiting motorcyclists and their bikes; in Bermuda he spent five years persuading officials to make an exception for engines six times bigger than local law allowed.
Now in its 13th year, Entertainment Travel Alternatives has cornered the market. It rents blocks of cabins from Royal Caribbean and Celebrity and then posts the itineraries online. Cruises generally leave from Bayonne, N.J., or a Florida port. But for the second time, Baltimore was home port.
Riders must have at least 3,000 miles of motorcycle experience. Over the years Wallach has scratched from his trips bikers he deemed unsafe. In addition, island rides are escorted by a local guide or police officers hired for the day.
Rita Stolze, Royal Caribbean's director of trade support and services, said the bikes require special handling, down to pumping nitrogen into the gas tanks to purge gasoline vapors. She said the exacting work by Wallach has paid off.
"We have had other [travel] agencies try to get into the area, but once we start down the path of what they need to do, we never hear from them. We've never had another account," Stolze said. "Wallach has it down to a science."
Not everyone rides a monster machine. One cruise included two Vespa-riding Germans on a trip around the world.
Wallach said he held his breath as scooters mingled with bikers for the first time.
"But the Harleys really took to them," he said. "They even waited for them at the top of hills."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun