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Escape Winter on a Carnival Cruise Rock and Roll Ocean Liner

Everyone likes the idea of floating around in the Caribbean with no obligations, a pair of ridiculous sunglasses and a good book, but the typical, stale cruise-oriented entertainment options are enough of a turnoff to keep many people on land. Until now.

I play bass in a band called The Alternate Routes. We play radio-friendly, sometimes-country-tinged guitar-driven rock, and a few weeks ago we performed on the Rock Boat, one of many annual live music-centric cruises that crisscross the Gulf of Mexico every year ‘round this time. There’s also Cayamo (the 2011 lineup includes Indigo Girls, Brandi Carlile and John Prine), VH1’s Best Cruise Ever (Train, Lifehouse, Colbie Caillat), Kid Rock’s Chillin’ the Most Cruise (uh, Kid Rock) and The Jam Cruise (Bob Weir, Rhythm Devils, Robert Randolph), to name a few. There’s something out there for everyone, unless you’re looking for an indie rock cruise — and if there are any entrepreneurs out there looking for a project, you might want to jump on that. Like, now.

Ours was the Rock Boat XI, and the lineup also included Nada Surf, the dude from Live (Ed Kowalczyk), Antigone Rising and Sister Hazel, who founded this particular cruise over a decade ago with Sixthman, the Atlanta-based travel company that makes most of these boats float.

All food is included in the ticket price (starting at $599, or free if you’re in the band), be it in the cafeteria or one of the sit-down restaurants. Thanks to the spring break atmosphere, they’re making plenty of money on booze. There are hot tubs and waterslides, spontaneous games of Twister in the hallways, organized pillow fights over the pool and theme nights, like Halloween-in-January and an ‘80s prom.

Every year, the boat stops at a different port, which was not chosen this year until it departed for the sake of avoiding bad weather. We ended up in Costa de Maya, Mexico, for a day. There were no complaints. It was early January, yet we went scuba diving through a coral reef, surrounded by tropical fish, after being served rum drinks and tacos on a white-sand beach.

The main attraction for most is the music. It’s an event custom-built for the kind of people who go out of their way to see live music throughout the year. Cruisers keep in touch on message boards while they’re still stuck in their offices and classrooms, and they talk about the next boat the day they get home from the last one. It’s a big, crazy club, and once a year, all its members are in the same place at the same time.

Personal highlights include playing an afternoon set out on the sun-drenched Lido Deck, checking out Nada Surf’s sets (they’re really good), the beach visit in Mexico and even reading a book and sipping coffee on one of the more isolated decks as the sun slowly went down over the aquamarine-colored Gulf (any tar balls were far enough submerged not to ruin the beauty on the surface). It’s a non-stop party, but there are places to get away from it.

For any fan of music who’s traveled long distances to shows, driven through awful weather or skipped a night of sleep before a work day for the sake of seeing a band, you and the Rock Boat — or one of its sister cruises — are probably a good match. Sure, $599 is a lot of money, but for an all-inclusive (except for alcohol) four days and nights at sea, unlimited food, a handful of shows and a January sunburn, it’s not unreasonable.

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