A light breeze blows across the pool deck, as the Oosterdam heads south along the Mexican Riviera. People sun themselves in lounge chairs, sipping fruity daiquiris and munching appetizers served from the seemingly never-ending buffets.
Sounds like a typical cruise, except this one is decidedly different. This vacation at sea has a live soundtrack featuring Tommy Castro, Elvin Bishop, Curtis Salgado, Ron Thompson, Taj Mahal, Eric Lindell and more than 70 other blues music greats.
It's the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise - one of the first, and best known, of the increasingly popular music-themed cruises now on the market - and it's nothing less than pure nirvana for a vacationing blues traveler.
Imagine being in a place where the music seemingly never stops, where a fan can select from an absolute smorgasbord of concerts taking place at the same time on multiple stages. There are no wrong choices, because the musicians have all been hand-picked to meet your distinct musical taste. Now add in all the regular luxuries associated with a cruise, from the fine dining to fun poolside activities, and sprinkle with shore excursions at various exotic stops.
That's just a small glimpse of a Blues Cruise experience. Yet as lovely as those details may be, they don't quite get to the essence of what has made this type of cruise so popular with vacationers.
Talk with passengers and you get a better idea. They'll rave about friendships made aboard the ship, as well as the amazing access that fans have to the musicians. Those are the things that really turn the newcomers - dubbed "virgins" - into repeat customers, many of whom have more than a half-dozen Blues Cruise notches on their belts.
"If you were to ask 50 people if this is the best vacation they ever had," says cruise founder Roger Naber, "I think you'd get 40 of them who'd say, 'Yes, it is.'"
Naber had been booking blues acts in Kansas City since 1979, and by the early '90s, he was ready for a new challenge. He found a major one when he decided to mount his own blues festival at sea. The timing, he thought, was right.
"Blues was really peaking," he says. "A lot of blues festivals were popping up. [Blues] nightclubs were really happening."
Yet he knew that he needed more than a traditional festival to get fans to pay the comparatively high cruise rates. Thus, when he launched the first Rhythm & Blues Cruise in 1992, it was with the idea that the event would boast a communal vibe that simply couldn't be found at regular, land-based festivals.
That concept has grown into the cruise's single biggest selling point. On Blues Cruise, fans don't just watch the headliners perform - they lunch next to them, pass by them in the halls, talk with them after performances and, most impressively, strum alongside them during pro-amateur jam sessions.
Nearly all of my best memories of this cruise can be filed under the "could never happen at a regular festival" heading: Ron Thompson picking out the sweetest blues for a handful of swimsuit-clad fans poolside; Earl Thomas lounging in a deck chair and talking of his childhood; Eric Lindell swimming under the midday sun. Those are the kind of memories that make Blues Cruise feel less like a concert and more like a community.
"It's like a little village; [bluesman] Otis Clay says that it's like living in the same house," Naber says. "You can't get that at a festival."
That factor distinguishes the cruise from other blues festivals, as indicative of its marketing slogan: "Blues Cruise - where simply sailing gets you a backstage pass."
"I like to say it's a fantasy camp for musicians, both amateurs and pros. It's a dream for a fan - to have a backstage pass and just hang with these [blues greats]," says T.J. Hall, an amateur drummer who was taking his third Blues Cruise. "There's just something about this cruise. It's almost like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that happens twice a year."
For most of its history, however, the Blues Cruise happened only once a year. It set sail each winter, usually in January from Florida, for a week's worth of bluesin' around such Caribbean spots as St. Croix and St. Kitts. That annual voyage proved to be so popular that organizers finally decided to try their luck with a West Coast-based sea trek. Thus, in October 2006, they launched the inaugural Pacific cruise, a four-night outing that departed from San Diego and sailed down the Mexican Riviera.
Response to that maiden Mexican voyage was strong enough that Naber decided to expand the offering in 2007 to a full week at sea. Fourteen thousand people - including roughly 800 Blues Cruise "virgins" - took him up on the offer.
One of those virgins happened to be me.
Perhaps you have to have attended one of the nation's great music festivals- such as New Orleans Jazz & Heritage or South by Southwest - to truly fathom how much music goes on aboard the Blues Cruise. Tunes leak from seemingly every corner of the ship, and not just from the "official" stages. The music never seems to stop.
Naturally, the people onboard are all big blues buffs, more likely to name their favorite John Lee Hooker records than they are to talk about their kids back home. Back home, you see, is real life. While on Blues Cruise, it's all about the fantasy world. It's about partying all day, and night, to tunes being performed by some of the best in the business.
Blues Cruise attracts the best kind of music lovers - ones who are civilized, yet utterly enthusiastic. It's a decidedly middle-aged crowd, with most members falling in the 40s-to-50s range, although neither younger nor older fans would feel out of place.
It also helps if they like to eat. The Oosterdam, a Holland America ship, does a terrific job setting the table. It's nearly unimaginable to think even the most finicky eater could go hungry on this boat, with bountiful offerings ranging from simple pizza and hot dogs served poolside to luxurious five-course meals.
A love for sightseeing is also a plus. The Blues Cruise - both the Caribbean and Pacific versions - always includes some lovely ports of call. For the 2007 Mexican Riviera trip, those ports included Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo.
In Cabo, we paddled kayaks, went snorkeling and got a bit nutty at Sammy Hagar's famed Cabo Wabo club. Shoppers really seemed to like Puerto Vallarta, a city that also boasts terrific beaches and opportunities for whale-watching. Manzanillo prides itself on being "the sailfish capital of the world," which certainly appeals to the deep-sea fishing enthusiast.
All of that, however, is just an added bonus for most of the people aboard the ship - and, really, it's stuff that could be had on numerous cruises. The majority of Blues Cruisers are there for the music; some even forgo shore excursions in the name of rest.
So much happens on this cruise that the biggest problem, it turns out, is finding time to sleep. If a tired Blues Cruiser has to pick between catching a late-night set by Marcia Ball or getting up early to visit the beach, which one do you think loses out?
The proof is found at the jam sessions, which are packed with fans until near sunrise.
"The jam sessions start about 1 a.m., but the really good stuff happens around 3 a.m.," says Margie Way, who was sailing on her sixth Blues Cruise. "You learn how to catnap, because you never know who is going to show up for the last hour."
Those onboard wear their nickname, "Blues Cruisers," with pride. And word-of-mouth advertising done by repeat customers is the single best marketing device working for the cruise.
I first heard about the cruise a few years back at a club while two friends were reliving their journey. Their enthusiasm was enough to make me put the Blues Cruise on the short list of my travel plans.
Costs range from $1,000 to almost $10,000, so, Naber says, "it's something that has to be planned for [by fans] - and it is. Fifty percent of the ship has already been pre-booked for 2008."
Blues Cruisers are also an extremely loyal lot. They become familiar with the acts aboard the ship and then support them all year long, buying their new CDs and attending local shows.
"You get this fan network going," says the great blues belter Curtis Salgado, who was making his fourth Blues Cruise. "I would say that my fan base has doubled because of the cruise."
Salgado, however, points out that there is one downside to the cruise - and it's the same one echoed by other Blues Cruisers.
"You are depressed when you leave," he said. "You don't want it end, because you've got to go back to your regular life."
IF YOU GO
The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, Oct. 5-12, from San Diego to Mexican Riviera; Jan. 24-31, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the Eastern Caribbean. Cost: Ranges from $1,040 to $9,400 per person. Both cruises are currently wait-list only.
Pre-booking begins July 15 for a newly announced Oct. 17-24, 2009 cruise from San Diego (Pacific); pre-booking begins Sept. 22 for the Jan. 23-30, 2010 Caribbean cruise.
More information: Call 888-258-3746 or go to bluescruise.com
OTHER MUSIC CRUISES
Many are on the market. Here are a few examples:
Jam Cruise (for jam-band fans), jamcruise.com
Smooth Jazz Cruise, thesmoothjazzcruise.com
Dave Koz Cruise (smooth jazz), davekozcruise.com
The Jazz Cruise, thejazzcruise.com
Kevin's Country Music Cruise, kevinrichards.com/countrycruise