Stephanie Webb has planned and hosted Thanksgiving for over 48 years. She would get up at 4am and start setting the table, spending the entire day cooking for about 16 guests, including her two children and three grandchildren, and cleaning the house after everyone had left.
He likened the Thanksgiving ritual to “arranging a wedding for your daughter every November.”
It was enough. This Thanksgiving, she and her husband, Ross, will be awaited by uniformed servers surrounded by Caribbean waters. It’s the fifth year since 2015 that they’ve spent their holidays on a cruise ship making new friends and getting away with cooking, cleaning, and worrying about everyone’s drinks being done.
Going to sea with thousands of strangers may seem contradictory to a vacation so tightly tied to the idea of home. But Webbs are among a growing subset of Americans who choose to spend Thanksgiving at sea—many joined from year to year, some alone and others joined by relatives. (This year, the Webbs, who live in Fort Myers, Florida, will host their eldest daughter Elizabeth and their family.)
Theresa Strong, 63, of Solvang, California, is planning her fifth Thanksgiving trip to Mexico. She will be accompanied by her boyfriend Alan Needham and two of his grandchildren.
He described Thanksgiving as a “must have holiday” when you “get together with your family, whether you like it or not.” “If you polled a group of people, a lot of people would probably say it wasn’t very fun,” he added.
The whole point of holiday travel is entertainment. He spent Thanksgiving in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, tasting tequila and eating lamb chops instead of turkey.
Covid-19 has dealt a punitive blow to the cruise industry, but bookings have increased, especially for Thanksgiving, as cruise ships have eased health restrictions in recent months. Viking Cruises and Holland America Line reported last week that voyages during the week of Thanksgiving are approaching or full at capacity, primarily with American passengers. A Viking spokesperson said Thanksgiving bookings are up 48 percent this year compared to 2019 before the pandemic.
“There seems to be an endless demand for cruising these days,” said Vivek Menon, executive chief of Carnival Cruise Line.
As this demand grows, some cruise lines are embracing the holiday more, offering seasonal decorations and festive menus featuring cornbread dip, pumpkin soup, and pies. Some ships will broadcast football matches and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“In the past, you go on a cruise on Thanksgiving and it’s going to be turkey,” said Colleen McDaniel, executive editor of Cruise Critic, a website that reviews cruises. “Now you do, you’re traveling because it’s Thanksgiving.”
Ship crews take vacation preparation seriously. One October day, as Holland America Line’s Nieuw Statendam docked in Boston Harbor, the crew loaded about 60 tons of food to feed 2,100 people over the next week as the ship sailed for Quebec City. The trip will include a rehearsal of the Thanksgiving dinner for 20 guests.
This Thursday, the ship will pass 2,500 pounds of turkey, 130 pounds of green beans and 60 pounds of cranberries. This may seem like a daunting amount of food to prepare. But for a kitchen crew that produces plenty of spreadables at nearly every hour of every cruise, Thanksgiving is an ordinary day.
“It’s not stressful,” said Sinu Pillai, Holland America Line’s fleet executive chief. “This is more of a planned event.”
Neither Mr Pillai from India nor most of the Nieuw Statendam crew grew up in the United States. But they prepare the meal with the trust of the cooks who have hosted the holiday for decades.
The morning of the Thanksgiving expedition, in the ship’s labyrinthine two-story kitchen, the cooks methodically stuffed the turkey cavities with bread. They scrambled barrel-sized vats filled with roasted pumpkin soup, trays of brussels sprouts sprinkled with thyme and lemon zest, and speed racks stacked with trays of pecan, pumpkin, and apple pie.
It was a well-choreographed dance. The service was running late, but that was only because a health inspector had previously arrived – in a small boat – for a surprise visit. (The ship passed the assembly.)
Mr Pillai said the Thanksgiving menu at Holland America Line changes a bit from year to year, but guests want the classics. “We stuck to our traditional recipes.”
Passengers gathered at two long tables dressed in all-white tablecloths as the waters of Frenchman Bay in Maine shimmered in the dining room windows. The tables weren’t overflowing with dinner plates, and the plates weren’t hurriedly filled with stuffing and sauce. The dishes were delivered in courses, the waiters coordinated so that every plate hit the table at the same time.
The dishes looked worthy of Norman Rockwell and tasted good enough. It was a dish designed for familiarity, not flash. (The traditional menu for the multinational team is supplemented by the staff’s favorite dishes: beef rendang, Jollibee fried chicken, spaghetti, and lots of sambal and rice.)
Yansen Gede Roni, a waitress at Holland America Line for over two decades, said Thanksgiving service can be difficult. Some guests want to linger at their tables, so others have to wait a bit to be seated.
“Still, the hardest part is reliving people’s memories of the holiday,” said Jay Razonabe, another waiter. “We can’t guarantee 100 percent, but we’re doing our best.”
Some guests still miss the flavors of home.
“Are their insides as good as my mom’s? Probably not,” said Arlene Spanier, 65, a retired investment banker who lives in San Antonio and has been on about 10 Thanksgiving trips. But “She’s not making you a strawberry banana cocktail at Aunt Frida’s house.”
Deanna Vanover, 49, said she wished the Thanksgiving menu on cruises changed more regularly. “I avoid most of the food because I don’t like it,” she said.
He never felt much of a connection to Thanksgiving. “We’re a military family, we’ve moved around all the time,” said Ms. Vanover, a customer service representative in Charles Town, W.Va., who will be making her fifth Thanksgiving cruise this year. “Our holidays were always spent with friends or just by ourselves, so we never had big celebrations.”
He said that on a cruise, he didn’t have to care about the holiday. If he doesn’t want to eat turkey there are plenty of options like steak, pizza and sushi. She and her husband, Robert, can spend the day with the people they meet on the ship.
Jeff Farschman, retired vice president of Lockheed Martin of Dover, Del., spent more than 15 Thanksgivings on a cruise ship and met some of his closest friends on board. He often travels by himself.
“I’m not with my family, with my real family, when I’m on board,” said Mr Farschman, 73. “But I’m never really alone.”
This feeling spans generations. Caroline White, 16, who has made three Thanksgiving trips with her family, said she makes friends from all over the world and even sees the same people every year. “It’s a little special,” said Ms. White of Valdosta, Ga.
For travelers accustomed to hosting a holiday dinner, being greeted by an entire crew can feel awkward.
Wilma Sanders, 72, has been preparing Thanksgiving dinners since she was 10 years old. She went on her first Thanksgiving outing in 2018.
“I felt guilty for not being close to my children and grandchildren,” she said. “I felt guilty for not making the turkey and doing all the fixings. I mean, I had done it for 50 years at that point. I thought I was depriving my family of something.”
But when he started talking to the other guests, he realized that everyone was in the same boat, so to speak. “We weren’t the only ones in the world to fear the Thanksgiving chaos,” he said. “It was such a relief.”
Miss Sanders is going on a Thanksgiving trip again this year. And she’s already booked for 2023.
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