Looking for a deluxe cruise on the open seas that promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience? If the grounding and capsizing of the Costa Concordia, with all its subsequent stories of disorder and disaster, haven't undermined your faith in the romance of the waves, then why not consider the Titanic Anniversary Cruise, departing New York on April 10?
Travellers with a spirit of adventure will get to dress up in period costumes, experience a selection of gourmet dishes served on the Titanic (perhaps poached salmon in mousseline sauce and peaches in chartreuse jelly?), visit the graves of the victims during an excursion in Halifax and partake in a sombre, middle-of-the-night memorial service at the actual site of the sinking.
At the very least, the eight-day trip (priced from $4,900 to $14,850) will offer a useful perspective on how much has changed in once-in-a-lifetime voyages since the fateful ship went to its watery grave, and how much remains the same.
Right now, it's the sameness that is front and centre: When big ships, and the people who board them, lose sight of their vulnerabilities, bad things can happen. To the ancient Greeks, a seafaring people who fretted constantly about the sea's dangers, this was called hubris, the arrogant presumption that you were above the eternal laws that govern man and nature.
In the more practical world of modern mass travel, the crash of the Costa Concordia cruise ship, like that of its more illustrious predecessor a century ago, is more about the overriding ambiguity of the image – the mismatch between the insulated adventure we're buying and the rocks and icebergs that still can get in the way.
“With both disasters, the same delusion is at work,” says Erve Chambers, professor of anthropology at the University of Maryland. “These ships are so big and so powerful that they are seen to prevail over nature.”
The most up-to-date cruise ships, like their ocean-liner precursors, pride themselves on their massive bulk – the Costa Concordia carried 4,200 passengers and crew members, was the length of three football fields and piled up its 17 decks in a top-heavy structure designed to maximize revenue in a narrow space.
But this sheer skyscraper size, seen best from ground level in a picturesque port where passenger ships loom like Cape Canaveral spacecraft over Florida palm trees, is not so much an act of defiance against the hostile elements as a denial that they even exist.
The Titanic and its golden-age cohorts certainly strove to banish the dangers of the outside world with their shipboard orchestras, chandeliered libraries, marble fireplaces and formal dinner dress. Modern ships are even more inward-looking, having replaced the drafty, misty open spaces of the old ocean liners with profit-generating oceanview suites and vast, atrium-centred entertainment complexes. They are floating cities, shopping malls on steroids, gated communities with a saltwater perimeter, and theme parks with their own bedrooms.
You can rock-climb, ice-skate, take dance lessons, gamble, take in a show, take in another show, go without making your own bed for an entire week, meet Mickey Mouse and eat and drink round the clock and still feel like you're missing something. This restless pandemonium is all part of the appeal to cruise consumers who want to be kept busy and get their all-inclusive money's worth in a vast community of like-minded pleasure-seekers.
But the outside world still intrudes. That exotic foreignness, the opportunity to sample the Other from a safe distance, is an essential element of the sales pitch – the reason why you don't just go to a landlocked cruise behemoth in your nearest harbour and disappear into its welcoming womb for a week.
For example: “On whatever Costa cruise you choose, you'll cross the most beautiful seas, pass stunning landscapes and see breathtaking views.” So the promise goes on the company's website, and in a sense that's what the Concordia's captain was trying to deliver when he ran aground far too close to the Italian island of Giglio.
Stuck in the channel between fantasy and reality