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A crash course in the denial-soaked history of the pleasure cruise

The Titanic leaves Southampton, England, on her maiden voyage to New York City. Five days into her journey, the ship struck an iceberg and sank, resulting in the deaths of more than 1,500 people.

AP

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.

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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.

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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

The nighttime view must have been breathtaking for those who saw it, but the massive modern ships are just too overbearing to share the picturesque landscapes, with their yacht-sized harbours and rock-strewn shallows.

"The scale is out of proportion," says Orvar Lofgren, professor of ethnology at Lund University in Sweden and the author of On Holiday: A History of Vacationing. "As the ships get bigger, the cruise industry finds itself confronting this gap between fantasy and reality. These ships are simply not designed to land in interesting places." Or even pass close to them, apparently.

And this is the problematic paradox that is at the heart of cruise travel, that distinguishes these floating resorts from the luxurious ocean liners they strive to emulate: In a less class-conscious age, cruises aim to reproduce the magic of the transatlantic crossing without making landlubber passengers feel totally at sea. The utter foreignness of a week on empty open water is replaced by the predictable daily experience of stunning vistas, new ports of call and the controlled shopping excursions they can provide.

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It's an awkward balance. Rather than dock in those "interesting places," Prof. Lofgren says, the massive cruise ships "tend to land in big oil-tanker harbours outside industrial cities."

The experience is out of sync with the image. Paid excursions into picturesque towns make up the difference, while generating extra revenue for cruise companies – they get a cut from local merchants in exchange for the secure consumer traffic directed their way.

"The culture of the ship is designed to scare you when you get to port," says Ottawa writer Laura Byrne Paquet, author of Wanderlust: A Social History of Travel. "They tell you not to go on the island by yourself, only on an authorized excursion. The fact is that they only break even on the fare, so they use fear to sell you stuff."

The same psychological manipulation comes into play with purpose-built harbour malls in destinations such as Aruba, created to provide a seamless sea-to-land shopping experience for travellers who don't actually want to participate in the wider world they admire from their on-board suites.

Increasingly, says sociologist Ross Klein of Memorial University of Newfoundland and cruisejunkie.com, the big-ship experience is designed to be its own separate realm, a fully immersive vacation that needs only a sense of movement and a new port out the window each morning to validate the traveler's aspirations. "The cruise industry aims to give people so much to do on the ship that they don't want to get off," he says.

And what's so bad about that? Golden-age ocean liners such as the opulent Queen Mary and the splendidly art deco Normandie were just as determined to create an artificial environment devoted to the pleasures of distracted stimulation – albeit at a more deluxe level that excluded the seagoing rabble.

They may have had purer motives, in the sense that they were actually engaged in transporting passengers from one destination to another, as opposed to the cruise-ship's circular aimlessness, but that's hardly a justification for moral superiority.

Modern cruises come in for the same kind of elite-traveller disdain that greeted the package tours spawned by cheap jet travel in the 1970s. And yet there must be something more to the appeal of the cruise than just herd instinct. Consider the broad range of niche cruises available to the kind of people who pride themselves on shunning the bland and ordinary: You can tour the Canadian Arctic in the company of author and birdwatcher Margaret Atwood, indulge in a three-day rock fest with a Toronto punk band with a famously unprintable name on the tropical Bruise Cruise, or explore Alaska in the company of 1,300 women on an Olivia Travel lesbian cruise, featuring "concerts and comedy shows selected with our community in mind."

From the arduous Grand Tour to classless cruising comfort

Travel, for much of its long history, was directly associated with a sense of travail – it was hard, laborious, risky and seldom an end in itself. Even the haute-snob aristocratic Grand Tour of the 18th century was a crude and dangerous undertaking en route, before the ancient pleasures of a destination like Rome were finally achieved.

The great leap of modernity was to make the journey its own reward. Industrial-age entrepreneurs such as Thomas Cook saw a way to connect the new, more secure technologies of long-distance steamships and railways with an emerging urban work force, and turned the worrying adventures of travel into more dependable forms of distraction.

"This is where mass tourism begins," Prof. Chambers says. "For the first time, travel was associated with leisure and developed its own rationale: It's comfortable, good for you and you get to see new things."

That Victorian sensibility has informed all levels of tourism ever since. But it also plays a crucial role in the never-ending debate about the illusions of mass tourism – in the case of modern cruise ships, the sense that they have now become far too much like a self-contained, adventure-averse facsimile of home to be considered travel at all.

Travel, from this point of view, is meant to take you out of your comfort zone – in itself a nostalgic, individualism-based romanticization of discovery, wherein a new experience can be achieved only with difficulty and effort. No wonder, then, that cruise travel is treated with disdain. Its entire reason for being is to promise the world without the accompanying effort, to set a constant array of novelty against a backdrop of easy familiarity.

Familiarity, however much avant-garde explorers prefer to disdain it, is hardly a sin in the broader vacation world – the Canadian elite regularly migrates to expensive summer cottages, camps and chalets where endless summers are eternally the same, yet different. That's almost exactly the cruise mentality.

"There's a tendency to put down cruise travel as a superficial," Prof. Chambers says. "But that sense of familiarity, particularly in a communal setting that's different from your day-to-day norm, is a very powerful pleasure."

Add the sea, even as experienced aboard a mammoth cruise ship, and you have easy access to elusive romance. "The idea of the sea still has a sense of magic," Prof. Lofgren says. "You're afloat, you've left the world behind, rituals and routines change, and you feel free."

The potency of that feeling, the heart of the class-crossing love story in the film Titanic, shouldn't be discounted. Even the reality of the Italian rocks may not be able to penetrate this forceful modern fantasy.

"For people who takes cruises," Prof. Klein says, "the wreck of the Costa Concordia is simply an anomaly. This won't affect the image that's been created in the slightest."

John Allemang is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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