It’s 4 a.m. on the Carnival Imagination, midway between Miami and the Bahamas, and two Backstreet Boys are giving an impromptu but heartfelt lecture on love, marriage, sharks and Twitter to a handful of fans who stumbled upon the duo while ending their drunken night at the pizzeria.
One is dressed as a Ninja Turtle and slurring his words after downing straight vodka during a midnight “Pyjama Jam.” The other is sober but in party mode, having impressively survived on Red Bull on a ship overflowing with alcohol and putting his sobriety to the ultimate test.
When the intimate 45-minute spiel ends, clusters of fans spill indoors, hugging and tearful from the rare and inspiring speech from their idols.
Just hours earlier the same girls were karaoking in the rain to the Spice Girls with the band, massaging their behinds during Truth-or-Dare and being fed marshmallows from them – mouth-to-mouth.
Welcome to celebrity cruising.
And before you laugh off the boy band factor, it’s not just pop-stars sailing the high seas. Docked next to us in Nassau the previous night is rockers ZZ Top and upcoming cruises include singer Rick Springfield, rapper R Kelly, country sensation Blake Shelton, the Osmond brothers, ‘Soul Train’ featuring Patti LaBelle and a Bermuda getaway with Jersey Shore’s Deena Cortese.
Make no mistake – if crowds make you squirm, this isn’t for you. But if an artist you like sets sail, joining them isn’t just a unique musical experience, but the chance to play tourist in destinations many Kiwis may not otherwise venture to, like Mexico, Jamaica and Miami.
For the Backstreet Boys, this is their second adventure having previously escorted fans to Cancun. “That cruise took a year out of my life,” says youngest member Nick Carter.
The destination this time is the Bahamas, so naturally the drink-of-the-day at the sail-away party is a rum-fuelled BahamaMama – in souvenir glasses that no-one will keep because it’ll be 12 hours before most make it back to their cabins.
Gradually, the Miami shoreline blurs into a blazing sunset, reflected on the shimmering sea which starts to match my flame-coloured cocktail. A day earlier I was lying in that ocean, massaged by warm, subtle waves as the 27-degree heat blared down while ships glided into port in the distance.
That was the calm before the cruise storm.
Within hours of departing, the band has the deck pumping at ‘80s Night, playing Beer Pong and partying into the wee hours with fans. We awake in the former pirate hub of Nassau a few hours later, fuelling up on Eggs Benedict in the Spirit Dining Room. Gazing out at azure-blue waters and palm trees I’m instantly reminded of Fiji, but the 40-minute drive to our beach party soon shows me this paradise comes with roads more like Mumbai.
With no apparent traffic rules (or seat-belts) it’s lucky we’ve been packed into shuttles so tightly there isn’t room to move as we hurtle around corners, catching a blurred glimpse of Nassau’s colourful cathedrals and Georgian-style rainbow architecture.
“I thought he was gonna f**ken kill us,” blares one passenger as we disembark at Cable Beach.
Engulfed by 30-degree rays the moment we step onto velvety white sand, the bay is a spectacular setting for the party, which features ex-member Kevin Richardson rejoining the band as they perform acoustically, framed by towering palms trees, then play Twister, musical chairs and volleyball with cruisers.
The beach may be the Bahamas’ big draw-card, but for those with more time – or for the disinterested boyfriends accompanying fan girlfriends – there’s diving with reef sharks, hopping on pirate-ship replica ‘Revenge’ at the Pirates of Nassau museum or swimming alongside 50,000 fish at A-list hang-out The Atlantis. Also popular is the People-to-People program, where tourists are hosted by locals while experiencing Bahamian culture and cuisine, like crawfish and conch salad.
The Fish Fry, a row of seaside eateries, is another good spot to sample local fare, or for fancier feeds the pirate-built Graycliff Hotel houses the world’s third largest private wine cellar – including a US$200,000 bottle.
But with lobster on the menu, we head back on-board, where the restaurants, pizzeria, room service and poolside buffets are included in cruise prices, which start at US$988.
After dinner, there’s just enough time to enjoy a little Bahamas nightlife and every local suggests one place – Senor Frogs. Walking distance from port, the bar is packed with rowdy cruisers from the five-odd ships docking overnight and most don’t need convincing to join on-stage drinking games and group Macarenas.
It’s a different picture back at the midnight Prom Party, where five tiara-wearing fans are slow-dancing with band members. By 5.25am, despite being the oldest, Howie Dorough is once again the last man standing – well, limboing. It’s no surprise he’s sporting dark sunglasses at the photo session a few hours later, which kicks off the ‘Fun Day at Sea’ – a chance to explore the 1026-cabin ship with its art gallery, spa, casino and water-slide.
But rather than swimsuits, by mid-afternoon jeans and hoodies are out as a chill smothers the deck just as the group emerge to fulfil a cancer-stricken fan’s wish to have them shave her head. “She’s a trooper,” says AJ McLean.
There isn’t a dry eye in sight and soon there isn’t a dry cruiser as warm showers unleash, reminding us that even the Caribbean has winter. By the time the highly-anticipated concert – with a set-list voted by cruisers – ends at 11pm, rain has shifted the ‘Pyjama Jam’ party indoors. “I’ll probably get into trouble for the things I do tonight,” teases Nick, before launching into Truth-or-Dare.
Even usually-well-behaved Christian member Brian Littrell is crowd-surfing and spanking fans. It’s a sight AJ never thought he’d see – yet it perfectly shows why bands like his brave fan cruises. Says AJ: “We do it to show our love and support for our fans … ‘get a little closer, don’t be shy!’”
Pre/post-cruising in Miami:
The Kiwi-run Red South Beach has reasonably-priced, contemporary rooms close enough to walk to the heart of South Beach (just not in heels) but far enough to give you some space on the stunning beach, one block away. With a pool, casual French restaurant Le Boudoir and free cocktail daily, the recently-renovated hotel is managed by New Zealander Luke Merrick, who visited Miami 20 years ago – and never left. Now, the Kiwi hospitality he wants to echo throughout the resort is immediately evident in the laid-back, friendly staff.
For lunch, Bayside Marketplace offers waterfront eateries including the Hard Rock Café, with its special ‘Mojitorita’, twisted mac-n-cheese and ‘Famous Fajitas’. Manager Gonzalo Del Rio is endeavouring to restore the original awe-factor of the Hard Rock chain, so it’s “like walking into a rock museum again.”
For dinner, Espanola Way is a must, with cute Cuban bars and restaurants.
Uhma Spa, Miami’s first organic spa, greets you with soothing Pineapple Coconut Green Tea before offering various treatments including the Sabai Healing massage and water therapy. Don’t leave without experiencing the heavenly touch of lava shells, similar to a hot-stone massage but using shells from our own South Pacific backyard.
South Beach boasts some of the world’s hottest clubs and many offer packages starting at US$30, for pre-drinks, a limo ride, VIP entry and table service. Mansion, formerly owned by Prince, is a must, while Cameo, Nikki Beach and Liv are Vegas-like hotspots.
Duck Tours take tourists from the waters of Biscayne Bay, past the homes of Gloria Estefan and P Diddy, back on-land to the picturesque Art Deco area, where buildings were refurbished and splashed with colour to breathe new life into the rundown area in the ‘70s. You’ll also see shopping mecca Lincoln Road and “vacation home of Paris and Lindsay” – the local prison.
Leena Tailor is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. After six years working as an entertainment, news and lifestyle reporter for New Zealand’s biggest weekly magazine, she relocated to the US where she now specializes in entertainment and travel stories for a range of print and web outlets throughout New Zealand, Canada, the US, Australia and Europe.
“Celebrity Cruising” won a Silver Award in the Cruise Story category of the Eighth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.