The theme from The Love Boat won't be playing as you board the ship; any background "music" will be the shouts of laborers loading the last of the cargo. The merchant vessel Americana, which departs from the Port of Houston to tour the anchorages of Central and South America, offers adventurous travelers the opportunity of cruising the high seas by freighter -- a specially designed luxury passenger freighter, it's true, but a freighter nonetheless.
The Americana caters to a crowd that has time for a cruise of 21 days or so. The "or so" can grow longer if scheduled cargo pickups are delayed. As a result, most passengers are older, with a median age of 60. That cruise-ship staple, the midnight buffet, has been moved up in the evening. Most passengers just can't stay up that late. Bingo Night is big, but there aren't many other organized activities; many of the passengers don't want them. "Been there, done that," says veteran traveler Jim McMahon, 71, of Plantation, Florida, as he prepares to embark. "This is low-key, low-pressure. If you don't want to do anything, you don't have to." Peggy Marchbanks, of Boise, Idaho, says the novelty of being on a container vessel drew her and her husband, Clyde (a retired seaman), to this mode of travel. "It's a little more low-key, and we enjoy it. The food is excellent, and the officers are so nice."
"This is a cruise line for people who have done all the megaships and want to do something more intimate," says Eva Hansen, assistant vice president and tireless promoter for Ivaran Lines. The Oslo-based shipping firm built the Americana to carry several decks full of passengers in addition to the coffee, sugar, nuts, vegetable oils, manufactured goods and heavy equipment it hauls from port to port. The ship's officers are from Norway; the crew is from South America.
Tourists and travel agents haven't bought in to this travel concept yet -- that worries Hansen -- but freighter-cruise proponents say that's just because they haven't come along for the ride. A tour of the quarters shows off sparkling facilities and shatters the misconception that patrons will be traveling on a tramp steamer. Shining silver railings line the walls. The rooms have closets ("Lots more than in regular cruise ships," says Hansen), full baths and showers in the larger rooms ("You'll never see this much bathroom in a cruise ship," she says) and televisions ("[The passengers] can watch movies on video, and when we're in port, they get the local stations").
The rooms also have beds, sofas, chairs, coffee tables and minibars. Four of the rooms have their own balconies. There's a general deck area with shuffleboard courts and swimming pools, and slot machines are tucked into available hallway space. The on-board infirmary has all sorts of impressive-looking equipment; it's presided over by kindly doctor P. Rassmussen. With fewer passengers -- 88 is the limit, though the Americana's never been sold out -- and a smaller crew than regular cruises, everyone gets to know one another. The purser is also the cruise director; on Sundays, he serves as the minister, conducting the church service in the library (which doubles as the poker room).
Drawbacks? The Americana is governed by cargo pickups and deliveries. If it nears a port and other ships are in the available berths, it may have to anchor at sea for hours, or even a day, until a space opens up; likewise if the cargo isn't ready. So a 21-day trip can become a 25-day trip. And plane reservations will need to be changed, sometimes at considerable cost.
As Hansen sees it, traveling on the Americana means you get to live in luxury while getting a close-up look at the shipping business. Traveler McMahon sees it as his chance for one more "adventure" before he dies. If you've got time on your hands, it's not a bad way to go.
The M/V Americana departs from Barbour's Cut Terminal in La Porte. Ivaran Lines reservations/ info: (800) 451-1639.