My experiences crossing the ocean: the blog of a first time cruiser

Chris Northwood
8 min readOct 10, 2022

Amongst my friends, colleagues and peers, it’s no secret that I’m very prone to burn out. I’m very good at committing to things if I think they’re important, and a lot of things are (or feel) important. So of course, I burn out, and my way of resetting is through a holiday that is primarily about relaxing, about re-stimulating myself, and most importantly, requires zero thinking. I’ve done all-inclusive beach resorts a few times, but thanks to the wonders of estrogen, I can’t “boy-mode” to a beach any more, and wearing a swimming costume in public is something that, well, is anxiety inducing.

So I decided to go on a cruise! It’s like an all-inclusive holiday, but I can go around Norway or something, so it’s not fundamentally linked to the beach in the same way that my previous holidays in Majorca or Cancun have been. I had a look on my calendar and found a narrow window where I could get away — it doesn’t clash with family events, when friends are coming to visit, or other external committments (like speaking at Manchester Tech Festival). Then I looked at some cruises around the Baltic, or Scandanavia and that ilk to see what fit. And I found one that was a transatlantic crossing, stopping in the Orkneys, Iceland and Nova Scotia on the way to New York. This sounds fun! I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland, I can afford it and going on a transatlantic crossing sounds like an adventure.

I’ve learnt this is not how you’re supposed to book cruises.

I have friends who have experience with cruises. The first question they all asked me is “which ship are you going on?”. I didn’t know. I knew it was on Norwegian Cruise Lines. Apparently the ship is a massive factor in booking a cruise, as is the “vibe” of the cruise line. I seemed to have lucked out though. Norwegian has an excellent reputation for solo travellers, a more active on board life, and a good reputation in the LGBT community. I didn’t seem to find much about the ship though, and it turns out this was because it was a brand new ship that hadn’t had an inaugural sailing yet, so it was a little bit into the unknown!

So I booked it alongside their “Free At Sea” package incorporating some meals in the themed dining rooms and inclusive drinks, organised an overnight stay in New York and a flight back (as an aside, I flew on an Airbus A321LR back from New York, and it’s a surprisingly pleasant experience! except for the classic screaming child and terrible Aer Lingus food), upgraded to unlimited wi-fi, and a few weeks later I was on a train to Southampton.

Chris Northwood stood in a car park in front of Southampton cruise terminal and the NCL Prima

The Prima is a wonderful ship (or was it the Pr1ma? The onboard branding couldn’t decide, which was slightly annoying!). After booking it, I did a bit more research and found it was supposed to be the first of a new class, focussing more on the mid-size (capacity of just over 3000 as opposed to some of the mega cruise ships which are almost twice that), so there wasn’t much to say about it yet! The new class of ship was described as having a concept of more spaces, but each space being smaller and more intimate. Did it work? Without a point of comparison I don’t really know, but there were a lot of spaces and none of them felt massive. A few spaces in the ship got full at certain points in the day, which is worrying when the ship was only 2/3rds full, but at the same time the weather didn’t allow much usage of the extensive outdoor space, so on a full sailing in warmer weather that perhaps won’t be a problem.

Norwegian is very American. Despite the name, it felt like 90% of the fellow passengers on board were American, and American culture abounds. For example, instead of sirloin steak you got strip steak on the menu, and the Americans on board seemed to get a lot of amusement over the fact the announcement system in the lifts announced “Lift is going down” (rather than elevator). Other things came through as very American too, such as some of the trivia, the approach to ordering at the bar, and the expectation that everything had a mandatory 20% gratuity attached to it. There was a healthy amount of “nickle-and-diming” on board as well, with some things like a go at the go-kart track priced at $15, and renting a dart board for an hour costing $40! A lot of things cost extra on board, and were certainly priced at a premium. I was tempted by a massage, but not at $179… Similarly when it came to shore excursions, I booked my own with a private tour operator at a third of the cost Norwegian were charging me.

There are benefits to American culture — Americans have a reputation for being outgoing. For every unreasonable complaint I heard towards the crew, Americans are not afraid of striking up conversations and meeting new people on board in a way that I think British culture is less good at. I had plenty of lovely conversations and met some interesting people (a lot of female programmers who lost their jobs in the dot-com crash and then switched careers, interestingly!) mostly due to them starting up conversations with me. There was also a solo travellers group on board which despite being completely overwhelemed at first I quickly found a few interesting people to meet up with every day.

The Norweigan crew were exceptional. The bartenders remembered my regular order after only visiting once or twice, the entertainment crew were so lovely and friendly and encouraged me to get involved in more of the solo traveller activities, and despite hesitations about travelling and presenting as a trans woman, the crew almost always managed to gender my correctly (American culture means a lot of “sir” or “madam”, and I was “madam” more often than not), and the fellow passengers were incredibly inclusive. One particular stand out moment was when a group of ladies ordered me a glass of champagne, as “all ladies need their bubbles”.

One thing that surprised me was how much some people get into cruising. The “back-to-back” is apparently very common (or the “back-to-back-to-back” etc), where people chain multiple cruises together. I’m unsure if the transatlantic crossing is special, and one crew member did tell me that apparently they’re very common for the seasoned cruisers as a way of building up points/status on the cruise line, but most people had done quite a lot of cruises before, and some people cruised multiple times a year.

There were times that it felt like I was expected to know various things about the cruise ship that were never properly explained to me, like when I checked in I was asked “what level are you”? I replied “5” because that’s the deck I was on, but she meant loyalty programme level (which I didn’t have one of), and things of that ilk…

The view from my cabin looking out at the North Atlantic

When I checked in, I had to agree to the terms and conditions which stated quite clearly that the captain could change the itinery at any time, without compensation, on his sole discretion. So as we set sail from Southampton, he did exactly that, cancelling our first stop in Kirwall on the Orkneys, and heading direct to Iceland off the west coast of Ireland, rather than up the North Sea, as a result of a storm heading on our intended path. It was a bit disappointing to miss that, but having extra time in Iceland was a welcome alternative. The first few days at sea were pretty choppy to be honest, but I acclimatised well and enjoyed watching some of the big waves crashing against the ship and my cabin. The only weird thing was upon arrival in Iceland, when walking the 4km into Reykjavik from the cruise terminal was then I was hit by a huge bout of seasickness. It felt like I was still walking on the ship, with it rocking and rolling beneath me, but of course the land was still, and then induced a degree of nausea. I had it briefly in Halifax and New York, and even when landing back in the UK which is a very odd and unexpected sensation, but I seem to have gotten over it now!

We spent 2 days in Iceland. The first day I spent exploring Reykjavik which I thoroughly enjoyed the vibe of, and the second we did the “Golden Circle” tour, and I am blown away by the majesty of the country. There is so much I didn’t get to do I now know I need to go back for.

Chris Northwood on the deck of the NCL Prima with a vibrant red sunrise behind her

The second stop on the tour involved a fair amount of crossing timezones, and although I wasn’t expecting to get jet lag, 3 days in a row of 25 hour days is actually quite punishing, to the point where I was regularly waking up before 7 for almost the entire journey.

I didn’t know much about Halifax, but I’m amazed at the incredibly rich history it has, and especially the importance as a port for North Atlantic supply convoys in the second world war. It was an interesting place to visit, but otherwise had the feel of a middling North American city so I didn’t get a good feel for wider culture.

The final stop was New York. Arriving in the early hours by boat was great, but the weather was absolutely miserable! I was hoping for a chance to see the aurora at some point but sadly it was cloudy as we were around Iceland so I never got a chance to, but the light pollution from the New York skyline in the fog was quite something.

After having cruised and spent time at sea I now really understand the emotions that being in the ocean and the sea can evoke in people. The size and scale of the ocean, the sheer power of the crashing winds, the incredible isolation when you can see for incredible distances but there’s nothing else around you and the feeling of isolation that gives. It’s humbling. The blinking of a lighthouse in the distance, the excitement of spotting land, for some reason it just really evoked an amazing sense of adventure in me. The rational part of me knows I’m on some incredibly curated and cushioned experience, but another part of me cannot feel but small.

Will I cruise again? I think so. Although the itinary I picked had far more sea days than a typical one, it was exactly the right balance of relaxation, not having to think and plan, with a few interjections of exciting places to visit to spice it up. It was unlike anything I’ve done before, to a surprising degree. And I loved it.



Chris Northwood

A technologist wanting to share knowledge and iterate towards a better world.