A scenic view of Trunk Bay on St. John's island

The U.S. Virgin Islands, made up of St. John (with Trunk Bay pictured here), St. Croix and St. Maarten, are popular ports of call in the Caribbean. 

Steve Giralt/Gallery Stock

A vacation on a big-ship cruise has never held much appeal for me. My taste in travel runs more toward the off-the-cuff variety: Go somewhere interesting with a good guidebook and vague itinerary, then let it roll.

So what was I doing at the Sunset Bar on the rear deck of the Celebrity Reflection, heading off on a seven-night cruise to the eastern Caribbean? Drinking a rum punch, of course, watching the fading Miami skyline and thinking, "Hey, this is kind of cool!"

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A little backstory: A few months earlier, my husband had been abruptly laid off from a job that had consumed him for many years. This unexpected bump in the road was a jolt for both of us, and the weeks that followed were stressful. We finally decided that we needed a vacation — an affordable one — where we could totally chill. My sister, a frequent cruiser, suggested a stint at sea was the perfect prescription, so, with our expectations in check, we decided to give it a try.

Our maiden voyage turned out to be far more enjoyable than we'd anticipated. I didn't feel seasick for a second — my number-one fear about being on a ship. Nor did I feel cooped up, or bored and restless, as I'd worried I might. We managed to avoid the things that had turned us off to cruising (small talk with strangers, large-group activities, too much food and alcohol, glitzy casinos) and, instead, to embrace the more relaxing aspects of life at sea: morning yoga classes, long walks around the ship's decks, the sauna and steam room at an awesome spa, and the curative power of the surrounding ocean. "It's the negative ions," a man we met at the Mast Bar told us one afternoon. A retired high school teacher, the guy explained that these invisible molecules, abundant around water, emit positive vibes and boost your mood. "Maybe," my skeptical husband said, laughing. "But I think that this rum punch might be helping a bit, too."

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So, OK, maybe we didn't completely avoid alcohol and small talk. We spent enough time in bars and hot tubs to meet a sampling of our 3,000 fellow cruisers: a group of friends celebrating their 65th birthdays; some mother-daughter duos; boomers traveling with elderly parents; and lots of cruise-ship regulars who boasted that this was their umpteenth voyage.

And, OK, we didn’t totally sidestep group activities, either. This was a specialty cruise, with four of the best “chef­testants” from the Top Chef reality TV show aboard. That meant special programs throughout the week, including cooking demonstrations in the ship’s spacious auditorium, which we thoroughly enjoyed — the goofy jokes from the emcee — cruise director notwithstanding. One afternoon, I took a cooking class in the ship’s galley with chef Hosea Rosenberg, the Top Chef from Season 5, who taught his 20 students how to make a smoky tomato soup and grits croutons. The soup was terrific, but even better was the chance to see the inner workings of the bustling and enormous kitchen.