December 12, 2011

Natural High: Cruising Dry

Image: Lindblad Expeditions


Recovery shouldn’t stop you from enjoying some high seas adventure

Mary Bergin
The online chatter begins this way: Do you know if there are any non-alcoholic cruises out there? Most responses lack encouragement: “I’ve never heard of such a thing as a cruise ship without booze. I think it might be as rare as a cruise ship without water under it.”
“I know of no ship that bans alcohol nor can I foresee it ever happening. There is a tremendous profit to be made from selling drinks on board.”
Others point out that daily activity lists on cruise ships sometimes include a “Friends of Bill W.” gathering, a reference to Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson. Cruise lines do this at their discretion; those who attend should expect to help set up and execute the meetings. Although potentially enriching encounters, sometimes nobody else shows up. That’s what happened during Snow Piccolo’s vacation with relatives a few years ago. “On a ship with 2,700 people, it was just me and the dolphins outside the windows,” she recalls.
Today she is a travel agent whose Florida-based business, Vacation Quest, Inc., includes the arrangement of recovery cruises and independent travel for people in recovery. These Sober Celebrations began with an organized Halloween cruise in 2002 because Piccolo believes “life is too short to save money and be bored.” Now she arranges several recovery cruises every year, usually booking part of a Royal Caribbean ship.  
Among the 130 people who sailed on the world’s largest cruise ship, Oasis of the Seas, during Halloween 2009 were three couples Piccolo, an ordained minister, wed before or during the trip. 
For Holly and Paul of Florida, who have 43 cruises and 22 years of sobriety between them, their elopement setting seemed far more appropriate than a courthouse. “We liked it all,” Holly says. “The fellowship, the planning, which Snow handled a lot of Everything worked. We do other cruises, too, but it’s nice when we can go with a group like this.”
The Rev. Dan Block of Wisconsin, his wife and their eight children stood as witnesses of one of the wedding ceremonies Piccolo performed before the cruise began. “It allowed us to be with longtime friends and link the ceremony to a honeymoon,” says Block, a Lutheran minister and retired Army chaplain, sober 37 years. 
Piccolo says children and other loved ones are welcome. “I choose the ships with the most bells and whistles so that there is an abundance to do for family members of all ages,” she says. “I need children’s programs, and I also have a company that delivers motorized scooters for older folks [who are on board].”
She refers to her excursions as a “fellowship travel club [in which] I create a secret, parallel universe on board.” This means a separate itinerary of suggested activities for the guests in recovery.
Details depend upon the type of cruise, but twice-daily meetings, a 24-hour fellowship station, specially arranged excursions at ports of call and icebreakers are typical. Welcome packets include cards of introduction for exchanging. Halloween cruisers also are invited to a private costume contest and scavenger hunt. The annual Sober Sisters cruise involves yoga and spirituality workshops; Sober Brothers sail during Super Bowl weekend and talk sports.
“It’s the whole range that God made, 18-year-olds to a 90-year-old retired doctor,” Piccolo says, regarding participants. “Gays, straights, singles and families.”
She reserves a group dining area and makes sure wine glasses are removed from tables. Relatives of people in recovery who want alcohol with a meal sit at a separate table.
“Once we got sober, we were more fun than when we were drunk,” Block says. “I’ve never failed to have a stimulating time with a fun group.”
Steve A.’s Sober Vacations International is best known for temporarily turning an all-inclusive Club Med into a “sober village” in various parts of the world, but cruises also are arranged. Partnerships include Holland America and Lindblad Expeditions; the latter uses small vessels to explore the natural world and involves the National Geographic Society.
A recovery cruise for 30 guests filled half of a Lindblad ship that explored the Galapagos Islands. Sails to Alaskan ports usually double or triple that guest total, reducing the per-person cost.
“Whether you’re a writer or a Kiwanis member, you want to be with like-minded people,” says Steve, whose work began in 1987. A morning “attitude adjustment” gathering and evening speaker are typical on each of his cruises; additional structure depends upon the size and interests of the group, and meetings that start spontaneously are not unusual.
“I’m doing this. Who wants to join me?” is the customary approach to port exploration, the California-based coordinator says. “One of the challenges of sobriety is to keep it dynamic and spontaneous, and you need an outlet for fun.”
Although all ages, life journeys and family combinations participate in his trips, the majority of guests range from 35 to 55 and have been sober five to 10 years. He realizes that people new to recovery “have to walk through some fear” when booking a cruise. “You have to take a leap of faith and find out how to have fun without drinking. It’s a journey, like all things in life.”
Brett and Lisa Sponsler of Arizona are one of two couples coordinating Sober Cruises, an outfit that began in 2003 and typically uses part of a Carnival Cruise Lines ship. Although the Sponslers are in their 50s, Brett acknowledges that Carnival tends to attract a younger crowd and families who are budget-minded.
“What we offer is a built-in support group,” he says. “The recovery stories are a great part of it, and they tend to dwell on solutions instead of the problems.”
Between morning meetings and group dinners is time for self-exploration. “The biggest misconception is that the entire ship is sober,” Sponsler says. “For newcomers [to sobriety], it might be scary to get into a setting where alcohol is so prevalent, but people are good about sharing what’s worked for them.”
Fifteen to 150 people, from the early 20s to late 80s, participate in each cruise. “It runs the gamut of life,” he says. “Forty years of sobriety to less than six months.” 
Count Linda Corby of Connecticut among the fans. “I go there knowing there are friends I haven’t met yet,” says the four-time cruiser who has been sober for 20 years. “It’s certainly a spiritual experience and a good, secure place for both a wonderful vacation and self-exploration.”
Block adds this thought: “You can approach sobriety defensively by locking yourself up in your home, never going out to eat because the restaurant has a liquor license—or you can really live. There is life after sobriety, and it’s a good, fun, enriching life.”
Mary Bergin has been a newspaper journalist since the 1970s, and in the 1980s, she founded Midwest Features, Inc. Since 2002, her weekly column Roads Traveled has been distributed through Midwest Features Syndicate at



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