5 days of making waves aboard a floating music festival
I wake up after a heavy, peaceful sleep to a sliver of sunlight peeking through the curtains. A glance out of the round porthole reveals nothing but blue – endless ocean meets endless sky. A personal inventory determines: A) I am most definitely on a ship; B) my ears are slightly ringing; C.) my voice is a mound of gravel; and D.) coffee is in my immediate future. If this is Wednesday, I must still be on The Rock Boat.
What’s the Rock Boat, you ask? It’s a floating five-day annual music festival aboard the Norwegian Pearl, featuring 30-plus bands playing five different venues throughout the ship, with two additional stages on the beach during shore leaves.
If you like music, more specifically, straight ahead roots rock with a dash of country and a dollop of classic rock, then you may want to check out The Rock Boat for your next holiday in the sun.
The 13th edition of the Rock Boat left the Port of Miami on Sunday, Feb. 24 around 5 PM, with a brilliant orange sunset lighting up the skyline and the sound of the festival’s host band, Sister Hazel, filling the air from a packed and boisterous pool deck. I’m aboard as a guest of one of the entertainers, a good friend who plied me from my Los Angeles nest with the offer a free cruise and my own cabin (alcohol not included- hey, you can’t be too greedy). All I had to do was get to Miami in two weeks time. Never one to shy away from a travel experience (or a free cruise), I dutifully accepted.
To be honest, I’m not exactly a strict follower of up-and-coming bands.
A glance through my iTunes would reveal a prominent lack of post Y2K artists. Scanning the Rock Boat lineup, I was ashamed to admit I only recognized a couple of names – the aforementioned Sister Hazel (they of the 1997 hit “All For You”) and Rusted Root (1994‘s Phish-esque “Send Me On My Way”). Leave it to me, a guy in his forties, to only recognize probably the two oldest bands on the bill.
Nevertheless, I packed an open mind along with my Dramamine (which thankfully, was not needed.) My only previous cruise was aboard week-long budget Carnival ship over 20 years ago, and seeing as how I’ve never even considered returning to the high seas, it’s safe to say I found the experience lacking, to say the least.
If only The Rock Boat had been around then. A noticeable difference between The Rock Boat and a regular cruise is the fellow passengers. Whereas most cruises take pains to accommodate all ages, the standard Rock Boat guest is squarely within the 21-45 age demo: no screaming kids playing Marco Polo in the pool, no senior citizens complaining about the noise.
The ship is completely booked out by Rock Boat patrons, and like most concerts or conventions, it’s a gathering of like-minded people.
Another break from the ordinary is a noted lack of port-of-calls. The Rock Boat makes just one stop- Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas. Owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines, the tiny island consists of little more than a beach, food pavilion, beachside bars, souvenir kiosks, and two music stages. Guests must take a 10-minute tender from the anchored ship to the island, where they can swim, snorkel, etc., while live bands provide the soundtrack.
Tenders depart at regular intervals, so the amount of time spent on shore is up to the individual passenger. On the second shore day I slept in late, had breakfast, grabbed a workout in the ship’s clean, modern gym, and then leisurely made my way to the island in the afternoon. I was there only a few hours: long enough to see colorful fish and small stingrays while snorkeling, catch a nap, show off my (lack of) beach volleyball skills in a sunset co-ed pickup game, and then catch the last tender back to the ship. Not a bad half-day, if I do say so myself.
Like any cruise, food is included in the ticket price and is available 24-7.
Although it’s not high-end fancy, there is enough variety to please just about anyone (even my vegetarian friend). There are cafeteria-style diners, outside cafes, and more formal dining rooms. Guests also can pay extra, usually in the $20-25 range, to eat at one of the specialty restaurants on board (sushi, Steak, Italian, etc.). If you’re jonesing at 4 AM, expect to pay around $4-5 for late night room service.
Alcohol and carbonated drinks are not included and cost extra. Many a passenger has tried to circumvent the system by smuggling in his or her own alcohol. This is not recommended, as the airport-style baggage screening on arrival will tip you off and your booze will be confiscated. Make no mistake- the bar and casino are where cruise lines make their profits. They can suss out the smugglers.
But let’s get back to the music, shall we? On a typical day at sea, the first band may go on at noon, and between the five venues, there will be continuous music until 2 AM. Showtimes are staggered, with each band playing at least three times over the course of the cruise and never opposite the same bands. This is an effective way to keep guests from missing a particular band. So you missed Rusted Root on their Monday night show in the Stardust Theater? No worries, you can still catch them Wednesday at the Spinnaker Lounge or Thursday afternoon at the pool deck.
A typical band set is one hour. If two bands I wanted to see were playing at the same time, I could catch a half-hour of one, walk to the other side of the ship, and see the last half of the other band’s set. Venues are far enough apart that no sound bleeds over from one stage to the next.
The Rock Boat setup is a great way to sample a lot of bands in a short period of time, and I must say, I was impressed with just about every band I saw.
Artists like Amy Gerhartz, Red Wanting Blue, Ingram Hill, Brandi Carlile, Alternate Routes, and Green River Ordinance were unknown to me before the trip, and they all won me over. Conveniently enough, the gift shop sells the merch for every band on board, so I made a few contributions to their art by buying some music before I left.
The Rock Boat is also a great way to meet the artists themselves. Unlike a typical rock festival, where bands play their set and hit the road, bands aboard The Rock Boat are on the ship for the duration. There are formal meet-and-greets scheduled throughout the cruise, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself sharing an elevator with the band you saw the night before.
The Herculean task of organizing the huge endeavor falls to Atlanta-based production company Sixthman, who’ve been running it since its inception. Others Sixthman music cruises include floating fan fests for individual bands like KISS, Lynyrd Skynrd, Kid Rock, and more.
Prices range anywhere from just over $700 per person to up to $1,500 and over, depending on the type of room and how many passengers per cabin. I had a window room on the lowest passenger deck, with two twin beds pushed together to make a queen. As for size? Well you’re on a cruise after all. It’s tight, but I was comfortable. If you plan on sharing a room, make sure you get along well with your roommate and pack lightly.
Not that you’d be spending much time in your cabin anyway.
For more info, on The Rock Boat and other Sixthman music cruises, check out their website here.