What it's like for a religious Israeli family to vacation on a cruise

There are plenty of articles and videos out there with advice on how to get the most out of a cruise, but not many about the experience of speaking in Hebrew, eating kosher food, and spending Shabbat

 THE ‘RHAPSODY of the Seas’ glides on the water.  (photo credit: ROYAL CARIBBEAN INTERNATIONAL)
THE ‘RHAPSODY of the Seas’ glides on the water.

It may be the summer of revenge travel around the world, but in Israel it’s also the summer of the cruise.

Royal Caribbean International, the global cruise giant, began offering cruises from the Holy Land late last year, shaking up a travel market that until now was primarily dominated by one Israel cruise operator, Mano. This summer, Royal Caribbean began marketing its product in earnest, and many Israelis are thinking about vacationing by ship for the first time.

My family and I joined one of the first voyages of the year, a six-night jaunt in May to four destinations in Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus. We ate, drank, swam, and danced with 2,400 other (mostly) Israelis and 800 staff members on a ship from the Haifa Port. And now I’m going to tell you what I learned, to help you plan your cruise from Israel.

How to plan your cruise from Israel

There are plenty of articles and videos out there with advice on how to get the most out of a cruise, but not many about the experience of speaking in Hebrew, eating kosher food, and spending Shabbat on a cruise. Here, I’m focusing specifically on the experience of cruising as a religious Jew from Israel.

But first, let’s talk about price. In a country where hotel stays are among the most expensive in the world, the rates that appear on the Royal Caribbean website appear so reasonable, it is almost surreal. Four nights starting at $450 per person or six nights for $650, with three meals a day, entertainment, and multiple destinations? That comes out to less than the cost of a stay at the Dead Sea, where you’ve been a million times already.

 LOOKING OUT over the Santorini coast.  (credit: Stub family)
LOOKING OUT over the Santorini coast. (credit: Stub family)

We were quite pleased with the price we paid for our cruise, but it is worth noting that there are plenty of add-on costs along the way. Three charges jacked up our price by about 50%. We paid an additional $20 a day for kosher food ($11 a day for the kids); $15 a day for Internet access; and a mandatory 18% gratuity on everything, which we didn’t know about when we ordered our tickets. Still a reasonable value, but worth knowing before you book.

That extra $20 a day got us three meals a day in the kosher dining rooms. This was definitely not pre-packaged airplane meals. For the Israeli ship, two of the premium restaurants have been converted into kosher dining rooms, with full-time kashrut supervision. 

Breakfast was a dairy buffet, lunch was a meat buffet, and dinner was a meat meal, served to your table by your personal waiter. The buffet options are broad, just a bit less than you might expect at a fancy Israeli hotel. 

At dinner, you can choose from four options each for the starter, main, and dessert. Typically, there are meat, chicken, fish, and vegetarian options, including high-end delicacies like rack of lamb and prime rib. The food is excellent, and yes, you can get more of everything.

In addition to three kosher meals a day, the Park Cafe on the ninth deck serves kosher pizza, sandwiches, and snacks all day long at no extra charge. You can also get kosher soft-serve American ice cream and juices whenever you want. I kept thinking about friends who came back from kosher-for-Passover programs at hotels and described how they kept eating all day.

Booking the kosher package was a bit more complicated than it should have been. After we paid for our cruise online, we had to figure out how to add the food option separately. After some runaround, we were able to book it by calling (09) 970-8715.

TRANSPORTATION to the ship dock in Haifa is simple – the train goes straight to the Haifa Center Hashmona railway station across the street from the embarkation center. As we neared the stop, my family and I were a bit surprised when hundreds of others prepared to get off the train at the same time. Boarding the ship was a chaotic process that took nearly two hours, but eventually we were aboard the ship and in our rooms.

Most Israeli cruises take place on a ship called Rhapsody of the Seas, one of Royal Caribbean’s oldest and smallest vessels. The majority of the passenger cabins are tiny rooms on the second and third floors, with up to four per room. (We traveled with my in-laws and offloaded one of our kids to their cabin.) 

You can choose a cabin with a window, or an internal cabin with no window for a bit less. There are larger suites with balconies available on the seventh and eighth decks, at significantly higher prices.

We knew our rooms would be small, but I was still a bit shocked when I opened the door. Four of us would sleep in our 14 sq.m. cabin, with a double bed and two bunk beds that pulled down from the ceiling. There was minimal storage space for our baggage, we had no window, and the shower was tiny. I was a bit worried about how this would affect our dream vacation.

In the end, though, we were happy with our accommodations. Daily room service kept the room clean, and it forced us to keep our belongings organized. Not having a window meant we weren’t woken up by the sun in the morning. And we were hardly in our cabins anyway, except to shower, change clothes, or sleep. My wife and I agreed that if we take another cruise, we would get the same kind of cabin again.

We were a little disappointed by the swimming pool. While larger ships might have massive pools with water slides, our boat had a relatively small pool – too short to swim laps, and too deep to play comfortably with little kids. The hot tubs were nice, but on a boat with so many people, we often had to wait in line.

Crowds are an issue on a cruise ship, and there were a number of times that we waited in long lines for simple things. But we didn’t feel like we were packed like sardines. Most of the time, the experience of being on the boat felt busy, but not chaotic or stressful. If I wanted some privacy or quiet, there were plenty of areas where I could go to get away.

OVER THE course of our six-night journey, we received a whirlwind tour of some of the best spots in the region. We boarded our cruise on a Monday afternoon and spent the day getting situated. Tuesday was a sea travel day, and Wednesday morning we arrived in Kusadasi, a beach resort town on the western side of Turkey. 

From there, we had a guide take us to Ephesus, a very well-preserved ancient city that was once one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire. On Friday, we spent the day on the beautiful Greek island of Santorini, and on Saturday we docked in Rhodes. On Sunday, we strolled down the beach promenade in Limassol, Cyprus, and on Monday morning we had breakfast on the ship and disembarked back in Haifa.

At each port of call, we were allowed at least eight hours to get off the ship and explore. I was expecting that we’d feel rushed, but in fact each of our land experiences was quite leisurely, wandering through the streets and markets and eating ice cream. The only real frustrating experience was in Santorini, where it took more than two hours to get off the ship to ride a ferry to the island and then take a cable car up the mountain.

Meanwhile, being on the cruise ship was a pleasure, and there was always plenty to do At any given time, you could be relaxing by the pool, dancing to music played by one of the many bands aboard the ship, watching a show, eating or drinking, scaling the climbing wall, exercising, or gambling in the casino. 

My children loved the kids’ club which was open throughout most of the day, and we left them there for hours at a time. And, of course, the pleasure of being at sea, traveling through the Mediterranean with nothing but Neptunian beauty surrounding you, pervades the entire experience.

On our trip in May, most of the passengers were Israeli, with a small percentage of visitors who had flown in from other locations to join the excursion. There were fewer English speakers and families with young children than I expected, although that may change depending on the season. 

Probably the largest demographics were retirement-age couples and young, good-looking men and women. No one was acting drunk or rowdy. I’d estimate that 5-10% of the passengers were religious, and about 20-40 men prayed at the minyans that were organized three times a day.

Overall, we found the cruise very well suited to our Modern Orthodox lifestyle. It’s probably not appropriate for those who are careful to avoid areas where women walk around in swimsuits.

Virtually all crew members on a Royal Caribbean cruise are English speakers. As far as I could tell, the only Israeli staff were a few helping out in the kosher dining rooms. In the kids’ club, my children received small prizes every day for translating between the caretakers and the other Israeli children.

LONG BEFORE Shabbat started, we wondered what the day of rest would be like aboard the ship. Observing Shabbat according to traditional Jewish law can be challenging when one is out of one’s element, and a cruise ship is full of halachic hazards. So we were happy and relieved when our room keeper knocked on our door Thursday night before we went to bed.

“I wanted to ask if you’d like me to put tape over your door lock before Shabbat so you won’t have to use your electronic key card to open it,” he said. “Or, if you don’t want that, I’ll be around so that you can ask me to open it for you.”

Royal Caribbean had done its homework, and we were glad to see that the staff was going to do whatever they could to enable us to observe Shabbat as best as possible. Two minyans were organized for Friday night, with nearly 200 people in attendance.

In the hallway outside the synagogue, electric tea lights were distributed to women who wanted to recite the blessing over the candles to welcome Shabbat. (Fire on board in any form is strictly prohibited, with no exceptions.) 

There was a Torah scroll on board, and a member of the kashrut supervision team read the weekly portion. At dinner, grape juice and challot were provided in the dining room without asking. And gefilte fish, cholent, and potato kugel were on the menu.

One of the regulations on a Royal Caribbean cruise is that there is a dress code for dinner every night. Some nights are casual, others are tropical, and there are semi-formal and formal nights as well. 

Friday night, after we had spent the day touring Santorini, with its famous white houses, the dress code was “dressy white.” We showered and arrived at Shabbat dinner in typical Shabbat attire, and felt deeply relaxed and satisfied as we gathered for kiddush.

Saturday, Shabbat day, we docked in Rhodes, a beautiful and historic Greek island with lots to see. But the traditional halachic sources are quite clear in ruling that one may not get off or on a ship that travels on Shabbat. 

So instead, I and many others spent the day of rest relaxing on board. It was a bit disappointing not to get to visit Rhodes on this trip, but it was also invigorating to break up our non-stop cruise rhythm with some time to just hang out and relax. 

I found Shabbat on board deeply comforting and nourishing in a way that I didn’t expect. Shabbat was instituted as a day to reconnect to ourselves and express gratitude to our creator. As I sat on the deck looking out at the sea and counting my blessings, I was overcome with emotion.

OVERALL, WE had an incredible experience. There were some moments that were overwhelming, but our trip was six non-stop days of fun. For so many reasons, I think a cruise can be a great way for Israelis to vacation.

I’m not sure we will do it again very soon, mainly because all the cruises from Haifa follow the same general route around Greece and Cyprus, and we like visiting new places. But I like to think that we’ll do this again in several years, hopefully with other family members or friends. Probably by then, many more Israelis will have discovered the joy of cruising. 

NOTE: After this story was written, a prominent rabbi informed me that just being on a cruise from Israel is problematic on Shabbat even if one does not get off or on the ship on Shabbat. Please consult your rabbi if you are considering booking a cruise from Israel.