In early fall of 2021, I got the idea I should go on a cruise. Earlier that summer, Hong Kong had loosened and then suddenly re-tightened its travel regulations around COVID, and the city, for all its spectacular beaches and charismatic jungles, both concrete and natural, was beginning to feel like the safest, most beautiful ward in a prison hospital. I had never been or wanted to go on a mass market cruise before, but as the rumored potential end date for Hong Kong’s strict COVID restrictions began to stretch into late 2022 and beyond, I allowed myself to imagine I might meet some interesting new characters — if not new friends — on board, or at least get out far enough to experience the ocean in some profound way. Maybe I would see the stars for the first time in years.
But four days before I was due to embark, I had a conversation that gave me the impression I might be about to board a sinking ship: The parent company of the cruise line I’d booked, Genting Hong Kong, had just gone through a $3.5 billion USD debt restructuring. A friend told me it was only by the good graces of various creditors, the German government, and (to a lesser extent) a small boost from a subsidiary’s provision of Kim Kardashian’s 40th birthday party jumbo jet charter that the company on whose ship I was due to sail was still barely above water.
Ever since Carnival’s Diamond Princess was first quarantined at port in Yokohama, Japan in February 2020, cruise lines have been one of COVID’s biggest business victims. By summer of 2021, the New York Times was quoting reports that the top three cruise lines in the world were collectively losing nearly $1 billion each month during the pandemic, and Carnival’s year-on-year revenue had dropped from $6.5 billion in 2019 to just $31 million in late 2020. But despite everything the cruise industry had been through, a truly global business built on burning gazillions of gallons of fossil fuel to power rooms and restaurants and swimming pools and go-kart tracks and assorted luxury spas through warming oceans for the amusement of millions of leisurely seafarers had survived. The Times article reporting all those huge losses was headlined: “The Cruise Industry Stages a Comeback.”
In Hong Kong, part of this comeback took the form of a 150,000-ton beast of a boat coming and going from what used to be the old Kai Tak airport in East Tsim Sha Tsui, on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour. In late 2021, the government only allowed this ship, the Dream, to operate at 50 percent capacity, and by design it went “nowhere” — out just beyond sight of land and back.
Genting sold what headlines called “cruises to nowhere” on the Dream as two- or three-night “Super Seacations” with press releases promising a “get-away that truly evokes the sense of travel that a regular staycation just cannot capture.” For my cruise dates, the company was advertising special food and beverage packages, and I was supposedly in for a “talk-of-the-town epicurean extravaganza at sea,” where “avid travelers, foodies and wine lovers can indulge in a fun-filled Super Seacation experience featuring gourmet flavors, fine wines, spirits and cocktails.” There were to be nightly screenings of oenophile films like Somm and A Year in Champagne at the outdoor movie theater.
The fact that we weren’t going to be able to get off at some distant port like millions of cruisers before us was beside the point. A cruise to nowhere is still a cruise, and Genting didn’t have to work too hard to make the case that life on board was the main attraction anyway. This wasn’t one of those COVID-era “flights to nowhere” that hovered around 20,000 feet for a few hours and handed out some kind of masochistic travel kink with your bag of pretzels. I was boarding a vessel of extravaganza. And in a city where, thanks to “COVID-zero” travel policies, going almost anywhere else meant facing a mandatory quarantine of up to 21 days, sealed in a hotel room under threat of arrest, just beyond sight of land may as well have been Nassau or Dubrovnik or the fjords of Norway. To paraphrase that tinker outside the Wonka factory, for most of the pandemic in Hong Kong, “almost nobody ever went in, and almost nobody ever came out.”
COVID-zero also meant the risk of getting on a mid-week, off-season cruise to nowhere in Hong Kong was not necessarily the risk of getting COVID. The bigger concern was getting caught up in a citywide contact-tracing dragnet that sent undefined “close contacts” of infected persons to Penny’s Bay, the city’s purpose-built quarantine facility which exists as a kind of medium-security medical prison on the far end of Lantau Island’s Fantasy Road, just past its only neighbor, Hong Kong Disney.
And so, to answer the question I got no fewer than four times between my arrival at the ferry terminal and dropping my bag in room 9232: I came on the cruise alone, because none of my friends could take off work, and because my wife and I did not want to risk both of us being stuck in weeks of quarantine without our three children — or worse, with.
The kids, of course, did not appreciate this logic. Looking up pictures of the ship online, all they could see were multi-story waterslides, a kids arcade, the minigolf course, cinema, pool, and endless buffets. To them, life on board looked carefree and full of wholesome diversion. What they could not see is that by the time my cruise set sail, every person in those pictures would have had in their pocket a US quarter-sized gray dot called “Tracey,” which tracked our movements around the ship via bluetooth. If anyone on board later tested positive for COVID, Tracey would have a list of close contacts ready to hand over to the guys in the hazmat suits with the vans.
The Genting Dream is a traditionally glossy white behemoth, but gets points for flair from a custom paint wrap by the artist Jacky Tsai, best known for designing the floral skull Alexander McQueen made famous in 2008. Tsai’s website says his work on the Dream’s exterior tells the story of “an ethereal and fantastical journey of love between a mermaid and an astronaut” that plays out on either side of the bow where “both characters appear to be floating towards each other in an anticipated meeting.” The two finally do meet inside the ship, on the muraled wall of a curving staircase that leads up to an area optimistically named “Bar City.” There, next to a life-sized statue of Johnny Walker, the mermaid looks happy, maybe even staying her lover’s hand to savor the moment. It is the most social excitement I ever saw on that boat.
After walking past the three cheery greeters in Santa skirts who waved me on board to the unintentionally sad sounds of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” I planned to go straight to the Red Lion, a British pub where, according to the website, “Chances are you’ll always find company in this 24-hour popular hangout.” It was one floor below Bar City, and sounded like the perfect place to warm up the ole chitchat skills before I made my way to what were billed as the more sophisticated Mixt Cocktail Bar and Bubbles Champagne Bar upstairs. A beer, some easy conversation, quick laughs, new friends, simple.
When I say no one was ever at the Red Lion, I don’t mean it in the way that people talk about slow nights out. I mean no one was there; not at the bar or near the bar or behind the bar. If you ever had a friend growing up whose parents had a bar in their suburban basement, this was that. Wood paneling, beer paraphernalia, and an uncanny valley feeling that no laughing friends had ever actually darkened those stools.
Things were not much better upstairs. Bar City — “the destination to celebrate the good life” per promotional material — was less a city and more a kind of food court, but for bars, where no one was ever at any of the bars, and all the bars served the exact same things. The cocktail menu at Mixt, the cocktail bar, was the same as the one at Bubbles, the Champagne bar, and, I eventually learned, the same as the one at every other bar and restaurant I went to on the ship. Which was fair enough in Bar City, because there was no real way to tell where one bar stopped and the others began anyway.
With the exception of a small cigar lounge, there were no doors or walls in Bar City. The bars existed as various corners of an entirely open atrium space, connected by pods of shared, Starbucks-style seating and the same beige, floral, high-traffic carpet as the rest of the ship. Bar City was an airport hallway forever stuck at 6 a.m. A few bored, sleepy looking people might have found drinks, but it was unclear how or why, and I’m not sure that joining them would’ve brought me (or them) much joy. I think I walked through Bar City twice before I even realized it was there, and just kept walking once I had.
Entrances to buffets included in the price of admission, on the other hand, were specific and tightly controlled. Hosts tapped room keys to scanners and gave out table numbers. Buffet stations were marked off with stanchions and belts and clearly labeled with “In” and “Out” directions. Although a sort of twisted pandemic psychology drew a COVID line between sliding one stool over with my drink at the bar and moving one table over with my tray, I was relieved to see that finally, here, were people, hundreds of hungry, value-seeking, “moveable feast” feasting people. Sunk-cost food was apparently always in high demand.
Sunk-cost food was not good, though. At dinner on the first night, I filled my plate with vegetarian options — chana masala, baigan masala, roti, and rice — that somehow defied the laws of thermodynamics and cooled below room temperature on the walk from chafing dish to table. Chewing through the roti made me feel more Shackleton-on-ice than Molly-Brown-pre-iceberg.
The next morning, my hopes for a nap-forcingly indulgent staycation hotel breakfast were dashed against rubber-bound shu mai that would have been more at home in a children’s plastic dim sum play set, and scrambled eggs swimming in so much excess liquid I wasn’t sure it could be chalked up only to the classic egg cooking issue known as “weeping.” (If you go on the Dream with emotionally high breakfast expectations, you might want to be prepared for weeping.)
Having never before boarded a cruise, I have to think the misery of the “free” options on the Dream was an anomaly in the all-inclusive cruise food world. Carnival Cruise Lines goes big on American-mall-food-court-style variety, with restaurants on board like Guy Fieri’s Burger Joint, Shaq’s Big Chicken, and a design-your-own-stir-fry Mongolian Wok where you can “add some Asian flavors to your vacation … (Chopsticks totally optional).” And Celebrity Cruises still recommends diners at all venues wear “evening chic” to dinner, which at least implies they think the food is worth dressing up for. Genting would’ve stretched their luck with a “no shoes, no shirt, no service,” sign.
By noon on the second day, I’d learned my lesson, and started splurging on meals beyond my room rate. For lunch, I ate seafood shabu-shabu alone, indoors, at a big round table for six, quietly dunking and swishing my cabbage a few meters away from a series of fully booked teppanyaki counters crowded with people clapping and oohing and aahing and, by comparison, having the times of their lives. It was fine.
For dinner, I ordered lobster thermidor and a dry martini at Australian celebrity chef Mark Best’s Seafood Grill, because lobster thermidor and a dry martini sounded like something people might order for dinner on a cruise. It was fine too.
I saw no evidence and heard no mention of a “talk-of-the-town epicurean extravaganza at sea.”
In between meals, I walked endlessly back and forth, stern to bow, aft to not-aft. If you could see my Tracey log (Genting declined to share it with me), you would see the trail of a man who walked past the lines for the ropes course and the mini golf course and the water slides and the casino and the foam archery pop-up and the bubble soccer event and the holiday crafts sessions and the Western cowboy dance lessons led by cruise staff in fedoras, and eventually ended up back on his balcony for a few minutes, before forcing himself to get out and do it all over again.
It all looked entertaining enough for families or drinking buddies or gamblers or people who get a thrill from 1.7-second zip lines, and even now when I tell people about the cruise, I elaborate on all the ways I think it could maybe be fun for them. I sent a sunset picture of the basketball court to my basketball team’s group chat suggesting we could have all had a great time on board, and with the right people, I might have. But even as an experienced solo traveler, I wasn’t prepared for the unrelenting loneliness on this half-empty, financially-struggling, all-inclusive resort on the ocean.
I had entire sections of the boat to myself often enough that I began to worry no one would notice if I slipped off to join the submarines patrolling the South China Sea beneath the ship. Obviously, this was due in part to the capacity restrictions — Genting later told me my cruise was just 159 guests shy of the 1,676 allowed, plus “about 1,200 crew members” — but many of us were using the cruise to temporarily escape a cramped, quarantined city, and I suspect at any given moment a good chunk of my 1,500 fellow sailors were happily ensconced in their rooms between closed hallway doors and open balcony breezes.
Unfortunately, alone on my balcony, any expected deep-sea feelings of vulnerability and vastness were somewhat diminished by the realities of the view: big hotel to the left (our ship), big hotel to the right (our ship again), and always several (other) big ships on the horizon. At night, Jupiter and a bright half moon combined with the Dream’s own lights and its ever-trailing brown, wispy cloud of exhaust smoke that blotted out the stars I’d been hoping to see once we got out beyond the glow of the coast. During the day, I read articles about cruising that described the colors of the wide blue skies around Caribbean ships in precious terms like azure and lapis, but I plucked my cruise’s most representative atmospheric palette from the firmament with an iPhone lens and it was most accurately described as #5780c0. A lovely hex value for a sky, but no gem.
Even with an occasional language barrier, finding people to talk to was not a problem I had anticipated on the cruise. For most of my life, I’ve been the guy a stranger in the park will single out when they want to discuss a murder they may or may not be implicated in. How hard could it be to strike up a conversation with one of thousands of people lilting around the ocean on a floating resort hotel? Didn’t the kind of people who paid to be trapped on a boat with that many strangers have any interest in talking to those strangers?
Eventually, with no one at the bars or the cigar lounge or my table at the restaurants, I hunted for outside opinions via ambush.
When, alone in an elevator, with a maybe 30-something man named Prath, he answered my half-hearted, “How’s it goin?” with “It’s pretty boring. There’s nothing really for people our age here.” I got off at his floor and pressured him to give me his WhatsApp so we could catch up later. (We didn’t, though I can see he read my messages. Prath, I’m still happy to catch up sometime, if you ever see this article or happen again upon those texts.)
I searched #GentingDream on Instagram, and reached out to two influencer types who appeared to be on the boat that day too. They kept posting pictures, but never replied.
I went with the ol’ “Mind if I ask you a few questions?” for a group of coolly aloof 20-somethings on a mid-deck sun-sofa, who told me there was nothing better to do, so they were drinking Champagne at 3 p.m. None had left Hong Kong since around March 2020, and a cruise to nowhere was at least something different, they said. They did not invite me to sit down, but when I was shocked to see them — or anyone — sitting at Bubbles on the second night, they vaguely waved me over and sort of invited me to join them at the on-board acrobat show; they left while I was busy writing down notes about how the Bubbles Champagne Bar did not sell Champagne by the glass.
And so it went. I doubt there was anyone on the boat with an extroverted traveler’s openness to strangers. We were all still in our city, it had just shifted in space a bit and downgraded buffets. This was yet another COVID-era staycation, and we were all basically locals. When on that first night at Zouk nightclub, Maxim, the Dream’s Belarussian emcee and leader of various dance classes asked, “Is anyone here from Hong Kong?” he may as well have been Johnny Cash looking for unanimous cheers with “Some of you sleeping at Folsom tonight?” You had to be a Hong Kong resident to even board the boat.
When we finally departed on Friday morning, I looked over my bill and saw the one thing I had done more than anything else was play Key Master, an irresistible version of an arcade claw game distributed by SEGA. The bastard geniuses behind Sonic the Hedgehog made it look stupidly easy to time release of a button so that an oversized key slipped into an oversized keyhole and unlocked the top prize: a precariously dangling plastic baggy containing over $1,000 USD cash. There was a casino on board, but it was always packed and confusing and the minimums were higher than I was willing to lose. Key Master cost $1.25 a try, and judging by my room bill, I was so close at least 10 times.
And so it seemed were a lot of other people. Modest crowds formed around Key Master. We drew simultaneous breaths at a suspected good release and groaned in unison as yet another key came within millimeters of a win. A group of friendly guys complained to me about the buffet food in the first class “Palace” side of the ship, which was off limits to those of us back in steerage. “You think it should be something special, or at least okay,” one said, “But it’s not. It’s bad.” My cold heart warmed.
On my long last walk down the gangway and past the table where staff were waiting to return contraband liquor bottles to guests who’d had them confiscated at boarding, I tried to brush away the somewhat pathetic-sounding notion that a handful of minutes around what amounted to an adult Chuck E. Cheese game was the most fun I’d had on my first cruise. During the taxi ride home, I googled it, and found out SEGA had been sued several times for portraying Key Master as a game of skill, when in reality it would probably only pay out after enough money had been put in to cover its costs.
No matter how much time and money I put into it, I was never going to win that game. I had made a bad choice playing in the first place. But at least it was relatively low-risk, and I wasn’t alone.
Other people lost a lot more money on that boat. In February 2022, just a few months after my cruise, Genting really did go bankrupt. Hong Kong was dealing with a wave of omicron-variant infections, and cruises had been banned again, killing any chance of a Dream comeback. That month, I took a walk up to a small reservoir on a hillside at the far western edge of Hong Kong Island, and looked north across the harbor. There was the Dream, idling just off the coast, presumably kept afloat by a skeleton crew, waiting for someone to save it, and going nowhere.
Andrew Genung is a writer based in Hong Kong and the creator of the Family Meal newsletter about the restaurant industry.