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Zach Zimmerman’s mom
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

Pretend I’m a Tourist: I took my mom on a seven-day cruise from NYC and it was not what I expected

Comedian Zach Zimmerman writes about traveling and reconnecting with mom.

Zach Zimmerman
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Zach Zimmerman
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My mom is a Southern belle who would choose The Beach over The City any day. When I asked her for three words to describe New York, she paused and said: “Little bit crazy.”

Before we took off on a Norwegian Joy cruise from Pier 88, I had cobbled together a midtown sightseeing tour for her with almost no planning: pictures in Times Square, a visit to Margaritaville, a walk by Fox News (she wanted a picture), and a walk by The New York Times (I wanted to force her to take a picture). I even managed to cross some things off my own New York to-do list: the luxurious Bryant Park public restrooms and the New York Public Library’s original Winnie the Pooh (both pooh-related).

We retreated to our hotel oasis in the chaos of midtown. With crisp sheets, so many pillows, and a tray of sweets including white chocolate in the shape of its signature guitar, the Hard Rock Hotel was surprisingly sophisticated given you might recognize the name from their kitschy Cafe. We dressed for dinner, and enjoyed snacks and sites at RT60, the Hard Rock Hotel’s chic rooftop bar, with views overlooking midtown. After seven years in New York, I was impressed by my pseudo-tour guide abilities. Of course, the easiest way to please a tourist in New York is to show them tall buildings. When we returned to our room, we realized we weren’t alone: on the wooden door that opened to the bathroom was a large black-and-white picture of The Boss. When we used the loo, Bruce watched, too. 

Zach Zimmerman’s mom in Times Square
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman | Zach braved Times Square to take mom’s photo there.

The bulk of my time with Mom, though, wouldn’t actually be in New York. In addition to falling back in love with the city, I’ve been trying to heal some old family wounds. My latest theory is that new, shared experiences together might do the trick, or at least push the past far enough back it doesn’t sting as sharply. The selected experience was a week-long cruise: 144 consecutive hours in a balcony stateroom with the woman who made me.

If you don’t spend your days staring at the Hudson, you might not realize New York is the home to a bustling cruise ship terminal. Blocks from Times Square is your ticket to tropical destinations without stepping foot on a plane. 

The Norwegian Joy welcomed Mom and me on board for a week of food, fun, and the healing of all familial wounds. (As my therapist warned me, “Don’t expect an after-school special.”) Our balcony stateroom started with one bed, which our room steward quickly and kindly separated—an ironic start for a trip that was supposed to bring us together.

We explored the majestic ship on our sea days. A lively casino (who knew my mother gambled?), tasty cocktails (Mom doesn’t drink, but I had my first Black Manhattan, which has quickly become my favorite drink), and nightly delicious, four-course dinners. “This is the best lobster I’ve ever had,” Mom said, “and I worked at Red Lobster for 38-and-a-half years.” We both agreed to be open to new things during the adventure. Mom tried escargot, I tried her Cagney’s steak (as a vegetarian, don’t judge me). She didn’t care for the spicy Indian food from the buffet which I loved.  

Zach Zimmerman and his mom in front of the cruise ship
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

A highlight of the cruise for both of us was the new Thermal Suite in the Mandara Spa. A hot tub, steam room, ice room (Mom and I had a mini-snowball fight), sauna and our mutual nemesis: the cold plunge. After 15 minutes of sweating and chatting in the sauna, we decided to step up and do the frigid cold plunge to cool down. Mom lasted about seven seconds, six of which were spent screaming; I managed to last three minutes with plenty of encouragement.

“Breathe. Breathe,” Mom said.

“This must be what it’s like to give birth,” I said.

“This is nothing what it’s like to give birth,” she said.

We relaxed in one of the many heated lounge chairs, enjoying some quiet time away from the more energetic parts of the ship, and shared memories of childhood vacations, some of which I’d never heard before.

Being in a new environment helped us learn we have similar rhythms: we both wake up around 9am, we’re not hungry until the afternoon, and we enjoy a late-night sweet treat or two or four. Luckily, freestyle cruising is perfect for our delayed hunger and night owl sensibilities.

Zach Zimmerman and mom at the casino on the cruise ship
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

With multiple overnights in Bermuda, we had plenty of time to adjust to island life, too. A sunset catamaran ride with unlimited rum swizzles, a tour into the majestic Crystal Caves, discovered by two boys looking for their cricket ball, and a must-see visit to the pink-sand beach Horseshoe Bay. My mom has always loved the ocean, but now I’m a bit worried I’ve ruined her home of Myrtle Beach. After seeing the bluest blue water in Bermuda and the white sand that never got hot, how can she go back? “Bermuda is the last stop before Heaven,” our cab driver told us, which seemed a bit ominous to say while he was driving us down a very thin road. 

Fast, unlimited Wi-Fi kept us connected at home (potentially too much, as my dad seemed to call and text 5 times a day), but helped us share photos and texts of our experience—or be a lifeline if we found ourselves arguing. But the biggest surprise of the cruise was that we got along very well. Maybe we were both on our best behavior, or maybe it’s easy to get along on a cloud, but the cruise was a fun and healing week for us. If we had to plan a vacation together, we would have fought I’m sure, but having so much taken care of for us, needing only to pick from a menu of food, activities, and excursions, stress was at an all-time low and opened the door for some meaningful conversations. The exact things that I thought might be risky—sharing close quarters, a week of prolonged contact—yielded the best results. Some conversations only happen in the early morning hours in bed or in the 144th consecutive hour of someone’s company. 

Zach Zimmerman and his mom inside the Crystal Caves
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

We did learn we have one new, fundamental disagreement, though: coffee. Mom brought a Stanley Tumbler on board to make her coffee milkshakes full of so much milk and Splenda, while I continued to swear by my daily black Starbucks cold brew. Yes, there’s a Starbucks on board Norwegian for a taste of home while at sea. We tried each other’s concoctions—Mom grimaced at mine, and hers was so sweet as to ruin mine—before returning to our own. You don’t have to agree on everything to enjoy a cup of coffee next to someone.

In the weeks since we disembarked our magical week together, we text more often, trade screenshots of our daily step counts to walk off some of the overindulgences of the week, and rehash memories of our favorite foods (Mom loved the Garden Cafe’s German Chocolate Cake and I have dreams about Ocean Blue’s Cheesecake in a Jar.)

It turns out the main risk of taking your mother on a Norwegian cruise isn’t that you might fight, it’s that she might want it to become an annual tradition. 

She texted me on Mother’s Day:

“So, travel buddy, where are we going next?”

Zach Zimmerman and his mom wearing captain’s hats
Photograph: courtesy of Zach Zimmerman

Zach Zimmerman is a queer comedian, writer, and author of Time Out New York’s “Pretend I’m A Tourist” column. A regular at the Comedy Cellar, Zach has appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden and had a debut album “Clean Comedy” debut on the Billboard Top 10. Zach’s writing has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and The Washington Post; and Zach’s first book Is It Hot in Here? (Or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth?) is out now.

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