Stephanie Webb planned and hosted Thanksgiving for more than 48 years. She would wake up at 4 a.m. to start setting the table, spend all day cooking for about 16 guests — including her two children and three grandchildren — and then clean the house once everyone left.
She compared her Thanksgiving ritual to “putting on a wedding for your daughter every November.”
Enough was enough. This Thanksgiving, she and her husband, Ross, will be waited on by servers in uniform, surrounded by the waters of the Caribbean. It’s the fifth year since 2015 that they’ve spent the holiday on a cruise ship, making new friends and savoring their freedom from cooking, cleaning and worrying about whether everyone’s drinks are topped off.
Going to sea with thousands of strangers might seem at odds with a holiday so intimately tethered to the idea of home. But the Webbs are among a growing subset of Americans who prefer to spend Thanksgiving afloat — many of them year after year, some alone and others joined by relatives. (This year the Webbs, who live in Fort Myers, Fla., will welcome their older daughter, Elizabeth, and her family.)
Theresa Strong, 63, who lives in Solvang, Calif., is planning take her fifth Thanksgiving cruise, this one bound for Mexico. She’ll be accompanied by her boyfriend, Alan Needham, and two of their granddaughters.
She called Thanksgiving a “have-to holiday” when “you get together with family whether you like them or not.” She added, “If you polled a bunch of people, a lot of people would probably say it is not very fun.”
Fun is the whole point of her holiday cruises. She has spent Thanksgiving Day tasting tequila in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and eating lamb chops instead of turkey.
Covid-19 dealt a punishing blow to the cruise industry, but as cruise lines have eased their health restrictions in recent months, bookings have soared — especially for Thanksgiving. Viking Cruises and Holland America Line reported last week that sailings during Thanksgiving week were nearing or at capacity, filled primarily with American passengers. A Viking spokeswoman said Thanksgiving bookings have risen 48 percent this year over 2019, before the pandemic.
“There seems to be an endless demand for cruising around this time,” said Vivek Menon, the executive chef of Carnival Cruise Line.
As that demand rises, some cruise companies have embraced the holiday more fully, offering seasonal decorations and festive menus that include cornbread dressing, pumpkin soup and an assortment of pies. Some ships will broadcast football games and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“In the past, it was, you happen to be cruising on Thanksgiving and there will be turkey,” said Colleen McDaniel, the editor in chief of Cruise Critic, a website that reviews cruises. “Now it is, you are cruising because it is Thanksgiving.”
Ship crews take the holiday preparation seriously. On an October day as the Holland America Line’s Nieuw Statendam sat docked in Boston Harbor, the crew loaded around 60 tons of food that would feed 2,100 people over the next week as the ship sailed to Quebec City. The trip would include a dry run of the Thanksgiving meal for 20 guests.
This Thursday, the ship will go through 2,500 pounds of turkey, 130 pounds of green beans and 60 pounds of cranberries. That may seem like a daunting amount of food to prepare. But for a culinary team that produces lavish spreads at nearly all hours of every cruise, Thanksgiving is just another day.
“It is not stressful,” said Sinu Pillai, the fleet executive chef of Holland America Line. “It is more of a planned event.”
Neither Mr. Pillai, who is from India, nor most of the Nieuw Statendam crew members grew up in the United States. But they prepare the meal with the confidence of cooks who have been hosting the holiday for decades.
The morning of the Thanksgiving trial run, cooks in the ship’s mazelike two-story kitchen methodically stuffed turkey cavities with bread. They stirred barrel-size vats filled with roasted-pumpkin soup, sprinkled sheet pans of brussels sprouts with thyme and lemon zest, and stacked speed racks with trays of pecan, pumpkin and apple pies.
It was a well-choreographed dance. Service was running late, but only because a health inspector had shown up earlier — in a small boat — for a surprise visit. (The ship passed muster.)
The Thanksgiving menu on Holland America Line changes slightly from year to year, but what guests want are the classics, Mr. Pillai said. “We are stuck with our traditional recipes.”
As the waters of Maine’s Frenchman Bay shimmered in the dining room windows, passengers gathered at two long tables dressed with crisp white tablecloths. The tables weren’t overflowing with platters of food, and plates weren’t hastily passed down to be filled with stuffing and gravy. The dishes were delivered in courses, the waiters coordinating so each plate hit the table at the same time.
The food looked worthy of Norman Rockwell and tasted good enough. This was a meal designed for familiarity, not flash. (For the multinational crew, the traditional menu is supplemented with employees’ favorite dishes: beef rendang, Jollibee fried chicken, spaghetti and plenty of sambal and rice.)
Yansen Gede Roni, a Holland America Line waiter for more than two decades, said Thanksgiving service can be a challenge. Some guests want to linger at their tables, so others have to wait awhile to sit.
Yet what’s most difficult is living up to people’s memories of the holiday, said another waiter, Jay Razonabe. “We cannot guarantee 100 percent, but we try our best,” he said.
Some guests still miss the tastes of home.
“Is their stuffing as good as my mother’s? Probably not,” said Arlene Spanier, 65, a retired investment banker who lives in San Antonio and has taken about 10 Thanksgiving cruises. But “when you are at Aunt Frida’s house, she is not making you strawberry banana daiquiris.”
Deanna Vanover, 49, said she wished the Thanksgiving menu on cruises would change more regularly. “I avoid most of the meal because I don’t like it,” she said.
She has never felt much of a connection to Thanksgiving. “We are a military family, we always moved around,” said Ms. Vanover, a customer service representative who lives in Charles Town, W.Va., and will sail on her fifth Thanksgiving cruise this year. “Our holidays were always spent with either friends or just ourselves, so we never did big celebrations.”
On a cruise, she said, she isn’t forced to care about the holiday. If she doesn’t want to eat turkey, there are many other choices, like steak, pizza and sushi. She and her husband, Robert, can spend the day with whomever they meet on the ship.
Jeff Farschman, a retired vice president for Lockheed Martin from Dover, Del., has spent more than 15 Thanksgivings on a cruise ship and met some of his closest friends aboard. He often travels by himself.
“I am not with my family, my actual family, when I am on the ship,” said Mr. Farschman, 73. “But I am never really solo.”
This sentiment spans generations. Caroline White, 16, who has done three Thanksgiving cruises with her family, said she has made friends from around the world and even sees some of the same people each year. “That is kind of special,” said Ms. White, who is from Valdosta, Ga.
For passengers who are used to hosting the holiday meal, being waited on by an entire crew can feel strange.
Wilma Sanders, 72, has been preparing Thanksgiving dinners since she was 10. She went on her first Thanksgiving cruise in 2018.
“I felt guilty for not being near my kids and my grandkids,” she said. “I felt guilty for not making a turkey and all of the fixings. I mean, I had done it for 50 some years at that point. I thought I was depriving my family of something.”
But once she started talking to the other guests, she realized everyone else was in the same boat, so to speak. “We weren’t the only ones in the world that dreaded Thanksgiving chaos,” she said. “It was such a relief.”
Ms. Sanders is going on a Thanksgiving cruise again this year. And she has already booked for 2023.