Saturday, October 07, 2000

The Code Boat

When you consider the wherefores of your next vacation, a couple of critical criteria probably come into play.  You want to be able to get away from the daily grind, leaving the phones and distractions of your world behind.  You look for a location that offers activities that appeal to you and your family, whether that means lying on the beach or skiing.  You yearn for a different locale, one where the discovery of new and interesting sights and sounds provides a relief from your everyday routine.  And you consider the cost, so that when the bills finally come in at the end of the trip, your next sojourn won't be to the stroke ward of your local hospital.

To accommodate those desires, the whole travel and vacation industry has evolved.   Las Vegas, founded by gamblers and gangsters for gamblers and gangsters, now has reinvented itself as the next Disney World.  And Club Med, fabled in sound and story as the swinging singles resort, now features Baby Clubs and serves as much chocolate milk at meals as it does wine and beer.

Some destinations, seeking to lure jaded consumers, have even restyled themselves as glorified summer camps, expanding the typical offerings.  And so you see weaving, rappelling and acrobatics right up there next to tennis and golf.  Others have added classes meant to cater to the mind, focusing on such subjects as the stock market and Shakespeare.  Still others have embraced the concept of theme packages, creating such offerings as a "Star Trek" cruise or a weeklong getaway focused on gardening.  The goal hasn't changed, only the bait needed to lure the paying customer.

But the customer has changed as well.  Just as you don't see packs of kids roving the neighborhood playing soldiers or capture the flag or tag or hide and seek, so too are there less people at resorts who are dying to go roller blading or biking or play badminton or shuffleboard.  That's because kids and adults are as likely to be exercising their thumbs these days as they are their bodies, parked in front of their computers and cruising  the web.

There's no doubt that computers have become a major leisure activity.  And so it stands to reason that a successful holiday company would incorporate that particular aspect of life into their programs.  And so you find data ports in the rooms and internet cafes off the lobby, as well as classes such as "Fun with Computer Graphics" scheduled at the same time as "Introduction to Indian Cooking," and "Getting The Most Out Of Photoshop" slotted in right after "Rhumba to Relax."

Even the cruise industry has gotten into the act.  In fact, one entrepreneur noted that the true chipheads like himself in the crowd, while happy to swim and fish and paddle, yearned for a chance to pull up a lounge chair and hack for a while.  And so Neil Bauman put together the first ever cruise mixing the inside passage of Alaska, all-you-can-eat buffets, spa treatments and Java programming classes.  What's it called?  Why, Geek Cruises, of course.

This past spring, Bauman lured some 600 aficionados of the Perl computer language aboard the Holland America line's SS Volendam for a weeklong jaunt entitled "Perl Whirl."  On that outing, classes and seminars on the intricacies of coding mixed with stump-the-hacker quiz show games, screenings of B-movie classics like "Barbarella" and more traditional cruise activities like whale watching and glacier hikes.  For less than $2000... less than the cost of a similar retreat at the Marriott, in fact... computer nerds were in pig heaven, able to don their baggies and Hawaiian shirts to sit on the pool deck and fire up their laptops, knowing that they would find not ridicule but kindred souls.

The organizers provided all sorts of help to ensure that the kind of person who usually prefers tanning under florescent light in a cubicle won't feel out of place on the high seas.  In his letter of helpful hints, Bauman answers such typical cruise questions as "What kind of clothing should I pack?" ("Daily life aboard ship is laid-back and casual, so where what makes you most comfortable") and "Will I get seasick?" ("Probably not.  All ships are equipped with stabilizing fins that counteract more than 80% of the roll of the sea").  But with an eye towards his special constituency, he also handles such queries as "On board, what Net connections will be available?" ("The ship is equipped with internet connectivity via an internet CafĂ© which is open 24 hours") and "Will my PC work aboard ship?"  ("Each stateroom is equipped with 110-volt, 60-cycle alternating current)."  The feedback from the first venture was so positive that Bauman has created a whole menu of choices to cater to the techie who wants his Sun workstation and sunscreen at the same time.  Industry experts have been lined up, ships have been reserved and supplies of commemorative pocket protectors have been ordered.  Caribbean cruises are planned with names like Database Discovery, Java Jam, Linux Lunacy and Windows Whimsy, while a transatlantic crossing is being readied to delve into the intricacies of the web itself.

Are any of these for you for you?  Well, unless you give equal weight to a good tan and good Ethernet connection, probably not.  But shop around.  There are jazz ranches, gambling excursions, basketball holidays, cartoon character weekends, even a "Time of Your Life" cruise focusing on women's hormonal health.  Pick the right one, and you can enjoy your version of a perfect vacation, perhaps with suntan lotion in one hand, and a Palm Pilot in the other.


Marc Wollin of Bedford prefers that human interaction on his vacations be held to the bare minimum.  His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.