STEPPING OFF THE GANGWAY and into the main atrium of the Carnival Inspiration, and the “Groove Cruise” resembles every other cruise I’ve ever been on. Save, of course, for the fact that there’s already music blasting from a DJ booth haphazardly set up in the overlook (two whole hours before departure), and throngs of costume-clad revelers are spilling in – eager to run up a $200-a-bottle tab as they reunite with their “GCFam” from years past.
The scene is chaotic and anachronistic — mashing partygoers and the cutting-edge beats of today with the angular-and-glittery decor of a cruise ship built to look straight out of the 70’s… and everything feels exciting but also a bit off, like I walked into a supermarket only to discover a Roman orgy needing cleanup on Aisle 3.
“Whenever I went on cruises with my family, I always found them boring,” Whet Travel Founder/CEO Jason Beukema tells us at the press lunch before debarkation. So in 2004, he decided to craft the kind of vacation getaway that he and his friends actually wanted to go on, which culminated in the 125-person maiden voyage for Groove Cruise.
Since then, Groove Cruise has added a second port and runs two ships with two itineraries and two massive lineups a year — and has grown to a 3,000+ person, instant-annual-sell-out experience that is already giving rise to a number of competitor copycats.
It makes sense that this would be the next *wave* of festivals and party travel. A massive ship already subdivided and soundproofed provides the perfect opportunity to cram 6 independent stages with continuous music into one place, and a pervasive intercom system typically reserved for Captain’s announcements allows for ubiquitous, nigh-inescapable beats in common areas and dining rooms where a stage can’t be set up.
Not to mention the myriad advantages of being in “international waters,” including no last-call at the stage-side bars and the unhinged debauchery that comes part-and-parcel with the idea that there “are no laws here.”
“This isn’t anything like those on-land festivals,” Beukema says to me, winking as he shakes my hand. “Pace yourself, you’re in for a treat.”
Personally, I couldn’t help but take this as a challenge. I have been on my fair share of cruise ships, and to my fair share of music festivals (from Burning Man, to Coachella, to EDC, and everything in-between). I have pushed my party-wolf limits to the extremes, clocking in a record number of sleepless hours that some might consider “clinically insane.” And it was not too long ago that I was deemed “fit to party with Charlie Sheen” as a senior superlative (sorry Mom). But as the ship pulled into the Pacific leaving Long Beach (and my sensibilities) behind us, I committed Groove Cruise Cardinal Sin #1 and unwittingly burnt myself out on Friday night.
It turns out when world-renowned headliners and Groove Cruise veterans like Darude and Ferry Corsten are working the main stage in the converted Theater from 12:00 AM-3:30 AM the first night, with a setup that includes real fireworks contained within a space smaller than my apartment, it’s awfully hard not to ignore your body’s pleas and keep raging. Although, the four contraband Chardonnay-flavored tequila-and-Redbulls my cabin neighbor had treated me to earlier in the night might have something to do with this.
Wincing through a legendary hangover at breakfast the following morning, I’m greeted with a fist-bump from a 20-something year old woman I have no recollection of meeting the night before. Jenna (or was it Gemma?) struggles her way through a piece of toast as she recounts having caught the “sunrise set” that ended just an hour earlier — but we’re docked at Catalina Island and now the party continues ashore.
“I have to say, I’m a little disappointed in Groove Cruise so far,” she notes, “if this were Holy Ship, I’d have already done 4 ‘mystery lines’ with complete strangers.” And in that moment, the idea that there was any “harder” version of what I had already experienced was actually terrifying.
Groove Cruise’s first stop is Catalina Island’s Avalon port. I follow my ears and the mass of bobbing white Captain’s hats to Descanso beach, where Whet has reserved the private beachside lounge for our party. I see a lot of familiar faces from the previous night, and am greeted with hugs and high-fives from dozens of folks who look like they haven’t stopped fist pumping or gyrating since they boarded the ship 19 hours ago.
With my energy at an all-time-low, I turn away from the DJ booth and seem to be the only person in the whole open-air club to realize that we’re on Catalina Island and not at another stage that’s simply an extension of the ship. And as a traveler first and a partier second, I felt I was obligated to spend some time exploring the island. Or so I told myself as an excuse to buy a momentary respite from the unrelenting un-tiss un-tiss.
Back in town, I run into a friend I made the day before, who mentions that he’s been ashore all morning hiking his way through the many trails that litter the surrounding hills of the island — instantly reminding me that the experience I was having could, and therefore should, be a “choose my own” adventure. And while many of the partygoers seem happy to follow the structure Whet had outlined for them in terms of where to be and when… it was still very much a cruise where I had the freedom to do what I like, and explore where I am.
So I set out to find my own bliss, which was hiding at an all-but-secluded spit of beach beyond Lover’s Cove on the far side of the marina. Sure, I can still hear the rumble of the bass echoing across the bay, and sure, Groove Cruise Cardinal Sin #2 might be missing Italian superstar duo Vinai’s set back at Descanso, but hey — I really need a vacation from my vacation.
Back aboard, sun-drunk and with my party-batteries still at only half-capacity, I head to dinner with the intention of calling it an early night. I am seated at a table with a couple of 50-year-olds from LA (clad in neon fishnet and glow stick necklaces) who refer to themselves as the “J’s,” and a newlywed couple from New Jersey in spangly lamé jumpsuits.
The J’s offer me some wine to go with the dinner we’re sharing, and Lady J gives me a quick lesson on wine while drifting in and out of conversation to find something to chew on. I politely ask what she and Mister J saw as the draw for them personally to an event like Groove Cruise. She responds matter-of-factly: “I’m not tired, and it’s energy that gives me life. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop partying — I’ll quit when I’m dead. Plus, we [J’s] work hard, so we deserve to play hard.”
And it suddenly made sense to me why the age range on the “rave ship” was mid-20’s to mid 50’s. These folks are the work hard play hard crowd, the majority of whom figuratively kill themselves at whatever jobs they have during most of the year, so they can afford (in more ways than one) these annual 72 hours of depravity.
This event is their “Burning Man,” their “San Diego Comic Con,” and I was playing passive observer to the collective release from the stringent lives of these (mostly) American white-collar wage-earners. In many ways, this newfound understanding (possibly even more effectively than the drugs) explained the disregard for the cost of overpriced-bottle-after-overpriced-bottle popped, the sleepless hour after sleepless hour raged through, and the unhinged-yet-ecstatic vibe of the Groove Cruise as a whole.
On Sunday, the last full day of the Groove Cruise, I’m up bright and early feeling ready to own the final day in Ensenada, Mexico. This morning, instead of jetting into town on a shuttle to Papas & Beer (the club where Whet was holding its on-shore festivities that day), I meet up with my point-of-contact at the Whet Foundation for the portion of the program that I’m arguably excited about the most.
One of the many things that sets Groove Cruise apart from copycats is the Whet Foundation. The Foundation is the charity arm of Whet Travel that utilizes the Groove Cruise itinerary for their Destination Donation program (which delivers donations to impoverished children from the communities the ship is visiting). Although the idea to link a party-cruise to charity-work is a Whet Travel original, competitors such as Holy Ship! have recently followed suit.
And today’s mission is smuggling toys, clothes, and school supplies into Mexico for a covert drop-off at the City of Children orphanage in inner Ensanada. Yes, literally smuggling them into the country, since there are apparently laws about the kinds of donations you can make, and subsequently, the kinds of hoops you have to jump through to make them. The orphanage, which hosts dozens of children from infancy through high school before assisting them in college placement and beyond, seems excited and grateful for our donations, and the whole experience has me extra-critical of every other average, everyday for-profit party production company not doing what Whet does.
Yes, it’s true that probably 99% of cruisers have no idea this is taking place, or even took notice of the poorly-labeled donation buckets littered throughout the ship all weekend. But how many other production companies actually skim off the top of their profits to give back, and use the travel component of their program to do so on foreign shores around the world? Not many, I reason, inspired by witnessing first-hand the difference the Whet Foundation is making. Our host then shuttles us back to town.
At Papas & Beer, the ultra-luxe, LA-elite-nightclub-esque, $300-a-bottle service vibe arrives as a stark contrast to a morning spent at the orphanage. Admittedly, in going from extreme party, to the reality of the real world outside of the Groove Cruise, and back to extreme party, I had unwittingly set myself up for the only “culture shock” I would experience this trip.
There was something ceremonial when we left “the real world” behind as we sailed away from Long Beach on Friday. And Whet had done a remarkable job crafting a fantastical experience that allowed me and my fellow ravers to continuously party our real-world stresses away while shielded from the outside world – if only for these 72 hours. While tagging along with the Whet Foundation was every bit as rewarding and moving as I’d hoped it to be, for a half-second I wonder if I had committed another Groove Cruise Cardinal Sin: allowing the illusion of utter escape to be momentarily shattered.
But Dvbbs is slaying the decks, oscillating between trap and Melbourne bounce, and the sound system is just-a-little-too-loud – exactly how I like it. I’m well rested, full of tacos, and eager to turn my brain off and lose myself like so many of my fellow Cruisers… so I throw myself into the mix and really get down for the first time since Friday night before making my way back to the ship.
It’s the last night, and the theme aboard is Halloween on the High Seas. Even those who had skimped on costumes during the rest of the weekend’s previous themes (Represent, 50 Shades of Disney, Naughty Nautical, Neon Candyland, and Down to Fiesta) came out in full regalia bringing some impeccably on-point Batman, Stormtrooper, and Minion costumes.
Another popular and nearly ubiquitous look for the evening is “zombie,” but less of the “flesh-eating” type and more of the “I haven’t slept, eaten, or had anything to drink that wasn’t alcohol in 3 days” variety.
After dinner, I don my somewhat ironic Skrillex costume and head aft to the Candlelight Lounge, which is a converted ballroom-esque theater adorned with chandeliers.
It’s 9 PM, and DJ Scooter is dropping old-school hip hop gem after gem, focusing less on seamless mixing and more on smashing each of us in the face repeatedly with epic waves of nostalgia. Properly warmed up, Sidney Samson (of ‘Riverside’ acclaim, and the name I am most excited about seeing onboard) takes the decks at 11 PM for his one hour set.
Easily my favorite set of the weekend, Samson runs the gamut between highly recognizable hip hop from the top 40’s charts of the 00’s to today, and the seriously underground. His set is practically a lesson in hip-hop history to the uninitiated, or simply a journey through the yearbook of Hip Hop High for those of us who have listened to the genre since the early 90’s. Scooter himself is dancing goofily in the crowd.
It’s so much fun none of us realize until it’s too late that Samson has tricked us into jamming well into 3:30 AM — at which point Carnival staff literally pulled the plug, and flipped on the lights to reveal dozens of partied-out rave-goblins sweating pure alcohol through their costumes.
While rolling en-masse to the next party, I fan-boy at Samson and he tells me about how much fun an intimate, nearly-no-rules party like this is from a DJ’s perspective. “Like, I just played for a really long time, that was so awesome. No one told me to stop, so I didn’t feel any need to,” he says, sweating and hugging me as his entourage leads him away.
Facing the dilemma of ending on that sweet note or pushing myself to catch the final, legendary “sunrise set” everyone aboard has been raving about, I decide to pack it in and get my shit together for the morning. In four hours I’ll be awake again, dragging my sorry ass and bags through customs and off the ship to rejoin myself to the labors of the five-day workweek.
On my way back to my room I catch up with Max, a guy I shared a moment with in the front row of Darude’s set on Friday. “How was your weekend?” I ask him.
“It was amazing,” he says. “I listened to some of the best music of my life, met some of my biggest musical heroes, danced my ass off, ran up a $3,000 bar tab, passed out on a private beach in Catalina, got 12 shots of tequila for $5 in Mexico, and made my first GCFam.” Max throws his arm around me, looks me in the eye, and says, “You’re my GCFam, too.”
“Thanks bud” I reply, keying into my cabin as he heads down the hall.
“Wait!” he shouts, “What was your name again?”
Yup, that’s Groove Cruise.
All photos used with permissions by Groove Cruise and Whet Travel.