By David Templeton
“Part of the magical power of the ukulele is that it doesn’t really matter where you are when you play it,” says Craig Chee, who performs and teaches uke around the world. “When you get a group of people together to play ukulele, whether you are on land or water, in a campground or a four-star hotel, the music transforms that location into its own unique ukulele space.”
Chee isn’t kidding about the “on water” bit. He and his performing partner and wife Sarah Maisel participated in their first ukulele cruise last fall. During the weeklong trip through Alaska, Chee and Maisel taught classes, performed concerts, and presided over three dozen beginning and advanced ukulele enthusiasts.
“The best thing about it, for Sarah and me,” says Chee, “was that, as teachers, we got to spend a week with the same people, doing these progressive workshops. We were able to connect so many more dots than we could during a one-off workshop at a music festival. Having a whole week to work together onboard the ship, making sure that everyone is on the same page all that time, it makes such a big difference.”
The other attraction, of course, was the vibe of the ship itself. “We knew we were going to feel spoiled on a cruise,” he says with a laugh, “but we had no idea to what extent. It was so luxurious and over the top. Now I can understand why people do cruises.”
For years, certain cruise lines—particularly those going to Hawaii—have included beginning ukulele classes as part of their regular featured activities. But as the cruise industry has evolved and expanded, some enterprising travel agents—such as Montecito Village Travel’s Chris Merkel, who created the ukulele cruise in which Chee and Maisel participated—are creating special packages catering to various enthusiasts, such as film fans, cosplay aficionados, and music lovers. With the rising popularity of the ukulele, there have been more and more ukulele-themed cruises appearing on the market, designed to attract, entertain, and educate those who are already hooked on the uke.
It’s a boon for uke players and instructors who crave travel along with music-making. In February, Ukulele contributor Lil’ Rev and Play Ukulele by Ear founder Jim D’Ville will set sail on the Celebrity Constellation for a Caribbean Ukulele Cruise out of Fort Lauderdale.
These are just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended), says Chee, who plans to do another ukulele cruise in November, also to the Caribbean. “A lot of the people we meet on these cruises have some familiarity with the instrument, but some have never performed before in front of an audience. On the Alaska cruise last year, we spent the week working on a ton of different things—jams, open mics—and on the last day on the ship, Sarah and I had a concert in the piazza, in the middle of the ship. For our last song, we brought up the whole group to do the number with us. There were four stories of people looking down and watching us play. It was pretty amazing.”
Jeff Senelick was on that cruise, and says that night was one of the most memorable events in a long history of cruise memories. A retired professional from Napa, Senelick and his wife Glenna have been on more than 40 cruises.
“I think it’s 44,” Senelick says, laughing. “My wife thinks it’s 43. Basically, we’ve been on as many cruises as the years we’ve been married.”
It was on a cruise to Hawaii, in fact, that the Senelicks first learned to play the ukulele.
“The cruise director was our ukulele instructor,” Senelick recalls, “and he was just passionate about it. His enthusiasm for the ukulele was contagious, and by the end of the cruise, we’d caught the bug, too. And though we started as beginners, we were playing OK by the time we got back home. Over the next year, we took a lot of lessons, went to a few festivals, and now our whole social life pretty much revolves around the ukulele.”
And, of course, more ocean cruises. Fortunately, with the recent rise in ukulele-themed cruises, the Senelicks have been able to combine their two greatest passions.
“For us, where the ship goes is less important than what happens on the ship,” Senelick says. “The ship is the destination. It’s where the restaurants and theaters and bars and dance clubs are. And having an opportunity to hang out in a place like that with other ukulele fans, spending off time playing and listening to ukulele music, it couldn’t possibly get any better than that.”
Ultimately, blending the cruise lifestyle and a passion for ukulele seems to be as perfect a pairing as a big ship and an even bigger ocean.
“Cruises are a great way to separate from your daily life and just concentrate on the ukulele for a while and to do it in the company of other uke fans from around the world,” Chee says.
“For those who like doing cruises, but have never done a ukulele cruise—well, the ukulele is the icing on a very fancy cake.”