Four days on a rock-and-roll-themed sailing turned a live music skeptic into a certified Jovi Junkie

By Shay Spence
May 21, 2019 10:00 AM
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Though I’m a seasoned cruiser, I was admittedly slightly nervous when I was assigned to set sail on the Runaway to Paradise with Jon Bon Jovi cruise this past April. Would a celebrity-themed trip veer so far from the traditional cruising experience that it wouldn’t resemble the vacation model that I know and love? Did I have to be a ride-or-die Bon Jovi fan to truly appreciate the full experience?

As “Livin’ On a Prayer” blared through the speakers three times within the first hour of boarding Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Jade ship in Miami, I feared my worries were valid. I watched anxiously as the crew of Sixthman—the production company behind the cruise that puts on a ton of flawlessly-executed music festivals at sea—was setting up the main stage over one of the pools.

It’s at this point that I must make a shocking admission: I don’t really like music festivals, or live music in general. I know, I know…perhaps this was not going to be the journey for me.

Friday, April 12

Immediately, I noticed there’s a camaraderie on board this boat that’s far greater than your average cruise. This is no doubt thanks to everyone instantly connecting over their love for Bon Jovi, but the man himself isn’t at the center of every connection. Case in point: As I waited in line to get WiFi, a woman who I did not know told me that her recent 23andMe DNA test led her to discover that her father was not her biological father. We had not left the dock yet.

I downed a Miami Vice (a glorious combination of piña colada and strawberry daiquiri) as the ship set sail, a tradition of mine that instantaneously calmed my nerves owing to both the familiarity of the ritual and the extra floater of rum I requested.

Beyond the friendliness of the passengers, there were a few other delightful things I noticed about this cruise right away. First, the Norwegian Jade: It’s an older ship, and less flashy than some of the fleet’s newer models like the Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Joy, but it was refurbished in 2017 and it shows. While it lacks the more headline-grabbing amenities like an onboard water park or go-kart track, the cleanliness and intimate feel of the ship made it a perfect vessel for the 4-night journey—which everyone was on for the music anyway.

The Sixthman staffers also provided a positive difference from other cruises I’ve taken. Members of the company’s ultra-friendly and robust crew were stationed throughout the ship, answering any questions guests had. It’s an additional level of hospitality that does not go unnoticed.

Finally—and most notably—there were practically no kids. While this isn’t explicitly an adults-only cruise, there seemed to be an unspoken agreement among everyone on board to leave the little ones at home, something I appreciated greatly.

As the evening unfurled, the live performances began on the main stage—while Jon Bon Jovi wouldn’t join us until the following night, there were a host of other bands like Tonic and Collective Soul on the weekend’s lineup—and the raucous energy of the crowd was in full force. Servers were handing out unlimited glasses of Hampton Water rosè (Bon Jovi’s business venture with his son Jesse Bongiovi) and everyone was ready to get after it.

I was not quite ready to commit so fully, so I quietly excused myself to dinner at Cagney’s, Norwegian’s signature steakhouse. While on more typical sailings it can be hard to snag a reservation at specialty dining restaurants, on this night they were completely empty as everyone soaked in the live music, and I enjoyed my wonderfully-cooked veal chop and a fudge brownie in quiet solitude, but for “Livin’ on a Prayer” playing on the speakers.

As night fell, I watch a movie in which Jennifer Lopez played a grocery store clerk, wondering if I was alive.

Saturday, April 13

It is a day at sea, my favorite kind of day. I notice that the towels provided in my cabin match flawlessly with the outfit I had planned for the day, so I found a fellow journalist I had befriended the day before and made her photograph me for Instagram.

With that out of the way, it was time to get serious. It was noon and Slippery When Wet, a Bon Jovi cover band, was playing their first of what I believe was 150 sets during this cruise, and all of the passengers who had stayed out at least 5 hours later than me were already surrounding the stage.

On the pool deck with a perfect view of the stage, we met a group of women all sporting the same “Jovi Junkie” t-shirts and hats. They were from the Chicago suburbs and had left the kids at home for a girls’ trip — something they do semi-annually. When I ask where they usually go, the response was: “Wherever Bon Jovi goes.” I felt dumb for asking.

I learn that Jovi Junkie is the name of their online apparel shop for Bon Jovi fans. It is etched on the thermoses they were all carrying, which were full of vodka and club soda with a hefty splash of zero-calorie Crystal Light flavor drops in them. I was told, repeatedly, that each thermos contains only 37 calories. And just like that, I’d found my tribe.

One hundred and eleven calories later, we noticed that we’d docked in the Bahamas — a surprise because our port day in Nassau wasn’t supposed to be until Sunday. As it turned out, we were picking up the real Bon Jovi! The energy on board bumped up from a 10 to roughly a 14 with his presence on board. That evening, he played an acoustic storyteller set, answering audience questions and weaving them effortlessly into slowed-down versions of his hits. I know more Bon Jovi songs than I realized, and found this to be a relaxing exercise.

After the show, I went for a meet and greet. I tried to jog his memory about the time I interviewed him for approximately five minutes two years earlier, as though he’d thought of nothing since. He nodded graciously and took a photo with me.

We made a quick stop back at Nassau to drop off Bon Jovi. He would be back.

Sunday, April 14

The port day in Nassau came at just the right time. I used the loving break from the ship and the Jovi Junkies to explore the island, eat whole fried fish (at a lovely spot called Fish Fry), and do a spontaneous photo shoot with strangers I met on the beach, who may or may not be actual models.

When we left port, it was time for the main event. The real Bon Jovi show, with electric guitars and such. By this point, I was accustomed to the concept of live music, and even comfortable with it. If the energy the night before was a 14, tonight it was equal to the amount of calories in a thermos of vodka and zero-calorie Crystal Light drops (37) for show number two.

Bon Jovi’s performance was electrifying. When he wasn’t playing his hits, he played covers of other popular songs (a particularly on-point rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman” still sticks out in my mind.) There was never one of those dreaded “I’d like to workshop some new material” moments.

WATCH THIS: Inside Jon Bon Jovi and Wife Dorothea’s Rock N’ Roll Marriage

All of the Jovi Junkies said this was the most intimate concert of his they’d been to, and I felt it. Rather than a sold-out stadium like Madison Square Garden, which holds 20,000+ people, this ship holds 2,200, and it really did feel like a personal experience.

After the concert, I went for my second-night-in-a-row Bon Jovi meet and greet. As I walk up to shake his hand, he said: “You’re back.” It was hard to get a read on the tone with which he said this, but regardless, he remembered me, and my work here was done. I stayed out late that night.

Monday, April 15

This was the roughest day…or, at least, morning. I dragged myself out of bed eventually, and headed to lunch. One unique feature of this sailing was that they had transformed one of the restaurants into a pop-up version of the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Kitchen, which is his pay-if-you-can restaurant that started in New Jersey.

I enjoy a delightful meal there that concluded with a ten-out-of-ten molten chocolate cake, which happens to be my favorite dessert. It was restorative, but the previous night’s festivities still rendered me immobile until nighttime, when I meet my Jovi Junkies at the ’80s silent disco on board for just long enough to get an Instagram photo.

Tuesday, April 16

When I woke up, we are back in Miami. I don’t know that I could’ve survived another day—it was exactly the right amount of time for my personal journey—but ultimately the infectious spirit on board was too powerful even for my cynical heart. Four days, two flawless Jon Bon Jovi sets, and so many glasses of Hampton Water rosé later, I was a certified Jovi Junkie—though I’m still not quite ready to hear “Livin’ on a Prayer” again.

The Main Takeaway: If you’re a die-hard Bon Jovi fan, this is an absolute bucket-list-item adventure (and there’s another one sailing from Spain in August!). And if you’re not, hey, you just might become a convert.