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‘I Took a Trip on the Ship of Fools’
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‘I Took a Trip on the Ship of Fools’

On a slow boat to Mexico with only Kiss fans for company.

“I rode the highway to heartache; I took a trip on the ship of fools.”

When Paul Stanley, Kiss’ flamboyant frontman, sang those words in 2012, the “Kiss Kruise” had departed for the first time the previous year. Maybe it was his inspiration. After all, only a particular kind of lunatic would choose to spend five days at sea with aging glam metal rockers as the primary source of entertainment (at the cost of as much as several thousand dollars). Evidently, however, this breed of lunatic is numerous. 

From 2011 to 2019, the cruise was an annual sellout, as fanatics from every continent converged on Miami—and, on one occasion, New Orleans—to set sail on a voyage billed as the “vacation of a lifetime.” COVID-19 brought this tradition to a halt in 2020, and when the cruise embarked on its tenth voyage in 2021 a dearth of international attendees caused by travel restrictions prevented it from reaching its full capacity of almost 2,500. In 2022, organizers planned two cruises departing Los Angeles with stops in Cabo San Lucas and Ensenada, Mexico, anticipating demand would be higher with the pandemic on the wane at last. They anticipated incorrectly. Sales proved underwhelming, and the first week managed only to attract around 1,300 guests, myself among them. Nevertheless, communications from the cruise line assured me, “Kisstory” had been made.

On the morning of Sunday, October 23, I arrived at my hotel in San Pedro, located only a mile away from the Los Angeles World Cruise Center. Already, the lobby was cluttered with people sporting Kiss t-shirts of some unique design. In one corner, a pair of Japanese women wearing embroidered Kiss kimonos stood making plans for the week. By the elevators, a man dressed elegantly in chinos and a knitted crewneck sweater was heading up to his room. He returned minutes later in wraparound sunglasses, shredded jeans held up by a chain belt, and a baggy purple shirt. Beside me, a hirsute fan and longtime Kiss cruiser assured first-timers that the experience would prevent them from ever enjoying a regular concert again. If nothing else, the week ahead promised to be distinctly unusual. 

We left the next morning—after lengthy security lines—on our vessel, the Norwegian Jewel. Crew members offered beaming smiles as I entered the ship on the seventh floor and attempted to process my surroundings. Around me was a colossal lounge adorned with chandeliers. At its center, a merchandise area was under construction beneath a black, cage-like structure, while in a corner, a wide table stood waiting to be manned for the evening’s session of face painting. Footage of Kiss played on a massive screen atop a wooden staircase leading to an Irish pub on the eighth deck, which had already found a number of patrons. I expected that some kind of health and safety session would follow before the vacation could truly begin, and asked a nearby steward dressed in a captain’s uniform for instructions. He informed me, to both my concern and delight, that no such tutorial would be necessary, and provided some direct advice: “Go! Have amazing fun! Rock and roll all night and party every day!”

I began to explore in a dazzled haze. Kiss songs, both obvious and obscure, blasted at all times from the onboard speakers. In the hallways of deck seven, rare items ranging from tour costumes to platinum records were displayed in a miniature museum, the centerpiece of which was a black coffin branded with portraits of each original band member—the infamous “Kiss Kasket,” a piece of merch that’s been sold on and off since 2001. One neatly decorated room had been converted into an art gallery that showcased paintings by Paul Stanley. International flags hung from balconies on an upper level, imprinted with messages such as “Kiss come to Bali” and “Kiss Belgian Army.” On one end of the deck, a large stage draped with Kiss banners had been erected to host the bulk of the week’s concerts and activities. On the other, crowded swimming pools and hot tubs bubbled and rippled like science experiments.

As I moved to the dining area on the ship’s bow, I unexpectedly encountered a friend from a prior Kiss excursion, and we arranged to meet up for the makeup-less sail-away performance that would officially begin the proceedings. The sun scorched my arms and neck as we captured a position near the front of the stage and settled in for a lengthy wait. Looking out across the deck, I surveyed my fellow sailors in the “Kiss Navy.” There were young children and adolescents, lifelong obsessives of Generation X, and a few ostensibly unconnected attendees dressed in what appeared to be Halloween costumes, including a demonic clown outfit and a fetishistic bodysuit that evoked Hellraiser. Custom-made shirts patterned with cartoon images of Kiss and album cover art were ubiquitous as were similarly Kiss-focused tattoos. Finally, Kiss arrived, but as the set commenced, the ship inexplicably remained stationary. “This isn’t a sail-away show, this is a stay-away,” Paul Stanley remarked, sensing the audience’s confusion. But as the band performed a selection of early material, the atmosphere grew feverish, and those around me were soon screaming along to every lyric and converting guitar melodies into chants. As darkness approached and the show concluded, we left Los Angeles at last. 

The evening passed in a whirl of music and unwholesome gorging, concluding with a round of Kiss karaoke in the ship’s highest lounge, where drunken devotees wailed tunelessly to songs they could recite without the aid of the screens. My cabin resembled a Manhattan hotel room—pleasantly modern and sleekly decorated in white and gray, and so cramped that the bathroom provided only a few feet of space between the door and the sink. In the closet, hangers attached to the railing rattled chaotically when the ship shook, and the two primary channels on the television played a collection of Kiss documentaries and concerts in chronological order on a continuous loop. 

Tuesday largely followed the same pattern of eating and partying. Much of it consisted of concerts by the other bands on board, autograph sessions, and interviews with Kiss as the ocean gently splashed against the ship’s hull, providing a tranquil backdrop to the often raucous activities. Large groups of fans lurked by the elevators, clutching records, magazines, and posters in the hope that an unsuspecting member of the band could be trapped and forced to provide signatures. On Wednesday morning, we arrived at the resort city of Cabo San Lucas to calm seas and a ruthless sun. Unable to pull into a port, the ship docked with the coast in view, and guests were taken to land in small boats that bobbed above the waves. 

Cabo itself was a gaudy tourist attraction; a collision between conventionally exotic Mexican architecture and Vegas-inspired dive bars designed to ensnare Americans with passable nachos and diluted liquor. As I strolled through the downtown streets, touts aggressively offered taxi rides while vendors flaunted ponchos and T-shirts embossed with profane, nonsensical English phrases. “Hey, gringo, you wanna buy some weed?” was a frequent alternative to “Hello,” and “Back in Black” blared from the chain restaurants that lined the streets. Most of those who had gone ashore congregated at Cabo Wabo Cantina, a cavernous club where technicolor spotlights danced along the ceiling and a live band provided loud renditions of vintage rock hits, eliciting singalongs from the increasingly inebriated clientele. But by the early evening, it was time to depart.

That night brought the first of two concerts by Kiss in full makeup and costume. It took place in the Stardust, an intimate theater spanning two decks at the front of the ship, and from the orchestra pit to the upper levels, fans of all ages screeched with almost worshipful glee at the sight of their idols performing so closely on such a modest stage. Unlike an ordinary Kiss show, theatrics such as exploding guitars, fireworks, blood-spitting, and fire-breathing were ignored in favor of an emphasis on the actual songs, which were performed with rigorous proficiency. Until the end, at least, when confetti and balloons rained down from the ceiling in blinding quantities as the band launched into “Rock and Roll All Nite,” savoring the adulation projected by the hundreds of exuberant faces before them. Beside me, a German fan who had sailed on the first cruise in 2011 struggled to offer his thoughts in English: “That was wonderful. Amazingly great. Awesomely fantastic!”

Thursday and Friday adhered to the established hedonistic routine of concerts, activities, and late night Kiss-related conversations that began at the buffet and concluded at the casino, where the air was perpetually thick with acrid cigarette smoke. (Succumbing to sleep deprivation prevented me from exploring Ensenada on Friday morning.) Throughout, the ship had continued to aggressively jolt, and at breakfast on Saturday, it was popular to remark that we had survived a voyage on the “Titanic II.” Disembarking and escaping the Port of Los Angeles proved relatively painless, and as I rode to LAX with a return to normal life on the horizon, I felt surprisingly content. Although there was a sadness to the week’s inevitable end, the experience had been so relentlessly intense that reentering the real world felt necessary. Living on the ship had been akin to taking a holiday from reality, where a typical moment was both relaxing and exhilarating. For five days I had seemingly inhabited a world detached from our own, liberating in its confined size, centered around pleasure, and removed from the burdensome rules of quotidian life. The tagline “best vacation ever” may be a marketing tool, but if the essence of a successful vacation is escape, it could, in fact, be apt.

Guy Denton is a writer based in Washington, D.C., and the co-host of "The Wrong Stuff" podcast with Matt Lewis.