A life on the ocean waves
Six cruise buffs reveal their particular pleasures
MY friends call me Cruisin’ Susan, such is my penchant for ocean liners of any size or stripe. With no other form of holiday do I feel such implicit permission to be idle, or am so unaccountable to forever blinking and warbling communications. On a cruise, it’s just me, the briny deep and deliciously unreliable satellite connections.
Where else can you find mermaid-shaped swizzle sticks these days and learn antique arts such as napkin folding (my swans and mitres are unrivalled). The new megaliners offer teeth-whitening sessions in their glossy spas, cooking lessons with celebrity chefs, enhancement lectures run by top experts in disparate fields. There is little chance of being bored but, even so, what bliss to do nothing much but sit in a deckchair, with something pleasurably cosy by Agatha Christie to hand (refills readily available on Cunard’s QM2, which has the largest library afloat).
Breathe the invigorating sea breezes, airily use phrases such as port side and starboard as if to the mariner born — then loosen a few buttons for buffet lunch. Ah, the miracle of butter and ice carvings and carrots twisted into phoenixes. The only pressing decision of the day is whether to have cocktails in the Neptune Lounge or the Crow’s Nest Bar (trust me, there will always be just such a nautically named line-up) before a thumpingly large dinner. I UNASHAMEDLYcruise for the extravagant lifestyle to be found on ultra-luxury passenger liners. It’s like being in a floating version of Downton Abbey, but with modcons. It doesn’t matter where we go. I wouldn’t mind if we never left port; to me, the ship is the ultimate destination.
And the staff are exemplary, from the concierges of Crystal Cruises, who are members of Les Clefs d’Or, to the highly trained butler in every Silversea suite.
Heaven-at-sea begins with breakfast in bed, followed by, if I am travelling with Holland America Line, exploring the ship’s museum-quality collection of art and antiques. There’s also the chance of a cocktail or two before a sumptuous lunch, a genteel afternoon tea and the traditional pipe-down (a nap, for the uninitiated). Then a scented bath before the passengers, like Downton Abbey characters, dress for dinner (cocktail attire some evenings, formal on others). More cocktails in a bar and then off to the dining room, where the finest china and crystal are used for a five-course meal accompanied by superb wines. The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Countess of Grantham, would certainly approve. FOR fanciers of small-ship discovery cruising, Swan Hellenic’s Minerva has become something of a cult. The British company has perfected culturally enlightening cruises across more than 50 years. The regulars (70 per cent are repeat passengers) are called Swannies, after the company’s founders, the brothers Swan, and they regard the 350-passenger ship as their own.
It has recently undergone a multi-million-dollar refurbishment and guests have taken to it like, well, swans to water. The chintz is gone, but the country-house ambience endures, as does the 5000-volume library. New balcony cabins, panoramic lounge and state-of-the-art laundry facilities have all passed muster — otherwise stiff letters would have been written to the chairman.
The Minerva formula comprises meticulously researched itineraries, featuring a mix of ports, some hidden gems and an unrivalled guest-speaker program — often Oxford dons, historians, archeologists, fine-arts experts, authors or, on our cruise, a historic-gardens consultant.
The Gardens of the Celtic Fringe itinerary offers a rare opportunity to circumnavigate Ireland’s spectacular coastline and visit a series of glorious gardens, among them Dublin’s Powerscourt, Ilnacullin in Glengarriff and, in the Isles of Scilly, Tresco Abbey, recently featured on the television program Coast. The final estate is Claude Monet’s seductive waterlily garden at Giverny. Shore excursions and gratuities are all-inclusive, the food exceptionally good and the wines affordable, representing excellent value. LAZINESS, a tendency to over-indulge and a need for constant entertainment are a few of my character defects. Is it any wonder that I adore cruising? I waste no time feel-
THINKSTOCK ing ashamed because the high seas are awash with people like me, our peccadilloes recognised and preyed on by shrewd cruise lines. That proffered glass of champagne at the top of the gangway is more than a welcome — it’s a benediction.
A cabin with a private balcony brings out the best and worst in me. Transcendent vistas can elevate the spirit or cultivate an air of insufferable smugness. I spare a thought for passengers whose views are obtained through portholes. Occasionally I tear myself away from this bliss to sample a yoga class or walk the promenade deck, but numerous bars and dining opportunities are more than enough to keep me running.
Time ashore reveals a further flaw — my short attention span. You can have your month in a Tuscan villa. Eight hours of mooching in a lively port suits meperfectly. Just when the souvenirs grow heavy, the ship’s horn sounds, the bar beckons and it’s time to float on a sea of daiquiris to another destination. STANDING at the foot of the staircase, poised to enter the dining room of the sailing clipper Star Flyer on my first night aboard, I am alone among a sea of cruising couples. Whom will I sit with at this open-seating dinner? The maitre d’ greets me and I whisper would he be kind enough to find me someone nice to sit with.
‘‘ Mais oui, madame.’’ (There’s nothing like such a challenge for a charming Frenchman.) He returns in two minutes and escorts me to a table where I meet Jacq and Andy from Southport, England. Weget on like a house on fire, dine together for the next seven nights and rope in a Dutch couple to drink champers with under the stars on balmy evenings.
Fast-forward 14 years and we are still pals, exchanging Christmas cards and gifts.
Where else but on a cruise ship, whether big or small, do you feel comfortable enough to strike up conversations with strangers and join them for dinner and some trivia games? I’ve met many great people on cruises and most recently was invited to the wedding of another English lass, Donna, whom I met on Celebrity Millennium a few years ago. THERE has been no film made that compares, for me, with the real-life moving pictures that unspool from the window or balcony of a ship. The storyline is always different, the scenery constantly changing — sometimes dramatic, sometimes prosaic, often a slow-motion beauty revealed through subtle changes of landscape and light.
On itineraries around patchwork continents, where each dawn heralds another city or country, I often think back to childhood and the intriguing fantasy of The Faraway Tree, where every day ushered in a new land to discover.
Cruising is like a grown-up’s tangible version of that thrilling possibility.
It’s not just the sights and smells and sounds, and the lives being lived before my eyes, but the sheer excitement of knowing I have a whole day (or two or three, if I’m lucky) to create my own adventures in an exotic port.
Choose the itinerary wisely and the entire tour can be a roll call of fabulous places — from Venice to Barcelona via Split, Naples, Rome and Provence, for example, or Copenhagen to St Petersburg via Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn. Each city is conveniently parked by your front door in the morning, the welcome mat out, the shuttles ready, worlds of potential just waiting to be realised.
What bliss to relax on a deckchair with a book in hand