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

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