Tales of a new sea dog
A first-time cruiser finds there’s much to admire about a shipboard holiday
THE Bali sun slides into the choppy, dark blue waters as we join the last passengers reboarding the cruise ship Celebrity Solstice after a long day of sightseeing. Soon we’re hitting the high seas as we begin the second leg of our journey to Darwin (we joined the ship in Singapore on its maiden voyage to Sydney via Bali, Darwin, Cairns and Brisbane).
It’s party time on board, with the Mast Bar, Sunset Bar and Cocktail Bar all a hive of activity. Fortunes Casino is buzzing too, against the unrelenting wump-wump-klump of the one-armed bandit poker machines. My travel companion, an old school friend, is not a gambler and nor am I, so we make our way to Sky Bar on the top deck, where a group of partygoers is busting some moves on the dance floor. ‘‘Come on, dude,’’ a tall 30-something pleads, and suddenly I find myself bopping about with him, his wife and friends. After one or two more beers I’m seriously impressing them with my moves to Rihanna and Eminem’s Love the Way you Lie.
This is my first cruise and it’s not just the happy faces of my fellow passengers that are making it so enjoyable. The inexhaustible enthusiasm of the crew, from the waiters in the ship’s fine-dining restaurants to the staff who clean my cabin, is infectious. It’s the thoughtful little touches that impress: on boarding there is a bottle of champagne in our cabin; at the port of Benoa in Bali, staff provide us with icy towels as we wait in the heat; and complimentary canapes are brought to our cabin every afternoon. It must be quite a challenge running a ship of this size — combining all the services of a four-star hotel with the navigational mechanics of a commercial aeroplane and the security concerns of a small city.
I soon find that there are many pluses to cruising — very reasonable prices, varied itineraries, myriad onboard activities, the freedom to choose your own landlubber adventures when you’re in port — and myfellow passengers agree. Every person I speak to, bar one, has been on a cruise before. For one American couple, it is their 40th voyage; for a British gay couple who live in the south of France, it’s their 17th. Aretired pair of Australians tell methey are enjoying their 10th cruise. The Brits say it’s cheaper for them to stay on cruise ships for up to six months of the year than to run their French villa — and the quality of life is better.
There is something irresistibly calm and oldworldly about travelling by ship. I find it less stressful than moving from hotel to hotel, packing and unpacking, negotiating airports, train terminals or car hire contracts. On a ship, your hotel travels with you. It’s there at the end of a long day of touring some exotic small port or trekking through the refrigerated corridors of a glittering city mall. In this frenetic, high-tech world, the leisurely pace of cruising is to be prized (though for those suffering social network withdrawals, Solstice has full internet access and wireless connectivity from each cabin).
One of my favourite places for a calm escape is Michael’s Club, styled in the fashion of a handsome, oak-panelled English smoking room. It’s here that I manage to finish Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, feeling quite at home in my own private Algonquin Club. Calm can also be found in the card room and library, with its floorto-ceiling bookshelves.
At the opposite end of the design spectrum is the lavish and vast Grand Epernay dining room, where we are treated to a different menu each night, and where most of the dishes are delicious and beautifully presented. ‘‘How was the food?’’ is one of the first things people ask about a cruise, and the range of up-market dining options on Solstice means I am never bored — there’s the modern international cuisine of Blu Restaurant