Tales of a new sea dog

A first-time cruiser finds there’s much to ad­mire about a ship­board hol­i­day

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat -

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

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