A big-ship cruise in the Caribbean proves a fine choice for maiden voyagers
CRUISE ships were once denoted by kitschy cabaret singers, cheap booze and unimaginative chefs. On-board entertainment was plentiful because, presumably, passengers didn’t want to spend time in poky cabins.
Not any more. Increasingly extravagant creature comforts, exotic ports, inspired cuisine and free- flowing drinks are the new standards of great cruising.
For our maiden cruise, we choose the 14-deck, 2886-passenger Celebrity Silhouette, launched in 2011. The seven-day Western Caribbean itinerary departs from Fort Lauderdale, where we begin an elongated journey to Cozumel, Mexico, before sailing to Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Haiti. The pace of the voyage is unhurried without feeling sluggish.
There are six categories of cabin and we opt for the middle-rung ‘‘concierge class’’, giving us expedited ship entry and exit, which bypasses the queues, and accommodation on a high deck with a veranda. There are fresh fruit and amenities daily and our cabin attendant is constantly available.
We begin the cruise with a vast buffet lunch in the Oceanview Cafe where the diversity of food is impressive but, as we discover, its consistency is not. Good coffee is to remain elusive.
As we set sail into the Atlantic, a DJ spins pop hits on deck, waiters whisk around cocktail trays and soon the first of many stunning sunsets is visible behind the Miami skyline.
Meals? Breakfast and lunch are come-when-you-please buffets, dinner is an old-fashioned, three-course a la carte affair with two sittings. We settle in for dinner on the first of two consecutive nights at sea and swiftly bond with our dining companions — Frank, a policeman from Long Island, and his wife, Marjorie, who tell us they are on their 14th cruise.
Ontheir first cruises in the early 80s, art studios, yoga classes and WiFiequipped cabana retreats such as Celebrity Silhouette’s Alcoves with ‘‘themed picnic baskets’’ were not part of the experience. Nor, surely, was a library with banks of iPads and a selection of herbal tea.
Although we shun the theatre shows and concerts, we find several agreeable entertainment nooks. A well-appointed craft beer bar, complete with a deep selection of brews, is a pleasant surprise for this discerning imbiber. We also discover an inviting cocktail bar where a hirsute man is playing guitar, convincingly channelling Jeff Buckley. His hour-long set is impressive.
The next day, I spot him clad in security attire. A Chicago native, he says he splits his time between playing music and menial ship work. We note his playing times for the week.
Our first stop, Cozumel, is a flop. Declining a cruise-organised optional excursion, we stroll the drab town and retreat back to the ship. We realise we should have booked an excursion.
The ship is social but only if you so choose. The staff engage enthusiastically with eager passengers but nobody is chided for seeking quiet time.
Next stop is George Town, Grand Cayman. We explore the town centre in searing heat before splitting a cab to the beach with some teetotaller Ameri- cans from a Disney cruise. They say they have chosen Disney for its focus on non-drinking activities. We exit the cab convinced Disney cruises are not for us.
The beach is remarkable, with soft, white sand and pure, aqua-coloured water. We stroll for an hour, appreciating the relative seclusion. This, we assume, is what the brochures call ‘‘island time’’.
Following lunch at a laidback beach resort nearby ( complete with steel drum player), we head for the ship, making a pact to return to Grand Cayman.
Overnight we arrive at Falmouth, Jamaica. The relatively new terminal is clean but depressingly generic. We join a bus excursion, our only one of the cruise; our driver makes the 90-minute trip to Montego Bay via an obligatory souvenirs stop.
Our final stop is Labadee, a private Haitian resort leased by Royal Caribbean. It feels like a ramshackle theme park for adults. Sean Penn’s Haiti this is not. We spend our day lounging on sun chairs, sipping beer and eating barbecued food. It is as horrible as it sounds.
With 36 hours sailing before we return to Florida, we realise we have fallen into a gentle daily routine: exercise in the oceanview gym; breakfast; reading by the pool; lunch with a cocktail or two; more reading; a nap then drinks and dinner.
Sitting on our private veranda, gazing at the ocean, we lament the approaching end of this relaxing, uncomplicated holiday.
But not before we order two more cocktails for the road.
A cabana retreat on Celebrity Silhouette’s top deck