Great ex­pec­ta­tions

A big-ship cruise in the Caribbean proves a fine choice for maiden voy­agers

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - AN­DREW MUR­FETT

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.

celebri­ty­cruises.com.au

A cabana re­treat on Celebrity Sil­hou­ette’s top deck

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