Cruise Holiday: Cast off your worries
Self-confessed land-lubber Christopher Hope discovered that cruising was an ideal family adventure -- once he'd borrowed a tie and got to grips with on-board rules
'I need a break," my wife Sarah said. "Why can't we go on a cruise? I want our holiday to be, you know, a 'holiday', where I don't have to do anything."
My heart sank. I was not good on boats. Indeed, I was not much good on anything that rocks from side to side -- I have been seasick on a pedalo.
We had never been on a cruise before. What would we do with our three children? Wouldn't they get tired of games such as deck quoits? What if they annoyed the other passengers? But this time there was an air of desperation about Sarah's voice that I could not ignore.
Life has not been easy for us since a bus ran out of control in south-west London four years ago, hitting Sarah, her mother Elizabeth and our daughter Pollyanna, who were on the pavement. Elizabeth was killed instantly, while Sarah suffered horrific injuries to her left leg. Pollyanna, then two, was struck with such force that her right leg had to be amputated below the knee.
The months and years since then have been very difficult, as we have tried to get our life back on course. We have had to get new legs for Pollyanna every four to six months as well as pursue multiple claims against the bus company that caused all this mess.
So I said to Sarah: "Yes, why not?" We picked a seven-night cruise through the Bay of Biscay, visiting Spain, Portugal and France. We boarded P&O's Ventura in the English port of Southampton.
We were not prepared for the scale of the ship. Ventura is simply enormous. There were 18 floors, more than a dozen lifts and countless restaurants. Eight of its decks have cabins with rows of balconies, making her look more like a floating hotel that might topple into the sea than an ocean-going vessel.
We managed to get some perspective on her vastness from the bridge, when we were kindly invited there by the captain as the ship was leaving the port of Lisbon. Hundreds of feet below, we watched tiny workers cast off her ropes.
On the way out of port, a launch pulled alongside and a local pilot who had been helping Ventura navigate away from shore shinnied down a precarious rope ladder and jumped, James Bond-style, into the moving motor boat, to applause from the passengers. The children enjoyed sounding the ship's whistle (or horn).
From the beginning, Ventura's staff made us feel very special. The ship's surgery lent us a wheelchair, and we had Pollyanna's three-wheel scooter for shorter journeys by foot -- her injuries mean she uses up more energy than other children and tires easily.
For the first two days, we spent a lot of time wandering around, a little bewildered and a little lost. Where exactly was 'aft'? It took about a day to find our sea legs and work out that the promenade deck went around the entire ship, allowing us to navigate from A to B relatively quickly.
The rules of life on-board Ventura were also a bit of a mystery. As soon as we had boarded at Southampton, the children were demanding a swim. The pools on the top deck were being blasted by party music as we sailed away, so we kept walking towards the stern to find some peace and quiet.
We found a smaller pool by the health spa and jumped in. It was heavenly, and so peaceful. But within two minutes a member of staff was telling us that this area was adults only.
We took the children for something to eat. Then everyone disappeared to go to their 'muster station' for a safety briefing and put on their life vests. We had no idea where to go, so stayed put.
There was similar confusion at the end when we found out through other guests that we had to put our luggage outside our room on the night before we disembarked.
But a daily newsletter delivered to our rooms helped us to navigate this foreign world. It listed the hour-by-hour activities on-board and contained a small box headlined 'Tonight's Dress Code', which told us what we were expected to wear to dinner that evening.
Most days it was "Smart-casual -- open-necked shirt and tailored trousers for gentlemen, casual separates for ladies". Two of the seven nights were "Formal/ black & white -- dinner jacket, tuxedo or dark suit and tie for gentlemen, long or short evening wear for ladies".
We thought this was hilarious, until we realised that everyone else really was dressing up. I had come completely unprepared and had to borrow a bow tie from the ship's front-of-house manager and a safety pin to hold a broken zip on my only pair of smart trousers.
The dress code was not in force 24/7 -- on one afternoon, in one of the lifts, we met an enormous man in his 40s, naked but for his tiny swimming trunks.
Judging by our experience, cruising is still geared towards the older person. The average age of our fellow 2,000-plus passengers was 53 and there were just 250 children on board. If the Ventura was Noah's Ark, the human race would be doomed. However, the other guests seemed happy to accommodate the children on board.
Pollyanna barely raised a flicker when she took off her leg to go for a swim and had to hop around the pool. The only questionable moment was when, fresh from a shore visit to Vigo in northern Spain, she decided to sound her new yellow plastic trumpet on our balcony, prompting an anguished cry from an elderly gentleman next door: "Will you be quiet!"
My fears that there would not be enough for our children to do were ill-founded. The Ventura laid on four different clubs for youngsters aged between two and 17. The organised fun included films, bowling, computer games, cookie baking, a chocolate day, a couple of magic shows and regular meetings with Mr Bump and Noddy.
The clubs were not to everyone's taste. Our 10-year-old son Barnaby preferred kicking a ball with me in the games court. But Sapphire and Pollyanna soon enjoyed themselves, particularly when nail painting and hairdressing were on offer.
The children's clubs also bought Sarah and me some precious free time -- a couple of guilt-free hours in the sauna or infinity pool or an opportunity to take in the on-board entertainment, such as the nightly shows offering an impressive array of dance, music and comedy.
The cuisine was a real highlight -- varied and delicious, with different menus each night and wonderfully attentive waiters in the three silver-service restaurants.
The restaurants served afternoon tea, with scones and tea cakes, while for dinner we were truly spoiled. Drinks at the bar seemed well-priced (everything was added to our room card) while, for a small fee, you could dine at Marco Pierre White's White Room.
But such value did not translate to terra firma. One of the big shocks for us was the cost of planned excursions. A boat trip to a nature reserve cost more than £150 (€169), for three hours on the beach. So instead we explored independently, with mixed results.
We had docked in Vigo on Sunday morning and most of the shops and even the tourist office were firmly cerrado. Still, a small tourist market was doing a roaring trade and we bought some locally caught oysters and happily devoured them on a street corner.
At Lisbon, our next port, we bounced down the gangway and took a taxi to a beach at Estoril, 15 miles to the west. We had a lovely swim, but getting there and back cost us an eye-watering €40.
So we made only one other trip -- Sapphire and I went to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, and it did not disappoint as we whizzed around the imposing rusted physical mass of Richard Serra's 'The Matter Of Time' and wondered how to water Puppy, a 43ft-tall West Highland terrier covered in bedding plants and flowers created by American artist Jeff Koons.
On board, everyone gets a stateroom, but we were lucky to have one with a balcony and a view of the Atlantic. It was often easy to forget that we were on a ship -- huge underwater stabilisers ensured that any rolling, or "gradation", was kept to a minimum.
But we were soon reminded when, on the final day, a storm blew in, preventing us from landing at Brest, our final port of call. So we sailed on through the gathering swell. The ship went into a lockdown and activities such as an "opportunity to learn the rumba" were hastily organised.
A few green-looking passengers retired to their cabins, while we had a dip in one of the Jacuzzis (all the swimming pools were closed to prevent water sloshing out as the ship heaved in the swell). We stayed in it for so long that the chemicals dyed Barnaby's swimming trunks a light shade of green.
But a few waves were not going to burst our bubble. Would we do it again? Definitely.
Need to Know
Christopher and his family travelled on a seven-night cruise to Spain, Portugal and France on P&O Cruises Ventura. A similar cruise departs on March 25, 2012, and calls at Corunna, Bilbao, La Rochelle and Le Havre. Prices start at Â¤938 per adult and Â¤281 per child, based on a family of four sharing a balcony cabin. This includes all accommodation, main meals, entertainment and childcare.
Free transfer flights between Belfast and Southampton are offered on this cruise for bookings made between September 1 and November 30, 2012.
For more information or to book, call P&O Cruises on 0044 845 355 4444 or visit pocruises.co.uk.