Cruise holiday: Sail of the centuries
With historic locations to explore and a life of luxury on board, Mary O'Sullivan fulfils many of her childhood dreams
When I was a very small child growing up in Cork, a highlight was the annual arrival of my two grand aunts from the States. In those days, they came on liners from New York to Cobh, often stopping off en route at exotic locations, arriving with interesting gifts and tales to fire my imagination.
To my delight, my father once organised for us to go out on the tender which met the ship. I was ecstatic. Except that my father was notoriously late for everything and the tender left without us. Soon afterwards, the aunts started to arrive by air and my dream was put on hold.
Fast forward to 2010 and it seemed I was to get a second chance; my husband and I got the opportunity to go on a cruise. The fates did try to conspire against me again and threw not a procrastinating parent but a volcano and an ash cloud in my face. I found myself reverting to my five-year-old self and practically having a tantrum but, thanks to trains, boats, buses and the resourceful people who organise the Spirit of Adventure cruises, we managed to join the ship at Marseilles instead of its original starting point at Nice, and so just missed a day of the proposed 10-day sail around what the ship's brochure called the Unspoilt Mediterranean.
The Spirit of Adventure has a year-round cruise calendar exploring five continents, but the Unspoilt Mediterranean appealed particularly because its itinerary included some places we'd never been to, such as Ajaccio and Alghero, and others we knew well, such as Barcelona and Palma, which meant we wouldn't always be rushing off to sightsee and so could relax on the ship and enjoy all the luxuries it had to offer.
These included our comfortable cabin -- complete with en suite and top-class toiletries, TV and DVD player -- a well-stocked library, shop, beauty salon, fitness centre, several bars and the ship's two restaurants, which offered gourmet food. There were not only three delicious meals every day but an afternoon tea to rival that at any of our best hotels. With 24-hour room service, we only had to lift the phone or step out of our cabin and the ever-smiling Melencio would be there to do our bidding.
In fact, all the staff, most of whom were Filipinos, were delightful from the captain, laidback Aussie Frank Alicca, down.
Actually, the only thing I didn't like about the ship was the mirror I met as I made my way down the corridor towards my cabin. It never failed to remind me that there is a price to pay for the freshly made blueberry pancakes smothered in maple syrup I'd had for breakfast and all the delicious puddings I couldn't help consuming -- the ship's pastry chef was a past master at those lovely old-fashioned desserts such as rhubarb crumble, which I just can't resist. To compensate, I did try to stick to fish for my main courses accompanied by freshly made salads. Not that the fish was exactly a hardship -- think freshly grilled sea bream, prawns, lobster and swordfish hot off the barbecue and onto your plate.
The beauty of a cruise holiday is that it's really two holidays in one. There are all the places you get to see along the way and then there's life on the ship; a full programme of events is organised every day by the cruise director, the hilarious Neil Horrocks (a Jonathan Ross-type who managed to poke fun in such a way that his target also laughed heartily) and you can dip in and out of these as you please.
The cruise was planned in such a way that we sailed from port to port by night (oh, to be able to reproduce the gentle rocking of the ship -- I slept soundly every night), docked each morning and after breakfast you could disembark on your chosen excursion and explore the landscape of places such as Sardinia or stay on board and do one of the myriad activities on offer, including classes in watercolour painting, photography or line dancing.
Games on the programme included deck quoits (I never did find out), table tennis and shuffle board, while there were also lectures, usually relating to the places we were about to see. While we didn't join the classes and deck games, we did make it to some of the lectures. The talk on Napoleon really enhanced our enjoyment of his house in his hometown of Ajaccio in Corsica; in the same way I was glad to hear all about Picasso before hitting the Picasso museum in Barcelona. But it was nice, too, to laze on deck and savour the deep blue sea around us and the usually brilliant sunshine. The sunsets were another highlight, as were the schools of dolphins that twice followed the ship as we sailed.
Night life on the ship was relaxed and fun, and we had two smart cocktail parties for which guests attending wore black tie. A movie was shown nightly on a slightly chilly deck which meant the crew swaddled you in blankets and fed you cartons of popcorn; there was always a concert -- classical, jazz and easy listening were the genres favoured; and there were informal and quite hilarious quizzes with Neil and his team.
These were great ice-breakers and we got to know quite a few of the ship's 250 passengers through arguments about answers. They were a lovely bunch, mostly British, mostly over 60 (though the ship's age limit is over 21) and from all walks of life. We met a lord, a retired judge, a retired doctor, a concert pianist, as well as bankers, teachers and office workers. They were nearly all cruise veterans, one couple reporting that this was their 20th cruise.
They were also mostly very fit and up early for the excursions. My favourite excursion had to be the one to the Alhambra, the wonderful palace built 500 years ago by the Moors in an extraordinary setting high above Granada. It was a highlight but, it has to be said, there were many highlights.
Did I mention the ice-cream machine where you could just lift a lever and help yourself to a cone at any time ?
It's at times like this that it dawns that no matter what the age, we're all still children at heart.