Thursday 19 October 2017

Falling for cruises ... hook, line and sinker

Thanks to royal treatment, a fun mix of people and value for money, Carol Hunt soon threw her reservations over board

Ponte Vecchio, Florence by night.
Ponte Vecchio, Florence by night.
Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

I am having lunch in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. I can see the copy of the statue of Michelangelo's David from where I sit. I read my book on the exploits of the Florentine Medici family, who commissioned this masterpiece, sip a glass of chilled pinot grigio, luxuriate in the afternoon sunshine and await my order of Zuppa Toscana with garlic-laden bruschetta, which I have placed with the charming -- and flirtatious -- Italian waiter.

Yesterday, I spent a couple of relaxing hours on a small beach in the little village of Villefranche near Cannes. I lunched in a small cliffside restaurant on the freshest, crunchiest local bread, with crumbling goats cheese and succulent rosy tomatoes, and chatted to the French proprietors about the exploits of their football team. I swam in the warm waters of the Mediterranean and had an afternoon espresso on the beachfront.

Tonight, I will don my finery for a sumptuous Italian meal with entertaining, new companions. I am enjoying myself so much it is positively sinful. I -- who always travelled independently, who derided organised group holidays with a snobbish disdain -- am spending a week on a cruise ship.

And I have to admit -- gladly, apologetically -- that everything I previously believed about this type of holiday was wrong.

Before I set sail on the Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas from Southampton, I was under the assumption that cruise holidays were predominantly booked by old, wealthy Americans; people with more money than sense who wanted the security of being told what to do and where to go every second of their holiday.

But first up, I noticed that there were families everywhere at check-in. Babies, toddlers, teenagers, grannies and grandads -- there didn't seem to be any particular demographic among the 3,000-plus people who were being politely and quickly ushered aboard the great ship.

I headed for my stateroom, a very comfortable hotel-style bed/sitting room with a private balcony. I read through some of the bumf I received on all the activities available on board and had to lie down from sheer exhaustion at the thought of them all. There's an ice rink. And a huge theatre and a climbing wall and a gym and a jogging track and a library and innumerable bars and nightclubs and ... I poured a glass of wine, switched on my flatscreen TV and zoned out with the footie.

Later, I got changed and headed down to the dining room to meet my dinner companions. They ranged in age from a couple in their mid-20s to the beautiful, vivacious Anna, who had just celebrated her 90th birthday.

The executive chef took time out from organising his 400-plus staff and came over for a chat. His name is Derek McKnight and he's from Schull, Co Cork. We have friends in common, of course. You really wouldn't want to be up to no good, would you? Derek has the job of making sure the thousands of guests on board are well fed every day. Food is available 24/7. It's a military operation that he runs with a gentle yet effective precision. The dinners are delicious -- and seem to get better every night -- the menu varied, the service perfect. In fact, it's all so very glamorous and luxurious that I begin to feel like someone who has wafted in from a Noel Coward show -- Sail Away, maybe.

The first couple of days aboard were spent at sea. Though I was thrilled to be travelling for the first time ever sans famille, I did get a slight guilty feeling when I headed up on deck and saw groups of happy children having the time of their lives in and out of pools, at various games and with a host of new friends.

There was even a self-service ice-cream cone machine that I knew my six-year-old would spend hours lying under until he could never stomach ice cream again. Valiantly, I shrugged off thoughts of the kids at home and headed for the all-adult solarium, and blissfully chilled out for a few hours. There were hundreds of things I could have bene doing, of course: playing crazy golf, doing a yoga class, competing in a quiz, attending an art seminar or lecture, brushing up on my t'ai chi or bridge, getting a massage ... the list of activities is almost endless, which is why it's so pleasurable to do nothing if that's what you want. It is your holiday, after all.

First stop was Gibraltar, where we get to see those strange-looking monkeys and climbed the famous rock. Then we set sail along the coastline of Southern Spain toward the South of France.

After dinner, I decided on an early night, gave the various clubs and theatres a miss, head back to my room and sat for hours on the balcony, glass in hand, book in my lap, the reflection of the moon on the Mediterranean before me, listening to the hypnotic swish of the warm seas. Four days in, and I am an old hand at this cruise stuff, and I wish that I could stay on board for the entire summer. I call home and detail the benefits of a cruise voyage with all the passionate fervour of the convert.

It's perfect for families, I enthuse to my dubious other half. The kids can be entertained 24/7, there's clubs and babysitters, so that parents can enjoy a romantic holiday together without worrying about their little darlings. One guest said it was like "having a second honeymoon", as she and the husband got to visit Florence and Cannes alone together while their kids had a whale of a time on the boat being brilliantly cared for by a diligent staff.

When Martin Rissley, the hotel director of the ship, informed me that cruising was by far the cheapest way to holiday -- particularly for families -- I was sceptical. But a little research online proved that he was right.

The value for money is astonishing, especially when one adds in the fact that guests are treated like royalty. Consequently, despite my initial, ignorant reservations about cruises, I have fallen for them as the optimal way of holidaying -- hook, line and sinker.

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