I have just returned from holiday – I hope you didn’t miss me too much. The holiday in question was a 12-day Mediterranean Cruise preceded by a few additional days in Barcelona, from where it started.
I have to confess that cruise holidays have never appealed to me greatly, not least because it sounds so middle aged! However, a number of my wife’s family are very enthusiastic about them so she wanted to give it a go. The other problem, of course, is that cruises are so darned expensive, but this problem was at least in part allayed by one of the aforesaid family scoring a remarkably cheap deal, so I was out of excuses.
My enthusiasm for the whole cruise thing waned fairly early on in the planning when I visited the web site. The pictures of opulent splendour intended to entice me into the holiday had the opposite effect, and when I saw there was a dress code it compounded my grumpiness. I am not good at being told what to do and, as my parents and my school teachers would attest, that goes doubly so for being told what to wear. In my view, any occasion that you have to wear a suit is work, not a holiday, so the concept of a formal evening entirely failed to capture my enthusiasm.
I put my reservations aside however (my wife threatened to throw me overboard if they resurfaced during the holiday) and we met up with Andy and Jan in Barcelona toward the end of October where we had a great few days. It then came time to board the ship: Celebrity Cruises Solstice.
The ship is huge. I knew that cruise ships were huge, but until you actually get right up to one you really don’t appreciate just how huge they are. I mean, it was massive! Not so much a floating hotel as a floating city. Things started well when we were presented with a cocktail as we boarded – drinking before we’d even got rid of our suitcases, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad.
And actually I had a pretty good time.
Somebody wise (Jean-Paul Satre?) once said that Hell is other people* and I was distinctly concerned that if these other people fitted my stereotype of people who tend to go on cruises then it would likely be one of the inner circles of hell. There were plenty of people who did indeed fit my stereotype and they are certainly not the sort of people that I would wish to spend a lot of time with, but I was pleasantly surprised that although the ship held around 3000 people it didn’t generally feel crowded (except perhaps in the melee of the breakfast buffet) and you weren’t forced to spend time with people you didn’t want to. I even relaxed into the idea of formal dining, although I don’t intend to make a habit of it.
The best thing about a cruise is arriving at destinations. Arriving in Venice or Kotor (Montenegro) by plane is all very well, but to sail in is something else. To slowly glide past the stunning scenery through, in the case of Kotor, an indescribably picturesque early morning mist is incredible.
You also get to see a lot of places on a cruise – over 12 days we visited Dubrovnik, Venice, Kotor, Naples/ Pompei, Rome, Florence/ Pisa and Provence. This was the cause of another of my major concerns: it is bad enough visiting somewhere when a coach turns up, surely doubly so when a whole cruise ship turns up! But again, it wasn’t so bad: after all, even if you are there on your own, there will still be cruise ships full of people there anyway.
Okay, so you don’t get to spend a lot of time there. You don’t get to soak up the atmosphere of the place – we tended to run around like loons seeing and photographing as much as we could in our allotted time, but it at least gave some idea of whether we’d like to go back again and see it at a more leisurely pace.
Another bug-bear of mine is that you don’t get to enjoy eating and drinking in the country. The food on board the ship is excellent, but I would never choose a full-board hotel, I much prefer to experience the local cuisine. However, with my current dietary restrictions this wasn’t so much of an issue and eating on board was much easier anyway.
The great thing about the ship is that all your food is covered, but don’t be fooled into thinking that will make living on holiday cheap. From the moment you step on the ship, the main aim of everyone on board seems to be to get you to part with money. First, like any package trip, there are the excursions. In some cases you can do without these, but in other cases you really need them unless you are confident on public transport in the country – Rome, for instance, is a 90-minute drive from the port at Civitavecchia. The trouble is you don’t know which is which so we ended up taking far too many. This is not cheap.
Then there’s drink. A cocktail is around $10, a small beer or cider around $5 (everything is in US$ on board the ship) – again not cheap and, since we virtually lived in the Martini bar, it certainly mounts up. There are also a number of very high priced shops on board and they even blow their own glass. They don’t sell this as such, but they did have an auction. An American ended up buying a glass dish for around $750.
So, would I do it again? Yes.
I would love to do a cruise of somewhere like Scandinavia and Iceland, where arriving by sea would be incredible and living in those countries is too expensive any way.
Otherwise, I will probably wait another 20 years until the time when I want my holidays to be fully planned and managed for me. Meanwhile I’ll make the most of doing my own thing whilst I can.
* As an aside, throughout the ship there were pithy quotations displayed over the urinals in the gents. These generally dated from the 19th century and were mainly from Oscar Wilde. This got me thinking: in those days there were relatively few people whose witty/ thought provoking utterances were reported. In these days of wall-to-wall media, blogs, Twitter, etc how is anyone going to sort the wheat from the chaff? In the future, who will be the 21st century wits showcased above the urinals on cruise ships?