As Bitten discovers, a cruise holiday can be whatever you want it to be. You can dive into exciting new cultures, swim in clear blue waters, explore lush rainforests, or just brush up on your carpet bowls. David Lloyd sets sail.
For a while, floatation tanks seemed to promise the answer. In the 80s, there was a brief flirtation, usually in clinics above high street opticians, with their peculiar brand of sensory deprivation. Holed up in a confined space, cut off from reality, no concept of time, no knowing which way is up.
It went the way of vibrobelts and colour therapy (although probably still lingers in Skelmersdale). But the Atlantic Ocean holds a memory of this out of body experience. Because cruising is, I suppose, its distant relative. Albeit a kindly one that, increasingly, many of us are happy to visit once a year.
So it is, on day four of my eight day cruise around the islands of the southern Caribbean that I find daily activities like using real money (did I just tip that Venezuelan taxi driver £500 worth of Bolivars? Do those Caribbean Emerald cufflinks look like a real steal at $800?) and having to plan my time by means of a watch, and not a PA announcement to be a real test for my dormant higher brain functions. “Take us back to deck seven, and the Connect 4 Tournament; they scream, when I try to make sense of a talk about the flora and fauna of the Windward Isles.
I’d never been on a cruise before, so my bags were overpacked with preconceptions. I’d thought of boredom, biliousness and Butlins at sea. But, from day one, I realised that, once again, I’d packed the wrong things.
I peer around my porthole curtains to see the jagged teeth of St Lucia’s mountainous volcanic plugs, the Pitons loom large on the horizon. I hadn’t prepared myself for something quite so beautiful, and before breakfast.
Cosseted and cocooned, we’re whisked between islands under cover of darkness so that, each morning when I open my curtains there’s another tumbledown village, golden arc of sand or busy port to explore. And I didn’t have to pack my bags, my hotel obligingly came along for the ride. If you’re going to go on tour, don’t even think of travelling without at least two masseuses, a casino and a cabaret lounge.
On my first night, I meet Anna and Susue, the ship’s social hostesses – all smiles and wisecracks, effortlessly putting us first timers at ease. Anna tells me that almost 40% of the ship’s 2,500 passengers are hooked on cruising. She points out a 50-ish couple who are on their 17th voyage. They don’t look especially mad.
As we set sail from Bridgetown Barbados (my cabin clinking with bottles of Mount Gay rum, bought at the homespun distillery), I meet the passengers who will be my dining companions for the week. They’re an eclectic and good natured bunch, from Toronto, Norway and Essex. It’s not long before we’re known as the noisy table. The noise being more Essex than Oslo. And by the end of the cruise, hugs, kisses and the obligatory swapping of emails confirms how well we bonded.
Food manages to be both delicious and instantly forgettable at the same time. Like some Hollywood summer franchise. Enjoyable enough to keep you happily distracted, competent enough for you to come back for the sequel, but nothing that would make your end of year lists.
Far better than the veloutes, carpaccios and Gressingham Duck Marco Polos at the Marco Pierre White Ocean Grill was the red snapper I had, simply barbequed on deck by a chap who alternated gutting fish with knocking out ABBA tunes on a steel drum. Two proper life skills we could all do well to sharpen up, I wager.
Next morning, half asleep, I peer around my porthole curtains
to see the jagged teeth of St Lucia’s mountainous volcanic plugs, the Pitons loom large on the horizon. I’m not quite sure what I expected to see, but I hadn’t prepared myself for something quite so beautiful, and before breakfast.
We dock at Castries, the capital – a jumble of market stalls, geezers selling weed, and tired old shacks doubling as ‘luxury nail parlours’. Rows of streets where you can never quite tell if the breezeblock facades are half built, or half demolished. It’s not a place that’s easy to love, or to linger in. Most cruisers head off on excursions into the island’s lush heartland of steamy rainforest, or fan out in pincer like movements to invade St Lucia’s beautiful lacy frill of beaches.
And beaches are what the Caribbean does best. At Marigot Bay, steep emerald hills rise behind bright white sand, if it wasn’t for the expensive yachts dotting the bay, this could be Tahiti.
The ship’s excursion team manages to squeeze every last drop of activity from this tiny island. Feeling active? There’s a jeep safari and a trip to bubbling mud baths. Or how about a spot of snorkelling? There is, of course, plenty of opportunities to do absolutely nothing, too. They’ve a word for it in these parts, it’s called limin’. Or perhaps you could just force yourself to have a glass of Piton beer, and indulge in some lager and limin’.
Tonight I meet the captain. A giant, smiling Norwegian. I feel safer knowing a Viking’s at the helm. He tells me that he’s not only charged with the safe deliverance of his ‘human cargo’, but the smooth running of an aquatic office block with over 650 staff.
“Modern cruise ships sail themselves” he says, darkly.
Another day, another island. Grenada. I know this because there’s a sign that says ‘welcome to Grenada’. I’d be hard pressed otherwise. In the horseshoe shaped port our ship nudges into a space alongside other sleek white liners. From the air, the harbourside must look like Ken Dodd’s teeth.
As our ship disgorges its catch of fresh, tasty tourists, there’s a feeding frenzy of taxi drivers, souvenir sellers and official tour guides, jostling for the juiciest pickings.
“Banana hat, sir” says a man creating headgear from the leaves of a banana tree. I give him a look that says ‘I’m not like the others, I have integrity.’
I wait until the frenzy dies down and jump on the local bus, crammed with teenagers, their stereos beating out the infectious rhythm of reggae.
The minibus’ bumper sticker reads – Jah Will Provide, and the soundtrack, the smiling passengers and the sun makes me feel he already has.
We shuttle immaculately dressed schoolchildren from home to class. They smile and ask me where I’m from. Liverpool, I say. ‘Steven Gerrard,’ they reply. No, Lukaku, I say, like a modern day missionary.
Midway through the week, inertia begins to settle. Thursdays’ port is the Venezuelan island of Margarita. Only it’s not a port, it’s a lone jetty. The nearest town is a thirty minute taxi ride away. There’s talk of mutiny over the pain-au-chocolat. “I don’t think we’ll bother getting off the ship today,” says Pam and Ken. There are general nods of agreement. “Come on,” I say, like some Su Pollard apologist, trying to chivvy them all into action, “It’s Margarita time!”
From Manchester’s drizzly runway, to this spot in the ocean, my fellow passengers have travelled 4,500 miles. The frenzy and excitement of Latin America is now just a taxi ride away. Yet, unanimously, they all decide that a day spent on deck listening to Little Mix on the ship’s PA is preferable to a little shore leave.
Trouble is, I’m beginning to know how they feel. We’re becoming like those amorphous intergalactic blob-families on Wall-E. But I don’t give in. I slap on the factor 50 and step forward into a brave new continent. Over a pina colada and tuna salad in the gritty town of Polamar I write ‘noisy, infectious. Big white church’. At this point in the cruise, writing full sentences is a neuron connection too far.
The Dutch island of Curacao and Aruba, visited on our final two days, practically plead to be explored.
Willemstad, the tiny, prosperous-looking capital of Curacao is a delight. Rows of gabled houses line its pocket sized waterfront. They could be straight from an Amsterdam canal scene – expect that they look like they’ve been painted by someone who’s been chugging back industrial strength acid.
Aruba, too, has been expecting us. There are the obligatory Tag Heuer, Gucci and Ralph Lauren at the gaudy Renaissance Mall but, unlike Grenada and St Lucia, the spring cleaning doesn’t end at passport control. The whole island looks fresh, polished and pruned. Even the headstones in the cemetery look like they’ve been given a fresh coat of emulsion.
I take an island tour – a ride in a local resident’s Jeep, much better than the organised excursion, which shuttles you from tourist trap to tourist trap. We stop to pick cashew nuts from trees, take a sip of sweet cactus wine on her friend’s porch, and pick fresh limes to slice into a G and T later on deck.
Arriving back at the port I’m approached by another banana-hat making man. I stare at the weaving and marvel at the craftsmanship. “I’ll take one,” I say, offering a fistful of currency I never really had the time to get to grips with.
When, later, I unashamedly model the hat for my Ukrainian steward, I begin to realise that I’ve been on this ship too long.
But by then, it’s much too late.