The life aquatic
What you sea … life on the ocean wave can be idyllic you make the right choice. Photo: Getty Images
My friends laughed at me when I said I was going on a cruise. "You know they're retirement homes for the rich, don't you?" they scoffed. "You'll be the youngest person on board by decades."
Actually, I was counting on that. It's not my usual travel style, but the invitation to spend a few days on the maiden voyage of a glamorous new cruise liner – let's call her the MV High and Mighty – promised a chance to return to the golden days of travel: a time when dressing for dinner was recommended, ballroom dancing was on the itinerary, and afternoon tea was served on the finest china. I thought it would be a novel experience, and a chance to do nothing for once.
The afternoon tea, the evening gowns and the dancing were all as advertised. (I was intrigued by the dapper staff whose sole duty appeared to be serving as dancing partners for ladies travelling solo: now there's a niche job!) With a lot of days at sea, there was plenty of time to just chill out. Occasionally, I did succumb to the impulse to exercise – a fencing lesson in the grand ballroom proved surprisingly strenuous – but on the whole, it was remarkably restful.
As anticipated, my fellow passengers were predominantly elderly people on their own. Many seemed to have taken up cruising as a full-time occupation. I talked to five people who had signed on for the entire world cruise – all 100 days of it – including one old dear who had booked a cabin for herself and another one for her stuffed toys.
Given the Old World ambience, I was gobsmacked when I learnt there was another sort of cruising going on. Despite their advanced age, my fellow passengers seemed to be getting intimate with each other on a regular basis. We noticed that the rear bar was taken over every afternoon by the ship's dapper gay contingent, who seemed to be doing a lot of – ahem – mingling. They weren't the only ones. On day four, as I was enjoying a massage, my therapist revealed that her last client, a 68-year-old woman, had already had sex twice on the cruise.
One thing that trip taught me was that when it comes to cruising, appearances can be deceptive. As my subsequent experiences have shown, there's no simple definition of what counts as cruising any more. While there are still plenty of options for the white-tie-and-tails brigade, if you're more a rough-and-ready type, you can journey with 100 fellow passengers to Antarctica, or drop in on reformed headhunters in the Solomon Islands. You can book yourself on a cruise dedicated to astronomy, rock'n'roll or food and wine, or even on a Titanic-themed cruise that includes a 10-hour dive to the shipwreck in a small submersible. Seriously.
Then there is the new breed of giant cruise ship which sells itself as a destination in its own right. These megaliners, which carry populations the size of a small country town, offer big-city facilities such as ice-skating rinks, rock-climbing walls and surf parks. One cruise ship even has what they call a "water coaster" – a giant enclosed water slide that loops out over the side of the ship.
This inventive approach has helped cruising become the fastest-growing sector of the travel market, with a global growth of more than seven per cent per annum since 1980. Australians are even more keen: since 2002, the number of Aussies taking a cruise has risen by 306 per cent to 467,000 people a year.
There's no denying that part of the appeal is its ease. Cruising is travel without the hard bits. There are no border formalities, no need to lug your suitcase from one hotel to the next, no learning how to say "How much?" in a different language every few days.
Once you're on board, you can unpack and not worry about repacking until the end of the cruise, and yet you still get to wake up in a new place every morning. In many cases, all-inclusive packages mean there's no risk of blowing your budget halfway through the trip and then having to survive on two-minute noodles boiled up in your hotel room.
Still, there are downsides. I once met someone who'd travelled on one of those 4000-passenger behemoths. I'd seen the brochure that touted the ship's dozen restaurants, the endless entertainment options, the five swimming pools and the walking track that was the same length as a marathon (or something like that). I asked him how he spent his days on the ship. "Queuing for the elevators," he replied.
Especially if you're travelling on a large ship, there's no escaping a certain amount of regimentation. Take the concept of the dinner shift. You can't just wander down and eat whenever you feel like it; no, you have to eat at the same time every night, sitting at the same table, with the same people. It's disturbingly like being at boarding school, particularly if you're unlucky enough to score the early session and are expected to sit down to eat at 5.30pm.
It's not just meals. The larger the ship, the stricter the schedule. I realise there's simply no other way to wrangle that many people, but not everyone works well with timetables. Friends of mine who struggle with the concept of punctuality spent an entire cruising holiday running late – for meals, for excursions, for social engagements. They were 45 minutes late to the captain's cocktail party, an event that traditionally takes place early in the cruise. Hastening down the stairs to the lounge, they ran into the captain himself, who rebuked them, "You're late for my drinks. They're over now." For the next 10 days, the captain would glare at them furiously every time their paths crossed.
While the crew can be difficult, it's the other passengers you really need to watch out for. The thing about travelling on a ship is there's no escape. If you don't like your fellow passengers, you're still going to have to spend two weeks being nice to them, unless you're willing to shut yourself away in your cabin for the whole trip.
And you can't always tell at the beginning of a cruise which people should be avoided. At first, everyone is generally on their best behaviour. The first five days of a cruise are like an extended first date: people chat politely, steer clear of controversial topics and generally make an effort.
By day six, however, the gloves tend to come off. That lovely guy who's been telling you charming stories about his family starts making pronouncements like, "Fox News is the only media outlet that tells the truth." That woman you've been trading reading tips with begins complaining about the fact that there's only one sort of muesli on the breakfast buffet – she expects at least three.
I've now learnt never to say yes to a cruise before identifying what sort of passengers will be on board. This is easier than you may think. If a cruise ship makes a big point of promoting its casino, you're going to be travelling with hard-core gamblers – which is fine if you're that way inclined, but I'm not. I look for ships that visit unusual ports and have a program of guest lecturers. I figure people who sign up for these ships are intellectually curious and interested in looking beyond the everyday – my kind of people.
Of course, if you do make a mistake and find yourself on the wrong cruise, all is not necessarily lost. A friend of mine once talked three of her friends into joining her on an under-40s singles' cruise out of New Orleans. The cruise departed every week of the year, so it was easy enough to find a date that suited all of them.
The first hint they got that something was amiss was on boarding, when all the other passengers seemed to be elderly people. Having found their cabins and unpacked, they did several circuits of the ship, and failed to find a single other person in their age group. They buttonholed a random crew member, who explained the situation. For 51 weeks of the year, the ship did indeed run young singles' cruises. Once a year, just to be different, they ran a Dixieland jazz cruise. Guess which week it was?
After dinner that night, my friends again wandered through the entire ship, trying to find a venue that was playing something other than Dixieland. Eventually, they found a refuge: the ship's disco, which was entirely deserted. They were on their third drink, musing that this was how they would be spending their entire week, when in walked the ship's officers, in the mood for a nightcap. Every single one of them, my friend assures me, was Scandinavian and gorgeous.
Apparently, it turned out to be something of a Love Boat, after all.
From Sunday Life