Ron Simpson: To cruise or not to cruise?

Cruising.
Cruising.
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One of the topics guaranteed to come up over dinner or drinks when discussing holidays with friends of a certain age are their experiences while cruising aboard ship.

Cruise companies are praised or criticised. Ships and their destinations are compared. Ports of call are commended or condemned. To balcony or not to balcony is apparently important. The almost unlimited quantity of food on offer is said to be popular with the cost of drinks controversial. As someone who, until September, had never cruised, I found myself at the edge of these conversations, unable to understand the sometimes extraordinary zeal with which participants discussed the topic. To tip, argued by some to be compulsory, or not to tip, is an emotive issue provoking strong responses on both sides of the argument. A ‘must-not-do’ appears to be sharing with one’s fellow passengers what one paid for the current cruise, as some early or late bookers may have secured the trip at half the price you paid.

Importantly, for me, there was the whole issue of being trapped inside a metal-hulled corporate entity for a lengthy period: some folk apparently stay on board all year round or move from ship to ship.

As someone who is a free spirit who has for many years enjoyed driving holidays around Europe, this ‘imprisoned in a luxury holiday camp’ scenario has always deterred me from joining the cruising fraternity. However, times change, and the current unrest around Europe persuaded Margaret and me to commit on the spur of the moment to a lifetime first, a 14-day cruise around the Mediterranean with Cunard, aboard the Queen Victoria. It was a memorable experience.

If you like elegant wood panelled surroundings, British tradition with a hint of colonialism, good service (one member of staff for every two passengers) and as much food as you can eat, then cruising is a lifestyle you must try.

If you like the idea of sleeping on the move (surprisingly effective) and waking up in a new visitor destination every day, then the philosophy may appeal. If you simply want your body to slow down and have a rest (gymnasium and spa not compulsory) then cruising could be the break you really need.

For me the highlights were the opportunity to dine in style (black tie compulsory in the main restaurant some evenings) engaging three other couples and two American ladies in excellent conversation, a superb but expensive range of wines, some excellent trips ashore in a number of countries and the wide choice of venues aboard ship including a dance hall, a pub and an art gallery. The two-storey library was astonishing.

Best entertainment session in the magnificent ship’s theatre was the Rt Hon David Blunkett, newly elevated to the House of Lords, who gave an inspirational talk on the challenges he had faced in overcoming his visual impairment to secure a university education and a successful political career. Best meal was a special menu laid on by Cunard to celebrate the Queen’s longevity. The most engaging visit was Corsica and the most vibrant city Barcelona. The most significant exercise we took was a day trip climbing Mount Vesuvius.

What did I not enjoy so much? The institutional feel created by the ship’s timetable of events supported by loudspeaker announcements; the stories from some staff of their long shifts and hard work; the 22 per cent VAT imposed on purchases when in Italian waters; the slow speed and cost of satellite broadband and some of the outdated, old-style variety shows, smacking of a 1960s holiday camp mentality.

Would we do it again? Perhaps, if our waistlines subside and our bank balance recovers. Two weeks was enough for me and I was ready to come home by the final day of the cruise. We had made new friends and heard tempting stories of other cruise lines, new destinations and inclusive drinks packages.

Most importantly, the trip provided a database of evidence, albeit of only one ship, to inform future debate at social functions back home. No longer must I sit on the sidelines silently while friends of a certain age engage in cruise speak. Now I can pontificate with the best of them. After all, a change is as good as a rest.