Let's admit it, we all have preconceptions about cruising, and, going into my first cruise foray, I was no different. Those who have yet to cruise can be categorized into two schools of thought: some see it as a holiday for the more, shall we say, mature vacationer, and others imagine a Butlins-at-sea style holiday, with regimented activities on the hour and no time to pause for breath.
What caused me to take the plunge? Deals are so good on cruises -- which are a high-value way to holiday anyway -- that one misperception went out the porthole. And, when I took a look around Cruise Critic, I was amazed to see how active and recreationally minded cruisers are. Definitely, that perception also needs a retooling.
I was willing to take a chance on getting seasick.
My chosen cruise mate and I decided that a short cruise would be the best initiation, and Royal Caribbean's Liberty of the Seas, which sails out of Barcelona to Mediterranean ports, caught my eye.
The first surprise came before we even got anywhere near the ship. Once the cruise was booked, we were inundated with literature -- ship information, dress codes, rules and regulations, not to mention a 60-plus-page manual on shore excursions. This was going to keep us busy for a while.
The more we read, the more over-awed we became. For starters, we were on one of the largest cruise ships travelling the Med at the time, which meant the ship's facilities and entertainment could occupy us for a month. Just to visit all of the eateries on the ship during the five-day sailing, we would have to feed ourselves five times a day. However, after the initial panic, we began to look at things more calmly, highlighting particular activities we would be interested in. We quickly learned the problem with today's massive mega-ships -- there's actually too much choice onboard!
The ship was full on my cruise, which meant there were 4,374 other people onboard with me, and it was only then when I began to see why Liberty of the Seas had so much to offer. With that amount of people onboard, sometimes 24 hours a day, there needed to be as much choice as possible for the ship to work effectively. I'll admit, it was with some lingering trepidation I found myself queuing at the port with my friend, together with a large number of families, tour groups and couples of all ages and nationalities. All worries of this being a geriatric convention were dispelled; in fact, most were younger than we.
And then came our first glimpse of the ship. No one can prepare you for this. It was -- put simply -- immense. It towered over the smaller vessels at the dock, and I found myself gaping at it.
Although the port was crowded, all the official stuff was completed pretty quickly, and we were ready to board. But, before we knew what had hit us, a lady was shepherding us off to a further queue to get our first picture taken -- which I later found out was to be the first of many opportunities for professional photographs.
Finally onboard, we had an opportunity to explore the colossal ship, since our cabin wasn't ready until after 1 p.m. Those initial hours saw the ship divided into two types of holidaymakers. The seasoned cruisers looked relaxed and comfortable onboard, chatting on deck with drinks or hot-footing it to the Windjammer, the large buffet room, where they took advantage of the free food -- one preconception that didn't disappoint. The rest of us looked shell-shocked, wandering aimlessly from deck to deck, with staff offering assistance at every turn. However, it didn't take long for us to find a couple of loungers and start to relax -- with a little help from a cocktail or two.
The trip was to be a five-night cruise from Barcelona, with port stops in Cannes, Florence (Livorno) and Rome (Civitavecchia). This lineup is what you'd consider a marquee itinerary -- there's really no port of call on it that isn't worth visiting again and again, however well-traveled you may already be.
That meant time spent on the ship itself was limited, particularly during the day.
In fact, we only had one full day at sea, as most of our travelling was done overnight. But what a great way to travel: waking up each day to watch us sailing into another port and, more often than not, another country. There was no hassle with border patrols and passport checks. Why hadn't I thought of this before?
Despite limited time on the ship, we tried to fit in as much as possible, discovering new places and activities onboard every day. Below are some of the high and low points of my first cruise.
Space: I knew our cruise was full, so I was pleasantly surprised how, for the majority of the time, it never felt crowded. There were plenty of places to head for some peace and quiet. Admittedly, you had to choose your spot. The only places that became crowded were those around the pool areas, particularly on the only day at sea. Passengers fought for loungers, despite the temperate weather.
Cabins: We were in a balcony cabin and were surprised at the amount of room. It was a well-designed use of limited space with plenty of storage. The beds were particularly comfy. True, the size of the ship helped limit its motion, and being on the 10th floor (I mean deck), I hardly noticed we were at sea. Still, these were some of the soundest sleeps I have had for a long while. In fact, so soundly did I sleep that I was late getting up on the last day and had to rush to get off the ship.
Gym: I'm not really one for gyms at home, but with that view (exercise machines were flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the sea), who could resist? Running on a treadmill for 20 minutes whilst looking out onto a blue horizon is an amazing experience. The gym was never too full, either. With everything so close, it felt rude not to pop in for a quick run followed by a sauna and steam. It also helped justify my food consumption.
Children: The ship was geared toward family cruising, so there were plenty of children onboard. It was a huge playground for them, with loads of supervised activities. Not having children of my own, I thought their presence would be a nuisance, but it had the adverse effect: Watching the children enjoy the FlowRider (surf simulator) and rock-climbing wall was not only entertaining, but it also persuaded me (and many other adults) to give it a try.
Calmness: For those of us prone to seasickness, the size of the ship definitely helped. I had stocked up on tablets before I left, but after the initial day of giddiness, I barely noticed the ship's movement. In fact, by the end of the cruise I had forgotten I was at sea. It was only when I returned to dry land and felt woozy in the supermarket that I realised I had been affected by the motion of the ship.
Dress code: Prior to the cruise, the company's literature implied there were certain dress codes for dining, with one formal night on which men were required to wear tuxedos/suits and women, cocktail dresses. I was looking forward to this "dress for dinner" approach. However, the reality was quite different. Many came to the dining room in shorts, trainers or jeans. Even on the formal evening a few dressed in casual clothes. I wished they'd chosen an alternative place to eat if they didn't want to dress for dinner. I did speak to one couple who weren't comfortable dressing up at all and so chose to dine in the buffet restaurant where there is no dress code. For me, dressing for dinner was part of the appeal of the cruise.
Entertainment: The ship's entertainment reflected its family-friendly focus. There was plenty for the children, but what there was for adults wasn't really my style. Also, with such a short trip and so much on offer, it was hard to find the right sort of entertainment, as there was too much going on. In fact, after the first couple of nights scrambling from one event to another, we opted for a few drinks at the more laidback bars and conversation with fellow passengers for the remaining evenings.
Shore excursions: These were expensive, and most of the ports had good and easy transport links to the main cities. We found our own way to Rome, but we took a cruise-line-organised trip to Florence, which was a convenience, although the continual food, toilet and shopping stops were a little frustrating. One note: Our ports for Rome and Florence were quite some distance from the actual cities themselves; transportation to Rome, via train, makes it a bit easier to tour that city independently. In Livorno, it's better to take advantage of ship-organized transportation or plan to rent a car.
Cost of drinks: Before boarding, I'd been told that drinks were expensive onboard, but I was still a little taken aback by the prices, particularly with the 15 percent charge on top. The only plus point was they were all charged in U.S. dollars, so as a Brit it was a little gentler on the credit card.
Spa: Treatments were expensive -- an hour-long massage cost $200. The spa is only for those happy to indulge both body and wallet. The post-treatment sales pitch on products also takes away from the relaxing treatments.
So what have I learnt from my first cruise? Well, the main thing is that a cruise can be whatever you want it to be. You don't have to try everything, just remember the choice is there. One day you can be engrossed in a good book on a lounger with your favourite tipple, while the next could see you joining in a game of basketball or attempting to ride the waves on the surf simulator.
The best thing for me was the chance to visit a number of places without the pressure of arranging travel, accommodation and lengthy stops at passport control, which leaves me time to actually enjoy my holiday, stress-free.
--by Lorna Blackwood, Cruise Critic contributor