Having grown up with a belief that cruising was reserved only for the more mature and selectively, the very wealthiest of people, my family and I shared some wonderful holidays abroad, but we never cruised. After all, we were far too young and 'ordinary', so even contemplating a holiday that was specifically reserved for those of a grandparent's age and/or, as wealthy as a Sultan, was ridiculous! You needed to be in your sixties, (or older), ladies wore fur stoles to dinner, gentlemen donned suits and ties and if the QE2 wasn't your craft of choice, you really weren't part of the set darling. My, how things have changed?
The truth is, is that the popularity of cruising has exploded massively in recent years - as measured by 'Cruise Market Watch' - with the number of passengers worldwide having escalated from 3,774,000 in 1990, to a whopping 20,135,000 in 2012 and projections exist for this to reach a staggering 21,612,000 in 2014, (a twenty-four year increase of 573% if projections are correct?), so maybe, just maybe, the perception that fur stoles, three-piece suits, a purple rinse for the ladies, a handful of Brylcream for the gents and the requirement for passengers to also have a six-figure bank balance to pay for the vacation, are antiquated and very much no longer the case? This said, there are also the other perfectly valid prevailing reasons not to cruise; such as profound sea-sickness, being 'stuck on a boat with the same people', not being able to get off when you like, sleeping in a claustrophobically small cabin and one's loss of independence in not being able to do what you like, when you like. All rubbish!
Firstly, let me dispel the age old myths surrounding cruising. However, in order to do this, I need to ask you to keep an open mind, whilst I also need to bring you right up to date with the choice of cruise lines and vessels available, levels of service, (they'll be more written about this), the facilities available and whilst I'm not diving into specific pricing, you'll see for yourself that when compared to a two-week holiday in the EU, or the US, the bang that you get for your buck, is really quite remarkable?
My wife and I started to cruise a number of years ago, as we considered that we were old enough by then and to be blunt, we fancied something different. We'd 'done' Europe and various parts of the US and cruising was becoming popular, so we bit the bullet and thought we'd try it once? Interestingly, we haven't been on any other type of holiday since! I can't think why?
The basics of cruising first need to be understood? The cruise lines are interested in one thing, making money and they'll do whatever they can, or need to do, stopping just short of dangling you upside down to empty your pockets, to part you from your heard-earned cash! This said, in return, you will enjoy unsurpassed levels of service, onboard facilities and dining experiences that you will probably find staggering? Furthermore, unless you're in the roughest of seas, you probably won't even know that you're moving at up to 25 knots. Yes, you may see the same persons more than once, but then you'd have this in any large hotel, (don't we all like to find a pitch by the pool and stick to it for the duration?), ports of call are all about you enjoying different locations without re-packing and I assure you, boredom will never enter the equation.
Admittedly, we have only cruised with Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, (sister companies, together with Azamara Cruises), but then if it ain't broken, why fix it? Sailing dates are prescriptive, (admittedly, a drawback), but then you choose the ship, the month, the ports of call, etc, well in advance, so this really should be manageable?
We've cruised the Eastern and Western Mediterranean a number of times and the Caribbean twice as well - we were fortunate enough to enjoy the 'Oasis of the Seas' last October, the second largest ship currently afloat - but let's concentrate on one of Celebrity's most popular size ships, the Equinox, one of their Solstice class, which we took last summer round the Med, with a view to sharing the experience with you, warts and all.
We opted for a cruise/fly package out of Civitavecchia, Rome, which by definition, includes the cost of flights as well, (scheduled BA out of Heathrow), although you should be aware that booking this as a package provides added peace of mind in knowing that if there's an issue with flight delays, or cancellations, it's the cruise company's responsibility to get you onboard, whilst if you book your own flights and there's an issue, it's down to you to make your way to the ship and it ain't gonna wait for you if you're not there on time!
On arrival at Fiumicino Airport, (which isn't actually in Rome and is a good forty-five minute transfer), we deplaned and once past immigration, saw as many Celebrity staff as there were airport personnel. They were like a veritable army of ants, absolutely everywhere and as soon as our luggage came off the carousel, we passed the cases to a designated porter and knew that they would be safe and tagged with our details, would later magically re-appear outside our stateroom. There was no shlapping, no pushing and no shoving; just a short walk across the concourse to a Celebrity member of staff. Terrific!
We were then quickly ushered towards one of a fleet of waiting numbered coaches and once we'd shown our transfer voucher, we were swiftly en route to the port, enjoying the usual informative chat about the scenery and what to expect, with only one form needing to be completed. It truly couldn't have been any easier, or more hassle free.
On arrival at the port, again, we were courteously ushered into Celebrity's registration building, where after a brief delay, we were invited to step forward to the desk and once we'd presented passports, cruise vouchers and a credit card for payment of any onboard spend, (cash is totally redundant onboard, unless you want to visit the casino?), we were issued with our sea passes and invited to board the Equinox, with the entire process, from de-planing, to this point, having been fuss free and seamlessly easy.
As we walked towards our ship, the size of the vessel starts to dawn on you and whilst we've cruised many times, regardless, I defy anyone not to be massively impressed with the sheer volume of the craft! To put this into perspective (and as already stated, the Equinox is by no means the largest ship afloat), you find yourself looking at a 122,000 tonne lady that is 1,033 feet long, 121 feet wide, with 19 passenger decks, that carries 2,850 passengers, plus 1,250 crew/staff and with onboard facilities that boast a multi-tier theatre, ten dining venues, swimming pools, jacuzzis, a real grass lawn on the top deck, a glass-blowing factory, nightclub, coffee shops, retail therapy outlets, a casino, numerous bars and glass elevators, all of which are constantly kept spotlessly clean. In fact, regardless as to what time of the day you may care to look, the cleaning process is ongoing 24/7 and that's impressive!
Having boarded and knowing the ropes, if you'll forgive the nautical terminology, we headed straight for the self-service Oceanview Cafe on deck 14 for lunch and enjoyed a well needed rest and some great food, (having been up at 04:00 to start the day), whilst watching others board and their faces light up, telling us that these were 'first timers'.
Our stateroom was ready for around 14:00 and as we dropped down a few decks and made our way along the port-side corridor, we quickly found our temporary home and inserted the sea pass to open the door. Nope, there were no surprises, just what we'd become used to expecting and there was no disappointment, none at all.
For those that need, or at least want, a cavernous stateroom, you'll need to upgrade to a suite, as you must consider that you're now onboard a sea-faring vessel and that as such, space is at a premium, or, that at least, the more space you want, the more it'll cost you? This said, we've always found their 194 square foot stateroom to be very comfortable, (there's an extra 54 square foot for the balcony), with a wonderfully comfortable bed and a settee that doubles to convert to another double bed. The bathroom, (sink, shower and WC, no bath), is very well planned, as is the stateroom, with storage space wherever you look and certainly, for the first-timer, you just wouldn't expect more? The heating and A/C controls work incredibly well, furnishings are to a very high standard, a 32" LCD TV is standard, as is a hair dryer, a fully stocked drinks fridge and a safe. You'll find a table and two chairs on the balcony, fresh towels replaced twice daily for the bathroom and a variety of personal cleansing items to enjoy, so like any good hotel anywhere, you're taken care of right from the start, even down to folded towels in the shape of an animal to come 'home' to and a chocolate on each pillow. Really, even the smallest touches are considered and implemented for your enjoyment.
Your stateroom is cleaned twice daily and with a stateroom attendant and an assistant on call at all times, he/she will soon knock and introduce themselves to you, asking whether there's anything that they can show you, or assist with? These folk, (as shown in the recent TV programmes, 'Cruises Undercover'), rely heavily on tips and whilst I'm not prepared to comment on any of the content of the programmes, we've never seen an unhappy member of the crew, or at least, anyone that didn't always smile and was willing to help, or assist, in any way possible?
Along with your stateroom attendant and his/her assistant, you'll be expected to tip your waiter, your assistant waiter, the drinks waiter and the Maitre d', at the end of your cruise. You can opt to include all gratuities (and crew get to know that you have exercised this option), but my wife and I rather reward individuals for excellence, so we always opt out from including tips and do our own thing. After all, if you do have poor service, (it's not happened yet), you're stuck, having already paid the cruise line's 'recommended' levels.
Your cases are delivered direct to your stateroom and left outside your door a little later, (hence, you may be wise to carry a swimsuit as hand luggage if you want to be first into one of the pools?), but exploring the ship, even if you've been on it, or a sister ship before, is always fun, whilst booking speciality dining restaurants is also a sensible thing to consider?
Dining is always a sensible option, whatever time of day it is and certainly, if you've heard anything about cruising, it nearly always relates to the dining experiences and the vast quantities of food that are consumed whilst onboard. However, perhaps it would be fairer to refer to the vast quantities of foods that are 'available' onboard instead? After all, nobody forces anyone to eat!
As mentioned, the Equinox has a total of ten choices for dining, all complimented with 24hr stateroom service at no extra charge. These include the silver service main Silhouette Restaurant - with two sittings for the evening meal at 18:30, or 20:45 - the self-service buffet style Oceanview Cafe, typically, for the buffet breakfast and/or, lunch and a selection of 'speciality' restaurants, namely, Murano, Silk Harvest and Tuscan Grille. Each speciality restaurant attracts a nominal surcharge, but in favour of the two that we enjoyed, certainly, Murano really did take fine dining to another level and was worth the additional US$35.00pp and then some!
Celebrity's description of Murano, "Charming and timeless, Murano transports you, through palate and decor, to an Italian piazza", saw only to create high expectations, whilst these were surpassed in every possible respect, from a culinary, a service level and an overall experience viewpoint.
On arrival, our reservation was immediately acknowledged and we were then escorted to our table, within the most delicately serene surroundings that could have been anywhere in the world, decorated with soft warm colours, ambient lighting and vivid, but subtle decor. Once seated, we were introduced to our Maitre d', our waiter, our assistant waiter and our drinks waiter, who all made us feel as though we were the only persons who mattered and that other diners, were merely extras. The experience had already started.
With water poured, drinks ordered and menus perused, we somehow made our selections from the vast array of offerings and sat back in anticipation of what was to come. We weren't disappointed. Each course was expertly served, superbly presented and tasted exquisite, with my wife and I doing what we always do, which is to order first and second choice favourites and then we share. Oh my, the food was outstanding. However, the evening's memorable moment rightfully belonged to a desert that was flambeed at our table, comprising of fresh strawberries, black pepper, balsamic vinegar and an unknown liquor, all rolled into a crepe, served hot with pistachio ice-cream on the side. There was no way that these ingredients should, or could have, worked together, but if ever there was a desert that will stay in our memories, this was it. Nigella, eat your heart out!
Silk Harvest, a completely different style of cuisine, but once again, set in the most stunning of lavish settings, provides Eastern fusion cooking from Thailand, China, Malaysia and Japan. You'll recognise some of the more common dishes by name, but what they do to create subtle differences to age old dishes, to personalise and create such a unique blend of flavours, is well beyond my comprehension, or imagination? All my wife and I can say, is that yet again, the service levels, presentation and the overall ambience and enjoyment factor of these two experiences, were exemplary, with these two very different evenings and styles of cooking, very much contributing towards the overall enjoyment factor of this cruise. Simply put, yes, they really were that wonderful!
Dining options aside, let me now attempt to create a general overview of the ship, the facilities and the service levels. Mentioning specific ports of call is a little unfair, as dependent on where you sail from, to, you'll visit ports that we love and those that, well, to be quite honest, we've visited before, so we didn't even bother getting off the ship for two this summer. I apologise if this sounds a little blase, it's not meant to, but for us, cruising is all about the enjoyment factor of being onboard and seeing new places, whilst this time round we just wanted to recharge our batteries, so remaining onboard at two ports of call simply wasn't a problem..
To explain further, you're in a five star hotel, enjoying five star food in an environment that provides you with five star facilities and all the while, waiters, waitresses, stateroom attendants, Guest Relations staff and/or, anyone else that may pass your way, including pool butlers and even those offering you sanitising hand wash before you enter a dining room, spend their days and employ all their efforts to make your holiday experience as rewarding and memorable as possible. The multinational crew members in the retail outlets will help and assist until you decide to leave, with you having bought, or not. They don't mind? You're all onboard together and with nowhere to go, so they do what they do best and if you spend a few dollars on your sea pass, they're happy to have helped. The same goes for the outstanding facilities at the AquaSpa by Elemis.
Located on deck 15, opposite one of the largest and best equipped gyms on the seven seas, AquaSpa provides a fully comprehensive range of all treatments, (for both men and women), including several massage therapies involving the placing on hot stones on the body, whilst a facial is applied. Believe me, if you ever want to feel as though you've come even close to spending time in heaven, given the opportunity, indulge yourself and try it?
A daily news letter, left in your stateroom of an evening, informs you of all events and their timings, for the following day, which allows you to plan your day, whether it be ashore, or onboard for a 'sea day'?
From the younger ones spending time on youth programmes to wine tasting, fruit/vegetable carving to playing bridge, watching the glass blowing to enjoying a game of croquet on the lawn, reading in the libraries to spending time in the internet lounge, enjoying daily shows in the theatre to live music round the pools, you can do as much, or as little, as you like? The absolute truth of the matter is, if you want to be busy for every waking moment and you're prepared to plan your event times, to include lectures, art auctions, various displays and everything else that regularly happens onboard, you can provide yourself with such a packed itinerary, that you'll probably return to the UK needing a holiday? On the other hand, if you decide to eat three meals a day, (as a minimum, I would suggest), but spend the remainder of your time by the pool, sunbathing, playing a little black jack, or roulette and planning nothing more than to relax and unwind and maybe take in a show of an evening, then nobody will bother you, or entice you to do anything more, but know that onboard a Royal Caribbean, or a Celebrity ship, you'll be relaxing in some of the most comfortable surroundings available and for no more than the probable cost of a holiday at a good hotel abroad, you'll be treated to an all-inclusive period of luxury at sea. This said, premium soft drinks and/or, alcoholic beverages are chargeable, as are shore excursions, but then you'd pay for these anywhere you went in the world.
As you've gathered, we enjoy cruising and both Royal Caribbean and Celebrity, happen to tick all of our boxes. However, we fully appreciate that cruising isn't for everyone, we understand that, so if you don't fancy the thought of taking to the seas, then that's fine. After all, visiting a variety of different countries and experiencing varying cultures, whilst onboard a premium ship and all the whilst, enjoying five star comfort, eating five star food and being looked after by staff who's only purpose is to make your experience memorable, clearly isn't for everyone!