Cruising for the uninitiated

As a cruise virgin I decided that I couldn’t go on criticising an activity that I had never experienced. So recently I took a cruise starting from Amsterdam and sailing up the Norwegian coast to North Cape in the Arctic Circle.

The French call these boats ‘paquebots’ which I’ve always thought appropriate – packing thousands of lazy tourists into these floating giants… cosy and warm, carpeted and mirrored, organised and self contained. Here are some of my observations…

Cruise shipThere is one thing you can do almost continually all day – and that is eat. On our boat there were 2 extensive restaurants plus a very large double-ended self service area on the 11th deck. These eateries were very well managed – clean, well stocked and sometimes even decorated for special afternoon teas. Passengers can choose where they ate for breakfast and lunch and for the evening meal, were designated a table for the cruise.

All the members of the service staff were exemplary…mostly young men from Indonesia, but all pleasant, helpful and hard working. I couldn’t stop myself from time to time seeing the passengers through their eyes…coming - as most of them did - from poor and primitive villages in Bali or East Timor. Their English was rudimentary, causing the occasional frustration of not being understood but since there were 5 main nationalities on board, it’s hardly surprising.

Best the check the nationality of the cruiser. This ship was Italian, so the captain and officers were Italian. The second language was English, but every announcement was also called out in German, French and Spanish which could sometime take up to 15 minutes.

The excursions are run by a separate company and not by the ship’s organizers; thus were charged on top of the cost of the cruise. The idea of 1,700 passengers all wanting to get on the best outings filled me with panic…but strangely no stress was needed… the days flowed by and there always seemed to be a place left if you wanted one… or you could simply leave the boat and wander round or get on an ever ready tourist bus inevitably waiting on the quayside.

The hellish visions of being trampled by hundreds of fellow passengers never happened and I was impressed by the relative ease with which we all circulated. The only time that it felt like a cattle market was waiting to get on the ship – standing in long lines in a drafty hanger waiting to go through security. It’s at this point that we present our bank card, and they gave us all a magnetic card for use on the ship. With this card, we could open our cabins, and pay for anything we bought on board, including excursions or medical visits. On the penultimate day of the trip we are given the detailed invoice to check and finally signed the money over before we left.

Since we were going to Norway, I read up some basic facts, thinking that I could learn at lot more, once on our way. Amazingly, I don’t think the word ‘Norway’ was ever mentioned officially - in any language - on board. The films, talks or discourses of my imagination didn’t exist… apparently you have to pay three times the money to get onto a ‘cultural cruise’.

We had to be satisfied with bingo, a casino called Monte Carlo and three different musical lounges. There was a theatre where ‘shows’ were performed most evenings… and if they weren’t to my own taste, the audience seems to enjoy them greatly. Maybe I was missing the point (on one occasion) of watching two couples dancing flamenco for a whole hour …

There were only two or three moments during the whole cruise when we felt the ship moving, so sea sickness wasn’t a problem. There were quite a few people who went down with a tummy bug of some kind, including two in our group of 50 from Golfe Juan. It was never mentioned officially and it was put down to a typical holiday tummy. The boat is sprinkled with antiseptic gel dispensers to clean hands and even paper towels next to toilet doors for holding the handle as you leave.

From a Brit’s point of view on an Italian boat, tea was a bit of a struggle…the whole of the catering section ran out of ‘breakfast tea’ sachets in the first week and we were left with chamomile, fruit flavoured or Earl Grey. An English couple I spoke to had brought their own supply. Otherwise the table service was impeccable and a choice of 6 to 8 courses on an average evening meal…in typical Italian, labour intensive style. The food had moments of excellence but otherwise it was fair to middling.

The cabins were not as cramped as I had imagined either. To keep the budget in check, Michelle and I shared a double cabin with a wet room with shower and hair dryer, to the standard of a good hotel. No duvets – presumably they would complicate the hygienic aspects of bed clothes, as well as the increased volume – so if you don’t like classical blankets, think to take a light weight fleecy cover with you – unless of course you are sailing to tropical shores. We were able to control the temperature of the cabin ourselves with a simple wall gauge.

Iwould recommend paying a little extra for a cabin with a window. We didn’t , so if either of us wanted to stay quietly in our ‘own’ space, after all the noise and bustle of the boat, we did so, cut off from the sea and daylight. Visiting friends’ cabins with a window brought it home to us how pleasant it would have been to watch the Norwegian coast line at any time….and with the midnight sun, during 24hrs.

Socialising was a matter of choice.

I chatted to an English couple from Hereford who told me how the centre of their medieval town was being taken over by developers; also a couple from Canterbury who explained that their town was being ruined by so many houses being turned into student digs. There was a touching half hour with an 82 year old man who had recently lost his wife and needed to present her photograph and tell his life story to anyone who would listen. The highlight of his life was when he had been a young British soldier in Paris at the moment of the liberation at the end of WW2 being showered with flowers from Parisian girls. He sat in the same bar every day not really caring where he was…being looked after by the staff there who took him to their heart.

The bottom line seems to be…if you can cope with noisy mealtimes; eating more than you should, queuing for most things; being photographed at every turn and constantly getting lost on a ship with 8 or more different decks open to the public, most of which - these days - are around the size of or even much bigger than the Titanic… cruising is for you.

From wanting to get off for the first 3 days, I finished the trip beginning to understand what the attraction was…. But after due reflection, I’ll be finding another holiday solution.

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