Holidaying on the high seas
Feeling relaxed and content after a leisurely meal in the chic ‘Le Bistro’ French Restaurant I’m ready for my bed. In my absence, my room has been tidied; towels replaced and turndown chocolates have been left on the white bed linen – a few of the pleasures of a holiday. Yet I’m not staying in a normal hotel room, but instead this is a balcony stateroom within a floating resort, aboard the colossal ‘Norwegian Epic’ cruise ship. Also on the bed is a puppy! It’s made from folded towels, a fun yet classic cruise line turndown gesture, guarding my copy of ‘Freestyle Daily’, the programme for the coming day.
‘Day 5’ reads the light-hearted daily newsletter; ‘Make memories that last in Livorno’ it suggests. The pace of a typical cruise holiday can make a week sail past swiftly, and one easily loses track of the days. Tomorrow it’s Tuscany. I’ve just come back from a day in Rome, having explored the sights in the brilliant autumn sunshine; taken a selfie in front of the newly renovated Trevi Fountain; saw the Pope addressing the faithful and the curious in St Peter’s Square; marvelled at the dome of the ancient Pantheon; and of course headed to the Coliseum.
Now I am promised the chance tomorrow to see the leaning tower of Pisa; or be whisked off to the art galleries of Florence; or walk the historic streets of Lucca – and still be back in time for an entertaining show and another gourmet meal. Every day a new destination. It’s not my normal style – I prefer to appreciate a destination in a little more depth, meeting the locals and finding places off the beaten tourist trail. However, despite the pace, and lack of real exploration, I’m rather enjoying this week of food, fun and new friends – no one seems to be taking the travel too seriously.
The myriad itineraries on offer from the cruise lines which depart from either of Spain’s cruise hubs of Malaga or Barcelona offer plenty of opportunities to enjoy a taste of the Mediterranean, Morocco and the Canary Islands. Cruise companies like Norwegian Cruise Line are experts at serving-up daily tantalising flavours of international destinations. Each morning the ship arrives at a new port, offering fully-prepared tours that will ferry you off to see all the sights and then bring you back so you don’t miss the boat. As a guest all you have to do is step ashore each morning and take a bite. Yet these intense sightseeing trips, although sociable and well-organised, can be pricey. So if you have the nerve, I recommend exploring on your own.
Typically cruise ships sail overnight, and unless you are very unlucky with the weather, don’t expect to be bothered by the movement of the vessel. These modern liners are remarkably stable. In fact most of the time I wasn’t even aware the Norwegian Epic was moving.
More popular than ever
Despite the potential attractions of an all-inclusive holiday on the high seas, in my experience few things provoke a more impassioned response than the subject of taking a cruise. It would appear people either love or hate the idea of a cruise – it’s extraordinary how polarised opinions are. Yet according to the industry’s trade body, the ‘Cruise Lines International Association’, each year at least 22 million guests enjoy a cruise. That’s a lot of people, and what’s more it represents an extraordinary and continued growth in this international travel sector. More of us Europeans are cruising too, guests are travelling younger, and the ships are getting more sophisticated, and in many cases, a lot bigger too.
Take the Norwegian Epic, one of 14 vessels within the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet. It is, as its name implies, extravagant in every way. The ship, which is now making Spain its home, sailing the Mediterranean and down to the Canaries, can host some 4,100 guests and 1,700 crew. Extraordinary statistics, and there at first may lie some people’s objections. The thought of sharing a holiday with thousands of other people may not be everyone’s idea of plain sailing.
However, few times did I feel that the Epic was crowded; I know that must sound odd, but it’s true. Firstly check-in was quicker than for a flight – with tens of desks open, staffed with efficient agents. Then once onboard most people congregated on the sun decks and at the Aqua Park with its pools, hot tubs and multi-storey waterslides, or in the casino and the main Atrium. Most of the restaurants, bars and public decks (15 out of a total of 19) were relatively uncrowded and felt much like any other resort hotel.
Come dine with me
The other objection I sometimes hear (and it certainly was one of my biggest concerns) is the notion of shared dining – the obligation to eat with strangers for the whole week. But after a week sailing aboard the Epic, I really got to like the concept of ‘Freestyle Cruising’. Pioneered by NCL, it offers the opportunity to eat whenever you want and with whoever you want – just as you might in any other resort on land. For example the Norwegian Epic has twenty eateries, from upscale refined restaurants, informal brasseries to fast-food cafeterias.
It’s also probably one of things that makes cruises increasingly popular with guests; the all-inclusive nature of the holiday that makes budgeting easier. When travelling with friends and family there’s never any talk about who’s going to pick up the tab – just choose your restaurant and preferred dining time. It was great to see grandparents, parents and grandchildren all sharing a holiday together – there was plenty of laughter on the cruise ship. People weren’t taking travel too seriously, they were just enjoying their free time together.
Of course with the high-end, super-luxury small ship cruises intimate dining is nothing really new, but for a large ship, it’s pretty revolutionary and probably explains why my fellow guests were such a varied and easy-going crowd, attracted by the ‘no-rules’ kind of cruise offered aboard the Epic. Passengers were of all ages, and there were plenty of families as well as couples (straight and gay) onboard as well as multi-generational families travelling together. Also the Epic seemed to attract plenty of solo travellers too. The ship’s ‘Studios’ are on-trend designed cabins exclusively for single travellers, with access to ‘The Living Room’, a private bar lounge where those travelling alone can meet others. Overall, onboard I found the atmosphere was friendly, fun and informal.
However I have to admit that I am an independent traveller at heart, and really a cruise holiday can only ever offer you mere morsels of a destination, rarely a satisfying feast – there just isn’t the time to savour each place. But really, is that a problem when you are having so much fun on the high seas, source surinenglish