One of the reasons my wife Fiona and I had never considered taking a cruise before was because of our four children aged 15, 13, eight and six. We didn't think it would be suitable for them. But our Caribbean cruise turned out to be totally geared towards kids of all ages.
Many of our preconceptions about this kind of holiday were turned on their head. Once you experience a luxury cruise you realise that it's actually very special. We took a nine-day trip on Princess Cruises' new ship, the Caribbean Princess, which carries 3,100 passengers, has 900 state rooms and a whole deck of mini-suites. We travelled in August last year, during high season, so it was full. Our destinations were the Bahamas, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Mexico.
I was thrilled by every aspect of the trip, and the kids felt the same way. They all had different on-board clubs to go to so it was totally cool. My eight-year-old son, kept saying: "Dad, can I go to my club now?" We hardly saw him. He'd disappear at 10am and wouldn't return until 8pm. But you feel quite safe because there's plenty of security on board. And, as it's an American ship, there's a strict no-alcohol policy for under-21s.
The joy of a cruise is that you visit each resort by day and then you really look forward to getting back on board because you have such a great time there. With more than 3,000 passengers, you're not necessarily meeting the same people all the time. It's like a floating town.
Yet the Caribbean Princess is such a huge craft that you can be in the library or in your state room and get away from people. I spent a lot of time on deck reading my Harry Potter books. Fiona was able to relax completely and do some drawing. It's not easy being a mum of four.
The cruise departs from Fort Lauderdale, so we decided to fly to Miami a week early and go fishing in the Florida Keys. That was fantastic and something I would recommend, mainly as it helps you to acclimatise. We then drove down to the port in Fort Lauderdale and boarded the ship.
As you can imagine, the whole process of getting everybody on board is phenomenal. With 3,000 people arriving with their cases, it would be chaos but for the fact that you're being looked after by a crack team of professionals. The cases are whisked off, you climb aboard, go to your room and the cases are there by your door. We had a stateroom across the front corner of the ship plus the adjoining cabin. It really was fantastic.
I'm the kind of person who loves to find out all the background detail so I'm always sneaking through doors I shouldn't. Out front, everything's mellow and calm but go behind the scenes and there are people literally dripping with sweat, working like mad. We got to know a lot of the crew, which is actually the secret of the game. Don't ignore them just because they're carrying your luggage. They have the best stories.
The first stop was one of the Princess Cruises' own beaches, Princess Cays in the Bahamas. You swim, you're given food, then you come away thinking, "It was nice but I hope it's not all like this." And, of course, it isn't. The trip then kicks up a gear. That first stop gives everybody an opportunity to get to know each other. You realise straightaway that this isn't a democracy; you're on a ship and there's an order of command that is very important.
The following day was spent at sea, which forces you to chill as there's none of the stress of getting off and on the ship. On a couple of occasions we nearly missed the boat. When the ship goes, man, it don't wait for no one. One time I was on a rickshaw hammering away trying to get back in time. They had to wave me through customs quickly. It was very funny. Everyone on the ship was whistling and laughing.
You meet an incredible cross-section of people. On the first day, we met Albert, an ex-NY PD cop. As we were walking into the restaurant, his wife grabbed us and said: "Hey! Come over here!" This is a side to the Americans which is brilliant. I'd imagined the cruise experience to be quite staid but Americans are so open. It's all: "Hey! What do you do? What's your name?"
We met people who'd retired, someone who'd won the lotto. One guy was a billionaire, travelling with his entourage, who'd literally been cruising for two years. For this Caribbean cruise everyone is geared up to having the best time.
The food on board was very good with lots of restaurants and cafés to choose from. If you were a greedy man, you'd think you were in heaven. After midnight, people suddenly appeared from nowhere and there was some serious eating going on. But it's cool. There are worse things you could be doing.
What I also enjoyed was dressing up. The general promenading, with everyone dressed up to the nines, making their way to dinner was great. As a result, we got some amazing family photos. Afterwards you go to the theatre or to the cocktail bar and listen to the jazz band. You're in this timeless existence where you don't feel at all self-conscious. You haven't got to run for a taxi later so you can really live in the bubble for a bit. Because of all that, the kids really raised their game.
Our next stop was Jamaica, where I was hoping to meet up with my father who is originally from the island. He was born in paradise; I was born in Bethnal Green. Doesn't sound right, does it? But in typical Dad fashion, he'd managed to get the dates wrong. He'd booked himself in to arrive two days later on the other side of the island. So all our relatives had gone across ready to meet him. His arrival was a big event so there was no one to meet me. But it was fine. I'd met the family before, though I'd never actually visited Jamaica.
The staff organise tours of the various resorts but because we're quite a big family, they arranged for us to have a mini-wagon so we could head off on our own. We spent most of our time in Ocho Rios, an ancient town that is really hilly. For me, that was the biggest surprise about Jamaica, the terrain. It's so green and mountainous. We went to a restaurant in the middle of town to see some of the local people and hear the music. I didn't want to go to a chain. I was like: "I want some swordfish, some rice and peas and ting and ting!"
Jamaica is incredibly beautiful and because of my family connections it hit me on many levels. You appreciate the infrastructure of a country like Britain once you've visited a place like Jamaica. I felt quite strongly that a lot of the money there wasn't getting into the infrastructure. It's also strange coming to the island from a huge ship that has strict safety guidelines. You get used to being in a caring environment. But when you disembark, you see some people on the land for whom nobody cares. It was quite an emotional trip and we were sad to leave. I can't wait to go back.
The Cayman Islands was an interesting place. Some refer to it as "sunny island, shady people". It's very flat compared to Jamaica, but what really struck me was the look of the people. They are very beautiful, very mixed. Obviously, one of the main things about the Caribbean is the mix of Spanish, African, Mexican and native Americans.
We then visited Cozumel in Mexico, which was beautiful. A hurricane had recently hit and everybody was still a bit shell-shocked. But we had the best time there. In fact, it was one of the highlights of the trip. We spent the day on a stunning beach. I gathered conch shells with the boys while the girls swam far out to sea. That was a day we really got stuck in as a family.
I love water sports like water-skiing and knee-boarding, which is perfect for me as I'm 6ft 4in. Have you ever seen a giraffe water-ski? That's me. Knee-boarding is just like boogie boarding but you go on your knees. I also did a lot of swimming on this trip.
The on-board facilities were wonderful - great shops, a spa, an outdoor cinema. You have everything from a jogging track around the ship to basketball courts. They played basketball to a high level as it's such a popular sport with Americans.
I was lucky enough to be invited up to the bridge with the captain. That has got to be the best office in the world. It's all very hi-tech, yet they like to sail the ship manually because they're real seamen. I was up on the bridge as we were sailing out of Jamaica and the captain showed how to steer it out; it's quite a manoeuvre. All the time I had a security guard next to me, which was probably a good thing. The temptation to grab the controls was huge! "So what does this do, then?" But it's serious stuff.
I had no expectations about the musical entertainment on board. I'm a trumpet-player and I have to say I loved the resident jazz band. The quality of musicianship was fantastic. I've played the trumpet since I was seven and I also sing. But although I'm a serious musician, acting usurped my music.
I'm getting involved in producing now and I'd like to combine travel with work, making films around the world. I'm in talks about a film, set in New Zealand, and also a psychological thriller by a French director. Through my acting work I've travelled to places such as China, Thailand, Russia, Hungary and several countries in Africa, but it's hard to take the kids along due to school and other commitments.
So our Caribbean cruise was a seminal holiday. In terms of an education for my children, it was very important. Our nine-day trip went very quickly and we just wanted to go straight back on another one. It was like some fantastic fairground ride.
Colin Salmon travelled with Princess Cruises (0845 355 5800; princesscruises.co.uk). It offers a nine-night Caribbean Delight itinerary on board the 'Caribbean Princess' from £1,424 per person, based on two sharing, if booked before 28 February - which represents a saving of 40 per cent. The price includes return flights, transfers and full board
My best view
The most dramatic sight was watching a midnight thunderstorm on the horizon between Jamaica and Cuba. I realise now I was probably looking at the start of a hurricane. There were flashes of indigo, blue and red as dawn was slowing breaking. The ship was very stable - not much interrupts a beast of that size. So we were in this tranquil heat watching an incredible sky, with flying fish all around us.
My best resort
Ocho Rios in Jamaica was lovely and we managed to do a lot in one day. The Dunn's River Falls is a beautiful waterfall that everybody walks to. You may think, "I'm not going to do that" but of course you do, and it's just fantastic. It's a quarter of a mile up so it's a good workout. We also visited the botanical gardens, which are amazing. We went to Fern Gully where there are 200 varieties of fern.
Cabin culture: Guide to liner life
Hunt down the right price
Make sure you shop around for your cruise. You may get as much as a 45 per cent reduction for early bookings. Conversely, no cruise ship will leave half-empty, so you might be able to get a last-minute bargain. Try contacting the cruise lines direct or a cruise ticket specialist.
The cost of keeping in touch
Most mobile phones will be out of range at sea and satellite phone calls from a cruise ship can cost as much as $15 (£9) per minute. So, unless you have an emergency, use a web email service on board or a landline at the next port.
Keep your sea legs
Unless you run into atrocious weather or you are very sensitive, it is unlikely that you will be seasick. Most cruise ships are so large and stabilised that they do not roll or pitch. But if you do feel queasy, take ginger capsules or put on acupressure wristbands.
The captain's table
The traditional honour of dining with captain continues. And, yes, you have to be invited. Usually it's the ship's social director who makes the selection, going through the passenger list and picking out guests who have special grounds for extra attention - honeymooners, for example.
A little glove money
With the exception of a few cruise companies, tipping is expected and forms part of the crew's remuneration. But how much to give? Worry not. Before disembarking you will receive advice on tipping and may even be provided with discreet envelopes.Reuse content