Cruising: Harbour master
With the Mediterranean cruise season about to begin, can a Rough Guide founder be seduced by a life on the ocean waves? Martin Dunford climbs aboard the 'Voyager of the Seas'
Wednesday 16 March 2011
As co-founder and former publisher of Rough Guides, my travel colours have always been nailed firmly to the mast of independence. Journeys where you pit your own resources against the fortunes of the road seem to me to comprise the most rewarding way to travel. You enjoy closer encounters with the locals, spend your travel funds in a way that allows most of your cash to stay in-country, and enjoy a better, broader experience. But for my mother's 80th birthday, hitch-hiking to Uzbekistan would not be appropriate. Instead, we entrusted the celebrations to a week-long Mediterranean cruise.
Grudgingly, I had to acknowledge the appeal of a week aboard MS Voyager of the Seas for an active octogenarian and a family group including grandchildren whose ages ranged from two to 26 years old. The destinations looked good: it began in Barcelona, and other highlights were Naples, Civitavecchia (the port for Rome) and Marseille. In between, there was plenty to keep the children entertained. It was also decently upmarket, with a reasonable level of dressing-for-dinner and jostling for a place at the captain's table.
The key to a cruise on Voyager of the Seas is your Sea Pass, a plastic card that unlocks all the secrets of the ship for you. It gets you into your cabin (or "stateroom", as it's known on board); it buys you drinks at the bars; it pays for your bets at the blackjack tables. Oh, and it gets you on to the ship, too. A Sea Pass is a bad thing to lose. The benefit – to you and, perhaps more importantly, to Royal Caribbean – is that once on board, money has no meaning; no one will take cash or credit cards. You're in a sealed-off world where everyone has to be nice to you and cash doesn't exist. The opposite of "real" travel?
Dinner was in the largest restaurant I have ever eaten in, which made it quite hard to remember that we were on a ship at all. Even when we started moving, the motion was almost entirely imperceptible. We certainly carried on with our dinner regardless, as if we ate in an 800-seat restaurant while gliding past the outskirts of Barcelona every day.
Getting to the theatre via the casino afterwards made me feel as if I'd entered a weird twilight zone – like a voyage on a glammed-up cross-channel ferry, only for much, much longer, and for much, much more money. But then we got back to our room, sat on the balcony and I got my two daughters, Lucy and Daisy, ready for bed, with the sleeping hulk of the Spanish coast alongside and a dark orange sunset bursting across the Mediterranean. It suddenly felt pretty special.
The daily edition of Cruise Compass is designed to help you to choose what to do, whether on board or ashore (it's keen to emphasise Royal Caribbean's super-expensive shore excursions, such as £50 per person for a tour of Pompeii, or £64 a head for the privilege of getting to Rome and back). But the choice was so overwhelming that I began to get stressed. After all, we were supposed to be enjoying ourselves.
The one thing we didn't have a choice about was the muster drill, so we trooped up to our designated areas swamped in vast orange life jackets. Lucy's made her look like a giant walking jelly baby so I left it off altogether. Daisy usually likes dressing up – but even at five she could see that there was no glamour in this particular look. The drill was just what you get on any aircraft journey, really, only standing up, and without the benefit of turning on your iPod or reading a book.
I felt that the on-board information about ports of call was poor, with just a badly reproduced map or two and a few sponsored recommendations. Even if you were thinking of risking your life in the outside world by not going on an organised excursion, you wouldn't get very far with this; and the ship's library wasn't much help, either, with a few dog-eared tomes on the Scottish Highlands and other places we weren't visiting. Plan in advance better than we did – maybe ordering your transport, and definitely taking a decent guidebook.
The Voyager of the Seas is an easygoing environment, but with strict rules. You can learn more of these by watching the "Cruise or Consequences" channel on your cabin's television, which is devoted to issuing gentle but uncompromising warnings about the things you can't do while on board. As well as fairly obvious antisocial activities such as carrying drugs or explosives, it makes it clear that "guest and crew interaction beyond the crew's duties is not permitted", and that for this kind of thing you could be confined to your stateroom or a holding cell, or even be put off at the next port of call.
The crew with whom we interacted couldn't have been more attentive. Each crew member is identified by their country of origin, and we got quite excited when we spotted a new nationality – "Look, Helga from Finland", or "There's Carlos, he's from Panama". Our waiter Fathi – from Tunisia – teased the children and shaped the napkins into creatures, as well as fetching and carrying food and drink with smooth and speedy aplomb and good cheer. Remarkably, in a restaurant with 800 covers, the food was pretty good, too. Dennis – from Jamaica – did an equally good job in our cabin, and every night we'd get back wondering what animal the towels would be twisted, origami-like, to represent.
Our captain was a reassuringly sober Norwegian called Frank Martinsen. He woke us up early one morning to ask us to fill in Italian immigration forms to declare that we were flu-free after a passenger was taken sick on board and we were refused permission to dock. The captain saved the day; a couple of hours later, we were all trooping off the ship as normal. Captain Martinsen is the sort of person you want in charge of a 138,000-ton vessel carrying more than 3,000 passengers and 1,000 crew. He seemed to steer the ship in the same way that he spoke: enunciating... each... word... very... carefully.
Most of the time, it was easy to forget we were on a ship at all. But if you wanted a reminder of the enormous feat of technology, money and enterprise that you were travelling on, you could look in on the bridge, which was basically two comfortable seats and a huge bank of computer screens.
With hindsight, it should have been obvious, but of course cruising is all about the ship, not the ports you're sailing to. Much of the time, you're based in an unappealing dockside area miles from the places you signed up to see, which can be reached only by a shuttle bus that you have to pay extra for. The ship, on the other hand, is a womb-like place where nothing bad can happen to you, your Sea Pass card can get you anything you want, and the only decisions to be made are whether to rendezvous in the High Notes bar or the Schooner lounge, or whether to go to the variety show, or Motown hour in the nightclub.
It's unreal, and I guess that's what holidays are often all about; but it's definitely not travel – which is ironic for a trip on which you wake up in a different place every morning.
Lots of people have asked whether I would go again. Well, it's great for the kids – very safe and with loads of things to do. It's perfect for the less active, too, as long as you confine yourselves to gentle sightseeing and make the most of the on-board facilities. But being herded around the Med with thousands of others is something I just can't get used to. Spending a few hours in each port isn't relaxing; in fact, it's just plain frustrating most of the time.
In the end I'd almost rather stay on board than join a crocodile of tourists waiting to board a bus or a taxi to take them for a quick glimpse of their shopping list of sights. Perhaps I'd be better off on a cruise that didn't stop anywhere, so I didn't feel so bad about not getting off.
The author paid £3,500 for a junior suite – a large cabin with a double bed, a sofa bed and a large balcony – through Royal Caribbean (0844 493 4005; www.royalcaribbean.co.uk). This included all meals and most soft drinks. Tips amounted to a further $300 (£190).
The first Royal Caribbean Mediterranean departure of this year is from Civitavecchia (Rome) on 27 March, taking in Sicily, Piraeus (for Athens), Kusadasi (Turkey), Rhodes, Crete, Naples and Capri. Booking direct starts at £855 per person based on two sharing an inside cabin, plus tips, and not including flights.
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