You don't have to be rich, old or dress like Noel Coward to get a life on the ocean wave

It was a summer evening and I was mingling with a few people I had not seen for a year or two. At one point a portly accountant, champagne in hand, accosted me. "So, I hear you've escaped the trenches of journalism and have been running away to sea. Done a few cruises then?"

It was a summer evening and I was mingling with a few people I had not seen for a year or two. At one point a portly accountant, champagne in hand, accosted me. "So, I hear you've escaped the trenches of journalism and have been running away to sea. Done a few cruises then?"

"You could say that," I replied. "More than 130, actually."

"You must be crazy," said the accountant.

"I don't agree," said another guest, this time a woman. "Faraway places, great weather, the Love Boat and all that. It sounds like fun. I'm going to take a cruise this winter. Which gives me an idea," she added, waving the bottle she was carrying. "If I pour you another glass of champagne, will you tell me which is the right ship for me?" Every man has his price. I held out my glass.

The truth is there is a ship, or at least a theme cruise, for everyone. Singles, couples, children, gays/lesbians, Scottish country dancers, sports fanatics, bridge-players, beach bums, jazz buffs, adventure-seekers and even non-smokers (you're put off at the next port if you light up). Prices vary enormously. The trick is to find the right one.

The best place to start is a good travel agent, preferably one who specialises in cruising. You can book cruises direct with some of the lines, or on the internet, but I would recommend a good travel agent who will go to bat for you if there is a problem before, during or after your trip. Having said that, the internet site carries details of all the reputable cruise operators. You could also look out for the new magazine Cruise Traveller, And buy the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships 2001 by Douglas Ward; it's excellent.

Isn't cruising for rich, old people?

It might have been at one time, but that was because the first cruises were longer voyages that appealed to retirees. But as the market has matured – and cruising is the fastest-growing sector of the travel industry with nine million going to sea last year – the average age of first-time passengers is now well under 40.

Ships are ideal for family gatherings. You can see why; the proposition "let's meet on the Grand Princess" is hard to resist. Quite often the senior member will have a suite for group evening cocktails and the others will be scattered around the vessel. With 108,000 tons of ship at their disposal, there is an amazing variety of things to do as well as places to hide. Basically, you are on a self-contained, floating resort.

What about singles?

Cruising is the best holiday in the world for single travellers. You simply turn up for dinner the first night, join a table for eight, and you are alone no more. If you don't like the group, see the maitre d' and a move is usually no bother. After dinner there's always somebody going your way, whether it is to the show, the casino or a nightclub. Same with shore excursions. You just take your seat on the bus, and you are one of a group.

What about smug marrieds? Is it something children would enjoy?

Newer ships have supervised play areas for younger children, video alleys, computer classes, internet rooms and TV studios, plus teen dance clubs. Many cruises feature beach days where there are water sports and picnics. If your children enjoy learning languages, sign them up for Mediterranean ports where they can see ancient ruins and browse markets.

To spoil the little blighters absolutely rotten, take them to Port Canaveral in Florida and step aboard the gleaming Disney Magic or Disney Wonder. Combine a few days on the sea-going never-never-land with a visit to Disneyworld.

So an easy way to see lots of places

Absolutely. Take the China cruise I did from Kobe in Japan to Hong Kong. It included a port call, then a bus convoy (with a police escort all the way) to Beijing, two nights there and a visit to the Great Wall. Okay, it is a long flight to Japan, but once you are there you only have to unpack once and after that the Orient unfolds with ease. I will never forget strolling along the Bund in Shanghai or sailing into Hong Kong's amazing harbour. Doing all that by air and land would be tough.

But incredibly expensive, surely?

Going a long way in luxury is never cheap, but it is very good value if you consider that when you buy a cruise it comes with an air ticket, your room, all meals and entertainment, not to mention transportation. Shore excursions are included with some cruises. Try pricing a Mediterranean cruise, then look at the costs for good hotels in places like Barcelona, Cannes and Portofino, then add on meals and flights.

Cruising is even better value if you find a sailing that is a slow seller. Cruise lines hate empty cabins because they want people on board to tip the crew and spend money in the spa, bars and shops. There are often big savings on repositioning cruises. Personally I love days at sea free of the bustle and noise that goes with port calls, when a ship can get into its stride and a man can sit on the deck with a good book and assist the captain by keeping an eye open for pirates.

You're an incurable romantic

Ships are thronged with them. In fact some leave reality on the dock, yearning to escape from the bonds of everyday life. Men wear orange dinner jackets and women flaunt Dolce & Gabbana even if it makes them look like hookers. People step outside themselves, become more sociable.

And do I really have to dress like Noel Coward?

Those who have followed the packing maxim of bringing half the clothes and twice the money can find enough sequins in the on-board shops to light up Piccadilly Circus. Every night is a party. Passengers meet for drinks before dinner, spend the meal recounting the day's adventures, then head for the shows. If you like to dance, a ship is for you. There is usually a good band, while members of the entertainment staff give daytime lessons in everything from strict tempo to line dancing.

But big ships must be so impersonal

More space means larger and better equipped showrooms, loads of shops, treatments and therapies, superb gym facilities and of course more restaurants. On many ships you have a choice of restaurants such as Italian and Chinese. The mega-ships have high space ratios which means more room for everybody. Even on the biggest ship I have never had a problem finding a quiet space, and of course there is always your private balcony, which many ships now offer. The downside is that there can be delays in disembarking, particularly when using tenders. It only takes one or two slow-moving passengers and a major hold-up can ensue. Cruise lines could take a leaf out of the airlines' book by asking infirm passengers to remain in their seats while others disembark first.

What about small ships?

They tend to be exclusive and expensive, but if you can afford it they provide balconies, butlers, dining rooms with creative dishes, and you can eat when you want, with service from people who know what they are doing. Cruising is so popular that lines cannot get enough capable staff, and you will often hear the refrain: "Who ordered the pasta?" Spoil yourself and try Seabourn, Silversea or the very special Song of Flower of Radisson Seven Seas Cruises.

Do you have to take the ship's shore excursions?

Not at all, although some are the only way to go and not bad value. I recall a Med cruise on the Sea Princess (the last liner built on the Clyde, now the elegant Victoria) which docked at Alexandria. We went in a convoy of buses, plus a car with a medical team, to Cairo and the pyramids. It was an excellent trip. However, that night our waiter said he had done the same thing with three pals in an air-conditioned Mercedes for less than half the price.

Talk to the crew and see what they are doing ­ and paying. On one trip in Alaska, for example, my ship was charging $180 (£100) for a glacier flightseeing trip, yet the local paper had the same thing advertised for $160. Some city tours are similarly overpriced. If you need a group for a taxi or a mini-bus, try asking others at your dinner table.

I'm into sports. Is there even a ship for me?

No question. Star Clippers has three vessels that are great for scuba divers and snorkelers, and have a formula that appeals to the young at heart of all ages. My Thai cruise out of Phuket was scuba heaven, with two dives a day. These are sailing ships with only 180 passengers. They have comfortable cabins and are very sociable.

Moving upmarket, the luxurious Seabourn ships have stern doors that open to present a James Bond-type grid with sailboards, jetskis and water-ski boats.

Armchair fans will enjoy Norwegian Dream which has a spacious bar with invited sports personalities and wall-to-wall giant TV sets broadcasting live and taped events such as the Superbowl. Baseball cap and chewing gum are mandatory.

Some of us have to get back to the office. Are there any short cruises?

Plenty. In fact cruises of two to five days are the hot number in America. If you are in Florida it is easy to pick up a quickie cruise from Miami or Fort Lauderdale. Closer to home, I have just been on the Norland of P&O North Sea Ferries and the overnight trip from Hull to Zeebrugge was a pleasant mini-cruise (yes, honestly). The cabins are basic but the meal service and bar entertainment are excellent.

What about longer cruises?

You can go all the way around the world ­ in either direction ­ with P&O's all-British Oriana and Aurora. The ships leave on 4 and 5 January. Fares start at £8,272.

Fred Olsen Cruise Lines is going round Africa with the Black Watch. This used to be one of the wonderful Royal Viking Line fleet and is a quality vessel now offered at a bargain price. It leaves Southampton on 5 January and the itinerary includes Cape Town, Mombasa, Seychelles, Suez, Santorini, Gibraltar and Vigo.

Erm, what are the chances of being shipwrecked?

Slim, although a few years ago a Greek vessel did sink off South Africa. (By the way, the old expression "safety in numbers" was never more true than at sea. All tours are escorted and there is usually a ship's doctor or nurse not far away.)

My advice is to stick to well-known cruise lines and take the emergency drill seriously. One Princess Cruises captain, the splendid John Young, used to get everyone's attention by injecting a little humour. "If you see a passenger falling overboard," he would say in beautifully enunciated English, "DO let us know ­ even if it's somebody you can't stand."

So I won't go overboard. But will my heart go pitter-pat?

Darling, on a ship you can meet people of all sexes, although I have been telling men for years that the odds are definitely in their favour. But they tend to be such stick-in-the-muds, preferring gardening or golf in the rain. My conclusion is that as women get older they become more adventurous whereas men just get older.

In answer to the usual questions about widows at sea, there is no denying that there are a lot of older women on cruises, and it is a good place for them, for they get very well looked after, they go to the best places and the sun is usually shining. In other words, they have a lot of fun. As one wealthy woman used to say: "If you can afford it, it beats an old folks' home."

Quite often these women bring along a daughter or niece, the latter partying the night away when the senior partner has gracefully retired. And of course women have affairs with the captain or crew and book repeat voyages for reunions. It used to be said of Royal Cruise Line that the parade of limousines at the dock at San Francisco was not for the passengers but to pick up crewmen who were being ferried away to visit their lovers. Just take care if you do meet someone and get carried away on deck. Officers on watch get their nightly activities checked by the security cameras that scan the ships. You might just feature in the next wardroom home movie.

So what's new?

Whew, it's hard to keep up. Around 50 ships are under construction or on order for delivery in the next four years. Spas, alternative restaurants and cigar lounges (yuk) are in, free champagne at the sail-aways is disappearing fast except on luxury lines like Silversea, Seabourn and Radisson, and Dubai is the hot port of call with a new cruise terminal shaped like a ship, gleaming beaches, golf, duty-free shopping galore, desert barbecues and camel rides.

Talking of food, it is a constant feature of a cruise, so use the gym and walk the deck otherwise you will, as they say, board as a passenger and leave as freight. In the meantime, have another glass of champagne.