Susan Marling's Traveller's Checks

Hop aboard a cruise liner and return to the 1980s
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The Independent Travel

There's a funny thing that regular female cruise passengers wear. I discovered this from Margo after three nights of formal dining with the same six guests on a P&O ship somewhere in the Mediterranean. Having exhausted all other topics of conversation (her husband's career on the railways, the pleasures of living in Cheshire, why one glass of wine is enough if you have tummy trouble), we got on to the necklace she always wears on board. It is a gold chain, hung not with charms like a bracelet but with golden reproductions of all the ships on which she's cruised. And I can tell you that there were enough of them lined up to make any sudden movement on the dance floor quite dangerous. I thought of Margo this week as I looked around the brand new $450m (£320m) Golden Princess, the largest cruise ship ever to dock at Southampton. The ship, which accommodates 2,600 passengers, is 17 decks high and looks like a massive block of luxury flats tied up by the quayside. Its statistics are not for

There's a funny thing that regular female cruise passengers wear. I discovered this from Margo after three nights of formal dining with the same six guests on a P&O ship somewhere in the Mediterranean. Having exhausted all other topics of conversation (her husband's career on the railways, the pleasures of living in Cheshire, why one glass of wine is enough if you have tummy trouble), we got on to the necklace she always wears on board. It is a gold chain, hung not with charms like a bracelet but with golden reproductions of all the ships on which she's cruised. And I can tell you that there were enough of them lined up to make any sudden movement on the dance floor quite dangerous. I thought of Margo this week as I looked around the brand new $450m (£320m) Golden Princess, the largest cruise ship ever to dock at Southampton. The ship, which accommodates 2,600 passengers, is 17 decks high and looks like a massive block of luxury flats tied up by the quayside. Its statistics are not for the queasy ­ 109,000 tons, more than 1,000 crew, five pools, 15 bars, six major restaurants, a huge spa, casino and theatre, a tennis court and a nine-hole putting green. I fear it may be a pendant too far for maritime Margo.

 

As a vast floating resort the ship does its best to announce that it is intended for youthful customers as well as clients of Margo's generation. Stand-up comedy is now an alternative to Broadway, Celebrity Showtime and the "Dynamic Vocal Impressions of Finis Henerson ­ direct from Las Vegas". Some of the long-frocks-and-tux formality has gone. On GP I wouldn't have met Margo because diners are offered a new concept called Personal Choice which, appropriately enough, means choosing where you want to eat on board and booking a table. No more forced intimacy with distracted ship's officers wearing white trousers (with salami-slicing creases) and vacant smiles. The ship even caters for passengers with children and, as elsewhere in the leisure business, teens means screens. The teen club, the video games and simulator arcade (aka virtual reality centre) and the internet café are all impressively wired. There's more to do outdoors than on most ships including a teen-only Jacuzzi and an aquatic work-out pool for battling energetically against the current.

 

But despite these innovations there's something irredeemably dated about this and other huge cruise ships. It is as though the design revolution that has transformed hotels and restaurants on shore had never happened. Ships seem stranded in a separate style universe in which patterned carpets, fancy columns, etched glass and atriums with water features are still king. Seemingly waiting for the re-make of Dynasty (Greek Shipping Dynasty?) there's an unmistakable whiff of the early 1980s about the Golden Princess. Grand pianos on board look incomplete without Manilow figures at their keyboards. GP is also, despite the £7,500 per person price tag on some (grand suite) two-week cruises, a ship that plays to the middle market. Take a look at the rows of one-arm bandits in the casino, the shops selling miniature crystal figures, the Hearts and Minds Chapel for weddings and vow renewals, or at the "art gallery" where, among a truly dreadful collection of pictures, the only remotely interesting item for sale is a silk dressing gown which was worn by Muhammad Ali and signed by several other famous boxers.

 

The ship is owned by P&O Princess Cruises, the world's third largest cruise company which parted from the parent firm Peninsular and Oriental last October. The ship will ply the Mediterranean from Barcelona to Istanbul during the summer and spend the winter in the Caribbean. Seventy-five per cent of her passengers will be from the US, where the present economic wobbles have sharpened industry fears that there are too many ships chasing too few passengers and that fares will have to be cut. There has already been a recent 6 per cent drop in all-important "passenger yield" ­ the money earned from each passenger per day. Share prices have been dipping and diving. This may be why, among the guests currently enjoying a promotional mini-cruise before the start of the ship's maiden voyage next Wednesday, are 60 City analysts and fund managers, personal guests of P&O Princess chief executive Peter Radcliffe.

Long term, though, the beige delights of the superliners look set to churn out healthy profit based on the economies of scale which are possible with 2,600 guests. More people are now entering the 45-plus age group, the target customer base for Princess. And let's face it, in a world of rapidly expanding tourism, cruising is pretty green once the passengers are on board. Every Margo who signs up for a cabin with balcony (been there, got the medallion) is one fewer tourist on dry land.

s.marling@independent.co.uk

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