Peter Stanford: I say, have you ever been on a cruise? It might turn your stomach, too

Out go bridge, ball-gowns and barley-water. In come shell suits with anchors. It's more Captain Birds Eye than captain's table

It was when I woke up on the floor of my cabin in a pool of water that I knew I wasn't cut out for cruising. I was on the QE2 in mid-Atlantic, but in that second I thought I was reliving The Poseidon Adventure. Any moment Shelley Winters would come swimming into my cabin, gulp for air and then expire flamboyantly.

Eventually I came round enough to work out that the ship was lurching its way through a storm and had tipped me out of bed. It had also caused the leatherette ice-bucket on my chest of drawers to spill its contents on the floor. So I was lying not in a rapidly flooding cabin, but on melting ice cubes.

Since there was no porthole to look out, I couldn't check out the storm. Only a favoured few get a view. I was "internal", the steward told me. A porthole had, however, been tastefully painted on the wall in pastel colours. Each evening I would return from dinner to find my bed turned down and a curtain drawn over the mural. I couldn't decide whether to let on to my cabin attendant that I wasn't fooled.

But letting on that you are not taken in by the whole "luxury" cruise liner experience can be dangerous, as Michelle and Barry Seaborn found to their cost last week. The couple, who had appeared on the reality TV show, Wife Swap, were among passengers on P&O's ill-fated ship Aurora. After a stomach virus had laid low a third of all those aboard, it was refused entry into the port of Piraeus in Greece and caused Spain to close its border when it docked in Gibraltar.

First-timers, the Seaborns protested loudly about conditions on Aurora, even claiming they had been held hostage on board by the crew. Veteran cruisers maintain the outbreak was well handled and headlines about being "adrift on the ship of hell" were caused by letting the wrong sort of people on to the cruise.

It's a sorry sea-faring tale that reveals the two contrasting worlds of modern-day cruising. For decades a cruise was part of a suburban retirement ritual. Join the golf club and go on a cruise, where the rest of the world could be seen from the safe confines of a ship that served roast beef off silver platters. The vessel was a reminder of the well-ordered world of empire where everyone dressed for dinner and table manners were polished by reading up in Evelyn Waugh novels what the aristocracy did with the cruet and baked Alaska. But as cruise prices have come down and new money has invaded Surbiton, some operators have tried to update a staid but still aspirational package for 21st-century, classless Britain. So out with bridge, ball-gowns and barley-water and in with cruisewear - shell suits decorated with anchors - burger bars and betting shops. It's Center Parcs at sea, more Captain Birds Eye than captain's table.

At 35, Michelle Seaton, a dead ringer for Big Brother winner Jade and, according to fellow passengers, just as classy, was typical of your new generation of cruise-goer. There was still the see-how-well-I'm-doing pull of going on a cruise, but she didn't like any of the old-world trappings she found on board. For husband Barry, the cruise might as well have been around the fish-pond in their back garden. "You can't travel around the Pacific with sick people on board," he complained. The glories of the Mediterranean had been lost on him, but at least he didn't say Specific.

There are still some cruise operators who make a virtue of sticking to the time-honoured formula: floating you around the Greek islands or Norwegian fjords with classic orchestras, lecturers in archaeology and poetry readings by resting RSC veterans. The cultural benchmarks have been set high, you suspect, to keep hoi polloi like the Seaborns away, even if they could afford the similarly elevated ticket price.

But grand or greasy-spoon, culture-loving or clubbing, all cruises share the same basic problem. They require you to spend a week or more cheek-by-jowl with strangers with only a plastic cubicle wall to separate you. There is no escape unless you've brought a fold-away lifeboat, and the claustrophobia can become overwhelming.

My week on the QE2 was spent with a group of elderly Americans. For many of them the cruise was to be the trip of a lifetime. Not a single one, I recall, got off in New York anything less than disappointed by the experience.

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