A stately woman with oiled limbs is belting out “La Bamba” to synthesiser accompaniment near the pool area, which is jam-packed with sunbathing bodies, while couples bob up and down in the nearby jacuzzis under the blinding Mediterranean sun. In the Royal Lounge, a quizmaster is asking for the hometown of King Priam and the contents of Dutch liqueurs, while children in shorts behind him tap away on internet terminals.
Mothers are poring over the ship’s daily newspaper, The Princess Patter, grannies are pulling the arms on Russian Treasure slot machines in the casino and families are playing Scrabble on green baize tables, hitting ping-pong balls into the sea, signing up for computer classes and preparing for “Goofy Golf”, water-volleyball, ballroom dancing classes and karaoke.
Already today most of us have taken in the ruins of Pompeii, a drive along the Amalfi coast or, in my case, a walk through the whitewashed lanes outside Anacapri to find the villa in which Graham Greene wrote for more than 40 years. Soon it will be time for a dressy dinner.
I walk along the elegant, Ritz-Carltonish corridors of the Royal Princess, a relatively small cruise ship at 30,277 tonnes, and pass the Cabaret Lounge on Deck Five, not far from the jewellery stores and the restaurant serving afternoon tea, as well as the room where a professor will be lecturing tomorrow on “Conflict in the Middle East”. Four days from now, a hypnotist, a whirling dervish and an Egyptian belly-dancer – all in quick succession – will perform in the lounge. In my spotless cabin, as cosy and well-appointed as any room in a four-star hotel, I can watch a channel with footage of today’s excursions, another channel explaining tomorrow’s cultural attractions, or a broadcast of the LA Dodgers’ baseball game. The only thing there’s little scope for is feeling completely at sea.
If you’d read me the preceding paragraphs 18 months ago, I’d have sneered. A cruise, I’d known since boyhood, is the bastard child of the package tour and the retirement home, the perfect vessel for those who don’t much like to move to take in a world they don’t much want to see. Then, last year, I made a fatal mistake: I actually tried a cruise ship, boarding the Island Princess in Anchorage, Alaska, to take my 77-year-old mother on the Inside Passage tour to Vancouver. The experience was so unexpected – no packing and unpacking every day, no regular check-outs or scornful desk clerks, no dark roads or deranged itineraries – that I promptly signed up for an even longer cruise this summer. I would take my mother, a longtime professor of comparative religions, to Jerusalem and Ephesus and Patmos and Pompeii, all the places she’d long dreamed of but never visited.
For 150 years, writers from Mark Twain to David Foster Wallace have been portraying the cruise experience as a floating funhouse waiting to explode, a community of swells custom-made for satirists.
Yet what I had never realised till I actually took a cruise is that you get Shakespearean romance and history as well as comedy on a ship (tragedy is usually kept safely belowstairs). Egyptians were jumping up and down in tiny ships to greet us as the Royal Princess drew into Port Said. The sun, just rising, made the windows of Patmos burn gold in the fresh light of early morning five days later, white buildings glinting under a hilltop monastery. When we pulled out of Alexandria, the sky beginning to turn dark blue, fireworks flashed across the dark as the muezzin’s cries interlocked around us to mark the end of that day’s Ramadan feast.
A cruise was, I thought, an ideal way to mix those two sworn enemies of any holiday, cultural self-improvement and giddy fun. Seasoned guides took us round the place where the Virgin Mary was said to have lived and where Paul, some claim, wrote his letter to the Ephesians. In Jerusalem, we re-enacted Jesus’s life in reverse (taking in the possible sites of the resurrection and the crucifixion, and then moving on to Bethlehem, before ending up in the Virgin’s home area in Galilee). Yet, at the same time, CNN was bringing us today’s responses to those events, while yoga classes began at 8am and the “Wild Bunch” Dance Party kicked off at 11.30pm.
Nothing, in short, quite conforms to expectation on a cruise ship. The largest contingent on our ship of 710 or so passengers – other than Americans – came from the Dominican Republic, and all 75 Dominicans seemed to dress every evening as if they were heading for a night of furious revelry in Manhattan. When I went to the ship’s library, I found (and devoured) copies of the latest essay collections from Susan Sontag and Jonathan Franzen as, a year before, on the Island Princess, I’d discovered Cornel West’s assaults on the bourgeoisie. During the first musical show of our trip, two talented young singers essayed the theme from Titanic, perhaps the last hymn I expected to hear invoked on a cruise ship.
It was as if we had found ourselves on some 21st-century version of the Starship Enterprise, in which (on the two ships I sailed with) the captains were Italian, the waiters were largely Filipino, the security staff came from India, the smiling customer-relations women wore badges saying “Poland” or “Romania”, and the cruise directors – doubling as talk-show hosts at dawn on Channel 21 – were from England (singers and dancers seemed mostly to hail from Sydney). On the long-running TV show that became our lives on board, men from Manila broke into torch songs as they brought us coffee, Brits made eccentric jokes about “turtle recall”, Chinese women offered “teeth-whitening” courses at the Lotus spa and our Ukrainian cabin steward surprised us daily with bath towels done up to resemble an elephant, a swan, a turtle, a rabbit and (a little too close to home) a pig.
Aboard the Quaker City in 1867, following almost exactly the same itinerary, Mark Twain had described a cruise as a “picnic on a gigantic scale”, and it’s still said that you gain a pound a day on a cruise thanks to the all-you-can-eat buffets available almost round the clock. Perhaps it was no surprise that one day the sign pointing passengers towards a seminar read, “Steps to a Fatter Stomach”, some wag having cunningly erased the “L” in the fourth word.
Caught up in this antic United Nations, we met the kind of people that we never see in our regular lives. A merry family from Hong Kong was discussing the Baltic states over scones, while a Bible-reading Kansan was telling me about her backpacking tour in Europe 35 years before. It was a little like exiting our everyday, undramatic lives and stepping into the Disney musical version, filled with healthy, teeth-flashing, tanned, professional charmers. It says something, in fact, for the cruise experience that more than half of the people on our ship were gleefully returning veterans. “I’ve been on 22 now,” someone was saying at breakfast as we drew into another gold-lit island.
For true fans, there are cruises that last between three and four months. “Ah, but on these round-the-world tours”, said our charming captain, Carlo, “people, when they get on shore, they get sick. They miss their friends, they don’t want to leave.”
“Like Lorraine,” said a seventysomething Floridian. “She lives on the boat.” Widowed, Lorraine, like many others, has decided she might as well spend all her time travelling the world, in a kind of roaming retirement home, with new faces to talk to every week, the gleaming white villas of Santorini or Capri arriving at her stateroom balcony every morning, a fully equipped hospital downstairs and smiling professionals to tend to her every need and whim.
The Floridian went on noting that she herself spent only a third of each year at sea, picking up children, grandchildren, and friends at various ports, travelling with them for two weeks through Tahiti or the Antilles and then dropping them off and heading for the next stop.
Half a lifetime ago, spending a summer walking around the Peloponnese and the Ionian Islands, I had been sure of only one thing: cruise ships were the root of all evil. They turned quiet streets into mob scenes and friendly locals into hustlers. But travel, as Mark Twain wrote while sailing on the Quaker City, is, unfortunately, fatal to prejudice.
As the Royal Princess drew into Piraeus, even its unlovely warehouses aglow in the day’s first light, the main question I had to ask myself was as simple as it was unanswerable: was I growing old or only growing up?
Pico Iyer’s most recent book is ‘The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’ (Vintage Books in the US; Bloomsbury in the UK)
Pico Iyer was a guest of Princess Cruises
New ships ride crest of a wave
In terms of the water it displaces, this year’s biggest launch is Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas (www.royalcaribbean.com), a 361m leviathan that makes its debut in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in December, writes Claire Wrathall. This is a ship so huge it will carry 5,400 guests in 2,700 staterooms over 28 decks. It also features a park with 12,000 plants and trees.
This year’s hot-ticket maiden voyage is that of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth (www.cunard.co.uk), which slips out of Southampton in southern England on October 12. When the booking opened for its inaugural trip – to Tenerife and Madeira, with stops at Vigo, Lisbon and Cádiz – it sold out in just 29 minutes. It’s not hard to see why.
Still under construction in the Fincantieri shipyard in Genoa, it has a real magnificence, not just in terms of its scale – it measures 294m from prow to stern, is 54.5m high, and will accommodate 2,092 guests over 12 decks – but also due to its retro style.
Booking for its 2011 programme, featuring cruises to the Mediterranean, Baltic, Scandinavia, US and Caribbean, opens on April 27, with prices from £499 per person for a five-day tour of the British Isles.
Also designed by Fincantieri and nearing completion is Le Boreal, a 142m vessel designed to minimise impact on fragile environments and suitable for use in Antarctica. Abercrombie & Kent is operating it on a 12-day voyage out of Buenos Aires from December 6 (www.abercrombiekent.co.uk; from £6,795pp), to South Shetland or Deception Island, depending on the ice, and Paradise Bay.
With a computerised positioning system that removes the need for anchors, and leading-edge insulation to moderate its energy consumption and minimise noise and vibrations, it should be both the most comfortable and ecologically sensitive way to cruise these waters, though the swell in the south Atlantic should not be underestimated.
The maximum passenger capacity is 199, and all 104 suites and staterooms have private balconies. Indeed, with a beauty salon (you need oil-based make-up in this climate or it freezes) as well as, improbably, an outdoor pool, it’s a wholly different proposition from the Russian-built polar ice-breakers that usually convey tourists this far south.
Back in Genoa, this time at the T Mariotti shipyard, the 198m Seabourn Sojourn is nearing completion and will be named in a ceremony in Greenwich, south London, on June 6. Part of the five-vessel fleet owned by Miami-based Carnival Group subsidiary Yachts of Seabourn (www.seabourn.com), perhaps the most luxurious of the top-tier cruise operators, it’s a comparatively small ship (just 225 impressive suites, all with picture windows, almost all with balconies). For its 14-day maiden voyage (fares from €4,730pp), however, it will head north, taking in the Faroe Islands, Reykjavik, the Icelandic island of Heimaey, as well as Olden and Bergen, returning to Dover via Amsterdam. For fjords of a different kind, Orion Expedition Cruises (www.orionexpeditions.com; from £4,867pp) runs 10-day voyages along Australia’s dramatic inlet-riven northern coast on its environmentally sensitive 50-cabin 103m ship