Cruise ship myths
The world of travel has changed dramatically in the last two decades. At first cheap flights seemed like a blessing but now air travel feels like you’re on a Butlin’s tour bus in the sky. Invasive security checks, long queues, long check-in times and long journeys to airports have made air travel something to be endured rather than enjoyed and have done much to discourage multi-destination holidays. Enter the modern cruise ships. Some have been in the news recently, for all the wrong reasons, but there’s no doubting the cruise holiday is looking like an increasingly attractive alternative to present day travel hassles.
Trying to convert people who haven’t tried a cruise is a bit like trying to get a child to eat their vegetables. You know they’ll enjoy them when they finally try them but getting them to have the first bite can be a struggle. So, let’s deal with a few myths first.
The itineraries are dull and the ships are filled with hoards of unsavoury people
When I’m talking cruise ships I don’t mean monster tubs that take 6,000 passengers. We’re talking a whole new fleet of boutique ships with no more than 3,000 people and many take just a little over 2,000. At this level ships like Celebrity Cruises have a guest to staff ratio of nearly 2:1. The size of the ship is particularly important for the itinerary too. These new class of ships mean they dock in much smaller harbours and ports, often places that would be uneconomical to visit on a single trip.
A recent cruise by Azamara included the beautiful Scilly Isles off the coast of Cornwall and the picture perfect seaside village of Honfleur on the Normandy coast. I boarded this cruise in Dublin with the ease of stepping through the door of a hotel. The itinerary started in Scotland, stopped in Dublin, Wales, the Scilly Isles, the Channel Islands and Normandy allowing passengers to explore the rich bounty of terroir as diverse as Scotch whisky to Normandy cheeses.
The Isles of Scilly are a small archipelago off the coast of Cornwall. Bathed in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream this quant stop-off is like a mini-England of a bygone age. On Tresco, the second largest island, sign posts are in minutes-walk instead of distance and nowhere is more than 25 minutes away. There are no cars allowed so most people use bikes or golf buggies. Tresco Abbey Gardens is set in the ruins of an old priory and the gardens are filled with sub-tropical flora and fauna. Then there’s the New Inn, considered by the Michelin Guide as only one of 12 pubs worth visiting in Cornwall. There’s nothing quite like some fresh Cornish mussels and a pint of local beer in the sunshine looking out over the sparkling sea.
Next stop was Jersey and should include a visit to their La Mer Wine Estates where they’re making their own bubbly (Jersey is the same latitude as Champagne and the same soil type). On a more pedestrian note you’ll obviously have to try some Jersey Royal potatoes. Their unique flavour comes from the growing method which includes ‘vraic’ or seaweed harvested from tracts of low tide seabeds marked out by farmers since Plantagenet times. Rouen was my last stop, though the final destination was Southampton. The cathedral in Rouen will be a must for many though I was drawn to the rich Normandy hinterlands. The mild temperatures, rich soil and high rainfall make this ideal for apple growing and therefore apple brandy, better known to us as Calvados. A visit to Chateau du Breuil means you get to see the process of their twice distilled delight which is sold as Calvados AOC Pay d’Auge. The fecund Normandy land also boasts some of France’s richest dairy produce from Camambert and Livarot to Brillat-Savarin Not forgetting the Normandy honey, which reflects the flavours of the apple blossom which the bees pollinate by the thousand. The remarkable thing is that once your day’s exploring is over in each of these diverse places you find yourself back in the deep-carpeted comfort of your cabin without any worries of packing and repacking. Then there’s the on-board dining in the Aqualina which included some of the best seafood I’ve tasted. Then a cocktail under the stars as the ship sets sail for the next destination. By the time you wake the next morning you’ll be in a new city or a new country, refreshed and ready to explore again.
The horror of enforced fun
People fear the ‘enforced fun’ so often associated with cruise ships. Relax. It’s all a lot more sophisticated than you think. The Celebrity Cruises’ Solstice Class has a Lawn Club, featuring real grass for putting, croquet and bowling. Their Celebrity Silhouette ship boasts an art studio where you can get lessons from experts in drawing and painting as well as culinary themed activities. Other ships have full theatres with world renowned concert pianists and cultural lectures. This doesn’t mean you won’t find plenty of low brow fun if you’re looking for it, the difference is that it’s more post-modern irony than guileless enthusiasm.
Aren’t cruises for old fogeys or young yobs?
Some cruise ships cater for large volumes of the, shall we say, value-seeking youth with erratic sleeping habits, high libidos and high alcohol to blood ratios. You won’t even have to read the small print if this is the kind of cruise brochure which has dropped through your letterbox. It will be misspelt in lurid neon across every page. And what about our senior citizens? Personally, I’ve been an old fogey since I first stepped out, aged fourteen, in plus-fours and a tweed cap so the idea of meeting new senior friends is a plus for me. I often discover that our bright new ideas were already well rehearsed fifty years ago. Nonetheless, this isn’t everyone’s cup of Earl Grey and the boutique ships of Azamara and Celebrity make a point of targeting a younger clientèle so you will find plenty of people to do the macarena with you when you’re finished doing watercolour paintings of the azure seas.
The food is basic
Food and wine is the single biggest complaint people have about their holidays. It is an area which the cruise industry has taken to heart and the boutique brands have invested an enormous amount of expertise in the culinary experience both on board and during stop-overs. Many cruise chefs do tours of local food markets and then do demonstrations back on board. For foodies cruises can represent the sort of adventure they would find difficult to organise themselves.
Most recently these brands are commissioning some very big names to join the cruises and deliver expert (and usually highly entertaining) evenings to guests. Famed wine expert Oz Clarke is heading up Celebrity Cruises European wine cruises. He recently delivered a preview in London of what will be on offer on the 2013 wine harvest cruise. He has a real talent for imparting wine knowledge dressed up in high-octane fun. Last October his cruise included some of Europe’s greatest wine regions from Bordeaux to stops in Bilbao and Vigo for the green wines of Northern Spain to Porto in Portugal, an old world wine country making some very modern noises. The on board wine offering is as cleverly chosen as it is tasty to imbibe. From the Roederer Estate Quartet located in northern California to artisan Chablis Defaix 2010 and even a stunning Bordeaux Reserve de la Comtesse 2009.
Clarke himself was surprised by his first cruise: “This time last year I had never cruised before but, following my first stint as host of the inaugural season of immersive European wine cruises where I was able to share my knowledge and talk to fine food and wine fans, I can honestly say I’m now hooked […] The chance to get back onboard and visit some of Europe’s best known wine regions […] is just too good to turn down.”
Essentially a cruise is like a multi-destination holiday with a moving hotel room and without all the hassle of multiple airports. The Dublin to Holyhead mailboat these are not. More like the glamour of the forties combined with the latest in contemporary design and technology.
Ross Golden-Bannon travelled with Azamara as their guest from Dublin to Rouan. Azamara cruises are constantly evolving so an exact replica of the cruise he took may not be available. Highlights of 2013 include the European Immersive Wine Cruise hosted by Oz Clarke, departs Harwich 12 October calling Paris, Bordeaux, Bilbao and Porto.
The Azamara Journey cruise departs Venice on 4 November exploring cities and hinterland famed for their ancient food and wine traditions from Trieste in Italy to Split and Dubrovnik in Croatia; Corfu and Katakolon in Greece.