My First Cruise: Learning The Art Of Effortless Indulgence
I was pretty pleased with myself when I told my husband we’d been offered the chance of a week-long Caribbean cruise. I didn’t expect to see fear in his eyes.
“Isn’t it like a random floating city of fat people who don’t want to do anything foreign?” he asked. I considered trading him in for a new, more grateful husband but there wasn’t time. And to be fair, he’s not the only person with those doubts.
Holiday choices speak volumes about us. We want to see ourselves as free-thinking individuals who undertake improving travel, and maybe even relish some exotic hardship.
Witness the boom in extreme travel and war-zone dilettantes. But what about giving up that mindset; allowing ourselves to loll in sheer luxury, to float with abandon on the endless sea?
For one week only, I dedicated myself to the latter cause. No box-ticking of galleries, museums or 'must-sees'. A week far away from reality in which I would embrace the sea’s soothing trance; the hypnotic motion; the erm … food-induced stupor.
My husband, Justin, however, is a stranger to relaxation – especially the enforced kind. How would he handle a surfeit of inescapable rest? Friends joked before we left that they’d give him a matter of hours before he went in search of a gangplank.
Food, glorious food
We boarded Celebrity Cruises' all-new Celebrity Reflection and began to settle in. Justin grimaced when the fourth smiling waiter inside three minutes inquired after our wellbeing. “It’s exhausting. It’s a gilded prison,” he muttered, adding wistfully, “I haven’t had a waffle yet.”
7am. A proper American breakfast is truly a thing of magnificence: it’s the perfect fusion of the flimsy Continental and the bulging full English. With syrup on top.
In a few short days we developed a monstrous capacity both for consumption and diva-like fussiness: “Are you getting the buttermilk pancakes with muddled berries and crispy bacon?”
“I thought I’d go for the smoked salmon bagels with cream cheese and capers. And a blueberry parfait. How were the eggs Benedict?”
“I’m so full I can’t breathe properly. Look they’ve got Marmite! OK, maybe some sourdough toast as well then. And a muffin.”
“And a mango smoothie, too. And some more tea while we’re at it.”
“Hi there, please can we have hot milk with that? And this butter is a little bit too white, do you have any that’s more yellow?”
The food was, without exception, spectacular. Meal after rhapsodic meal, we munched valiantly on. We outperformed ourselves day on day, reaching ever-higher ecstasies and becoming increasingly high maintenance.
But it's my professional duty to muster at least one complaint, and here it is. The freely available on-board coffee is villainous, like singed toenails. To my knowledge, coffee this bad hasn’t been served to the general public in decades. Decent coffee is available on board, but you have to pay for it. Why?
In an attempt to recall the sensation of hunger we headed to the gym, and joined in the constant on-board circle of the loading and offloading of energy. The views matched our newly expanded girths.
I was pounding the running machine, overlooking the ocean, when several flying fish burst out of the water, skittering along its surface. “Look!” I shouted, and flew off the end of the machine, projected backwards to the amusement of the strolling ladies on either side.
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There’s plenty of time at sea to think. Writers are said to favour a Transatlantic crossing for that very reason. You can also not think, and I did a lot of that, too.
And I noticed that the other guests – mostly American, due, I’m guessing, to the Miami departure – are very happy. Delighted, in fact. Maybe they know something we don’t. Americans, famously, get very little holiday allowance. Every moment counts.
This is at the heart of the cruising experience: it’s how to holiday like an American. Every bite and every sunset and every fluffy towel must be just so.
Each moment must be dedicated to removing you from your boss, your car insurance, your mortgage; away from rudeness, traffic, litter, bad weather and indifference. It’s geared for nothing less than perfection.
The Americans adopted their own word for it: vacation. From the Latin vacare: to be unoccupied.
Another insight struck me, albeit in a gradual, Caribbean way. There’s a trend for something called mindfulness sweeping into Western culture. Apparently it’s about not checking your phone every three minutes.
But being on board a regular cruise in tropical climes – as opposed to a river (no sleeping in), expedition (zodiacs at dawn) or cold-country cruise – goes one better than that: this is sheer mindlessness. Like when I fell asleep during a seaweed massage, wrapped up in a slippery bag like a giant embryo.
The whole experience was a feast of passivity. I wouldn’t want to make it permanent, but as an antidote to just about everything else in the world, it felt wonderful.
Even Justin couldn’t resist. By day three the food, drink and rolling seas had enticed him. We no longer made an embarrassed strangling noise when the waiter exclaimed: “It’s my pleasure to serve you!”
We gazed out over the waves and he grudgingly admitted: “The food is amazing, and the people perfectly nice. I like the constant moving along – you’re doing something, without actually doing anything.”
A defining feature of cruising is its inclusivity for all mobility levels: although we’d left the children behind on our first child-free foreign trip, I imagine that the best way to cruise is with as many generations of family as you can muster. Our brood would go mad for the shows, discos and “Floor 14 Poolside for Wake ’n’ Shake with Big Andy!”
Many of our fellow travellers had boarded for a special occasion. There was the touching sight of a large multi-generational family group, everyone from babes-in-arms to oldies, all wearing matching T-shirts commemorating a couple that I take to be their late grandparents.
“Do you think our kids will do that for us one day?” I asked Justin, slightly choked. “Well, they’ll be saddled with our debts if we get a taste for travelling like this,” he replied, “so, probably not.”
The gentle mindless drifting was occasionally punctuated with excursions. And it turned out that on shore there was some important research to be done.
For example, we discovered that Puerto Rico is home of the pina colada. The Dutch Antilles and the American Virgin Islands welcomed us next, and top of my list was the snorkel-with-turtles trip (with the proviso that the turtles are properly wild, of course).
We headed by speedboat to an uninhabited rocky island off St Thomas, and there they were: mid-sized green sea turtles, trundling around underwater. Snorkelling alongside these mild creatures was unforgettable.
I followed one for around 20 minutes as it grazed along the coral reef, pausing only when it swam up to glance benignly at me with its beaky old-man face and to take a few gulps of air before diving back down to the seabed.
Back on board, by the top-deck lawn, slumped over my laptop, and waving away a proffered cocktail (such is my unwavering dedication; don’t mention it) a question nagged me. The smiling staff seemingly worked without stopping, ever.
Our 'stateroom' (there are 1,523 of these) porter worked all hours, tidying our room every time we stepped outside, with no days off. She was in the fifth month of an eight-month contract. The harder we relaxed, the harder they worked.
I took the opportunity of dinner at the captain’s table, over lobster and expensive wine, to raise the subject. An odd moment in which to float the topic of exploitation and international labour laws, perhaps.
“We are fully ILO compliant, they regularly come on board to check on our staff welfare and conditions,” said the officer, touchily. “In fact we’re subject to way more regulation than any restaurant or hotel you will walk into in London or New York.”
All the same, we left an extra fat tip for our porters.
This is the life
Typical middle-class Brits might pride themselves on taking purposeful holidays. In contrast, on board Celebrity Reflection, no one tells us anything about what lives in the sea around us, or about who inhabits the islands we visit (apart from a brief warning that it might not be what we’re used to, and to try to be polite about this).
But that’s OK. There’s a place for improvement and cultural striving, and this wasn’t it. The point was effortless indulgence. I knew it wouldn’t last, and I just enjoyed it. You don’t have to go to the effort of thinking up a whim to be attended – it’s already covered.
As we docked in Miami at the end of our Caribbean getaway, and the messages from work and home began to flood in, I fully got what this was all about. If you’re looking for a holiday that is the very opposite of real life, this is surely it.
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This article was written by Bee Rowlatt from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.