To cruise or not to cruise…

About this time last year, having recently sold our Auckland house, and with the prospect of loosening the noose around our necks that an Auckland mortgage brings, we planned a European cruise.

We found one that went to all the places I had been hankering to see, and that His Lordship was keen to revisit. What initially looked to be quite a good deal ended up blowing out as we decided to really do this properly, and upgraded to a balcony cabin aboard the massive Crown Princess. Then with nine months of anticipation ahead of us, we knuckled down to save.

So it was with some degree of excitement that we boarded the minivan in Rome to head to the nearest port in Civitavecchia, which seems like it is half way to Pisa. We shared the van with other New Zealanders in varying stages of old age, and wondered quietly to ourselves if we’d be the youngest on the ship.  We werent!

Boarding was very orderly, and we were able to immediately go and check out our “stateroom”, even though we weren’t sailing for many hours.

We bounced on the bed, opened all the clever little cupboards, and drawers, and took photos before we messed the place. The balcony was a huge bonus, and highly recommended if you’re thinking of cruising. As the cruise progressed I caught some glimpses into the internal cabins on our level, and the inhabitants have no idea if it is day or night, and have to ask the people across the hall to check.

The cabin, or stateroom was lovely! The bed was like sleeping on a cloud, and the pillows were soft and fluffy. That and the gentle movement of the ship meant that sleep came easily. The room itself was generally really nice, and the balcony was well worth the additional money.

As the 14 night cruise wore on we asked ourselves several times whether cruising was for us. Many aspects of it were hard to fault – the service was excellent, and the staff made every effort to get to know us and act like we were more than just the next load of passengers.

The meals were great, with a selection of restaurants to choose from. One night we did go to one of the places that you pay a surcharge for, and really, we wondered why we bothered. It was a change, but it was pretty average. Most nights we have elected to take shared tables at dinner, and this was virtually our only human contact with others. With “anytime dining” you roll up when you are ready to eat, and if you want to dine a deux, you may have to wait. But if you are prepared to take a shared table, you will generally get instant admission. And we have met some really nice people, as well as some deadly boring ones with their endless tales of cruises past.

The worst part of cruising is definitely listening to what we dubbed the “frequent floaters”. These are the people who bore us rigid at dinner with tales of cruises and cruise lines, which is the best, which pays most attention to health and well being (Princess, apparently). For many it is, frankly, a bit of a pissing contest, and the men are the main players in this game of oneupmanship, as their faintly embarrassed wives look on. One intrepid couple we met from Australia admit to taking up to 10 cruises a year, the longest of which was 80 days. So there must be something in them.

We did not go to any shows on board – the standard was not generally that great. We  caught audio snippets of a “crooner” who learns his songs phonetically as he is not a native English speaker. We  dodged the accordion, guitar and fiddle group in the piazza, and everyone knows how hard it is to avoid an accordion. The sound followed us almost to the 10th floor before we were clear of it. A comedian reportedly had everyone yawning in the aisles, and the band that played on deck for sail aways will haunt me for a long time to come.

We did not attend the cooking demonstratons, art auctions, jewellery sales, or any other of the plentiful ways of parting you from your money. And believe me, there are many. Every night a new notice was slipped into our “mailbox” offering 20% discounts off teeth whitening, or $500 off facial filler injections by the on board plastic surgeon, or lymphatic drainage of the legs after a hard day of walking. You can also be seriously accosted while on deck to attend the latest wine tasting (for a fee of course), or to have your photo taken with some hapless crew member dressed in a ridicuous toga (and of course, you can buy the prints for another hefty fee). A tour through the fitness centre and beauty spa was exhausting, and at the end I said to his Lordship, “we didn’t just buy a timeshare in Mexico, did we?” It felt like that kind of hard selling.

After this tour, His Lordship availed himself of some gym sessions with a personal trainer, and these set him back US$100 or so. This is nothing compared to the US$1500 that one client of the trainer’s dropped with him as he stocked up on supplements, plus a training session each day for 14 days. The instructor stood to collect a big tip at the end of the cruise, as 15% is added on automatically to your cruise account as a tip for all the activities and services.

So would we do it again? Yes possibly, but maybe on a smaller ship that is more intimate. We met and enjoyed the company of some lovely people here and there, only to never see them again due to the sheer size of our ship. We’d also want to go to places that are best seen by ship – maybe a Baltic cruise, or Antarctica, or Alaska.

Good points of cruising:

  • The service is exemplary.
  • The meals are good (and the ship pays great attention to hygiene too).
  • The passengers aren’t all old.
  • The stateroom is so comfortable and well appointed.
  • You wake up in a new and wonderful place each day.
  • Depending on ship, there are child-free pools (ours had two of these).

Bad points:

  • Too much up-selling.
  • Frequent floaters who know it all, and won’t stop until they have bored you into a coma.
  • Sailing a bit early sometimes, as you don’t get to spend as long ashore as you might like to in some amazing places.
  • Appalling quality and extortionately expensive internet (not ideal when you have committed to doing some work on the trip, and who knew that Spark didn’t have a European package that included Greece?).
  • The crowds ashore. In some ports such as Corfu there were three large ships in port, and the town can get very crowded around lunch time. But you are seldom aware that there are 3000 passengers with you when you are on board.

Here are my tips for would be cruisers:

  • Take the balcony. You will not regret this for one minute. Picture yourself sailing out of Naples with Mt Vesuvius behind you in the glorious sunset while you sit on your balcony sipping on a nice red wine you brought on board with you.
  • Take the anytime dining option if there is one. You can eat your meals any time and in either of the main restaurants (plus the buffet). So if you want a nap or a swim before dinner after a long and hot day ashore, you can do this, or both, then dine later and at your leisure.
  • Take the shared dining option so you get to meet others, as it is easy to become a hermit otherwise.
  • Don’t feel you have to rush ashore each day as soon as you dock. They have a pretty good system, and if everyone leaves at once it can be packed. Around 9am seemed to be a good time. Some ports use tenders to get the passengers ashore, which of course takes longer.
  • Consider the beverage pacakges. I’m not a big drinker so I took the soft drink package which I (well, both of us to some degree) got good value out of.
  • The ship makes money off selling water, and it’s quite expensive. So ask the steward to bring you ice, and by morning you have your own free water.
  • Only book the bare minimum of shore excursions on the ship. You can mostly get around on your own. We booked a couple when we only had a short time ashore such as Sicily – we wanted to get to Taormina which is some distance away, and again in Capri where we were warned that crowds might make it difficult to get back to the ship in time. The ship will wait for passengers who are booked on Princess excursions, but not if you’re out on your own (apparently).
  • Don’t worry about getting sea sick. These ships are so well stabilised that we often had to check that we were, in fact, moving. Ginger tablets or sea legs are all you will need for puddling around in the Med.
  • You will not be sailing with a boat load of seniors. Yes, there will be some, but there will be people of every age too.

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