Our cruise experts share their love of cruising and why they are confident the sector will bounce back, stronger than ever
'Precious shared memories'
We were journeying through the heart of Europe, my 84-year-old granny and me. A first-time cruiser, she had taken to it like one of the downy ducks at the water’s edge.
If I left her alone, I never worried. Barely four ft tall, warm and affable and with hair as white as Miss Marple’s, fellow passengers (and especially Americans) loved her. “Mabel’s on deck; Mabel’s in the lounge; Mabel’s eating scones,” they would inform me – and I would return to find her with a new friend or two and being fussed over by several waiters.
Since that cruise on the Rhine in a 160-passenger river ship, I’ve sung with a choir in the Norwegian fjords with a good friend, shopped Europe’s Christmas markets with my mum, watched the Monaco Grand Prix with my brother and observed my niece making friends and forming lasting pen-pal relationships with children from Germany, Hong Kong and Chile.
Without my father’s zoological insights my experience of the Galapagos would have been incredible, of course, but diminished. And without me there, Dad would probably not have snorkelled, and he would’ve missed out on the underwater penguins. Now the Galapagos is ours – a precious, shared experience we refer to again and again. Would I have booked a land-based holiday with my brother, my niece or just my father?
Probably not. The beauty of a cruise is not only being able to explore new places with those with whom you wouldn’t usually holiday with, but being able to “holiday alone” when it suits, by pursuing your own interests ashore and on board (paddle boarding for me; cookery lesson for Mum). The new friendships you form (much more challenging at other holiday accommodation) add to that shared experience.
Mabel is 95 now, and going strong, although her memory is starting to fail. When I show her the pictures of us on deck, the steep vineyards of the Rhine Gorge our backdrop, she smiles. “That was lovely duckie, wasn’t it?”
‘Unique and unexpected experiences’
Walking through a remote Laotian village a woman beckoned us over to see her dinner cooking on an open fire. In the frying pan was a blackened but perfectly formed rat. A hush fell over our group as she chopped it into bite-size pieces and offered us the chance to partake in a real-life ‘bush tucker trial’. One brave passenger accepted.
OK, not your average cruise for sure, but some of my most unforgettable waterborne memories have come from unscripted excursions on small ship sailings. This experience on an Upper Mekong river cruise was certainly one of them. For me, it encapsulated all there is to love about waking up somewhere different each day but never knowing quite what to expect.
I’ve always lived by the sea, and as a youngster devoured swashbuckling tales of life on the ocean wave. So when my career metamorphosised from newspaper journalism to freelance travel writing and, nowadays, reporting on river and ocean cruising it really was a dream come true.
Since then I’ve clocked up thousands of nautical miles, including an epic 16-day transatlantic crossing aboard the tall ship Royal Clipper. Climbing the rigging to the crow’s nest to look out over the creamy billowing sails and unbroken expanse of water was an exhilarating highlight in every sense and fulfilled all my latent childhood fantasies.
My last time afloat, a week before lockdown, was on Hurtigruten’s new expedition vessel Fridtjof Nansen, where passengers booked their next holiday whilst on board. Although questions were already being raised about coronavirus and its impact on travel they told me it wouldn’t put them off. For me this is indicative of people’s love affair with cruising which will endure beyond the pandemic.
For now I will just have to gaze out across the Channel from dry land and daydream. But, like those eager passengers, I can’t wait to run away to sea - or a river - once more; even if rat is on the menu.
'Living the high life'
Leaving a pod of dolphins gambolling on the mirror-flat Aegean in our wake, SeaDream’s sturdy tender nudged past colourful fishing caiques swaying languidly in the harbour of Spetses. I sat in the shade of bougainvillea and trumpet vines in Dapia taking in the action, such as there was. A horse-drawn carriage took me to Ayia Marina, where at a beach taverna I sipped pine-scented retsina and had my own Shirley Valentine moment. It was then I realised that nothing comes close to off-the-beaten-track cruising.
Since that winsome encounter I’ve been lucky to indulge in a host of life-affirming experiences, although few were as profound as my first glimpse of the Treasury at Petra. My guide for the Seabourn excursion kept a brisk pace through the narrow, sandstone-hewn gorge known as the Siq and I was beginning to wilt in the heat. Nothing, but nothing, can prepare you for the magnificence of the 40 metre-high façade of Al Khazneh in shades of red, pink and ochre crowned with Corinthian capitals and friezes. All that was missing was some derring-do from Indiana Jones.
My Lewis Hamilton moment came a few years later when I revved up for an unforgettable Silversea experience in the fairy-tale principality of Monaco. From the balcony of the F1 Club at the belle époque Villa Casa Mia, perched above the dramatic first corner at St Devote, I lived the Grand Prix lifestyle – the roar of engines, cheering crowds and aroma of burning rubber. My petrol-head fantasy was accompanied by almost as much champagne as was sprayed around the winner’s podium.
In sequestered anchorages throughout the Virgin Islands the bijou Crystal Esprit offers lotus-eating and adrenalin-rushes in equal measure. But for bragging-rights the U-Boat Worx C-Explorer 3 submersible accommodating two passengers and a pilot is unsurpassed. After clambering through the hatch I settled in as we descended 50 feet to explore a shipwreck off Basseterre in St Kitts. Captain Nemo never had it so good. Thanks to cruising I’ve lived the high life, discovered surreal corners of our watery planet and had close encounters of the sublime kind.
'My other eternal love'
Shhh. Don’t tell my hubbie but there are three of us in this relationship. Me and him of course, but also anything and everything to do with cruise holidays.
He might already suspect given ships, the places they go and the reasons so many of us love holidays at sea have occupied my every waking hour (and sometimes my dreams) for the past 20 or so years. Getting married on a cruise might have been a giveaway, likewise that when I am not at home, which is much of the year, I am on the ocean or a river, clocking up superb memories.
Sipping champagne in a rowing boat as the sun set over the U-Bein Bridge in Myanmar, walking through a penguin rookery on a first cruise to Antarctica, snow-shoeing the second time, seeing polar bears close up (ish) in the Arctic, canyoning in France (think scrambling over boulders in a freezing cold river), walking calmly (yeah right) across a road in Hanoi despite the battalion of motor bikes heading towards me... in short I've had the most amazing experiences, all thanks to my life in cruise.
Over the past 20 plus years I’ve attended umpteen ship christenings and seen innovation beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Mega ships, unimaginable luxury, go-karts, water coasters and wave simulators at sea, and more. I’ve not liked everything (vertigo and skydiving simulators don’t mix!) but I’ve loved that it’s there for others. And I’ve loved the passion of those who put it there.
Cruising is on hold due to coronavirus but over those two decades I’ve also seen its resilience. Whether 9/11, the Costa Concordia disaster or SARS, it’s come back better than ever. That will happen again and when it does, I and millions of others will be waiting. My bag is packed and ready to go.
'The lonely sea and the sky'
Cruising is my recreational drug – and I admit I’m hooked. My first voyage was on Cunard’s QE2 from Southampton to Hamburg but I really got into it after a Royal Caribbean weekend cruise in the Med in 2005. That led to a longer holiday in the Caribbean and, before I knew it, my wife Mandy and I were booking trips in Alaska, Asia, northern Europe and around the world. We’ve sailed on everything from barges to megaships.
It’s been fascinating seeing the industry grow, with its appeal widening to much younger people. Exciting developments have included more informality, an expanding choice of lines, an increasingly dizzying range of restaurants, and all those thrilling additions such as race tracks, ziplines and surf machines.
But the main reason I love cruising is the most fundamental – it’s being able to sit on a balcony and watch the wide expanse of the sea, or admire the passing scenery on a river. The whoosh of water and the almost imperceptible rocking of the waves is relaxing on a primeval level. Watching a watery sunset streak the sky is one of life’s great pleasures.
That’s why, when this craziness is over, I look forward to rebooking the last trip I had to cancel, a voyage on a 12-person boat with The Majestic Line off the west coast of Scotland, where I shall be surrounded by calm and beauty. As John Masefield wrote: “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.”
'Captivated by an uninterrupted sky of full of stars'
Perhaps it was sipping sundowners on my mum’s aft balcony watching the wake as we left Grand Cayman; maybe it was dressing up in black tie, my brother and I, accompanying my mum to dinner down a cruise ship’s sweeping grand staircase; or perhaps it was staying up late, walking along the deck, feeling the warm breezes and looking up to see an uninterrupted sky full of stars and a huge Caribbean moon gild the waves. Whatever it was, I fell in love with cruising at a young age.
It was 1997, my father had recently died and he and my mum had promised themselves a cruise to mark their retirement. She took us instead – me, 27, and my brother 25. A cruise was not the type of holiday I would normally consider, but it was February in the UK and it was free, so why not?
I remember wandering around Key West, our first port of call, visiting Hemingway’s house, taking pictures at Mile Marker Zero and spending the afternoon drinking beers in the Green Parrot (mum returned to the ship for a nap). In Ocho Rios, Jamaica, we went snorkelling in the morning, dazzled by the colours and the coral, then headed to the hilltops in a taxi, the driver rolling a huge joint one handed. And Grand Cayman, where we walked along Seven Mile Beach and sent a postcard from Hell.
It took 13 years for me to get back on the ships, but since then I have been blessed to witness the most extraordinary sights – glaciers calving in Patagonia, diving with sea lions in the Galapagos, witnessing the Northern Lights in Norway, sharing a meal with locals in a tiny village in the Philippines, watching tiny Caribbean islands come into view as the sun starts to rise, sailing under New York’s Verrazano Bridge at 5am after seven days at sea, picnicking in an olive grove along the Douro River.
An estimated 30 million people took a cruise last year, a record figure. Many of Cruise Critic’s more than one million members are looking forward to getting back onboard; an ongoing poll shows 75% will “cruise the same” or “cruise more” when the restrictions are lifted. I look forward to being one of them.
'A rite of passage'
I have no memories of my first cruise, which I spent mostly on my knees, gurgling with delight. And, no, this wasn’t down to an abundance of sailaway cocktails! My 14-month-old self was simply finding my sea-legs on our first family sailing from Southampton to the Mediterranean aboard a Union Castle Line ship.
A few decades later I took my own children, three-year-old twin girls, on our first family voyage, which became the first of 27 such sea (and river) going adventures during the last 14 years. Our cruises became a rite of passage complementing each stage of the twins’ lives with unforgettable experiences that shore-based holidays simply couldn’t touch, introducing the girls to a myriad of cultures, countries and encounters – often on the same trip.
Now nearing adulthood, they have a rich bank of childhood memories to call on: from sailing past an erupting volcano in the Galapagos islands and mind-blowing snorkelling escapades with frolicking sealions and penguins to the awe of seeing a huge humpback whale in Alaska that breached so close to our ship we could see the barnacles on its back.
Then there was the magical time our tall clipper ship sailed past the smoking volcano of Stromboli at sunrise as we sat in the bowsprit nets while dolphins dived in the prow wave below.
Onboard the various ships were kids clubs with fabulously friendly crew who spoilt the girls rotten; first-rate shows; waterslides and even the chance to party with Mickey Mouse.
I know my job as a cruise journalist made such voyages an obvious shoo-in, but looking back I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
'How could I have got it so wrong about cruising?'
The pharaohs never had it so good. As we puttered along the silty-blue Nile, with dunes riding the horizon to the west, a ragged temple appeared on a bend in the river ahead. A Horus-like eagle wheeled above and our cruiser pulled up to a jetty that lay empty and stark. Beyond the sundeck pool and private hot tubs, Kom Ombo’s wondrously-eerie halls and sanctuaries lay blissfully serene.
At the time, five years ago, Egypt was on partial lockdown after a series of terrorist bombings in Cairo and Giza, and with tourists staying away I’d booked a cut-price trip on my first cruise ship, the luxurious Oberoi Zahra.
I’d always been first in line to badmouth cruising with negative, ill-informed views, yet the idea of sailing to Luxor onboard a near-empty, floating five-star palace was the stuff of fantasy. Perhaps, I’d wondered, I should give it a go.
Holy Moses, it was extraordinary. Borderline indecent, even. From the second I boarded in Aswan, with its palm-fringed atolls and dreamlike feluccas, to digging deep into Egypt’s timeless past in the Valley of the Kings with our guide Sami. How could I have got it so horribly wrong?
Nowadays, I’m a sucker for a floating holiday, and the quirkier the boat the better. Sailing Halong Bay in a junk, navigating Raja Ampat on a phinisi yacht, cruising Sri Lanka in a thatched houseboat: all trips like no other. You could say it’s an addiction. I even sailed Alaska’s Inside Passage last autumn on Royal Princess, the largest cruise ship to ever do so. Boy, I loved it in a way I never could have imagined. Sometimes, there was nothing for it but to stop and gawp.
Since Egypt, one thing I’ve learnt is that regardless of the size of the vessel or destination, cruising’s appeal is less about seeing a city or sight than simply feeling the journey. A boat is a place to wonder. Next month, I was meant to be on a catamaran expedition to Desolation Sound in British Colombia. Not anymore. That departure, like so many, has been cancelled in such extraordinary times. And so, when life straightens out, I’ll set sail again, then dream of more.
'There's a community spirit in the cruise industry'
I’m not sure I can actually recall my first cruise. I have loved being on water ever since I was a youngster, a happy passenger on family sailing jaunts around Chichester harbour. Then in my years as a trade journalist I was back and forth to Southampton for ship visits more times than I can count.
But slowly and surely, over the years, cruising has stolen a march on my heart. A big part of that is the energy and enthusiasm that is a near universal characteristic of those who work in the industry. It doesn’t matter whether they were the president of a cruise line or a cabin steward welcoming me to my stateroom, everyone I have met through cruise shares the same passion.
Crew work long hours, spend many months away from home, and disappear ‘below decks’ at the end of their shift, but no matter what, they remain focused on the job, smiling, friendly and intent on making your cruise the best experience it can possibly be.
This community spirit among the global cruise industry is why I am convinced that coronavirus will not break the industry.
Yes we have a few hurdles to overcome first. Ports need to reopen, the UK and US travel advisories against guests over 70 and those with severe, chronic health conditions going on a cruise need to be lifted, and there needs to be industry-wide agreement over a new approach to medical checks to ensure ‘the floating petri dish’ headlines are consigned to history.
But while cruise lines maintain their ships on ‘hot lay-ups’, meaning they can re-enter service with just a few days’ notice, I shall stay optimistic that one day in the not too distant future, we will be able to rejoin our friends on board once more. And when we do, their welcoming smiles will stretch from ear to ear.