WHEN Oasis, the world’s biggest cruise ship, launched last year in Miami with all the fanfare of a royal spaceship, I recoiled. The idea of a floating carnival/town/funfair/shopping mall/beach resort holding 6,296 passengers, a good portion of whom may well end up sunburnt, drunk, disorderly and seasick, is about as far from my idea of a holiday as can be.
Oasis is the multi-billion dollar cruise industry’s most extreme example of the holiday-at-sea. Yet cruising in general does not have the best reputation for those after peace and quiet, style and subtance.
So when the opportunity to go on a cruise myself emerged, I balked. But only for about three seconds. For it was clear the cruise on offer was a cut above. Mention “Seabourn” to those who know the world of luxury sea travel and the response is always a murmur of respect.
Seabourn, actually owned by mega cruise company Carnival Corporation, is quite a different world from some of its parent company’s other lines (Carnival Cruise, Princess, Holland America). To begin with, ships are smaller – the largest, the Odyssey, carries only 450 passengers. This means there’s roughly one member of staff per two people – certainly this was the case on the Legend, the ship that took us round the Med in June (also the boat used in the filming of Speed 2).
There’s been some furore recently about the extravagance of the hidden extras on cruises – tips being the biggest offenders. On many boats, wine with dinner, food in certain restaurants, activities on board and so on, can cost you dearly.
Seabourn cruises claim to be all-inclusive, and they are. From the Mercedes that collected us at Nice and drove us to the ship in Monte Carlo, with a driver that showed us the sights just because he had a few extra minutes, to the two huge welcome bottles of our choice of spirits (gin and whisky). Champagne, wine and fruit also met us in our suite. All food, in any form, from formal sit down to afternoon cakes to room service, is on the house. Ditto drinks, except for aged whiskies and vintage wines.
On arrival in our suite, we just had time to note the champagne on ice, poke our heads out of our French doors opening out onto the Monte Carlo harbour and eat a grape before it was time to head up for the first of many rounds of cocktails and champers on deck. The feeling of being lightly sozzled, the white-clad staff flocking round with trays and bottles while the sun beat down and the buildings and mountains of Monaco receded, was such a profoundly pleasurable one I advocate a trip just for this.
Food, drink and sun are big components of any cruise holiday – how else are you to justify the cost? The main deck, the highest on the boat, houses the main bar, and a superb, always civilised atmosphere accompanied the clink of ice cubes and the pop of champagne corks. A plate of chocolate chip cookies is always on hand, and you’d be surprised at how well these go with an afternoon cocktail – or five. The daily rhythm on deck is to head out to land, go on a pre-booked excursion (there is a whole menu of them, and they cost around $80-$100) or just have a wander, then return to the ship for afternoon, sunset and evening drinks on deck.
Food is generous, even if it’s not always refined. The main dining room was my least favourite part of the ship for being dingy and slightly reminiscent of a hotel conference centre, the sea just visible through the small portholes. But the formal dress code and hustle and bustle gave it a good atmosphere, and the three course menu a sense of occasion – also the central communal table meant you could always meet new people (mostly Americans). Another restaurant, an elegant outdoor affair on the back of the ship, was the stuff of fantasy – not for its food, which was perfectly pleasant formal European, but for its seaside setting. At sunset it was indescribably romantic, and the perfect way to cool your ray-kissed skin and culture-worn eyes. As for our personal favourite: the on-deck bbq for the whole boat, which began with table after table loaded with lobster, steak and everything else, and gave way to dancing. Burgers and wine in the room, the sea lapping outside, were also delightful.
The whole purpose of a cruise, of course, is to see different places with minimal effort. This, for a cruising virgin, was a delight – there is a unique pleasure in waking up, flinging open the windows and seeing a new harbour. Porquerolles, a tiny island near Antibes, was the most enchanting stop, the port so small (and beautiful) that the Legend had to moor off-shore and we were ferried in (one of Seabourne’s great advantages is that boats are small enough to moor in the world’s most beautiful small coves). Left to our own devices, we strolled through car-free streets until we came to a slew of postcard-perfect beaches (turquoise water, white sand, lush greenery as a backdrop) and had just enough time for a swim and a sunbathe before it was time to head shipwards again.
Menorca was also wonderfully picturesque, as well as full of historical curiosity – here we did a guided excursion around the prehistoric structures known as talayots, which are believed to have been built as altars, dwelling places, burial chambers, watch towers and storehouses. They bear a striking resemblance to Stonehenge and are eerie, unexpected and interesting – our guide was deeply knowledgeable. The tour was doubtless and indication of the quality of other excursions, many of which involve local wine and food tastings.
The route will be particularly pleasurable to lovers of Spain – the Balearic islands of Menorca and Mallorca (a stop in Palma was slightly overwhelming), Valencia and Barcelona, the final stop, outweighed the French element, which took in Monte Carlo (the ship’s origin), Antibes and Porquerolles. It was a shame to miss Italy, but Seabourn has other routes that take in that country – in fact, Seabourn has other routes that take in the rest of the world.
If you like the idea of seeing the world from a luxurious seaside perch, and being spoiled to high heaven while you do it, look no further. Those who like on-board nightclubs, casinos and shopping malls, however, need not apply. The next cruise from Monte Carlo to Barcelona departs 19 June. Seven days from £1,849. To book or see other cruises, go to www.seabourn.com