I’m trying to put my finger on when I last had the feeling I have barely ten minutes into my first cruise.
Then I remember…it’s like when a comedian announces there’ll be audience participation and I’m in the front row.
Perhaps it’s the low ceilings of the ship I’ve just boarded, or the cacophonous soundtrack vibrating the speakers on the deck as we push away from the dock, or the check-in that’s less five star hotel and more reminiscent of registering for a convention.
A fellow traveller grimaces as the music gets louder. “Is that karaoke, or is that actually a band?” he asks. This could be a very long eight days.
I’ve chosen my first cruise carefully: small ship, docking somewhere new every day, reasonable-sized rooms, a reputation for good food, and ports where you can easily do your own thing. I’ve always had a motto in travel: never get on anything you can’t get off.
I’ve scorned bus tours and sneered at anyone who sees a place from behind a tour guide holding up an umbrella. But for the next eight days I’m sharing my travel experience with around 200 strangers.
I’ve broken my own rules for the convenience of seeing a lot of places in a short time without having to pack, unpack or visit an airport or station.
Day 1: Civitavecchia, Italy
Slowly, things start to look up. First, the room, er cabin, is great. It has a picture window, marble bathroom (with bathtub) stocked with fancy toiletries, walk-in robe, living area with a sofa and armchairs and a queen bed with Egyptian cotton sheets. Secondly, I find an idyllic spot up the pointy end of the boat (ok, the bow) – a timber-decked triangle with banana lounges and a bubbling turquoise jacuzzi. And my fellow traveller and I have it to ourselves.
By dinner, we are hooked. From our table at the open air restaurant at the back, er stern, of the boat, we watch the sun sink into the ocean past our vessel’s fluttering flag. Dolphins cross the moonlit wake as waiters deliver lobster carpaccio, followed by steak and a glass of montepulciano. The steward suggests we take our unfinished wine back to the cabin, or he’ll hold it for tomorrow’s dinner. That first night I’m lulled to sleep by the gentle seas and distant hum of the engines.
Day 2: Capri, Italy
I wake with Capri shimmering and misty on the horizon. Dolphins playfully circle a fishing boat and elegant little tenders line up to take us ashore, 30 at a time. What’s not to like?
We break into groups for an island tour, skipping queues for the Blue Grotto, and the chairlift to Monte Solaro. This is travel with all the kinks ironed out.
That evening, watching Capri slip towards the horizon from our virtually private jacuzzi in the bow, I’m already planning the next voyage.
Day 3: Sicily, Italy
Early irritations have disappeared. The low ceilings of the little 106-cabin Star Breeze are offset by elegant shared spaces, there are quiet places to get away from livelier bars and groups, the school camp-style processing diminishes once everyone’s in the groove. And while the buffet can get buzzy at breakfast, there’s always a quiet table where you can order your eggs benedict a la carte.
But by day three I feel we need to set out without a posse. Waiting for cabin 106 to turn up for the morning tour, again, as thirty other adults cool their heels for ten minutes thinking they could have had a second coffee, is wearing thin.
While most go to the included tour and lunch at a winery on the slopes of Mt Etna, we wander the streets of Taormina, shopping for ceramics after lunch on a terrace high above the ocean.
Waiting for cabin 106 to turn up for the morning tour again is wearing thin
Back in the ship’s main restaurant, a ballroom-like space, the food is American, classic, with a few modern and ethnic flourishes. There are simple dishes like steak and grilled fish each night, and more elaborate ones like pork tenderloin with bourbon ancho sauce.
You can dine when you like with whom you like (or alone). There are no formal nights, so I don’t have to travel with clothing I will only wear on board. Food (breakfast, lunch, dinner and 24-hour room service) is included in the price.
Drinks are reasonably priced, good wines $US 7-10 per glass. Cocktails are priced similarly, and 15 per cent service is added. I’d considered taking the ‘drinks package’ which gives you alcoholic beverages for $US134 per cabin per day but our actual expenditure is way below this.
Day 4: At sea
A fellow Australian admits he woke in the night, and thought, “I didn’t think I’d had that much to drink” before realising the ship was rocking side to side. It’s barely noticeable, but it’s more movement than we’ve had so far on the glassy Mediterranean.
Today is a full day at sea, from 5pm push off at Messina last night until arrival in Kotor, Montenegro, around 9am tomorrow. Some see this as a necessary evil, and chuckle about the inventions crew have created to pass the time (a demonstration of how to fold towels into little animals; a lecture on mastering digital cameras from the ship’s photographer).
For others, a day at sea is bliss, permission to rack up spa treatments, loll on a banana lounge, drink cocktails, read. A few hit the gym, where several men discover they are too tall to use the treadmills without hitting the ceiling. Some opt for the exercise bikes, others slink away in apparent relief. Somehow it’s cocktail hour before I know it.
Day 5: Kotor, Montenegro
The ‘fjord’ in which Kotor rests is known as one of the most beautiful ports to enter. Sadly lovely Kotor is choked by tourists, tacky souvenirs, and touting taxis squabbling over who’s legal and who’s not. Our hour-long walking tour traverses from tedious to torturous, so impulsively we rent a tiny Toyota and head to a beach where we hobble across grey pebbles into azure water.
With a 10pm sailing, we dine onshore on local mussels, octopus and calamari paired with a dry Montenegran rose. Back on board the Star Breeze the signature Windstar deck barbecue is in full swing, tables laden with prawns and salads and a duo singing Volare. With wine bought on shore I slip quietly past to watch the lights come up just as the duo launch into Pharrell’s ‘Happy’, urging everyone to dance.
Day 6: Dubrovnik, Croatia
With five cruise ships in port, we’re advised to walk the walls early. It’s good advice. Afterwards, a larger ship’s passengers are lined up for several hundred metres in the hot sun, while only six of us wait for our tender.
It’s not the only difference I notice. I see other ships’ passengers wearing stickers to identify them. I never want to wear a sticker to identify me.
Our cruise builds time for independent exploration into shore excursions, too. We choose to see what we want, lunch where we want, shop, swim at local beaches, hike and buy local wine to drink in our cabin (free) or with dinner (for a reasonable corkage charge).
So much for cruising’s walking-frame clientele reputation
Day 7: Split, Croatia
After a cruise-organised tour of an Istrian hill town, I bump into fellow voyagers who’ve taken the mountain bike tour. They’re red faced, dusty, sweaty. Two fit young Americans say it was “intense”. They’d preferred the previous day’s white-water rafting trip, and the sea kayaking in Dubrovnik. So much for cruising’s walking-frame reputation.
Day 8: Rovinj, Croatia
After hiking above Rovinj on our own, stopping to swim at a small bay, I realise how much I’ve looked forward to returning to the comforts of our elegant little ship each day. I’ve even started to enjoy the thundering rendition of Vangelis’s 1492 as the Star Breeze sails nightly.
Day 9: Venice, Italy
As the ship sails into Venice at sunrise, I remember the words of a stylish acquaintance who surprised me by admitting an addiction to cruising, so much so that, “You can see my fingernail marks down the gangplank where they’ve had to drag me off at the end”. I’ve got to admit, I’m starting ro relate…and already wondering how soon I can do this again.
Windstar Classic Italy and the Dalmatian Coast, The Star Breeze, June 2015.
We paid $2667 per person and spent a further $800 per head on drinks, spa treatments and shore excursions.