Saturday, 2 January 2010


I’ve had enough now.

Not because the weather is beginning to turn, I love long days at sea and am even enjoying the breeze which is now whipping the waves into whitecaps and forcing the geriatrics indoors, despite the fact it’s still 75 degrees out there. I’ll even like it tomorrow when the waves get up to 25 feet and the temperature drops to zero.

But there’s a different atmosphere since we left St. Thomas for our 1500 mile dash to New York. Even the water tastes different.

Always keen to run what looks like Paddy’s Market on the lower decks with table after table displaying tawdry jewellery or stuffed toys, the ships retail team are having a fire sale with piles of very cheaply-made clothing like ‘Atlantic Crossing 2009’ t-shirts, key rings, glasses, mugs and anything the suppliers can brand with the ‘Cunard’ logo back in their factories in Bangalore and Shenzen.

I haven’t understood the shopping ethic throughout the cruise. If the point of a long gentle sea voyage is sybaritic relaxation, why would you want to be endlessly comparison shopping for jewellery? Must be part of that marital guilt thing. But every port is the same – at the dockside there’s always a shopping mall catering to the keen buyer or the totally infirm who can’t totter more than a hundred yards from the boat. But it always contains the same shops, specifically Diamonds International and Colombian Emeralds. I didn’t even know Colombia mined emeralds, let alone retailed them at every waterside location from Port Canaveral to Curacao. Oh, and a chain called ‘Mr. Tablecloth’, God alone knows why it should be a maritime tradition to come home with a table cover and matching napkins (I’d have nicked mine from the ship’s restaurant) but apparently, at least in Peoria, it is.

Equally beyond me is the gambling. I would have imagined a five-star cruise ship might have blackjack or roulette and my mental picture featured James Bond types in white tuxedo jackets and women like Russian spies. But the overweight slobs slumped at the many many slot machines (some of which accept $100 bills so we’re not talking about shovelling quarters here) confirm my impression that cruising’s not the exclusive preserve of the jet-set. Or the tasteful. Or clean.

Perhaps it’s time to list some of my gripes about this experience – overall, it’s been enjoyable and I have met some delightful people and we kept each other highly amused for two weeks ... but there’s a long list of niggles.

I hate the way nothing is complimentary. Apart from your accommodation and basic three meals a day, everything requires an extra payment whether it’s a coffee in one of the lounges or a bottle of drinking water in your cabin. Eating in the a la carte restaurant (which has the same menu every night) cost $30 per head supplement. It’s good, but I would have expected the main restaurant to be of this standard.

On top of the ‘room and beverage service charge’ of $11 per person per day billed to your shipboard account, everything you sign for carries an automatic ‘gratuity’ of 15% which is not optional, and the extra ‘tips’ box is also left blank on every chit. A couple drinking two cocktails each and a bottle of wine a day will easily rack up $500 in compulsory gratuities. This exhibits a lack of apparent generosity which, if they are not careful, will make Cunard the Ryanair of cruise lines (as its parent Carnival already is) whereby a low lead-in price is effectively doubled by the passenger’s necessary expenses during his trip. I’d rather pay a bit more and have all-inclusive MEAN all-inclusive.

The housekeeping is good, but many trays, service carts, buckets and vacuum cleaners are left in the corridors, often all day. Bed linen is changed only every third or fourth day, and I was shocked one evening to pull out my tucked-in duvet and find a large smear of dried blood which definitely wasn’t mine.

Smoking is allowed on all balconies and some open decks, so there’s blowback into cabins and corridors, as well as in the casino and the ghastly ‘Golden Lion’ pub, by comparison with which the Queen Vic in East Enders looks smart, both these areas being open to the main lobbies.

Lots of things are simply unavailable. There’s no thick toast at breakfast, it’s all thin cold and brittle: apparently it’s impossible for the ship to supply either thick-sliced bread, or even cut an unsliced loaf to order. There’s brown-coloured bread but nothing I can recognise as wholegrain. And no salted butter. Nor is there any semi-skimmed milk, which is only achievable by having a jug of full-fat and a jug of skim and mixing them mid-air over your cup. Although they use it in their cooking, greek yoghurt is unavailable and despite the fact we’re passing through fruit-growing islands, melons aren’t ripe and peaches and apricots are canned. Equally, there’s no fresh squeezed juice, the orange being an especially vile reconstitute.

There’s no choice of vegetables at dinner, nor is the combination to be supplied shown on the menu. And however they describe their potatoes (variously roast, chateau and fondant) it’s always the same barrel-shaped bastard with no flavour and a soggy oven-coloured exterior.

Entertainment didn’t meet my expectations. I thought at least for the Christmas/New Year cruise they’d have sourced one headline singer or comedian but the Entertainment Director explained that the ship doesn’t control its own selections of performers, they’re all sent from a central talent office and all they can do on the ship is package the shows to the best of their ability.

Excursions are overpriced. A simple two-hour coach tour may be $70. In ports as well-serviced for tourism as those in the Caribbean, this seems greedy. It soon became apparent that walking out of the immediate dockside area, licensed and legitimate alternatives were available for a third of what the ship charged. I enjoyed the river tubing and the cave swimming expeditions, but for trips around the bay or to a beach, ad hoc was definitely cheaper.


St Thomas, 1 January 2010

Post-Barbados, the islands dissolve into a collection of English Parish Churches as in rapid succession we attend service at St Kitts, St Lucia, St Thomas and continuing the Sunday theme, Dominica.

Dominica stands out as one of the poorest islands in the Caribbean, memorable for its long-serving and now late Prime Minister Mrs. Eugenia Charles who regularly came to Britain to intercede with the Queen (to whom she bore a striking, if negative-coloured, resemblance) and petition the European Union to allow the import of Windward Island bananas which were technically too curved for Brussels’ standards.

In brightly-painted ex-army trucks we climbed the crumbling roadways to one of the tall peaks that dot the island, to hike up through the rainforest to a cave used in the filming of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ where high rocks surround a narrow river and you then swim in warm rain through the cave to a thundering waterfall. So in a sense, I’ve been through Johnny Depp’s cleft.

On St Lucia we just said to the taxi driver ‘beach’ and were lucky to arrive at Reduit where many of the cruise passengers wouldn’t venture because the tide was so high it had flooded the carpark, but we found a welcome at the Bay Gardens Resort with comfortable loungers, crashing surf, cheap beers, an excellent lunch and a great massage in a muslin-curtained cabana on the beach from a girl who did more for my aching shoulder in 20 minutes than I could expect from a month of physiotherapy.

Of all the islands we’ve visited, St Lucia’s the first one I’d think of for a future holiday, so it’s been a useful exercise and possibly saved thousands in airfares, to know I wouldn’t again want to visit so many others.

St Kitts is pretty rundown, all the formerly British-administered islands seem to be, and the weather was overcast and rainy, so the promised carnival in the afternoon got cancelled and I was glaid I had ducked out of the 7-hour sailaway to Nevis. I did have an amble round scruffy Basseterre, the capital, where a presidential election seemed to be in progress, the bright red or yellow banners of the rival parties fluttering from telegraph poles and paint-peeling buildings.

In the ship, the preparations for New Year’s Eve are fervid, with half the crew apparently up ladders rigging equipment for a massive ‘balloon drop’.

For me, this falls deeply into the ‘why bother’ category since I never quite understand the fuss made over the change in date from Dec 31 to Jan 1. I’m feeling edgy at cocktails which is made worse by the provision on the tables of rattles and squeakers which the entire dining room begins to trumpet from 9.45pm onwards. I also find myself becoming irritated with people whose company I’ve enjoyed on every other evening, so it’s clearly the shadow of the night affecting my mood, although Louis did have too much to drink too early and became a bit incoherent as his attention span dwindled to nanoseconds.

Just before midnight we paraded down to the Queen’s room and for once it wasn’t mis-named as we raised more than a few eyebrows by dancing in same-sex pairs although no-one dared to say anything out loud. Since this was also captured on video by the official photographers, I look forward to seeing whether it will feature in future Cunard advertising.

After the midnight countdown, the gang plan to take over the G32 night-club, a space reminiscent of commercial discos from the mid-80’s before the advent of laser light or digital sound, it’s pretty awful. I go back to the cabin about 12.30 to get some cooler air and sit on the bed for ten minutes ... then the next thing I know it’s 3.45am so perhaps I missed some fun, or possibly escaped the meltdown.

Either way, in the morning I’m brighter and more clear-eyed than most of the ship and enjoy a comparatively early breakfast and the fact the decks are all but deserted. The view is of deep turquoise water dotted with yachts and I set out to explore the last island.

St Thomas is arguably the best-kept outpost in the Caribbean with neat beaches and decent-looking houses, since it’s run as a US state and everything’s in reasonable repair and seems to work. I suspect the cost of living is therefore comparatively high although this is mainly on the evidence of being charged $7.50 for a banana daiquiri at one of the stops on the tour. It majors in duty free sales and the whole of the city centre is so completely given over to diamond, emerald, gold, perfume and liquor stores that you wonder how on earth the locals shop for food and essentials.

Still, a cocktail on the sunny terrace of a Plantation Great House is not a bad way to start the year, even at $7.50, and I reflect on my good fortune at being able to do it.