Having taken our first cruise almost 24 years ago when there were relatively few good cruise ships about, we have noticed many changes, and not all of them are for the best.
For a start, ships actually used to look like ships. That is, their outlines were long, sleek and streamlined and (when viewed from the front) they were wider than they were tall (not including the funnel).
When on board, you were met with wooden decking and lots of teak and brass fittings. An inside cabin was the norm and, if you wanted to upgrade, you could book a stateroom with one or two portholes, affording you the luxury of daylight in your room. Doorways meant having to lift your feet over the threshold and you often slept in a bunk rather than a bed.
When you awoke in the morning you saw the light streaming in your round, brass-bound window and felt the excitement of being at sea.
Evenings meant putting on your best bib and tucker before enjoying an aperitif and a sumptuous dinner. This was usually followed by post-prandial liqueurs before finally taking in the evening’s entertainment, whether it be cabaret, singer, musician or comedian or dance troupe.
If you were fortunate, your table-mates in the restaurant became your friends for the duration of the voyage and you spent many a happy hour in their company chatting over drinks, watching the show or forming a quiz team. Other fellow passengers became on nodding terms or greeted you in recognition.
Cruising was always seen as a “luxury” holiday, something that little bit special, something with a bit of glitz and glamour. Sometimes you’d even meet celebrities and feel, even if for a fleeting while, that you were one of them.
Alas, how times have changed. 😦
From the original five best-known cruise lines (Cunard, P & O, Fred Olsen, Holland America and Swan Hellenic) who specialise in ocean voyages and holidays at sea, there are now no less than 37 (so-called) cruise lines, all competing fiercely for our custom. As a result of this, the cost of a cruise has come right down in recent years, meaning that taking a cruise is now an affordable option for the average salary earner, rather than just being the reserve of the famous or better-off as it used to be. Which is, on the whole, not a bad thing.
However, there is a trade-off. Ship builders such as Fincantieri yard in Italy seem to be churning out at least one new ship a year and they all have something in common: they are HUGE. Ships are getting bigger and bigger until they no longer look like sea-going vessels but more like floating apartment blocks. Never mind your outside cabins with portholes; everyone wants their own private balcony. Ships carrying 5,000+ passengers are not unknown these days, then there is the crew on top of that.
Gone is the beautiful carpentry and workmanship, the wooden decks and the brass fittings. In their place is plastic decking (basically floor-covering with lines drawn on to look like planks…ugh!), pre-fabricated cabins with paper-thin walls, wood veneer and perspex and replica art adorning the walls. Plenty of space is given for shopping arcades, photo gallery, spa and hair salon and ‘specialist’ fee-attracting eateries – basically any way they can get even more money from the passengers.
Oh, but we’re not called “passengers” any more, either. We’re now known as “guests”, a horrible Americanism that has crept into cruising vocabulary; no doubt as ships try to imitate floating hotels, so their patrons should be referred to as “guests”. As far as I am concerned, I am taking a PASSAGE on a ship, so I will remain a PASSENGER, thank-you-very-much.
Gone too is the peace and quiet you would once enjoy whilst up on deck taking in the fresh sea air. Instead, it is a daily scramble for the sunbeds and for a place in the jacuzzi, and the smell of the sea is slightly tainted with the smell of the burgers and chips usually on offer around the pool. Add to that the fact that the entertainment staff are constantly trying to get you to join in with something or are playing LOUD music or the photographers are trying to get you to pose yet again and you may find that a cruising holiday is anything but relaxing.
As for that very pleasant couple you chatted with at lunchtime… chances are you won’t clap eyes on them again for the rest of the cruise as they disappear into the thousands of others on board.
And dressing up in your DJ on formal nights? Forget it; these days it’s all about “freestyle” cruising: wear what you want, eat where you want, when you want.
So far you may have guessed that I am not a fan of large, modern cruise ships, and you’d be quite right.
Another major disadvantage is that so many of the modern ships are too large to fit into a conventional cruise terminal so they have to dock at container ports instead. Usually these are miles from any of the local attractions and there is nothing to see but… containers. Containers and large groups of taxi and shuttle bus drivers, all vying for your custom as they offer to take you on an “island tour” or into the main town.
If you arrive at a port of call where the water is too shallow and the ship has to drop anchor, then another problem arises… getting 3000+ passengers (sorry… guests) ashore in the tender boats. Then getting them all back on board again.
If you’ve read my account of our Caribbean cruise on the Ventura over New Year, you would glean that, although we enjoyed our holiday, it wasn’t exactly my favourite ship and I’d probably not cruise on it again, not unless the itinerary was exceptional.
I make one exception in my critique of larger vessels, and that is the Queen Mary 2. That is because she is not a cruise ship, she is an ocean liner and, at 151,000 tons, carries 2,400 passengers, allowing a greater ratio of personal space per person than the 115,000 ton Ventura and her 3,600 passenger capacity. The day all cruise ships carry more than 2,500 passengers is the day I’ll stop cruising and spend my holidays away from the rat race on a desert island instead.
In the meantime, I’ll stick with my little old ships like the Marco Polo and the Braemar with their wooden decks and their portholes. I’ll spend ages in the hair salon having a glamorous up-do and I’ll wear my long dresses and silken wraps. I’ll sit on the decks enjoying my personal space and listening to the sound of the sea and sipping cocktails. And I’ll have a whale of a time doing cruising the way it was meant to be done. 🙂