I have placed, and lost, three disastrous bets this year: I put £100 at 33-1 on Luton getting promoted to the premiership. We were relegated. I bet my good friend Mark Wilcox a pair of brand new Ray Ban Aviators that Tony Blair would never apologise for his many debacles on leaving Number Ten. He did, sort of. And most recently, when boarding the Regent Seven Seas Voyager at the never knowingly understated harbour at St Tropez, I bet the Regent rep a bottle of the local Caprice Merlot that I would be younger by far than what I assumed would be the 600-odd leather-skinned pensioners bound for Barcelona, Menorca, Portofino and other Mediterranean ports. Again I was wrong, and this time by a country mile and several decades.
Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped inside a mystery, tucked inside an enigma”. I have long viewed cruises pretty much the same way, the only certainty being, in my mind at least, that all cruisers are, how shall I say it, a bit old.
What did octogenarians do all day, I wondered, cooped up in a tower block at sea? Is it all bridge and quoits, tea dances and bingo? Is the on-board entertainment really provided by a superannuated magician called Mephisto and his assistant, the Lovely Jayne? Is dining at the captain’s table really considered an honour equal to, say, receiving a knighthood? Is there really a Zimmer-frame park strategically placed alongside the life-boats? And are cruisers all so old that they remember when the Titanic was ocean-going rather than ocean gone? The answer, I can now tell you, is no, no, yes, no, sometimes.
Discounting the enigma of the captain’s table, the other concepts are all hopeless stereotypes perpetrated by people like me who had never actually been on a cruise. For this cruise was passably young(ish) and enormous fun.
I will start with my cabin. Did I say cabin? Stateroom, entry to which banished all thoughts of the one that three Marx Brothers plus 28 crew spilled out of in A Night at The Opera. In mine you could have played tennis. It was vast and luxurious, right down to the sumptuous Egyptian linen, the squash court-sized walk-in closet and the private balcony. I should have asked to see one of the really large rooms, just to see the goals at either end.
There is not much call for the sweeping staircases that cascade down the Voyager, not with four glass elevators, the kind that gave Mel Brooks high anxiety in High Anxiety, to whisk you all the way up to the sun deck which is encircled within a 250-metre jogging track with golf nets and paddle tennis at the far end. There on the deck, around the pool and the Jacuzzis, you will find all life laid out before you, much of it inside swimsuits that, I shall charitably assume, once fitted their owners.
Not that anyone seemed much bothered by ill-fitting twin-sets and Speedos. Everyone on board the Voyager seems content to soak up the Mediterranean sun and the food and drink that comes on tap and is all included — wine and champagne, too, in the package price. Food is king on the Voyager, lots of it; morning, noon and night, with menus ranging from the death-defyingly calorific to the low-fat and salt-free. All diets, and appetites, are catered for, including challah and kiddush wine on Friday night for the Jewish guests.
Regency offers a bewildering array of daily tours and excursions at the various ports of call, all of which sound mighty tempting. Avoid them. They come at a price. Olive oil tasting in Portofino costs a whopping $189; Positano by private boat with gourmet lunch a stratospheric $825. Even a three-hour horseback ride in Menorca will leave you little change from $200. No, all these places are best discovered under your own steam with your pocket largely undisturbed.
Me? I spent a whole day walking Barcelona and nursing a succession of cappuccinos in my favourite corner of the tiny Placa del Pi, which nestles quietly by the side of a cloistered old church barely 100 metres from the relentlessly touristy La Rambla.
Barcelona is over-hyped and over-visited and will never be in the same league as the criminally under-valued Valencia just down the coast. But anyone who tells you that Barcelona is not one of the great walking cities is talking out of his tapas. From the waterfront up to Montjuic via all points Gaudi, Barcelona has scores of mighty viewpoints and scores of surreal rooftops at every turn, and the day they finally finish building the ever more bizarre Sagrada Familia will be the day I stop returning — I suspect never.
Back on board the Voyager, I hit the ocean view gym before presenting my body at the ship’s Carita de Paris spa facility for a one-hour hot stone massage. I am not sure how therapeutic the treatment was, but the girl was so proficient at laying the stones, I am planning on getting her in to do my patio.
I took dinner that evening in the ship’s intimate top-deck La Veranda restaurant, the most laid back of the Voyager’s four dining options, and indulged myself in a meal of disgracefully delicious desserts, right down to the last scraping of creamy white pannacotta. My statins had their work cut out that night.
I downed that little lot while sinking feet first into a bottle of Rosso di Montepulciano in the abundant company of a cavernous septuagenarian buba from Great Neck who was dripping foundation and diamonds from every fold of skin while showing me photographs of her recently deceased fourth husband’s funeral. “He died in my arms,” she told me. “So, it was murder,” I muttered under my breath. I think I got away with it.
Her name was Irma Finklestone. The cruise was rich in Irma Finklestones, a generic order of folk all of whom seem to travel with their divorcée’s 30-something daughters in search of a fifth husband for one and a second, perhaps third, for the other. Falling between the two age-groups, I felt doubly threatened, but I cannot deny they were great company.
Dining was less formal than I expected. Aside from the odd black-tie gala nights, casual attire (“country casual” they call it; I have no idea what it means) is pretty much the style, and the less structured of my Paul Smith jackets and Jimmy Choo loafers saw plenty of late-night action in the ship’s casino. I am not, you may have gathered, a very good gambler, but I do know how to pose, and a ship’s casino is a poseur’s paradise, and honestly, you would have thought it was James Bond, such was my air of languid nonchalance at the craps table, even after everyone else had long gone to bed.
This was a nice cruise. I am up for another. Regent do not just cruise the Med. From the Baltic to the Caribbean, Antarctica to French Polynesia, they cover the world, pretty much, and provided I can get sponsored by some kindly old Finklestone in search of a toy boy, I think I might just go for their epic 60-day circumnavigation of South America. Why not? Cruises are fun. You just need to know the ropes and enter into the spirit. “At last,” to lift the closing line from High Fidelity, “I can see how it’s done.”
Regent Seven Seas Cruises (023 8068 2280; brochure: 0870 225 0912) will be cruising this September for 7 nights from Nice to Venice (with overnight stay) via Livorno, Civitavecchia (for Rome), Sorrento and Dubrovnik from £2,576 per person, with special offer of free flights from London and return. Special half-price Baltic itineraries from Stockholm to Copenhagen from £1,991 per person (flights additional) including two nights at St Petersburg.