The Caribbean: So glad I pushed the boat out
I am having breakfast and the flying fish are having a leaping competition in the seemingly endless stretch of water in my eye-line. Once again, the sky and the sea are that exact shade of brilliant blue that you see in the brochures but never quite believe you will see for yourself. It is a view you can never tire of and for 10 perfect days, it was mine — well, mine and 3,020 others’.
I always said I was not the kind of person to go on a cruise. Captive audience, I muttered, adding, mentally, cramped facilities, sub-standard entertainment, Butlin’s afloat. How wrong I was.
The essence of a cruise, to some extent, lies in having free will taken away from you — that is, in the blissful sense of having someone else make decisions and look after you. Princess Cruises, on its newest ship, Emerald Princess, has this down to a fine art.
From the moment we boarded this luxury liner at its berth in Port Everglades, Florida, our daily forehead-wrinkling decisions could be whittled down as follows: which dining-room (of three) shall we eat in, which swimming-pool (of four) shall we lounge by, which top-class show shall we go to tonight, which bar shall we drape ourselves at? (There was the mildest of concerns as to what we might wear every day, but this was scarcely troubling in high-80 temperatures with delicious little Caribbean breezes wafting around).
The Emerald made its inaugural voyage on April 11 2007, and despite the fact that most of its passengers are American, it is shamelessly European in feel, not least since the ship is Italian-built and most of the officers are British or Italian.
The cabin staff are mainly from the Philippines and that country’s reputation for producing caring, helpful staff is amply demonstrated by their attention to detail, so that you feel you are staying in a very high-class hotel.
On my voyage, in October, there were just 163 Britons on board, many of them returning passengers. Princess has a whole package of incentives to encourage people to cruise again, and brand loyalty is astonishingly high. I met many people who were on their 20th cruise, and if I thought that preposterous when I first boarded, by the end of the trip I was not only loath to leave but was regarding fondly the idea of returning — and quite soon.
The Emerald’s Caribbean voyages are a nicely timed 10 days, and the feeling that you are on a floating city is cheerfully backed up by the appearance of a ship’s daily newspaper, Princess Patter, and your own personal post box outside your cabin in which you receive daily updates, invitations, news of special offers, and even communications from other passengers.
Each deck soon becomes a kind of neighbourhood with a local steward, and a lot of banter on the adjoining balconies of the outside cabins. Some passengers enliven their doorways with decorations: we had a couple of honeymoon couples on our deck, and one celebrating a big anniversary.
Another deck, to almost universal amusement, became the province of the Bears Club, an international group of charming, though large, gay men, 300 of whom were, er, cruising with us. Their doorways were festooned with photographs of Bears when young, underlining the truth of what happens when you feed bears...
Ah, yes, the food. One rule of cruises, I was told, is that people board as passengers and disembark as cargo. It is true to say that I have never in my life seen such fat people as roamed the decks of the Emerald Princess, and the fact that there was round-the-clock dining available was almost certainly a contributory factor.
But that is to suggest that the food was merely fuel, whereas it was of a consistently high standard. Every morning there were mountains of fresh fruit; each lunchtime giant buffets with full vegetarian or fish options; and every evening lavish haute cuisine choices in the main dining rooms. Sabatini’s, a specialist Italian, offered a deluxe tasting menu, while all day, every day the bars and snack counters offered pizza and ice-cream.
And as if that were not enough, kosher passengers could pre-order supervised meals from Miami-based Webermans — a full range of meals including bouef bourgignon, barbecue beef or roast chicken. Even our somewhat blasé table companions stared enviously at our kosher meals and could be heard considering whether it was worth a quickie conversion.
How many shore activities you sign up for at each port of call is a personal choice. My experience suggests that, tempting though some excursions look in the pre-cruise booklet, you may occasionally do better (and cheaper) making your own arrangements when you arrive.
In some places, however, the ship’s on-shore excursion is unique to the ship: such as the Hot Spring Escape on Dominica. You follow local guides through remote rainforest until you reach the Ti Tou Gorge (which apparently featured in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films).
And then — suitably garbed in safety gear — you swim between breath-catchingly cold boulders to a clear-as-crystal waterfall. It is simply magical. Then you head for some open-air mineral pools and relax in the sulphur-rich water.
If you find yourself on St Thomas — and most of the big cruise ships call at the duty-free capital of the Caribbean — a must-see is the synagogue.
One of four congregations in the world with sand on the floor (the others are Curaçao, Surinam and Jamaica), this shul is a little jewel, presided over by the avuncular Rabbi Arthur Starr, and cherished by the islanders as their synagogue, as much a historic monument as the 19th-century church.
The sand is a legacy of the Sephardic Jews who came to the Caribbean when they fled the Inquisition and used the sand to muffle their prayers.
Today, there are around 110 members of the congregation, many intermarried with the islanders; you’ll also find Israelis who work on the desalination plant on St Thomas, providing fresh clear drinking water to this island paradise.
Back on board — where, incidentally, there is a passenger-led Friday night service —there is no shortage of things to do, from dallying luxuriously at the spa, to playing real sports or virtual golf, or taking part in the cheerful quizzes and party games organised by the hardworking entertainment crew. If you hold back, concerned about your dignity, you should cast these cares aside and plunge in. Who knows, you might just win a prize (usually a baseball cap.)
Among the highlights of this trip — and there were many — were two events: the first formal night, when the often “casual” passengers were transformed into something resembling the chorus of a classy Astaire-Rogers film; and a brilliant, privileged visit to the bridge, where I got to see the ocean from the captain’s point of view.
Add to that, terrific shows and being elegantly looked after by the wonderfully attentive maitre d’ Silvio and head waiter Tomas, and you have a recipe for complete hedonism.
And here’s the best bit: the strength of the pound against the dollar means all this is very affordable. Cruise or lose…
Princess Cruises (0845 3 555 800) offers a range of Caribbean voyages aboard Emerald Princess. These include a 12-night Southern Caribbean fly-cruise departing Fort Lauderdale November 29 and calling at Aruba, Bonaire, Grenada, Dominica, St Thomas and Princess Cays. From £1,069 per person, including flights. The line adds $10 per cruise-day per person to cover all gratuities. Princess Cruises return to Israel this year, calling at Haifa and Ashdod on two Holy Land tours.