Monte Carlo  Ship 059

First Cruise, what you need to know

Ever wondered about a cruise but you’re not sure about parting with the money? We sent three writers on their maiden voyages to see if life at sea is shipshape or leaves them with that sinking feeling. From river cruising, island-hopping or longer voyages, read their first-hand accounts before making your decision

UNIWORLD’S EIGHT-DAY CONNOISSEUR COLLECTION CRUISE Bordeaux, Cadillac, Pauillac, Blaye, Libourne

I'm sitting in Château de Cazanueve's cavernous hall tasting zesty Saunternes and sussing out my fellow passengers. Chuck, an elderly university lecturer with a broad Alabama accent ois telling me about a sister in law who has emerged from a convent after 50 years. "That's exciting that she came out after so long," I say politely. "Yes, in more ways than one. Turns out she's a lesbian. We're delighted." This is typical of teh 95 fellow passengers I meet on my week aboard Uniworld's Rover Royale. The highly conservative pensioners who I thought I'd meet never appear. Instead there's Geoff and Georgie, a folk singing duo who've hitch hiked across America. Also Stelios who has just finished restoring a shepherd's bothy in the Greek mountains from scratch, and stays up unitl dawn sipping Cointreau and telling us about his childhood in Alexandria.

The daily programme, left on our pillows every night, is rigorous to say the least. If you thought cruising was all bridge and bingo think again. There's and exercise class on deck with the wellness coach every morning at 7 AM (I find myself wishing I'd brought two sets of gym gear), followed by an activity such as a walking tour or Bordeaux whiere I was very glad of a sun hat.

A buffet lunch is followed by a visit to the Remy Martin Cognac distillery or a bike ride through the rolling Medoc vineyards, before returning to the boat for cocktails accompained by the on board musician a daily talk introducing the history of the next day's destinations and dinner, rounded off with apertifs in the lounge. After reading an online forum in which an ex-passenger referred to the sight of someone dining in shirtsleeves as 'utterly repugnant' we filled out suitcases with suits, silk and sports jackets. As it turns out we'd have been better off with sun cream, mosquito repellent and an adaptor. Other than no jeans or shorts in the dining room, the dress code is fairly relaxed and the atmosphere similar to an informal cocktail party. This is encouraged by the open seating policy, which means we sit with different people at every meal.

My partner and I have just got back from hiking in the Himalayas and camping in Greece. We are independent travellers and quail at the prospect of so much organised fun. I anticipate cabin fever within 48 hours, but it never arrives. We quickly realise how flexible everything is. One night, on returning from a post dinner stroll along Bordeaux's boardwalk we are seized by a desire for a nightcap in the hot tub, which is closed. The staff heaat is in double quick time and proceed to turn it on every night for the rest of the trip in case the whim strikes again.

Thanks to the shallow drafts river ships can cruise on suprisingly little water and moor up at remote villages that would be almost impossible to reach without a car. The receptionist has maps and an encyclopaedic knowledge of each destination. one morning we wake up early and he suggests we take bicycles and peddle to Libourne farmer's market. We chew croissant that are ligheter than air and watch local women in wedged espadrilles and matching handbags buy whole chickens roasted on spits, making us feel part of the day-to-day life. As long as we remember that the code for the gate changes every day and are back half an hour before departure we can come and go as we please.

Half way through the trip we decide to spend a quiet day on the ship. We worrt we'll be bored but find ourselves being swept up in a cookery demonstration of canelé, a regional speciality. The patisserie chef explains that traditionally five egg whites were broken into every barrel of red wine to stick to the sediment and make it easier to remove, and these delectably chewy cakes were devised to use the yolks. A venerable gentleman from Edinburgh tells me he has stayed on board most days due to mobility issues and has been entertained by a merry go round of photography lecturesm wine tasting and spa treatemnts. We spend the afternoon dozing on the top deck as chateaux with curvaceous turrets and delicate spires slide by.

Diner is excellent and far more varied than I expected, with four set menus that change daily. There's the "Traveling Lite' option, vegetarian, a la carte and Chef's Choice which showcases local ingredients such as mussels in cream, snails swimming in bacon and wine cause and velvety foi gras. Special events such as al fresco dining on the top deck have limited space and need to be booked at reception on the first night.

As a travel journalist I've been lucky to stay at some exceptional hotels, but the service on the River Royale is the best I've come across. The staff to guest ratio is 1:2 and the seem only too happy to notice and accomodate each guest's foibles. Every room has a glass snack jar full of confectionary; on the first night there is two of each but the maid sees that we always demolish the nougat first and put more of this in from then on. On our first evening we're given a pillow menu and asked to take our pick from five options (soft and downy all the way.) A fellow passenger complains because her room is on the starboard side of the shop and at some ports this means she's looking at wall rather than river, so be sure to ask for a portside cabin when booking - the staff will be happy to oblige. According to the hotel manager Sebastian Wendling the secret behind seamless service is good old team spirit. 'The crew stays together for nine months of the year and they live on the ship. They become family.'

On the last night as the sun turn Bordeaux's limestone tawny, we sip rose on deck with Chuck and reflect that in many ways, cruising is the ultimate holidays. Not only are in you a luxurious floating hotel, you can take a break from the dull logistics that make up so much of daily life without having to compromise on your experience. Everything from transfers to tipping is included, as are the sort of outings that would take a huge amount of time to organise. You get a real sense of a region while only having to unpack once. Slide open the floor to ceiling door of your stateroom and you'll discover dreamy destinations such as idyllic commune Borg en Girende without having to drive on France's notoriously confusing country roads. £3,039 isn't cheap, but when you factor in everything, it's good value. Bearing in mind that hiring a car for a week in France costs around £500 and one sleep ar Hostellerie de Plaisance, a hotel in St. Emilion with a similar standard of luxury is £288 a night, travelling independently could quickly add up to more. And anyway as Chuck says: "You're not only in the hustle and bustle of the traffic with people honkin'. You're out in nature enjoying the scenery, the tides and currents. I'd rather be on the river any day than pounding the city streets.' Here, here.

Bb 9519

Travel Details

2017 SAILINGS: 25 June; 23 and 30 July; 13 and 20 August PRICE: From £3,039pp, all-inclusive
TO BOOK: 0808 168 9231; http://uniworld.com

VARIETY CRUISE’S SEVEN-DAY JEWELS OF THE CYCLADES CRUISE Athens Zea Marina, Poros, Nafplio, Santorini, Mykonos, Syros, Delos

The weather in Greece in the middle of August can be brutally hot but the cooling ocean breeze will be a delight. Then the hideous thought occurs: what if the boat doesn’t have air-conditioning? The nights will be murder. The wife will be murderous. How my two 11-year-olds will react doesn’t even bear thinking about. I rush to inspect and discover that not only do the cabins have very effective units, they are surprisingly spacious and well-appointed too.

If small ship cruising is generally accepted to be 300 people or fewer, The Callisto is better described as ‘tiny ship cruising’. With just 17 cabins, the experience feels more like a holiday on a motor yacht. Initially unsure of how the kids will be received, we are relieved to find a Greek family on board with twins a year younger than ours. The intimacy means formalities disappear easily and we’re soon chatting away with all our fellow passengers.

Then the bad news: the weather. Being flexible about the itinerary is part of the deal for small ships but in our case, force nine winds en route to Santorini make us to stop off at Nafplio, a port town in the Peloponnese. The wind doesn’t die down for two days but that gives us time to explore the ancient Venetian castle and enjoy some excellent restaurants in the old town including Ta Farina and Karima Kastro, tucked away in Papanikolaou Street.

Sailing through the night on a rolling sea to Santorini, the crew wisely advise us not to eat or drink, as this encourages sea sickness. With the rest of the family suffering, I suggest we go to the top deck and place ourselves in the middle of the boat to minimise the pitch. We give the kids an impromptu lesson on stars and galaxies. Gazing up at fixed points in the night sky settles their tummies and we wake up the next morning in the middle of Santorini’s inky caldera, with the town of Thira clinging limpet-like around the volcanic rim above us.

We’ve been told that it’s nigh on impossible to hire a car or hail a taxi in Santorini in August, as the island is mobbed by larger cruise ships. However, within minutes we find ourselves in a convertible, exploring all the island has to offer, from Akrotiri (Greece’s equivalent of Pompeii) to the jaw-dropping views from Oia in the north. Passing the snaking line of mega cruise ship passengers sweltering in the Mediterannean sun makes us appreciate our little Callisto all the more.

While bigger boats boast all manner of facilities to keep little ones busy, we love the fact this trip is entirely destination-led. Rather than playing on water slides or PlayStations, our children explore the sandy seabed with the help of onboard snorkelling equipment and practise their diving off the swimming platform.

Next up we stop in Syros, capital of the Cyclades region. The towns are full of Venetian squares and neo-classical mansions clad in marble with imposing wrought-iron gates. This island remains ‘fully open’ throughout the year and has a real sense of purpose, as well as boasting plenty of sandy beaches which are miraculously empty, even in the height of summer.

‘Delos island is the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis,’ Sophie, my daughter, proudly states, looking up from her Percy Jackson mythology series – ‘Let’s go.’ The ship’s excursions tend to be around £60 a head and I find out from a wily fellow passenger that the trick is to negotiate them as part of your package before booking. However, in this case, the staff offer us 25 per cent family discount with transfers included and it’s a great excursion, with fascinating archaeological remains.

Dinner that evening is at Tarsanas Restaurant, literally a shipyard tavern frequented by locals. We enjoy mountains of crisp baby squid, lamb chops, salad and litres of surprisingly good table wine for just £14 a head.

We’ve loved having the chance to experience so many islands without the hassle of arranging transfers and spending hours waiting around at ferry ports with two children and four suitcases in tow. Apart from remembering to pack noise-cancelling headphones for the next trip (the sound of the engine takes time to get used to), we can’t wait to set sail again. 

Syros 1

Travel Details

2017 SAILINGS: Once weekly from May to September PRICE: £1,508pp (includes breakfast and lunch or dinner daily) TO BOOK: 020 8324 3114; http://varietycruises.com

AZAMARA’S SEVEN-NIGHT TAPAS AND WINE VOYAGE Gibraltar, Alcudia, Palma, Menorca, Cadiz, Lisbon

Cruises are no place for youngish solo travellers,’ I think as I negotiate my way along the gangplank from mainland Gibraltar onto Azamara’s Journey, trying not to disturb an older lady picking up the debris of a smashed make-up compact. On my left, a stray husband looks lost staring at his boarding itinerary, to my right, a loved-up couple swan along, completely oblivious to anything bar each other.

After check-in, it quickly becomes obvious that those behind the ship’s recent redesign are squarely aiming at holidaymakers used to booking into luxury hotels; both in terms of amenities and semantics. Cabins are called ‘rooms’ and there’s far less boat-specific jargon than I’ve been told to expect. Checking into my quarters, I’m shocked at the size: two queen-size beds, a sofa and a balcony with a table and chairs. If five-star hotel is the vibe they’re channelling, they’ve succeeded.

I install myself at the deck-top bar to soak up some high- season Mediterranean sun and assess the people on board. Sure, there are the octogenarian couples that are the mainstay of cruising but also younger pairs celebrating as kids have gone off to university and a fair few with no discernible other half.

On any cruise ship – particularly this one and its medium- scale 686 berths – there’s not much room to hide. It appears people sail just as much for the interaction as they do the experience. As we set off and I drift into a daze that is broken by an American chap asking me the way to the loo. He is jolly nice. He explains that he has just made the journey across the Atlantic after wintering in the Caribbean with a group of other Americans on the ship. Though these aren’t the kind of stereotypical brash, Hawaiian-shirted, size-of-a-house Yanks I was expecting. Rather, these guys are well-travelled, with an easy charm and genuine interest in a culture other than their own.

Mealtimes are a similarly social affair. One night I spot an elegant lady dining alone with a table set for two, so I wander over to chat with her. A veteran of some 20 cruises, Lucinda is now travelling solo after the passing of her husband. She has chosen this cruise as Henry, an elderly Bajan steward who had waited on them like a trusted retriever on previous sailings, was going to be working on this particular cruise. In that very moment it’s almost as though her husband was there opposite her, with Henry pouring their wine. She speaks openly about the happiness that Azamara and its level of service had afforded them over the years.

Indeed, like Lucinda, people on the ship have cruised many times before – some north of 30 sailings. They speak of the access it gives them to a variety of destinations that you just can’t get with single-location holidays and in their advanced years, they appreciate an easy way into a city – and where better than a port and its inevitable artery straight to the centre.

The food is also far stronger than I had been led to believe. Menus reflect the destination, so there’s tapas in Spanish coastal waters and in Palma, an excellent range of traditional Balearic food. Though the speciality restaurants are where the cuisine really steps up a notch. An excellent grill serves steaks at a size to please the American contingent and the wine list is substantial enough to maintain interest even across Azamara’s longest, 102-day, round-the-world voyage.

There’s no shortage of onboard entertainment. A cinema room, theatre, bar and casino are all on hand. Though don’t expect to bring down the house: everything is charged in dollars, where the exchange rate is penal and everything you win or exchange carries a hefty service charge.

If visiting myriad destinations on a holiday while maximising downtime is your thing, you can’t really go wrong with a medium- sized cruise. The scale of the ship dictates that you have all of the amenities you’d like, while it also has the ability to get directly into cities in a way that you can’t with the huge ocean liners.

As I disembark, it strikes me that I have barely stopped talking for the entire time I’ve been onboard. For a social soloist, a cruise is an ideal opportunity to meet new people and experience a wealth of destinations. Though make sure you remember to pack your conversational A-game. People will want to chat to you, whatever your age. 

Pool  Deck Sunrise

Travel Details

2017 SAILINGS: 7-14 June
PRICE: From £1,493pp, all-inclusive
TO BOOK: 0844 493 4016; http://azamaraclubcruises.co.uk

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