Was that Bali?
Cruises have fascinated me for years — decades, actually, ever since I first watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in which Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell play a pair of showgirls from Little Rock, Arkansas, crossing the Atlantic aboard a magnificently glamorous cruise liner. Monroe’s character, the brilliantly named Lorelei Lee — in mythology, the Lorelei is a siren that lures sailors to their death — is a class-A gold-digger with one beady eye on elderly millionaire Sir Francis “Piggy” Beekman, a fellow passenger who owns a diamond mine. While Monroe tries to wangle a tiara off Piggy, Russell prowls the decks like a tiger, inspecting the finely honed physiques of the Olympics athletics team that, happily, is also on the voyage. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which ends with a double wedding, sets the bar pretty high, cruise-wise.
And, obviously, it’s a movie from 1953, filmed on sets rather than aboard a real ship. Surely no real vessel could be that glamorous? Plus, I’ve also seen Titanic (with someone who — I swear this is true — spilt her popcorn with shock and cried out, “Oh no! It’s sinking!”). What I’d like from my cruise is movie-like levels of glamour and luxury, combined with extreme safety, neither of which I think can really exist. There are further complications, the main one being that I am massively claustrophobic and that even imagining being stuck in a small, low-ceilinged cabin for days on end makes me feel panicked. So when I’m asked, “How do you feel about going on a cruise?”, I am not as delighted and grateful as I might be. I am very torn. On the one hand, it might be amazing. On the other, it might be my personal idea of hell. Also, isn’t everyone on cruises 92 years old? Oh no, I’m assured. Not any more, you old-fashioned thing! Cruises are cool now. They’re hip. They’re totally happening. You’ll love it!You only live once, plus there’s always drugs — Xanax, in my case, an anxiety suppressor, which I need in order to get on a plane. I’ll take lots of Xanax with me, I think, and then if the cruise is somehow challenging and low-ceilinged, or just too damned hip, I’ll be slightly woozy and out of it, and it’ll all be fine. In my hurry to pack the Xanax, I forget to pack any smart shoes in among the flip-flops and Birkenstocks. This is a grave error, which we shall get back to.
So now I’m on my way to Bali, where I will be embarking. I chose Bali, well, because it’s Bali: who wouldn’t choose Bali? But in the chaos of ordinary life, I somehow forget to think properly about where Bali actually is — Australia, practically. I hate flying, and have somehow got myself into the position of taking the longest flight of my life — London to Singapore and then Singapore to Bali, a good 17 hours in total. And then embarkation, and then we cruise for eight days, taking the Java Sea to Semarang and Jakarta, Indonesia, and then to Malacca City, Malaysia, and then to Phuket in Thailand.
The first good bit of news is that it turns out that I don’t hate flying that much if I’m flying business class on Singapore Airlines. I take my Xanax, have a delicious — yes, really — meal that I have ordered in advance using a facility they have called Book the Cook, and then I lie down and go to sleep. It couldn’t be easier or more comfortable. Effortless transfers, more weirdly delicious food, and we’re in Bali. I can see the Crystal Symphony, for this is her name, as we approach the harbour: she is all lit up, festooned with fairy lights, glittering away in the humid night, beautiful and romantic, which is good as I am travelling with my partner.
We check in — huge reception area, exactly like a hotel, complete with water feature containing gold statue: I am strongly reminded of being in Harrods. Despite our combined age being 103, it quickly becomes evident in that we are the springiest of spring chickens. In the outside world, we are middle-aged. On board, we are teenagers. Children. Infants. We go giggling to our stateroom (cruise-speak for cabin). It’s a penthouse, on the 10th floor, and it is very roomy: zero risk of claustrophobia. It has floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors onto a large, decked veranda; it has a massive, super-comfy bed, a bath and a shower, a sitting area, a desk — it’s huge, for a ship, and immaculately appointed. There’s champagne on ice and then, brilliantly and surreally, a butler appears, bearing chocolates. He is our personal butler, it turns out. He is called David and he wears tails. We take the champagne out onto the veranda as we set sail. It is genuinely thrilling to pull out of the port and head, in the dark, into the open sea.
It is equally thrilling to wake up at sea — at 3am, but never mind, though do bear jet lag in mind when you book: you’re constantly crossing time zones and it’s incredibly confusing until you just give in to it and follow ship’s time, which is not necessarily the real time. After a leisurely breakfast in our stateroom, delivered by David in his tails (“Eggs!” he says with a flourish as he lifts off the dome, in the manner of someone saying “Diamonds!”), we go off and explore. It feels an odd thing to do: on any other holiday you’d go off and explore the village, the beach, the mountain, or whatever. Here, you explore the ship. My partner sees nothing especially odd in this, but I find it quite disconcerting — a ship is, after all, a form of transport. It’s like exploring a car, or a coach, or sleeping in a campervan and then waking up and not going outside. However, it’s also nothing like any of those things, because the Crystal Symphony is like a floating world of luxe. There are bars, restaurants, a cigar room with a humidor (cruises, it turns out, allow smoking in a number of places: who knew?). There’s a ballroom and one-armed bandits and a lecture theatre with a full programme — you can, if you wish, have a packed diary, with everything from knitting to lessons in Photoshop. There are glittering shops in something called Avenue of the Stars. A big library and cafe that plays Edith Piaf (all day, every day, provoking quelques regrets). A movie room and a priest who says mass in it every morning, and pianos, with pianists tinkling. There is a large spa; this uses Elemis products and the therapists I tried were both excellent.
There are waiters everywhere: the staff- to-guest ratio is very high. There’s a medical centre — as I say, most of the guests are not in the first, or indeed second, flush of youth: on the information film we watch in our room, much emphasis is placed on grabbing your medication and/or wheelchair in the unlikely event of an emergency. On one of the days we see a teenager, the only one on board. It’s like seeing a unicorn: I feel like reaching out my hand in awe and wonderment.
I should make it clear that everyone on board is deliriously happy. They’re having the best time. Crystal Cruises, which has an unusually high number of repeat customers, knows exactly what it is doing. If you like dressing up, changing for dinner, meeting new people and drinking cocktails with them, wearing black tie at least once a week, you will absolutely love it. I do not especially love any of these things, and my idea of travel involves walking about with Lonely Planet. I don’t like being inside all the time, plus I can feel myself becoming oddly — though agreeably — infantilised. There’s nothing for me to do, other than ring for David. I’ve completely lost track of time, and after two days I’ve also lost track of what day it is (a member of staff explains that this is normal; she says that, after months at sea, she herself only ever knows if it’s a sea day or a port day). My brain is slightly mushy. I sleep brilliantly, though not necessarily at night: as a rest cure, I couldn’t recommend a cruise more. But we exist in a weird, slightly suspended state where nothing seems quite real: not the ship world, not the outside world, which we only glimpse fleetingly, not our real world, which we are out of comms with.
Which is why I prefer the outdoor decks. Deck 7 is for promenading/running/actually moving your legs in a significant way. It is beautiful — shining white, with a huge expanse of wood and a sign saying “TODAY’S DIRECTION”, with an arrow, so that people don’t crash into each other (unlikely: there are only a handful of joggers). The lifeboats are here and so, obviously, is the glorious sea itself, which I am happy to see in the fresh air rather than through windows. It’s very peaceful, and I come here and read and look at the beautiful, endless water.
The really cruise-like stuff happens on Deck 11, the Lido Deck. This is how you imagine cruises in your head: deckchairs, parasols, a bar serving snacks and cocktails, a pool (which could be bigger, in my view), the sea all around, the sky above you. People are on their loungers sipping cold drinks, chatting away to each other. It’s a buzzy, jolly scene, marred only by the fact that it’s a muggy 32C, sunless, with 80% humidity. But nobody minds, and on one of the days there’s a band playing. Everyone sings along — “heeeeey, Macarena”. The Lido Deck has people dressed in normal clothes — kaftans, vaguely beachy things. It is only up here that this is OK. At 6pm each evening the dress code kicks in — Crystal Casual (“dressy slacks”, for instance, the note on the daily news sheet informs me) most nights, full black tie twice. I find this a bummer, this having to get changed at 6pm if I’m going to be out and about on the ship, plus due to my Xanax focus when packing, I haven’t got any smart shoes with me. I have shoe shame even when I’m Crystal Casual, and I cannot participate in black-tie evenings. Be warned and pack accordingly, the snazzier the better. That said, nothing is compulsory: if you want to keep your kaftan on, you can order from any of the restaurants and eat in your room. David brings it. David doesn’t always ring the bell, which you wouldn’t hear anyway if you were on the veranda, so you might want to bear that in mind regarding, um, intimacy. (There are no kettles in the room, but I wish there were: I feel bad summoning David every time I want a cuppa.)
Crystal Cruises are all-inclusive, which means that everything is — well, far from free, but on tap. You could spend the entire day eating and drinking in a variety of different places. It’s interesting that people don’t. You may deduce from this that, on my trip, there was only a handful of Brits; the bulk of the clientele seems to be American and Japanese, followed by Chinese, followed by a smattering of Russians. So nobody drank in the heat all day — a blessing — and at night, nobody got drunk in the bar, despite the availability of every kind of alcohol 24 hours a day. I should mention that the food — plastic American cheese and UHT milk aside — is very good in all the restaurants; there’s even a mini-Nobu. In the Italian restaurant, the waiter explains that the ciabatta is not stale, but rather “a bread with a thick crust” that some Europeans like dipping in olive oil (we are offered Californian olive oil as well as Italian, as though we might find the latter unpatriotic). I found it odd that we were sailing along the Indonesian coast and not offered any Indonesian — or Malaysian, or Thai — food, but I guess there’s no call for it.
Which is how we came to find ourselves ashore in Malacca City, in search of noodles. Part of the cruising experience is the shore excursions. There are two things to bear in mind here. The first is that cruise ships are huge, and that therefore the ports they dock in are also huge. I found this fascinating, especially the port of Jakarta, but it’s industry, not romance — you’re not bobbing along just off scenic St Ives, as it were: you’re in Felixstowe docks, clearing customs, then making your way to the local shopping area, which is not necessarily pretty or interesting (Malacca City is clammily hot and has a McDonald’s and a KFC). The second is that the excursions that go further afield give you only the haziest impression of local life, as they are time-restricted. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that I have no sense of having experienced Indonesia in any significant way: it was, in effect, floating along in the background, like wallpaper. Cruises aren’t about travel; they are about the impression of travel. You need to be more interested in life on board than in anything that might be going on outside, or you’ll get frustrated. On one of the days, “Viennese tea” is served in the Palm Court: Mozart on the piano, waiters in velvet and brocade, sachertorte. Outside, Southeast Asia floats by, largely ignored.
If you are someone for whom travelling means getting a bit lost, seeing what happens and ending up eating grilled fish at a beach shack, cruises are not for you. If, on the other hand, your idea of heaven is being waited on hand and foot in a floating five-star hotel, with the scenery obligingly changing by the minute and nothing more strenuous than the occasional gentle exeat, and if you are sociable and keen to make new friends, well, you simply couldn’t do better than Crystal Cruises. Just don’t forget your shoes.
India Knight travelled as a guest of Crystal Cruises (crystalcruises.co.uk; 020 7399 7601) and Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com; 020 8961 6993). Crystal Cruises has 12 nights’ sailing from Bali (from £8,421 per person for a penthouse suite), including all onboard meals, most drinks, port taxes and gratuities. Singapore Airlines has return flights from Heathrow to Bali via Singapore, from £775 per person
How to find a cool cruise
Check the brochure for decor
If it evokes Sue Ellen’s chintzy Dallas bedroom, chances are the guests will be past their sell-by date, too. Hapag-Lloyd Cruises’ smart ship Europa 2 smashes the “old” mould with interiors apparently taken from some big-city apartment: limestone floors, stainless-steel chandeliers and “couture” carpets. The Grand Penthouse Suite takes things further, hung with a David Hockney lithograph and butterfly art by Damien Hirst. It’s yours on a seven-night itinerary from Rome to Barcelona, via ports including Capri and Corsica, departing July 25. hl-cruises.com
Think carefully about the itinerary
Stops at lazy, sunny islands tend to mean a more laissez-faire crowd maxing tans to look good after dark. The 14-night Black Sea & Greek Islands trip, leaving Athens on September 5 aboard Seabourn Odyssey, is a case in point. For the first seven nights the decks buzz with glam guests as keen on partying on board as swanning ashore at Mykonos, Santorini and Patmos. But the second week is better behaved, as the ports of Turkey (Istanbul), Bulgaria (Nesebur) and Romania (Constanta), with their complex cultural pasts, demand attention. seabourn.com
Read up on the shore excursions
Even the most elegant cruise lines are focusing on thrills — and the more adrenaline-fuelled they are, the more up-for-it the passengers are likely to be. Fancy an ocean-raft ride along the volcanic coastline of Kruzof Island, Alaska? It’s offered by suave brand Silversea, on the seven-day Alaska adventure aboard Silver Shadow, departing from Vancouver on May 28. It’s not for the lily-livered: clad in an exposure suit, balaclava, safety glasses and gloves, you skim icy waters at a heart-stopping 50mph. Martinis back on board bring pulses down again. silversea.com
Go for hot summer “shorts”
One-week, high-season cruises attract a younger bunch more up for sun and games than archeology lectures on Deck D. For the first time this August and September, small ship MSC Armonia is launching six party cruises. There will be on-board clubbing, and the promise of a superstar DJ. The voyage will also feature whirring Mediterranean ports including Marseilles and Ibiza, where there’ll be an unconventional (for the cruising world) 4am departure so you can stagger back from the clubs at a relatively ungodly hour. All details to be finalised. msccruises.co.uk
Know what’s on board
The more cultural speakers on the itinerary, the more sedate you can bet the overall scene will be. We’re not being ageist, but… throw in a teen-friendly climbing wall, say, and already you’re light years from the crusty old cruise cliché. Cruise companies have been busy getting “active” of late. Which explains the FlowRider aboard Royal Caribbean ships. It’s a surf simulator that whooshes around, letting you boogie-board or wave- ride on a crest created by 60,000 gallons of water. royalcaribbean.co.uk