If you’re looking for luxury on a vacation, but don’t quite want to bust your bank to pay for it, you sure can’t beat a cruise. Consider this: on board, just about everything is included in the price you paid for the booking. The extras are, well, extra: you’ll have to pay for drinks at the bar and for that massage by the poolside and for the land excursions. But cruises are a gastronome’s idea of heaven: there’s plenty of great food, and it’s all free. On up-scale cruises, the fare is excellent in the fine-dining restaurants, with full table service, as well as at a buffet on another deck. You can snack for free all day long — and some people do. You really shouldn’t be on a cruise if you’re on a diet.
Last summer, I took two seven-day cruises, almost back to back, and it was pure bliss. Even the casinos on board were good to me. First, I sailed out alone from Venice for a round trip around the Mediterranean, and followed that up with another along the coast of Alaska with my daughter. They were two entirely different sight-seeing experiences, but on board everything was more or less the same.
Celebrity Silhouette, the ship that sailed out of the Venetian port under clear skies, was huge. It weighed 122,000 tons, had 15 decks and carried about 3,000 passengers, who were served by a crew of 1,500. We had 13 restaurants and just as many bars to patronise, so we were spoilt for choice. There was a theatre with over a thousand seats, which could match anything on Broadway or West End in grandeur. Celebrity Millennium, on the Alaska run, was smaller, but not by much.
I can’t remember when I was last pampered so thoroughly on a holiday. The service was impeccable on both the ships; the entire crew — who were efficient, helpful and friendly down to the last man (and woman) — would be the envy of any five-star hotel. The cabin crew makes a point of greeting you by your name, which is an admirable skill in itself.
Most evenings found me dining at the full-service restaurant, sharing the table with interesting American couples with similar backgrounds. There was a sommelier to help us select the wine.
At other times, I tried out the French bistro, the Italian trattoria and the American steakhouse on board. These specialty restaurants were a little more intimate, and one had to pay a small surcharge to dine in them, but it was well worth it.
On both the cruises, I preferred to have lunch at the more casual buffet with free seating. The pasta station was particularly noteworthy for the large selection of pasta and sauces it offered. There were other choices as well: Indian (which was popular with vegetarians), Chinese, Japanese and even Mexican. I was partial to the daily roast — beef, lamb, pork — that the chef carved out for me. At other times, depending on my fancy, I would make a meal of the wide range of salads.
All cruise ships make shore stops, during which on-land excursions are organised. A seven-day cruise typically takes in four ports, a 12-day one about twice as many. But you have the option of not coming ashore. There will always be passengers who don’t get off the ship at all: they are there to enjoy the sun on the open decks and get a tan, to swim in the pools, use the spa facilities and dance away the night.
On the Mediterranean cruise, our first port of call was Kotor in Montenegro, one of the newbie countries carved out of the erstwhile Yugoslavia. Our tour bus had a hard time navigating the narrow roads of this very mountainous country. On this cruise, it was our only stop that was not in Greece.
Next, we anchored off Santorini, an island famous for its dramatic cliffs, the legacy of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, some 3,600 years ago. Some of the passengers headed for the beach, while others took the cable car to wander about the island’s main city, Fira, which offered a stunning view.
We made three other stops in places with splendid pasts. In Athens, we climbed all the way up to the Acropolis, the ancient citadel above the city. It truly is one of the wonders of the world, a poignant leftover from Greece’s golden age. Katakolon was the jumping-off point for a trip to Olympia, where the original Olympic Games were held over 2,000 years ago.
My younger daughter and I make a point of taking a vacation together every year. We’ve been doing this since she was a child, and we’ve made many trips to London, Manila, Las Vegas, Australia and even far-off Fiji. This year, we decided to try out someplace more remote, and struck upon the idea of an Alaskan cruise.
We sailed out of Vancouver in late August and ended up a week later in Seward, near Anchorage. Alaskan cruises run from May to September and we were on the ship’s last journey for the year. It was a bit cold, yes, but pleasantly so.
The Mediterranean is about as different from Alaska as any two places on earth can be. One is the cradle of Western civilisation; the other is one of the most barren places on earth, where bears probably outnumber people. Alaska is by far America’s largest state, but it has a population of less than a million. There are few places in the world with such natural beauty, unspoiled wilderness and wildlife. This is where people go to fish, canoe and hike in relative isolation. And some passengers on our ship did just that at the end of the cruise.
Wildlife sightings were legion on this cruise. A whale bobbed up to the ocean surface off Skagway. We spotted a bald eagle seeking its prey in Juneau, the state’s capital, when we were on our way to see the glacier just outside the town. In Ketchikan, we saw hundreds of salmon swimming upstream to spawn and die. The town was once known as the ‘Canned Salmon Capital of the World’. Now it depends largely on tourism, with as many as six ships docking each day.
To the passengers’ endless delight, a bear swam out to greet our ship as it approached the magnificent Hubbard Glacier. Here, the ship did a 360Ã‹? slow turn so that everyone on board could have a good view as the glacier deposited thousands of tons of ice into the ocean every minute. It’s a sobering affirmation of the reality of global warming, about which too many people continue to be in denial.
Celebrity Millennium brought out the explorer in my daughter. We felt we were in a large, luxurious hotel with three sets of elevators, with more floors and public areas than we had time to visit, three swimming pools, countless hot tubs and a full-service spa and a gym. There was even a hair salon and a library.
The ship had activities and performances nearly round the clock. There were several musicians onboard: most of them were pop and dance music performers, but there was a wonderful Russian piano and violin duo that blew us away. The violinist’s vibrato was lush and she unleashed a sound that rang out through the room. My daughter looked forward to each of these performances; I preferred to hang out on the dance floor, where a live band played till late at night. She also enrolled for a crêpe-making class, mostly out of curiosity, since she has been making terrific crêpes for years.
If you’re planning a cruise, it helps to know where you’d like to go and the time of year you’d like to travel. The summer months are the busiest for cruise operators and, for that reason, the most expensive. But if you are diligent or have a travel agent who knows his business, you can find bargains all year round.
There are different classes of cruise ships: as is self-evident, the more expensive cruise lines provide better facilities. At the top of the heap are the Silversea and Regent Seven Seas lines that are rated as six stars. Next come Azamara, Holland America and Celebrity ships that are considered five-star operations. The four-star cruise lines, such as Carnival, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean, are more popular with the younger crowd. If your budget doesn’t run far, there’s the three-star Thomson cruises, run by a company that specialises in charter holidays.
The names of the cruise lines are somewhat misleading and have nothing to do with the geographies they cover. The Norwegian cruise line will take you to Alaska, while the Royal Caribbean plies the Pacific Ocean, and will also take you to the Arctic Circle. There are hundreds of destinations in virtually every part of the world. You can tour the ancient cities of Europe, go past Turkey to the Baltic Sea or explore the fjords of Scandinavia. If beaches are your thing, you might consider a trip around the South Pacific from Sydney or the Caribbean from Miami. Want to sail to the Antarctica to see the penguins? Just fly to Buenos Aires in Argentina and catch a ship from there.
Now, let me tell you why cruises are such a good deal. The cost of the seven-day cruise we took to Alaska was listed in the brochure at $809 per person, double occupancy, for the cheapest cabin, one that did not have a window. My travel agent in Delhi offered it to me at $550. That price includes three meals a day and other goodies. Of course, one can pay as much as $4,000 a person for suites, which are truly luxurious with butler service and in-room dining facilities. They are popular with some of our Bollywood stars.
The earlier you book, the better the deals you’ll typically get. Prices rise as the ship begins to fill up. In case you change your mind later, most operators will refund your deposit provided you cancel 60 days before the sailing date. On the other hand, no ship likes to sail out with any empty cabins. So, if you’re flexible and don’t have a particular destinations in mind, you can find a real bargain close to the sailing date.
Recently, I stumbled on a 12-day cruise that started in Spain and ended in Turkey with stops along the way in Italy and Greece. It was a ‘fast deal’, which meant you had to act quickly: the ship was leaving in two weeks. The brochure price was $2,399 per person, but it was going for $449.
On the Alaska cruise that I’d booked months in advance, I wanted to pay more and upgrade to a stateroom with a balcony just before sailing, but the cruise was completely sold out since it was the ship’s last sail of the season. My cabin was perfectly fine, with comfortable bedding, a shower and satellite television. The only thing it lacked was a window.
Finally, remember that the price is for double occupancy in a cabin. So, if you’re travelling alone, you’ll pay twice as much. That is why most adults on board would have come as couples. Don’t count on romance on the high seas!
Celebrity Silhouette has been voted the Best Mediterranean Cruise, and is worthy of that award on all counts. The 2,886-occupancy ship sails on “modern luxury vacations” in the Caribbean and Europe. It offers several accommodation options, from the über-luxurious Penthouse Suite down to the Inside Stateroom. There are three sailings to different destinations in April, departing from Fort Lauderdale in Florida. Fares from $749 (Inside Stateroom) per person to $1,949 (Suite) per person. www.celebritycruises.com
Celebrity Millennium has been ‘revitalised’ and commissioned to serve in Asia. Like the Silhouette, it offers several accommodation options, from the uber-luxurious Penthouse Suite down to the Inside Stateroom. There are three sailings to Alaska in May (May 12, 22 &29) — the first two from Vancouver, and the third from Seward — for ten, seven, and seven days respectively. Fares from $599 (Inside Stateroom) per person to $2,449 (Suite) per person. www.celebritycruises.com