Cruising seems to divide opinion like no other travel experience: both its advocates and its sceptics are forthright and passionate in their opinion. I suppose I was in the sceptics camp, believing it to be the domain of Hawaiian-shirt-wearing retirees, but it was never something I’d given a great deal of thought to. That was until my family decided we should get together for a summer holiday. A cruise became the favourable option, considering we were catering for ages 14-74 and didn’t want the hassle of airports and flights.
The best thing I can compare the ship to is an all-inclusive resort, complete with numerous bars, pools, a theatre, ice rink and oh-so camp entertainment (the refrain ‘iiiiit’s bingo-bingo-bingo time! Come on down to deck number 3!’ is sadly not one which I will be able to forget anytime soon). But it also has areas where you can just recline on a lounger and look out at the sea, which mesmerises and calms the soul.
Hopefully, these tips for first-time cruising will help you to decide if cruising is for you, or help you to make the most of your cruise if you have one booked. If you have been on a cruise, feel free to leave your opinons!1. Make friends with the staff
Without a doubt, the staff on our cruise ship were some of the friendliest and most helpful I have ever come across – they went out of their way to make sure everyone was having a good time. But the best thing is, the staff are from all over the world, and you never know what connections you will make. I met a waiter who was from the tiny town of Huaraz in Peru, where I spent a month volunteering a couple of years ago, and we chatted excitedly away in Spanish, while the rest of my family looked on, a little bemused. I ended up getting on so well with my lovely room attendant that she invited me to visit her in Colombia when she’s next at home. She is a single mother, working away to pay for her children’s education. She told me that some guests are really difficult and, when they are, it makes her job a lot worse. It really is the last thing she needs. I bet she didn’t make their rooms up with crocodile and turtle towel origami! If you take time to chat to different people around the ship, you get to hear their stories and make real friends with them, beyond the ‘friendliness’ which everyone sees.2. Spend the first afternoon learning your way around the ship
If there is one thing you have on a cruise ship, it is time. I like the sea, and I am a fairly patient person, but even I found that on a short 7-day cruise, we spent more hours stuck on the ship with no land in sight than was strictly enjoyable. So it pays to use some of that time early on to learn your way around. There were still a lot of people, even on the last day of the cruise, to be found looking hopelessly at a map of the ship and trying to work out where they were, never mind where they wanted to go.
It can look like a hall of mirrors, with identical staircases and corridors, and you can only get all the way along the length of the ship on certain decks, so it is worth figuring all this out – and certainly remembering whether your cabin is front or aft, starboard or port side (and working out which one of those is left and which is right, if you are not familiar with ship lingo.) Oh, you also need to remember which direction you are facing relative to the ship – easier said than done when you’re on a windowless central deck, facing mirror-image hallways. But once you’ve got lost a few times, and discovered things like the peek-a-boo bridge (where you can watch the captain and officers doing their thing, which mostly involves looking at a variety of confusing screens), you can be one of those smug passengers who doesn’t spend the rest of the cruise travelling up and down in the lift, wondering vaguely if they should have exited three decks ago.3. Don’t pay for shore excursions
Skjolden is a pretty, little, holiday town, set in some of the most beautiful fjord-country that Norway offers, with sparkling lakes and waterfall-laced mountains. We were docked there for just less than a full day, which was a nice amount of time to wander into this natural playground, take in the views, and stop for a hot chocolate. There wasn’t really anything else to do: Skjolden’s picturesque cabins were standing empty, the main holiday rush over. In the middle of the afternoon, my dad, brother and I wound our way up a forest path to a viewpoint overlooking the fjord. The small, grassy area was packed with other passengers from the cruise ship, standing in tight groups with their numbered stickers carefully affixed to their holiday shirts, listening as a guide struggled for interesting information to impart (really, there is not an awful lot in Skjolden). I turned to my dad and said: “Look what we missed out on! We could have paid to come up here!” I don’t think anyone else heard, or if they did, they didn’t cotton on to the irony.The cruise company will try and extract a rather impressive fortune from you for shore excursions, when in fact, most of the time, it simply is not worth it. As we found out in Flåm, our next port, they do tend to completely book up things like tourist trains and kayak centres (and then sell the tickets on at extraordinarily inflated prices) so there may be some things you miss out on – but would you rather pay £90 for a kayak trip, or rent a bike for £10 to cycle around the fjord?
4. Spend your holiday your way
The good thing about a cruise ship is that there really are things aboard to suit all age types and interests. If Bingo and Miss Biceps competitions are your thing, then a cruise ship is definitely for you. but if the sound of that fills you with dread, you’ll be pleased to know there are other options. You could fill your time with workshops, learning how to make jewellery or how to ballroom dance, you could peruse the bargain sales of precious jewellery, get fit in the gym or on the running track, or – and this was my preferred option – take your book to the quiet end of deck 11, sip coffee and watch the sea rolling by.Cruising has positives and negatives in almost equal measure: there are a lot of Hawaiian-shirt-wearing retirees, and disembarking in a small, sodden Norwegian town with 3,000 other people was one of the least-inspiring travel experiences I can recall. On the other hand, waking up to a new place each day, particularly with Norway’s unparalleled fjord landscapes, and enjoying the camaraderie and good-humour on board were definite highlights. It is a remarkably stress-free and easy experience, and I wouldn’t discount doing it again. But maybe not for a little while. Before then, I need to go back to Norway and explore some of those places properly, minus the party of 3.000.
Are you a committed cruiser or a first-timer? What are your experiences of cruising?