I have always declined invitations to go on cruises. It is not that I have anything against ships, but as a guy who suffers from quite severe claustrophobia, I’ve always worried about how I could react to being stuck in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight.
The one time I was tempted was when the SeaDream Yacht Club invited me on a luxury cruise around Europe. But then, the dates did not match and my claustrophobia remained a factor.
Ratna Chadha, who has done such a great job of popularising Royal Caribbean cruises in India, has tried – without success – to persuade me to embark on a series of exciting cruises, all the way up to the Arctic. But last month when she came up with a weekend cruise around Singapore, I finally decided to take the plunge. A weekend is not a long time. And Singapore is near enough.
Getting to the cruise was fun. I flew Singapore Airlines after ages and it was even better than I remembered: comfortable seats, perfect on-time performance, and personalised in-flight service. Then, I spent the night at the new W Hotel in Sentosa and was completely knocked out by the warmth of the welcome and the service. And I also ate the best steak I’ve had in months at Skirt, the W’s steakhouse.
After all this pampering, my first sight of the ship, the Mariner of the Seas, was certain to be a let-down. If, like me, you have little experience of passenger ships, then you probably expect your vessel to look like pictures of the QE2 if not the old Queen Mary. But the Mariner of the Seas looks like a Holiday Inn that has been pushed into the water. It is massive. I was told that it had 15 decks (a deck is like a floor in a building) and I found 12 of them. It had hundreds of cabins spread over these decks so the parallel with a large Holiday Inn seemed more and more appropriate.
My cabin, described as a suite, was actually a double room of the kind you would find at, yes, a Holiday Inn, with an even smaller bathroom. This was not exactly a surprise because we expect ships’ cabins to be small. But what was nice was a small sit-out area (like a balcony) facing the water, large enough for two people to have a drink, or even, a coffee.
The Mariner of the Seas is an all-inclusive boat, which means that the price of your ticket includes virtually everything. Once you are on board you can take part in innumerable activities (from bingo to disco dance parties), can gamble at the ship’s huge casino, see movies in the cinema on board, eat as much as you like in the formal dining room or at the vast coffee shop and participate in all kinds of games.
Not everything is free, of course. They charge quite a lot for alcohol and to make sure you pay their prices, they try and stop you from bringing your own alcohol on board. (Unlike say, a hotel, which lets you drink your own vodka in your room.) I discovered that for several hours after I had boarded, my suitcase, which had been taken from me when I checked in, had not been delivered. I tracked it down to a special security section on a lower deck. Was there a problem? “Yes, sir,” said a security man. “We find that there is contraband in your suitcase.” Feeling like a gold smuggler or a heroin peddler, I asked nervously, what this ‘contraband’ consisted of. “Sir,” said the man gravely. “You have a bottle of alcohol. And that is not allowed.”
Ah, so that was the contraband! I explained to the eagle-eyed security man that actually I had two bottles of contraband, not one. And, according to the folder they gave me with my ticket, I was allowed to bring two bottles of wine on board, provided I consumed them in my own cabin. “Ok,” he grudgingly conceded the point. “But I want to see them.” I have no idea what he hoped to gain by examining the labels but on the grounds that he might be an aspiring Robert Parker figure, I showed them to him. He looked disappointed, but finally let me retrieve my suitcase.
Despite the awkwardness, I was glad I had taken the wine along. They let you drink your own wine in the restaurants if you pay corkage charges of $25 a bottle but given that single glasses of wines I’d never previously heard of were going for $15, the expense was worth it.
As for life on the ship, what can I say? It was like going off to a resort party for the weekend. Our ship started out on Friday (evening), reached Port Klang in Malaysia on Saturday morning, left again on Saturday night and sailed around till we were back in Singapore on Monday morning, I did not get off at Port Klang and stayed to check out the ship. The overwhelming impression was one of sheer size. It is hard to think something this huge and crowded being able to stay afloat.
Royal Caribbean made its reputation with its highly regarded cruises around the Americas, so I won’t judge the line on the basis of a weekend cruise from Singapore. But our ship was packed out with Chinese families. Some were from Singapore (quieter, well-behaved, eager to eat everything on offer, careful with money and English-speaking), but thousands appeared to be Mainland Chinese (not-so-quiet, not-so-well-behaved, eager to shop, happy to spend, and speaking no English) families with so many kids, that here was positive proof, if any were required, that the Chinese had given up on the one-child policy. There were a few Indians and virtually no white people except for the ship’s staff.
Each morning, the ship’s PA system and in-house TV channel would resonate with the voice of the improbably named Dan Dan Miang (“all the way from Seattle in the United States, folks!”), who would tell us about all the exciting things happening on the ship that day (“and there’s an art auction, folks, with champagne that is absolutely FREE. Yes, FREE” etc.) One evening Dan Dan and his Chinese assistant Kitty (no Karamchand jokes, please) who looked on admiringly as Dan Dan entertained us, even did a Seventies disco number while hundreds of happy Chinese people clapped along to order.
Speaking for myself, I decided very quickly that Chinese disco parties were not my scene and tried to make the most of the ocean. I discovered that I could leave the revellers far behind and sit undisturbed by the peaceful waves, enjoy the sea, and read a book or listen to music.
One advantage of being on this kind of ship is that you are, if you are wise, out of reach. Roaming telephony is expensive and though the ship offers a very slow Internet connection, it is so expensive that you can only really use it sparingly. Most busy people will enjoy the opportunity to remain largely unconnected and to switch off. Why waste time on the Internet when you can sit on your balcony and look at the Malacca Sea?
At the end of my voyage at – at 7.30am on Monday when they evicted us from the ship – I was reassured that cruises did not give me claustrophobia and could actually be rather calming. I don’t think I will do this cruise again, but I’m now game for more adventurous voyages.
So, should you take a cruise? Well, it rather depends on what you are looking for. If you want to get from Point A to Point B in a leisurely fashion, then a cruise is not a bad idea. Assume you spend a week on a ship. Compare the cost of your ticket to the cost of an airfare for the same journey plus seven days food and stay in a Holiday Inn-style hotel and you’ll find that a cruise can be much cheaper. It is a good way of combining travelling with a holiday.
Even if you want to just take the sort of cruise I went on, it is still worth it if you are going with kids. There are loads of activities directed at children and you never have to worry about how to entertain them. Plus, it is good value. I won’t generalise about all cruise ships, but a family of four on my trip probably spent less on their cruise than they would have if they had paid for three nights in a Holiday Inn-style hotel (plus all meals) in Singapore.
If, on the other hand, you want a romantic getaway or a dash of glamour, this ship with its hundreds of screaming Chinese children may not be your best bet. Other ships may be better suited for these purposes. If you are a foodie, steer clear. There’s lot of food but quantity cannot make up for truly dire institutional catering (even in the so-called specialty restaurants for which you pay extra).
Perhaps this sector is not noted for its cuisine. Or, perhaps I was just unlucky. But I ate some really bad meals: even the Indian food had a nasty kacha masala taste about it. On the plus side, F&B service was friendly and obliging.
But either way, you should try a cruise of some kind. I waited too long to do it. You shouldn’t make the same mistake.
From HT Brunch, December 22
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