With the notable exception of a week in Benidorm, there is perhaps no other ‘leisure break’ that carries greater social stigma than a cruise. The vivid image of gargantuan white elephants taking to the waves with thousands of garish tourists squeezed aboard is one likely to make even the bravest adventurer shudder and announce haughtily: ‘It’s not my kind of holiday’.
But cruising is a fast-growing industry – it accounted for one in every eight package holidays sold in 2012, and demand is increasing, undeterred by near-weekly news reports of fires, power cuts and infectious outbreaks. Which suggests – gasp – that more of us are doing it. And, dear reader, I’m afraid that I’m about to tell you that it’s not actually all that bad. In truth, it can pretty spectacular.
Less boozy, more choosy
Traditionally, cruising was the preserve of the upper classes. In fact, folklore suggests that the word ‘posh’ originated as cruising terminology, referring to the best cabin spots when passengers were sailing from England to India. P.O.S.H. was, supposedly, shorthand for ‘port out, starboard home’ because those cabins would stay cool during the day and enjoy the sun in the early evening. Sadly, there is no historic evidence to back up this theory.
The first record of such excursions was in 1818, when the Black Ball Line shipping company began to offer travellers passage from North America to Europe on their trade vessels. These journeys proved popular, so other companies began to schedule voyages allowing for people alongside cargo, and soon ships were being built with human comfort in mind.
In 1844, P&O Cruises (then known as the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company) took the first dedicated ‘leisure’ cruise on a tour of the Mediterranean. The holiday gained traction and new ships were introduced, each offering better levels of indulgence for passengers, from electric lighting to on-board entertainment.
Getting there is half the fun
However, it was the American writer Mark Twain who really revealed the secrets of a cruise to the masses. His novel about a trip to Europe and the Holy Land, The Innocents Abroad, introduced a wider group to the appeal of long sea journeys. He was blunt about the trip’s limitations, however, particularly when it came to cabin space: “Notwithstanding all this furniture, there was still room to turn around in, but not to swing a cat in, at least with entire security to the cat.”
After the British Medical Journal promoted cruising’s health benefits, they became all the more aspirational. The ships grew increasingly luxurious – no longer a utilitarian vessel but the focus of the holiday itself. This is best summed up by industry giant Cunard, whose advertising slogan was ‘Getting there is half the fun’.
Cruising for culture
So what’s it really like aboard a floating giant in the middle of the ocean? Those who already cruise are devoted – over half of all passengers in 2012 took more than one cruise – but I, like many, was a naysayer until I was invited to join a friend on an ultra-luxe Seabourn voyage a couple of years ago. Boarding the vessel in Venice, I was instantly converted – mainly because the petite ship (with just 104 suites, all with ocean views) was not riddled with tourists. In fact there were as many staff as there were passengers, and sailing down the Grand Canal and into the Adriatic was about the most exciting way to start a holiday I can think of.
These days cruises to the Norwegian fjords are proving more popular than those to the Caribbean, and that (along with plenty of champagne) might be the key for the uninitiated: choose somewhere best admired from the water. The journey is indeed half the fun, and whatever size your vessel (ahem), it’s hard not to come around to life at sea when you’re sailing into Manhattan, or alongside the towering natural beauty of Alaskan glaciers.
Imogen Rowland is an editor at Ink publishing.