Cruise ship holidays
“Do you know of a cure for me?”
“Why, yes,” he said, “I know of a cure for everything:
“Salt water?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said, “in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.”
– Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), Seven Gothic Tales
It’s early morning and the islands off the coast of Phuket lurk ghostly and silhouetted on the horizon, wearing the mist of South-East Asian humidity like a scrim. In the foreground, a tiny fishing boat bobs across the gentle swell, its one-man crew steering eagerly towards the day’s catch. Anchored nearby, a matt-grey navy vessel looks stern against an inky backdrop that reaches endlessly downwards. Less than an hour earlier the vibrant pinks of sunrise pierced the sky as Silver Muse, all shiny and white, ploughed majestically towards our destination. Nearing port, we add to our palette the lush greens of tropical palms framed by dense rainforest. So many colours to choose from but one stands out as my favourite – sea blue.
It’s the reason that during Silver Muse’s time in port I’ll barely be onshore at all, instead opting for a kayaking trip in Phuket’s north-east. When cruise director Vicki van Tassel later pokes fun at the irony of people aboard a cruise liner wanting to spend their time off the ship engaged in water activities, she may as well be speaking directly to me. For a long time now I’ve known that my happiest holidays are spent in just three locations – on the water, in the water or by the water.
Is it any wonder then that cruising sits high on my holiday hit list? But as a leisure pursuit it divides people. Some are enamoured of life on the ocean waves, while others wouldn’t be caught anywhere near what they describe as “floating RSL clubs”. Every year, though, a growing number of Australians jump aboard a cruise liner – according to Cruise Lines International Association, 1.34 million Australians took an ocean cruise in 2017. We may live in a country surrounded by sea, but almost one out of every 18 of us will choose to cruise.
It seems I’m just following a trend but the seed of my predilection was sown long ago, when the gangplank hoisted on my first shipboard experience in the 1990s. The much-loved TSS Fairstar, a one-time British troopship, sailed in and out of Sydney Harbour for 22 years, mostly transporting enthusiastic – read: drunk and sunburnt – Aussies around the South Pacific. In its nickname “The Funship”, the letter “n” was colloquially and affectionately replaced with the letters “c” and “k”. It’s safe to say the Fairstar’s reputation preceded it, but when a friend invited me to join her on board, I didn’t hesitate. We were young and it was fun. Much of her time was spent on the dance floor; much of mine at the dessert buffet. Together we entertained ourselves by inventing new names and backstories and seeing whom we could get to buy our alter egos drinks. (We astutely never used the word “whom” in any of our Funship conversations.)
We met solo traveller Bill from Seven Hills, and a group of mates who had dubbed themselves the Wicked Willie Tour and had matching black Wicked Willie T-shirts printed to wear on board, no doubt so they could refind each other should wanton drinking erase all memory of their identities.
It was the era of cruising in bunk beds, and in tiny cabins with thin walls. We never got to know our neighbours and yet we shared their experiences. “Do you have a condom?” we heard through the wall late one night. We nodded our approval that the safe-sex message was being heeded aboard TSS Fairstar. Within 90 seconds, a follow-up question: “Was that it ?” Moments later, the cabin door slammed prematurely behind the exiting and embarrassed paramour. My friend and I shrugged wryly in sisterly solidarity for our disappointed neighbour, then without a word headed out to find the spinning mirrored ball and the midnight snack bar.
After the Fairstar experience I took the road less sailed, preferring my travel points to be hard-earned. There was endless foot-slogging with unwieldy backpacks and paper maps stuffed haphazardly – the battle to refold them never completely won – into daypacks worn unstylishly facing the front. There were miserable waits in airport lounges, struggles with train timetables, currency conversion and foreign languages, and the toting of bulky Lonely Planet guides was mandatory. I got lost, got mugged, got homesick. I also met scores of memorable and compelling people and saw countless jaw-dropping sights along the way.
Co-ed hostels from London to New York brought the sounds of coitus even closer than they were aboard the Fairstar, and there were bathrooms in which the act of showering seemed only marginally more sanitary than not. Travelling this way was all a great and good adventure. Yet somewhere along the intrepid trail, I lost my will to be constantly challenged and a new reality dawned. I would rather be at a beachside resort with sand between my unfettered toes, or gazing out to sea, cocktail in hand, as the world sailed by. All those sayings about enjoying the journey and not the destination, I finally realised, were a lot easier when you had your feet up with a cool drink.
It was then that cruising came back into view. In the past few years I’ve ploughed through a floating carpet of water hyacinth on the mighty Mekong, weathered the edge of a tropical cyclone off the north coast of New South Wales – my excited cries of Wheee! not comforting my green and bed-ridden cabin-mate as every 10 seconds we alternated between views of the heavens and views of the heaving, spumy seas – taken a tender to explore Thursday Island and sat on deck in the pouring rain captivated by the mystical beauty of Halong Bay.
My floating life, mark II, offers all the briny deep I’ve ever desired, without the beachside inevitability of sand in unfortunate places, and with the bonus of being rocked to sleep each night by, hopefully, a gentle swell. Better yet, I know I’ll wake up each day somewhere new. When a friend recently pleaded with me not to become “a cruiser”, a look of pity in her eyes, I met her gaze and confessed, “It’s too late.”
Now surrounded by the islands of Phuket, the hydrophile in me is once again sated. During our not-onshore shore excursion, we kayak through caves, ducking our heads in narrow, eerie passageways before emerging, eyes blinking, in sunlit hidden lagoons. We lie back, dangle our feet in the cooling waters and view the jungle dripping like candle wax down sheer limestone cliffs as monkeys scurry from tree to tree.
Later, back on board Silver Muse – all upmarket luxury, à la carte restaurants, soundproof suites and not a Wicked Willie in sight – we have an abundance of dry-land activities to choose from. Shall we watch a film, head out for a zhooshy cocktail or visit the Arts Cafe for cake and coffee?
The decision is easy. I reach for my swimmers and goggles and head to the pool.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 16, 2019 as "La mer the merrier". Subscribe here.