I have never been a club person. As a successful and award-winning television executive, I have always avoided showbiz parties and BAFTA dinners. I turned down free membership from several London media haunts. So imagine the surprise of my friends and family when in recent years I have joined the most unlikely club of all: the cruise.
My guilty secret began before the pandemic when my husband and I were enticed by close friends to sail from Southampton to New York on the Queen Mary 2. I told bemused friends—more used to us canal boating in Britain or mountain trekking in Switzerland—that my grandfather had made the same journey in 1902, emigrating from the coal mines of South Wales. This was to pay tribute to him.
It was, however, an adventure that was to surprise me more than them. I loved every minute of the seven-day voyage: from the moment we stepped into our cabin and onto the balcony; the butler answering our every whim; sumptuous meals in elegant dining rooms; impressive history lectures and piano recitals; Zumba and Bridge classes; and a daily two-mile walk around the deck. Even the sombre captain’s announcement that we were sailing over the spot where Titanic sank had an eerie fascination.
The highlight was the Statue of Liberty emerging from the early morning fog as we sailed into New York. A delightful one-off voyage, I thought, but cruising is fast turning into an addiction. Last summer, another set of friends invited us on to our first proper cruise. Not a voyage that could be explained with dignity but ten days on a glamorous cruise line—an American one at that.
We were aboard Regent’s SS Explorer, discovering the archaeological wonders of ancient Greece and Turkey. We hopped on and off the ship, visiting extraordinary excavations, among them the wonders of the Minoan civilization and the breathtaking remains of Ephesus, where St Paul preached and was imprisoned.
The guilty secret grew. Alongside the history and academia I absorbed was my hedonistic joy of the unadulterated luxury of the ship. A spacious cabin and balcony with glorious ocean views. The charming crew on hand to meet every wish. More fine dining. Great entertainment. A spacious swimming pool, a gym to exercise away the guilt of indulgence, our laundry collected each morning and delivered back pristine, and, most important of all, the hair salon.
On our return, friends were respectfully polite in enquiring if we had really enjoyed the cruise. Were we overwhelmed by wealthy Americans? No. Did we dine with the Captain? Certainly not. Was everyone old? Like us, yes.
In the months after our return, we kept another secret to ourselves. After the New York voyage, we booked a cruise to East and South-East Asia—convincing ourselves this was the ideal way to see a part of the world we had missed because of career commitments. When would we confess to another cruise? This time it was the fancifully named Exotic Isles and Japanese Nights.
The pandemic saved us. The ports closed to cruise liners for three years until suddenly, last November, the voyage was on and we were booked for a February sailing.
Friends did not hide their disbelief: 14 days of Greek and Turkish archaeology they could just understand but 21 days trapped in a ship’s cabin on the other side of the world? Not to mention 15-hour flights there and back?
We did succumb to huge trepidation in the weeks before our departure: laborious Covid paperwork; the dread of flying British Airways; and a cruise taking in five countries and 12 ports, ending with four days in Tokyo. Was this a crazy cruise too far?
We left London on a cold February day, and on arrival in Bangkok, our disappointing stay in the Shangri La Hotel was followed the next morning by a grim 2½ hour coach journey to the port of embarkation. Our love affair with the ocean was surely at an end.
Then the coach turned its final corner and amid the steel and concrete of the vast docks sat the glorious ship: the very same SS Explorer. Our luggage whisked away as if by magic; we took a short walk up the gangplank where the smiling crew greeted us with champagne and led us to Deck eight and our sumptuous cabin. Strains of Mozart tinkled away as we stepped out onto the balcony with the ocean dancing in the sunlight. We were back on a cruise.
The days passed in a frenzy of on-board luxury, guided coach and sea-launch trips to the most amazing islands and ports. Golden beaches of the remote Thai island of Koh Kood. The frenetic Vietnam city of Nha Trang, where streams of motorbikes weaved in and out of us hesitant tourists. Then on to the Philippines and the glorious island of Coron, where the daily catch of anchovies was drying in the midday sun.
The contrast with Manila was stark. The capital of the Philippines, its contemporary and modern architecture stands witness to the rebuilding that followed the devastation of World War II. A poignant American cemetery commemorates the lives of U.S. and Filipino soldiers who died fighting the Japanese.
Our Filipino cabin crew Rhea and Jocel had a few hours of leave in Manila to meet their families for the first time in months. That morning we shared their excitement and packed them off, assuring them we could clean our cabin—but could I remember how to make a bed?
The journey went on and on. In Taiwan, we hailed a yellow cab and walked the grid of broad avenues reminiscent of New York’s Manhattan. We celebrated my birthday that day and I returned from the Taiwan streets to my cabin festooned with balloons and garlands.
The ship’s journey into Japan started at Kagoshima; into Kochi, and my favorite destination of the entire trip was Kyoto.
Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, Imperial palaces, Samurai gardens and the moving Kamikaze Museum taught me so much about Japanese life and culture that had been a mystery to me.
The cruise drew to a close when we sailed into Shimizu in the shadow of Mount Fuji with its snow-capped peak and finally on to Tokyo, where an unpredicted heat wave brought out the cherry blossom two weeks early.
Back in the UK, the trip is almost a dream, only made possible by joining that club of all clubs: The cruise. We told ourselves this would be the last. Today a cruise brochure arrived for the Northern Lights. We never did get to see those…