The American ship Celebrity Equinox hulked over Istanbul port like an entire street block. My six-year-old daughter and I boarded and underwent an airport-style security check before being squirted with disinfectant as if we were toxic aliens. This was not quite the welcome I had anticipated and yes, the carpets were swirly. However, I remained cheerful because we had a ‘stateroom’. Veterans will laugh at my naivety but, being a cruise virgin, I imagined a panelled suite full of brass fittings. Already dismayed by the ship’s vastness, I now complained that we were in the wrong room as we stepped into a small cabin with narrow twin beds. The porter pointed out the flowers, chocolate-dipped strawberries and Perrier Jouet on ice, accompanied by a card that read, ‘Welcome Miss Metcalf’. Thus I learnt that all cabins are ‘staterooms’.
Princess Mpofu was our ‘onboard liaison’. ‘Is she a real princess?’ asked my daughter as we went to meet her in the Ocean View Café on the 14th deck. Dodging the man spraying disinfectant, we walked into a giant self-service area, divided up by coloured plastic panels. Hundreds of people were eating or queuing for food. People carrying trays were shambling around looking for tables. ‘Is it very ugly, Mummy?’ asked my daughter, reading my pained face. ‘Hideous, darling.’ We retreated along the deck, past rows of people lying on sun-loungers. At the Marine Bar there was also a queue for frankfurters, squid, burgers and mince. ‘Yuck!’ said my daughter. ‘Quite,’ I replied.
Then we found Princess, a South African in naval-style uniform. Her smile wavered as I asked, ‘Is there anywhere nice we can eat?’ The main restaurant closed for lunch at 1.30 p.m. but, sensitive to my mutinous despair, Princess secured us a table and I began to relax.
It took me two days to overcome the shock of being holed up with 2,850 passengers and 1,300 crew in this gigantic floating playground. And playground it was, with theatre, cinema, casino, spa, gym, swimming pool and hot tubs, shopping mall, a lawn on the top deck, Fun Factory for children and X-Club for teenagers. There was nonstop entertainment.
The pool was small and the sun-loungers were so close together that you had to lunge and belly-flop onto them from the end. A six-piece Filipino band in shorts and sunglasses was singing ‘Roll out the Barrel’. In one of the hot tubs we met Jolene from Tucson, Arizona. She was on honeymoon. ‘My husband’s 18 years older than me,’ she confided. I guessed Jolene was 65.
There were two sittings for dinner at 6.15 and 8.45 in the main restaurant, laid out over two levels with a staircase allowing for a theatrical entrance. It was decorated with chrome and glass baubles and long tubes of light that changed colour. The food was consistently excellent and the Filipino sommelier attentive — though wine was an expensive extra at $8 for a glass of Pinot Grigio.
There were several ‘speciality’ restaurants too and one night I went to Murano, a dimly lit, panelled, club-like room with semi-circular banquettes. Children were banned, women wore gowns and jewels and I dined on delicious but curiously trussed food — my lettuce was tamed with cucumber ties and my sea bass imprisoned in potato netting.
Our last dinner in the main restaurant involved ‘formal’ dress and we were treated to a display of the chefs, sommeliers and maître d’s waving and marching down the staircase and through the restaurant. We were urged to cheer and whirl our napkins around in appreciation and we did this with genuine enthusiasm, grateful to our waiters, many of whom had given up being architects, teachers or engineers in Eastern Europe to work for greater financial gain on board.
In the end, I enjoyed myself enormously, due to the friendliness of the staff and their kindness to my daughter. The ebullient young American women who ran the Fun Factory entertained her daily. I had nothing but admiration for the smooth running of so many different aspects of life aboard, from the cabaret, dance classes, art auctions and wine-tastings to scrubbing the decks and turning the beds down, and I never saw a grumpy face amongst the crew. Oh, and we did disembark a few times — in Athens, and at Kusadasi to see Ephesus.
The problem is that I’m just one of those stand-offish British types, squeamish about organised fun and embarrassed about doing things en masse. I like to think us Brits come from the tradition of intrepid travellers — seeking out uncharted beauty spots far from the madding crowds — to whom this kind of all-singing, all-dancing experience is anathema. In fact, Brits were among the first to embrace the package holiday and 1.65 million Britons cruise annually (more Brits now cruise than ski). It’s clearly a taste we’re acquiring fast and, from £125 a day, Celebrity Equinox is seriously good value. It would be churlish not to admit I had a good time and I had a sublime moment watching dolphins from our private balcony — it was a superior stateroom after all.
An 11-night Eastern Mediterranean cruise starts at £1,357 per person