In Huddersfield, where I grew up, a town-centre department store boasted a ‘cruise wear’ section. In the window display the gentleman dummies wore deck shoes, starched white shorts and flannel jackets, while the ladies struck elegant poses and held designer sunglasses in their slender moulded hands. In Huddersfield, the opportunities to flaunt such clothes were limited. The shop closed down, but for as long as it existed it provided a vision of continental chic and luxury living, nestled between Burger King and the Polish mini-mart.
Cruising is no longer an exclusive activity: even a half-hearted search on the internet throws up dozens of companies offering thousands of departures to hundreds of destinations. If there’s water, they go there, be it ocean, sea, lake, loch, fjord or river. We plump for an unchallenging week down the west Balkan coast leaving from Venice docks, offloading our luggage at the ferry terminal and picking up the all-important cruise cards — our door key, ID, status indicator and wallet rolled into one. There’s a practice drill, then the deep baritone of the ship’s horn booms out across the Venetian lagoon, and we’re off.
Sailing through the Venice Channel is like sailing though a Canaletto. St Mark’s feels within touching distance and I could throw my hat onto the top of the Campanile. It’s also an environmental sore point, not to mention visual heresy, that ten storeys of steel should be bisecting one of the wonders of the world. Campaigners are outraged and I’m suitably ashamed. We make a tour of the ship, the Splendour of the Seas, which is a reverse Tardis in the sense that it’s much smaller and more navigable inside than its hulking exterior suggests. There are theatres, bars, a gym, a casino, a spa, a library (deserted), an indoor pool, an outdoor pool, a shopping mall and adult-oriented rock oozing through the ship’s speakers. I don’t know where everyone goes at night, but under the perfect dark of the sky and in the pitch blackness of the sea my wife and I have the putting green and the quoits rink to ourselves.
One truly impressive aspect of this experience is the international make-up of the passenger manifest. I was expecting retired Brits in elasticated waistbands, stretch-cotton lounging suits and Velcro-fastened sandals, but we’re among people from Belize, Mexico, Panama, Brazil, Norway, Croatia, Germany, South Korea, China, the US and the Isle of Man, and young people too, some on their honeymoon, others requiring no such excuse. The crew are similarly multicultural, as their name badges and the flags of their nations in the corner of those name badges imply.
Kotor, hidden away within the mountains of Montenegro, awaits us. The ship’s too big to cosy right up to the jetty (it’s probably bigger than the town itself) so we’re decanted ashore and delivered into a scrum of taxi drivers and souvenir-sellers. It takes an hour to climb the thousands of steps to the ancient hill fort but the view is worth the exertion, and the old walled town warrants more time than our curfew allows. I’ll come here again, though God knows when or how.
I love Greece. In my next life I’m going to be an Ancient Greek. We wake up in Corfu and get deliberately lost in the crowded market streets behind the cricket pitch. The next day, the Parthenon is a builders’ yard but the Acropolis Museum is spectacular and dignified — time to hand back the Elgin Marbles. By now I’ve decided that the joy of cruising is arriving in new and occasionally unusual locations without having to think, pack or even stand up.
I’ve also become fixated with cruise director Bill Brunkhorst, a square-jawed American with a quip for every occasion and a bow tie for every evening, sometimes drawing the raffle, sometimes playing compère in the talent contest, and hosting a game of ‘Mr and Mrs’ in the 42nd Street Theatre. Later on, we witness gymnasts dressed as flying monkeys abseiling up and down the ship’s main atrium without meaning or explanation.
The famous white windmills and houses of Mykonos glint in the morning sun as we anchor in the bay and queue for the motor launches. A 20-minute boat ride from Mykonos harbour, the island of Delos is the highlight of the whole trip, a chance to wander at will among the ruined houses and abandoned streets of a once sophisticated and complex society, and to be spellbound by the architecture and stonework, not least the iconic dog sculptures now kennelled in the archaeological museum. Culturally speaking I feel inspired and admonished at the same time.
We steal back into Venice through the mist of early morning, walk past the line of passengers disputing their invoices at customer services, and sneak down the gangplank before Greenpeace arrive. Bill says his goodbyes over the ship’s PA system, his closing remarks segueing seamlessly into a bossa nova version of the Ramones’ punk classic ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’.