It’s often said that calories don’t count at sea, but can you really get fit on a cruise? We sent self-confessed junk food addict Karen Pasquali Jones on a mini-break to find out…
The plane seat belt is let out almost to the maximum, and sits below my bump which, despite the smiles of strangers who inquisitively murmur “When are you due?” is not, in fact, a baby.
It is rather the result of a very expensive love of red wine and cheese. I’m a Merlot, pizza and pasta-loving vegetarian who has put on five stone over the past five years and is now desperate to lose it. That’s why I’m flying to Barcelona to board Norwegian Epic for a ‘healthy’ cruise around the Mediterranean. I may be taking in Naples and Rome along the way, but I’ve been challenged by Cruise International to see if I can get fit and lose weight at the same time.
It’s not going to be easy. This ship has 21 dining options, including Teppanyaki, French, Asian, Chinese and Italian restaurants, 20 bars and lounges, 24-hour room service and NCL’s Premium All Inclusive alcohol package.
Oh, and the restaurants offer freestyle dining so you can eat whenever and wherever you want. How will I ever be able to resist? Stay in my stateroom the whole time and ask for the mini-bar to be locked? Wear boxing gloves so I can’t use a knife and fork? Or take the hardest option possible and try to summon up some willpower? I know I had some once… before I married an Italian chef who thinks nothing of whipping up five-course banquets every night.
On board, I’m impressed. Norwegian Epic is a floating resort with an Ice Bar, bowling, comedy club, casino, an enormous theatre, and all those bars and restaurants. And, of course, it also has a fitness centre, jogging/walking track (it might have to be renamed the crawling track in my case), spa, sports complex, pools, and even climbing and rappelling – which you kind of abseil down – walls.
My stateroom is on Deck 11, an elegant haven of white and taupe décor, with a balcony, curved bed and giant sofa. After boarding, I’m faced with my first tough decision: sail away drinks on deck or a fitness class at the Pulse Fitness Centre? I unpack and find my gym kit: a pair of men’s long running shorts (borrowed from my husband) and an enormous T-shirt that clings to my large tummy.
“I’m overfed, overweight and over here,” I think as I enter the gym. Luckily it’s really just an orientation session, and I leave an hour later, only slightly sweaty, with time for a quick shower and change of outfit before heading to dinner in the Manhattan Room.
The menu is stuffed with delicious-sounding (calorific) dishes such as lasagne and tagliatelle pasta in a creamy sauce – and the wafts of delicious aromas make me want to cry. But the healthy veggie options sound good, too, and I order a roast squash salad with sherry vinaigrette. It’s crunchy, with arugula, and Brussel sprouts, and is unbelievably tasty. Afterwards, I devour an entire fresh fruit platter instead of my usual cheese board and go to bed feeling full but virtuous.
After an incredibly comfortable night’s sleep I’m slightly dazed as I make my way to the top deck for an early morning yoga class.
I’ve never been a morning person, so I’m very confused when the instructor starts talking about Warriors, Downward Dogs and Cat poses; it doesn’t help that I’m sitting next to a Danish glamazon who is a size eight with a washboard stomach. I think about sucking in my stomach, but discover I don’t have any muscles there to suck in.
Afterwards I’m exhausted, and walk gingerly back to my stateroom for a shower, passing the rock climbing wall on the way. It’s a long way up. “Fancy a go?” an instructor says and I shake my head.
Instead I head to the Garden Café for a light breakfast: egg white omelette, water melon, apple and banana. It’s delicious, beautifully prepared and filling. I have enough energy to wobble to the sun deck and flop for a couple of hours before meeting my friends to go in the Ice Bar. We don parkas and look like extras from Frozen before going to chill in the Svedka & Inniskillin Ice Bar. Inspired by the original Scandinavian ice hotels, the walls, the seats, and even the bar are all made of ice, and it’s kept at an Arctic temperature. I stay in there as long as I can, hoping that being so cold is making me burn more calories – because next we’re off to the Spiegel Tent for the Cirque Dreams and Dinner Epicurean experience.
Trapeze artists, jugglers, a clown and all manner of circus performers entertain us as we dine. And I’m equally impressed with the food: our super-friendly waitress asks the chef to prepare something ‘off-menu’ for me, and he conjures up a fresh avocado salad. I’m longing for a glass (or two) of Tempranillo Rioja or Château Saint Jean – Norwegian Cruise Line has an excellent wine list – but I resist, instead having a white wine spritzer.
Afterwards we head to karaoke and the nightclub. Dancing and singing in a nightclub while completely sober is something new to me, and I discover I really enjoy it.
We arrive in Naples, the home of limoncello and the best pizza in Italy. It’s so popular here that it is sold by the metre – and has flavours such as chocolate as well as my favourite, a classic Margherita. I fill up on fresh fruit before going on shore. That way I might not be tempted. We have some serious sight-seeing to do – visiting Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii. Mount Vesuvius is the only active volcano in Europe and last erupted in 1944, though it is the 79 AD eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculean.
We are driven round narrow mountain roads to 1,000 metres up the volcano. The walk to the crater from there is just 150 metres and I’ve read online that it is “not a hike but a light walk unless you’re seriously out of condition”. Breaking news: I’m seriously out of shape. It’s 26°C in the shade, and the 700-metre-deep crater is still steaming. So then I grab a wooden staff to help me climb the volcano, but at the first bend in the steep path I’m gasping for breath. But as my breathing calms, shame sets in. I’m next to one of the most famous volcanoes in the world; climbing it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and yet octogenarians are nimbly sprinting past me.
“This is embarrassing,” I mutter. “Come on, Karen, you can do this.” I set off again. One step, two, and slowly I start making the climb. Finally, sweating, clinging on to my wooden staff, and thinking that I can’t go on, I turn a corner and see my friends waiting for me at the top. They clap as I haul myself up the last few metres, and for the first time in five years I feel an incredible sense of achievement at having done something physical. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, it may have been a short climb in terms of distance, but it’s a giant step for me.
Next we head to the ruins of Pompeii. Walking the cobbled streets is a glimpse into history, and we arrive at the famous plaster casts of the victims who died here. Hot ash formed around the residents of Pompeii, encasing their bodies. This ash preserved their final postures,and an incredible amount of detail of their faces and clothes. Looking at the casts brings home the reality of what happened. It’s a sobering moment, before we head back to our coach and take the drive back to Norwegian Epic.
Back on board there’s time for a trip to the heavenly Mandara Spa. It’s huge, and as well as offering massage, facials and treatments, there is a Thermal Suite featuring a Thalasso therapy pool, steam room, sauna, hot tubs, and tropical rain showers.
Tonight we eat dinner at speciality restaurant Le Bistro. I’m almost salivating as I read the menu: French onion soup with melted cheese and a puff pastry top, and French wine, and I triumph and fail at the same time. I can’t resist the soup, but decide not to have anything else, and decline the red wine, opting for a white wine spritzer instead. I don’t feel like I’m missing out, because the quality of the food is so amazing.
We arrive in Civitavecchia for Rome and it’s the end of our mini-cruise. My flight back to the UK is early so there’s just time for a healthy breakfast of yogurt and a banana before heading to the airport. I leave Norwegian Epic thrilled that I have made some progress – I’ve done more exercise on board the ship than I have in the past decade, and I’ve eaten much better. I’ve only given in once to a slice of pizza and can’t remember what red wine tastes like. My willpower is stronger and, as I take my seat for the flight home, I can tell I’ve lost weight as the belt fits easier. But the real test will be when I get on the scales back home.
My skin is glowing, the dark circles under my eyes are almost gone, and I don’t look or feel as puffy. I managed to lose 3lb while I was away and since I have returned I’ve kept it off and lost a few more by walking, swimming and even cycling. And the best part is I’m actually enjoying getting fit. So, yes, you can lose weight on a cruise – and you can also discover a whole new you while you’re at it.
GETTING THERE: Norwegian Epic regularly departs on four-night fly-cruises from Rome to Barcelona from April to October. Prices start from £1,060pp (two sharing an inside stateroom). The fare includes NCL’s new Premium All Inclusive package, which includes a selection of premium alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. For details, call 0333 241 2319 or visit ncl.co.uk.