For the past eight years, the majority of our holidays have been all-inclusive hotel breaks to Turkey, or quick weekend getaways to Barcelona and Paris. So when friends suggested we try a Caribbean cruise, it sounded tempting in theory – all those tropical islands, no hassle, and lots of lazy days. But, was it really us? Would we go stir-crazy at sea, and want to jump ship at the first sight of dry land?
We arrive at the port in the heart of Madeira’s capital Funchal to be greeted by the sight of Ventura, 18 storeys high, reducing everything around her to the size of matchbox toys. As we’re escorted on board I start to worry that if we lose each other it could be quite some time before we’re reunited again.
Our stateroom is comfortable, with plenty of storage room, plus a good-sized balcony with two sun chairs and table. A thoughtful friend has organised a welcome bottle of champagne on ice and box of chocolates, which sets us up for exploring our new home.
We kick off our first night on board with a cocktail or three in The Red Bar – one of ten bars – and are just starting to relax when suddenly passengers started to position themselves down the two Hollywood style stair cases leading to the Atrium, and burst into the Queen song Somebody to Love. A flash mob, in the middle of the ocean? Surely not. But that’s exactly what it is.
The Ventura Vocalists, we discover, meet at noon each day to learn a new song to perform at a concert in front of the captain and other passengers, completely unannounced and taking everyone by surprise. This is it for me, because I’m a keen singer, so I’m straight off to the next rehearsal where, led by the ship’s enthusiastic young DJ Cristian, we belt out a pretty passable version of New York New York. Over the next few days, the choir grows from 35 to 163 – the largest choir ever on board a P&O cruise ship, in fact. Eat your heart out Gareth Malone.
But the real stars of our cruise are the Caribbean islands themselves, and you’re given lots of time to explore. Early birds and those on tours can disembark Ventura onto each island from around 8am, and you don’t need to be back on board until 5.30pm for the Sailaway Party.
Our first port of call is the beautiful British Virgin Island of Tortola – Spanish for Turtle doves, of which we saw many – some 50 miles east of Puerto Rico. “Welcome to Paradise,” says Linden, our tour guide, as we clamber aboard his rattly open sided bus to enjoy the spectacular views. Palm trees wave to us as we drive up into the lush green hills, looking down at white sand beaches and bobbing yachts.
There’s much laughter as we pass a local music venue called Bomba Shack to which many a Bridget Jones holidaymaker has donated a large pair of knickers. We down a rum-based Painkiller cocktail. Then it’s off on a motor launch to crash through the waves getting soaked as we are sworn in as ‘pirates’ passing Dead Man’s Chest island, and the real Treasure Island.
In beautiful Antigua, we spend much of our time simply chilling on the sands at Dickenson’s Bay. A yacht race takes in views of the picturesque harbour, Nelson’s Dockyard, where the man himself was stationed back in 1784. And there’s kayaking and snorkelling on offer to see the giant stingrays in their natural environment. Arriving in St Lucia with its patchwork shades of green, rugged jungles, rainforests, lush valleys of banana and coconut plantations, we decide to check out the wildlife. From the harbour in Castries where Ventura is berthed at Pointe Seraphine, we clamber onto a sight-seeing boat with around 50 others on a mission to find dolphins and whales. Although it’s never certain that the dolphins will play ball, so to speak, the crew are optimistic that we will see some. And sure enough after about an hour of chugging through choppy waters we’re rewarded. Shoals of flying fish surf the wave tops like silver mini planes, surrounded by spinner dolphins determined to put on a show for us. Performing impressive acrobats to catch the fish, they spin up into the air and bellyflop down to our cries of delight. And, not to be outdone, two pilot whales thread their way through the water.
Our afternoon in St Lucia is spent in Castries itself, with its gaily-painted wooden buildings and tropical flowers, and to a Bob Marley accompaniment we sip a banana daiquiri and check out the local craft market for souvenirs. We can actually smell the nutmeg as we approach Grenada. No wonder it’s known as Spice Island. We board a water taxi to take us to its most popular beach, Grand Anse. There we meet Anastasia who cooks us up a feast of chicken wings and special spicy sauce, washed down with rum punch. And as we head back to the main town of St Georges, we long to see more of this magical island, with its National Museum based in an old French army barracks, housing Josephine Bonaparte’s marble bathtub. But we run out of time. I left a little bit of my heart behind on this friendly island.
Meanwhile, back on board, we no longer have to rely on a ball of string to find our way back to our stateroom. And we’ve worked out that the great thing about a cruise is that you can tailor it to meet your needs. If you want mainstream fun there are regular parties, or dancing to late night music, and for entertainment, glitzy West End musical style shows in the Arena and always an alternative in the Havana bar. I could have sworn we had Elton John on board, but it was in fact his wonderful doppelganger, tribute artist John Ellis.
Each evening before dinner, we gravitate to a bit of sophistication at our favourite bar, Metropolis, on the 18th floor, where we sip margaritas against a plasma backdrop of Hong Kong, Paris or Vegas city life. It’s so glamorous. Every night when we totter back to our cabin there’s a Horizon newspaper detailing all the next day’s activities including fitness sessions, art classes, ballroom dance lessons with Geordies Brian and Carole Deluce, bridge for beginners, table tennis, bingo and quizzes.
As for the food, well, where to begin? There’s so much on offer, with three-course menus at the two fixed dining venues Saffron and Bay Tree, and freedom dining restaurant Cinnamon. Or sometimes we opt for one of more casual themed evenings – Thai, Italian, or Caribbean – at The Waterside buffet. One day, we cave in on the calorie count and give in to the afternoon tea with its crumpets and tea cakes. For a complete change, we try the two speciality restaurants. East with its red carpet and dark wood tables gives an Oriental flavour to its Asian food, but my favourite is The White Room, courtesy of Marco Pierre White’s culinary genius, where his Spaghetti all’Aragosta stile Americano (Spaghetti of Lobster Americano) sends us into raptures. Well worth the £25 cover charge.
There is something to do every minute of the day. Or do nothing… except sit on your balcony with a cuppa or glass of champagne and watch the sea, alone with your thoughts. The most stressful decision I have to make during our entire holiday is which spa treatment to go for in the Oasis Spa and Health Club. I plump for 50 minutes of Hot Stone Therapy which promises to transport me to the ‘ultimate state of bliss’. It delivers – and for the next few hours afterwards I’m so relaxed I can’t even be bothered to speak. Mike reckons that at £79 this represents brilliant value for husbands who long for a bit of peace and quiet on holiday.
But for me, one of the highlights of our trip was dressing up for the Black Tie nights. As someone who spends her life in casual clothes, I can’t remember the last time I wore an evening dress. And in our eight years together, I had never seen Mike in a tuxedo before. (He scrubbed up well).
It’s not just us who are transformed, either. It’s as though someone has waved a magic wand over our fellow cruisers who have morphed from holidaymakers in baggy shorts into red carpet celebrities. As we stand singing Rod Stewart’s Sailing to applause from our fellow passengers, I know our first cruise holiday won’t be our last. I glance over at Mike, who is standing with the Tenors, and can tell he feels exactly the same.
*A 14-night Caribbean Transatlantic cruise on Ventura commencing on 8 March 2013 starts from £1,209 per person for a Vantage Fare. Departing from Barbados and returning to Southampton, ports of call are Grenada, St Lucia, Antigua, Tortola and Madeira. The price includes flights, all meals, afternoon tea, entertainment and an inside cabin. To book, visit P&O.