Why would anybody go on a cruise, especially with Covid to contend with? At the start of the pandemic I wrote a detailed account of how one luxury vessel, the Diamond Princess, cruising Asia, became known as “the Corona plague ship” after there were nearly 700 cases on-board, leaving passengers then staff quarantined on-board for months.
Afterwards, I swore I would never go on a cruise – which frankly was no real hardship as I had never been tempted by cruising in the first place.
So it was reluctantly that I agreed to board the Seabourn Odyssey for a 14-night cruise of the Caribbean. Covid outbreaks on-board cruises have become less and less frequent, and at least, I reasoned, if I found myself trapped on board, it would be a break from the cold, leaky cottage that I was renovating in Somerset.
I immediately invited my gay best friend Martin because, frankly, there was no one else I could face being potentially quarantined with in a cabin roughly the size of a garden shed. This turned out to be prescient. Walking in and seeing our cabin, we weren’t sure we would last two weeks confined there together. Although larger than those on most cruise ships, the two slim beds were so close together that we could reach out and touch each other, and we could hear our neighbouring cabin on-deck.
Meanwhile outside the window, beautiful Sint Maarten island was masked by a P&O ship docked alongside ours. All my worst fears seemed confirmed.
Nevertheless, Seabourn Odyssey was pleasingly luxurious. And effusively so. Our suite – for every cabin is so – had a teak balcony, a minibar stocked with the gold tequila, champagne and Johnnie Walker whisky we had requested, a bathroom larger than the one I have at home (featuring a gold-flecked walk-in shower cubicle, no less) and twin beds, which were eagerly and often turned down by our cabin maid Olly, about whom I do not have enough positive adjectives.
As we arrived, she instantly organised a standing order of caviar and champagne to arrive at 5pm every day in our suite (which sounds even more greedy and spoilt now that I am telling you about it) and once covered my single bed with rose petals as though I was on a celibate honeymoon.
There was a pillow menu – which I found ridiculous, but Martin, who brings his own pillow to stay at my house, adored – and a pool, danced around by friendly waiters ferrying cocktails to huge shaded sun beds with soft cushions, where I lay reading my Danielle Steel novels. There was a vast spiral staircase with one of those absurd chandeliers, a dancefloor, a jewellery shop and a casino – where Martin lost £1,000 then spent the rest of the cruise trying to win it back.
There were five hot tubs (and we drank pina coladas in all of them) and three bars – the Casino Bar, Pool Bar and Piano Bar – in which we drank still more. As we cruised past St Lucia’s magnificent Pitons, we sipped lapsang souchong and ate tiny pink cream meringues and cucumber sandwiches. “It is rather like Titanic,” considered Martin, eating a tiny eclair as Filippo played the white baby grand piano.
At times, the style could feel a little nouveau riche, but too much white pleather never killed anyone. There was a hair salon, where Robert whipped up blow-dries for formal nights, a spa offering hot stone massages, a wellness coach and a gym (note to self: running on the treadmill while sailing results in extreme motion sickness).
There were four restaurants, with two fine-dining options where we ate veal T-bone steak, pork tenderloin, soft-shell crab, foie gras, consommé (which Martin ordered on the choppiest night for a joke, but we were impressed to find it was served in a teapot), halibut and mahi-mahi freshly grilled on deck. A buffet featuring radicchio trout salad, cold beef carpaccio so thin and marbled it melted, cold cuts of prosciutto, Parma ham, Italian salami, themed meals… and so it went on, produced by an army of 49 chefs. We ate so well we stopped eating out because our clothes didn’t fit.
The friendly service could, occasionally, feel intense. “Good morning Mrs Glass!” was beamed at me 20 times before breakfast. I had never heard my mother’s name so much.
It was hard to look grateful and happy enough. When Maria, the glamorous, impeccably turned-out head of guest services, found us on deck one day and asked if everything was OK and I carelessly said, “Yeah it’s good”, she looked panicked and insisted: “I want it to be incredible!”
On the tannoy, the cruise director JP heralded us with upbeat aphorisms such as “Travel is the only thing you spend money on that makes you richer” and “the Seabourn Odyssey: your home-from-home”. He also told us: “I am so looking forward to meeting each and every one of you” – and he did.
Seabourn’s ships are smaller than other vessels, which had its pros and cons. The facilities didn’t feel overcrowded, but it was difficult to avoid other guests. We met a lovely honeymooning couple from Texas and a married couple so tedious that Martin took to steering me down dead-end corridors to avoid them.
I had assumed that cruising was sedate, but in two weeks we toured the Caribbean from the British Virgin islands to Aruba. We rode electric bikes around the Dutch island of Curacao, past brightly coloured colonial buildings. In Dominica we snorkelled among electric-blue chromis, yellow and black French angelfish and shoals of silver fins, visited waterfalls surrounded by tree ferns and orange African tulip trees, and sunbathed on a black-sand beach. On Grenada – the spice island – I bought fresh nutmeg and huge cinnamon quills in the market. We docked in St Lucia on Sunday and followed the sound of singing, past gingerbread balconies, to the church where we joined a joyful congregation.
We got used to waking and opening our curtains to new islands, each with its own unique landscape. The ever-changing view from our suite was something with which even the world’s best hotels could not compete. We were spoilt by cerulean depths and turquoise green shallows. The sea swayed from indigo to emerald to teal to navy blue at night. In the morning, the sun broke through the clouds, casting rays of shimmering gold onto the waves.
Such amazing photographic backdrops should have obvious appeal to millennials keen for Instagram options. I took enough pictures of Martin to keep him in Grindr shots for years.
We soon discovered other advantages to being at sea. While the islands were muggy and hot, the sea breeze cooled us. We were unbothered by mosquitos. When islands suffered bad weather, our captain steered us around it. The waves lapped us into a slumber that replenished years of sleep debt.
But something else happened that I had not predicted. We started to enjoy #shiplife. We had fun dressing up for formal night (“I finally understand cruise collections,” Martin sighed). We attended activities, enthusiastically joining the daily 4pm quiz. We got far too competitive at “Name That Song”. We watched the Captain vs Passengers bean-bag toss on deck.
In Barbados, we turned up for the LGBT meet-up, though were disappointed to find only one man in a white sailor’s outfit.
What is more, we really did come to see the Seabourn as the home-from-home we mocked JP for talking about. We wanted to leave the ship less and less – disembarking only to rush back to our pina coladas and hot tubs. Perhaps we had Stockholm syndrome. We started to enjoy getting up at 8am and saying 2,000 cheery good mornings to our fellow passengers.
Though the ship was still operating under some Covid protocols – at 50 per cent capacity (200 passengers out of a possible 416), with all passengers tested 48 hours before arrival and again at the port before embarkation, and the crew twice a week – the joy at relaxed restrictions was palpable. At the start of the pandemic, JP had found himself quarantined on the ship for months. He and the entertainment team put on art lessons and taught piano and guitar to other crew members to keep their spirits up. If the crew now seemed effusive, it came from a genuine excitement at being back doing jobs they love.
As our trip drew to an end, I finally understood cruising. Why risk an unpredictable hotel room, the heat, the hassle, the complication of planning the same tour on land? If cruises are full of “old people”, as I had always suspected, it is because they have the experience to know that it’s the best way to travel.
Famously, the only time the Queen has ever cried in public was when the royal yacht was decommissioned. When Martin and I finally had to leave our ship, we cried too.
How to do it
Seabourn (0843 373 2000; seabourn.com) offers the 14-Day Caribbean Jewels in Depth cruise – sailing aboard the Seabourn Ovation between Sint Maarten and Dominica – from £6,799 per person in a Veranda Suite. The price includes accommodation, all meals and drinks (except premium wine and spirits) and gratuities, economy class air fare, transfers between airport and ship, and £318 credit per suite. Optional shore excursions and spa treatments charged as booked. Departs March 11 2023
All Seabourn passengers must show proof of full vaccination and a negative Covid test before boarding, and will be administered a complimentary rapid antigen test at the cruise terminal during check-in. Passengers must also complete the BIMSafe app (visitbarbados.org) no less than 24 hours before travel