A cruise ship is both a floating city and showbiz at sea. In this comedy, perfect passengers (ourselves) face passengers from heaven and hell. All play their parts to perfection, from the cruise bore to the complainer, the clown to the Old Colonial.
A cruise ship is a city in miniature, a closed world in which perfect passengers (ourselves) face the purgatory of professional cruise bores, and passengers from Hell roam freely. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, “Hell is other passengers.”
As a precaution against Passengers from Hell, never risk a cruise without a companion, or, failing that, a false hearing aid to fend off unwelcome attentions. Cunning cruise veterans favour retro headphones, antisocial table manners and novels with lurid covers. A swastika-studded copy of Hitler’s Children works fine, as does a nautical mile stare. Somewhere on the seven seas, the heavenly passengers await, though possibly hidden behind clunky headphones last sported in 1990.
The perfect cruise should provide a waspish intellectual as a dinner companion, preferably one with a gift for feuding with dullards. Where is a Gore Vidal when you need him: “Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for president. One hopes it is the same half.” Or imagine drinking on deck with the suave Stephen Fry, clowning his way into cruise lore: “I don't need you to remind me of my age. I have a bladder to do that for me.”
But paradise at sea is not simply about bonding with kindred spirits and retreating from the rest. Relish the richness of the mix. From the star turns to the social misfits, your fellow-cruisers will amuse you more than the cruise entertainment. Still, if you’ve experienced the highs and lows of cruise entertainment, this is less of a ringing endorsement than it sounds. Showbiz at sea means that subtlety sometimes slips out of the porthole, along with your will to live.
The prim, tea-drinking crowd on certain British ships could not differ more dramatically from the carefree cocktail-sipping set on the American mega-ships. Or, as one Californian cruise director puts it more memorably: “the Brits are too tight-assed to have fun.”
The perfect American-style cruise features a gaggle of gorgeous Puerto Rican models flaunting their charms by the pool and raising the temperatures of happily married men. Lowering both the tone and the temperature comes the blonde, perma-tanned divorcée on the make, dressed in a fake leopard-skin bikini accessorised with snakeskin stilettos. (Deck shoes are for wimps). Miss Leopard-skin might come from Miami or Manchester but her spiritual home is the sexual jungle at sea. Underestimate her at your peril: her scoring rate is higher than Ronaldo’s.
Sunning themselves poolside are companionable Californians with cosmetic smiles and charmingly cosmetic opinions. By the time you reach Barbados, you’ll be bonding over the rum and Bajan bands and marvelling at their wit. And that’s before looking beyond the cruise stereotypes. Every cruise should have a sassy black Los Angelino, an acerbic Jewish New Yorker or a sultry Hispanic to take umbrage at such a cloyingly sweet portrayal of the American Dream.
The perfect European-style cruise features sociable Italian honeymooners, happier to flirt with fellow-cruisers than to stand on the aft deck, hair blowing in the breeze, looking into their beloved’s eyes. In the wings stands a dashing Greek charmer who, as ship’s officer, uses the lure of his naval whites to devastating effect. Fraternising with passengers is banned but flirting is a form of public service. No rules are broken, except in girlish passengers’ dreams. And let’s not forget the deck parties with the prettiest Filipino waiter garlanded in flowers by his gay admirers.
The perfect British-style cruise also celebrates genial Old Colonials upholding the honourable tradition of afternoon tea. From Trinidad to Tortola, tea-time is always set to Tunbridge Wells-time. In their wake come silver-haired couples celebrating a ruby wedding anniversary, proof that some marriages last as long as precious stones. The cruise is the richer for having a brood of ballroom dancing fanatics, from merry widows to bespectacled daughters and their boisterous mothers, all competing for the attentions of the only single gentleman guest who isn’t gay.
A classic British-style cruise attracts a certain breed of retired, gentrified types who live in quaint Sussex villages and eat prunes for breakfast. If you love Sussex villages as much as you loathe prunes, give this couple a chance to reveal a life beyond prunes. For sensitive souls, the vastness of the ocean and the voyage itself create a mood conducive to confidences that may astound you.
Encounters with the proverbial Passenger from Hell can enliven a dull sea day and add to the universal fund of cruise anecdotes. The secret is to relish the encounter, savour the crassness of the cruise bores and then vow to avoid all future contact. For a smooth Londoner, this poses no problem: “We must do lunch some time” translates as “farewell forever, you loser-cruiser.”
Dedicated people-watchers and outrageous snobs can have a ball observing the subtle one-upmanship at sea. The cruise bores are the equivalent of plane spotters, photographing every passing ship or recounting every one of their last 30 cruising adventures. Little has changed since Mark Twain’s day, when the writer mocked cruise passengers for “always grieving over some other ship they have known and lost.” Cruise bores may well be married to cruise snobs, past masters at the art of one-upmanship. “Where do you keep your boat?” queried a snooty matron on a recent cruise, during a distinctly boat-free conversation.
The cruise complainers are a common species, best spotted in their natural habitat, the dining room. One early warning sign is when a misguided guest resists the fresh tropical fruit buffet for tinned peaches at breakfast. Typical opening gambits include an aggressive reproof to a harried waiter: “This is not a two-minute boiled egg;” or “We stopped going on the QE2 when they changed the marmalade;” or “Why can’t they hold the midnight buffet earlier?”
Lunch is equally perilous: the Americans mutter about the toughness of European meat while the Italians fume that pasta dishes are not made to order. The French froth that American ships serve ten types of garishly-coloured salad dressings but cannot make a classic vinaigrette.
Little Englanders unfailingly compare each new tropical island with home: in the lush rainforests of Dominica, you might hear the cry of delight: “This is just like the New Forest.” Even the neo-Old Colonial has his place on the cruise: “I haven’t been back to the British Virgin Islands since I helped turn them into offshore tax havens.”
The Old Colonials can always be relied upon to set the world to rights on a cruise. Coming from a background steeped in subduing unruly natives in India, running rubber plantations in Malaysia, cotton-picking in Egypt, or rum-running in Barbados, the Old Colonial is appalled by the slothfulness of Caribbean culture. Faced with the laid-back life on the spice island of Grenada, one English expatriate remarked: “What the natives need is a bit of self-discipline, decent roads, a sound education, and an uncorrupt administration.” (In short, a return to British colonial rule).
The most delightful scenarios occur when a tea-drinking dowager encounters a cocktail-sipping Californian cruise Romeo. In response to the dowager’s polite enquiry in a lift, the cruise Romeo wisecracks, “Going down? That’s the only way I like it, baby.” Equally amusing are the cross-cultural misunderstandings between old-school Europeans and eclectic North Americans. “We’re building a Tuscan farmhouse” proudly announces a Californian casino owner to his new-found Italian friend, whose enquiry: “Closer to Florence or Siena?” is met with the unanswerable: “Closer to Orange County.”
The resolutely upbeat nature of contemporary cruising can drive grumpy guests to consider walking the plank. As an antidote to a cheery Caribbean cruise, every ship should come with a deeply misanthropic and darkly narcissistic cruise director. The late Gore Vidal again springs to mind: “I am at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”
Boarding certain ships can feel like joining the final act of a well-established drama. Passengers play their roles to perfection: the snob, the flirt, the clown, the cruise bore, the complainer, the Old Colonial. The ship’s wardrobe police play their part. Dress codes at sea are a sartorial minefield, in which instructions that “suggested attire is casual (elegantly casual)” pass for clarity.
Among the passengers from Heaven or Hell are idiosyncratic characters who refuse to conform to stereotyping. An elderly Londoner despairs of one ship’s musical repertoire, harking back to a battle-torn Britain, `forces’ sweetheart’ Vera Lynn, and the White Cliffs of Dover: “It’s so dated – we lived through all that and don’t need to be reminded of it – give me Ed Sheeran any day.”
Great cruise eccentrics still exist but to know one you might need to be one. Show your true colours by booking a year-long world cruise, accompanied by your pet parrot and your Regency furniture. Nostalgics reminisce about eccentric cruise veterans such as Jerry Kaye, a hat fetishist from Florida, who regularly booked an extra cabin solely for her vast hat collection. The veteran cruising legend Clara MacBeth, who spent a record fourteen years sailing on the Caronia, barely left the confines of her floating home. She famously declined a port call to Sydney by declaring: “I visited Australia in 1949, I don’t think I’ll bother getting off again.”
In the absence of decent entertainment onboard, become the entertainment yourself. After one mind-numbingly dull cruise lecture, you’ll soon realise that your talents are superior. Rather than a great wit, the cruise lecturer is likely to be a superannuated politician, a plodding pensions expert, or a shy botanist who can only communicate with plants. Instead, bond with the noted authority on the lost art of napkin-folding. Go with the flow and practise folding napkins into the form of exotic birds. Your future as a cruise lecturer is assured. Your sanity less so.