I always had a lot of prejudice against the big tourist cruise ships. I love boats and I love the sea, I even love crowds sometimes, and all-you-can-eat buffets most times, but something about four thousand people stuck together in a moving building in the middle of the ocean just didn’t do it for me.
First, I had a horrible image of it in my head: tacky, casino-like decoration, tiny windowless rooms, wave pools, climbing walls, bad music, group activities, group portraits, group anything, queues, suspicious hygiene and all sorts of loud adults and even louder children way over indulging on things I don’t really care for on land, where I can escape, let alone at sea.
Second I had my fears. Fear of feeling claustrophobic, scared and panicky and wanting out right at the moment when land was nowhere to be seen. I don’t usually get motion sickness, but I feared that too. I’m not afraid of air planes, but I did fear the ship could sink or catch fire and explode. Mostly I feared all of these things combined with the above.
Then one day I got an email: “Do you want to go on assignment on a luxury cruise ship from Rome to Venice next November?”.
I looked at it as a great opportunity to try something I would never willingly spend my money on. Plus, I rarely pass the chance to see new places and this was a one week trip, with only one day entirely at sea. I figured in an emergency I could just get off somewhere.
Right after I accepted the invite but before I told anyone, just to make things easier, an unadvised friend showed me, out of the blue, a bunch of videos of cruise ships being tossed around in heavy storms (nauseating links here and here). Still, off I went, with a journalist friend, in what is called a “Fam (familiarisation) Trip”.
We left from the Port of Rome, where a little red carpet welcomed us into the check-in area. We handed over our bags and got room access cards with our names on them. The room had a lovely balcony, little sweets, our very own butler and looked refreshingly neutral. We were off to a good start.
As it turned out, despite its nine floors, this was considered a small ship, with a 710 passenger capacity and an average age of 110 among them. Maybe it was the itinerary, maybe the time of year, maybe the fact that this ship, much to my relief, had no climbing walls or loud group activities, but we were the youngest guests aboard and I have to admit I loved the peace and quiet.
On the first night, the absolute blackness and silence outside, combined with the slight movement and constant humming of the engines in the background made me a bit too aware of my surroundings to relax. My bed was extra comfortable and I was very tired, but something felt unnatural, it was like lying in bed at home, in a proper room, but moving!
That’s when I realized it was actually quite perfect: go to bed, sleep comfortably, then wake up somewhere else entirely. When I finally did fall asleep, it was one of the best night’s sleep I ever had.
The next morning I woke up to a patch of red-purple sky visible from an opening in the curtains and could not close my eyes anymore. After that, I quickly settled onto a pleasant routine. Go to bed early, jump out of it at sunrise, throw a coat over my pyjamas and run to the outside deck to watch the sun come up and see where we were. Then breakfast, more views, a bit of steam room, shower, get ready to dock, breakfast a second time, and leave for the day. It’s an amount of spoiling very easy to get used to.
We stopped for several hours at different ports each day, the official itinerary being Rome – Sorrento – Sorrento – At sea – Kotor – Split – Venice – Venice. We made it to Sorrento alright, and a nice drive down the Amalfi Coast, but that night the weather turned and we had to sail up to Naples, where a proper dock would make it safer for us to spend the night. There were shuttles taking people back to Sorrento the next day, since that’s what they expected to see, but I was excited to explore Naples instead.
It was the last bit of firm ground I would get for the next 36 hours. That night we sailed towards the Adriatic Sea under heavy rain and turbulent waters. The outdoor buffet was suspended, bottles were taped to the bars, little bags strategically placed for those who didn’t make it to the nearest toilet in time.
Frequent captain announcements warned of the shaky night ahead of us, but reassured we were safe and gave invaluable tips on how to cope with it, such as drinking ginger beer. Something that proved to be an effective pre-dinner remedy for those who, like me, felt OK enough but could not eat. After a couple of glasses of ice cold ginger beer before each meal though, I ate my way through those 36 hours.
Because we were there to report on all aspects of cruise life, and there was not much to do on that day at sea, we got to go around the kitchen and see the biggest pots and pans and utensils. Everything was huge and stood almost as tall as a short person, sometimes even taller than a tall one. Other than that I spent a lot of time outside watching the water change colour, from black to dark blue to white, as the ship swung in it. I even tried the yoga class, but it can be very challenging when the floor is tilting up and down 20 degrees below you. After a thunderous night storm though, skies cleared, a flock of small birds joined us, and the next day brought bright blue skies and a walk past a Halloween decorated door to visit the command bridge, where men worked on retro looking machines and the captain’s five year old son played with his toys.
Then it was off to Kotor, Split and Venice, from where I continued on to the Dolomites. On all those places, and for days after I left the ship, I could still feel the ground moving underneath me. Like when I was a kid and played on the swing for hours and hours, then felt my body going up and down as I lay on my bed at night. It was a strange, yet somehow adorable feeling. One that I actually miss sometimes, along with the blackness, the slight rocking and waking up somewhere else entirely.