It’s hell out here. But, as I always say, you’ve just got to grit your teeth and get on with it.
The real blow landed over breakfast. I had just finished truffling through the eggs Benedict on the aft verandah, scraping up the last of the Hollandaise sauce and watching the flying fish skittering across the ship’s turquoise wake; I was wondering if I should move on to the smoked salmon or the gravadlax before my tropical fruit platter, thinking – not for the first time – that it was a shade hair-shirt to turn away the champagne on the grounds it’s too early (it’s evening in the UK, for God’s sake), when I saw it in the onboard newspaper.
Michael Buerk enjoys the onboard jacuzzi
“Britain braced for blizzards,” said the headline. Well, it ruined my day, I can tell you. My thoughts are with the families, as they say these days. I may have to have an extra dash of dry sherry in my mid-morning bouillon to get over it. A stiffer cocktail before lunch might ease the pain. I suppose it’s survivor’s guilt.
I’m on a decidedly upmarket cruise ship, Silver Whisper, paying for my passage giving lectures as it crosses the South Pacific on its world cruise. We left Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in early January, transited the Panama Canal, tripped down the west coat of South America and are now churning across the seemingly endless indigo and gold-trimmed ocean on our way to Tahiti and beyond.
It was 2,000 miles – five days at sea – before we reached Easter Island, another 1,000 miles to Pitcairn, where descendants of the Bounty mutineers slalomed us ashore in a longboat through the surf.
Now we’re heading through the picture paradise atolls of French Polynesia before…
(Sorry, I had to break off for a moment. Pauline, our perfectly groomed French butlerette, just came into the suite to check our fridge wasn’t running out of bubbly, and to make sure the orchids were still in good nick.)
A “royal suite” on Silver Whisper
I have a day off today. I’ve already shared my thoughts on Islamic extremism, human development, reality TV, overpopulation, Captain Bligh – “the real hero of the Bounty” – and America’s love affair with guns (a high-risk subject among this clientele, let me tell you). With jokes.
Today it’s my fellow lecturer’s turn. He’s a former White House policy advisor, who’s ploughing a narrower, but doubtless deeper, furrow about the West’s relations with the Middle East. No jokes.
So, the day is free. Now, what will it be? Not the French or Spanish lessons – far too exhausting. Bridge leaves me cold. Shuffleboard is such a shipboard cliché, don’t you agree? Definitely not the cookery demonstration; I try not to think about food in the brief intervals between one banquet and the next.
No, a good book beside the pool, I think. I’ve already decided what to have for lunch. A fish dish, mahi mahi marinated in lime juice from today’s selection, followed by a Kansas beef sandwich with guacamole. I’m going easy; it’s a light snack to this lot. The afternoon is mostly spent on the cross-trainer in the gym, dripping sweat onto its calorie counter; half an hour heavy pumping to unwind each lunchtime glass of sauvignon. Besides, it keeps me away from high tea. Life’s become a hamster wheel of indulgence and reparation.
Silver Whisper’s outdoor dining area, La Terraza
No time for the ballroom dancing with the “gentlemen hosts” – the job I’m lining up for my old age. It doesn’t matter to me that they’re chosen to look after lonely ladies on the basis of being sexually non-threatening. Or, for that matter, that I can’t dance.
I always remember the advice of the pianist in the Chartroom Bar on the old QE2 – who, despite being dog-eared and far from young, was a legendary Lothario who’d been showered with expensive gifts by rich widows. “There’s only one thing you’ve got to get right,” he said. “You have to be able to tell the difference between passion and an asthma attack.”
Team Trivia at 5pm. Very serious. The prize is a bookmark. Nearly all the players must be millionaires, but they cheat. They can’t help themselves. Perhaps that’s why they’re millionaires. Time for a wallow in the deck jacuzzi with a glass or two of champagne. Then dinner in the main dining room, the Italian Terraza restaurant, or out on deck, grilling your rib-eye on “hot rocks” under the stars, wondering why Americans call prawns the size of lobsters “shrimps”.
I told you it was hell.
Silver Whisper’s casino
We’re having to put up with five weeks of this. Most are doing the whole four months, right round to Venice. And the bulk of them have already booked for the same thing next year. At upwards of $200,000 or so – per person – for the best suites, it’s not for those light of wallet.
My shipmates are a tribute to the 21st century’s democracy of wealth. True, some are vaguely patrician and hedged with trust funds (or should that be trusted with hedge funds?) but some are barely literate and rather loud. Typically, though, whether American, British or Australian, they stumbled on a business idea, worked hard and sold out with perfect timing. Otherwise, the only thing they have in common is showy jewellery and those ubiquitous Canadian sun hats that can survive being eaten by an elephant and cost as much as a Savile Row suit.
The truth is I like nearly all of them and they seem to like me. I became even more of a curiosity when I announced I had to leave the ship to go back to work. Their sympathy was touching and, I think, sincere.
I’ve done a lot of cruising, though always as a speaker. Mostly, I love it. It’s no way to see a country properly, of course, but I go for the journey more than the destination. I like loafing. Besides, there’s something magical about approaching a great city like New York, Sydney, Cape Town or Rio by sea; something romantic, indeed, about every landfall and departure.
The trick is to pick your ship. If you want lots to do, extravagant shows and somewhere to lose the kids, go for a big one, with 2,000 passengers, sometimes far more. The snag is their size keeps them out of smaller ports and getting on and off can be a hassle.
We like the smaller ones. The Silver Whisper takes 382 passengers and almost the same number of crew. It still manages to get through five tons of beef tenderloin, three tons of lobster tails and 10,000 bottles of champagne in a season. The entertainment isn’t bad. The lectures are quite outstanding.
You get what you pay for. Watch out for ships where you’re expected to tip – it can add hundreds to the bill. And those where booze is included are great if you’re as thirsty as me. It’s so affirming to be able to order drinks all round without the discomfort of paying for it.
It’s true your fellow passengers will be a generation older than those in the brochures. In fact, expect that at least one of them will end up face down in the flambé. Those iced drawers down in the doctor’s surgery aren’t there to keep her gin cool.
But the older I get myself, the less that’s a problem. Quite the opposite. The Silver Whisper makes me feel like a teenager, and it takes a lot to do that these days.
The Cruise starts on Thursday 3rd March on ITV at 8.30pm
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