“We used to think cruising was for the newly wed, overfed and nearly dead,” quipped one punter in ITV’s reality show, set aboard a Princess ship.
But does that stereotype still hold water?
The Cruise offers a fun but sanitised glimpse of life at sea, where the closest anyone comes to peril is a leaky pipe. But, for an unseasoned sea dog like me, it left questions unanswered. So I took the 3,000-passenger Ruby Princess on a seven-day trip from Los Angeles down Mexico’s Pacific coast to Puerto Vallarta (I know, I know, but I gritted my teeth and got on with it).
My mission: to tackle the most commonplace queries posed by potential first-time cruisers…
I’m thinking of booking a cruise. Will there be enough to entertain me on the boat?
Ok, rule one of cruising: don’t call it a boat. It’s a ship. But yes, there’s so much to do that you might be overwhelmed by options. Live musicals, salsa dancing, reflexology seminars, spa treatments, poker tournaments… “Make a plan,” the ship’s assistant maitre d’ Alberto (who appears later in the series) told me. “Decide what you’re looking for, whether it’s a dining experience or exploring the ports, and ask the crew if you need advice because we’re also like tourist guides for the guests.”
And don’t forget to factor in some time to do absolutely nothing. If you can’t get some headspace in the middle of the ocean, where can you get it?
Some of these ships are as big as small towns. Will I get lost?
Oh yes. But that’s part of the fun. At first glance, deck plans make little sense to rookie seafarers who don’t know their aft from their elbow. So on a 1,000-foot-long ship there’s a good chance you’ll set out to find the casino and end up joining a line-dancing class. It’s like a metaphor for life.
Aren’t cruise ships like floating holiday camps?
Well, there are some parallels. But cruising’s a far more sophisticated experience than your bog-standard Butlins. The attention to detail across the board is impressive; the service is of a high standard; the gym/spa facilities easily rival those in a quality hotel. So don’t worry, you’re unlikely to have Hi Ho Silver Lining yelled in your ear by an off-key talent show wannabe.
I’m in my twenties. I’m too young to go on a cruise, aren’t I?
If you don’t have kids, then possibly. But the age range on board will vary depending on what time of year you travel and which company you go with. On a 15-day cruise, with more sea days, you’ll get an older crowd. Younger people enjoy the ports.
The Ruby Princess in January had a large over-60s contingent, but during the summer holidays you’ll find lots of families with young children. If you’re after an Ibiza-style rave-up, don’t book a cruise.
Will I get seasick?
The motion can feel weird at first. You’ll get your sea legs quickly though, and after a while you should start to enjoy the gentle undulations. Stabilisers on the side of the ship stop it from rocking around too much, so you’d be unlucky to suffer anything more than a temporary, low-level queasiness.
However, if you do sail into a storm, chances are you’ll have to ride it out. Changing route is an expensive business on a vessel with a fuel economy of 35 feet per gallon.
What happens on port days?
Good point. It’s important to remember that cruising’s not all about being at sea, and hopefully you’ll want to get off and imbibe some culture at some point.
On port days you can either book an excursion via the ship (which can be fairly pricey) or wander out and take your chances by yourself. To exit the ship you just need to scan your cruise card and pass through security. Port days tend to start early but curfew is around 7pm, so unfortunately you won’t get to experience the nightlife.
What’s the food like?
One of the most popular features on Princess ships is Horizon Court: a titanic, sorry… huge smorgasbord where everything is free of charge all day (this doesn’t include booze – don’t get too excited). It takes a bit of getting used to waltzing off with food without paying, and you will end up with some bizarre combos. Chicken korma with linguine, sprouts and a creme caramel, sir? An excellent choice.
Although 18,000 plates of food are served per day from 11 kitchens, the standard is remarkably high. And if you’re happy to pay an additional charge (usually around £15-£30 per head) you can use the premium restaurants, which offer more of a fine-dining experience. Aussie chef Curtis Stone’s Share on the Ruby Princess is particularly impressive. Dishes here include beef-cheek pie with porcini mushrooms, and butter-poached lobster with endive foam, so that should give you some idea.
Ok, I’m in. Any other tips?
Yes, check out the ship’s features online in advance so you can narrow down your entertainment options. You don’t want to spend the first two days floating around like a lifeboat in the fog.
The satellite-based wi-fi on board is slow, unreliable and expensive. Don’t expect to be streaming HD video by the pool.
If the budget stretches to it, splash out on a balcony room. It’ll add an extra dimension to your experience.
The kids’ facilities are ace. We’d particularly recommend cruising as a family option.
If you get a chance, take a behind-the-scenes tour. It’s expensive but it’ll be more memorable than that game of bingo you had planned.
Although you can eat for free, booze is not included. And Princess ships are cashless, so keep tabs on what you’re buying with your cruise card to avoid getting stung with a big bill when you check out.
Gary Rose sailed on the Ruby Princess with Princess Cruises. This article was first published in March 2016.