I’m nervous about losing my cruising virginity but Celebrity makes it easy for me. I am greeted at check-in at Southampton with a long-stemmed red rose, and in my cabin I find a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket to cushion any panic that should ensue as the ship pulls away from the dock on its voyage to the Canaries and beyond.
I take my medicine straight away -- a couple of glasses, just to be sure -- and, after a brief recce of the busy shore-side activity from my balcony, set off to explore the ship in the hour or two before departure. One immediate impression as I peek my head around the door is that the other passengers appear all of a different -- older -- generation from mine, but equally evident is something more unexpected.
And that concerns the decor. Gone from the Celebrity Eclipse is any attempt to ape the fusty look of imagined cruising days of yore. Rather, the ship resembles, if anything, one giant modern art exhibition with a mildly hallucinogenic theme. The photos, sculptures and collage positioned on every one of the 16 or so deck landings are universally bold, bright and vivacious. Exemplifying the theme is the giant artwork suspended in the middle of the main atrium resembling a disco ball sprouting a tree.
You only have to consider the ever-more gargantuan cruise ships (Eclipse carries 3000 people -- 2000 passengers, plus crew -- but there are vessels with twice that capacity) being welded together in the dockyards of northern Germany and Finland to realise that cruising is an expanding industry. And the industry is determined to expand down the demographic profile, to shirk its blue-rinse image and get far more young (and affluent) people onboard.
To that end, ships such as Eclipse are not only stuffed with art that is meant to appeal to the Damien Hirst generation, they also offer recreational activities that sound like rituals from a cult of the body beautiful. Something called an Ionithermie Super Detox Treatment could be mine for a mere, ahem, $159 a session (although it "guarantees inch loss", which is something I’m not so keen on), while an Elemis Oxydermy Facial is only $10 more. (Cruise ships always use the currency of their company headquarters.) Flyers for acupuncture treatments, promising the alleviation of some 50 ailments from tinnitus to hypertension and "gas", litter the ship like leaflets calling for enemy surrender.
Moreover, much of the dining, as I discover when I reach the restaurant deck on my pre-departure peregrination of the vessel, seems to cater to the career slimmer. There’s even an exclusive restaurant devoted to healthy eating, Blu, where any fat -- even the "e" in the name -- is sheared off and metaphorically thrown overboard. Only an elite "spa class" of passenger is allowed to eat here, and while my expectations of witnessing a gaggle of svelte, Nordic types drifting to their tables like willow fronds in the breeze didn’t quite meet with reality, I suspect my fellow passengers might not look too far off given enough time dining at Blu.
Finding my way back to my cabin just in time for departure -- it’s such a long hike I begin hankering for one of the many mobility scooters I see zipping about -- I prescribe myself more champagne and lean over the rail. I could have celebrated with the crowd up on the helipad but one of the things I come to like about cruising is the seclusion of your own cabin. It feels, not to mince words, like returning to the womb. You have all the necessary life support systems, including plumbing, and on Eclipse, you could even order all your meals from room service with no extra charge.
There’s that big, wonderfully evocative groan from the ship’s horn, and we are off. Except that that makes it sound like a horse race, which it isn’t. Despite its great bulk, Eclipse slips away from port with a stately elegance, the transition from land to sea strangely imperceptible.
Cruising is an almost onomatopoeic word for relaxing, and yet onboard you can feel encouraged to do quite the opposite. You could be busy from, quite literally, dawn to dusk if you chose, beginning with aerobics at 7am, through, say, one of many cookery demonstrations, then a mid-morning session from the resident pianist, Milan Jasek, in that be-sculptured atrium I spoke of earlier, followed by a line-dancing class, a choice of à la carte lunches and (why not?) a Go Smile® Teeth Whitening appointment in the afternoon; then a Secret of Ships’ Navigation lecture by the first officer and perhaps a Texas hold ‘em tournament as evening approaches, dinner in one of the five or so restaurants, followed by an Evening Stretch class to limber up for the Rat Pack Dance Music Mix, a variety show in the generous-sized theatre and, finally, some Late-Night Gambling before (probably not) beginning all over again in the morning.
Which leads me to the subject of cruise-ship performers. I have been curious about them since learning that Silvio Berlusconi began his rise to infamy and fortune as one. Who knows what future awaits Don Enright but he is certainly... well, entertaining sounds almost too vulgar so I’ll settle for very informative. The Canadian naturalist, resembling in his oat-coloured suit a character from a mid-period Woody Allen film, delivers a talk on the whales of the region we are sailing through that only stokes my excitement at what species I might see on the Azores excursion I’ll be taking. He even manages to explain the vital role in the ocean’s ecosystem played by a sperm whale’s torrential excrement without eliciting so much as a titter from a crowd that proves, as the next onboard talent shows, to be eminently susceptible to toilet humour.
"I know what you were expecting. Ventriloquist, right? Man with his arm up a puppet’s bum -- a bit naff." I don’t know about the rest of the audience but Gareth Oliver was right: that was what I was expecting. Yet the "modern ventriloquism" of this mop-haired, colourfully attired performer proves a funny revelation. Warming up the crowd with tales of his not-too-unsuccessful career since losing out to Susan Boyle in the later rounds of "Britain’s Got Talent", he moves on to the first part of his signature act, wherein he and his comely assistant cleverly "voice" each other -- she as a gravy-voiced northerner, he as an improbable soprano.
The audience, fair-sized but fearful, has refused to occupy a single seat in the front four rows, yet this proves no defence for those seated just behind. Oliver hauls one of them, a retired PE teacher from Hull clad head to toe in beige, to the stage. There he proceeds to treat him as his puppet, getting him to act out the narrative he is voicing -- surreal, dripping in sexual innuendo and replete with the aforementioned toilet humour.
Whale of a show
Later, even the whales succeed in putting on a winning show. So varied and numerous are the shore excursions on offer on Eclipse -- on the Azores trip you can go on a city or garden tour, visit crater lakes and garden villages, to name but a few activities -- that to the populations of the ports of call it must feel like the invasion of a large and well-organised (albeit strangely elderly) army. Choosing the whale-watching trip, I am, if you like, a navy seal.
Sperm whales, the largest toothed-whale species, are abundant in the Azores, albeit belonging to a sort of cetacean women’s lib: the lonely male of the species is rarely seen here, whereas the cluster of enormous creatures we found about an hour’s speedboat-ride from Ponta Delgada may have been, the guide said, all "aunties, mothers and daughters" of one another. Socialising, as they do, by rubbing against each other, they had apparently been here for hours, a little R and R before plunging three kilometres deep, on a single breath, to search for squid.
Kings of the ocean for millennia, and then along come cruise ships: you have to wonder what whales think of the competition. For, while whales might be very, very big, cruise ships such as the Eclipse are even bigger. Yet in a way, I reflect, on disembarking on Madeira, the species seem similar. Both trawl the world seasonally, both are heavily dependent on socialising and both get through one hell of a lot of food.