I’m sure seasoned cruise-goers become oblivious to the experience, but it’s a truly amazing moment, watching – and feeling – such a grand vessel leave port for the first time. You would cheer and throw confetti, if throwing things overboard wasn’t clearly frowned upon.
In truth, by the final few legs of this nine-day voyage we also forget to watch our launches take place, which seems almost unfathomable during that initial departure, as the minarets of Istanbul disappear into the distance. The elegant joys of slow travel.
Along with my girlfriend, Hazel, I’m embarking on my first ever cruise, and starting in style. This is Crystal’s Ancient Treasures tour, from Istanbul to Venice via Greece and Montenegro, on the newest of their two ships, the Serenity. Crystal favour quality over quantity: less ships, less passengers on them, and an emphasis on all-you-could-ask-for luxury. A term that frequently springs to mind is that old advertising slogan, ‘reassuringly expensive.’ The only problem, in fact, is summoning adequate willpower to ever actually disembark.
“A lot of you complain to me that there aren’t enough sea days,” smiles Rick Spath, Serenity’s seemingly omnipresent cruise director, while introducing an at-sea lecture. It sounds an odd objection, but makes perfect sense.
We’d intended to spend the first afternoon sightseeing in Istanbul, for example, but our stretch of harbour is a surprisingly unwelcome sight for the weary traveller; a slightly curious opening location. Countering that, the Jacuzzi in our stateroom is hugely inviting (let’s call it a Turkish bath), plus there are baklavas in the bistro and a temporary Kebab Station on the top-deck Trident Bar: a taste of Istanbul without leaving the ship. Or, indeed, spending any money.
One of Crystal’s major selling points is its all-inclusiveness. Food, drink, classes, and shows, even gratuities are pre-paid, and that first evening we revel in the amenities. After a consistently wow-inducing Bon Voyage meal in the main dining room (from a feta-filled boregi to a carrot cake called Bugs Bunny), Hazel and I settle in at the Palm Court bar, and its breathtaking view of the LED-lit Bosphorus Bridge.
There we get acquainted with a creative cocktail mixologist while watching elder stateswomen waltz with Serenity’s resident Ambassadors, to a live easy-listening soundtrack. It’s slightly surreal, but rather wonderful.
Cruises stereotypically attract an older crowd, and we do find ourselves socialising more with the employees, early on. But as a frequent cruise-goer tells us later, the all-inclusive policy allows for a different dynamic between passengers and personnel. It’s a lot more relaxed when no money changes hands.
Hazel and I take a free shuttle bus to Istanbul’s dramatic centre, Sultanahmet, the next afternoon, and make a point of giving a local restaurateur some custom. After hauling anchor that evening we then embark on a solid 36 hours of sailing, which looked slightly ominous on the itinerary. It turns out to be gloriously relaxing.
Early on Saturday morning I head to the ship’s Hollywood Theatre for one definite must-do, a talk by White House correspondent Ken Walsh, who takes supplementary questions in the bistro afterwards. “One thing I’ve learned from doing lectures on Crystal,” says Walsh. “Never interrupt bingo or lunch.”
You can understand how people get addicted to cruises: hotels do seem awfully basic by comparison. During that sea day there are classes in everything from scarf tying to iPad filmmaking, playing bridge to dancing the foxtrot, and an appealing array of fitness activities. Hazel is still struggling to locate her sea legs, however, so we peruse the well-stocked library, take tea on our rather lovely terrace and prepare for the evening’s main event.
As a freelance journalist my work clothes are often pyjamas, so the black-tie evening is a novel experience. Sauntering in our glad-rags through the grand atrium, with its crystal piano and gold sculptures, we suddenly feel properly part of this unique on-ship experience, and the Captain’s Reception brings us fully into the fold.
What Crystal do cleverly in the speeches here – and via their impressive communications throughout – is create a sort of private-club atmosphere, making everyone who buys a ticket feel part of a select group (which, given the prices, they are, in effect).
And we cruise virgins, having arrived as slightly sceptical outsiders, buy into it completely, swept along on a sea of positivity. Indeed, a few days on and we’ll find ourselves becoming virtual on-board celebrities, after an event that – not wishing to be too melodramatic – will change our lives forever.
But we’ll save that for part two.