Cruise: Cast away for mojitos and the macarena

By Diana Balham

The SeaDream II is not a factory cruise ship, but a flash yacht, and the service aboard it is simply fantastic. Photo / Supplied
The SeaDream II is not a factory cruise ship, but a flash yacht, and the service aboard it is simply fantastic. Photo / Supplied

Wanted: One longish media trip ideal for a poor working mother in need of pampering. No 5am flights, no overstuffed schedules, outstanding food and service a must. Aha! This looks like me!

When I told people I was doing a 13-day sea voyage from Barbados across the Atlantic to Spain on a large luxury yacht, some of them thought I was bonkers.

"You'll get bored!" they proclaimed, thinking of all that childless leisure time.

What would I possibly find to do with all that time and open water? Would I go out of my mind and take up dominoes? Develop a drinking habit? Gamble away my son's inheritance in the casino?

All these are options, but I thought I could kill plenty of time just looking at the rich people.

The SeaDream Yacht Club is not your average cruise line. You could almost get thrown overboard for mentioning that particular "c" word.

SeaDream's motto is "yachting, not cruising". And yes, at just under 105m, the twin SeaDream vessels are technically yachts: big, flash ones that carry a maximum of 55 couples and 95 crew.

That's a lot of five-star service for your money and you never forget that you're not on a factory ship, as the captain rather disparagingly calls the huge floating hotels that hold thousands of holidaymakers.

The SeaDream crew are there to attend to needs you didn't even know you had: cleaning your sunglasses and misting you with water while you sunbathe, refilling your glass before the mint leaves in your mojito have had the chance to dry out and generally fetching and carrying until choosing what to have for lunch seems like something you can't manage on your own.

So on a fine and lazy Barbados Sunday I strode up SeaDream II's gangway intending to relax until I was just millions of very floppy atoms arranged fetchingly on a deckchair.

But the crowd of sun-seeking Norwegians beat me to the pool-deck loungers most of the time and there was too much else to do.

No one makes you do anything here, although there's plenty on offer. Every day, I put in some time at the gym, did a yoga class on deck and once joined in the manic walkers thundering around Deck 6 for charity pledges. Geez, some of those rich people are fit.

I even (oh God, I remember now!) burnt off some calories doing the macarena late one night after dinner.

I ruined Small Paul from Liverpool's chances of winning at the simulated golf (30 international courses available) and exercised some brain cells at the trivia quizzes. I learnt about Atlantic fish and birds at lectures and tried to sleep despite drunken wailing from the piano bar.

I swam in water a kilometre deep off the coast of Madeira. I read Virginia Woolf and retreated to my state room to watch DVDs when the hectic socialising got too much. I even attempted a concert screening on deck one night, but it was Celine Dion and there's only so much a girl can take.

Blue-water voyages are definitely not the same as port-to-port cruises (there's that word again), but there's a happy symbiosis in the idea that the yacht company has to get the vessel back across the ocean and we are the willing cargo who will spend good money to get some time away from the world. (Communication to land is state-of-the-art and phoning the ship or emailing is no problem if you want to stay in touch.)

I was half-expecting the passengers to be grumpy go-getters who sat on their own and twitched because they hadn't brought their BlackBerrys, but they were a cheery lot, on the whole.

The dozen or so friends I made had plenty of money but had started with nothing except for one very wealthy and delightful old Brit called Sue who must have been over 80 but dressed like a croupier in a low-rent casino and spent most of her life cruising from one glamorous location to the next. Quite a few passengers were repeat customers: Tall Paul from Sussex was doing his fifth transatlantic, and intended to keep crossing the ocean every year until his sea legs gave way!

Nevertheless, I was looking forward to our one scheduled port visit: to Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira, which is three days sailing from Spain. I didn't know much about it except for the cake and the booze, but it turns out that there is quite a bit more to Madeira.

Funchal is surprisingly lush and flower-filled, creeping up the islands' volcanic peaks and taking full advantage of the magnificent views. The best way for tourists to do this is to take a 15-minute cable car ride up to Monte.

The teleféricos is pretty new but nobody seems to be able to design one that doesn't look like a finger locked in a white-knuckle death grip on a thin strand of wire. This is highly appropriate when you are riding in it with someone who has a profound fear of heights. But my brave companion then happily zipped down the mountain in a cane basket.

Madeira's famous snowless toboggan ride is an old tradition practised by young men with thick shoes and strong arms on the Carreiros do Monte. Although I felt as if I was on a Disneyland flying saucer ride as it fell off the back of a lorry, we got to the bottom in one piece and even missed the cars that pulled out of the side streets as we whizzed past! And the views on the way down as you contemplate certain death are amazing.

We celebrated surviving Funchal's top tourist attraction with a beer at a café in the rather lovely cathedral square before making our way back to the ship.

So I wasn't bored. On the contrary, I've never been so entertained in my life. Trouble is, now that I'm home, nobody takes any notice of me when I order a drink.

TRANSATLANTIC CRUISE

SeaDream Yacht Club offers a wide variety of European and Caribbean voyages from five to 14 nights starting at $5055 per person (charters can also be arranged). Transatlantic voyages (several to choose from) are $6350 per person. This includes ocean-view accommodation, gratuities and all meals and drinks except premium brands.

A standard stateroom is 18.12sq m and features a queen-sized bed, flat-screen TV, DVD and CD player and data port and refreshment bar. Onboard are a medical facility, gym, outdoor pool and spa pool, beauty salon and certified Thai spa, casino, boutique, golf simulator, board games, books, CDs, DVDs, computers and internet access. Water toys, mountain bikes and Segways are available for use in ports.

Diana Balham was a guest of SeaDream Yacht Club and travelled with assistance from Travel Marketing Cruise World.

- NZ Herald

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