Bahamas: Welcome to celebrity cruising

By Leena Tailor

Leena Tailor parties the days and nights away while she cruises around the Bahamas.

Cruisers welcome New Kids on the Block. Photo / Rose Tours
Cruisers welcome New Kids on the Block. Photo / Rose Tours

It's 4am on the Carnival Imagination, midway between Miami and the Bahamas, and two Backstreet Boys are giving an impromptu but heartfelt lecture on love, marriage, sharks and Twitter to a handful of fans who stumbled upon the duo while ending their drunken night at the pizzeria.

One of the pop stars is dressed as a Ninja Turtle and slurring his words after downing straight vodka during a midnight Pyjama Jam. The other is sober but in party mode, having impressively survived on Red Bull on a ship overflowing with alcohol, putting his sobriety to the ultimate test.

When the intimate, 45-minute spiel ends, clusters of fans spill indoors, hugging and tearful from the rare and inspiring speech from their idols.

Just hours earlier the same fans and the boy band were singing Spice Girls songs in the rain, massaging their behinds during truth-or-dare and feeding each other marshmallows mouth-to-mouth.

Welcome to celebrity cruising.

Before you laugh off the boy band factor, it's not just pop-stars sailing the high seas. Docked next to us at the Bahamas port of Nassau the previous night were rockers ZZ Top. Upcoming cruises feature singer Rick Springfield, rapper R Kelly, country sensation Blake Shelton, the Osmond brothers, a "Soul Train" collection featuring Patti LaBelle, and Deena Cortese from TV show Jersey Shore.

If crowds make you squirm, celebrity cruising isn't for you. But if an artist you like sets sail, joining them is a unique musical experience and a chance to play tourist in destinations many Kiwis may not otherwise venture to, such as Mexico, Jamaica and Miami.

For the Backstreet Boys, this is their second adventure after previously escorting fans to Cancun. "That cruise took a year out of my life," says youngest member Nick Carter.

The destination this time is the Bahamas, so naturally the drink-of-the-day at the sail-away party is a rum-fuelled BahamaMama - in souvenir glasses that no one will keep because it'll be 12 hours before most make it back to their cabins.

Gradually, the Miami shoreline blurs into a blazing sunset, reflected on a shimmering sea which starts to match my flame-coloured cocktail. A day earlier I was lying in that ocean, massaged by warm, subtle waves as the 27C heat blazed down and ships glided into port in the distance.

That was the calm before the cruise storm.

Within hours of departing, the band has the deck pumping at an 80s Night and playing a game called Beer Pong. The party goes on till the wee hours.

We awake in the former pirate hub of Nassau a few hours later and fuel up on eggs benedict in the Spirit Dining Room. Gazing out at azure water and palm trees, I'm reminded of Fiji, but a 40-minute drive to a beach party soon after shows me that this paradise comes with roads more like Mumbai.

With no apparent traffic rules (or seat-belts) it's lucky we've been packed into shuttles so tightly there isn't room to move as we hurtle around corners, catching a blurred glimpse of Nassau's colourful cathedrals and Georgian-style rainbow architecture.

"I thought he was gonna f***ing kill us," blares one passenger as we disembark at Cable Beach.

Engulfed by 30C rays the moment we step on to velvety white sand, the bay is a spectacular setting for a party. Former Backstreet Boys band member Kevin Richardson reunites with the group as they perform acoustically, framed by towering palms trees, then play Twister, musical chairs and volleyball with cruisers.

The beach may be the Bahamas big drawcard, but for those with more time - or for the disinterested boyfriends accompanying fan girlfriends - there's diving with reef sharks, hopping on a replica pirate ship called Revenge at the Pirates of Nassau museum, or swimming beside 50,000 fish at A-list hang-out The Atlantis. Also popular is the People-to-People programme, where tourists are hosted by locals while experiencing Bahamian culture and cuisine, such as crawfish and conch salad.

The Fish Fry, a row of seaside eateries, is another good spot to sample local fare. For fancier feeds the pirate-built Graycliff Hotel houses the world's third largest private wine cellar, and includes a bottle worth US$200,000.

But with lobster on the menu back at ship we head home. The cruise packages include meals at the ship's restaurants, pizzeria, room service and poolside buffets.

After dinner, there's just enough time to enjoy a little Bahamas nightlife and every local suggests one place - Señor Frogs. Walking distance from the port, the bar is packed with rowdy cruisers from the five other ships docking overnight and most don't need convincing to join on-stage drinking games and group macarenas.

It's a different picture back on board at the midnight Prom Party, where five tiara-wearing fans are slow-dancing with band members. By 5.25am, despite being the oldest, Howie Dorough is once again the last man standing - well, limboing. It's no surprise he's sporting dark sunglasses at the photo session a few hours later, which kicks off the Fun Day at Sea - a chance to explore the 1026-cabin ship with its art gallery, spa, casino and water-slide.

But rather than swimsuits, by mid-afternoon jeans and hoodies are out as a chill smothers the deck just as the pop group emerges to fulfil a cancer-stricken fan's wish to have them shave her head before commencing chemotherapy. "She's a trooper," says AJ McLean.

There isn't a dry eye in sight and soon there isn't a dry cruiser as warm showers unleash, reminding us that even the Caribbean has winter. By the time the highly-anticipated concert - with a set-list voted by cruisers - ends at 11pm, rain has shifted the Pyjama Jam party indoors. "I'll probably get into trouble for the things I do tonight," teases Nick, before launching into truth-or-dare.

Even the usually well-behaved Christian member Brian Littrell is crowd-surfing and spanking fans. It's a sight AJ never thought he'd see - yet it perfectly shows why bands like his brave fan cruises. Says AJ: "We do it to show our love and support for our fans ... 'get a little closer, don't be shy!"'

In Miami, before and after a cruise:

Sleep: The Kiwi-run Red South Beach has reasonably-priced, contemporary rooms close enough to walk to the heart of South Beach but far enough to give you some space on the stunning sands, one block away. With a pool, a casual French restaurant and a free cocktail daily, the recently-renovated hotel is managed by New Zealander Luke Merrick, who visited Miami 20 years ago - and never left. Now, the Kiwi hospitality he wanted to bring to the resort is evident in the laid-back, friendly staff.

Eat: For lunch, Bayside Marketplace offers waterfront eateries including the Hard Rock Cafe, with its special Mojitorita, twisted mac-n-cheese and Famous Fajitas. Manager Gonzalo Del Rio is endeavouring to restore the original awe-factor of the Hard Rock chain, so it's once again "like walking into a rock museum."
For dinner, Espanola Way is a must, with cute Cuban bars and restaurants.

Relax: Uhma Spa, Miami's first organic spa, greets you with soothing Pineapple Coconut Green Tea before offering various treatments, including the Sabai Healing massage and water therapy. Don't leave without experiencing the heavenly touch of lava shells, similar to a hot-stone massage but using shells from our own South Pacific backyard.

Sight-see: Duck Tours take tourists from the waters of Biscayne Bay past the homes of Gloria Estefan and P Diddy, and back on land to the picturesque Art Deco area, where buildings were refurbished and splashed with colour to breathe new life into the rundown area in the 70s. You'll also see shopping mecca Lincoln Rd and "vacation home of Paris and Lindsay" - the local prison.

Further information: Check out rosetours.com. Packages start at US$988.

Upcoming cruise stars: New Kids on the Block, June 7-11, Rick Springfield, November 8-12.

* Leena Tailor travelled with celebrity cruise specialist Rose Tours.

- Herald on Sunday

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