Linda Herrick

Linda Herrick is the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald.

On your marks, get set, cruise

Of all the Voyager of the Seas' activities, relaxing wins, says Linda Herrick.

Royal Caribbean's mega-liner Voyager of the Seas. Photo / Supplied
Royal Caribbean's mega-liner Voyager of the Seas. Photo / Supplied

I overheard a curious American mother-daughter conversation during a recent cruise aboard the Royal Caribbean's massive Voyager of the Seas.

Said the teenage daughter, "Mom, do you want some water?"

"No!" yelled Mom.

"You know water makes me bad-tempered!"

But she was on a cruise. There was water everywhere ...

I've always vaguely liked the concept of a lazy cruise - swimming, sunning, eating, sleeping - so when I was offered a trip from Singapore to Mumbai earlier this year on the Royal Caribbean's Azamara Quest I was keen.

A small ship - 180m long, with 400 crew to look after 695 passengers - the Azamara sounded like a peaceful, pampered heaven.

Unfortunately, the week before I was due to go, an engine caught fire, it drifted without power for a day and the cruise was cancelled.

Royal Caribbean then offered an alternative trip aboard the Azamara's larger cousin, Voyager of the Seas, and I was still enthusiastic - but I didn't think it through.

Did I say larger? Length: 311m. Crew: 1165. Passenger capacity: holy hell - 3114. That's a small town jammed on a ship.

The Voyager is, in fact, the ninth largest cruise liner in the world and when it was launched in 1999, it was the biggest.

This time, the trip would be from Singapore to Shanghai via Saigon, Hong Kong and Xiamen in southern China. That all sounded exotic and exciting but reality came crashing through when our group - a few journalists from Australia, plus me - went through the immigration and boarding process in Singapore.asia

Cheesy pop music blared through the terminal - and throughout most public levels of the ship. The glitzy, mirror-balled decor of the Voyager's Royal Promenade had all the class and elegance of Tony Montana's end-of-days mansion in Scarface.

After the mandatory safety drill, I watched as the ship swivelled away from the terminal without assistance from tugs.

The Voyager is propelled by special "Azipods", which means it could do a 360-degree circle by itself if its boss, "Captain Charles" (as he is known, a charming Norwegian who has been sailing since he was 16), chose to do so.

Others were more blase about the nuts and bolts of the sailing process. As the Azamara drew smoothly away and headed north at about 24 knots towards Vietnam, couples were already lounging in the steamy open-air spa pools on level 11, drinks in hand, overlooked by faux-classical Roman nude statues, accompanied by the loops of MOR pop we would hear many times in the following days.

My stateroom, 6295 on level six, was compact but clean and comfortable, with its windows overlooking not the sea, but the Royal Promenade, and directly above the Sports Bar, which thunderously rolled down its doors every night just as I was falling asleep.

The ship is affiliated to DreamWorks and thus one of the TV's movie channels is dedicated to screening movies from that Hollywood house, while another channel provided "historical" insights into countries we would visit: Mel Gibson's lurid Vietnam War saga We Were Soldiers, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (about China's last emperor, Puyi) and Spielberg's Empire of the Sun. But the in-house Voyager channel proved to be unexpectedly amusing, thanks to the omniscient presence of excitable cruise director Gordon flapping around in "conversation" with his impassive monosyllabic excursion director.

It was like watching the Two Ronnies. At some stage, even Captain Charles appeared onscreen, "interviewing" the ship's self-styled "Super Mario", a Miami chap who has been on more than 3000 cruises since 2000 and maintains his own poolside spot under a sign, "Super Mario's Office" where he could be seen most days sucking on a huge cigar.

On TV, under the questioning of the good captain, Mario extolled the "Five Ds" of cruising: dining, drinking, diving, dancing and, slyly, "dating on the ship", to which the captain replied: "And if I do the Ds like Mario, I have D-vorce!"

As the days stretched like the empty ocean around us, watching one's fellow passengers became a compulsion. There was the American mother-daughter duo to be seen occasionally, the mother's scowl softening slightly by the day. There were the various physiques to gape over, many way too bare, collapsed in oblivion on the deckchairs as the sun blazed down on their toasting bodies.

There were young newlyweds from Europe, with several dozen on their honeymoons. There were Asian couples tending lovingly to their kids in the pools. There were the Brit couples enjoying several daily helpings of huge roast dinners at the buffet restaurant, Windjammers.

There were couples who never talked to each other. And then there were quite a few specimens of Australians, quite possibly from the Sunshine Coast.

One such group featured a man who thought the Vietnamese currency, the dong, was hilarious. His jokes were not.

Later that night at dinner, he was still at the dong jokes: "I've got one dong left, I'll give it to the wife tonight."

His wife looked stony.

There were plenty of other things to do, especially useful for family groups. The good thing was, you didn't have to.

There were invitations to meet Shrek and Fiona, or the Penguins from Madagascar.

There were game shows like Battle of the Sexes, Afternoon Trivia, Paddle Tennis Tournaments, and nightly dancing and live music (an evening of "showtunes, tiaras and boas") in the ship's La Scala Theatre and the various smaller clubs and bars.

One night, after I'd retired to bed, there was even a conga line of dancing dudes prancing along Ye Royal Promenade right under my window. Fortunately, I refrained from flinging back the curtains and shaking my fist.

I turned down offers to learn how to play bingo and the slots in the smoke-filled casino (yes, smoking was allowed) or to boogie in the 70s Disco Inferno Street Party (see above) or to make "cute towel animals" which were nightly placed on the bed.

I ignored the line dance classes, the rock wall, the ice skating and the adult karaoke. It wasn't them. It was me. I really was too lazy.

But there were some things I learned from my maiden voyage.

The crew and staff were amazingly patient and pleasant and, under their care, the ongoing welcome couldn't have been warmer.

I also effortlessly plumbed the depths of slothdom, and limited myself to swimming (widths, not lengths; I was getting quite fat), eating and sleeping, with most of the emphasis on the latter two. I loved having access to food 24 hours a day.

The trip confirmed the fact that I never will be a "joiner" of jolly-jape, family friendly group activities with which the Voyager was bursting at every turn.

However, on our very last night, when we were dining at our regular table in Carmen's plush three-level restaurant, the entire waiting staff sang farewell and caught me by surprise. I felt really moved.

So. Cruising. It gets under your sunburnt skin.

TRAVEL IS NOT ALWAYS SMOOTH SAILING

One of the reasons to take a cruise is to visit out-of-the-way destinations and, hopefully, whet the appetite to one day return for a more in-depth exploration. Sometimes the destination doesn't match the expectation.

Phu My, Vietnam

After docking at the Mekong Delta port of Phu My, about 30 busloads of passengers trundled off to a variety of places, including the Cu Chi Tunnels, Vung Tau along the coast and a few options in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. The two-hour drive from Phu My to Saigon was rough, not surprising in a country where the economy is fast-growing but income is still very low.

The heat, humidity and hassling was so intense at Ben Thanh Central market I gave up and returned to the art deco Rex Hotel where the war correspondents used to drink, and hired an air-conditioned taxi to show me some sights, including the post office.

Cost: US$45

Hong Kong

The Voyager was so big it couldn't moor at the cruise terminal so was berthed near a container wharf where buses ferried us to one of Kowloon's biggest shopping malls. It was pouring with rain so after a couple of hours of trudging around the mall, I climbed back on a bus with an emphatic sign, "No fart in the car", and returned to the ship. If the weather had been better, I would have spent the day wandering Hong Kong island.

Cost: The bus ride to the mall was free but my credit card took an absolute pounding.

Xiamen, southern China

After a really rough night, the Voyager berthed at Xiamen's new terminal, a work in progress with piles of rubble and concrete paths already cracking. On bus 20, our guide Cindy gave us a lengthy hectoring about Taiwan, clearly visible off the coast, as being "ours ours ours". We visited the majestic historic Buddhist South Putao Temple, jammed full of tour groups.

The second and final stage of our "tour" was a drive along a coastal road, with Cindy continuing her intermittent barking about Taiwan, until we arrived at a huge red roadside sign that said, she explained, "One country, two systems."

Although Cindy implored us to photograph the sign we all declined. As we passed parts of the old city and market streets, it was obvious we'd made the wrong choice of tour. Xiamen is changing fast. We noted a cluster of western fast food chains and a Lamborghini retailer.

Cost: US$45.

CHECKLIST

Voyager of the Seas will visit NZ in November as part of its expansion into the Australasian-Pacific market.

Linda Herrick travelled courtesy of Royal Caribbean and Singapore Airlines.

- NZ Herald

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