After a hot, sweaty day of sightseeing in Italy, Carol Smith is more than happy to return to her floating hotel and enjoy a juicy burger. Oh, and ponder her dinner choices - pan-Asian, Italian, steak, lobster ...

During an unwanted sexual encounter with an Italian man on a train, I realise how comfortable ship life is.

My husband and I are sailing on the Nieuw Amsterdam's blissful Mediterranean journey billed the "romance cruise" and I am getting plenty of thrusting foreplay on a port stop, having been squashed into a sea of humans on the local Circumvesuviana train between Naples and Sorrento.

After a day of Naples' chaotic charm, holding on to sweaty train poles and paying to pee in a portable loo up a mountain, it is a relief to be offered an ice-cold drink, a refreshing damp towelette and a squirt of hand sanitiser as we board our elegant floating hotel.

We have missed lunch because we were too busy sightseeing but there is food available at all hours on a cruise so we head to the relaxing Lido deck to grab a gourmet burger and sit by the pool.

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I detest fast food from popular chain restaurants and rarely eat burgers, but the Cannonball from the Terrace Grill (a third of a pound of meat patty, gouda, smoked bacon, sweet caramelised onions topped with lettuce salad and sliced tomato on a toasted brioche bun with secret sauce) hits the spot.

The best food on offer though is in Tamarind, a pan-Asian food concept, the Pinnacle Grill (steak and seafood) and Canaletto, an authentic Italian fine dining restaurant.

For a US$10 surcharge we share plates including ricotta ravioli (braised leeks, oven-dried tomatoes, arugula-pine nut pesto), braised chicken cacciatore "al forno" (with caramelised carrots and soft parmesan polenta) and zuppa di pesce (mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops, cod and vegetables in a tomato saffron broth) before finishing with a trio of tiramisu, gelato and a limoncello creme (a Tuscan lemon liqueur).

At Tamarind, we are wowed by the fusion of ingredients and dishes from Southeast Asia, China and Japan. After sampling delicate shrimp-filled won tons with sliced baby bok choy in a fragrant lemongrass and sesame broth, Vietnamese-style lamb with mint and Szechuan shrimp with Thai basil (sauteed with chilli pepper glaze, Asian spices, straw mushrooms, sweet bell peppers and scallions) it is difficult to eat anywhere else, despite the US$20 surcharge a head at this restaurant.

The mid-sized (11 decks, 936 feet long) Holland America Line ship, built in 2010, celebrates the glamour and history of New York City, which was formerly called Nieuw Amsterdam, and a special Le Cirque evening at The Pinnacle Grill brings the famous food of the New York restaurant, including the lobster salad, to our plates.


The roof top swimming pool. Photo / Supplied

Executive chief Martin Kusin, who says the most dangerous place in the kitchens is the 24-hour pastry section, is responsible for 150 staff. The Austrian chef has everything running like clockwork. As well as overseeing all the meals for the restaurants, on port days he has to make sure 600 to 700 meals are delivered promptly to staterooms as some guests want to eat early to be ready for tours. On this cruise we have 2098 on board, including about 850 Aussies and 42 Kiwis.

After all this eating, and sleeping in our luxurious stateroom, which boasts an amazing bed and shower -- something I'm often disappointed about in hotels -- my husband needs to hit the gym. In dock each morning he marvels at the scenery while sweating on a treadmill, I watch Dubrovnik and Barcelona from my balcony with a cup of tea. I find walking around the Promenade deck a good way of exercising, although some passengers prefer stretching on a deckchair and soaking up the sun while at sea.

There are 10 ports of call on this 12-day cruise from Venice to Barcelona, so after a hearty breakfast most mornings we set off to explore. Location guide Tom answers questions for two hours every evening about upcoming ports so those who haven't done their research benefit from his popular sessions. You can pay to join one of the ship's shore excursions -- which are run by well-organised local guides -- or plan your own excursions, but make sure you return on time or the ship will sail without you.


Inside the ship's restaurant. Photo / Supplied

The two days at sea provide a chance to recuperate from our hectic port days.

There's plenty to do, from going to cooking demonstrations, art auctions, pub trivia run by the irrepressible cruise director Mario (who never seems to sleep), shows or the casino to having a relaxing spa treatment or chilling out at the library/cafe.

At the digital workshops, where passengers can learn how to organise and edit their photos, share files online and create movies, there is standing room only. Guests who bring children -- come on people, this is the love boat -- can drop them off at Club HAL to be entertained while they enjoy other activities.

Everyone is helpful and friendly on board and no one has to worry about personal safety. "It would be great if all the world leaders came to see how the 52 different nations work together on a ship," Captain Edward van Zaane says.

Staff work long hours and some are at sea for many months. Wayan, our cabin steward, works 10 to 11 months and has three months off. He makes up our room each day and returns our freshly washed and pressed laundry. When we retire at night we find he has left a towel-art animal on our bed, along with chocolates. We resist the urge to buy a book with step-by-step instructions on how to make these whimsical creatures. We take cheesy photos with them and don't have the heart to use the towels.


Dessert at the ship's restaurant. Photo / Carol Smith

Captain van Zaane, a smooth sailor, is as dry as our towels. "You have to make sure you don't treat the ship like your personal Ferrari," he says, when I ask him if things have changed in the cruise industry after the Costa Concordia sunk off Isola del Giglio in Tuscany.

Despite the 2012 tragedy, cruising is viewed as one of the safest and most comfortable ways to travel and is continuing to gain in popularity. One guest the captain knows of has clocked up 2787 sailing days.

It's easy to see why when passengers are treated to luxury accommodation, premium dining and stunning scenery. One night, as we are rounding the boot of Italy, we are urged over the loud speaker to come onto the deck. We look in wonder at lava coursing down Mt Stromboli, which has been continuously erupting for about 2000 years.

It's magical and romantic watching this from the deck of a cruise liner. It's hard to imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: See the website for a range of hollandamerica.com cruises aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam and other ships in their fleet.

The writer travelled as a guest of Holland America.