Holidays are like men - they never last long enough. But being trapped onboard a cruise ship for a week, with no escape from the other 500 or so passengers, sounded like way too long. Welcome to the HMS Claustrophobia. I'd heard too many horror stories about cruising: the salt, the sand, the exotic insects - and that was just in the sandwiches.
Then there'd be the coffin-sized cabin with the ambience of a public loo. Not to forget the notoriously bad onboard entertainment. (The brochure may promise the "new Beatles", but what it means is four Ringos.) Add to the mix a staff so surly they'd make Attila the Hun appear helpful, and I was looking forward to cruising about as much as amateur ovarian-cyst removal.
But, having been press-ganged onboard by a friend for my birthday, I soon had to eat my words. Well, I would have eaten them, but I was too busy devouring the butter-poached lobster tails with leeks and beetroot essence. Apparently, when you wish upon a Michelin star, dreams really can come true.
Surely I'd need a lubricant to get into my tiny cabin? But at the sight of my king-size bed and marble bathroom, I gave a swoon worthy of an Elvis concert circa 1956. The sea beneath my private balcony fizzed like the Champagne my personal maid was handing me with a welcoming smile. Forget the rumoured surliness - the shipboard staff made the Waltons look depressed.
But what really converted me to sea travel was the ease of it. No waiting in a queue at customs behind a terrorist suspect searching for his passport, or perhaps anthrax, while your flight is called the final time; no emphysemic hire cars, marriage break-ups thanks to map-reading in foreign languages, or packing and unpacking, packing and unpacking.
We left Venice at dusk in our horizontal hotel sipping Champagne on deck, marvelling at the pink and blue marbled sky which looked exactly like the end papers in the notebooks bought that day on the Rialto Bridge. We then partied the night away, awakening refreshed beneath the ancient 25-metre walls of Dubrovnik.
It was a satisfyingly simple routine. No matter how adventurous your sightseeing, there's always the safety of the mother ship, to which you're umbilically attached. Hiraklion, Kusadasi, Athens… we'd simply pop ashore to look at a few ancient relics (besides each other), then sashay back onboard for a dip in the outdoor whirlpool as the boat glided off to our next exotic anchorage.
Okay, so port life proved peachy, but what about ship life? What if I got stuck playing Scrabble with a groper with the personality of a house plant? What if I was forced to sing "Kumbaya"? But there's no fear of becoming a finalist in a fixed-smile event because there's just way too much to do.
I left school at 15 (until recently I thought Dante was how Italians cooked spaghetti), so spent my days at sea attending lectures on the political, cultural and historical aspects of the countries we'd be visiting. Being an autodidact, I was sucking up information like a Hoover. Minoan temple rituals, Ephesian brothel maintenance, gladiatorial practices…
If you don't require brain aerobics, there are lots of other activities. Ballroom dancing classes, bridge, bingo, mini tennis, quoits (play was stopped by rain - a case of quoit-us interruptus), a spa, movies (though possibly best to avoid The Perfect Storm), roulette, poker, talks by experts from the Antiques Roadshow - which, given the average age of the passengers, describes the entire voyage.
I'd always thought the main drawback to cruising would be the plethora of pensioners. But I found them to be hilarious. My favourite pastime became eavesdropping. A generously buttocked Texan heiress, waddling on spiky heels, was concerned she wouldn't be allowed to attend the '70s disco… because she was only 68. One asked, "What happens to the ice sculptures when they melt?" Another, "So, is the island completely surrounded by water?" and, "Which side of the ship do you have to be on to see the Panama Canal?"
Once I got over the urge to make them walk the plank they were as thick as, I realised my fellow passengers were having a fabulous effect on my self-esteem. Cruising makes one feel intelligent, young, sophisticated and slim.
Despite my scepticism, cruising soon had me purring like a canary-filled cat - watching the Mediterranean islands unfurl before me and the wave-worn fishing boats jostle at the jetties, the sway of the boat so reminiscent of being rocked in a cradle (though with cruise ships' state-of-the-art stabilisers, nausea will be no more than the mispronunciation of some island off Crete). Not to forget the brush with culture as I was whisked from museum to monument, ghetto to gallery, fountain to forum, ruin to relic (a pickled piece of a saint), cathedral to catacomb. And the chance of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation with a tautly posteriored sailor with pecs-appeal during lifeboat drill. I became addicted to it all.
Cruising is perfect for those with nothing to do who can spend their whole lives doing it. Now, as a total convert to cruising, my message for you is simple. When your ship comes in, don't be at the airport.
ILLUSTRATION ANTONIA PESENTI
Kathy Lette insists that her latest novel, The Boy Who Fell to Earth, would make excellent shipboard reading material.