More than any form of travel, sea voyaging, with its imagined perils of mal-de-mer, boredom and bad food, has long suffered an image problem, as seen in John Murray's 1897 Handbook of Travel-Talk: "Here is my ticket; let me see my cabin immediately. Send the small things down below." "How is the wind? Is it in our favour? Is it getting up? Has it gone down?" "Can you get me a folding seat? The motion of the vessel makes me unwell. I suffer dreadfully."
Are cruises merely a kind of expensive convalescence, a type of luxurious captivity with meals administered at all hours and uniformed staff on call? All that enforced togetherness, smorgasbords with ice-carvings of melting mermaids, knobbly knees competitions and consorting with passengers decked from Panama hat to plimsolls in elasticised leisurewear? What to do, cry the cynics, besides play shuffleboard and stir drinks with mermaid-shaped swizzle sticks?
But while once roundly recommended only for the newly wed (sex) and the nearly dead (sleep), cruising is now the mode of travel du jour. Ships come with hitherto unimaginable luxuries. Cunard's Queen Elizabeth has a West End-style Royal Court Theatre that includes private boxes with velvet bell pulls to summon flutes of fizz. Bunks with rickety ladders have given way to staterooms with private verandahs and Egyptian cotton bedding.
Gone are the onboard comedians whose routines included cheesy gags such as "The passengers on the last cruise were so old we held the captain's party on the first night at sea… just in case." In fact, P&O Cruises reports that 31 per cent of its passengers are aged 29 or under, 49 per cent are aged 30-59 and just 20 per cent are 60-plus. The average age is 42, much younger than the perceived norm. Cruise ships are mobile resorts, with all known amenities from pillow menus and frozen-yoghurt bars to feng shui-endorsed day spas and celebrity lecturers.
Think security, value, ease of passage, fine food, self-improvement classes and shore excursions that serve as handy reconnaissance visits or bucket-list ticks. Cruising is fashionable and fun, awash with after-five frolics, and - in an increasingly time-poor world - a shipboard sojourn is the last bastion of recuperative relaxation, a nostalgic repository for lost arts such as cancan revues, dancing the Virginia reel and folding table napkins into tulips and bishops' mitres. Turn up for breakfast in mink eyelashes and caviar face mask? Sure thing.
I think cruising is cool. I love the sense of playing truant from reality on a shrill-white ocean liner. I adore the fact that words such as kilojoule and cholesterol are suddenly part of some strange tongue only spoken on land. Cash becomes a foreign concept - "Sign here, ma'am," say chaps in white jackets bearing silver trays of cocktails with names like Bahama Mama. In less than a day on the ocean waves, I turn into a younger, sillier, more liberated version of myself. Let me lead a conga line. Bring on the macarena. Sew sequins on my frocks. Marvel while I turn squares of origami paper into sacred cranes, crouching frogs and sea-captain's caps.
But what's the right ship for you? Should you go big or small, long or short, intrepid or leisurely? Pull up a deckchair and get the lowdown on the high seas here.
The time is right Never has the cruise industry been so buoyant. The latest available figures from the International Cruise Council Australasia reveal that cruise passenger numbers surged by a massive 34 per cent in 2011, with a total of about 623,000 Australians holidaying at sea.
It's official: we are now the fastest-growing cruise market in the world. Most cruise lines offer advance booking discounts, which are routinely about 30 per cent. Seabourn, which operates six small and exclusive ships, often has early bookings savings of up to 50 per cent, and an additional 10 per cent if you combine consecutive cruises. Many lines have loyalty schemes in which you can accrue frequent cruiser points to be used for cabin upgrades or travel redemptions, and such schemes may involve members-only onboard events. These programs are particularly appealing when applied to the bigger cruise companies. Carnival, for example, owns 10 brands including Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Cunard and P&O Cruises Australia.
Now, voyagers A circumnavigation requires time and investment and tends to attract retirees. Cunard's Queen Elizabeth Southampton-return world cruise, for example, will take 91 days this year, calling at ports as varied as Puntarenas in Costa Rica and Tauranga in New Zealand.
Sceptical travellers can test the waters with three-day food- and wine-themed cruises aboard P&O's Sydney-based Pacific Jewel, which has a Salt Grill restaurant by Luke Mangan. Royal Caribbean International recently entered Australian waters with a bang, positioning its superliner Voyager of the Seas out of Sydney for its 2013 summer season, and selling back-to-back Pacific cruises on Radiance of the Seas and Rhapsody of the Seas.
If it's all about life aboard the ship rather than the itinerary, choose the Pacific where ports are more scattered than, say, the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, or board Cunard's Queen Mary 2 for a seven-day transatlantic hop from Southampton to New York or vice-versa. You can take encouragingly large steamer trunks or even one's pampered pooch or puss, which will be housed in style in the onboard kennels and receive treats at turn-down.
Size does matter So-called megaliners are more like floating cities at sea, replete with shopping centres, faux British pubs, ice-skating rinks and planetariums. You'll need to carry a copy of the deck plan or else rely on a trail of cake crumbs to find your way back to your cabin.
Many look like glassy high-rises; the largest, at a gross tonnage of 225,282, is Royal Caribbean International's 2706-cabin Allure of the Seas, which even has surf simulators, rock-climbing walls, a full-sized basketball court and mini golf course. Allure has 2384 staff members - more than the passenger capacity on most ships. It is a smidge larger than sister ship Oasis of the Seas. But stay tuned, Royal Caribbean has two ships on order under the name "Project Sunshine", slated for northern-hemisphere autumn 2014 and spring 2015 respectively, each with capacity for 4100 passengers.
The volume and variety of larger ships means that fares are kept reasonably low, and if you are truly worried about being bored onboard, then bigger will be better.
The last frontiers Expeditionary ships, which usually appeal to younger travellers, carry inflatable Zodiac boats to skim passengers into remote bays, up rivers or onto polar ice. Itineraries reflect a sense of derring-do, covering less-visited regions such as Antarctica, the Galapagos, the Chilean fjords, Papua New Guinea, Iceland and the coast of Africa. Operators in this league include Silversea, Orion Expedition Cruises, Peregrine, Abercrombie & Kent, World Expeditions and Star Clippers, which runs a tall-ship fleet. Aurora Expeditions offers optional sea-kayaking excursions from its vessels in climes such as the Russian coastline and the Arctic.
Junior sailors This writer became a maiden voyager at age three aboard the first P&O Arcadia and distinguished herself as the ship rounded the Bay of Biscay by bringing up her junior sailor's tea all over the captain, a debonair chap with a David Niven-esque pencil moustache who had paused to chat with her mother in the Crow's Nest lounge. This is the kind of child one should try to avoid, possibly even if it is your own.
But with small kids in tow, you'll want a ship that caters adequately to their needs. The four Disney Cruise Line ships, which ply northern hemisphere regions, are obvious choices, while Allure of the Seas features complimentary DreamWorks experiences in which kids can attend parades and meet-and-greets with favourite characters from Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda.
Do not disturb Child-free ships include P&O's Oriana, Adonia and Arcadia. Lines such as Silversea welcome children older than six months but its ships have no particular provisions for juniors.
Throw away the tab All-inclusive ships mean just what it says on the label: everything is covered, save for a few extras (things such as laundry, satellite phone calls, internet access, spa treatments and, occasionally, a per-head surcharge to dine at specialty restaurants onboard). The big advantages are offers such as complimentary sommelier-selected wines with meals, replenished in-suite minibars, no tabs for bar drinks, and the inclusion of most shore excursions, (Typically, specialised tours such as helicopter jaunts may be extra.)
Crystal Cruises has all-inclusive sailings on its Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity, covering fine wines and premium spirits, open bar service in all lounges, and pre-paid gratuities. Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Seven Seas Voyager, Seven Seas Mariner and the smaller Seven Seas Navigator are also all-inclusive, with suite accommodation, open seating (dine when and with whom you please), unlimited shore excursions, tips and indulgent Canyon Ranch spas. Seabourn and Silversea are all-inclusive lines; the 450-passenger Seabourn Quest, launched in June 2011, is all-suite and features a watersports platform off its stern, a spa menu that includes such stress-melters as a Thai herbal poultice massage, a no-tipping policy, and fine wines and spirits.
Nice and breezy The cruise industry insists on the expression "outside cabin", which rather sounds as though you will be sleeping on deck. The term is actually just to differentiate a cabin with portholes or windows from an "inside cabin", which can look and feel like a crypt. While in such a windowless chamber aboard P&O's Pacific Princess years ago, my husband and I found it possible to sleep for 12-hour stretches; when Marino, the steward, opened the door even a crack, a shaft of light would stab us awake and guiltily we'd ask him if we'd missed breakfast (again) or, quite possibly, a port of call.
There's much to be said for applying the real-estate maxim of "worst house on the best street" and booking a cheaper inside category on a grand ship. Think of it as a hotel room - just somewhere to sleep. Certainly the value is attractive; an inside cabin on the QM2, for example, is about a third the cost of an outside suite. Public areas are open to all and well gone are the days when first-class passengers had their own staircases and lounge areas so they didn't need to clap eyes on the poor sods in steerage.
Italy-based MSC Cruises' Divina, Splendida and Fantasia feature the equivalent of an executive floor afloat. This sanctuary, dubbed the MSC Yacht Club, features suites, an exclusive pool and private restaurant. To be launched in March by MSC Cruises' legendary "godmother", Sophia Loren, is the 4345-passenger Preziosa, which will also be equipped with Yacht Club suites.
What's in a name? Cabin, suite or stateroom?
Cruise language is often fanciful and, while the word "stateroom" may imply lavish space, it's widely used even for standard cabins. Consult the internet to look at deck plans and styles and size of accommodation. Websites such as seabourn.com or royalcaribbean.com give virtual tours of all the categories so you can assess access to staircases and elevators, key public areas, even whether a view could be obscured by lifeboats or on-deck structures.
Brine and dine Give thanks to Saint Gusset, the patron protector of cruisers. With roomy trousers in place, say goodbye to steaks as tough as slipper soles and recycled buffet ballast. Food is now a featured attraction on many liners and the biggest development in the past decade has been the introduction of "freestyle dining". No longer are passengers trapped in a dining room for the evening meal but there's a choice of cafés and specialised restaurants.
On bigger free-for-all ships, however, you may see pleading little signs on the breakfast spread notifying that the butter carvings and the wax effigies of bread are not edible (look for telltale teeth marks). The midnight buffet? Yes, it still exists, and there's always a passenger or two who'll enquire what time it's served and the occasional hog who simply pulls up a chair.
Haute cuisine has arrived on the high seas with celebrity-chef-branded restaurants, cooking classes, mixology demonstrations and food-themed cruises. New York legend Jacques Pépin is Oceania Cruises' executive culinary director; Holland America Line has a "Culinary Council" that includes big names such as Charlie Trotter; and Nobu Matsuhisa, Todd English and Marco Pierre White are other high-profile chefs with cruise connections. Qsine restaurants aboard Celebrity Cruises' Infinity and Eclipse were among the first to offer menus and wine lists on iPads. Silversea regularly features Relais & Châteaux cooking schools on its voyages, including "market-to-plate" classes conducted both onboard and shore-side.
Many ships have optional wellness menus with kilojoules and salt and fat content marked, although who could resist a parade of bombe Alaska held aloft by tuxedo-togged waiters? It would be rude to refuse. Decent coffee, however, is a challenge; friends of mine travel with a two-cup plunger and their favourite blend and brew it in their cabin. The best espresso I've had afloat has been on Holland America Line's Volendam in the Explorations Café, which includes an extensive library and computer stations.
Plaid or staid Cruise line websites include details of onboard dress codes and most suggest that on cruises of three to seven nights there will be one or two formal occasions, for which after-five frocks and lounge suits are required. There's a trend to refer to such dressy events as "cocktail" nights, deferring to a more casual atmosphere onboard. If you prefer to hire a tux, Queen Elizabeth has a Moss Bros facility, but beware of matching pastel bow ties and cummerbunds.
Shops onboard often sell items to jazz up outfits - masks and feathered falderals for Venetian balls, for example - and there may be a fancy-dress night. My mother was a huge fan of costumes and what that woman couldn't do with toilet rolls, crêpe paper and coathangers doesn't bear mentioning.
On our Arcadia crossing from Southampton to Sydney, she dressed me, on one memorable evening, as a windbag, covering me with blown-up bits of brown paper tied with string and affixed by nappy pins she'd pinched from the crèche. I hovered lightly, like a small dirigible, but took out the blue ribbon in the under-fives.
Sea and tell Most cruise companies use terms such as "enhancement" to describe lectures and classes in everything from chess and bridge to how to choose the right stemware and plateware (that would be glasses and cutlery to the rest of us) for home entertaining.
On one cruise aboard Oriana, the smocking and patchwork instructor was named Mavis and she attracted quite a few gentlemen to her classes. They happily wore T-shirts hand-appliquéd with the words "I made it with Mavis".
I have taken Spanish lessons (day one's terms were all to do with demanding food and drinks of various stripes) and vegetable-carving classes (I rather fancy my carrot phoenixes are unrivalled).
I have learned to whirl the Pride of Erin in QM2's chandeliered Queens Room, replete with a live band and gentlemen hosts with lapel badges announcing Smooth Sam and Dapper Dan, side-stepping serial cruisers with names like Foxtrot Fanny and Kissin' Kate and Martini Martha.
Book a passage While tablets and e-books may be all the rage, there's something eminently satisfying about curling up in a deckchair with a real book in hand, pages ruffled by the salty breeze. This, for me, is the voyaging dream writ large: all that commendable fresh air, the feeling of time stood still, Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot off on their corpse-botherings while I idly wonder if it'll be the black taffeta or slinky red silk for dinner at eight.
The best library at sea is aboard QM2 - it's a two-storey collection with about 8000 titles and also features sink-into lounge chairs overlooking the bow so you can dip into the likes of The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie (which starts on the ill-fated Lusitania) as the ocean stretches out before you.
Spa, spa better thing Botox, detox, fearful bamboo-rod massages, internal irrigation workshops and treatments with names as intriguing as "organic seaweed peat wrap" - all these, and more, are available. There's teeth-whitening, body-sculpting boot camps, facials using caviar and gold leaf, saunas, steam rooms, hydro pools and hammams.
Cosmetic surgery at sea? Well, not yet, but why not, as long as the water is millpond-calm and the surgeon's hands are steady? With time on one's hand, and a lack of scrutiny, a cruise ship could be the perfect venue for a nip or tuck. For now there's the medi-spas with their menu of Botox and Restylane treatments as on Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Eclipse, or the Ayurvedic treatments on Oceania Cruises' Marina. Holland America Line's Nieuw Amsterdam offers room-service spa breakfasts and in-suite treatments.
Seabourn Quest and Seabourn Odyssey have spa villas for couples with daybeds and tubs, while Celebrity Silhouette boasts The Alcoves, eight private top-deck cabanas perfect for post-spa treatment lolls when you (or I) can snore like a drunken sailor. (Note that spa treatments are cheaper on port days when most passengers go ashore, and hair salons are booked solid for formal nights. Yes, the beehive and the comb-up are alive and lacquered.)
Postscript Pack a sense of humour along with the gladrags. Accept that sleeping in daylight hours is positively encouraged. Avoid the weird art auctions unless, as my husband says, you are decorating a Las Vegas motel. And the old jokes about the passenger who asked the captain if the crew sleep onboard and if the ship makes its own electricity, madly, are true. Bon voyage.
Susan Kurosawa is the editor of the Travel & Indulgence section of The Weekend Australian.