No matter how many cruises you might do over the course of a lifetime, there are always some that stand out like exclamation marks in your life; the ones that always make you grin like an idiot even on a really bad day. They foster memories that are guaranteed to rescue you from your deepest funk.
They can be special because of so many things; it could be the thrill of discovering somewhere new, and utterly seductive. A place- or even places- so spine tingling that the urge to return is almost physically painful.
It could be the people you meet on board. Fun, well travelled, warm, generous souls that turn a cruise into a joyride. People that you instinctively gravitate to. People that you learn from, and share epic adventures with ashore. A cruise as an education. Makes sense to me.
Then of course, there is the ship and the crew. The two truly indispensible ingredients that can either make or break any holiday. When it all works out on board, everything is fine and dandy.
Any of these could be salient points in delineating the truly memorable from the very good. But, when all of them come together to create the perfect mix, then you are guaranteed an experience that will stay with you long, long after you actually leave the trip behind.
I have been more than lucky to sample a few such trips. One of the best was, without doubt, a ten day Caribbean circuit from Fort Lauderdale aboard Regent’s magnificent Seven Seas Mariner. The ports of call- St. Thomas, Tortola, Saint Barts and Grand Turk, to name a few- were seductive enough in their own right. So too was the idea of winging it smartly out of a gloomy, rain sodden UK for those balmy, milder climes. I am not a good ‘winter baby’- anyone who knows me would vouch for that. Even the idea of side stepping neatly into such agreeable sunlight is an adrenaline boost that cannot be under-rated.
And I knew that the ship was going to be sublime. I had sampled the line’s hospitality a few times, so pretty much knew what I was getting into. Regent is a line that does not ‘do’ mediocrity at any level. The all outside suites come with balconies, big, marble sheathed bathrooms, and enough in room entertainment to last a millennium.
The food and service are, quite simply, superlative at every level. The staff walk the finely balanced line between being attentive, without ever lapsing into over familiarity. Staff quickly learn, and often anticipate, your most whimsical desires. Coupled with an all inclusive policy, the Mariner has a vast amount of personal space per passenger. This, more than anything, makes for a stand out product.
In truth, the secret of the line’s success lies in what it leaves out. Crowds and tannoy announcements are left to the mega ships. Open seating dining is the norm, where a table for two can just as deftly become one for six. Formal dress codes are thrown overboard, in favour of a country club casual vibe. After all, who, in God’s name, wants to shoe horn themselves into formal wear after a hard day’s indolence on Magen’s Bay beach? These might sound small things- and individually, they are- yet, over the course of ten days they add up to something quite simply superlative. The sheer quality of everything is quite something.
If you want rock climbing walls, casinos the size of California, and brash, braying, bar hopping hordes, then this is not for you. Mood music is subtle, mellow, and fits the moments on board quite perfectly. I’ll never forget the solitary sax player out on deck as we left St. Thomas; his tall silhouette black against a flaring crimson twilight as his music flooded the air like fine wine. It was like being awake in a really vivid, slowly moving dream. The moment seemed as delicate and fragile as eggshells, and yet it is seared into my memory as indelibly as if I have been branded.
The entire cruise unfolded like that. The passengers were a sophisticated, fun group; one that knew how to enjoy itself, yet always remembered to show consideration for others. The whole ship seemed wreathed in a fog of dreamy smiles for the duration. It brought out the best in people, and in a way that no stay at any land based resort could hope to match. The whole adventure seemed shrouded in some kind of deep, indefinable magic.
Of course, the islands played a huge part in it. Flopping back into my favourite, fondly remembered hammock at Tortola’s Cane Garden Beach was just amazing. Palm trees overhead, and just the sound of slowly rolling surf drumming a pristine swathe of dazzling white sand. At home, it was eight degrees centigrade. But the only ice near me was in my Daiquri. And that, my friends, is exactly as it should be.
And anyone who cannot enjoy a day draped across Gustavia’s Shell Beach should really- and I mean really- check their pulses. They might already be dead.
I don’t care how many times you go to the Caribbean; it is impossible to be blase about it. Something in the breeze just eats into you and stays with you. And I don’t mean the mosquitos, either. Sure, it can be hellish on days when there are a dozen cruise ships in Saint Maarten. But that is where taking a smaller ship comes in handy. Bypass the crowds and the endless lines, and go do what you need to do!
Those islands- those exalted, white and lush green little glimpses of paradise- came and went like a succession of drum rolls. Garlanded with tender sunrises and sometimes shrouded in blazing crimson sunsets, they warmed the heart and the soul alike.
And yet it was the Mariner that was the standout island. She was our own little fantasy island. Pristine, always immaculate and familiar, and with a chilled glass of welcome champagne at hand. We flitted in and out of sunsets, and the odd rain shower that always ended in a stunning rainbow.
For ten days, the Seven Seas Mariner was our universe. We could be as sociable or secluded as our moods took us. You could enjoy a nightcap on your balcony with a side order of moonlight, or a zesty margarita at the pool bar with new friends. You could sample food as simple or as sophisticated as the whim of the moment moved you, and it was always superb.
Leaving such a trip is always a bit of a wrench. But, truth be told, I never really left it behind. I’ll always have it, or at least the memories of it. And all those memories are gold plated, smiley little treasures. What more can you ask for than a dream that comes true, and does not disappoint?