“HAVE you cruised before?” Anyone who has shared a dining table on a luxury liner will have heard this sentence on more than one occasion.
To some the words can be nothing more than shrill, however, if you like a little bit of holiday one-upmanship then it will be music to your ears.
Our recent holiday aboard Thomson Spirit was our fourth cruise and my other half, John, and I had great pleasure in crowing about this.
I try not to be too blasé about it being our ‘fourth’ cruise because I am well aware of the fact that it wasn’t so many years ago only the rich and famous took to the high seas for a week or two taking in sunnier climes.
Now the rich and famous can afford to buy their own yachts so there is little chance of celebrity spotting.
There is, however, usually a star turn aboard each liner including guest speakers, comedians and some cruise companies employ the cast of Strictly Come Dancing to encourage bookings.
Whenever I mention to anyone on dry land that my next holiday will be a cruise I get a look from them as if to say: “You’ve got some money …” and I would like to dispel the myth that lounging around on a liner for a week or two is pricey. It can be as reasonable or as expensive – as you wish.
Seasoned cruisers will be well aware that you have to be quite careful to make sure you know what is included in the price you originally pay.
Sometimes the amount of ‘add-ons’ after you think your holiday is all bought and paid for can be a bit daunting. Every cruise operator is different – and so is every ship.
In the past John and I have holidayed with Cunard, Uniworld and P&O, each very different and all with unique selling points. But be sure to read the small print to see what is, and what isn’t, included in the price you are paying. Some operators charge a set amount per day per person for staff tips, and if you are booking a ‘cruise only’ trip you may need to arrange transport to and from the port which could include flights and overnight stays.
For cruise number four John and I opted for a fly cruise and as we were holidaying in mid-November The Canary Islands looked most favourable.
After flicking through more brochures than you can shake a stick at and trawling the internet for hours on end we chose for a seven-day cruise with Thomson – the Colourful Coasts, aboard the Spirit.
Why I hear you cry? Why would you want to cruise on a 30-year-old ship without any balconies? Don’t worry, you’re not questioning anything we already hadn’t asked ourselves.
Cruising with Thomson is a great introduction to this style of holiday as the ships are smaller and less intimidating than the huge liners which carry more than 5,000 passengers. Spirit’s capacity is 1,250.
Currently Thomson has four ships in service – the Dream, Celebration, Spirit and Majesty – and the joy of booking with this travel company is the price quoted includes an inside stateroom, flights, food and tips. It is then up to the individual how they choose to tailor the trip.
Colourful Coasts was chosen not only for its value for money but also its destinations and the promise that the weather would be better than here in England.
We flew from Birmingham to Tenerife, sailing from Santa Cruz to some delightful islands including Gran Canaria (Las Palmas), La Palma (Santa Cruz De La Palma), Madeira (Funchal), Morocco (Agadir), Lanzarote (Arrecife), and then returning to Santa Cruz before flying back to the UK.
We upgraded to a deluxe outside plus stateroom on deck eight/nine which gave us a huge 19 square metres to waft about in all week. We had a peak into other staterooms and they all seemed more than adequate and I wouldn’t have been disappointed spending my week in any of them.
Ours had ample wardrobe and dressing table space, and the largest bathroom we have experienced while cruising with an actual bathtub and a decent shower.
Because John had done his homework reading up on many cruise review websites we were aware of what facilities the rooms would and wouldn’t have.
There is no need to pack shampoo, soap, shower gel, tissues, towels (including beach), shower caps or a hairdryer as these were all provided.
Obviously if you prefer to take your own you can do so but when you are limited to 20kg hold luggage and five kilos of hand luggage you need to be a bit savvy with your packing – which I am not. I managed to fill both my cases to full capacity and will know next time there is absolutely no need to pack an iron …
The most useful thing I did take with me was a four-plug extension lead. There are limited plug sockets in the room and by limited I mean one.
When you think about it, when the ship was built in 1984, all that was needed to be plugged in was curling tongues as a hairdryer is provided. Thirty years on we are a nation of technophiles with mobile phones to be charged, iPod docking stations to be plugged in, along with laptops, straighteners, heated rollers, kettles and irons.
Next time – and I am hoping there will be a next time – I will also take my own coat hangers as I seemed to do battle on several occasions with the ones provided.
Our room was spotlessly clean – as were all the public areas – and was cleaned and tidied each morning with an animal crafted out of a beach left on our bed. Every evening there was a five star turn down service which included chocolates placed on the pillows. The cabin staff were wonderful and nothing was too much trouble.
The cruise offered excellent sailing times and most days we left port late afternoon or early evening and travelled through the night.
With only one day at sea, for the majority of our holiday we woke up each morning at a new destination. Marvellous. Once you are aboard the ship it is entirely up to you how you spend your day – and your money. Photographs are taken more discretely than some on cruises; shops which stock a lovely selection of duty free products including handbags, perfumes, watches and jewellery, and a selection of shore excursions.
The excursions available were excellent value-for-money and we while we were in Madeira and Morocco we chose to join a guided tour rather than going it alone. These were booked online in advance but can also be organised through a travel agent or once on board the ship.
In Funchal we chose ‘A Taste of Madeira and Cable Car’ tour which was a half day trip and included a cable car ride from Funchal up to nearby Monte. Then it was decision time – did we slip and slide down the narrow streets in a toboggan, or rejoin the bus for a more sedate journey down the hill?
Sitting in a wicker basket mounted on wooden runners, two drivers guide the sled down through narrow streets, using their rubber-soled boots as brakes was thrilling and Ernest Hemingway once described the experience as ‘exhilarating’. After our ride we wandered around Funchal’s tranquil Botanical Gardens before visiting Funchal’s farmers’ market.
In Agadir we opted for another half day trip and this time it was to Touradant.
Surrounded by olive trees, palms and sweet-smelling citrus groves, the walled city is a real gem. On our drive to and from the destination we had the thrill of seeing camels and tree-climbing goats. Although John was the only one who saw the latter – I thought it was more likely to be a carrier bag flapping in the wind. Once we had arrived at Taroudant our guided tour took us around a daily Berber market and the Arab souk (market).
There were many of our fellow cruisers who refused to leave the ship as they felt Morocco wasn’t safe, however, we have visited the country twice without incident.
As our learned Agadirian guide pointed out: “There are good and bad people all over the world.”
One major concern we had when we booked the cruise wasn’t whether we should get off the ship in Morocco, it was be whether I would miss the balcony.
When cruising with P&O I sat on ours most afternoons, had breakfast on it most mornings and found it to be a perfect extension to our room.
Did I miss not having this extra space on the Spirit? Being totally honest, just once, and that was when we had our one day at sea. Cruising aboard a liner which looks akin to a block of flats, with more balconies than you can shake a stick at usually means many of the public rooms are in the bowels of the ship, hence the need for a balcony.
On the Spirit there are fabulous views from every public room and there was always plenty of room on the lido decks.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty who love the larger ships and it’s a case of ‘the bigger the better’ for many.
Not for John and I, we prefer a smaller, more intimate ship. Is it really necessary to have to choose from 24 different dining experiences?
In our world, no! Aboard Spirit there are four dining options available – the lido self-service restaurant; the outside terrace where we ate breakfast and lunch most days; the Compass Rose restaurant with waiter service or Sirocco’s, an intimate a la carte restaurant.
On previous cruising holidays, dining in the self-service restaurant has proved to be a nightmare for us both and we have found the only way we can organise ourselves is to find a table and then tag team our food and drink. Not very romantic – and not very pleasant if I am perfectly honest.
Each time we dined in Spirit’s Lido Restaurant the staff are so well organised that there was never a problem finding a table, no matter what time of day we chose to eat.
Even on the morning of disembarkation the set up ran smoothly and this is all down to the organisation of the staff.
Once everyone has been fed it’s time for them to be watered and there was an excellent selection of speciality teas and coffees, soft drinks, beers, lagers, wines and spirits available.
While food was included in the price of the cruise, this type of beverage, wasn’t. There are drinks packages (DP) available to buy if you like a tipple and if your cruise is booked early enough, some are included in the price. However when we booked our trip an all-inclusive DP would have cost around £199 per person. With the best will in the world – and we both like a drink – there is no way we would have got through almost £400 of alcohol between us in just a week.
Well, not without staying on the ship 24/7 and me doing a good impression of Esme Cannon in the film Carry on Cruising.
There was no need to fret as we were able to purchase a DP to suit us on our first evening.
What really sets Thomson Cruises apart from its peers is its staff. From the maintenance team to the ones with the posh pips on their shoulders, nothing was too much trouble. Each and every one of them had time to smile, chat and be as helpful as possible to the guests – and it didn’t matter what rank they were, everyone mucked in an got on with the job in hand.
It was their friendliness and the relaxed atmosphere aboard Spirit which really made our holiday special. At no point did John or I feel as if we were an inconvenience and any questions we had were always answered.
One niggle we have had on all our cruise holidays though is the lack of internet access. Okay so there is access on the Spirit but it’s quite expensive so when the ship docks the first thing John and I usually do is head off to a café which offers free WiFi.
Nowadays, so many people have smart phones that if Thomson wants to get ahead of its rivals, it should look into offering complimentary Wi-Fi. Even if it’s only for half an hour each day, at least it would mean that we could brag on social media networks about where we are – oh and upload lots of ‘selfies’!
Our latest jolly jaunt was by far our favourite cruise and there would be no hesitation in travelling with this cruise line again.
From booking at Thomson’s, in Burton, to the towel animal left on our bed each day – everything was absolutely perfect.
Now where did I put that brochure? ...
The Colourful Coasts cruise is available with flights from East Midlands and Birmingham airports.
A seven-night cruise, including flights, starts from £799 per person until April 2104. The cruise resumes in November and continues until April 2015.
For more information pick up a brochure from Thomson in Station Street, Burton, or log on to www.thomson.co.uk