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Category: Travel Date: 01 Apr 01

My slightly puzzled tone at hearing the voice of my travel agent when I wasn’t planning on going anywhere, turned incredulous.

“Hi! Diane Chatoor here, of A’s Travel.”

“Hi! Diane.”

“I’d like you and your husband to go on a cruise on the Grand Princess.”

“Sorry, the what??”

“The biggest cruise ship in the world!”

“Thank you, but I can’t afford it,” and besides, “cruises aren’t my thing,” I thought, all those boring, too-rich people. So many prejudices, but everyone has their own idea of a perfect holiday - mine, if I can ever wing it, would be a walking holiday in France in late spring, tramping around Eastern Europe in grunge, seeing unofficial China or smoking a hookah in Morocco in thronging streets.


I like holidays that give a little electric push to the mind and body. The thought of sitting around a pool, sun, sand, and tours make me want to weep with boredom. Good thing Diane couldn’t read my mind.


“But I’m sending you and your husband, courtesy Princess Cruises, on a one-week trip in the Caribbean, stopping off at St Thomas, St Maarten, and Princess Cays, a private island in the Bahamas, leaving from Fort Lauderdale - worth about US $3,600 per couple with upper-deck cabins. We’ll throw in tours in St Thomas and St Maarten.”

“Why?” I asked, suspiciously.


Mother always says there’s no such thing as a free lunch and certainly no such thing as free meals for an entire week on a ship.

“I want you to write about it.”

“That’s all?”

Despite all my prejudices, I felt myself weakening, succumbing to luxury, the idea of lolling on a ship, stopping off at a private island.


“I’ll go Diane, thanks, but I cannot do PR for you. I can only write what I see, and if I don’t like the trip, I’ll write about that, too, and I have to clear it with my editor.”

“No problem.”

Now I’m incredulous.

“You don’t care if I write bad things about it.”

“I’m not worried.”

“I don’t do PR Diane - cannot compromise the integrity of the column.”

“I’ll send you the details,” she said, and rang off.


My husband and I pored over the brochure - The Grand Princess 2,600 passengers; 109,000 gross tons; 935 feet; three show lounges; three dining rooms; 24-hour alternative dining; casino; children and teens centre; southwestern restaurant; five pools; one with retractable magradome; virtual reality theatre; spacious staterooms, 710 with balconies; nightclub 15 decks above the sea accessible by moving walkway, health and beauty centre.


It didn’t feel real when we drove to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Miami. We stopped at a drawbridge up for a passing boat below. Then as it dropped, the Grand Princess dominated our vision. Our jaws dropped. There she was, the US$350 million Grand Princess, all 177 feet tall, 935 feet wide, weighing 109,000 tonnes, with her 1,300 cabins, her 16 decks, towering over the Fort Lauderdale Convention Centre.


Just looking at the unusual steel and glass structures on the highest points of the ship, spanning its width, one aft at the stern, (the nightclub in the sky) the other at the bow (the bridge), we understood for the first time, that this was not an ordinary ship.


We went through Customs in a large terminal the way you would at any airport, stood in line, tagged our bags and given the keys to our cabin that would also service as a credit card throughout the cruise for alcohol and duty-free shopping.


We were being ushered into a passageway, greeted by one of the ship’s officers, in what looked like a posh hotel lobby, on one of seven elevators, climbing up, up, up, to Caribe, deck 10. We passed other decks, variously named Aloha, Lido, Baja Dolphin.


Our Philipino steward, Hector, with whom I was to fall irrevocably in love (it was mutual - one night he crammed tiny heart-shaped chocolates into several glasses and left it by my bedside) introduced himself, and said he would take care of us.


Each steward operates almost like a personal butler. We were in our cabin, which was like a regular hotel room, saw flowers, a bottle of chilled champagne, our bags, chocolate on our pillows. Stepping onto our balcony and to the sight of lights of Fort Lauderdale. Then an almost physical thing happened. We felt the entire responsibility of our lives, children, work, glide off our shoulders.


From somewhere, we heard the theme song from the Love Boat, which made us laugh, the First Officers voice welcoming us, giving us the countdown to our departure.


We rushed on deck where people were already in one of the five swimming pools, sitting in the hot tub, sipping cocktails, heard music, looked down from what felt like the top of the Empire State Building to watch the ship cast off the lines from the dock, watched the rush of water, and as if in a trance, felt the pulling away from shore, watched receding shoreline.


We swayed, felt giddy; whether it was the champagne bottle in our mouths, the ship moving beneath us, our light spirits, or the strong cool breeze, we could not tell. Who cared? We’d left the world behind.


The evening wrapped itself around us with ship, sea and sky. Our cruise had begun.


Next week: The diary of a cruise.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur