Having dragged my 68-year-old ‘bestie’ Maz, a cruise virgin, on the Carnival’s latest party boat, aptly named The Mardi Gras – I was, I’ll admit, nervous about how she would take to being on the water with so many merry American cousins, all of whom seemed hell-bent on eating huge portions, drinking like Falstaffians and then collapsing onto the super-reinforced sunbeds on deck 18 (the one where no children were allowed).
She took to it like a duck.
Not that getting to that point had been easy. Two years of lockdown and uncertainty meant that our Big Cruise Adventure had been delayed repeatedly. It had started with me being on a Marketing Cruise in 2019 which sailed out of Long Beach, California and down the west coast of Mexico for seven days of fun in the sun. I’d noticed that the stream of seminars I was attending didn’t look as fun as the rowdy hoots of laughter emanating from the Piano Bar every night. It turned out that the ‘Piano Barbarians’ – aptly named – spent most of the day snoozing and boozing and then were up half the night singing along with some very entertaining pianist/vocalists in the ship’s main Piano Bar.
So I had signed us up, figuring that there was no hope if I didn’t know enough about marketing after two cruises.
Finally, with the help of Maribeth Kring, our ‘Cruise Mom’ – we had booked to sail out of Tampa and around the Gulf of Mexico in January 2022. I managed to secure a reasonably priced ticket with BA, including three nights in the Sirata Beach Hotel on the famous St Pete’s Beach reef strand.
It looked idyllic. I was packed two weeks early, flippers, mask – the lot. Got our tickets, our ESTA renewals, and paid for a pre-flight antigen test to get into the USA plus to have another test just before boarding the cruise liner.
But then there was this Covid variant called Omicron and 48 hours before departure, Maz tested positive. It was all cancelled, yet again. I didn’t even have the heart to unpack.
The next possibility was in May, so with a deep breath we signed up.
That’s how we eventually found ourselves, after queuing for hours at Gatwick and then queueing even longer at Orlando immigration for ‘aliens’, finally cracking open a bottle of chilled Californian white on the balcony of our hotel room in Cocoa Beach, overlooking the surf on one side and a very attractive pool on the other.
I hadn’t wanted to go anywhere near the ‘Magic Kingdom’ – or any of the other theme parks, so Cocoa Beach was a great alternative to the other Orlando hotels. The Beachside Hotel and suite was reasonable, friendly and they threw in a substantial continental breakfast which, being American, was a buffet large enough to feel an entire continent rather than a couple of weary travellers.
After a few hours circling the small island brimming with tropical flowers while my bottom was wedged firmly in a large inflatable tyre, I was ready to party. The ‘lazy river’ current gently nudged me around, but every time I tried to extricate myself from the inner tube, it shot me past the steps and back into the flow. I only escaped when I got so wrinkly I could slip out.
Maz, meanwhile, wanted to dip her toes in the surf. Walking a few minutes down to the beach, it looked like a scene from Baywatch, but no sign of David Hasselhof. There were red flags up, so we decided to visit Nolan’s Irish pub on 204 West Cocoa Beach Causeway for a spot of folk-singing and a bite to eat.
Their fish and chips were spectacular, and we spent two evenings ‘home from home’ enjoying great music and ambience. Scottish comedian and singer JJ ‘Hamish’ Smith had us in hysterics with his very unPC rendition of Old MacDonald’s Farm, where all the animals had special needs, including a sheepdog with Tourette’s.
Another welcome discovery was the Poke Fin café on the corner of East Cocoa Beach Causeway and North Atlantic Avenue, where the seafood and salads were fresh and tasty. Sitting there, watching all the surfers drifting in and out of Ron Jon’s palatial Surf Shop on the main boulevard, was entertainment in itself.
After more Covid antigen tests, we finally boarded The Mardi Gras.
If you’ve never been on a cruise, you are in for a treat. Always book a balcony cabin if you get sequestered into your cabin with Covid. We slept with our doors wedged open to take advantage of the fresh sea air and switched off the air-conditioning unit.
Our cruise took us to sea for three days which gave plenty of time to explore the massive liner and its many places to eat or be entertained. We joined up with the other Piano Barbarians for one memorable night with Carnival’s Number One performers, the amazing Eden Parker, who performed for six hours without a sheet of music.
Then we arrived at a different port of call. First, San Juan in Puerto Rico, fantastic museum and picturesque walk through the old city. Next was Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic, where we joined an excursion to a private beach villa for lunch and a swim in the clear sea waters. Our final stop was at Grand Turks and Cacaos, where the samba band was on the pier to greet us.
At first, I felt guilty about descending on these Caribbean islands, so severely hit by natural disasters and then Covid lockdown, which killed the tourist trade on which they rely. But they seemed genuinely thrilled to see the big ships coming in to drop anchor once again, bringing badly needed dollars to their economies.
We saw a lot on the excursions, had some delicious gourmet meals as they are all-inclusive on The Mardi Gras, and enjoyed excellent entertainment every night. Still, neither of us visited the huge onboard Casinos where people sat for hours, smoking, drinking, and playing the slot machines with religious fervour.
There were big cash prizes on offer, but for me, the best prize was having a week away, soaking up the sun, relaxing without family or small grandchildren much as I love them, and being able to sleep like a log every night, rocked by the sound of the waves. We had a cabin on a lower deck which was cheaper and also closer to the ocean … perfect.
The incredible beauty of cruising is that you are transported from one adventure to the next in comfort and every new morning brings a unique experience.
Once you’ve boarded through their smooth running, speedy boarding processes, then unpacked your suitcase and hung up your clothes in the ample wardrobe or drawer space, that’s it. Your cabin becomes a ‘home from home for the time you are away, with an experienced and very obliging cabin attendant who’s just at the push of a button to help with any problems you may have.
The USA has a culture of tipping at 20% for everything. Still, on the cruise, you have the option of paying for tips upfront and never carrying money, just your ‘on-cruise’ personal card on a thong around your neck, for paying for any of the additional treats that aren’t part of the all-inclusive package deal.
The in-cabin TV keeps you informed of all the many events going on all over the ship, and some companies put a paper copy of the day’s itinerary under your door. When you meet new friends, exchange cabin numbers and then use notes or What’s App to arrange a rendezvous at one of the many gourmet restaurants, bars or coffee shops on board.
The entertainment on board is fantastic – top-notch singers, dancers and musicians go on a rota from one set to another. Most people discover their favourites and then follow them around the ship to enjoy their performances. Some are smaller-scale individual shows, for example, in the Comedy Bar, and others are full-scale productions that, combined with digital projection and special effects on a huge scale in their theatres – which seat over 2,000 people – would give some West End shows a run for their money.
Other activities to enjoy are the communal dance sessions on the main deck – sometimes line-dancing, sometimes salsa, always good fun to watch even if you don’t feel like participating.
You settle your ‘on board’ bill the night before you dock back at the final destination and leave your suitcase outside your cabin door for collection by midnight. The next morning, you wave goodbye to your ‘home from home’ cabin and your attendant, go for a leisurely breakfast and then leave by the same gangway that just one week earlier seemed like taking a yellow brick road to Oz and the unknown, but now transports you back to the real world.
Until the next cruise, that is.