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Mervyn Hancock

Age: 58

Occupation:Travel Writer

Number of Cruises: 10

Cruise Line: Fred Olsen Cruises

Ship: Braemar

Sailing Date: October 27th, 2005

Itinerary: 14-Day Western Caribbean

Our Man in Havana

It used to be a “once in a lifetime” holiday, but MERVYN HANCOCK discovered that everyone from pensioners to lottery winners are regularly taking a cruise, and new ships are being launched almost as fast as they can be built.

The chef’s speciality – banana boat – had one vital ingredient missing, the bananas! And despite being in the Caribbean where the things grow everywhere, no one on board the cruise ship Braemar could conjure one up! The explanation? A hurricane had ripped through the area a few days before we arrived in Jamaica, the winds had blown the fruit off the trees, and the local monkeys had made off with them.

Because Fred Olsen keeps to smaller ships, and relies almost entirely on a British clientele to fill them, his cruising experience not only offers a more dignified way of crossing the Seven Seas, but also enables passengers to enjoy visits to more of the “out of the way” places, and retains some of the style associated with the old fashioned liners.

Indeed, the cruise that my wife Sue and I joined in Montego Bay, Jamaica, was called “Off the Beaten Track”, and during a voyage lasting 14 days we would call in at Grand Turks and Caicos, Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Grand Cayman in the British Virgin Islands.

In the good old days of the two Queens, Elizabeth and Mary, you had to be very well heeled to even contemplate a cruise. The class system was very much in operation, and those who had managed to save enough cash to book a cabin, found themselves in steerage, looking up longingly at those in second or even first class. To this day Cunard reserves the best dining experience for passengers occupying the higher price cabins and suites, although the majority of cruise companies now allow all clients full use of all the onboard facilities.

But booking a cruise can still be a nightmare! In almost all cases the brochure price never relates to the price you actually pay. Many passengers who negotiate special deals are sent a letter with their confirmation pack, begging them not to disclose their bill to fellow passengers, who may get seasick when they find out they have shelled out much larger sums for the same type of cabin. Discounts range from 15 to 50 per cent – even more if cabins are available on a back-to-back cruise, and you book onboard.

If you are prepared to sleep on the water line, in an inside cabin, the world is your oyster for a few hundred pounds. Take the lift to the upper decks for an outside cabin or suite, and you will need to hit the savings, or win the lottery.

On my particular adventure, for instance, the maximum you could pay per person for the 14 night cruise was £9,995 and the minimum £1,374 – everyone got the same food, entertainment, and run of the ship. It was just the size and position of the cabin that made the difference.

On Fred Olsen’s flagship, The Black Watch, a 103 night world cruise in the top suite without a discount would set you back £39,365 each, while an inside twin would be a snip at £10,080. Sounds a lot, but £97 a night for full board does compare favourably with even the modest of hotels ashore.

My advice is to book an outside cabin on a lower deck for the first cruise, and then upgrade if and when you can afford it. If you splash out on a superior room with a balcony in the beginning, you will be disappointed if you have to return to the lower decks on subsequent holidays!

The advantage of taking a cruise is that you can experience all types of countries, in all parts of the world, and remove much of the risk factor. If you don’t like what you find there, then simply return to your floating hotel, soak up the sun, and you will be off to the next destination within hours. And certainly, that is what we did during our journey “off the beaten track.”

We joined an organised tour in Jamaica down the country’s Black River where locals have managed to “tame” their native crocodiles, to the extent that they respond to whistles, swim out of the undergrowth, and beg snacks from the occupants of small boats.

One 18ft monster allowed the skipper to tickle his teeth, although none of us accepted an offer to enjoy a swim with him – although several of the boat crew did just that!

Our call into Havana was a disappointment for me. I had visited Cuba’s capital on two previous occasions, and thought that cash investments into the country from Spain and Canada might have improved life there. Not so!

Fidel Castro’s cunning plan to outlaw the American dollar and replace it with a tourist Pecos obviously worked for his oppressive regime – all the tourist money now goes straight into his bank, while the locals are left to hunt for food in waste bins, or make money on the rampant black market. The once-grand buildings are still in a deplorable state, food rationing is in operation, and scared Cubans claim they are afraid to criticise their leader or his henchmen in case they land up in jail. There was no welcome in the hillsides for travellers here, just desperate people, desperately wanting to make a living. One local predicted Civil War when Castro finally dies, and I believe he might be right.

Many of the bigger cruise ships choose Cancun as their itinerary in Mexico, but again, the hurricane had forced them to seek refuge down the coast in Costa Maya where the Braemar docked on a man-made pier, stretching far out into the Caribbean Sea. Clever locals had created an interesting tourist trap, complete with Mexican floorshow, shops, bars restaurants, and even a swimming pool. The trap was sprung as soon as three cruisers dropped anchor, and it was a pleasure to part with our money here.

The Western Caribbean islands are mainly poor, and average wages (for those who can get a job) start at around £20 a month. So it was unsurprising that Belize and Guatemala were somewhat of a culture shock.

A poor, but proud, taxi driver took us on a tour of the highlights of Guatemala, which included three open-air funeral parlours, where the caskets were displayed in a range of colours, and the latest fashions for the final journey were hung up in the windows. The city centre reminded me of Banjul in the Gambia, and the smells were not for the faint-hearted. The sort of place you have to see, but not for a holiday, and which you probably would not be able to visit without the help of your cruise ship.

Roatan Island in Honduras had another surprise awaiting visitors to its famous butterfly farm – no butterflies! The insects had also been victims of the hurricane, and had either flown, or been blown away, in the winds. Polite, but insistent, children offered themselves up as guides, until the local police chased them back to school. Quaint, wooden, homes built on stilts by the seashore have probably not changed in over a century.

Visiting Grand Cayman in the British Virgin Isles was literally going from one extreme to the other. The main streets of Georgetown have been taken over by Rolex, diamond merchants and goldsmiths. In fact you could barely move for Americans, who had embarked from six cruise ships, and were spending their dollars as though they had gone out of fashion.

One smiling local told me that the shops close if there is only a British ship in port. “You English don’t spend much,” he said.

Back onboard the chef was preparing lunch, thinking about the dinner menu, and what to give passengers for their midnight feast. They would be hungry after digesting their three course breakfast and mid-morning tea and snacks.

I wonder what the islanders think of us? We literally come from another world. And next year an estimated 20million of us will take a cruise. Even that Greek chap, who invented Easy Jet, is sending one of his orange ships into the Caribbean, and Richard Branson is set to enter the fray too! Let us hope that as prices drop standards are maintained, and setting sail remains something special.

Mervyn Hancock and his wife Sue paid a total of £4,600 for a balcony suite on MV Braemar operated by Fred Olsen Cruise Lines. The price included return flights from Gatwick to Jamaica, and all meals. Expect to pay around £1-80 for a pint of beer onboard, spirits can be enjoyed for £10 a litre bottle. The ship has a theatre, two dining rooms, small casino, shops, beauty salon, gym, sauna, two Jacuzzis and a small swimming pool. There is a laundry and dry-cleaning service, and discretionary tips add another £100 to the bill.


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