I'm 29, I hitchhike and love street food – but my next holiday will be a cruise

·5 min read
harriet marsden
harriet marsden

I’m hardly your stereotypical cruiser. I’m not a retired couple on the hunt for fly-and-flop around the Caribbean. I’m only 29, I don’t enjoy black tie and I have limited tolerance for Americans. If I were feeling pretentious I might describe my travelling style as ‘wannabe local’ – translation, I hitchhike and eat questionable street food.

So it might surprise you to read that when the Government finally blows the starting whistle on foreign holidays, I would like my first trip to be aboard a small-ship cruise. To me, it feels like the safest option in a post-pandemic world.

I’m not an expert or epidemiologist, but compared with air or rail journeys, hostel-hopping or road trips, the idea of a ship makes me most comfortable. As part of a small, non-changing group of passengers, I imagine I’ll be better able to keep track of contact should an outbreak of coronavirus occur.

It might seem counterintuitive after a pandemic to wish to be trapped in close quarters on the ocean – particularly given how poorly things have gone for cruises during the Covid-19 crisis. Who could forget the terrible news from Diamond Princess, quarantined off the coast of Japan for a month while the virus ripped through its passengers? Or the excruciating stories of cruise ships banned from docking at ports, leaving travellers and staff stranded on the water.

But between the success of the vaccination roll-out and the growing confidence in both the coronavirus roadmap in the UK and the new Biden administration in the US, major lines are reporting strong sales for next year, and small-ship cruise bookings have skyrocketed. Scenic recently reported a 150 per cent increase in sales for European river cruises – the highest since March 2020 – and Tui has cited “strong demand” and an increase in interest from new customers in recent months. It seems I’m not the only one who wants to set sail.

cruise norway fjord - Getty
cruise norway fjord - Getty

And let’s be honest, cruises suffered from a PR problem among travellers long before the pandemic. Critics (often unfairly) bemoaned faceless crowds, tacky entertainment, restrictive schedules and insufficient time on shore.

After David Foster Wallace joined a seven-day luxury cruise in 1995, he wrote Shipping Out, an essay excoriating the experience: “There’s something about a mass-market luxury cruise that’s unbearably sad,” he wrote. “Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes yet simple in its effect: on board the Nadir... I felt despair.”

It’s fair to say, however, that he buried the lede; it’s two pages before he admits that he had, prior to the cruise, always associated the ocean with dread and death. And I admit, before my first cruise, I was wary. While I’d always loved group tours – especially small, ethically minded operators – I valued my own independence too highly to risk social peril on the sea. Plus, as a lifelong motion sickness sufferer, I had almost no faith in my sea legs. Could I stand being trapped on board with a group of strangers watching me vomit starboard?

But unlike Foster Wallace, I found the experience transformative. Aboard the Majestic Line’s Glen Shiel, I toured the islands of the Outer Hebrides with a small group of people I’d never normally have met, but to whom I quickly grew attached. As soon as my stomach settled, I relished the wide open water, which contrasted wonderfully with the intimacy. The ability to visit multiple destinations without ever having to change rooms was a revelation, not a restriction.

During the last year, my youthful itchy feet and drive to stay on the move have been replaced by a gammy back and the desire to sleep in the same bed every night. I no longer wish to roll the dice with a new pillow. I am, at 29, frankly too tired to pack up and move every second morning. My bed-hopping days are over, in more ways than one.

How do I square that with my post-lockdown self, who once I’m unleashed – in all my feral, desocialised glory – never wants to be stuck in the same place again? I dread a new set of faces every day, but I’m desperate for human companionship and crave familiarity – although dubious about my ability to endure it. Trying to balance this is like playing 4D chess. A small-ship cruise seems like the obvious solution.

viking cruises budapest - Viking Cruises
viking cruises budapest - Viking Cruises

Travelling on the sea gives the illusion of freedom unlike anything you’d feel on a plane or train. After all, your view is often literally as far as the eye can see, and there's something primeval in the allure of the ocean. Plus I’ve spent the best part of a year hemmed into a flat in South London. Is it so strange that I long for outstretched arms and horizons in perpetual motion? And not to put too fine a point on it, static lockdown has only exacerbated my discomfort with motion. You do not want me puking on your tour bus. At least on a boat, there’s an al fresco option.

After a year marooned in the UK I crave mainland Europe, particularly the familiarity of France and Spain, but I long for remote islands and wide, majestic rivers, for Mediterranean blue and coastal cuisine. I’m also drawn to cruises exploring the open fjords of Scandinavia: the ice-clean antithesis of urban London. I long to spread my wings without actually taking a flight yet. For exploration and culture without city crowding. For the peacefulness of water without the isolation of lockdown.

So when holidays return, keep a weather eye on the water. That woman in silver lamé that Foster Wallace wrote about, projectile-vomiting off the side? That’ll be me.