Sunday, March 26, 2017

Let's talk about cyclists, Cambridge

Yeah, let's talk about cycling. Because no one else dares mention it.

I'm joking, of course. If you've lived in Cambridge for more than 35 minutes, you've had this conversation. Or read an article in the local 'newspaper'. (I use inverted commas because to be honest the Cambridge 'News' is a misnomer). Or, even better, chuckled at a furious, incoherent, frothing-at-the-mouth fact-free, mindless, bigoted tirade from a resident masquerading as a 'contribution to the debate' in epistolary form to said publication.

Bloody bikes. Yobbos in lycra. No lights. No helmets. Nearly ran over a kid or granny. Jumped a red. Scraped my car. Cycle in the middle of the road. Don't pay road tax. Should be licensed. Smashed one of my front lights when I ran straight into one. Scratched my passenger door when I knocked one over. Slow me down on the school run by lying bleeding in the middle of the road.

Cyclists rule this city. It's ours. We own the roads. And yeah, sometimes the pavements. Get used to us because we aren't going anywhere. Actually, that's the whole point - we are going somewhere, unlike you lot - stuck in traffic for hours every day, cursing every other road user, apparently unaware that you are are just as much traffic as they are, and that each cyclist whizzing gleefully past you and your execrations represents one fewer vehicle in front of you. You should be silently thanking every single cyclist who zips by.

Cambridge is a very small, very old city with a growing population far in excess of what its streets can reasonably support, to get in and out of and move around within it. As generations of both students and locals have discovered, riding a bike is the ideal way to actually get anywhere.

Cyclists are the dominant road users here, with good reason, and as such not only are we not going to disappear any time soon, but we're not going to apologise for our presence, silently accept every piece of nonsense written about us, meekly back down in a confrontation, or refuse to proclaim our inherent superiority in any debate about transport that actually works for Cambridge.

This city would have ground to a halt without us decades ago. Cycling allows tens of thousands of students to get to and from their lectures, sports matches, shopping trips, parties... You want every student to drive here? Half? Ten percent? No? Surely not even the most fanatical petrol-head would think that's a good idea. Cycling also allows locals to move around, get to work, shop, go to the pub, cinema, station etc, without city centre roads resembling a car park choked with stationary vehicles and toxic fumes - well, more so than it is already.

Everyone knows the health benefits of cycling, and that it's less harmful to the environment, and far, far cheaper than driving. In short, it's by far the most sensible way to travel here; and this city should be designed predominantly for cyclists.  Anything else is just madness. Yes, I'm aware we need trucks and vans to deliver goods, and taxis, and we have to provide support for people who can't physically ride a bike (the elderly, disabled, infirm) - of course, but let's focus on the majority road users, cyclists, and give them every help and encouragement to continue cycling.

And if we do sometimes ride in the middle of the road, it's usually with good reason - most commonly because the cycle-path is obstructed or dangerous or there are parked cars blocking us or junctions with drivers who don't look before turning - but mostly to deter you from attempting to impatiently overtake with not enough clearance and unnecessarily risk our lives for the sake of a few seconds. If we accidentally bump into you or your child, sorry. It's not deliberate. But just thank God it wasn't a car. Look up the stats involving pedestrians in accidents with bikes and with cars. Then thank us for being on a bike so we didn't kill you.  Yeah, we're not perfect, but generally we have more patience and awareness of what's going on around us than someone cocooned in a small steel box with four wheels.  If we do jump a red light, get the fuck over it. We're not saints. But give me an asshole on a bike rather than one behind the wheel. Every. Single. Time.

So don't come to Cambridge and whine about how many cyclists there are everywhere, or one of them doing something you don't approve of.  If you don't like it, stay away. Go somewhere where there aren't any bikes and drive around there to your heart's content. Move somewhere where no-one has the temerity to ride a kind of vehicle you don't like. You don't get to dictate who lives here and how they get around. This is cycle country and it's not going to change. Tweet, whine, post, write all you like about how that offends you; vent as much as you like about some fantasy scheme where everyone on a bike has a licence plate and rides at 5mph on the few cycle lanes you'll tolerate, meekly deferring to your presence on the road to get out of your way. But it's not going to happen. We're not getting out of your way. We're growing in numbers. The city (if it has any sense) is going to be more and more designed for our convenience, and less and less for yours.

My advice is, put down that green pen, leave the car in the drive, get your coat on, walk down to the nearest cycle shop (there are hundreds) and join us.  You'll live longer, you'll be less irate most of the time, and you'll get that lovely feeling of flying past your former self sat, stationary, behind the wheel, fulminating at the horror and unfairness of it all.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why Leave voters still want to leave (at any cost)

As a hand-wringing liberal in an affluent city in the South-East, I have in turn been shocked, angry, saddened and bemused by the outcome of the EU Referendum and the ongoing news of its ever more damaging consequences.  Like most of my friends and colleagues, I've been through several emotional phases of the grief cycle, but to be honest I'm not sure any of us will reach 'acceptance' any time soon.

How could so many people believe so much disinformation about the EU? How could they swallow the notion it was responsible for most of what was wrong with their own situation – social deprivation, limited job prospects, and years of under-investment in public services? Or how could they confidently vote to leave knowing (being told) so little about its structure, its working, the practical operation of its institutions and the enormously complex and expensive process of extricating ourselves from it after 40 years of membership.    

Why were they so blasé about walking away from millions in regeneration grants to areas such as rural Wales and Cornwall, jeopardising legal protections for workers or food safety laws, abandoning co-operation on scientific research and environmental policy?  Didn't they care about the threat to the integrity of the UK they professed to love so much, the border between NI and the Republic, the increased likelihood of a second Independence Referendum in a pro-EU Scotland?  

How could so many respond to dog whistle xenophobia blaming all their woes on 'out of control' levels of immigration? And above all, how could they possibly believe that arch neocon Tories like Liam Fox, David Davies et al really had their interests at heart? What was it in their political track record that convinced Leave voters these campaigners really cared about the plight of the ordinary working man 'left behind by globalisation'?   

I found it all as mystifying as it was disturbing. This was a nation half of whose population I didn't recognise or understand. But of course I was – and still am - hopelessly disconnected from the sort of Brexit voter I occasionally saw in vox pops on the news or read about it in the newspapers. Even the language was becoming alien to me - "will of the people", "metropolitan elite" - sinister, loaded phrases lifted straight from the pages of 1984 into common circulation. Toxic clouds circling in the wind. 

But then, as the news of a harder and harder Brexit kept on coming, with May stubbornly doubling down on her cynical, expedient Leave-at-all-costs policy, something struck me.  I had an epiphany. 

Leave voters* don't care about the consequences of Brexit. They're not scared or even concerned about serious risks to our future prosperity.  

It's not that they don't believe the direst forecasts of political isolation and economic catastrophe; those that don't just dismiss these predictions out of hand welcome them. Every piece of bad news vindicates their decision. They court the unfolding chaos. 

When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. So when you're offered the opportunity to lob a grenade into a system that has spectacularly failed you, you seize it with both hands and pull the pin with barely a thought. The more damage the better.  You don't want to see a small puff of smoke and then watch everything return to normal as the dust settles. You crave as large an explosion as possible, with wreckage all around. 

Because who will suffer most from the economic decline of the UK? The people who are already bumping along the bottom, who have given up on mainstream politics and are increasingly seduced by fascist movements whose only message is anger, hatred and division?  No, it's the people they resent, in steady work, in liberal, multicultural urban areas, those they perceive to be an out-of-touch 'elite', who may ultimately be dragged down to experience the pain they've been suffering, ignored, all this time.  The more debate, the more controversy, the more fear, uncertainty and doubt, the better. 

They cheer on Theresa May as she pushes for a harder, cleaner, potentially more devastating exit. They sneer at experts who warn of the consequences. It's not that they believed the ridiculous rhetoric about 'sunlit uplands' or promises of lucrative trade deals around the globe, or hold any real hope their circumstances will be improved; they just don't care if disaster is unleashed across the nation. Because why the fuck not. You can't seriously expect people who have moved beyond despair into apathy to feel a collective responsibility towards the future of a country that has done nothing for them for decades.  

Their message is different: bring it on. Whatever "it" is.  

*not all. Some leave voters genuinely believe it's a good idea. They're just fucking deluded. 

Just a few comments about this piece

I have no evidence for it.  I haven't interviewed any Leave voters, commissioned any polling, or read anything anywhere that suggests it's demonstrably true. 

It's based only on my own contemplation of what might be motivating an apparently large number of people to disregard the mounting evidence that Brexit is going to be a calamitous shitshow. 

It's obviously a massive generalisation.  17 million people can't possibly want to bring down rack and ruin upon the entire population. Can they? 

My characterisation of Leave voters is a stereotype, and not representative of everyone who voted Leave. Are they all from run-down post-industrial Northern towns, resentful of liberal London elites, and angry at the immigrants they were encouraged to blame for stealing their livelihoods and overwhelming their schools and hospitals? Quite clearly not.  This is a lazy narrative, which divides the nation into two homogeneous tribes, divided by geography, income and education. Of course it's not that straightforward. 

I know a few intelligent, comfortably off Leave voters*, who presumably voted to leave the EU because they were genuinely critical of it as an institution and believed we will prosper outside it. Maybe they also bought into the argument about reclaiming our lost sovereignty and 'taking back control'. Maybe they were swayed by Boris Johnson's reverie painting the lyrical possibilities of a UK unshackled from the suffocating strictures of the EU. Maybe they thought the persuasive charms of Liam Fox will deliver a dizzying raft of successful trade deals to revive our economic prospects.  Maybe they are ideologically opposed to big government or supranational structures and believe a bonfire of regulation is exactly what's needed to revive our businesses, like a controlled fire in the Outback renews the soil. Maybe a future as a tax haven appeals to them. 

Maybe they seriously believe that this bright future includes additional job opportunities, higher spending on public services, and will bring hope to the more benighted regions of the UK.  

Whatever good things they think will happen, I think they're wrong. But at this point, we're both peering into the gloom of an uncertain future, trying to discern shapes in the distance.  Perhaps the reality will be somewhere in the middle – neither as disastrous as I believe, nor as beneficial as they claim.  History will reveal all, when we're all older and greyer and wiser and hoarser from shouting abuse at each other.

So perhaps it's unfair to cast all Leave voters as alienated, disaffected anarchists, whose primary motivation is to inflict a misery familiar to them on the majority.  Those who paid any attention to the referendum campaign will have been able to cherry-pick at least a handful of bogus arguments as to why a Leave vote would be "a good thing".   

How many Leave voters still want to leave because it’s easier than admitting they were duped into making a terrible mistake?  Can millions of people be so easily hoodwinked, misled, sold a fantasy? The history of politics tells us categorically that the answer to this is yes, repeatedly, unquestionably yes. But it's hard to concede being wrong when the chorus of voices saying "I told you so" and calling you a fucking idiot is so loud and shrill. You just shout back, dig your heels in that bit harder, and retreat to the safety of your tribe, "the majority", the people whose will must be obeyed.  After all,  you got numbers on your side. 

*this is a lie. I know just one (excluding my Dad, who probably voted Leave but hasn't ever admitted it to me or my sister) 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them: A Review

It's not really about any of the things you think it's about

It has always been true that the best fantasy worlds hold a mirror to our own. By presenting us with a distorted but still recognisable reflection of reality, they're most memorable when exploring social or philosophical issues in the guise of harmless escapism.

From the acerbic political satire of Gulliver's encounters in Lilliput and Brobdingnag to the suspiciously human issues challenging Kirk on the alien planets of Star Trek, we respond best to fictional versions of our own world that tell us something troubling or profound about it.

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is a superficial kids' film whose main pleasure derives from the impressive conjuring to life on screen of a menagerie of magical creatures within a universe of wands, wizards, spells and elves reassuringly familiar to millions of Harry Potter fans worldwide, despite its relocation to a different country and era. Its plot is straightforward enough, its characters likeable but hardly complex and it wears its most obvious themes clearly on its wizard's sleeve: the tensions between muggle and magic, the toxic ideology of racial superiority embodied in the film's somewhat predictable villain, a love of wildlife and the need to understand and protect it, even some slightly darker stuff about the psychological damage caused by parental abuse and religious indoctrination. Oh and standard Hollywood tropes of falling in love with inner decency rather than looks, following your true passion (baking), and the inexorable journey from hapless shmuck to fearless hero – surprisingly watchable thanks to the beguiling very unHollywood charms of Dan Fogler.

But for me, it's a film about ironing.

Bear with me here. While the issues the film raises above are all handled deftly enough, none of them is especially interesting or thought-provoking. My initial reaction to Fantastic Beasts was that it's proficient by-the-book fantasy which delivers on its key ambition to offer fresh material to an ageing and more mature Potter fanbase without retreading too much ground or relying on too many legacy storylines. I was pleasantly surprised by how few links with the original franchise there were, just one or two mentions in passing of a couple of familiar names. It's 'dark' in the same post-Twilight mode of the later films, acknowledging its audience's demographics to introduce an element of menace as counterpoint to the zoological cuteness of its core. And the 1920s New York setting and adult cast affords a welcome change of aesthetic and tone1. We're definitely not in Hogwarts any more.

But I initially wasn't wowed. I thought it had a few narrative issues too, with an unnecessarily slow and disjointed exposition that demands too much of the viewer in the first hour for too little reward.

It's also a film about paperwork. And tin cans. The soul-crushing tedium of a Fordist economy based on labour-intensive production lines.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the most interesting themes are subjects Fantastic Beasts touches on only tangentially, perhaps even accidentally. They're ideas that are for the most part unrelated to the main story, and explored in brief vignettes or trivial dialogue.

Let's start with a simple question. Why is there so much bureaucracy in the wizarding world? Why is a fantastical world of magical possibility so often depicted as prosaic and routine? One thing that Fantastic Beasts shares with the later Potter films is an obsession with administration – both worlds are governed by large ministries of politicians, clerks and apparatchiks. These buildings are cavernous, stultifying places, the realm of dogma and process and officialdom, the antithesis of "magic". The point is driven home by the existence of a "Wand Permit Office", a clever juxtaposition of the mystical and mundane.

No doubt this is intended as an amusing, ironic parallel with the muggle world. Even wizards can't escape the onerous demands of organising their society and managing their affairs. I also wonder if J K Rowling has a particular dislike of faceless bureaucracy, perhaps from her time as a single parent forced to interact with an uncaring civil service to survive. She does seem to take unwarranted pleasure in (sometimes literally) grotesque caricatures of any kind of administrative functionary.

And yet. In one scene, we see a basement office at MACUSA. (Every time I heard this it brought to mind the Yakuza crime syndicate, which may or may not have been deliberate). In this basement, there are dozens of desks but almost no wizards present. They're not needed. All the paperwork is magic. Forms are self-filling. Paper pushes itself.

I didn't think too much about this until a later scene in Tina and Queenie's apartment. Jacob is struck by the application of magic to various household chores – cleaning, ironing, cooking and so on. Why would Queenie and Tina bother with these tiresome tasks when they can just use their wizarding powers. This is magic at its most banal, yet in its direct, beneficial impact on the lives of its practitioners, its most powerful. Imagine laundry that irons itself. Imagine never having to cook because ingredients chop and assemble and heat themselves in mid-air before landing on a table that sets itself. This is heaven.

Fantastic Beasts is set in an era years before the widespread availability of common household labour-saving devices, the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, electric cooker and so on which revolutionised the lives of many women in the US from the 1950s onward. But thanks to their magical gifts, Tina and Queenie are like time travellers to a future world of emancipated women free to follow their careers, liberated from the drudgery of housework.

Is the humdrum, quotidian nature of magic a key motif of the film? Maybe not. But I couldn't help notice how many times we saw magical irons, self-drying washing and the like. Of course, this is a film set in 1929, before the ubiquity of electricity, afforded by the development of a national grid, and all the modern devices we take for granted; in this respect, the utility of magic in a domestic context is even more of a godsend for those fortunate enough to be wizard-kind. The gulf between them and the "no-mag"es has never been wider in a Harry Potter film.

And speaking of ordinary people, consider Jacob. Jacob Kowalski is a man condemned to a life on the production line in a canning factory, his dreams of owning a bakery crushed by a bank unswayed by his passion, utterly uninterested in his craft. In the muggle world, cans don't fill themselves. Humans like Jacob have to devote their lives to these kinds of repetitive jobs in order to survive, regardless of their talents or desires. When Jacob sees the wizardry in Tina's apartment, it's a tantalising glimpse of what his life could have been, were his world only infused with the same abilities.

For Jacob, the real magic is not powerful spells of disappearance, teleportation or battle. It's not even the extraordinary creatures he encounters in Newt's briefcase sanctuary. It's about liberation from a mind-numbing job to allow him to pursue his ambition to be a baker, an artisan, making pastries and confections from recipes handed down from his grandmother. (Note that Jacob brings this artistry back from Europe- a subtle dig at the relative values of the two continents perhaps?)

And this brings us to the one really interesting theme of Fantastic Beasts. In our modern world, men like Jacob are no longer employed in a canning factory. These site have been automated; robotic production lines have made the likes of Jacob literally redundant. The jobs have gone. The scene towards the end of the film where dozens of men pour out of the factory gates after clocking off is as alien to us now as any of the strange creatures or sorcery elsewhere in the film. In the present day, two or three supervisors would be leaving the factory, after a day monitoring the computerised machinery - the magic of the 21st century.

Jacob's plans to make doughnuts for a living are pooh-poohed by the bank manager, who chides him with the fact that the latest machines can churn out thousands of doughnuts an hour. What use is Jacob? At the time, this felt like merely a plot mechanism, to explain why Jacob is rejected for his loan, despite his undoubted skill. But as a comment on the relationship between man and machine, with magic as a metaphor for automation, it's a resonant line that brings into sharp focus one of the most interesting ideas in the film.

I watched footage the other day of Elon Musk's self-driving Tesla car. This still feels genuinely magical to me, even though most experts predict they will be commonplace in 20 to 30 years. The automation of factories is now unremarkable to us. But the development of more sophisticated AIs and improved robotics means this kind of 'magic' is about to transform our lives. We too, like Jacob, will be freed from even more drudgery - and also from our jobs (white collar professions too). Like the absent clerks in the Magical Ministry, and the workers in the canning plant, we will be 'liberated' from work because of automation. Magic isn't even really a metaphor for this; they're basically synonymous.

But we can't all be bakers. The scene I found the most disturbing in Fantastic Beasts was when Queenie uses magic to conjure a beautiful strudel from thin air. This is Jacob's only special talent, his one true gift, his his ticket out of the canning factory, a craft he's spent years honing with love and dedication. And yet, it is reproduced with a spell, like the ironing, washing, form-filling and so on - with no human intervention. Jacob would be utterly superfluous in the wizarding world.

Jacob tastes the strudel and declares it delicious. The irony in that moment was the darkest thing in the entire film.

Because this is what's coming for all of us. From the Luddites and Saboteurs in the 19th century to the striking miners and "left-behind" rust belt of the US in 2016, the challenge of adapting to a society with less and less need for human employment has been the story of the modern age. 

So in this respect, Fantastic Beasts, despite its cutesy animals and superficial narrative has plenty to tell us about the world we live in, and it's unsettling. Like Newt's DemiGuise, it just takes some effort to see it.

Magic strudel

1 One thing however did occur to me about this: Fantastic Beasts is set in New York, the world's financial capital, in 1926. I can't have been the only viewer expecting that one of the side-effects of a wizard unleashing all manner of mayhem on New York was to instigate a pattern of events that would inadvertently lead to the Wall Street Crash a mere three years later. The opening scenes are  even set in a bank. But nope, nothing. Not even a hint of a connection. In fact, by the end of the film, all damage to the city's infrastructure is magically repaired (no need for builders, brickies, plumbers etc either in this world - sorry, blue collar workers) and the memories of all its citizens wiped. I found this puzzling. Of course it's not necessary to integrate all fantasy stories set in the past into real history (although many films have successfully managed it) but it seems to me like a missed opportunity. 

In fact, the film shuns anything overtly political. While the uneasy coexistence of muggle and wizard would be an obvious analogy for racial tensions in American society, particularly during a period when discrimination against all minorities was widespread, any reference to actual racism is scrupulously avoided. The wizarding world is clearly colour-blind, evidenced by its black president - eight decades before Obama - and the mistrust of the muggle world is mostly built on a desire to get along with minimal interference rather than anything more sinister. With one notable exception, obviously, and he ends up defeated and carted off as a criminal (sorry for the spoiler).  

Monday, April 20, 2015

10 Things to Do in Las Vegas

Hawaii is a long way, so stopped en route for a few days in Vegas. Here are a few things I got up to while I was there.

1. Helicopter flight to the Grand Canyon 

Apart from the fact that our pilot clearly seemed incredibly bored by the whole thing (I suppose even if your day job is flying a helicopter into the Grand Canyon, it becomes a mindless chore you grow to hate) this was pretty cool. Champagne lunch turned out to be cheap sparkling wine and some muffins, but still, what a view. We also flew over the Hoover Dam.

2. Top of the fake Eiffel Tower in fake Paris

Eiffel should sue.
Much nicer than the real Paris.

3. Gondola ride along the fake Grand Canal in fake Venice

At the Venetian hotel. Our gondolier sang a couple of songs I didn't recognise (he didn't do requests), but he sounded utterly bored too. 
Much nicer than the real Venice. That sky is fake.

4. Rollercoaster at New York, New York

Much nicer than the real New York. And more blurry.

5. Rides on the top of the Stratosphere

6. Buffet at Caesar's Palace

aka "Fight off rivals in the queue while grabbing as many crab legs as you can for $50 ." But Holy Fuck. The desserts!
That's not a cube of spam by the way.

7. Aquarium at Mandalay Bay

Not the best aquarium I've ever been to.

8. Fountains at the Bellagio

Luckily you can't hear "My Heart Will Go On" which was the tune for this particular display.

9. Cocktails at the Wynn

What kind of monstrous egoist asshole writes his name across the top of his hotels? Oh yes, Donald Trump. (And Steve Wynn)

10. Zumanity Cirque du Soleil show

This is the "funny" burlesque cirque du soleil show - with tits. It was excruciatingly awful.  Spent the entire time squirming in my seat hoping not to make eye contact with any of the performers so they wouldn't drag me on stage and pretend to perform some kind of sex act on me while stripping me to my boxers.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Top 10 Things To Do In Hawaii

I had a marvellous time in Hawaii. It's a wonderful place. You should all go. NOW. Here's my list of the top 10 experiences of my holiday.

All pics taken by me with my Panasonic Lumix.

1. Watching the sun set at the summit of Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea is a 14,000 feet volcano forming the middle of Hawai'i ("the big island"). It's also, when measured from the floor of the Pacific Ocean, the highest mountain in the world. Home to 13 telescopes - including the Keck telescopes with better resolution than Hubble thanks to adaptive optics - and above the cloud line, it's one of the best places in the world to observe the stars. It was also absolutely bloody freezing at the top. And with a lack of oxygen I felt extremely light-headed. Don't try to drive yourself to the top btw. It's a long, very steep road, and your hire car will probably die; we went on a brilliant tour with Hawaii Forest and Trail, which culminated with about an hour of looking at the night sky through a pretty hefty telescope, while Nate our guide talked us through all the visible constellations using a laser pointer. Oh, and we had hot chocolate and muffins. The trip up Mauna Kea was spectacular and definitely the highlight of the holiday for me.

2. Snorkelling at Molikini crater

Molikini is a crescent-shaped, partially submerged volcanic crater off the coast of Maui. It's supposedly the best snorkelling in Hawaii, and it was pretty awesome, like floating in the world's largest and best-stocked tropical aquarium.  Amazing visibility and millions of colourful fish. We also snorkelled on the back wall of the crater, which is similar but more err vertical. 

The state fish of Hawaii is the humuhumunukunukuapua'a. I saw loads. 

3. Snorkelling with turtles at Turtle Town on Maui

Wow. Snorkelling with Hawaiian green turtles ("honu" in Hawaiian) is incredible. They're really very friendly and swim gently towards you, grinning - or what looks like a grin, anyway. We saw loads of sea turtles on several of the islands in Hawaii. You can't really miss them. (Oh, and there isn't really such a place as 'Turtle Town', even though it sounds like a cutesy Pixar spin-off from Finding Nemo - maybe John Goodman could be the grouchy turtle mayor with a big heart; err anyway, it refers to a few beaches where  you can see TOITLES.)

A TOITLE. Obviously, this one is just napping or squirting eggs or something, and not swimming,
But I didn't have a GoPro when snorkelling.

4. Whale watching 

On the way back from snorkelling Molokini and with the turtles, we encountered a group of five or six whales, who were breaching and spouting and doing whale stuff. First time I've seen whales in the wild. That was one hell of a good trip. (Didn't have my camera on this trip, cos the boat was a RIB and pretty wet. But you know what whales look like. Big, grey, underwater buses with tails.)

5. Diving 100ft to a shipwreck in a submarine

Yes, a real submarine. It's kind of expensive but fun. We saw a shark.

The Atlantis. It plays the Mission Impossible theme when diving. 

Mmmmm... murky. This was the Carthaginian, a replica of a 19th century supply vessel, sunk deliberately to create a reef.

6. Driving the road to Hāna

Crazy, crazy road. Approximately 620 bends and 46 one-lane-wide bridges over gorges along Route 360 from Kahului to Hāna on Maui, through lush, tropical rainforest and past dozens of waterfalls. Average speed is only about 15mph so takes a couple of hours to drive less than 50 miles. There's really nothing whatsoever in Hana. So we just turned around and drove back.

7. Seeing the Halemaʻumaʻu crater of Kīlauea volcano at night

Kīlauea is a currently "hyperactive" shield volcano on Big Island and the most active of Hawaii's five volcanoes. During the day it looks like a massive crater spewing a bit of smoke, but after dark it's pretty fiery and spectacular. We also walked through the Thurston lava tube and drove the Chain of Craters road down to a sea arch on the coast through a remarkable lava landscape. Counter-intuitively, the Volcano National Park is often quite wet - it's on the rainy interior part of the island. (The interior of most islands is rainy, the edges sunny.)

Halemaʻumaʻu crater by day - "smokin'"

Crater by night - You have angered Pele, the Hawaiian god of fire.

End of the road. Volcanic hazard. 

8. Pearl Harbor

Despite the ridiculous traffic getting there and back from Waikiki, Pearl Harbor is a fascinating and moving experience. You have to arrive early in the day for tickets for the USS Arizona memorial (a sunken ship) - which I didn't -  but there's tons of other stuff to do. I spent my time on the impressive USS Missouri battleship ("Big Mo") on whose desk the peace treaty was signed with the Japanese in Tokyo Bay which ended the war in the Pacific in 1945.

Nice guns. That's the USS Arizona memorial in the water.

9. Watching the night time manta ray snorkelling at the Sheraton, Kona

The Sheraton at Kona is a rather swanky resort (translation = much too sophisticated for me), and in the evening, from their excellent restaurant 'Rays on the Bay', you can watch people snorkel with giant mantas from dozens of boats. The boats have powerful lights which attract plankton, which in turn attracts plenty of mantas to feed. I didn't actually do the snorkelling, but my friend did and said it was incredible and the highlight of her holiday. But the bar does an excellent and really strong Mai Tai, so it was still a fabulous place to hang out... as far as I can remember.

Sunset at Kona. The boat in this picture was the actual boat the snorkellers went snorkelling from.

View from Rays on the Bay. 

10. Greenwells Farm coffee plantation on Big Island

There's coffee everywhere on Hawaii. Coffee and pineapples and macadamia nuts and beer. You can visit quite a few coffee plantations, but Greenwells was really enjoyable. A free tour round the farm, and loads of samples of their rather excellent coffee. We also visited the Dole plantation on Oahu, which grows pineapples, but that wasn't as much fun. 

A coffee bush yesterday. 

Some more pictures

Hawaii was beautiful. Here are some more pics from the trip, including a few places that didn't make the cut for the top 10.

Waikiki beach, Oahu. Waikiki was originally swampland. Supposedly the sand for the beach was shipped in from Australia.

Beach somewhere on Maui.

Waimea Canyon, Kauai. Didn't quite make my top 10 but was still pretty spectacular.

Beach on Big Island. Was at the end of a very dodgy lava dirt road. Thought I'd broke the hire car at one point.

Observatories on Mauna Kea. Another pic. Because it was so beautiful up there.

Akaka Falls, Big Island. Again, didn't make the top 10 but an aesthetically pleasing watefall nevertheless.

LaHaina, Maui.  An old whaling town. (I think they've stopped whaling now, though.)

Things I didn't do but will do next time

I'm definitely going back to Hawaii. It's fab and there's tons to do. Here's what we didn't get round to:

1. Surfing/bodyboarding.  So many amazing beaches all over each island, with superb  dangerously chunky waves.
2. Ziplining. There are loads of huge ziplines across all the islands. Looks fun.
3. Helicopter trip on Kauai to see the Nā Pali coast. The only way to get there. No roads. 
4. Boat trip to see lava meeting the ocean on Big Island. We didn't have time to get there from where we were in the Volcano National Park. Big Island is a err... big island.
5. Hiking. We did lots of driving, not much walking though. A lot of the cool places are only accessible on foot. Apparently.
6. Luau. Big feasts with music and hula dancing. Never went to one.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A supposedly fun thing I did once

Notes from a cruise ship

I’m still not entirely sure how I ended up on a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean. I’m writing this on deck 5 of the Carnival Dream, with my skin slowly turning the colour and texture of roast chicken1, surrounded on all sides by vaguely human-shaped mounds of bronzed blubber, gently rippling in the sea breeze.

OK, so that’s not strictly accurate. I know exactly how I got here. I drove to Port Canaveral, Florida, and boarded the ship alongside 4299 other people. However, this cruise is merely the latest in a long list of holiday proposals to which I have blithely said “yes” without really listening to any of the details other than the fact that I don’t have to do anything except pay up and show up. At the time, this always seems like a good idea, on the grounds that whatever that vacation plan was you just suggested to me, it’s infinitely preferable to a holiday I would have to arrange myself. However, in a cruel but not surprising turn of fate, I am always the victim of my own chronic idleness; and I have fallen into this trap too many times to bother feeling sorry for myself now… if self-pity were even possible laying here in 90 degree heat, bubbling in my own sweat with my brain long since melted to goo.

Perhaps the best example of the “what the hell am I doing here again?” holiday-to-which-I-must-have-assented-in-a-moment-of-madness was the week I spent in Scotland with my father on a Robert Burns themed trip. At his suggestion, we trawled round Dumfries, Ayr (in a gale so fierce I couldn't even open my eyes) and Alloway on a pilgrimage to the life and times of the Ploughman Poet. We saw his grave, the house he lived in, the customs house in which he was an exciseman, somewhere once mentioned in one of his many, many ballads….

“I never knew you were such a fan of Burns,” I said to my father on the last day.

“Oh, no, I’m not. To be honest, I don’t really like his stuff,” he replied.

True story. (How I wish it weren’t).

So, I think we’ve established that through a combination of indolence and not paying much attention to anything anyone ever says to me, I have ended up on a series of holidays that I personally would never have consciously chosen in a million years. And so, here I am on a cruise ship, the joint-ninth biggest cruise ship in the world in fact. I have no idea where we are. There’s just sea… everywhere.

In my defence, this cruise is not really the point of the holiday. The main theme of this trip was Harry Potter. My friend, whose idea it was to come to Florida, wanted to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Islands of Adventure, Orlando. The cruise is just something to do to pass the time. And because it was cheap. And something else about special discount with a Virgin credit card I vaguely recall.

I can heartily recommend Harry Potter’s Wizard World of Wizardry, by the way – especially if you’re a Harry Potter fan. High above a recreation of Hogsmeade village, they’ve built a half-scale Hogwarts on a big craggy rock (probably out of polystyrene or something), which contains a rather good state-of-the-art dark ride called The Forbidden Journey. After two hours of “themed queuing” inside fake-Hogwarts with lots of animated paintings and holographic projections of Daniel Radcliffe et al wittering on about ‘your quest’, you get to sit on a bench on top of a robot arm that swings you upside down and from side to side and round and round, while a giant animatronic dragon blows smoke in your face and a video makes it feel like you are actually flying around a Quidditch pitch. There is some kind of overarching narrative to the whole experience, but Christ knows what it was, as I wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention. And I went on it twice.

Even if you’re not a Harry Potter fan, in which tiny minority I place myself, it’s still an impressive and enjoyable place. Just be warned that it is horribly, horribly heaving with hordes of Harry Potter fans - dressed in gowns, waving wands, drinking butterbeer1.5 , buying stuffed owls -  and their teenaged children. Of course, complaining about Harry Potter fans in Harry Potter World is a bit like complaining about obese Americans on a cruise ship… but more of that later.

So. We’d been to Harry Potter Land. And to Universal Studios next door. We’d visited both of Orlando’s biggest shopping malls. We skipped the Holy Land Experience theme park for obvious reasons. And now it was time for our seven day Caribbean cruise.

Day 1: Getting there and embarkation
This is an anecdote about driving in America.

Some context. Even though I am now of a certain age (“getting on a bit” is, I believe, the technical term) and have been to America five times in the last two years alone, I have never driven a car there. I had reached a point in my life where, to be honest, I never expected to have to drive there. I was kind of hoping that I never would have to drive there. At my great age it all seemed a bit complicated, with a high risk of death in blazing-fireball / twisted-metal-wreckage scenario. I figured there would always be someone else around who would be happy to do it.

Like many of my assumptions that are actually just a combination of hope and laziness masquerading as logic, this one fell apart. The holiday we’d booked (I say “we” but obviously I had nothing to do with the booking) was a fly-drive-cruise deal, with a hire car thrown in for free.2 The hire car was essential to the holiday, as we were staying in Orlando and our ship was leaving from Port Canaveral, fifty miles away. Plus, all the places in Florida we’d planned to visit (I say “we” but… well, you get the idea now) required us to drive. The issue of who was going to do the driving hadn’t specifically come up before we left. Like any problem to which there is no immediate, simple solution, I was ignoring it in the hope that someone else would step in and make it disappear. However, unbeknown to me, my holiday companion had already made a decision. I was going to do the driving.

I found this out at the car hire desk. “Are you going to drive?” I asked, as we walked up to the Alamo counter.

“No, you are.”

So that was that sorted. As I’d been dreading this moment for weeks, now it was finally here as a fait accompli, I felt a strange mixture of relief and elation, the kind you get when walking to your execution.  Fine.

And it did turn out fine. Apart from somehow managing to turn into an employee-only car park instead of leaving the airport, and turning left into a left lane instead of the right, fortunately onto a quiet road with only a single startled motorist coming the opposite way, it had all gone remarkably smoothly. Four days into my career as a Yankee road hog and I was pretty confident. I was overtaking trucks, tut-tutting at other motorists, that kind of thing. 3

To get to Port Canaveral, we had to go along a toll road. The tolls aren’t very much, 75c to a dollar fifty, but there were two or three of them en route.

On the approach to the toll plaza, I was, inevitably, too focused on the road ahead to pay much attention to which of the booths were open and what kinds of payment they allowed. It was $1.25. My co-pilot gave me a dollar bill and a quarter to pay the fee. I spotted a sign saying “Exact coins only” so I moved over to that lane and pulled up next to the booth, which had no attendant, but one of those metal baskets for collecting coins. At this point, maybe you’ve already spotted my mistake. I had the right money, but a dollar bill is not a coin.

A dollar bill is most definitely not a coin. As I found out when I attempted to throw it into the coin basket and, because the car was too far away from the booth, it caught in the wind and blew onto the road behind me. (Had it landed in the basket, I doubt it would have registered anyway, because it is NOT A COIN, but that wasn’t my problem at this point.)

I did what anyone in this kind of stressful situation would do. I panicked. I sat there staring at the basket in disbelief. “Have you got any more change?” I asked the co-pilot. She hadn’t. Just the quarter. We started to flounder, looking for more coins, all over the car.

Meanwhile, as this was the express “exact coins” lane, a queue of cars had built up behind me. After what felt like a very long two minutes of failing to cobble together any more American shrapnel, I had a brainwave.

I got out of the car, and approached the vehicle behind me. You’ll be amazed to learn that it was a colossal SUV. The driver’s side tinted window wound down.

“I’m from England,” I blabbered, “and I thought this took dollar bills but it doesn’t and I only have a quarter left now and I parked too far away and I’m really sorry and…”

The very nice gentleman looked at me as if I was a simpleton and said very calmly and slowly:
“Pick up your dollar bill. There it is, still, on the ground next to your car. Bring it back to me, and I will give you the coins.”

 I just stared at him.

“Go. Get your dollar bill and bring it back to me.”

I did as instructed, and he handed me a small pile of quarters. I got back in the car, reached my arm out as far as I could, still a good two feet short of the booth, flung the coins in the basket, and drove away as fast as I’d ever driven… towards the ship.

Hey, I said it was an anecdote. I never promised an exciting story.

First impressions of the ship
Big. Very big. I was expecting it to be on the large side, but when we first pulled up at the dockside, I was still staggered by just how massive it looked. It towered above the surrounding flat Florida countryside like a 15 storey hotel, which is of course exactly what it is – a floating hotel. A huge floating hotel with ship bits at the front and back, and a big funnel on top.

Getting on the ship is remarkably quick and straightforward. On arrival at the dock, your luggage is immediately tagged and taken away by porters, to reappear outside your cabin later in the day.4  You then queue to enter a large two storey embarkation processing building, where you are issued with a credit card containing all your details (the “Sail and Sign” card, which also doubles as your cabin entry key, ID for leaving and re-joining the ship and payment system for everything on board). My first misgivings about the cruise stirred while waiting in this queue, as a demented old Jamaican Carnival employee attempted to ‘get us in the holiday mood’ by whooping and shouting at us that we were all “on vacations!” and about to have the most fun of our lives. Her attempts to flirt mischievously with all the male passengers made me feel slightly nauseous. Looking around the line, I noticed a higher than average number of old people, including a few who were so ancient and decrepit that they looked about to expire literally any moment.

Inside the embarkation facility, after collecting your card, you’re given a boarding number, sit in some plastic chairs till that number is called, have yet another ID photo taken, and then finally get to walk up the gangplank onto the ship.  Even though you’re on the second floor of a tallish building at this point, when you walk onto the ship, you enter on deck 3… out of 15.

You arrive into the main atrium of the ship, which is an impressive vertical lobby area that goes from the 3rd deck up to the 11th, with four glass elevators slowly changing colour as they ascend and descend. The style of the ship is best described as “glitzy”, “gaudy” or “brash”. It’s all a bit Vegas; everything twinkles and sparkles and there’s lot of chrome and neon. There’s also a whacking great casino. Restrained it ain’t.

Cabins are not available until later in the day, so once on board, there’s nothing to do other than explore, and of course have some lunch. We took the lifts up to deck 10, where there was a “Welcome on board” DJ set going on by the main pool area, and I grabbed the first item of food I found.

So here I was, eating a slice of cold pepperoni pizza in the middle of an outdoors disco surrounded by old people. Yes, that’s ticking all my boxes.

I quickly learned a number of things about the cruise:

  1. It's always either lunch time or dinner time. Or breakfast. And they all merge into each other. There is food available 24hrs a day. And people eat 24hrs a day.

  2. The cruise is primarily a constant sales pitch, an unceasing series of adverts for things to spend money on while on ship or shore: photos, excursions, even a “magical personalized DVD” of your time on board.5
And then we set sail, waving at people on the shore. I felt like a new prisoner on cell block H the first time the screws bang the doors shut. Everyone else was already drinking, dancing, sunbathing, whooping and having a blast. But they’ve all been here before.

At some point later in the day, we are all required to gather in our assigned muster station and given a safety briefing. The biggest risks to health on this ship are not, from what I can tell, drowning, but heart attack, stroke, skin cancer, liver disease, and depression. The captain, of course, is Italian. I chuckled out loud when I first heard his voice over the tannoy. Over the cruise, he only made three announcements. On all three occasions, the only information he gave us was how deep the ocean was at this point… 15,000 feet. Errr, thanks for that. Also, his name is Massimo Marino, which I like to think means “fat sailor” in Italian.

In the evening, after dinner, I wandered along to the “Welcome Aboard” show in the enormous theatre at the front of the ship. There were dancers. There was a big inflatable model of the ship at the back of the stage, with the middle section replaced by the letters “F”, “U” and “N”. There was hilarity when an 80 year old man and a 10 year old girl, plucked from the audience, were taught various dance moves including ‘washing the dog’, ‘mowing the lawn’ and ‘shaking the tush’ by cruise director Steve. There was a bit of stand-up. There was some ‘street dance’ courtesy of the Fun Force Five crew, a bunch of young break-dancers (who must cry themselves to sleep every night). There was singing. There was more dancing. It was Seaside Special 1974.

Day 2: Nassau
Woke up at 7.30 to the ship making grumbling, grinding noises and shaking like a washing machine on its final spin cycle. As we are on the lowest passenger deck, the “Riviera” deck, we are probably closest to the engines and so this sounds much worse than it actually is. At least there was nothing like the ripping or tearing of metal, or water gushing into the ship, which was a relief, given the nationality of the captain.

After a brief spot of breakfast on deck 10 (the “Lido” deck – all the decks have highly evocative, but non-descriptive names) we descended to deck 0 (which, strangely, is called “deck zero”) to join the queue for disembarkation. I say “queue” but the reality is it was more of a throng. After 20 minutes of milling around in the elevator lobby, the crowd had grown to such a size that it was reminiscent of those cheesy below-deck scenes in Titanic, albeit with the parts of the cheeky, loveable Oirish steerage passengers played by obese Americans.

Christ, the people on this ship are fat. Not just some of them and a little bit overweight, but most of them and very fat. Monstrous, waddling manatees of blubber lurching from one table of free food to the next, always clutching truly enormous cups of soda in their pudgy paws. Given the sheer volume of food available on this ship, it’s no great surprise that it attracts fatties. Cruising is like every chubby fucker’s wet dream. Seven days of as much food as you can shovel down your gullet. In fact, at the Welcome Aboard show last night, Steve the cruise director, joked about how much there is to eat.

“If it’s not nailed down, shove it in your mouth,” he said. As if the assembled porkers needed telling.

Eventually, the throng of impatient would-be disembarkers shuffled forward and we made our way off the ship, past the security gates, where our Sail and Sign card was scanned by a barcode reader and made a satisfyingly loud BEEP.

Nassau is not a very interesting place. You disembark into a large covered market full of stalls selling local handicrafts – shells, mostly, with “Nassau” painted onto them – and into a melee of local guys touting excursions and cab rides and probably cocaine. Eventually we escaped into the town itself.

It’s seen better days. It was a Sunday, so perhaps it was quiet because most things were closed, but that wouldn’t explain the boarded-up, run-down, semi-derelict buildings everywhere. We walked along a few streets to the Queen’s staircase (stone steps carved into a gorge, apparently by 600 slaves) past a water tower of the kind you can see on the A428 to Bedford, and up to Fort Fincastle, the only building of any historical interest, where we paid a dollar to enter.

There were only half a dozen other people in the fort - which was nothing more than a semi-circular wall surrounding three replica cannons - and two of those were guides, Bahamian men of about 70 with impenetrably thick accents who gave an entertaining account of the many sights visible from the fort, i.e. five cruise ships down at the dock. The cruise ships were the only interesting thing to see from the fort. Our ship, the Carnival Dream, was parked next to the Oasis of the Seas, the biggest cruise ship in the world. The Dream is colossal, but next to the Oasis, it looked merely average. The Oasis is almost twice as wide and about a third as tall. Apparently, it has a central park, New York-style, as its central atrium, overlooked by many of the interior cabins. It has a conservatory on its top deck, complete with enormous palms, and two climbing walls at the rear. Ship envy.6

We spent no more than ten minutes mooching around the fort. There were only two small dungeon-style rooms. In one was an unconvincing cardboard cut-out of a solider. I can’t remember what was in the other one. There was nothing left to do here, so we wandered down back towards the ship, then turned right along the harbour road towards “Paradise Island” bridge. Yes, Paradise Island. A patch of reclaimed swampland converted into the ‘paradise’ of…. a vast hotel and beach resort. Dominating this ex-swamp of hedonistic pursuits is the “Atlantis” resort, a huge pink hotel, looking like a very camp, tacky version of the Petronas Towers. Most of the buildings in Nassau are pink. The old town has the character of an old queen fallen on hard times, but Atlantis is perfectly targeted at the visiting hordes of American tourists: it’s big, brash, and vulgar.

We tramped for what seemed like hours in the hot sun along the dusty coast road towards the bridge, passed by a steady stream of minivan taxis, but not a single other pedestrian. Who walks to Paradise when you can get a cab?

Paradise Island was the antithesis of old Nassau – busy, modern, and very definitely open. We wandered along a sparkling new marina filled with swanky yachts, past some shops selling diamonds, into the cavernous air-conditioned casino, which was doing a roaring trade, and out the other side to the private lake and beach area, where our further progress was barred by a hotel official who informed us that this area was for ‘guests only’ but we could buy a day pass for only $39. Fuck that. Forty dollars to visit an artificial beach in the Bahamas? An area famous for its many, many beaches.

So, using our trusty guide book, we plotted a route to what was marked as a public beach. All along the route was the usual mob of local Bahamian male youths, who were offering us some sort of service, the exact nature of which I was never very clear on. The beach was crowded but rather pleasant, the kind of beach you simply don’t get in Britain: not a rock or pebble or strand of seaweed in sight, no washed-up oil drums, frozen infants shivering behind windbreaks or bickering families sulkily playing beachball in a strong wind. Just deep, soft sand, and a blue-green ocean with giant waves breaking over the heads of various bathers. You couldn’t really swim in it, as the surf was too strong, but you could jump up and down with the waves, or hire a jet-ski from any of the two dozen on offer guarded by dodgy looking youths. I did what any true Brit would. I took off my shoes and socks and paddled for a bit.

After strolling along the beach for an hour, and then spending an equal amount of time scraping sand from between my toes, we found a beachside bar in which to have lunch. The local speciality is battered conch (sea snail). Battering something does not make it any less slimy, it appears.  Luckily, this bar was showing the Carling Cup final, so I watched footballers run around in the rain in London while sunning my arms in the 90 degree heat with the sound of surf in my ears. Nice.

Nassau was, therefore, disappointing. Old Nassau was depressing, and new Nassau was tacky AND depressing. Like everything connected to the cruise, it was primarily an exercise in extracting dollars from the passenger. Paradise Island was built for this sole purpose and is very successful at it; hence it has sucked the life (and money) out of the old town. The majority of cruise passengers get straight onto a bus to take them to Paradise Island. The whole place seemed curiously soulless and divorced from a sense of history. But we were only there for four or five hours, and so what do I know? Maybe there were streets dripping with history to our right when we turned left...

Back on the ship, we headed up to the “Serenity” lounge, an adults-only section of the upper deck, to grab a sun lounger. Sadly, as we left Nassau, the sun disappeared behind a thick blanket of cloud, leaving us sitting in our swimwear in a strong wind, optimistically covered in sun cream.

A steady stream of fellow cruisers walked past on the hunt for a spare lounger, but at this time of day, straight after lunch (we were only in Nassau till 2pm), they were in very short supply. Sadly, no-one had pointed out to the rowdy group of 15 people who were in the ‘maximum-8-people’ whirlpool on Serenity deck whooping and yelping for hours, with their margaritas-of-the-day and cigars, the irony of their location. If only Alanis Morissette had been there... We admitted defeat and descended to deck five on a (futile) quest to find somewhere on the ship sheltered from the strong wind, but somehow still ended up within earshot of a raucous mob of stogie-chomping Americans jammed into a whirlpool.

Day 3
I’m beginning to dislike this cruise. The ship is undoubtedly impressive and dinner last night was surprisingly good, but Jesus, the people. I am so far from the target demographic I may as well be an extra-terrestrial. Everyone is on a mission to consume everything in their path while letting the world at large know how much FUN they are having.  The on-board casino is always insanely busy and reeks of cigarette smoke. I struggle with the idea of being on a ship in the middle of the Caribbean in beautiful sunshine and spending hours joylessly feeding coins to a video pokie machine, or in this case, swiping your Sail and Sign card over and over.  I’m pretty sure some people only ever get off the ship in order to go to a different, bigger casino. (See: Nassau).

Tonight was “cruise elegant” night. This means that everyone gets dressed up to the nines and parades around as if they were at a society wedding. On deck 3, the captain and his crew line up to shake hands with the passengers, just like the family at a bar-mitzvah, and there are the usual battalions of official photographers everywhere to capture the moment for posterity. The photographers have a truly impressive range of laughably cheesy backdrops (hey, we’re on the steps of a medieval castle! look, we’re in the middle of a bullfight! ooh, a magical forest is behind us) and I walked past one couple who were being arranged on a couch in what I can only describe as a semi-pornographic pose. Needless to say, my fellow passengers appeared to love everything about “cruise elegant” night. Sadly, as the rules stipulated no jeans, t-shirts, or baseball caps and that’s the only outfit I ever wear, I was forced to miss out on elegant dining and slunk away to the only other restaurant that was open to scruffy exiles – The Gathering, on deck 10. Why they decided to name a restaurant after a horror film I’ll never know, but it was delightfully quiet in there and there was, inevitably, a wide range of delicious food available including something called “Poached Cortina” which I think was fish, but made me think of Monty Python.

In this sanctuary for the non-elegant they call... The Gaaa.. therrrr… ing (see? it’s impossible to say it without doing a sinister voice) I scoffed some top nosh away from the throngs, and felt for the first time generally more positive about cruising. If I can just stay away from my fellow passengers I may be OK after all.

After dinner, we went for a stroll outside but the wind was blow-you-over-the-side strong on the upper decks, so we retreated down a couple of decks to sit in front of the giant outdoor video screen to watch the Oscars. The water in the swimming pool was sloshing around violently as the ship rolled and rocked in the strong wind, which I found pleasingly reminiscent of a level in Uncharted 3 where you board a deserted cruise ship run by terrorist pirates during a fierce storm. It then flips on its side, in scenes that are spookily reminiscent of news footage of the Costa Concordia. 

Day 4: St Thomas, US Virgin Islands
Here’s the deal with cruises. For your day in port, you book an excursion from a wide range of FUN activities organised by the cruise line, things like snorkelling, sightseeing by jeep, scuba diving, hiking, shopping… mainly shopping. Excursions are touted on a daily basis over the tannoy, and on Channels 4 and 16 of your in-cabin TV.

Not us. Just as we did in Nassau, we disembarked the ship and walked straight past all the various guides holding their placards. While the entire disgorged contents of the ship gravitated to their pre-booked tour, we ignored them all and headed along the seafront into town. We were passed every few seconds by a taxi or bus ferrying passengers to their chosen activity. I’m sure everyone else thought we were mad.

St Thomas is every bit as nice as Nassau wasn’t. Crystal clear blue-green water along a sweeping bay with steep hills all round, dotted with colourful houses and flowers. It reminded me of a smaller, less stabby Rio. We strode purposefully in the direction of Charlotte Amalie town centre (Charlotte Amalie is the capital of the USVI, and as far as I can tell the only city on the island, hence is synonymous with “St Thomas” itself) before taking shelter in a supermarket doorway for five minutes while a brutal rainstorm swept across us. Technically, we were still on US soil, so even the rain is random and angry.

Tropical rain is hard and fast but mercifully brief. Once you feel the first drops, you need to be within five seconds walk of shelter, or you are going to get very wet.

Halfway along the bay into town, we came across a pet supplies shop, that sold twee gifts for your dog or cat (no other animals catered for). Who buys their pet a present from holiday? Animals are like software developers - they don’t understand the concept of holidays. More to the point, who opens a shop selling moggy/pooch paraphernalia in the US Virgin Islands? That sounds like the craziest fucking idea of someone’s life, the kind of thing about which you have an epiphany while stuck in traffic somewhere snowy. After your husband has just walked out on you for his secretary.

Using a map we’d printed off the internet back in the UK, we followed a walking tour of Charlotte Amalie. There was nothing very exciting on this tour, certainly nothing to rival the Incredible Hulk rollercoaster at Islands of Adventure, for example, but it was a pleasant stroll. We saw the governor’s house, a large white colonial mansion up a steep hill with a very oddly-shaped sentry box outside, a church, a synagogue (the only one I’ve ever seen with its own gift shop), and the house in which Camille Pissarro was born, which is now an art gallery run by an old, eccentric American woman who seemed rather surprised to see any visitors at all, but nevertheless gave us an entertaining account of Pissarro’s early life. Pissarro’s house is sandwiched between jewellery stores, but gets almost no tourists. Oh, and we climbed up the famous 99 steps (actually 103 steps, go figure) to Blackbeard’s Castle, but didn’t go in because the Lonely Planet guide said it was basically a bag of shit and had no connection whatsoever with Blackbeard. I doubt even Ian McShane would bother visiting. (This comment only makes sense if you’ve seen the last Pirates of the Caribbean film). Then it rained again, so we had to run into… a jewellery shop.

The big thing on St Thomas is jewellery shops. The main street, called – imaginatively - Main Street, is full of them, one after the other, on both sides of the road, for a good half-mile; all of them touting for business and tempting you in off the street with offers of free earrings or a cheapo diamond. Whenever you disembark the ship, as you queue to go through the security gates on deck zero, you are given a handy guide to the place you are about to visit. This guide consists entirely of a map to where the best shops can be found. No sights to visit, no history of the island, just a map of shops. One of the TV channels in the cabin has something similar, a program that claims to be a “guide” to where you are going; it is just a series of infomercials for expensive jewellery shops, clearly paid for by the shop owners, to encourage passengers to pick their particular gem emporium above the hundreds and hundreds of others in which to spend your thousands of dollars.

Later that night, we got chatting at dinner to an elderly, retired couple from Florida (where else?) who were seated next to us, and all they’d done in St Thomas was pop off the ship for an hour to go to a jewellers to buy a watch. If you only went by information provided on the ship, you would assume that each island was nothing more than a giant shopping mall. Mostly, you’d be right.

After sightseeing, we stopped for lunch in Gladys’s, a cafe recommended by the guidebook, and bought some of the local recipe hot sauce. Next on our list of totally radical off-piste things to do in St Thomas (ie not shopping) was a trip to Water Island, advertised as a scarcely populated island with a beach and a ‘tranquil retreat’ far from the madding throng of gem purchasers. To get to Water Island, there was a ferry somewhere, but even though we valiantly trudged off in the midday sun in what we thought might be the right direction, we ended up on a busy main road with no discernible end in sight, getting nowhere. So, after dithering for a while, we decided to hop in a cab that claimed to be going where we wanted. It was only $4 each. Bargain. We found ourselves at the island’s other main cruise ship dock, and of course what should be there, but the Oasis of the Seas once more, looming over everything like the hulking great bastard it is. I guessed this wasn’t the vessel to take us to Water Island.

However, it was far from obvious where this mythical Water Island ferry departed from. When we left the taxi, we asked the driver and he said “right here!” enthusiastically waving his arm nowhere in particular. Other than the Oasis, there were no boats around except a fancy looking sailing ship with dozens of teenaged partygoers getting off it. Clearly that wasn’t the ferry either. Cue more bumbling and dithering.

Finally, we sussed out that we had to go through the marina over the road, opposite the dock, where, tied up amid dozens of very expensive gleaming white yachts, was a tiny red canvas-roofed barge that must have had a capacity of 12 people at a push. This ferry only runs a total of ten times a day, and we were early, so we just sat on the jetty and waited, watching the yachts bob up and down. Two very leggy sexy models appeared at one point, at which I perked up a little, but then a guy in a small boat chugged into the marina, and after a brief conversation they went off with him, even though it was clear from earwigging on their conversation they’d never met before. Hoes most likely.

Eventually a few people appeared, some carrying groceries, and a friendly guy turned up to take our money, and with minimal fuss we cast off. There were only six people aboard, and we chugged out of the marina, past the mammoth curved shining arse of the Oasis of the Seas, which towered above us, and onto Water Island, only ten minutes away.

Water Island was, as promised, delightfully peaceful. The few people on the ferry with us quickly disappeared on golf karts up the hill, or walked off into the distance, while the boat did a quick turnaround and carried 3 or 4 waiting passengers back to the “mainland” of St Thomas. From the ferry dock, a single tarmacked road led up a steep hill. On the left was a small wooden hut, painted blue, which functioned as a waiting room for the ferry and also, incongruously, as a library, with shelves on all four sides carrying a few hundred books. (On our return, this hut proved invaluable when we were caught in another sudden, violent rainstorm). Scattered around the jetty were some trolleys, presumably for carrying supplies purchased on St Thomas, and a golf kart. The only watercraft tied up there were a dozen or so small dinghies.

Immediately, Water Island felt like an idyllic retreat from the crowds of St Thomas. We headed off in the only direction available to us, straight up the hill, where we spied our destination below us to the right – a gorgeous-looking beach fringed by palm trees. We took the right fork in the road down towards the bay, and onto the beach, where we found shade from the hot sun on a bench beneath one of those cocktail stick-shaped palm canopy things. All around us, there was some kind of beach party going on, with  a barbecue and coolboxes full of beer, and lots of people swimming and drinking and sunbathing and shouting, and generally being annoying and wrecking the peacefulness of the beach. Goddamned people. They spoil everything. Eventually, the entire crowd packed up and headed off onto one of two sailing ships that were moored in the bay. Must have been a cruise ship excursion. Probably from the fucking Oasis.

Once the mob had gone, we got talking to one of the guys who was packing up some barbecue equipment on the beach. This guy lived all year round on Water Island, one of its handful of permanent residents, and after chatting with him for ten minutes about his life here, and what a pleasant place it was, he kindly offered to give us a lift back up the hill to the ferry, which we gratefully accepted.

He deposited us, alone, back at the blue hut, 45 minutes before the last ferry of the day was due, so we just pottered around taking a few photos. Then it absolutely twatted it down yet again, and we fled into the hut. By now there were three other people waiting for the boat – two kids who worked on the Oasis (he was a croupier and she worked on the shore excursions desk) and a crazy drunken guy with a small holdall, who was definitely about nine sheets to the wind. He looked like a tanned hobo on acid, very brown skin, pearly white teeth, a rascally glint in his eye and a hippyish Californian drawl. Over the course of the ferry ride back to St Thomas, and then in his car as he gave us a lift back to our ship, he told us his life story, precious little of which made any sense – something about art and making sculpture, and studying in Cambridge, and trips to Europe, and running a music club, and chasing women… and smuggling drugs into London by sailing a yacht packed with dope from the Caribbean to the West coast of Ireland. And some run-ins with the law that he ‘didn’t want to talk about’. Oh, and his wife had just thrown him out. And he had a daughter on the neighbouring island of St Croix and… it just went on and on, like a badly written novel.

Still, he gave us a lift in heavy rain and traffic all the way back to our cruise ship, in his clapped-out wreck of a Nissan which he “shared with some people” even though he reeked of rum and was probably ten times over the limit. It was an adventure, and also our second lift of the day. This is more like it, communing with the locals. It certainly isn’t one of the excursions offered by Carnival.

I only wished at dinner that night that I’d had the balls, when talking to the retired couple about their day in St Thomas, to tell them that we may not have bought a diamond watch, but we had befriended a crazy international drugs runner. If I ran a cruise line, hanging out with the hippy madman dude (whose name we never did find out) would be one of the excursions on offer. We could spice it up a bit by hiring some actors to play local cops to chase him all over the island. For $100 you could have the “Wanted! of St Thomas” experience, and find out what it’s like to be a fugitive from justice, high on rum and dope. Fuck it. I’d even throw in a cheap pair of earrings.

Day 5: Saint Martin
Saint Martin (or Sint Maarten if you’re on the Dutch side) is an island divided between France and the Netherlands, which must make it an American’s worst nightmare – the sexually liberated, drug-legalising Dutch and the perfidious French together on one tiny island. It’s a good job they don’t know about that secret nuclear plant the Iranians have built in the middle.

It’s a beautiful place, though, only ten miles from tip to tip in any direction, and even prettier than St Thomas.

Once again, we eschewed any of the Carnival-endorsed excursions, and made our own fun on the island. First stop was Maho beach, famous for… well, just do a Google image search and I think you’ll see why it’s famous.

Then we caught a cab to Grand Case, on the Northern, French half of the island, to go snorkelling. I’ve never been snorkelling before. I’m not really a strong swimmer, and that whole ‘breathing through a small pipe to look at fish’ thing just didn’t appeal. The guys who took us out on their tiny boat to go snorkelling were English, and very, very laid back. Their main customers were two scuba divers who were doing a PADI course in rescue and recovery, and the four of us who were snorkelling were just tagging along for the ride.

When we stopped, by a large rock about half a kilometre from the shore, I got given some flippers and a snorkel and gingerly climbed down the ladder at the back of the boat. This immediately felt wrong. I was stepping off into the middle of the sea, and I couldn’t touch the bottom, and unlike a swimming pool, there were no edges to climb onto. Hmm. Disconcerting. I spent some time treading water, then dipped my head in the water to actually do some snorkelling. Straight away, my brain flipped to panic mode and told my face to take in oxygen as quickly as possible in any way it could. I spluttered and coughed and gulped for a bit and then tried again. Same result. Basically, my approach to snorkelling was not noticeably different from sporadic drowning.

This happened three or four times. I was about to give up and head back to the boat, when I thought “hang on, it’s only snorkelling. You can’t fail at snorkelling. That’s ridiculous.” So, I calmed myself down and tried to breathe more normally, and this time consciously tried to take in air only through the pipe in my mouth which was actually designed for the purpose, and finally it clicked. It sounds ridiculous, but as a weak swimmer in the middle of deep water, it wasn’t obvious to me how to actually get started. But once I learned to only breathe through my mouth (which to me was not as simple as it sounds) I started to enjoy myself.

I now love snorkelling. I want to do it again. It’s quite calming floating about staring at shoals of fish and coral and stuff. I didn’t see anything very exciting, other than a large manta ray glide by beneath me. Of course, when we were all back on the boat, the other snorkelers were chatting about the octopus they all saw. 

Having dried off, we wandered along the main street in Grand Case, and found a bunch of restaurant shacks with barbecues going outside, right by the beach. Ribs and rice, $5. And a bottle of beer for $1 each. That’s about 60p. Yeah, I can see why people like the Caribbean. I’d go back to Saint Martin. It felt like a genuinely lovely place to spend a bit of time.

Yet another cab back to the Dream, which was moored next to the Oasis of the Seas again, of course. Much as I’d like to imagine their captain deliberately trying to piss off our captain by shadowing him everywhere, due to some longstanding grudge (an incident at captain training school, perhaps, involving a girl), there’s nothing sinister in them following us. The Eastern Caribbean cruise itinerary is tried and tested, and comprises the same set of ports in the same order.

Back on the ship, there were a few more things about the cruise I started to think about that have amused or intrigued me.

The “towel animal”. Every evening, when we are at dinner, our maid comes into our cabin – sorry, “state room” – to tidy up a bit and fashion an animal shape from a fresh towel, using small black paper disks for the eyes, which she leaves on our dressing table with some mints. Last night it was a dog. Tonight was apparently a platypus. A platypus??? Out of a towel? This must take the poor woman hours to construct. It’s elaborate towel origami of the highest order, with folds and twists and knots everywhere. I expressed my incredulity that the maid would waste her valuable time on this utterly pointless activity rather than do something useful like clean another cabin or take a well-earned break; but my room-mate told me “oh no, it’s a thing. The towel animal – all cruise lines do it. It’s famous. There’s a book you can buy to show you how to make them.” (Our maid is lovely, by the way. She’s South East Asian, and always greets me when I pass her in the corridor as “Mister Brian.”)

This, to me, sums up the nature of a cruise. Every night you return to your cabin from dining and there, waiting for you, is your towel animal…. all that hard work to produce something that may make you smile for all of five seconds before you untangle it and use it to wipe your arse crack.  Only on a cruise ship does this kind of gloriously futile endeavour make any sense. Just in case you’re not having the required amount of fun, even your towel has to join in the FUN.

Presumably, when we check in for dinner with our Sail and Sign card, the maid is alerted so she knows our cabin will be free for the next hour or so. I picture her in some small, dank crew room somewhere beneath a bank of red lights representing all the cabins for which she is responsible. A light goes on for our room number as the restaurant maître d’ swipes our card, and she immediately grabs a towel from her special supply and starts to fold, following instructions in her staff handbook. “A fuckin pratypuss? What the fuck?”

Every night, while eating in our designated dining room, the Crimson Restaurant, the same two waiters come round offering shots of an alcoholic beverage of unknown provenance. “Shots! Shots!” is their familiar cry as they circulate among the diners. I have never yet seen anyone take them up on their offer. I almost began to feel sorry for them, except they always seem so goddamned cheerful.

One evening, when we arrived at the Crimson Restaurant for dinner, all the waiting staff were in the middle of dancing to a cheesy pop song, performing their dance moves in synchronicity with forced grins upon their faces – like a flash mob gone horribly wrong. Like the towel animal, what a colossal waste of time. They’re waiters. Their job is to take orders and bring food. Anything that reduces their capacity to do that is by nature a BAD THING. Having them stop what they’re doing and perform a dance routine for five minutes is, therefore, one of the worst possible uses of their time. But wait, no. A small child at one of the 800 tables in the restaurant may chuckle for a second at their dick of a waiter, so that’s OK then. It all adds to the FUN.

There is generally an odd relationship between waiter and diner on a cruise ship. Every time I looked around, some waiter somewhere was engaged in hilarious banter with the people he was serving, or posing for his picture with their family group, or being slapped heartily on the back like a best friend. It’s clearly a thing, another cruise thing, like the towel animal. Your waiter is supposed to become your bezzie mate for the week. He loves your family, he knows all your kids by name, he flirts with your wife, he knows what food you do and don’t like. And in return, you call him by his first name, and take a picture to show your friends back home how well you got on with “oh, whatshisname, great guy, from Turkey or Croatia or Indonesia or somewhere.”

Interestingly, I haven’t spotted a single member of the 1400-strong crew who is American. Even the zany entertainment officers – Steve, Cory, Britney and the gang – are mostly Canadian. In some ways, the ship is a microcosm of the world economy: rich, fat Americans being serviced by the rest of the world.

Also, I am the only person on the ship who walks anywhere. Everyone else on the ship gets the lift, even to go up or down a single deck. The elevators claim to have a capacity of 18 people, but given the average weight of each passenger on this vessel, they struggle to hold even ten people. Being trapped in a lift with fellow passengers is like one of those nightmares where are you are slowly suffocated to death by giant balls that fill the room. And everyone is always eating something – pizza, popcorn, ice-cream (all of which are available 24 hours a day).

Day 6: Sea day
I’ve realised what being on this cruise ship reminds me of: the second half of Wall-E, where the enormously fat humans on the starship Axiom have become so huge and infantilised that they float around the ship all day long on hover-armchairs going from shop to shop and food source to food source, their every whim catered for.

At breakfast this morning, after getting bored of staring out of the window at the endless expanse of ocean (sea is nice but a bit samey), I amused myself by playing Morbidly Obese Passenger Top Trumps. The rules were simple. See if the next person walking past the table is fatter than the fattest person I've seen so far. There was always someone fatter than the fattest fatso to date. 

The other irritating thing about this cruise is Steve. Steve is the “cruise director” and his mission, the single driving purpose in his tiny Canadian brain is to ensure that everyone aboard must be having the most amount of FUN at all times. To further his twisted, evil campaign of mandatory FUN for all, he pops cheerily onto the tannoy at all hours of the day to preview the forthcoming FUN activities for the day. Most of these seem to be cash bingo.

There is no escape from this tannoy. There are speakers all over the ship and even inside our cabi…. sorry, ‘state room’.  Steve also has his own dedicated channel on the TV in our room, and hosts the morning show every day with his various chums who are, needless to say, every bit as relentlessly perky and annoying as he is. It’s a bit like local radio. They take calls and requests from passengers, and riff “humorously” on all sorts of shit.

The more I listen to Steve – and let’s face it, no-one on board can avoid him – the more I realise that his job is really that of glorified salesman, the kind you see on American TV ads for car showrooms shrieking dementedly about their “crazy, knock-down prices”. Steve can flog us anything: excursions, bingo cards, shit in the shops, the cocktail of the day (with free commemorative cup), photo portraits, entry into blackjack or poker tournaments, and even dinner at the steak restaurant (why anyone would pay extra for this one restaurant when all other food aboard is free baffles me, but there you go); and pretty much anything else on board the ship that costs money. He’s like one of those tele-evangelists you can see on bible channels. Crossed with Timmy Mallett.

So, today is a “sea day”. On a cruise ship, that might sound ridiculous, but it means we spend the entire day at sea, with no prospect of land, and therefore no hope of parole from Steve and the gang’s unending quest for FUN. Among today’s FUN highlights, all of which I avoided using the smart strategy of getting very sunburnt on deck instead, were: an ice carving competition, a hairy chest competition (WTF? Is this Butlins? Have we gone through a time-warp at sea, like in that movie The Final Countdown?) and some sort of diamond jewellery purchasing seminar in the theatre that my room-mate went to. The term ‘captive audience’ was invented for a cruise ship. There is literally no escape, short of flinging yourself over the side. Suddenly, all those stories of passengers mysteriously vanishing from cruise ships makes a lot more sense. Anything to escape the FUN.

Every day,  a newsletter arrives in our state room, chronicling the timetable of activities for the day. It is called FUN TIMES. Bingo appears as every third item. There is a lot of karaoke too. And one day, something called the Rubber Chicken Olympics by the swimming pool on the Lido deck (which, if you’ve been paying attention, will remember is deck 10). I didn’t attend, so I’m afraid I can’t enlighten you on the nature of this event.

There are thousands of staff, everywhere, all over the ship, and all of them are incredibly nice and polite and friendly. In every direction you look, you can always see at least six of them doing something useful – mopping, wiping, polishing, dusting, clearing plates, rearranging loungers, carrying drinks – and if they catch your eye they smile broadly and express their fervent wish that you have a genuinely enjoyable day. Where possible, for example if you have to hand them your Sail and Sign card to buy something, they call you by name too. It feels at times like being a colonial ranch owner in the days of the Raj. “Have a good day now, Mister Brian.” The majority of staff seem to be Indonesian or from South East Asia. But there are also Eastern Europeans, Indians and Turks, and most nationalities other than American.

Among the guests, though, I’ve heard virtually no other Brits. I reckon at least 95% of the passengers are American, and about 50% of those from Florida. This is statistical extrapolation from observation, so there is a margin of error of plus or minus a lot. I once heard some French people at breakfast, which shocked me a little.

The food is unquestionably good. For lunch today (and this choice is listed every day in FUN TIMES) I could choose between Mongolian wok, barbecue, pasta bar, Indian tandoor, a sandwich deli, salad bar, Caribbean style, pizzas, burgers; and if I wanted, I could go between them all as many times as I like for seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths…. Pretty much any type of food you could possibly want is available. In the evenings, there is a sushi bar where you can just show up and the Japanese guy behind the counter presents you with a plate containing an assortment of really excellent sushi. It’s like a food sex dream. Great desserts, too.

Bingo, gambling, shopping and hairy chest tournaments aside, this cruise is essentially a glorified floating “all you can eat” contest. Man vs Food on the ocean waves. And man is very definitely winning.

Day 7: Sea Day
Final day of the cruise today. My overriding feeling is one of relief. I think I’m in a minority on this, as I learned today that 2500 of the passengers on board are repeat customers. For some it is their 16th cruise.

The longer the cruise went on, the more painfully obvious it became that I am the almost perfect anti-cruise passenger, the antithesis of their target customer. Of the two couples we got chatting to at dinner, both were wealthy, retired, regular cruisers from Florida. “Have you tried your luck in the casino yet?” one of them asked me, when I disappointed him in admitting I’d failed to purchase any jewellery in St Thomas to show off. 

The casino was just one of many ‘attractions’ on board of which I made no use and activities in which I did not participate. The others:

·posing for photos
This seems to be the central activity of the whole cruise. One entire deck of the atrium area is given over to dozens and dozens of galleries of photographs of people on board. I spent many a happy half hour chuckling at them.

The on-board mall on the Carnival Dream is called, with no trace of irony, “The Fun Shops of Carnival”.  What else? Someone might need to explain to me what made them ‘fun’ because as far as I could tell they were the same shops selling the same old shit you get everywhere in Florida, the Caribbean, and the rest of the world. I didn’t go in one, so maybe I’m missing something.

·the whirlpools
I sat in one whirlpool for ten minutes but the water was uncomfortably hot. Also, of the ten on the ship, nine of them were always filled with large groups of friends swigging cocktails. I think a lot of these people had met on previous cruises. Sigh.

· the crazy golf on deck 11
Just couldn’t be arsed

·the ping pong table

· the basketball court
It’s basketball. Durr.

·the jogging track
I’m on holiday. Jogging is very much not on the agenda. Plus, it was forever clogged with slow, waddling passengers who didn’t seem to notice the large red track on the floor.

·the art gallery
WTF? An art gallery? Do they have any famous paintings, by artists I might know or like? Do they fuck. The sole function of the art gallery appeared to be to persuade passengers to try their hand investing in art. So even that was a cross between a glorified game of bingo and a gift shop. Auctions at the art gallery featured prominently on Steve’s tannoy messages.

There was a lot of karaoke on the ship, most of which turned out to be preliminary heats for a single “Stars in their eyes” competition, culminating in a grand finale on the last night at sea. Yes, the big entertainment on offer in the huge theatre on the final night was to watch various passengers pretend to be Sheryl Crow and Michael Jackson and a bunch of country singers I’ve probably never even heard of. I did not go.

·the “deck party”: various fun interactive activities by the pool on Lido deck
There was line dancing. There was a dance where Steve wiggled his arse and everyone then copied him. There was a conga line. Steve did this convincing spiel about how he’d had a bet with his mate the cruise director of the Oasis of the Seas that even though our ship was half their size, we could get more people in our conga line than they’d managed two nights ago at their “deck party”. Some arbitrary target was mentioned. Cory, his able assistant, did the counting. Another random, higher figure was claimed as our result. Everyone cheered. Take that, Oasis of the Seas party pooper fucks! Following the record-breaking conga line was…

·the rock ‘n’ roll laser show craptacular
OK, I’ll admit, I did stay to watch this. Who wouldn’t?  It sounded intriguing. A group of dancers wearing black trench coats and long peroxide wigs appeared by the side of the giant screen, carrying some sort of medieval torch, and marched up and down to a Queen medley, while four laser boxes projected swirly shapes onto the deck. I’d like to say it was utterly shite, but it was amazing. One of those things you have to see to believe. When it finished, Steve said “That’s what half a million dollars’ worth of lasers gets you, people!” There’s probably a YouTube of it somewhere if you’re interested.

Obviously, I didn’t “do” bingo. It’s bingo, the world’s dumbest, most boring game of pure luck. It was very popular.

pools were too small and full of kids

·the spa treatment centre on deck 12 (the “Spa” deck)
Obviously. I am a man.

·the gym
See comments for “running track”.  This is a holiday.

·most of the live shows
I saw a couple, and that was enough. The “Mr and Mrs” style game show was a particular highlight. Smutty innuendo with three married couples, the 'newly weds' , the 'middley-weds' and the 'oldie weds' for an hour. Followed by bingo.

·stand-up comedy
Even though there were comedians on every night in the Burgundy Lounge, I just could never summon up the enthusiasm to queue up to watch them.

·the very expensive speciality steak house
See comments elsewhere. You really, really have to be looking for something to spend money on to buy food on this ship.

·the night club
Obviously I did not go here.

·the water slides
Always busy with kids, and didn’t want to give off any paedo vibes

·the library
Yes, there was a “library” on the ship, a small, always empty room at the side of the Crimson Restaurant. I peeked in, but most of the shelves didn't have any books on them; there were more books in the hut on Water Island. I did notice that there were a number of board games and jigsaws available; and I was sorely tempted to go in, lock the door and spend the entire remainder of the cruise in there finishing a 1000 piece jigsaw. Maybe next time.

So, what did you do, I hear you ask.
  1.       Eat
  2.       Sleep
  3.       Read
  4.       Get sunburned

On the final day, there was a Q&A session with Steve and Cory, where you could ask them anything about the operations of the ship and they would do their best to answer. In all honesty, I expected this to be an anodyne affair with questions about types of pancake syrup and how to become a dancer in their highly trained troupe, but some of the questions surprised me. For example, there were lots of questions about the conditions of the workforce.

“Do the crew get minimum wage?” asked one guy. What? A commie! Sling him overboard.

Steve didn’t miss a beat, and responded with refreshing candour.

“They do receive a monthly salary, yes, but it’s not what… it’s far below what we in America would consider to be enough to live on.”

The audience seemed kind of happy with this.7

“What do you do with all the food that gets thrown away?”  Good question.

Steve answered that it all goes into a big mincer machine and gets pumped out into the ocean as ‘fish food’.
“But not the coffee,” he pointed out. “Can’t feed that to the fish.”

Why not coffee? Of all the mysteries and puzzling things on the cruise, this was the one I was left with. Why can you feed sea creatures all kinds of mushed up shit, but not coffee? Has there been a study on the effect of coffee on marine life? I for one would love to see a dolphin off its flippers on some A-grade espresso. Or a killer whale hoover up gallons of Nescafe. Who knows what would happen? And would it be a bad thing? Maybe, they’re so smart, they only need that extra bit of help in the form of caffeine to learn how to speak and would take over the world. And that’s the danger we all face. Those wily, smiling dolphin bastards are intelligent enough (I know, I saw them do somersaults in formation at SeaWorld) so don’t make their fishy brains work any faster. It could be the end of us all.

I didn’t ask Steve a question.

On the final night, in the Crimson Restaurant, the waiting staff all disappeared at one point. Music started up. I looked over the balcony to the lower part of the restaurant, and at the back of the room, there they all were, assembled in tiers, like a low-wage United Colors of Benetton Von Trapp family. And sure enough, they started to sing.

To the tune of “Leaving on a jet plane” they sang something that sounded a bit like “You’re leaving our cruu…uuise ship. Please come back again.”  They were fucking terrible singers, and it was dire.

But it’s that beautiful image I’ll carry with me always when thinking about the cruise ship and the brave, underpaid men and women who work there, tirelessly, to give people like me a fun time.

The next morning we arrived back at Port Canaveral, and I bent down and kissed the beautiful Florida earth, like the Pope.

Pictures to follow...

The Carnival Dream, on the right. And who's that, next to it, the ship with the massive arse?
Of course, it's the Oasis of the Seas, the fattest ship in the world.

Fake Hogwarts

Atlantis, "Paradise" Island, Nassau

Wait. I know this one..... it's a giant anteater, right?

The hut on Water Island, USVI, where we sheltered from the rain and
first met the crazy drunken international ex-drug smuggler

1 That’s only half-true. I’m the texture of a roast chicken, that’s for sure. But I’m more like the colour of a beetroot.

1.5The "butterbeer" on sale is not actually beer. It's not even alcoholic. It's fruit juice or something. What a fucking swizz. 

2Well, “free” apart from all the other charges, like a full tank of petrol, daily GPS hire, collision damage waiver and other random shit I don’t remember signing for.

3An aside here about my co-pilot. I think it’s clear that in the first few days at least I was a very nervous driver on US roads. The fact that most of the car was now on my right was very disconcerting, and meant I had to focus constantly on where I was driving in relation to the lane markings just to try and stay roughly central, and avoid swerving into monster trucks on both sides. I hadn’t got over the tendency to look up and to the left for the rear view mirror, when of course it was to my right. Also, every time I twiddled with the air conditioning dial, I noticed the car would drift laterally. (This was not some bizarre electronic fault, but due to the fact I had to take my eyes off the road for a second).   I’m not sure my anxiety registered with my passenger however.

“Look!” she’d cry, and point to the side of the highway. I gritted my teeth and kept my eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead.

“Ooh, have you seen all those Airstream trailers?” I kept my eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead.
“There’s a Walmart over there!”  I kept my eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead.

“It’s left. Now! Turn here!”  I kept my eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead and chose not to swerve dramatically across four lanes of busy traffic.

And then there was the time she screamed suddenly “You’re on the wrong side of the road!”  when I wasn’t. I accept that I wasn’t the chattiest of holiday companions when in the car; but by the end, I felt like I deserved a Purple Heart for Courageous Motoring in the Face of Constant Distractions.

4Except in the case of my friend’s luggage, which never materialised. Eventually she found a note outside our room informing her that her case had been quarantined due to “suspect items”. We went along to the security pound, down on deck 0, where a bunch of candles she’d bought in Florida had been confiscated. They take the risk of fire very seriously on board the ship… although they do seem muddled about what can and can't cause fire. A candle by itself can no more burst into flame than my trousers.

5Given that, to the best of my knowledge, no-one is following you around the ship with a video camera the entire time, the “personalized DVD of your time on-board” strikes me as an intriguing offer. What does this film contain exactly? Your face digitally superimposed on stock footage of the ship? Wouldn’t surprise me. The only offer that half-tempted me was a three hour long “behind the scenes” tour of the ship, including the bridge, the engine room, and other out-of-bounds areas… a snip at only $95 per person. There were only 19 places available, and I didn’t end up going.

6I found out later in the Q&A with Steve on the final day of the cruise that the Oasis of the Seas costs $1 billion to build. “They’ll probably never recoup the costs,” he reckoned. Which somewhat calls into question Royal Caribbean’s business model, especially as they’ve now got two ships in this class.

7I felt particularly bad about this, as we’d visited the Customer services desk on day 3 to remove the automatic gratuities charge from our bill. Instead of $11 per day each, I think we left $20 in total for the maid. So now they’re all starving and it’s my fault.