Not since I was a child have I longed so much to go on holiday, and for the chance to see, once more, the sun setting on a glittering sea.
My last trip, to Barbados in winter 2019, was as a guest speaker on a Saga cruise. Southampton’s grey horizons soon gave way to the gentle blue skies of sub-tropical Madeira, which lies off the Portuguese mainland.
As we sailed westward across the Atlantic, the days gradually got warmer, the menus changed, and we began to eat outside on deck. The calendar may have suggested it was late November, but we knew otherwise. For us it was ‘summer’ and time for a cocktail.
I had never considered cruising until chance intervened. One of my agents, who organises after-dinner speeches, had received a last-minute request from a cruise line. An old friend, the broadcaster Michael Buerk, was unable to fill a slot due to a prior commitment, and would I like to take his place?
Looking back it seems ridiculous but I was quite surprised when the agent suggested that I take up the offer. ‘Certainly not,’ I protested. ‘I am not a cruise ship entertainer!’
Gently, he explained what my duties would involve. My stint on board would be during a round-the-world cruise itinerary and I would join the ship in Tahiti.
‘Oh,’ I said, my head spinning with thoughts of Marlon Brando, swaying palm fronds and scenes from Mutiny on the Bounty.
The enticements kept on coming. The next stop would be Bora Bora, followed by a string of Pacific islands and then New Zealand and finally Australia. I would fly home from Sydney. I tried not to sound excited.
‘When I said, “Certainly not”,’ I cautiously responded, ‘that didn’t necessarily mean “No.”’
I spent the best part of a lifetime as a reporter and then as chief political correspondent for the BBC, so I’m used to making friends with strangers. If you take the time to find them, there are always interesting people on board. As a guest speaker it also helps if people have enjoyed your talks. Bars and restaurants are not the only places to meet people.
That first cruise was full of interest, new sights and interesting people. I took my elder brother Peter as my companion, and as a fitness fanatic he spent a good deal of time in the on-board gym. I devoted more time to meeting my fellow passengers. Couples tended to have their routine mapped out. On sea days they would make their way to the library, decide where they wanted to sit, and spend much of the day there. In the evenings they would visit their chosen bar.
One of the most interesting guests I met on board was an elderly woman who was travelling alone and, it transpired, was almost permanently cruising. Apart from two days in England at Christmas she was mostly at sea. Amazingly, she had been around the world 17 times.
After that trip, I was sold. Then when I began to write travel pieces for newspapers, I was asked to go on a luxury cruise to the South Pacific and my wife, Mary, joined me.
That holiday took us to some of the most desirable destinations in the world and since then I have travelled with Peter, or Mary, on several unforgettable cruises.
Lockdown has certainly whetted my appetite for casting off again so I’m happy that my planned river cruise on the Rhine, Main and Moselle on one of Saga’s brand-new river ships is due to go ahead in July (fingers tightly crossed).
I will be giving a series of talks, with some of my old jokes, and Mary has insisted that we go for the full 14 days.
It should be a gentle affair, with none of the stormy seas we have sometimes encountered on ocean sailings. And I think we can count on Saga to make sure that the food is up to scratch. We will both be fully vaccinated and expect the other passengers to be protected as well. Social distancing on a river cruise would be hard to enforce.
The only problem I foresee is matching the ship’s plum tarts and their generous dollops of rich cream, with those enticing Rhenish wines. That’s the trouble with cruises: there are too many choices.