Tuesday, October 17, 2017
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Your cruise holiday, your way!

No-fuss dresser PATRIC BAIRD takes to the seas to try out NCL’s freestyle cruising, where his favourite t-shirt and jeans combo are acceptable dinner attire...

YOU can tell a lot about a man by his wardrobe, or rather the contents within. A quick check of mine reveals a long line of slogan T-shirts, many pairs of jeans most of which are worn and ripped beyond the bounds of public decency, quite a few Hawaiian shirts and, right at the far corner, a rather forlorn-looking suit which probably dates from the late 1980s and has seen its fair share of funerals and the odd job interview, but not much else besides.

I certainly don't own a dinner jacket which, in the past, has put me at something of a disadvantage when partaking in one of my favourite pastimes - cruising the seven (well, at least two so far) seas in an ocean-going liner.

While I enjoy the thrill of waking up in a different country or city every morning, consuming unlimited amounts of food and drink and relishing the freedom to choose whether I spend the day either flopped out on a sun lounger or engaged in a more worthwhile activity, such as a game of deck tennis, small-scale mountaineering or learning how to raise a sail, I certainly don't enjoy dressing for dinner. Nor do I enjoy being told where, when and with whom I can sit with while I eat dinner and I know that this is something which puts many people off the idea of going on a cruise.

Most cruise lines build more-or-less compulsory 'formal nights' into their itineraries and, while many passengers welcome the opportunity to get suited and booted, I can be found skulking around the buffet in the ship's café in my skanky T-shirt and shorts combo, filling my plate with hot dogs and French fries, while the more sartorially sophisticated are enjoying the finest cuisine in the ship's signature restaurant, attired in their tuxedos and ball gowns.

I was therefore greatly attracted to Norwegian Cruise Line's concept of Freestyle Cruising, where the rule book regarding dining has been dispensed with, giving passengers the choice where, when and how they eat. You can choose to eat at a different restaurant on board every single night without necessarily having to book in advance, sit wherever you like anytime between 5.30pm to 10pm, and, if that doesn't fit your plans, there’s at least one restaurant open 24 hours. While you can also wear whatever you like as well, although most of the restaurants will - rightly -probably draw the line at you sitting down to dinner in your underwear.

Another of my cruising bugbears - the breakfast issue - has also been admirably addressed by NCL - there's no need to jump out of a cosy, warm bed to beat the morning buffet curfew as breakfast is served, in one form or another, until late into the morning or can even be served in your cabin whenever you want at no extra charge.

So, after throwing a few of my aforementioned Hawaiian shirt/elderly denim combos into a suitcase, I departed for Athens, joining the Norwegian Gem on day three of its seven-day Western Mediterranean itinerary, covering stops in Croatia, Greece, Turkey and Italy.

The Norwegian Gem is one of the largest, and most modern ships I have cruised on, having entered service in late 2007 and with a capacity of almost 2,500 guests. My luxurious stateroom featured every amenity I could wish for, including an internet connection for my laptop, a well-stocked mini-bar, tea and coffee making facilities and a multi-channel TV, as well as a large private balcony.

Although by joining the cruise late I had missed the joys of Venice and Dubrovnik, my fellow passengers had told me that heavy rain in both ports had rather spoilt the experience. Luckily the sun was shining on Athens and I was able to leave the ship and explore some of the city's sights including the Acropolis and the historic Plaka district before we sailed that evening for the next port of Izmir in Turkey.

As a keen celebrity spotter, I was thrilled to hear that Mike Read was aboard the ship, although it took me a moment to realise that it would probably be the Saturday Superstore/Radio One Mike, rather than poor old Frank Butcher who is, sadly, no longer with us.

Along with several DJs from various English radio stations, Mike was aboard to broadcast his daily Star FM show from the ship and I enjoyed several rather surreal experiences including sharing a lift with the man who banned Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax from the BBC airwaves, and finding myself helping him out with several crossword clues as we waited for our flight home from Venice.

After docking in Izmir, many of the passengers opted for an early start, taking a day trip to the nearby historic ruins which had been my plan also, although a disagreement with my alarm clock put paid to any cultural pursuits. Later in the day, I eventually managed to muster up the energy to forsake basking on my balcony and take a stroll around the town, stocking up on some supplies of Turkish delicacies at a local supermarket.

Before the ship reached its final destination of Venice, there was one more stop at the Greek port of Nafplion, which had once been the country's capital before being replaced by Athens. A tender brought me ashore and I spent a very pleasant morning wandering the cobbled streets, absorbing the warm sunshine, as well as the sights, sounds and smells of this quiet town, a world apart from its capital city successor. I learned later that several of my more energetic cruising companions had climbed the 999 steps to a nearby ruined fort and seemingly the view from the top had been well worth the effort. Oh well, maybe next time!

Of course, ancient architecture and historic sites are all well and good but, at the risk of sounding shallow, I would have to admit that the daily highlight of the cruise was dinner time aboard the ship - after all, it was the lure of casual dining which had most appealed to me in the first place!

The only problem was that of too many restaurants and not enough nights to experience them all. In the short time I had, I managed to fit in a glorious steak dinner at Cagney's, as well as eating some of the best roast duck I've ever tasted at Le Bistro, which are two of the ship's premium restaurants. Despite the opulent surroundings and decor of the rooms, not so much as an eyelid was batted by the waiting staff as I sat down to dinner in my somewhat casual attire.

I also managed to try the Mediterranean cuisine of La Cuchina and had an excellent Asian-influenced meal at Magenta, one of the ship's main dining rooms. Unfortunately I just didn't have time to sample the interactive experience of Teppanyaki, where chefs prepare the food with a theatrical flourish in front of the diners, but a traditional curry lunch, presented and prepared exclusively by the ship's Indian staff, almost made up for any disappointment.

While pre-booking is advisable for the premium restaurants, all available time slots can be viewed on your stateroom television, so there's a good chance of spotting a quieter period during the evening and be seated straight away.

Throughout the trip, I was delighted to hear quite a few familiar 'local' accents on board, as most of my previous cruises had been spent in the company of mostly American or European passengers. I certainly didn't feel like an odd man out and it seems that maybe the concept of freestyle cruising is especially appealing to the wonderfully bloody-minded 'nobody tells me what to do on holiday' Northern Irish way of thinking?

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