The grey cruisers who love life all at sea

“It is not that life ashore is distasteful to me.  But life at sea is better” said Sir Francis Drake and obviously many Australians agree with him because last year, one million of us embarked on ocean cruises from Australian ports.

The attractions are obvious, especially for older people who appreciate the convenience of visiting exotic places without the need to change accommodation every night or two and not having to rush about, getting up early to meet packed itineraries.  

Meals are laid on, luggage (with a general allowance as to weight and size) is taken care of and excellent service is available 24 hours a day.  There’s no uncertainty or fear of finding yourself stranded in a hotel.

There’s also a range of entertainment and activity to suit most tastes.  

Some people enjoy it so much they cash up their homes and spend their lives cruising, either on the same ship or moving from one to another.

“It’s easier to just stay on board and keep cruising the Pacific,” 78-year-old Ronnie McKenzie says.  “I’ve got my meals and laundry done for me, there’s a doctor on board, I meet new people all the time and it doesn’t affect my budget much more than if I was living at home. It makes sense to me and I love it.”

He has lost count of the number of times he has seen native dancers waiting on the dock at Noumea, the welcoming shores of Port Vila and the quiet bay at Lafou. The South Pacific has virtually become his life and his home.

“It doesn’t affect my budget much more than if I was living at home. It makes sense to me”

Harvey Dexter maintains a permanent onshore home but sold his Noosa unit after his wife died and now spends most of each year on the ocean, following the seasons from warm southern oceans to cooler north European waters during the brief northern summer.

Cruise companies say that once customers return from one cruise they almost always come back for another – some becoming annual regulars and others content to do so every two or three years.

“I love to feel pampered,” says Jan Howlett who, with husband Richard, has done five cruises with the same cruise line and is planning a sixth.  

Jan sums up the opinions of most regular cruisers when she says: “It’s all about getting away from computers and business and everyday stress and being well looked after. No meals or housework.  

“And it’s very good value compared to other types of touring.”  

Now they are in their 70s and suffer from back problems, the Howletts, who live at Clontarf and thus an easy drive to the cruise terminal, prefer to limit their trips to those docking in Brisbane.  

A far wider range of cruise options is available to those who are prepared to fly overseas to pick up their vessels.
Anthony and Anna Staunton flew to Chile to board the Queen Mary II for the trip back to Brisbane and found the flight more expensive than the cruise.

According to one travel agency specialising in ocean cruising, today’s superannuation-rich baby boomers, and those a bit older, form the largest percentage of cruise ship travellers today.

But before being seduced by all those advertisements offering “unbeatable” bargains, anyone planning the first cruise should make sure they choose wisely and get the right advice.  

As Elizabeth Clarke of The Cruise Centre says, price is not necessarily the best guide when choosing a cruise.  

For example, if you have health and fitness issues, getting on, off and around ships can be a challenge, especially when visiting ports where passengers have to be ferried back and forth in small craft.  

Most of the super-sized luxury liners have good cabin access and lifts to get from one deck to another but on older and smaller ships (including river boats) access may be more difficult.  

What’s more, Elizabeth says, even the largest ships offer only a few wheelchair-accessible cabins and these must be booked well in advance.  

Her advice to those with mobility problems is to choose ships with suitable accessibility and itineraries with destinations where ships can go into dock rather than anchor offshore.

If you are considering your first cruise, here are five useful tips, given by travel companies and veteran cruise ship passengers:

• Take out comprehensive travel insurance, as advised by your travel agent.  Shipboard medical care is expensive and limited to general practitioner level only. Many insurance companies impose age limits and, depending on the type and destination of the cruise, the older you are, the more you may have to pay, especially if you have chronic health problems.  
As Rebekah Ortega of Brisbane-based tour company Solo Connections points out, even a sea sickness injection can cost up to $200 and if you have to be evacuated by air, expect costs upward from $20,000.  Insurance also reimburses you if ill-health or accident prevents you travelling.

• Go for the best cabin you can afford.  At least choose one with a window; better still, a balcony.  Suites and mini-suites are available and some ships offer two-bedroom cabins.  It may be better to wait for the cruise you can afford rather than rush into a “bargain” and risk discomfort and disappointment.

• Unless you are very fond of children and young people, choose a cruise – and ship – that offers dining, entertainment and activities that suit your age and tastes.  A travel agency that specialises in cruising will be able to advise your best options.

• Choose itineraries that suit your age and physical abilities.  Some specialised cruises on smaller vessels include on-land expeditions that may be too challenging for comfort.

• Be prepared for queues and long waits.  Embarkation at Brisbane can take up to three hours (though cruise lines are now beginning to stagger this) and those in wheelchairs or requiring assistance may be embarked last.  

Disembarking at destination ports also requires some queuing and waiting.  Lifts are often busy.  Take a book or some other amusement for long waits and don’t assume that arriving first will get you on board earlier – it may be best to check in nearer the time limit.  Remember you are on holiday – and relax!

Today’s trend is towards theme cruises catering to special interests.  

These may involve the whole ship or just a section and themes include music (from rock to classical and everything in-between), history, science and nature, world affairs, film, theatre, health and fitness, art, dancing, the ever-popular food and wine (or craft beer) and sport – yes, you can even improve your golf handicap on-board!  

Faith-based cruises are also available.

A newly-significant trend in the cruise market is for single travellers who wish neither to share cabins with strangers nor to pay the hefty single supplement.  

Solo Connections specialises in packages for singles and though at present these are limited to European river boats, the company is currently negotiating singles packages with potential ocean cruise partners.

Dave Hulsman of Ucango Travel and Cruise says his Sunshine Cost-based company switched branding to focus on cruising because it’s now the growth part of the travel market.

The number of Australians cruising from our ports is expected to reach two million by 2020.  

A big boost to Queensland, he says, will be if the State Government gives final approval to the proposed $100 million mega-terminal at the mouth of the Brisbane River, which will not only bring more tourists to the region but also offer Queenslanders many more cruising opportunities.