The Caribbean: 7,000 islands which make for an alluring mix of breathtakingly beautiful beaches, lush rainforests and lively port towns.
And recently it eclipsed the Mediterranean as the most important market for cruise holidays – worth £32 million a year – which explains why the ships are getting bigger and more luxurious and their technology is swiftly advancing.
This week, at a ceremony in Bridgetown, Barbados, the largest British vessel plying the jaw-dropping one million square miles that make up the Caribbean will be officially launched by P&O Cruises.
Named Arvia, the ship cost a reported $1 billion to build and can carry 5,200 guests and a crew of 1,800. It contains ten decks devoted to accommodation – superluxe suites at the top with their own restaurant, and cabins below for those with varying budgets.
Having never been on a cruise or visited the Caribbean before, I jumped at an invitation to hop aboard Arvia and spend a week on one of its first Caribbean voyages as it sailed between beautiful tropical islands with plenty of time for lazing on deck. What’s not to like?
Cruise novice Mark Edmonds sails around the Caribbean on P&O Cruises’ new ship Arvia. Pictured is the tropical bay at Saint Pierre in Martinique
As we flew out of Heathrow, it was a dark and freezing February morning. When we landed in Antigua, the sun was beaming and the temperature was nudging 25C (the high 70s Fahrenheit).
The trip would, I hoped, offer me a chance to explore a handful of islands. If I didn’t like one, I could hightail it back to the ship and watch the sunset from my balcony (it’s worth booking a cabin with one) as we sailed on.
The ship promised much – almost too much – with 12 restaurants and eight bars. On offer were vast quantities of food at any time, margaritas on tap, duty-free shopping, deck games, a jogging track and stage shows being devised by showbiz stars Gary Barlow and Nicole Scherzinger, who is also the ship’s entertainment partner and ‘godmother’, or ambassador.
We joined the ship in Antigua, its Union-Flag-painted prow looming large over the small harbour.
The number of passengers boarding amounted to about 25 per cent of the population of the island’s capital, St John’s. Inevitably we faced a queue to get through immigration and join the ship, but at least our luggage had already been placed aboard.
Over the next seven days we negotiated five different territories, making the most of P&O’s well-oiled and much-practised disembarkation machine. It was all breezily efficient. We didn’t even have to show our passports again – only an electronic ID card issued in Antigua, which the immigration authorities in each island were happy to accept. Frankly, I’ve faced longer queues for the ferry at Dover.
From Antigua, we headed to St Kitts, one of the smaller islands in the eastern Caribbean. Covering just 65 square miles and with a population of 55,000, it is a microcosm of the region – a peaceful, relaxed kind of place with a vivid history and exceptionally friendly locals.
The name of the capital, Basseterre, is a throwback to its French colonial past, and its 19th Century buildings have been beautifully restored. We drove through what became known as Irishtown – after the settlers who came here in the 17th Century, principally to work in construction. They also founded the bare bones of a hospitality industry which, along with agriculture, now sustains the island. ’
Ariva cost a reported $1 billion to build, Mark reveals. Pictured is the ship’s atrium
Singer Nicole Scherzinger is behind the ship’s music shows
To quench their own thirst and that of many generations of visitors, the settlers opened rum shacks. The Irish may have gone but many of the shacks remain, serving ice-cold beers and the ubiquitous rum punch.
The shacks are rough and ready – don’t expect to drink your beer out of anything but a bottle or, for that matter, pay with a card. As in much of the Caribbean, US dollars are accepted in the most run-down of establishments.
It’s also worth pointing out that even the most unprepossessing of shacks are jolly, safe and welcoming. I left my iPhone in one, only to return five minutes later and find that the barmaid was keeping it safe for me behind the counter.
Ship-shape lodgings: Arvia contains ten decks devoted to accommodation
A feature that’s sure to make a splash – Arvia’s swim-up bar at dawn
‘Life at sea was comfortable and relaxed, considering the number of guests on board,’ writes Mark
Dancers in Barbados, where Arvia will be named this week
The next day we arrived in Martinique, which is resolutely French – the locals speak French and eat French, vote in French elections, and even the road signs are in, you guessed it, French.
It also comes with a slice of Gallic grumpiness. In one bar, when I asked for my beer in a glass with a stem rather than a pint mug, I was greeted with a look of utter incredulity and an emphatic shrug of the shoulders. Were it not for the tropical heat, we might have been in Paris.
Martinique also offered a visit to the La Mauny rum distillery, set in a valley surrounded by sugar-cane fields. We were given an insight into traditional distilling techniques – though I am not sure how much of the science we had managed to take in by the end of our ‘tasting’ session.
That evening we set sail for St Lucia, a much larger island with plenty of five-star hotels and a more conventional sense of palm-fringed Caribbean luxury.
Life at sea – we spent two full days on the ship – was comfortable and relaxed, considering the number of guests on board. The all-inclusive restaurants work well, especially if you are on a budget, but I’d recommend paying extra to eat in some of the more upmarket offerings, such as Green & Co, the first vegan restaurant at sea.
I lunched twice (not on the same day) at the top-notch sushi bar Mizuhana. The bill, including a drink or two, came to a very reasonable £20. Also try Sindhu, which offers Indian cuisine – but you won’t find a chicken tikka masala or vindaloo.
In St Lucia, Mark laps up the ‘unspoilt beaches’ and snorkels off a speedboat
The next morning we picked up a speedboat from the port at Castries, St Lucia’s capital, and headed south-west to the Pitons, two dramatic peaks that dominate the landscape on the west side of the island. Here, remarkably unspoilt beaches are framed by lush rainforest. Development, mercifully, has been kept under control and the hotels have not been allowed to expand without regard to the environment.
We snorkelled off the boat before making our way on to the beach for lunch. Very few of the beaches in the Caribbean are private, so it’s possible to sunbathe in most places without charge – though I’d recommend renting an umbrella.
Barbados was the final destination on our whistle-stop tour. In Bridgetown we saw the house in which superstar Rihanna was born and grew up – a picturesque but modest cottage close to the port.
Bridgetown (pictured) is Mark’s last stop, and where he sees popstar Rihanna’s childhood home
We then stopped for lunch at a new restaurant, Local & Co in Speightstown, which specialises in sustainable, locally produced food. It is run by chef Sophie Michell, who used to manage Home House, a private members’ club in London.
It’s a wonderful spot, with tables overlooking the beach, serving lobster, seafood ceviche and amazing gazpacho bloody Marys. With a few notable exceptions such as this, the restaurant choices on the islands are mainly family-run barbecue establishments – but what they lacked in Michelin stars they made up for in charm.
All the stops and Arvia’s many entertainment and dining options should keep most travellers happy… though there are some things that the ship can’t deliver. After a workout in the gym, I asked a personal trainer for a set of scales. Nowhere on the boat could one be found. That’s perhaps not such a bad thing.