As I backpacked and flashpacked across 90-odd countries, I paid little attention to cruise ships. I figured they were mainly for retired folk and perhaps young families and honeymooners. Cruising surely wasn't for (fairly) adventurous, youthful(ish) travellers? It looked too easy, too regimented. I didn't fancy being cooped up on a giant vessel, deposited ashore in a port for a few hours, then picked up and ferried to the next place (and so on). Then earlier this year, while hiking in the Spanish countryside, my partner and I got caught in a biblical storm. Sheltering in a golf club bar, we started chatting to two die-hard cruisers from Scotland, and as we compared recent holiday experiences – ours an enriching, but enervating independent Thai island hopping trip; theirs a blissfully relaxing, yet adventure-peppered cruise around the rum-fuelled Caribbean – we suddenly wondered whether cruising wouldn't be so bad after all. Fast forward several months, and, desperate for a chilled-out, hassle-free break, a floating hotel that would dock at a clutch of exotic, sun-kissed Caribbean islands began to sound like one of the best things in the world.
DAY ONE: SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO
There is kid-at-Christmas-like-nerves-and-excitement as we pass through airport-style check in and security, and board Celebrity Summit, our home for this seven-night southern Caribbean cruise. Exploring the ship's 12 decks – with the old fortified Spanish town of San Juan in the distance – is almost as much fun as unwrapping Santa's presents. Though, at 294 metres in length, it's 25 metres longer than Titanic, Summit is compact by modern standards (its 2158 occupancy is less than half that of MS Harmony of the Seas, the world's largest cruise liner). But, size-wise, it's ideal; big enough to be able to "get lost", small enough so you don't need to trek miles for your dinner (or to the countless bars, pools, lounges, gym, spa, sports court, casino, theatre, boutiques, galleries or library, for that matter).
Two things quickly strike us. One, we'll wake up to some wonderful Caribbean vistas (we have a snug, deluxe oceanview stateroom with a verandah); and two, our fellow passengers are an intriguingly diverse bunch – as well as basement cap-wearing characters with pot bellies, southern drawls and "Donald Trump 2016" T-shirts, we spot studious New Yorkers, 20 and 30-something couples from Germany, Scandinavia and Mexico, a gaggle of pensioners from Hong Kong, and few children). We also realise we won't go hungry. There is free (well, all-inclusive) food pretty much around the clock, with myriad buffet venues complemented by a more formal main dining restaurant (plus several "speciality" culinary enclaves where a cover charge applies).
Food choices are as cosmopolitan as the friendly crew (there are almost 1000 staff from 65 countries, mainly from Europe, south and south-east Asia and the Caribbean). After lunching on brie and prosciutto salads, chicken adobo and rice, and freshly made pasta with meatballs, for dinner, we try escargot (snails) in garlic butter, sirloin steak with mashed potatoes and greens, and dulce de leche creme brulee (the ship's desserts are ridiculously Instagrammable).
While Summit – launched in 2001 – is no spring chicken, it feels quite fresh, boosted by a recent $10.6 million revamp and buoyed by its new captain, Kate McCue (America's first female captain, the 38-year-old treats us to twice-daily audio musings covering sailing information, Caribbean history and Confucian-esque philosophy). The most alluring of Summit's new features is arguably the chic Rooftop Terrace. Laden with cocktail-lounge furniture and cabanas, it doubles as an open-air cinema (they're playing Alice through the Looking Glass as we wave goodbye to San Juan).
DAY TWO: ST CROIX, US VIRGIN ISLANDS
The calm seas and our comfy bed make for a good night's sleep, and we're full of beans as we breakfast on scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and wine-pickled herring. This Nordic touch feels apt as St Croix, now US territory, was once ruled by Denmark – one of several European powers to leave their mark on the Caribbean following Christopher Columbus' arrival. Danish-constructed buildings dot the island, notably the red fort of Frederiksted, the sleepy little town where we're docking from 8am to 5pm. After roaming this canon-strewn relic, where the island's slaves – who had toiled in St Croix's sugarcane industry – were emancipated in 1848, we lounge on the adjacent white-sand beach. We snorkel with tiny tropical fish in the warm cerulean waters, before slurping from a coconut bought at the shack-like beach bar and agree we could get used to this lifestyle. After browsing craft stalls by Frederiksted's coconut tree-lined promenade, where pelicans and herons strut and a band is playing reggae, we reboard Summit and sail past Sandy Point. According to Captain Kate, the final scene of The Shawshank Redemption, when the old prison buddies reunite, was shot on this crescent of sand (it stood in for Mexico). This reminds us: we'll now be confined to the boat for the next 36 hours.
DAY THREE: AT SEA
Perturbed by just how much we've eaten so far, we hit the gym. Nestled at the ship's front, it has magnificent sea views (along with free weights, medicine balls, TechnoGym treadmills, exercise bikes and instructor-led fitness classes). The day at sea lets us savour Summit's huge roster of activities, which changes daily and includes everything from bingo, karaoke and pool volleyball to art auctions, acupuncture seminars and cookery classes. We discover the enormity of the ship's 24/7 culinary operation on a behind-the-scenes Galley tour and Q&A with executive chef Wayne Tapscott. Some eye-popping figures are revealed: on average, more than 13000 kilograms of fresh fruit, 10000 kilograms of fresh vegetables and 5500 of beef are consumed on a seven-day cruise (as well as 9000 bottles of wine and 9000 litres of beer). Later, we dine on crispy frogs' legs with green pea puree and garlic-parsley sauce, and seared duck with fried rice, swiss chard, parsnip and orange duck jus. Then we cosy up in the Rendez-vous lounge bar and listen to live Latin music.
DAY FOUR: FORT-DE-FRANCE, MARTINIQUE
Celine, my Parisian-born partner, is smiling on our verandah as we approach verdant, mountainous Martinique. "I'm home," she says. And she's right (sort of). Martinique is an overseas department of France, and she loves spending her euros in the gift stores and bustling markets of steamy capital Fort-de-France. She buys local rum (the island is studded with distilleries) and hand-crafted sarongs etched with floral prints (luxuriant Martinique is known as "The Island of Flowers", and its landscapes inspired the post-impressionist painter, Paul Gauguin, who spent six months painting here in 1887). Souvenirs secured, we hop on the local passenger ferry that chugs across the bay to Trois Islets, a small town where Empress Josephine, the future wife of Napoleon, was baptised in 1763. It's fringed by pretty beaches, including Anse Mitan, where we lounge in the shade, paddle in the serene sapphire waters and chat with Claude, a walrus-moustached French septuagenarian sunbather who extols the virtues of wintering in Martinique. Back aboard Summit, after red snapper and shrimp, we head to the theatre for our post-dinner entertainment (most nights it's heartwarmingly cheesy cabaret, acrobatic dancing or stand-up comedy, tonight it's magic).
DAYS FIVE AND SIX: ROSEAU, DOMINICA AND BASSETERRE, ST KITTS & NEVIS
After doing our own thing in St Croix and Martinique, we choose from Celebrity's glut of guided shore excursions (typically priced $40-$200) for our next two destinations, former British colonies with enchantingly lush, rugged landscapes and brightly painted streetscapes. First, is Dominica, where two Pirates of the Caribbean movies were filmed. Navigating its densely jungled, mountainous interior, rife with hairpin bends and orchid, banana and coffee trees, dreadlocked driver Marcus informs us, in his endearing Caribbean lilt: "We have 365 rivers on Dominica, a different place to have a bath every day of the year. On a leap year, we go to the sea!"
We take a dip in the Emerald Pool, a green-watered bathing spot beneath a 12-metre waterfall with (apparently) life-affirming qualities. "Legend has it that if you swim in the Emerald Pool, it takes 10 years off your age," says Marcus' colleague, Suraya. On cricket-loving St Kitts, we pass derelict sugar plantations and hike up Mount Liamuiga (1156 metres), a dormant volcano that is the highest peak in the eastern Caribbean. Towards the end of our five-hour round trek, the heavens open, but, hot and sweaty, we're grateful for this refreshing tropical downpour. Later, we refuel at Qsine, one of Summit's speciality restaurants ($60 a head). Ordering via an iPad menu, we sample inventive, artfully presented small plates (including sushi, ceviche and tacos).
DAY SEVEN: CHARLOTTE AMALIE, ST THOMAS, US VIRGIN ISLANDS
As many passengers capitalise on the duty-free shopping in St Thomas, we soothe our sore limbs in Summit's near-empty whirl and thalassotherapy pools. Celine is happy that, despite this week's calorie consumption, she is still dwarfed by the pool-side Botero sculpture (his fat-bottomed lady is one of hundreds of pieces of art on the vessel). While I enjoy the Persian Spa Garden, an exotically tiled retreat with steam rooms, Celine gets an all-over body aromatherapy oil massage ($220). As we leave St Thomas' yacht-speckled waters behind, Celine returns, beaming. "It was so relaxing and it gave me time to think. And I realised: everything about this cruise has gone really well. It's just what we needed, what we were looking for all year. You don't have to worry about anything (where to stay, where to go next) Cruising has just been really, really nice." I don't argue. In fact, when we disembark Summit in San Juan the following morning, we're already debating our next cruise. And the Caribbean, with its 7000-plus islands, and dozens of ports of call, is awash with cruising potential.
FIVE CRUISING TIPS FOR CELEBRITY SUMMIT
1. Some soft drinks are complimentary, but alcohol generally isn't. Unlimited alcohol beverage packages are priced from $73 a day (plus 18 per cent service charge). We're not big drinkers and preferred to pay by the glass (the bill is added to your key card and settled at cruise's end). You can bring two 75-centilitre bottles of wine aboard; ideal for sipping on your verandah.
2. Worried about your caffeine fix? The ship has free Lavazza filter coffee, but "premium" espresso-driven drinks cost about $6 each – or $24 a day, plus 18 per cent service charge, with the classic unlimited (no alcohol) beverage package.
3. There is now ship-wide Wi-Fi (from $65 a day, or $332 for the whole cruise). You can find free Wi-Fi in most ports of call.
4. Avoid the thorny issue of tipping – who to tip, how much, when to – by pre-paying gratuities when booking your cruise (from $18 a person a day).
5. Browse the Celebrity Today newsletter. Left on your bed during the nightly turndown service, it's packed with information about the ports, activities and entertainment.
Qantas and American Airlines fly from Sydney to San Juan via Dallas. You'll need an ESTA. Puerto Rico is a US territory.
Part of Royal Caribbean Cruises, Celebrity Cruises runs dozens of cruises during the October-April Caribbean cruise season, including about 15 Southern Caribbean trips on Celebrity Summit. Itineraries vary depending on sail dates, but several include the islands featured on the writer's trip. Summit's final seven-night Southern Caribbean cruise of the 2016/17 season, starting in San Juan on April 15, visits the islands of St Thomas, St Maarten, Antigua, St Lucia and Barbados. It's priced from $979 a person for an interior stateroom, and $1359 a person for an oceanview stateroom (with one free perk, such as a beverage package). Check the website for details of the 2017/18 season. See celebritycruises.com
Steve McKenna was a guest of Celebrity Cruises.