It's the deep, dark secret behind the romance and excitement of sailing the high seas: that cruising makes you fat. All that bacon for breakfast, pasta for lunch, beer by the pool and chocolate soufflé for dinner and you can disembark with twice the baggage you brought on board.
But while traditional cruising has long been about bounteous buffets and all-you-can-eat high teas, modern cruising is different. Major cruise lines are initiating countless wellness programmes and fitness-tailored cruise itineraries – none of which I would ever dream of booking. What interests me more, is whether I can sustain my new-found love of cruising without returning home twice the size.
Lucky me, I've chosen the right cruise ship for the big test: Celebrity Reflection, the newest of five Solstice Class ships in the Celebrity Cruises fleet. More particularly, I've booked AquaClass, with its spa-inspired stateroom and dedicated 'clean cuisine' restaurant Blu, and unlimited access to the conveniently close Canyon Ranch SpaClub, Relaxation Room and Persian Garden sauna and steam room. It even has something called a gym, which I successfully ignore for the full eleven-night round trip Western Mediterranean cruise out of Rome.
My strategy is to spoil myself rotten, while keeping my choices on the healthy side of self-indulgence. With twelve (twelve!) different dining destinations on board, it's not going to be easy.
OFF TO A GOOD START
When your ship is the length of a city block (320 metres), just walking from your stateroom at one end to breakfast at the other is to get your exercise.
Day One is exhausting, actually. You have to unpack (for the last time in eleven days, woohoo), jump on the queen-size bed, divvy up your toiletries into all the cubbyhole drawers in the bathroom and test out the internet connection.
Then you have to run around and check out the swimming pools, the restaurants and the spa. You have to remember which is bow and which is stern. You have to try an Illy espresso coffee at Café Il Bacio and ignore all those complimentary little chocolate eclairs. You have to sort out your bookings at the specialty restaurants, book your shore excursions, and figure out exactly what your Premium Wine Package means. And every now and then you just have to sit on your balcony and stare, mesmerised, at the deep blue Mediterranean.
WHAT'S FOR DINNER, DEAR?
Anything you like, sweetie pie. Breakfast at Blu, a charming spot filled with natural light and blue glass, becomes a highlight of the day, as my new best friends Fateh, Jorge and Nita circle our table with fresh fruit and bircher muesli for me, and excellent brioche buns, fried eggs and crisp bacon for my husband. How do I know the brioche is excellent and the bacon crisp? Never you mind.
Then there's the dazzling, 1400-seat main dining room, Opus, with its two-storey glass wine tower and glittering chandeliers, where the menu is a clever package of all things classic (smoked salmon) and modern (Hawaiian tuna poke).
Ocean View, the bustling, something-for-everyone buffet restaurant, has an open dining deck that makes it a good spot for an onboard lunch in the sun. But the crowds are relentless, so its worth shelling out a little extra (US$125 for four) for dinner in the specialty restaurants.
My favourite is the clubby Tuscan Grill, because it is right at the back (that would be the stern, then) where you can dreamily watch the long slow trail of wake cut a swathe through the sunset. The menu is Italian/American in style, with light, lush meatballs in San Marzano tomato sauce, big steaks cooked on the grill and lovely, simply grilled seabass.
It's fun rolling out the dough for your own pizza and grilling your own lamb chops at the al fresco Lawn Club Grill, with its half-acre of real grass growing on deck. And it's great to extend the memories of a Spanish shore excursion with excellent boquerones and seafood paella at casual Mediterranean diner The Porch.
I do well on my 'healthy choices without missing out' regime, stumbling only at the quirky, giggle-a-minute Qsine restaurant where I inadvertently order the deep-fried Crunchy Munchies on the iPad menu.
The Big Night Out is Murano, with its Venetian glamour and tableside service. I get all dolled up (it's an 'evening chic' dress code), and go for broke. All I remember is a very fine pinot noir, a herb-crusted rack of lamb and a trolley of finely kept French cheeses, before deciding that heading off to the Cellar Bar for a nightcap would be a good idea. In hindsight, I commend myself on having the good sense to skip the Martini Bar, with its bottles embedded along a theatrical counter of ice that glitters like diamonds.
LIFE ON SHORE
To have a new port turn up at your doorstep every single day is the ultimate luxury. From La Spezia on the Ligurian coast, to Villefranche (for Nice), beautiful Barcelona, Malaga, Cartagena and Ibiza, it's a non-stop parade of ancient Roman amphitheatres, modern art museums, and other brilliant excuses to get out there and walk off all that French cheese.
Personal highlights are La Spezia, where you can do a shore excursion to the famous cliffside towns of the Cinque Terre – or just swap the big boat for a little ferry and tootle around the Ligurian coastline to the picture-postcard, pastel-coloured, village of Porto Venere, for spaghetti ai frutti di mare on the waterfront.
In the southern Spanish city of Malaga, birthplace not only of Picasso but of Antonio Banderas, I do a Market Tour with Chef Ashley, heading off to the small but atmospheric Atarazanas market before touring the historic city centre with a terrific local guide. We stop for tapas at the acclaimed vinoteca Los Patios de Beatas, where I literally hoover up the spectacularly good hand-carved jamon, forgetting there will be a multi-course market produce dinner on the ship that evening.
In Cartagena, I do my foodie homework and find Bodega La Fuente, specialising in locally caught anchovies. Pride of place is a marble work station at which one nimble-fingered girl rinses the salt off the long, fat, silver-skinned anchovies, splits them, and pulls out the bone, laying pink fillets on one huge pile, and a graveyard of skeletons on another, in a rhythm set down since Roman times.
I get my exercise pounding the pavements of the ports of call then collapse with aching feet and a glass of wine as the ship slowly moves away from the dock and turns towards the next day's adventure.
LIFE ON BOARD
It's a relief to have the occasional day at sea, with time to sleep in, shower with the slightly complex Hansgrohe panel in my AquaClass stateroom bathroom, and stake out two elbow-to-elbow sun-loungers by the two medium-sized outdoor pools or the quieter pool encased in an atrium of glass. With a total passenger count of 3046, all of whom have the same idea, it's a lively place.
Conscious of my on-board mission, I give my skin an age-defying workout with some next-level Luzern skincare at the luxurious Canyon Ranch SpaClub one day, and the next, sign up for a free session called Three Secrets to A Flat Stomach. The bouncy gym director dishes out plenty of advice about drinking water, getting exercise, and eating healthily. Breakfast should be your biggest meal, apparently (yep, tick that), with lunch smaller (oops), and dinner smaller still (double oops).
One of the unexpected pleasures on board is the contemporary art - too often offensively inoffensive – which thrills at every turn, with its pop-art Robert Rauschenberg and playful, mirrored, Jeff Koons. It's also fun to pop in on the nightly entertainment, from a whip-smart comic pianist to a Vegas-level illusionist. For the grand finale evening, I couldn't believe it, but The Beatles miraculously staged a return performance - or they certainly looked and sounded like the real thing to me, after a nice dinner and a bottle of wine.
WELL, DID I GET FITTER OR FATTER?
I come back rested and relaxed; toned from all the walking around art galleries and museums on shore; and weighing exactly the same. Which means I have successfully proven what we already know: that cruising is extremely good for you, and that if we had any sense, we would all do it as often as possible.
How to get fitter, not fatter, on a cruise
Get over the fact that all that food in front of you is free, and that you can order anything you want, and then some. It still doesn't mean you have to eat everything in sight.
Join things. Celebrity Reflection, for instance, has a morning 'walk a mile' club and daily fitness and pilates classes, as well as lawn games, basketball, indoor cycling and table tennis.
Devise your own buffet survival strategy. Case the joint first and target the healthier items and salads. Choose the smallest plate available, not the largest – you know you're going to pile it high regardless. Limit your return trips to the dessert bar to three.
Keep moving. Luxurious modern ships such as Celebrity Reflection have banks of glass elevators to whisk you from deck to deck, but take the stairs instead. Walk into town instead of taking the shuttle bus (depending on port).
Dance! It's the best way to burn off those chocolate eclairs. Pack your dancing shoes for the silent disco parties and deejay sessions on board, and kick up your heels.
Emirates operates multiple daily flights between Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, via Dubai, to Rome. See www.emirates.com.au
The Best of Western Mediterranean voyage on Celebrity Reflection is an 11-night round trip, departing Rome (Civitavecchia) on June 18, 2018, with calls to Florence, Nice, Barcelona, Cartagena, Malaga, Gibraltar, and Palma de Mallorca. Fares start from AUD$3499 per person for a Balcony Stateroom.
Jill Dupleix travelled as a guest of Celebrity Cruises.