Why you should pay the extra for a balcony room on a cruise ship

The cabin on my very first cruise had a small porthole window, so high up that I had to stand on the bunk bed to look out to sea. I loved my little window on the world, but I'm sorry - once you've had a balcony all to yourself, there's no going back. Those 3.5 square metres of teak decking are your back yard, your terrace, your private club, your shed.

The real art of the cruise ship balcony, of course, is in paying extra for it – and having paid extra, knowing how to get your money's worth. There are tangible benefits – more space, ocean views, fresh air, a sense of privacy, outdoor seating – but as ever, the greatest rewards are intangible. Who can put a value on watching the moon dance over the wine-dark sea, spotting a pod of cheeky dolphins arcing through the wake, or listening to the sea birds cry as they wheel overhead? Or the sight of your partner snoozing his way through a power nap, paperback novel slipping through his fingers; or the way your mind empties as you watch the sea spume, mesmerised by its curling white ribbons.

I'm not talking about the penthouse suite here. I don't need a whirlpool, hot tub and flat screen TV on my balcony. Just two chairs and a small table for the early morning cup of tea or – better - the early evening snacks and drinks.  This is where you raise your balcony usage to an art form. Pick up a pretty hand-painted bowl on your first market tour, then fill it with goodies from each day's shore excursion, from potato crisps (particularly good in Spain, where they are freshly fried), to local cheeses, empanadas, biscotti or fresh peaches. Pour a glass of wine, chat about the day, and watch the ship pull away from port as the sun sets.

Don't fret about what side of the ship your cabin is on, as both have their thrills. One day, you might have all of Cartagena, La Spezia or Hong Kong laid out at your feet; the next, you're privy to the behind-the-scenes action of a working harbour, the pilot boats that hover alongside like parasite fish; and the odd early morning fisherman who will most certainly wave back.

And if you don't have a balcony? Make the entire ship an extension of your cabin - find a favourite spot on the top deck for snoozing and sightseeing, and scope out the best places for sunsets and sunrises. There's an art to that, too.

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