It was no Love Boat, but my cruise at 16 opened my eyes to a whole new world
Ahoy Cap'n! According to the Belfast Harbour website, August is set to be the busiest month we've ever seen in terms of cruise ship traffic. At least one - and often two at once - of these majestic liners will sail into our port every day, dwarfing every other vessel in their wake.
Although the astronomical prices rule me out (until I win the Lotto, of course) my fascination for these fantastic sea-faring hotels stems back a long way to August 1980, when I set sail from Southampton at the tender age of sixteen on a cruise that I will never forget.
The SS Uganda was an educational steam ship which sailed the seven seas from 1958-1982, giving thousands of lucky kids a glimpse of what the world at large had to offer. My parents had promised us a special holiday each as a kind of incentive at the end of our O-level exams and this was mine. For the princely sum of £189 I was booked on to what would turn out to be a holiday of a lifetime, with my best friends all there too.
For a year I had waited for this and finally I was there, on the deck of this massive steamer, along with 15 classmates, all waving goodbye to the quayside as the ships horns blasted our departure and the beginning of a fortnight of adventure. Now, to say there was nothing luxurious about the ship would be an understatement. Certain parts of it were more like a prison. The cabins were effectively just dormitories in the creaking steerage level with jail-style bunk beds and grey metal lockers all cramped together and with no natural light. There was one mirror per cabin (Yes, one! Between 15 teenage girls!), one plug socket (ditto) and no mod cons whatsoever. The dining room was just like a school canteen and the food was just as basic, but who cared. When we went up on deck we were out on the open seas and each day brought with it an incredible new vista and more thrilling experiences than I'd had so far in my 16 years.
First port of call was Gibraltar which was a welcome sight after the tempestuous Bay of Biscay. Seeing the mighty sun-lit Rock appearing like a beacon out of the mist on the distant horizon was one of the most memorable sights of my life. And then being fondled and followed by a Gibraltar monkey after we'd disembarked was one of the funniest. From there we crossed the open sea to Funchal on the island of Madeira which was the most beautiful and picturesque stop on our tour, in full fragrant bloom with Bougainvillea and Stargazer lilies amid tropical palm trees the like of which I'd only ever seen on episodes of Gilligan's Island and the Love Boat.
After a day touring around the island and admiring all its lush beauty we were off again, this time to the volcanic Canary Islands and a day trip to the summit of Mount Teide on Tenerife, passing banana plantations and thick pine forests until we reached the yawning mouth of the volcano.
From there we crossed the turquoise sea to the strangest landscape I've ever seen. The parched, black volcanic wasteland that was called Lanzarote, which in 1980 none of us had even heard of. As the many peaks of the island sailed into view, they looked like heaps of black ash rising out of the water, only dotted here and there with an occasional palm tree or small whitewashed cottage. And as we got closer and closer the temperature rose, until it was well over 100 degrees and rising. The port of Arrecife was little more than a village with just one hotel - Los Fariones - perched on the rocks and shaded by palm trees. Our trip inland was cancelled due to the dangerous heat and so we took shelter in the hotel until it was cool enough to venture out again and return to the ship.
That, for me, was the most memorable port of them all, not least because I had seen a glimpse of it before the rest of the world had and before global tourism took hold on the island.
Those were just a few of the memories I've retained from that incredible experience all those years ago. I can only imagine how much better it must be to do the same thing in the lap of utter luxury, on one of those now berthed in Belfast. My fingers and toes remain crossed for Saturday's Lotto draw!