Cruising in the lap of luxury
CRUISE ships, it has to be said, have had something of a bad rap lately.
Along with the unfortunate fate of the Carnival Splendor - whose guests were left stranded at sea with nothing but spam and pop tarts to keep them going after an engine fire knocked out power off the coast of California last year - there have been tales of norovirus outbreaks, horrendous working conditions and even the odd murder mystery aboard that have shaken the reputation of these once-revered floating hotels.
Then there's the unfortunate reputation cruises have as a magnet for elderly, bumbag-sporting Americans.
With the Splendor saga fresh in my mind and the other horror stories - regaled disturbingly on websites like cruisebruise.com - not too far from thought, I set off to Miami for the US launch of a ship named Celebrity Eclipse.
Fickle I may be, but any unease gave way to excitement before I'd even boarded. In the sticky heat of Miami, home of the world's largest cruise port, the sight of these enormous vessels looming over the city put any thought of spam and pop tarts well out of my mind.
The Eclipse is the latest in the Celebrity Cruises fleet, which merged with Royal Caribbean cruises in 1997. Today the two companies have 29 ships all up, including a handful of the tres posh "Solstice" class ships, of which the Eclipse is the newest.
True, a ship called Celebrity Eclipse may sound a little Hollywood, but tacky it is not. Far from it. The company's website says the Solstice fleet are the most stylish ships at sea and, despite my lack of cruise experience, it's hard to disagree.
Eclipse's décor is marked by understated wood panelling; the cabins (staterooms, actually) are stocked and restocked with high-quality linen and luxury bath products.
Sure it has pools, a buffet, Broadway-themed shows, a kids' club and all the cruise staples, but there are also several different fine-dining restaurants, a gelateria, an "iLounge" where you can play with the latest Apple gadgets and an enormous lawn on the top deck where you can sink your feet into lush grass and have a game of croquet if you so fancy.
There are a bunch of classy bars where an expert barman will whip you up a perfect martini or help you select a glass of pinot, a library with floor-to-ceiling book shelves and even, somewhat oddly, a "hot glass show" where you can watch glass artists from New York's Corning Museum of Glass work their magic.
But back to the food. The buffet restaurant - Oceanview Cafe - has everything you could ever desire, from roasts to sandwiches to curry to sushi to Mexican, all of it cooked fresh and constantly being replenished. And did I mention the desserts? Delicious, and never-ending.
If you do tire of helping yourself though, there are a couple of cafes, a creperie and the main a la carte restaurant, Moonlight Sonata.
And don't forget the four invitation-only specialty restaurants, each of them serving up haute cuisine of the highest standard. I never quite worked out what you had to do to get invited to Blu, Murano, Qsine and Tuscan Grille, but somehow I managed it - the fancy invitation to Italian steakhouse Tuscan Grille showing up under my door one day.
The excitement was tempered, I admit, by a slight concern about how a vegetarian would get on at a steakhouse, but the menu featured a goat's cheese salad and a tasty eggplant parmigiana, which I followed with a decadent tiramisu. Everyone's catered for on Celebrity Eclipse.
It's no wonder Celebrity Cruises calls the Eclipse "a destination unto itself". But if you ever get sick of the hubbub of the ship and overwhelmed by the myriad dining choices, you can retreat to the privacy of your room - 85 per cent of which have private balconies - order in-room service and call on your stateroom attendant should you want for anything.
My stateroom attendant was the delightfully named Ronaldo Agorilla, who was almost disconcertingly always at hand should I require him.
I never really made use of Ronaldo, but he was at my beck and call 24 hours a day. To do what, I'm not entirely sure, but it was good to know he was there. Had I run out of shampoo, or desired a different pillow, Ronaldo Agorilla was my man.
But cruises aren't all about the ship. They are, of course, about the destination.
Well, usually. My trip was a cruise to nowhere to celebrate the US launch of the Celebrity Eclipse. We left Miami and sailed along the Florida coast for a couple of nights before heading back to land.
I barely had time to think about the places I wasn't going, such was the excitement of being on board, but the Eclipse does seven and eight-night itineraries round the Caribbean, departing from Miami and stopping in Puerto Rico, Mexico, Honduras, the US Virgin Islands and various other idyllic spots, starting from US$599 ($812) per person.
Alice Neville travelled courtesy of Celebrity Cruises.