It's no secret that cruising is seeing somewhat of a renaissance. If you'd asked me five years ago if I wanted to go on a cruise holiday, I probably would have replied with, "You clearly don't know me." The idea of being on a ship, surrounded by the same holidaymakers (usually of a different demographic), eating at the same restaurants and doing the same activities day in and day out would honestly fill me with fear – and I'm sure others have the same attitude still.
But cruising is becoming vastly popular and after boarding Royal Caribbean International's gloriously revamped Navigator of the Seas earlier this month, I can wholeheartedly say my perceptions have changed. The big draw for this particular sail that I went on over 4th July was that I would spend four nights at sea (a good length for first-time cruisers like myself) and get to voyage to the Bahamas, and in particular, CocoCay island.
Navigator of the Seas has been revamped and refurbished with new features for this year
Royal Caribbean International spent a cool £161m to transform the private island into their own exclusive waterpark, boasting the tallest waterslide in North America and the Caribbean's largest wave pool among other features. It's called Perfect Day for a reason, because it aims to appeal to all ages, and after hearing about the ship's one-day stop at the thrill and chill destination, well, how could I resist? If you're a first-time visitor to Perfect Day or a first-time cruiser like I was, read on for everything you need to know. And prepare to have those cruising myths debunked…
You really won't get bored on a cruise…
My main concern before signing up to the cruise was, will I get bored? I'm certain I'm not the first person who's thought this, but I can honestly say this will not be the case on Navigator of the Seas. Royal Caribbean International has literally thought of everything you could possibly want to do on holiday and packed it into one ship. A rock climbing wall, jogging track, basketball court, ice rink, grand theatre, escape room, laser tag venue, mini golf, open-air cinema, karaoke, nightclub, numerous swimming pools, and children and teens clubs are just some of the unbelievable entertainment on offer. I am still amazed by how they manage to construct so many different spaces on the ship! (Oh and it's never called a 'boat', it's always a 'ship' – #fauxpas.)
A view of the ship's main swimming pool and lounge area
If that wasn't enough, the cruise line splashed out £92m to create new, exciting features for this year. Navigator of the Seas is now home to the first standalone blow-dry bar at sea (the place to tame any Monica from Friends hair); Royal Caribbean's longest waterslide called the Blaster that actually takes you over the side of the ship (eek!); and the thrilling surf simulator aptly named FlowRider, perfect for those wanting to learn how to surf in front of endless ocean views. Also new for this year, and where we unashamedly spent long periods of time thanks to our drinks package, is The Lime and Coconut bar. The three-storey bar offers a bird's eye view over the ship, ideal for sunset photos and people watching. There are also literally thousands of deck chairs on the ship for the 3,386 guests, so if you're more of a fly-and-flop traveller and prefer to chill with a good book, no one's stopping you.
We only spent one full day at sea with our short sailing, so there was more than enough to keep us occupied. But trust me, you can't get bored. On the four nights that we were on the ship, we had a different post-dinner activity to look forward to. One night it was a comedian, the next a magician but the showstopper for me was the Ballroom Fever show, a production of incredible quality and pizazz I felt like I was on the set of Strictly Come Dancing. Top tip for first-timers – every evening, you're given a Cruise Compass brochure in your room which lists all the activities of the following day to help you plan your schedule. There will be at least one kind of activity on every hour that is bound to appeal, from complimentary casino classes, family archery competitions, health seminars and art auctions to movies on deck, scavenger hunts and blow out sales in the shops.
The newly built Blaster ride actually takes you over the side of the ship
You're spoilt for choice with food…
Just like you're spoilt for choice with entertainment, you will never go hungry on a cruise. It is virtually impossible. I actually forgot what pangs of hunger felt like for those four days on board, and am ashamed to say I expanded my appetite by at least five times. Burritos, tacos, spaghetti, burgers and fried chicken, all for lunch? Why not. Hunting for cake and cookies in the café after a three-course sit-down dinner, who's stopping me? I even indulged in my daily breakfast of corned beef and hash browns (something I haven't done since I was a child) because why the hell not. Did I mention there's also an ice-cream stand dishing out chocolate and vanilla twisted Mr Whippy's?
I naively packed three sets of workout gear for the cruise, but, unsurprisingly, didn't actually take them out of my suitcase. I was too distracted by all the great food on offer and besides, I'd hit the gym as soon as I got back home. The Windjammer restaurant is buffet central and has the most choice for breakfast and lunch, but you can also eat in the Main Dining Room. White tablecloths, chandeliers and grand sweeping staircases provide a more beautiful setting for an a la carte and smaller buffet breakfast, and a three-course dinner.
The aforementioned restaurants are all included in your cruise package, but if you want an even more premium experience, you can book into one of the other restaurants on board. Fans of Japanese cuisine have to try Izumi, which has a selection of fresh sushi, sashimi, maki and more. But the piece de resistance was the hot rock dish – prime cuts of beef which you cook and sizzle yourself on the grill. Steak lovers also have to book in to Chops Grille. You won't be disappointed by the soft-as-butter steak that literally melts in your mouth. Smokey and full of flavour, it's worth reserving a table.
You will literally never go hungry on a cruise
You don't have to dress up every night…
The cruise dress code was another element that slightly worried me before I signed up. My vision was of glamorous, well-heeled women swanning down staircases with a dapper, tuxedo-clad man by their side. I don't have enough nice clothes to pack for four days was my main worry. And while there is one night where guests are encouraged to 'dress their best', the general rule of thumb is, wear what you feel most comfortable in. The vast majority of cruisers wore summer dresses, T-shirts and shorts or swimming cover-ups during the day, and a slightly more fancy outfit for the evening, especially for Main Dining or one of the premium restaurants. Maxi skirts, nice tops or blouses, elegant summer dresses are perfectly fine – you don't need to go overboard and wear a cocktail dress, but there's nothing wrong with that if you want to!
You also have to splash out and make at least one appointment at To Dry For, not only so that you can say you had your hair done at the first standalone blow-dry bar at sea, but because it's just nice to have your tresses tended to on holiday. The salon offers blowouts, hairstyling and other services. Peruse through the hair menu – will you go for sexy beach waves, a bouncy Chelsea blowdry or a poker straight 'do? Getting pampered while sipping on prosecco is a real treat and one to add to the cruise to-do list, especially if you're celebrating a special occasion on board.
To Dry For is the first standalone blow-dry bar at sea
You really will have the Perfect Day at CocoCay…
While Royal Caribbean's cruises stop at various exotic locations, a highlight for this year has been the opening of Perfect Day at CocoCay island in the Bahamas. The thrilling waterpark just opened in May and its mission is to give every guest the perfect day, no matter their age or how adventurous they are. The main attraction is the 13 slides on offer – the most slides that can be found in any waterpark in the Caribbean. Adrenaline junkies should head straight to Daredevil's Peak, which, at 135 feet tall, is the tallest waterslide in North America. Now I didn't personally try it because it had one of the longest queues (yes, that's the real reason), but judging by the screams, it's not for the faint-hearted. I did try the high-speed, fully vertical Screeching Serpent, which will make your stomach drop and brings you back down to Earth in about three seconds.
Perfect Day has the tallest waterslide in North America
There are the more family-friendly slides too, including my personal favourite, The Slingshot, a zero-gravity slide that propels you up and down and can hold up to four people. There's also plenty on offer for the littlest of adventures, including an Adventure Pool that has an obstacle course with lily pads, Captain Jack's Galleon that has 30 water cannons and Splashaway Bay that is dotted with fountains, sprinklers, geysers, whirlpools, two massive drench buckets and more.
There are 13 slides on offer – the most slides that can be found in any waterpark in the Caribbean
Entry to the waterslides costs an additional fee, as do some of the other activities on offer. You can book zip lining and soar across the waterpark or see the private island from an even more impressive height, 450 feet up in the air in CocoCay's colourful hot air balloon. But if rest and relaxation are all you really want, head straight to Chill Island, where you can flop down onto a sun lounger and take in the clear tropical waters and powder-like sand. For those who prefer less sand, Oasis Lagoon is the Caribbean's largest freshwater pool that has a swim-up bar, three different coves and private cabanas with a dedicated cabana attendant. No wonder it was so popular with cruisers; I recommend heading to the beach to find a quieter spot.
You can also chill in the lagoons or on the beach
The Bahamas really is a dream destination…
The second stop on our itinerary was Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. We were given the full day here and I would recommend disembarking earlier rather than later because to leave the ship, you have to go through airport-style security and with more than 3,000 people on board, you will face queues. It's also absolutely imperative that you make sure you're back in the port and on the ship at the time they say so – not a minute later, because you will get left behind and have to find your own way to the cruise's next stop.
Nassau port can be a bit overwhelming as soon as you arrive. It was scorching, crowded and slightly hectic, with hundreds of cruisers not really knowing where they were going. We made a quick stop at the Straw Market, which was a ten-minute walk away and a good place to pick up any souvenirs like handicrafts, beach bags and jewellery. It's worth taking a peek into and just to have a walk around to take in the feel of the city, before heading to one of the many beautiful beaches.
The Bahamas really does equal paradise
We spent the day at nearby Cabbage Beach, which was ten minutes away from the port by taxi and the same stretch of sand shared by the big hotel chains like Atlantis and Four Seasons. For a first-time visitor to the Bahamas and with only one day to spend in Nassau, Cabbage Beach will more than tick the box. It may not be as quiet, secluded or off-the-beaten-track as some of the other beaches on the island, but it truly was paradise. We found a quieter spot just by walking further away from the hotels. I've been fortunate enough to visit Barbados, Cuba and Turks and Caicos in the Caribbean and the novelty of swimming in perfectly transparent water and sunbathing on beautiful white sand never wears off. Lying down and staring out to the turquoise waters – you really can't beat that view! The beach is perfect for families too; it's wide, sandy and safe for swimming, while there's also a wealth of water sports on offer from banana boating to jet skiing to parasailing.
The cruise is perfect for families
Navigator of the Seas is perfect for families…
One thing that struck me most about the cruise was how many families were on board. There were almost as many children and teenagers as they were adults, and everyone was having a great time, which goes to show how cruising really can be the perfect family holiday. With so much entertainment and so much choice for food, and the fact that you can never really get lost as you're all on the same ship, I was quickly convinced that cruising really is made for families. If the crowds start to feel overwhelming though, you can always retreat to the adults-only Solarium swimming pool and loungers, or hit the buffet at off-peak hours. You might also encounter queues when waiting to embark and disembark at port, so I'd suggest leaving before or after your fellow passengers.
Kids and teens clubs are also on board to keep the younger ones entertained
Make the most of the cruise-and-stay packages…
If you're coming from the UK as we were, it's recommended to arrive a couple of days before the sailing to shake off the jet lag and have the chance to explore a new city. We spent two full days in Miami, staying at Dream South Beach, which is one of the hotels that partners with Royal Caribbean to offer cruise-and-stay packages. Situated a stone's throw away from the iconic Versace mansion and on Miami's famed Collins Avenue, the location of the four-star hotel is perfect. You have everything you could possibly want on your doorstop including Ocean Drive, which has featured in countless Hollywood films and is a strip of lively bars, hotels and restaurants (perfect for people-watching); Española Way, again great for alfresco dining; the Art Deco Historic District, which is nice to stroll around; and of course, Miami Beach, a very expansive and clean city beach.
We stayed at Dream South Beach hotel in Miami before setting sail
The boutique hotel, which has been inspired by its Art Deco area, is home to 107 guestrooms and suites each equipped with fine amenities including wall-mounted TVs, fully-stocked minibars and ultra-plush bathrobes. Modern luxury is the vibe they're going for, with a monochrome colour scheme throughout. Dream South Beach also boasts an ultra-glam rooftop lounge, Highbar, where comfortable day beds and sun loungers surround a very inviting lap pool. Take in the views of Miami's electric skyline while sipping on the hotel's signature cocktails. For food, Naked Taco, located next to the hotel, serves up some of the best Mexican fare that Miami is so known for. You can't beat simplicity and authenticity in a menu and celebrity chef Ralph Pagano has done just that, creating traditional taquitos and carnitas as well as street food with an upscale twist.