The cruise ship from hell

By Martin Kelner, Mail on Sunday

Last updated at 17:15 21 October 2002


The last time I joined a conga line was some years ago - I was saving myself until England won another World Cup.

But the young entertainers on board what I suppose we must now call the cruise ship from hell were so determinedly enthusiastic about the project, it seemed churlish not to take part.

This was the 'sail away' party, as the Island Escape, star of ITV's ten-part docusoap Cruise Ship, left Palma, Majorca, bound for various popular Mediterranean destinations.

Forewarned, however, by some of reality TV's choicest moments, we were not absolutely sure whether partying was the appropriate response.

The party was around the pool at the top of the ship, and as a veteran of Titanic - the film, rather than the doomed liner - you always have the nagging feeling that while poor misguided fools are throwing streamers and conga-ing up above, something unspeakable is going on down below.

But no, sewage was not pouring out of blocked toilets and flowing down corridors, tiles were not falling off walls, agitated restaurant managers were not striding around extolling the virtues of cheddar cheese to bemused staff.

As Cruise Ship viewers will know, all this and worse was the story of the Island Escape's early days.

The 40,000-ton ship, a former car ferry, was converted earlier this year after a marriage between British tour operator First Choice and cruise company Royal Caribbean International.

In March it set sail into a sea of troubles, offering two seven-day itineraries - the Mediterranean Essence, visiting Tunis, Civitavecchia (for Rome), Portofino, Nice and Barcelona; and the Mediterranean Spirit, calling at Valletta, Naples, Livorno, Toulon and Mahon.

The idea was to create a new holiday concept, 'casual cruising', which turns out not to be something MPs and well-known actors used to be arrested for in the Fifties, but rather an effort to strip away some of the mystique from cruising - dressing-up for dinner and so on - and bluntly to appeal to a wider, and probably younger, constituency.

The company's literature boasts of its friendly, flexible approach, and talks of 'ad-lib dining' and 'a relaxed dress code'.

All in all, I wish I had read it before I packed, and then I should not have been the only one beside the pool in a dark navy suit, shirt, tie and best cuff links.

But, suit or not, Warren Bradshaw, an ebullient 32-year-old Londoner and the oldest of the Island Escape's 29-strong team of entertainers, was not about to take no for an answer, so conga it was, and four hundred quid's worth of pure British wool, not to mention the idiot inside it, risked a soaking.

When people talk about cruise ship entertainers it is often with a sneer, received wisdom being that they are either washed-up has-beens in search of a suntan and a final payday, or desperate wannabes on the road to nowhere.

But during the Island Escape's troubled early days the song-and-dance merchants on board demonstrated the worth of a cheerful and enthusiastic entertainment team.

They were flung into the front line in April when sanitation problems forced 1,500 passengers off the ship and on to flights home or into hotels in Majorca.

It was their practised smiles and performing skills that were used to try to mollify holidaymakers who suddenly found the cruise of a lifetime had become a week in Magaluf.

Most of the artistes called upon to perform those heroic duties have now left the ship, but Claire Phillips, a 26-year-old singer and dancer from Formby on Merseyside, is still singing, dancing and smiling aboard the Island Escape, despite experiencing horrors that make Captain Bligh's Bounty seem like a pleasure cruiser.

I mean, Fletcher Christian might have had to put up with a lot, but at least he did not have the righteous indignation of Middle England bearing down on him in a Majorcan hotel lobby at three in the morning, and still have to keep smiling.

Claire recalled: 'People kept asking me all sorts of questions about refunds and getting them on flights home and so on. I just wanted to say, "Look, I'm a dancer, there is nothing I can do to help you", but you just had to be pleasant, and do your best to pacify people.'

The temptation to say, 'I can't get you a new hotel, but I can do you Liza Minnelli's showstopper from Cabaret', must have been almost irresistible.

Among the problems faced by the entertainers in those early days was a plague of flies in their living quarters, which meant that several of them suffered from diarrhoea.

'How do you dance, with diarrhoea?' I asked Claire. 'It isn't easy,' she replied.

Most of the Island Escape's teething troubles have been solved, it is fair to say. There has, it seems, been a little dentistry.

The managing director, who invited the fly-on-the-wall TV people to join those other flies plaguing Claire and the entertainers, is 'no longer with the company'.

Neither is Ron, the cheese-fixated restaurant manager. The ship is clean, the food is not spectacular, but plentiful and perfectly edible, and the service is friendly and efficient.

Whether or not the company's aim of attracting a younger clientele is working is difficult for me to judge, as I was aboard earlier this month, after school and college-summer holidays were over, at a time when the more mature holidaymaker likes to take a break.

That certainly seemed to be the case on the Island Escape. I was travelling with Martha, my 12-year-old daughter, who attended the 'mix and mingle event' at Wavelength, the ship's club for young teens, and she spent the evening mixing and mingling with herself.

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