Travel: A Caribbean cruise is perfect for winter

The Crystal Symphony Cruise Liner against the New York skyline.  Picture: Contributed

The Crystal Symphony Cruise Liner against the New York skyline. Picture: Contributed

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AUTUMN IN New York. From the balcony of my room on board the Crystal Symphony, I watch the floodlit Manhattan skyline glide past in slow motion, almost close enough to touch. The sound of traffic carries in the evening air, headlights beetling along between the towering columns of steel, concrete and glass.

Twelve storeys above the Hudson River, the siren on Symphony booms across the water. Lit up like a Christmas tree, the ship ghosts past the petrified green Statue of Liberty as she follows us with sightless eyes.

Swimming pool on the deck of the Crystal Symphony cruise ship.' Picture: Contributed

Swimming pool on the deck of the Crystal Symphony cruise ship.' Picture: Contributed

The great escape is on.

After a summer season in Europe, Symphony had crossed the Atlantic to New York. Now, like any sensible exotic bird of passage, she was forsaking autumn skies for kinder, sunnier climes. And, as luck would have it, I was going with her.

Thus began what can only be described as a five star, champagne-fuelled, run for the balmy Caribbean.

Heading directly south, this extraordinary ship shrugged off autumn like a damp overcoat and surged gamely towards the rum, reggae and palm fronds of those warmer, more welcoming islands.

Two days at sea allowed ample opportunity to sag back gratefully into the onboard lifestyle. With fares including all food and drink, the Symphony is a little slice of the Riviera afloat.

There is a beautiful, central lobby with a gently tumbling waterfall and a gracefully curved spiral staircase that leads up to the shops above.

It also contains a bistro that offers free mochas, fresh fruit and gorgeous, melt-in-the-mouth custard tarts for most of the day. An upper deck lounge area features huge, plump sofas and chairs that are a hazard to any kind of activity, covered overhead by a sliding glass roof. Here, breakfast is served until 11:30 each morning.

Sailing on Symphony is like falling through the looking glass, only to land in some cashmere-lined alternate universe that subtly reduces its inhabitants to a kind of smiley, pampered stupor.

Autumn disappeared astern with amazing speed. The temperatures climbed rapidly, and our days evolved into long, lazy hot tub soaks, margaritas to hand, as the on board band ran through a repertoire of Drifters and Four Seasons classics.

Others lounged on sunbeds and sofas. The truly brave went jogging, or played paddle tennis on the upper deck. It was exhausting just watching them.

The first sight of land came as something of a shock, albeit a gentle one. From out of a picture perfect Caribbean sunrise, the lush, low rolling hills of Saint Maarten stood out, sharp and black against a blush pink sky. As the day grew stronger, Symphony threaded her way nimbly through ranks of idly bobbing yachts and sailboats.

Saint Maarten is half Dutch, half French, and totally hedonistic. Para gliders float above the sparkling briny like languid butterflies, even as jet skis tear up those same waters like so many maddened wasps.

From along the shoreline of the beach straight opposite, the sounds of reggae and the smell of fresh cooked jerk chicken hang in the early morning air.

Shoppers here are in paradise, with row upon row of jewellery and electrical shops, from the tasteful to the truly tacky. Options include sailing on an America’s Cup-winning yacht, or visiting the mildly intriguing salt flats just outside of the Dutch capital, Phillipsburg.

All of that looked like far too much work. After strolling the meandering, palm fringed boardwalk for an hour or so, I slipped with pathetic gratitude into an idly swaying hammock. A couple of strawberry daiquiris slowly reduced me to a smiley, happy blur.

Above my head, clouds like enormous fluffy pillows floated lazily across the powder blue sky. Like some old, half forgotten charm, the indolent magic of the Caribbean stirred in my soul. Even though the temperature was around 30 degrees, I had seldom felt so chilled out in my life.

Dusk found the Symphony slipping out of the harbour. As the sun set, the sea resembled a field of blazing straw. From out of the loudspeakers came the gravelly voice of Louis Armstrong. Picking at cold crab and lobster on my balcony, it was hard to argue with the man; it really is a wonderful world.

Now the islands came and went like a succession of spectacular drum rolls.

Antigua was next. Nelson, who had his base here at one time allegedly hated the place. I was inclined to disagree. With a beach for every day of the year and a waterfront thronged with clapboard houses and shops in vibrant shades of blue, red and canary yellow, Antigua ticked every box in my Caribbean idyll wish list.

Aruba featured pretty, pastel shaded shops with overly fussed facades in the capital, Oranjestad. Somehow, drinking cool, frosty cocktails underneath a plastic cow grazing on a waterfront roof bar seemed quite normal.

Long and low, Grand Cayman has fabulous snorkelling but, as usual, we opted for the famous Seven Mile Beach for another day of platinum chip indolence. A blinding, broad white expanse of spun sugar sand stretches as far as the eye can see. The water that laps almost apologetically at it is electric blue, milk warm, and a magnet for thousands of water babies.

With swaying palms above our heads, cold beer in our hands and warm sand between our toes, reality seemed at best an interesting concept.

Back aboard Symphony, we enjoyed lazy, eight course dinners each evening in the stunning main dining room, or picked at extensive, exotic sushi and butter soft Kobe beef at the speciality restaurants on board, all at no extra charge. We took in sumptuous floor shows and occasional karaoke evenings that were hilarious. The cinema showed something different each night. And yes, there was free, freshly made popcorn.

With around a thousand passengers on board and a blissful lack of any kind of hard sell, Symphony has space to match her abundant grace. You could be as sociable or solitary as you desired. And everything about the ship – from the quality of the bed linen to the pre dinner, lemon drop martinis – is simply the best afloat.

For once, I was unhappy to see Miami. Normally, even the thought of the place fills me with a deep, unholy joy. But as the Symphony progressed slowly along the palm-lined expanse of Government Cut to her berth, it meant the end of the carnival for now. Leaving Crystal Symphony was like being taken off life support. But the pleasure was certainly worth the pain.

• A 14-night Caribbean cruise from New York to Miami on Crystal Symphony costs from £3,476pp all inclusive, based on an outside cabin. She sails on 31 October. For more information tel: 0207 399 7601 or visit www.crystalcruises.co.uk

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