by KATE LEAVER
The last time my mother was on a ship, she was four years old. She rode the odd 13,500 nautical miles of wave, through the navy swell from London to Sydney, to start a new beachside life with her family.
So when mum and I found ourselves aboard a P & O cruise ship regally called The Pacific Jewel, it was a very different experience. We stopped at three island ports, each more sparkling than the last: Noumea, Lifou Island, and Port Vila in Vanuatu. It was a Pina Colada Adventure of circus performers, aromatherapy saunas, and geriatric Bingo. It was a cavalcade of happy families pacing zebra-print carpet and dining at sumptuous restaurants.
The only thing in common was the pirate-themed costume night.
The most important thing I can report from the high seas is that sharing a small cabin with your mother can be a rather gorgeous bonding experience. For me, it was a quick 5-day refresher on why my mum is so impossibly fabulous.
Now, when you’re on a cruise, you meet all sorts of people. Big ones, small ones, young and old, noisy folk, honeymooners, grandparents, sneaky teenagers, cute toddlers. They swim, they dance, they impersonate Elvis in front of hundreds of people. They play 9am trivia, learn the tango, hit the treadmill, treat themselves to massages, relax by the pool, and spend quality time with the family. If they’re feeling lucky, they hit the lavish blackjack table.
And they eat. A lot.
(See the gallery below for evidence of the ship’s two most divine deserts: Luke Mangan’s Chocolate Tasting Plate and the head pastry chef’s Mango Four Ways. I ate the perfect steak & truffle mash with sides of bacon and zucchini, pear and rocket salad, and thick chips so quickly I’m afraid I didn’t get a photo. Just imagine the most delicious thing ever, and multiply it by 5).
It’s a funny thing, spending a week with strangers on a ship, but it gave me time to see my mum as other people do – immediately warm, kind, and funny. The person who guesses the nationality of cleaning staff when they challenge her, who makes people roar with laughter, who gives so generously of herself to complete strangers. And, sitting just past her pretty smile, quite the filthiest sense of humour I’ve ever known.
I caught myself looking at my mum sideways when we were sipping cocktails in a group, marveling at the ease with which she connects to people. I saw, all over again, what a nimble friend-maker she is, and how grateful I am every day to have her with me. I swooned and plucked up like a peacock every time someone else realized how awesome my mum is.
It’s been six years since I lived at home with my mum. I visit her often, and we speak most days. But I carry around with me in my most vulnerable times, a persistent nostalgia for living at home with my ma. She’s special. For that week – bobbing on the ocean, swimming in waterfalls, eating three-course meals every night – I felt at home again.
I think maybe because my mum is my home. We’re soul buddies, and we survive anything together.
I know how lucky I am. My mum played “I Spy” with me even though we’re grown-ups, tucked up in parallel single beds. She made loud jokes about the Titanic during the safety demonstration on board. She insisted on having an impromptu fashion shoot, posing in our life jackets (see evidence of this ridiculous exercise in the gallery below). She pushed me out into the hallway outside our cabin in just my t-shirt and undies, forgetting completely that we’re mother and daughter (you will absolutely not see evidence of that). She’s my confidant, and my best friend. And there aint nothing like a rollocking cruise adventure to remind you of that fact.
People go on cruises for so many different reasons: to find love, to celebrate love, to make love on a honeymoon or anniversary. Parents pile three generations of family on board, send their kids to play air hockey at kids’ club, drop their parents off at morning trivia, and escape to the top-deck steam room. Babies are cared for by kind child-care workers, teenagers are held captive with minimal mischief in their reach, and if you lose a grandparent they have to be on the ship somewhere.
It’s a pick’n’mix holiday, with something for everyone. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a butt-naked couple doing the squelchy on the riverbank in New Caledonia as you glide by on a paddleboard. You’ll dine out on that story for weeks, describing how the French paddleboarding instructor simply exclaimed “Ah, Nature!” as the couple continued without skipping a beat, hairy butt high in the air. Ah, the varied delights of a cruise holiday.
More than anything, my mother-daughter-on-a-ship holiday was a study in humanity. It was an experiment in how to unravel a stranger’s… strangeness. When you spend five days straight with the same group of people, you notice how onion-like our dispositions are. First night, with tiny bottles of champagne in hand, you’re all smiles and courtesy, explaining what you do. Next day, you’re all timidness and manners, letting slip a few more personal details but still wary of showing too much. Third night, with a few wines and a scrumptious dinner in your belly, it’s an entirely different story. If you like your new companions – which I did, very much – you relax a little into familiarity. You start to know their tics, their interests, and you spot an eccentricity here or there. By the last day, Babushka-like, you’ve shed a few layers of your persona.
If you’re lucky, you get new buddies that you genuinely want to speak to again. We met a motley crew of strangers, all of whom I was truly fond of by the time we reached Vanuatu: The most wonderfully wry woman, who has two pet chickens she calls her “girls”; a whip-smart, delightful PR Extraordinaire; a lovely couple shooting their own web travel series; a sassy fashion designer, and a wickedly funny personal trainer whose company was addictive.
But if you’re doubly-triply-unbelievably lucky, you’re already best friends with your mum and she doesn’t embarrass you for even a moment while you’re on the high seas.
Kate is a radio producer, writer and Goon Show enthusiast. You can find her website here, and follow her on Twitter at @Kateileaver. Katie traveled to the Pacific Islands on the Pacific Jewel courtesy of P &O Cruises.
Have you ever been on a cruise? Who would you take along?