Size isn't everything

Andy and Pippa McLardy were novice cruisers when they escaped the British winter to join Fred. Olsen's elegant ship Boudicca in Barbados.

Andy and Pippa McLardy were novice cruisers when they escaped the British winter to join Fred. Olsen's elegant ship Boudicca in Barbados, but after a fortnight cruising among the lovely islands of the Caribbean, they can't wait to go again - especially as expenditure on board is all in pounds sterling

AS the giant American cruise liner pushed out of port ahead of us in a froth of turquoise sea, our captain Bjarne Bahne Larsen announced on the tannoy in his measured tones: "As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, today it is a matter of size before beauty."

Our "beauty" sailing serenely seaward in the wake of the huge, teetering, U.S. floating hotel, was the good ship Boudicca, owned by Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines whose headquarters are in Ipswich.

Named after the warrior queen of the Iceni who inhabited north Suffolk and Norfolk around 2,000 years ago and routed the Romans while ransacking Colchester and burning it to the ground, our Boudicca was, like her namesake, small, perfectly formed and slightly battle-scarred. A computer glitch had recently caused an unavoidable collision with a quayside and her bow displayed an unsightly (and probably extremely expensive) gash.

While the floating hotel given precedence over us held 2,000 plus passengers, Boudicca accommodates only 900 at full stretch. But size did not compromise facilities on the two-week Treasures of the Caribbean cruise that took us 2,890 nautical miles from Barbados and back via some of the loveliest islands the Caribbean has to offer.

As novice cruisers, travelling with Pippa's cousin Roger Stubbs and his wife Jane, we were astonished to find the range of facilities and activities on offer on board. There were two pools and a swim-against exercise pool, two hot tubs, an extremely well-equipped gym, a theatre-cum-ballroom called The Neptune Lounge, and some lovely bars, where superb pianists Steve Lowdell and Steve Gibbons entertained daily (and nightly) for hours on end. And service with a smile came from 360 crew and staff of many nationalities, but largely Filippinos, who were efficient, patient and inexhaustibly kind and pleasant (occasionally when a demanding customer did not deserve it).

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Every night, when we staggered down to our snug but cleverly-planned cabin around midnight, following a usually first-class five-course dinner, an hour watching the night's entertainment - magician, comedian, singers, and dancers of excellent quality, and perhaps a small nightcap or three - our maid would have left the following day's programme on our pillow. This alongside a chocolate or two in case we were still hungry after the final meal of the day, the "midnight snack" (actually we always managed to resist - honest).

Presented with a daily on-board selection of activities designed to occupy practically every minute, it's a wonder anyone ever had time to go ashore at our 10 ports of call. Pilates and fitness seminars in the gym, cookery, handicrafts, vegetable and ice carving demonstrations, ballroom and line dancing lessons, shuffleboard, deck quoits, golf practice, darts, lectures on places to be visited, and guest speakers - have you spoilt for choice and rushing between venues. One speaker was an amusing retired detective inspector, Clifford Wrate, late of Scotland Yard, who told tales of murder and intrigue, and turned out to be living in Melton.

But unless you have been there many times already, disembarking on to the islands of the Caribbean is irresistible. Whether you choose to book an excursion arranged by Fred.Olsen, who presented a wide choice all paid for in pounds sterling, or elect to do it yourself, you will experience a tantalising taste of a variety of different lifestyles which will leave you wanting to return and experience more.

With the exception of three days at sea (one of which saw us heaving our way through gale force nine), each day saw us venturing into a new port of call. Sometimes we joined an excursion, other times we took a taxi or walked to a fabulous nearby beach, town, shopping area (Pippa) or bar (self). Did I say "walk"? Well yes, actually. Thanks to beautiful Boudicca not being a fat hulk welded to a hull, she was able to squeeze into the most delightful spots.

At Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic we moored right by the old town for a leisurely morning stroll into the surprisingly elegant streets, and after a visit to Colon Park, dominated by a statue of Christopher Columbus, and the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Menor, we sat in a shady caf� and sipped perfect coffee and purchased curiously-flavoured cigars to bring home to anyone brave enough still to be smoking.

In Curacao the unique floating bridge opened for us to moor in the centre of Willemstad and we ferried across to the floating market and some very smart shops. In Tortola, we took an open-sided taxi bus on a hair-raising mountainous trip to the island's best-known beach. In St Lucia we were waylaid by an eccentric taxi driver offering to drive us somewhere special, who was promptly stopped by the police for various traffic violations, and then committed a load more to make his fine worthwhile.

In Antigua we found a village called Parham, and a model of Brooke Yachts International boatyard in Lowestoft displayed in their visitor centre ( I forget why). In Cuba, those of us on the tour received a parting gift from the government - small plates painted with an image of Revolution Square. It was a touching thought, and we loved the place.

And then there was Bequia. Ah, little, peaceful Bequia! Where we had to take the ship's tender to the shore to stroll among the hummingbirds and the local ladies' home-spun stalls selling jams and chutneys of ferocious heat. Our pepper jelly from Ada under the breadfruit tree was not too spicy, she said, but after the first taste of honey, the chilli kicks in and nearly blows you head off.

There were many wonders to tell of and if you've ever wondered if cruising is for you, now is a good time to try it. The big bonus is that you're seeing foreign places, but you don't ever need to spend anything but pounds sterling if you don't wish to. On board, you will pay around �2.50 for a pint of lager, �11 for a bottle of house wine, �10 for a bottle of gin to store in your cabin (it is not permissible to bring your own alcohol on board).

All your shore trips can be excursions, or you can just stay on the ship and sunbathe. And if you really enjoy the one you're on then, given space, Claire (or her counterpart) the lovely person in charge of future cruises, will be very happy to accommodate you on your ship's follow-on cruise. You might never go home again!

Andy and Pippa McLardy flew to Barbados to join the Boudicca for the Treasures of the Caribbean fortnight with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines. A similar fly/cruise in January 2010 on board the sister ship Braemar costs from �1,435 per person, based on an inside twin bedded cabin, and including all food, entertainment, flights and transfers. For full details of all Fred. Olsen's Caribbean cruises visit , call reservations department on 01473 742424 or speak to an ABTA travel agent.