Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Saturday, 22 September 2007

See The World - forget about your Oyster

One of the advantages of living near the Thames is that we don't have to make an effort to see visiting ships. This week, dwarfing a large block of flats is this moving block of flats - sorry, "ocean residences" - that's known as The World.

For a few million dollars and an annual service charge that would pay the salary of several MPs (if you need to know exact figures, you obviously can't afford it), you too can enjoy cruising around in your own home, complete with access to a spa, golf simulator and the kind of things that come with luxury cruises. Wherever you go in the world - and this ship seems to stick to the well-travelled cruise ship destinations, you're in - as the small ads used to say - the privacy of your own home: or at least your holiday home. Or one of them.

It wouldn't suit me: when I go away it's because I want to experience a different way of living for a while. The whole point is to be in unfamiliar surroundings; and if hotel rooms can sometimes be a strangely dislocating experience (you can never quite just chuck off your shoes and curl up with a cuppa), a good alternative is a home exchange, which I've done from time to time.

But taking my neighbours with me everywhere I go? I think not.

And what it must it like for the places they visit? I had a holiday on Mykonos once: in the height of summer, a street of village houses, white like sugar cubes, were open to the street to display their wares: fur coats. Who else would buy them but people off the cruise boats?

Imagine travelling from place to place and finding that, no matter how scenic it may be, it's been set up to offer you whatever you can get everywhere else you can go. Imagine being the kind of person that wants it that way.

These last few weeks, the people of The World (!) been exploring the imperial glitter of St Petersburg, the amber of the Baltic states, the elegance of Oslo, and this week - Deptford.

Because it's so big, The World is hardly able to pass in style through Tower Bridge and berth in the Pool of London, unlike these more modest cruise ships. There are plans for a swanky cruise terminal just opposite us, but it seems to be stuck at the hole-in-the-ground stage, so the likes of the World and the Ark Royal have to make do with a couple of portakabins on a pontoon.

There's sort of appropriateness about a cruise from St Petersburg ending in Deptford: it was, after all, here that Peter the Great came to study shipbuilding (and turned out to be the tenant from hell in the house of the diarist John Evelyn.

Though it may not be very recognisable from The World, there are some of the eighteenth century buildings of the old naval dockyard left. From here, Captain Cook set sail for Australia; a century earlier, it was here that Samuel Pepys restored the Navy - his contemporaries knew him as a leading administrative and political figure, not the backstairs gossip and skirt-fumbler we know from his diaries. Earlier still, of course, it was in Deptford that Marlowe met his mysterious end.

I'd like to think the people on The World might be interested in all of that. Perhaps the people who've moved into the converted council flats on the site of the old dockyard might be able to afford a place on The World and tell them all about it.

Much more scenic nautical visitors recently - to Canary Wharf this time - have been some sailing ships. I like the contrast between the bland sleekness of the buildings and the complexity of the rigging (however does anyone remember what rope does what job?).

This is the Tenacious, one of the Jubilee Sailing Trust's ships, which enable able-bodied and disabled people to sail together. Not much luxury cruising, I imagine, but probably a lot more fun: and perhaps nicer people.

Not so much fun, and definitely not run by nice people, were the slave-traders. I missed the visit of the Amistad, the replica of the ship that was taken over by its captives, and became the subject of a film. Various mishaps delayed their planned arrival: and, according to the local paper, it looks as though the crew didn't entirely enjoy their stay in London. I wonder what they would have thought if they'd been moored on the West India Quay side - the other end of the sugar trade the slaves were captured for.

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