I have been a roving journalist all my life, but mostly I was in Canada, where I quit my job as travel editor of the Vancouver Sun to go to Oxford University (celebrity chef Rick Stein and I went up about the same time as mature students) and en route took a cruise — on the first voyage of the Royal Viking Star, a sensational new ship that invented modern, luxury cruising.
Since then waterfronts have been my second home, taking part in inaugurals as the cruise industry grew quickly, initially in vessels with around 500 passengers, minnows compared to today’s mega-ships with upwards of 6000 on board.
My companions were a select band of reporters who were well looked after, but there was more to it than the first-class air travel and champagne in the cabin. Small ships are very sociable and as a VIP group we were invited to parties every night – by the captain, chief engineer, hotel manager, cruise director, even the doctor. Ships’ doctors also had parties for MDs on board, for if there was a medical emergency at sea he wanted to know which cabin to call for a cardiologist or an anesthetist.
Gossip flowed as fast as the alcohol and it was often about sex. We heard about wealthy women passengers on board to meet their lovers, usually barmen or waiters (in port they would walk hand in hand) while on one cruise a mother and daughter team seduced young crewmen every night – in the same cabin – then sought me out in the bar one evening, not for a threesome, but just to tell me what they were up to. Presumably the motivation was the notion there is something liberating about sharing intimate secrets.
And of course we were at sea, where people used to, and still do, let their hair down with the same abandon as what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
Then, 20 years ago, I sailed on a remarkable voyage from Hong Kong to Singapore.
This is now a busy cruise route with popular ports of call in Vietnam, but back then President Bill Clinton was working on but had not concluded normalizing diplomatic relations with the Hanoi government – despite objections that American prisoners of war were still being held captive.
Our ship was not a swanky new vessel, but the Ocean Pearl, an old Baltic ferry that had pioneered cruises to China. Among the passengers on this sailing was a handful of American pilots who had flown combat missions in the Vietnam war, including Cole Black, a US Navy pilot who had been shot down and held prisoner in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
We did not know what to expect when we got to Saigon, newly named Ho Chi Minh City. One passenger, a Vietnamese woman returning with her American husband, was so afraid she never left the ship, while others, including the press naturally, partied in the Apocalypse Bar on the Saigon River.
DAVID WISHART has written for Cruise Critic, the Los Angeles Times, New York Post, Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, London Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, The Times, The Independent, The Scotsman, Bangkok Post, New Zealand Herald, Essential Marbella magazine and Qantas inflight magazine. He is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers.
His best cruise experiences include standing on the deck of a ship with James Michener, author of Caribbean, as the vessel approached the island of San Salvador, believed to be Columbus’s first landfall. Others include sailing into Sydney Harbor, and standing under a palm tree with a cold beer while listening to a steel band. It might have been several beers because he’s damned if he can recall which Caribbean island it was.
So why DC Wishart and not David Wishart? Well, there are at least two other established writers called David Wishart. Others, such as JK Rowling and EL James, have got by using initials.