THE BEST INDIES; CRUISE SPECIAL Explore the Enchanting Caribbean Islands on a Dream Cruise That Looks after You Every Crest of the Wave
Byline: JOHN HONEYWELL
It's good enough for the Rooneys, the Beckhams, Simon Cowell and Jeremy Clarkson. Rihanna also calls it home.
So where better to jet away from the winter blues than the welcoming warmth of the Caribbean? We might not all be able to afford our own villa or an extended stay at an exclusive beach resort, but a week on a cruise ship can be equally appealing. It's almost like having a private yacht taking you on a gentle tour of the islands.
Frigate birds will be wheeling across the sunset as you wave goodbye to one port, spend the evening relaxing over dinner and a show, and wake up next morning to discover the scenery has been magically rearranged.
All that without having to continually pack and unpack suitcases every day.
In fact the economy of packing and the ease of travelling on my cruise aboard Thomson Dream began even before I left the UK.
Thomson fly from regional airports throughout Britain. I left from Birmingham, which had the most cheerful bunch of security staff ever encountered... even before breakfast and with snow falling outside.
My bag was tagged with the number of my cabin on the ship prior to check-in. I watched it disappear along the conveyor belt and didn't see it again until shortly before we sailed.
treated like a celebrity I was able to leave the plane and jump on a bus from Barbados' Grantley Adams airport for the 20-minute drive to the cruise terminal in Bridgetown without having to go through passport control or immigration formalities. My bag was doing the same by truck.
It couldn't have been easier and I almost felt like one of the celebrities who have their own staff to look after their luggage for them.
A relaxing day at sea was perfect for the first day on board. Time to explore the ship - newly refurbished during a multi-million-pound spell in dry dock to bring it up to the Platinum standard required of Thomson's top resorts - and to call in at its brand new spa to make an appointment for later in the week.
Dream was built in 1986 and saw service as the Homeric, Westerdam, and Costa Europa before Thomson took it over in 2010. It might not be the newest cruise ship plying Caribbean waters, but unlike some of its latest rivals it is well provided with sunbathing space outside and proper steamer chairs on the solid teak promenade deck.
Inside, as I discovered during a morning peeking into every corner, an eclectic art collection, from an extremely solid cannon to some carefully-preserved oil paintings, gives testament to the ship's colourful history.
The artefacts survived the refit which has given the old girl new carpets, sofas and chairs in the main public rooms, including the ever-busy Medusa Lounge. Here passengers let their hair down as resident band Top Men played note-perfect hits so well I could have sworn a DJ was playing.
Enough of the ship for now. On to our first port of call at Basseterre, St Kitts, where we set off on the island's Scenic Railway, clattering along the coast for 18 miles on a narrow-gauge track and crossing steep-sided gorges on spectacular steel bridges that would have looked at home in an Indiana Jones' movie.
The railway, originally built between 1912 and 1926 to carry sugar cane, now takes tourists in purpose-built, double-decker carriages.
Unlimited supplies of rum punch and an enthusiastic trio of acapella singers added to the experience and distracted attention from the strong breeze blowing off the choppy Atlantic.
There was more fun next day in Phillipsburg, St Maarten, with an opportunity to race an America's Cup yacht and to down yet more rum 24 hours later on a boat trip around the rocky outcrops which surround Tortola in the British Virgin islands.
Champagne was the order of the day for an excursion on board a catamaran in Antigua. …