I had never previously considered ocean cruising as a potential holiday. The way I saw it, if I wanted to be cooped up with people with whom I had nothing in common and with no visible means of escape, I could spend Christmas with my in-laws. In any case, I get seasick listening to the shipping forecast.
And yet friends who were serious cruise fanatics had assured me it was the only way to travel involving exotic locations, fabulous sunsets and the chance to unwind without having to first suffer the ignominies of cattle-class air travel. And then there was the food
My chance came when I joined the SS Grand Princess for a two-week "Mediterranean Medley". This colossus of the ocean, at one time the largest ship in the world, was due to pootle around the southern coast of Europe, calling at assorted glamorous destinations.
As the uninspiringly titled "guest scholarship lecturer", my sole job was to deliver five humorous talks on my life in both art and cricket pads as part of the liner's exhaustive (and exhausting) entertainment package. In between, my wife and I could sample the full delights of shipboard life including five restaurants, four swimming pools, three theatres, several miles of sun deck, and a beauty centre. It was, even for a guest scholarship lecturer, a no-brainer.
The joy of starting your holiday the moment you have parked your car may be an attractive alternative to the departure lounge at Gatwick, but it came at a price. No sooner had we cast off from a rainy Southampton dock than the entire ship's contingent, all 4,000 passengers and crew, were summoned to our designated muster stations to practise an emergency evacuation drill.
We found ourselves sitting forlornly in a huge lecture theatre among hundreds of disorientated trippers all festooned in fluorescent buoyancy jackets, while a cheery steward in a baseball cap instructed us in the correct way to abandon ship. I had never realised drowning could be so much fun.
Just as we were wondering if it was too late to swim back to the mainland, our luck changed. Alan and Alana have been crooning their relaxing blend of easy-listening favourites on various cruise ships for 24 years, and they can spot unhappy holidaymakers at 30 paces.
Within minutes of bumping into us in the lift, they had shown us to our cabin and indicated the way to Horizon Court, the panoramic 24-hour restaurant on the top deck. By the time we glimpsed the outline of Cowes through the drizzle we were enjoying a glass of chilled rosГ© and some grilled swordfish, and the world seemed a whole lot better.
"They came in search of paradise", or so the Bounty advert used to proclaim.
We found ours on day three. After two days in the Bay of Biscay under grey skies we had turned left into the Med during the night, and suddenly our holiday resembled the brochure. The sun was blazing from a clear blue sky and Malaga, the first of our advertised ports of call, was waiting at the far end of the gangplank.
Breakfast was very different that morning: shoulders had dropped, shorts and flip-flops replaced fleeces and jeans, and gloomy speculation about the weather back home now gave way to the relaxed babble of people who realised they would actually need sun lotion.
Over the next eight days we had about as much fun as it is possible to have without breaking the law. Each morning we were staring down at a new and exotic location, with a whole day ahead in which to enjoy it. Whether staring in awe at Gaudi's improbable cathedral in Barcelona, gaping at the limousines arrayed outside Monte Carlo's glamorous casino, or merely taking a taxi to the nearest beach for a few hours' blissful swimming in the sea (as we did in the bustling Spanish port of Cartagena), each day brought higher temperatures and fresh discoveries.
The following weekend we moored at the port of Civitavecchia, a short hop from Rome on a specially chartered private train. I had never visited the eternal city, and it didn't disappoint. By midmorning I was cooling my wrists in the Trevi fountain and thinking this is how I had always imagined my life as a romantic film star might have been if only Rossano Brazzi hadn't cornered the market.
We found ourselves standing in the queue for the Colosseum next to Mercedes, one of the waitresses from the ship. Originally from Acapulco, she had been working on the ship for several months to fund her way through college.
Having briefly discarded her uniform for shorts and trainers, she too was taking a brief spell off work to see the sights although she would have to be back on board many hours before we all shuffled back to don our nosebags.
Mercedes liked the Brits, though she admitted our favourite occupation seemed to be moaning. I needed no reminding: only that morning I had witnessed an elderly lady at breakfast complaining in a northern faux-posh accent to the head chef that her toast wasn't "like we do it back in Hebden Bridge". The chef's sincere apologies had cut no ice. "I can see I'm going to have to have a word with your superior," she intoned with toe-curling pomposity. As an example of the "fog in channel, Europe cut off" attitude of Brits abroad, it could have hardly been bettered.
Sunday found us in Naples. It may not be the prettiest of cities, but with its strings of washing hanging from tenements, colourful market stalls and church bells summoning the faithful to mass, our morning stroll through the back streets rewarded us with scenes straight out of a Mario Lanza film though thankfully without the songs.
Our brief stay also gave me the chance to fulfil one of my personal ambitions: visiting Pompeii. The $50 (ВЈ30) I paid on my plastic cruising card (the ship is a cashless society, with every extra automatically deducted from your bank account) provided me with transport to and from the ship, plus a half-day guided tour.
I was unprepared for the scale and integrity of this most iconic of archaeological sites entire streets, whole houses, fountains, preserved bodies, even ancient graffiti.
Short of seeing Frankie Howerd approaching in a toga, it couldn't have been more how I had imagined it.
By 7pm I was back on board the ship and tucking into a fillet steak at a steady 22 knots towards Corsica. Cruising was indeed proving a beguiling way of travelling.
By the time we had sampled Ajaccio, the charming capital of the island and birthplace of Napoleon, our floating metropolis had delivered us eight separate venues in as many days. With an entire day's sailing back to Gibraltar ahead, I had a chance at last to explore the ship properly.
But even at sea the itinerary left no moment unfilled. The variety and scope of the entertainment on offer was stupefying. Once you had tired of sunbathing or taking a dip in any of the three separate outdoor pools (one with integral wave machine), you could sample anything from table tennis and deck quoits through to talent contests, ballroom dancing and late-night open-air movies on giant cinema screens under the stars. There were exhibitions of fine art, wine tastings and even masterclasses in photography.
And for those whose needs were more specialised, the ship catered for every age and predilection. Among the special meetings I saw advertised were ones for Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, Freemasons and what was coyly described as "friends of Dorothy".
It was impossible to sample more than a fraction of the available treats, although I'll regret to my dying day missing the craft class run by the gloriously named Judith Sandstorm, which promised to show "how to make a three-dimensional orchid with rickrack stem and then stitch it onto a cotton tote bag". The after-dinner entertainment might have been more Bruce Forsyth than Bruce Springsteen, but the punters loved it.
Most evenings you could choose between magicians, soul bands or classical concerts, and for anyone still standing after all that, Alan and Alana were in the Promenade bar to ease you past midnight.
And then there was the food. It was everywhere, in endless supply and of stunning quality. Whether dining buffet-style or formally in one of the elegant restaurants with silver service and hot-and-cold running waiters, we didn't have a single meal that was not mouth-watering, perfectly presented, and in elegant surroundings.
A guided tour of the galleys soon showed why: each day skilled kitchen staff (including 16 specialist pastry chefs) prepare a colossal quantity and variety of food, including 7,000lb of fresh fruit, 300lb of shrimp, 470 gallons of coffee, 6,000 fresh cakes and 1,800lb of poultry. Anything not consumed at the time of serving is thrown away at once although to judge from the appetites of those around me, this didn't look as if it would prove much of a task.
On our last night at sea we stood on the top deck staring at a night sky bigger and blacker than I could ever remember. The annual Perseid meteor shower was due to glance the outer fringes of the Earth's atmosphere sometime around midnight, and 20 minutes of craning our necks at unfeasible angles was rewarded with several celestial fizzes straight out of the opening titles of Disney Time.
By our return to Southampton we had made new friends, seen some wondrous sights and had suntans that would have had David Dickinson purring with pleasure. After a fortnight's serious scoffing my waistline was now equally impressive: of course, I should have used the fully equipped on-board gymnasium and running track, but somehow it proved the one amenity I never quite located.
So have I become a convert? You bet. In contrast to my preconceptions about cruising being Butlins-on-sea, the ship had been pristine, stylish, spotlessly maintained, and large enough to allow you to do your own thing.
In fact, I'm already planning my next one for the New Year just as soon as I've bought myself some larger trousers.