In April, I was commissioned by Gigwise to board a five-day Mediterranean cruise. Only this would be a cruise with a difference. Replacing the halls and lounges and entertainment of your conventional cruise would be DJ sets across the boat, and a five-day celebration of club culture. This is the un-edited edition of the story behind that journey.
Somewhere at Sea: Life on board an electronic party cruise
We might not be prepared, and we might not feel immediately comfortable with it, but in time, the community of strangers who embark on these journeys offer a unique community, quite outside of everyday life.
I’m in the final moments of a week on a Mediterranean cruise ship. Waiting for my taxi to the airport in one of the lounges on board, I can’t help but watch another man who seems to be in a similar limbo state. He’s clad in a thick jacket, much too hot for the sweltering Spanish weather outside, and is drinking to himself. I can’t tell whether he is disembarking from the cruise I’ve just been on, a five-day club cruise, or whether he’s just embarking on the LGBTQ Rainbow Cruise that will leave the port this evening. But as I fly back, the man fills my thoughts.
In the man I watch in the lounge I see all the deep pleasures the cruise has to offer. I see the pleasures of a free bar immediately in front of him, but I also see the loneliness, the cabin fever, the motion sickness, and sense of unease about this environment, that I’ve similarly felt over the last few days. I leave him, hope beyond hope, that he is just getting over his uncomfortable sea legs.
In many ways, this man represents where we find ourselves on cruises. We’re coaxed to the idea of it by brochures; we’re convinced of its exoticness by travel agents, but it’s us that eventually experience the cruise itself. And we might not be prepared, and we might not feel immediately comfortable with it, but in time, the community of strangers who embark on these journeys offer a unique community, quite outside of everyday life.
All aboard the Mein Schiff 2
This whole adventure started a month before when an email landed in my inbox. The German party promoters, Big City Beats, were hosting a cruise a Mediterranean cruise with a twist. Instead of all the entertainments already on offer on the cruise, they would be installing six temporary clubs across different spaces on the boat.
We’d set sail in Mid-May, and over the course of five days we’d make stop offs at Barcelona, Ibiza, and Mallorca. It all sounded too rich for me. I’m not a clubber, and the idea of a cruise filled me with all the dread and discomfort of being on one of the all inclusive package holidays I’d seen advertised on the windows of travel agents. But a month later, I was boarding a plane for Palma, Mallorca, with no idea of what I was getting myself into.
From the air, Mallorca has the same dust-swept landscape as so many Southern European countries. Long straight roads cut through dusty agricultural land where cattle graze on the leftover grasslands. Palm trees line the path broken by the tarmac. As we pass over the city walls of Palma the beautiful sun baked stone villas of pale crème and pastel white make way for cement and steel.
As the plane veers back to line up with the runway, I get the first of the boats I’m about to spend the next five days on. Even from the sky they are giants. Like tower blocks, they stand proud on the water’s edge, dwarfing the other boats in the marina.
My taxi from the airport drives the length of the Palma shoreline. We pass the main town, the marina, and a Spanish Navy training base, before the road dips down towards the security barriers on the harbour dockside. We pull up next to a row of TUI Cruise branded buses.
It’s only from the harbour-side that I start to take in the size of the ship we’re about to board. It might have looked big from the air, but down here, looking up at it, it’s colossal. Balconies run along the length of the boat, of which where there must be over a hundred in total, before ascending upwards 12 decks into the sky. There are five floors of cabins all in all, and another one deep in the hull of the boat reserved for staff members.
On board the boat itself, there’s enough space for 850 crew members, and almost 2009 passengers. Of the 850 crew, there are 40 different nationalities, over 20 different spoken languages, and six different religions practiced on board.
On board the boat we’re given a quick briefing by the tour company. The cruise is being run by the German off-shoot of Thomas Cook in the UK. During the less busy spring months, they have been experimenting with these new ‘special’ cruises. The idea is to target new and niche audiences, who might not have thought about going on a cruise before. With two million cruise guests in Germany alone, it’s a new market and TUI are doing everything in their power to capitalise on it.
The company’s cruises are markedly untraditional. There are no dress codes or captain’s dinners, and there’s free drinks and buffets on offer 24hrs a day, as well as entertainment to suit the clientele. The average age of cruise guests in the summer months is nearly 60, but with these special one offs, that number drops to well below the 40-mark.
The crew themselves are largely either Central European or South Asian, while the higher ranking crew are Spanish, German, or Greek. For many of the South Asian members of staff, many work on the ship because it doesn’t require an ordinary working visa like work would require in any conventional European city. Wages are paid in dollars, and with everything accommodated for on the boat, it means there’s more money to send home at the end of the month.
The boat sets sail at 8pm local time, giving me a few hours to run around the streets of Palma before getting back to the boat. There’s a shuttle that goes towards the city, which gives me a few hours of veering around Palma’s Old Town.
The pace here is quite gentle. Cobbled backstreets with high-end boutiques and restaurants make it feel like its moneyed, but without any pretentiousness. Paintings of the seafront hang outside boutiques selling souvenirs, while little gelato huts offer tasters to passersby. My favourite find is a stone-cobbled bakery on the corner by the grand church. Inside, a woman fans herself while offering slices of cured sausage to anyone who walks in. I walk away with a giant slice of meringue pie, which I gorge by the seafront as I wait for the bus back.
Back onboard the boat – I start to get a feel of the kind of people who launch themselves into five days at sea on an electronic party cruise. There’s a real mix of people on board. There are groups of younger German clubbers, who’ve all come in big packs with friends. And there are older faces, mostly in couples, who’ve come as an alternative to going to another German dance music festival. We’re told by the cruise company that 70% of the bookings on board have come from travel agents rather than the promoter, and looking around, you can somewhat tell, as many relax into the feeling of the cruise. Perhaps it’s what they expected, perhaps for others it’s wildly out of their comfort zone, but whatever happens, over the next five days, all of them in some way, will embrace the mentality of cruises and of electronic music.
The Big City Beats cruise is not the first spectacular the promoters have put together. Big City Beats have capitalised on the recent growth in German EDM fans. Specialising in large scale clubbing experiences, this five-day party cruise, follows on from experimental parties held on board Boeing 747’s, a party on a high-speed cross-country train, and running the biggest ever temporary super-club, where 200 DJs played across a 700,000 square metre site. The cruise itself is only a lead up, to their biggest party yet, which will see Big City Beats build another super-club. In a way, the cruise is a preview of what to expect.
The pool area has been turned into an open-air dance floor, complete with Jacuzzis and swimming pools to paddle in. The on-board theatre, usually reserved for full-scale productions, is now a 1000-capacity, all guns blazing, club space kitted out with lights and sound-system. While the various bars and lounges on board, have become the backdrop to a soundtrack of Balearic house.
The headliners will all be sleeping, eating, and living on board just as the passengers are all weekend. Which means by day five, they will share the same fatigue as we will. It’s quite extraordinary to be in an environment like it, where instead of a festival where life can often feel dislocated into small groups that people are forced into an intimate community of strangers sharing in the same experience. It’s a novel idea, and for me, part of the real attraction of the cruise experience.
Before we launch there’s a safety briefing everyone needs to attend. It’s where they teach us the protocol in an emergency. After the Titanic crashed, reform to the lifeboats policy, meant that whichever side the emergency ascended on, there was still enough lifeboats on both starboard and port side to carry off all passengers and staff. They call a register for the guests. One notable absence is the big name headliner on board, Robin Schulz and his crew, who seem to be elsewhere other than the briefing.
The boat launches within the hour, and by 9pm we’re drifting away from Mallorca. As the boat departs, the water rushes up against the dockside. As the lights of Mallorca fade into the distance, the deep dark blue of the night sky brushes the horizon line of the ocean. Between us now, there’s nothing but water and house music.
For the next 24 hours, we’ll have to be content with nothing but sea before us, as it’s not until the next morning that we arrive in Barcelona. The day starts pretty mildly.
There are hangovers to contend with from the night before, and my cabin partner, having not slept for the two days prior to his flight, does more than his fair share of lying in. Before we make for breakfast in the buffet hall, and then spend some time being toured around the ship by the TUI Cruise crew.
For anyone who’s not into this kind of culture, there’s little chance to escape. And with the next 24 hours promising nothing but turbulence and seasickness it means things are pretty tough going.
It’s best to keep to the central part of the boat when seasickness hits, as it’s where the boat is most stable. It’s also the best place I’ve found to muster a quiet moment. And it’s here that I spend most of the quieter mornings on the boat, sitting, thinking, and reading. From the lounges, you can look out at sea, take a minute, and reflect something that’s incredibly hard to do when you’re surrounded by the aggressive sound of club music all day. And without the crew to stir me into partying, the quiet sanctity of the lounges is just what I need.
Over the day miles upon miles of sea drift past us and I can’t help but think about the tides and corals of fish beneath the surface. We might be in a mini-world above the waterline, but what is down there must be infinitely fascinating.
Something I find out very quickly, over the first 24 hours, is that finding time and space to get your head straight, before descending out into the chaos of the clubs, is very important.
The choreography of music across the boat is seamless, and the sheer ambition of the promoters that is something to marvel it. Anywhere you walk there is music. On the in-cruise sound system that plays throughout the boat mixes play all day long. In the cruise bars, usually reserved for those who wish to gaze back at sea, there’s DJ’s playing throughout the afternoon and evening. And even in the kids lounges, and the area usually reserved for ballroom dancing there’s DJ equipment set up. When you finally find a little chill time on the cabin balcony – even then, you can still hear music booming from one end of the boat to the other.
Finding space to think is quite difficult here, and for the first 24 hours I find getting comfortable with this all adrenaline rushing experience quite difficult. I struggle with the seasickness, and only really face up to the music that’s been pouring through the boat all day, come the evening. Most of the sets I see drift out of fairly quickly. But it’s the passing between the club spaces on the boat, the different intimate rooms where clubbers are hard at it, that I enjoy. I spend night two flitting between these spaces, enjoying the atmosphere of different kinds of music circulating the space.
By the time we reach Barcelona in the morning, the routine of cruise life has become a little more embedded. It feels good to finally leave the boat and set foot on land. We’ve got eight hours to enjoy the city, before docking back on the boat for another night of parties at sea, time that offers some counselling to early thoughts about the cruise experience.
As we disembark, the motion of the foot is imprinted into our walks. There’s over-stepping, where the rock of the sea-tide is still looming in the back of our heads and misjudgements as we lean forwards to board the metro.
With the city comes freedom – discovery and exploration that is truly wild. I take the metro up to Park Güell to see some of the Gaudi architecture, but also to feel some sense of the real, rustic, and wild feelings you can’t get on the boat.
In the Güell, the air is rich with birdsong and sounds you don’t hear at sea. There’s the brush of trees on the wind, the crunch of footsteps under gravel. Underneath the arches of the walkways, musicians fiddle away at their instruments, while street-sellers stir gently at walkers who scan their blankets of cheap sunglasses.
It brings up an aggressive juxtaposition to cruise life that I’m still struggling to get over. Organisationally on the boat, everything’s been done for you and everything’s been planned. Twice a day my cabin is cleaned, my meals have all been cooked, and there’s entertainment to enjoy everywhere. But it means it’s a unique sort of freedom. Your freedom is confined to options on the buffet and drinks list, and to what entertainment you want to enjoy. There’s a combination of feeling like you want to stop thinking, but with the absence of anything really wild in front of you, it’s hard not to.
A couple of hours in the park later, I take a brief moment to stop in on Las Ramblas. It’s about tea time, and everyone is just leaving work, meaning the streets are busy, and the shops are making a good trade. La Boqueria, probably my favourite food market on the planet, is bustling. Live crab, plates of spanish tortilla, and little cans of Mahou line the counter-tops. It’s exactly the kind of unexpected, wild experiences that the boat doesn’t foster.
My time in Barcelona might have been a ‘brief refresher’, and walking back towards the port, I’m desperate to stay another night. But part of getting used to this form of travel, is to let go of any premonitions about travelling, and embrace the art of movement. This is not a weekend, with the sea included, but a journey where the sea and the music is the central focus.
As one city drifts away, another replaces it. Ibiza is next journey on our pathway, before we head back towards Mallorca.
I’ve found it hard to find spaces on the boat that feel serene and comfortable around the masses of others, but on the third night on board the boat, it’s a set by an old Frankfurt DJ begins to really captures my senses. The set is deep and progressive, not bright and shiny like the music playing on the pool deck. Tracks are less worried about where it’s going than being able to happily groove along the space it’s in. It’s the kind of music I’ve been searching for the whole time, but it’s only a couple of nights that I’ve even felt prepared to enter this space.
Clubbing on board makes much more sense when you forget the boat and just remember you’re moving towards the highlights of the Iberian Peninsula. I imagine there’s a similar feeling at festivals like ATP, or anything set in an old Pontins or Butlins park, where the entire infrastructure is built for something different, but for one weekend, its home to music fans.
Part of my difficulty on the boat, has been doing this five nights in a row. Something that’s visible on many of the clubbers faces by night four is that pacing themselves here has been important. Despite the access to free booze and food everywhere you look, exercising a point of control is important.
It’s something that the girls in the cabin next to us fail to learn for the whole five days. Every night they turn up at our door obliterated, every morning they miss breakfast with their hangovers. And it’s a shame really, because the unique enjoyment in a space like a cruise is being able to roll with it and jump into unfamiliar experiences.
I try lots of news things over the five days. I try to get on with the obscene EDM booming at all hours of the day from the Pool Deck. It isn’t for me. I try caviar. It’s also not for me. But I do discover a comfortable practice in taking some time out to paint and draw some of the sea views.
I’m worn out by the time we arrive in Ibiza. Last night I slept on the balcony, as my cabin-mates snoring has given me trouble sleeping. Secretly though, it allows me to fade in and out of sleep as the boat docks in. It’s a romantic picture, as the dawn rises over the sea-shore, and the town fades into view.
We make it into Ibiza late today. Conversations with people from the previous night take up the morning. We sit with one of the sound crew who’s been brought in, who is equally interested in the whole fantasia of a club cruise as we are.
By the time we hit town, it’s almost midday, and the lull of Ibiza’s Old Town is in full motion. The older town is a wash of boutique industry built for the locals, and is largely Spanish speaking. In the old town, the stories of Ibiza’s past are well told. It’s a place that’s been renamed three times. This part of town is taken care of, and feels like the backwash of any Spanish small town. Beautiful, simple, un-rushed, where people take their time to walk into bars and greet friends and talk over their days. Laughter comes from the bar we take a moment to stop for lunch outside of.
But down by the shoreline and it’s a different story. Ibiza doesn’t feel taken care of; so much as it feels like a lost wasteland. It feels washed up, as if people arrived here on the hope and expectation of the same sense of saviour and hope that willed so many invasions throughout Ibiza’s long history. Its history is in the salt trade, exporting across the Mediterranean peninsula to Spain and onwards, colonised by the French and Turkish in the 14th century, and later colonised by club culture and Balearic beat.
The shoreline itself boasts a similar worn down nature as so many British seaside towns, but the backstreets lead to a maze of surprising experiences – it’s a curious juxtaposition of luxury and poverty smacked together. But I suspect much of it is an overhang of economic excess in former years, that’s in need of a vital lick of paint.
The boat is easing out of Ibiza’s port at sunset, and many take to the back of the boat to take photographs. My cabin mate and I, having joked about it the whole time, finally get to have our Titanic moment.
As night descends, it’s back into the last night of clubbing. I watch Ibiza disappear from the balcony before spending the last night wandering around the boat with a couple of friends we’ve made onboard.
I have a cigarette on the upper decks, and look back into the ocean. I see other lights staring into the night signing back at us. They blink on the horizon, before the dots of lights fade as they take a different course. We might be heading back to Mallorca, but they could be off to anywhere. The only thing visible out there is tide and currents of the water, as the waves hit the starboard side. Navigation for the captain means looking at his radar, and then back at the dark night.
Most of the DJ’s on board seem worn out. Five days of playing sets night after night have taken their toll, and things wind down a little more easily than the previous nights.
By morning we’re back in the same concrete fabricated port that we started. Some are up early to get early flights, while others gently spend their last few hours taking in any final sea views before heading home. After packing, I make my way down to the halls before awaiting departure. It’s here that I see the curious man in the heavy jacket, and can’t help but wonder about whether he is just embarking or waiting for his taxi home.
As I make my way back to the airport, back past the Palma shoreline, back past the pastry chef I fell in love with, and the angry English ex-past bookshop owner I met on the first day, I can’t help but think about the man in the lounge.
As I make for London, I realise what a mad five days it’s been. It’s the biggest and most ambitious story I’ve been sent on. And despite the fear of loneliness, despite being in a space full of Germans who like to party, despite feeling seasick for most of the journey, I can say it was an experimental journey I will miss.
A club cruise like this one might not be for me, but cruise life itself is nothing but pleasant. It takes some getting used to, and a part of you will always question what goes on behind closed doors. But once the thinking is behind you, and the art of movement starts to settle a little into your brain, the cruise experience itself is quite unlike any other form of modern travel.