Are you all at sea when it comes to choosing a cruise? Does trying to select the right departure port, destination, cruise ship, or on-board accommodation leave you feeling more exhausted than dancing a sailor's hornpipe? Then you need to consult the man they call 'Mr Cruising': author Douglas Ward.
Douglas has been in love with ships ever since he was a boy, and spent his school holidays cycling the 20 miles from his home to Southampton in the hope of spotting one of the ocean giants. Later he was to work on many famous liners in a variety of different jobs, ending up as one of the industry's best-known cruise directors.
Now he is probably the world's leading expert on cruising and cruise ships. He acts as a spokesman for the industry, and works as an adviser to several cruise lines. But, most importantly, he is the fiercely independent writer and editor of the annual Berlitz guide book, "Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships".
Cruising enthusiasts love this book, which describes in great detail nearly 300 cruise ships worldwide. The ambience and atmosphere of the ships, and the kind of customer they are most suited to, are described as clearly as the cabins, restaurants, and shipboard entertainment.
Cruise lines, on the other hand, tend to quake when they learn that Douglas Ward is aboard one of their ships. For, in addition to describing all the facilities, Douglas gives each ship marks out of a possible 2,000 - and some do not fare as well as they think they should. Even the most luxurious liners often end up with fewer 1,750 points.
The first Berlitz cruising guide, which Douglas spent two years writing ('Bashing it out on an old typewriter,' he recalls), was published in 1985. Now it is the industry's bible, with Douglas or a member of his evaluations team having sailed on every one of the listed ships, and thousands of passengers contributing their own opinions.
'I really have to try to keep up to date and know what is happening in the industry,' says Douglas. 'My reports have to be able to stand up in a court of law.'
That means personally inspecting between 40 and 60 ships a year, and travelling on about 30 of them - sometimes in a wheelchair, so that he can experience how a particular vessel is suited to handicapped passengers.
It sounds like the ideal job, but it has its drawbacks. Douglas Ward values the time he spends quietly at home in the New Forest with his wife, Ayako (they met, unsurprisingly, on a cruise), and hates the 'hassle and indignities' of airports when he has to fly out to join a cruise.
At sea, he has no personal favourites among cruise ships and destinations - although one suspects that he would not turn his nose up at a holiday trip to the Norwegian fjords on board "Sea Cloud", which his book describes as 'the oldest and most beautiful sailing ship in the world'.
As for the future of cruising, Douglas Ward welcomes the introduction of vibration-free exterior engine 'pods' on the newer ships, and expects an increase in the number of 'dine around' shipboard restaurants.
For the longer term, he suspects that today's ocean giants will eventually become what he calls 'floating theme parks'. That's the bad news. The good news is that there will be a parallel growth in ships aimed at specific markets, like expedition cruises. coastal cruises, or luxury sailing ships.
I think I know which ones Douglas Ward will look forward to evaluating the most.
The current edition of Berlitz "Complete Guide to Cruising of Cruise Ships" is available from all good booksellers. For further information visit www.berlitzpublishing.com
(c) Robin Mead www.robinmead.com