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TRAVEL: Blissful news.. I love a cruise; CALYPSO AND COCONUTS ON A CARIBBEAN TOUR.

Byline: MAGGIE O'RIORDAN

NEIL Diamond straddles a cardigan-clad lady and gives it his all as he belts out Forever In Blue Jeans to a cheering crowd.

The younger members of the audience cringe as his middle-aged victim pinches his bum as he gyrates his way back on stage.

Of course, it's not the real Neil Diamond performing on our cruise liner, but Stars in Their Eyes finalist Nick McCullock who does a fine impression of the great man.

This is our first night on board the giant Ocean Village and, naff as it sounds, we are having a great time. After "Neil" has finished driving the ladies wild, we all head to the on-board nightclub Bayside to strut our funky stuff. A frisson of excitement ripples through the bar, as "Neil", still dressed in his blue spangly suit, joins passengers on the dancefloor.

Neil "please call me Nick" gladly provides his autograph to the three females drunk enough to ask. My friend Patsy and I are in the mood for mischief and sidle up to him determined to find out how one ends up impersonating an ageing pop legend on a cruise ship.

And Nick, 35, doesn't disappoint. He spent years working as a stripper before landing a high-flying job for Virgin, he informs us. His big break came on "Stars" and he has never looked back. Proof that there's hope for us all.

To be fair, Nick, like most of the staff on board the Ocean Village, was a great sport. Everyone from bar staff and waiters to receptionists and cleaners wanted you to have fun. And there is nothing funnier than trying to decide whether it is the rough sea or the vino that just made you topple from your stool.

Patsy, a glamorous fiftysomething, and I were unsure what to expect when we signed up to spend a week on Ocean Village's Calypso and Coconuts cruise around the Caribbean. I was terrified that we would be coaxed into spending our nights with the blue-rinse brigade, waltzing, playing bingo and bridge.

But when Ocean Village say there is something for all ages both on- and off-shore, they are telling the truth. There is an on-board spa, several bars, a large swimming pool and sundeck, a cinema, gym, casino and cyber cafe. And kids are kept amused at Base Camp with activities for nine- to 17-year-olds.

Around half of Ocean Village bookers are "cruise virgins" and three- quarters are under the age of 55. You choose what you want to do and you eat what you want when you want at the two self-service restaurants, or the more upmarket bistro or Italian.

And everything is so efficient. We checked our bags in at Birmingham Airport and didn't see them again until they arrived in our very spacious twin-bedded cabin in our first port of Barbados. Our cabin attendant then showed us how to work the telly, phone and DVD player before leaving us to unwind with some complimentary champers on our balcony.

Patsy and I agreed that we have never slept as well as we did at sea. Every night we would leave our balcony doors open and fall asleep to the sound of the ocean. Some nights we partied late and had to rise early for the "Action Ashore" but we never once felt tired. It was sheer bliss.

There is something truly decadent about waking up somewhere new every morning. First stop was Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. At every destination, you can choose from a myriad of organised Action Ashore options or you are free to explore. If you're feeling lazy just stay on board and sunbathe.

We chose to visit the Baths of Virgin Gorda, a 40-minute motor-boat crossing from the main island. The baths were created by volcanic activity which left giant boulders stacked upon one another to form sea caves, miniature secluded beaches and pools. We didn't enjoy crawling through the caves bent double, but others raved about it. Instead we adjourned to a cliffside cafe and enjoyed a tasty burger with salad and a fabulous view.

Back on board, we had a great meal in celebrity chef James Martin's bistro, where you pay extra to eat, before a nightcap or two in Bayside. Then it was on to the 24-hour Plantation restaurant for Patsy's nightly chip butty (we each gained half-a-stone on the trip).

The next morning we awoke in Antigua and hit the shops with a vengeance. We stocked up on cheap perfume and make-up before visiting a divine swimwear shop where we invested in a couple of tankinis. In the afternoon we went "Wet and Wild" - a high-speed trip around the whole island on a powerful inflatable motor boat. What a trip. We bounced along the waves as our tour guide pointed out Oprah Winfrey, Eric Clapton and Lady Sainsbury's luxurious residences.

"That's where your weekly shopping money goes," he joked, before tearing through another giant wave.

Entertainment is laid on every night on the ship and varies from awful to brilliant. The older crowd loved cheesy crooner Elliot Frisby. We hated him for having such a stupid name. We loved 70s and 80s band the Replicators, who artfully ensured the whole room sang and danced along with them. Robbie Williams impersonator Tony Stevens was also excellent.

It's a cash-free zone on-board. You pay for drinks with a plastic ID card and settle up at the end. Bud costs pounds 2.30 and a large vodka and mixer pounds 2.50.

When we stopped at Dominica, famous for its flora and fauna, we opted to go river-tubing, a hilarious day out but not for the faint-hearted. Billed in the brochure as a slow "swirl and splash down a cool mountain river", in fact you sit in a rubber "doughnut", and career at high speed through rapids and giant boulders.

Patsy was flung violently from her ring at the start and would have been swept downriver if it was not for the brute strength of a barefoot guide. By the end, some of our older friends looked minutes away from meeting their maker.

On day four, the boat docked in Trinidad but we decided to stay on board for a spa-day. We were each transported to another plane by masseur Darius's poultice therapy and my San Tropez self-tan was the most even I have ever had.

Day five, Grenada, and we went off to explore alone. We jumped aboard a water taxi to the beach and were entertained all day by friendly Rastas telling us their dramatic stories of hurricane survival. Everyone was selling something and we spent a fortune.

Our last day before the long flight home was spent in Barbados. We decided to treat ourselves to cocktails and lunch at famous celeb-haunt the Sandy Lane Hotel. The food and drinks were fabulous, and should have been at the price. However, a lovely afternoon was ruined when we were chased to our cab for money by a security man because the hotel had omitted to add our cocktails to the food bill.

It was a disappointing end to a great holiday...but we're already talking about doing it again next year.

WHAT'S THE DEAL?

OCEAN Village sails in the Caribbean between November and April, with a seven-night fly-cruise starting from just pounds 799 per person. From May to October, there are cruises available in the Mediterranean from pounds 599 per person. Visit www.oceanvillageholidays.co.uk or call 0845 358 5000. The informal cruising company has revamped its Caribbean itineraries for 2005/2006 with St Maarten, St Kitts and Mayreau joining Barbados, Tortola and St Lucia on the Coral and Coconuts

itinerary.

CAPTION(S):

Take the water taxi to Grenada; Diamond geezer Nick McCullock with Maggie; Rub sun-tanned shoulders with celebs on Barbados; Get active when the ship reaches port
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 10, 2005
Words:1311
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