Not many people arrive in India by boat, but that’s how my family and I met Mumbai, stepping from our floating palace into a frenetic, horn-honking city where sacred cows roam free and women ride scooters side-saddle in saris.
It was in stark contrast to the serenity of our ship, Constellation. It took three days for her to cross the Arabian Sea on a new route with Celebrity Cruises from Abu Dhabi to India. During that time we lounged by the pool sipping cocktails, gorging on shrimps and steaks and sleeping on mattresses fit for a raja.
Dry land couldn’t have been more different. As part of an organised excursion, we boarded a door-less train so packed it felt as if Mumbai’s 19 million inhabitants were riding it with us.
Jo and her children pictured on board the Constellation. The family embarked on a three-day voyage across the Arabian Sea on a new route with Celebrity Cruises from Abu Dhabi to India
We rattled towards the suburbs and my husband and I worried the clamour and staring (we were a source of fascination for locals) might overwhelm my 14-year-old twins, Nathalie and Gabriel, and Hannah, who’s 11. But they grinned, intrigued.
They’ve seen documentaries where Indians cling to roofs and sides of locomotives like this and here they were on one. It was an ‘I can’t quite believe I’m here’ moment – exactly what I’d hoped for.
‘India’s surreal,’ said Hannah. She was right. So, too, was returning to the cocooning calm of Constellation after a hot day India-style. It was a cultural juxtaposition we learned to love as we visited various ports along southern India’s coastline.
One moment we were five squeezed into an auto-rickshaw taxi for two, swerving from oncoming traffic within nanoseconds of collision. The next we were on a ship line-dancing class. One minute we were bathing on the tourist-free gem that is Panambur beach, Mangalore. The next we were at an onboard sushi- making demonstration.
Southern style: The quiet backwaters of Cochin, which was one of Jo and her family’s favourite areas
Side saddle: Locals demonstrate the best way to travel on a bike while wearing a sari
Our favourite stop was Cochin. We punted in an open canoe along the region’s famed scenic backwaters, waving at the riverbanks’ inhabitants as we glided past their humble homes and a treasure trove of fruit trees.
Despite my trio’s claims to not like curry, when the canoe owner invited us into his home for lunch and dished up rice, dahl, poppadoms and chutneys on a plantain leaf, they wolfed it down.
It was thrillingly different to the Christmas dinner (it was December 25) served on Constellation later – both were delicious in their own right.
Too soon we said farewell to India.
Heading back towards the Middle East, we once again enjoyed Constellation’s pools, quizzes and kids’ clubs as well as a star turn by my girls.
They performed as a guitar/vocal duo in a guest talent show held in the ship’s 900-seater theatre.
Our last stop was Dubai, where an ascent up the 2,716ft-high Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building) proved ear-popping and time at the Wild Wadi waterpark was some of the best fun we’ve ever had.
But it was the sacred cows and side-saddle saris which stole our hearts – and the trip was a perfect introduction to India.
Celebrity Cruises (celebritycruises.co.uk, 0800 441 4054) offers a 14-night Arabian Sea and India cruise from £3,149pp full-board (or from £1,849pp for up to other two guests sharing the same cabin), including return flights from Heathrow and transfers.
The cruise departs from Abu Dhabi and visits Muscat, Cochin, New Mangalore, Goa, Mumbai and Dubai.
Price is based on a December 19, 2017 departure.