The world’s best train set

With its futuristic high-speed tunnels and its nostalgic steam trains, the Gotthard massif is a museum of more than a century of rail history

Train of the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway climbing up to the Furka Pass

© Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway

If you stand in what will be the longest and deepest railway tunnel in the world – the new Gotthard Base Tunnel under the Swiss Alps – you feel a current of air on your cheek and a hum in your ears. Peer down the dimly lit hole into the distant future, and for a moment you think a train is coming. But the thought does not last long; after all, with trains scheduled to rocket through at 150mph, how could it?

In fact, you won’t be able to catch a train through the tunnel for another three-and-a-half years. “That sound is the air conditioning,” my guide, Maurus, said. “Swiss labour law says that the temperature must not exceed 28 degrees [82F]. Without the air con, it would be as hot as 45 degrees [113F] down here.”

AlpTransit Gotthard Base Tunnel under construction

© AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd

Once work on the 35-mile tunnel is complete, you will be able to hurtle in air-conditioned comfort from Zürich to Milan in just two hours 50 minutes – a saving of 50 minutes on the current travel time. Along the way, you can enjoy the novelty of burrowing 8,000 feet, or one-and-a-half vertical miles, below the surface of the earth – at double motorway speed limits.

For now you can join a group tour of the tunnels. These are organised by the visitor centres, where you can see a model of the machine that did most of the work: a mechanical mole nearly 500 yards long, weighing more than 300 tons, and guzzling as much electricity as 4,000 family homes. In good conditions, it chewed through more than 125ft of rock a day.

The tunnelling machines finished their work in March 2011, but engineers still have to complete installation of the track, power supply, and telecommunications equipment. The first trains are expected to thunder through towards the end of 2016 – 20 years after engineers dug the first shafts, and a year ahead of schedule.

Approach line for AlpTransit Gotthard Base Tunnel under construction

© AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd

More remarkable still is the effect the project will have on the emotional map of the continent. The new railway route will be 25 miles shorter than the existing one, as well as much faster. Not only will the Alps shrink in significance as a barrier, but the Latin and Teutonic realms will find themselves within commuting distance of each other. Europe is being redefined.

Which is why I had embarked on my journey. I wanted to explore a mountain barrier that has also been gateway between north and south for nearly a millennium. Starting deep underground and years in the future, I wanted to travel up and over this mass of rock as well as through the various tunnels that pierce it, threading backwards and forwards through a century and a half of railway history.

The Gotthard massif has an additional resonance for me. When I was a child, we would cross it every summer on our way to visit family in the Italian-speaking south of Switzerland, where my mother grew up. We would drive over in our 1961 Volkswagen Caravette, and as we climbed over Gotthard, I imagined our dormobile had shrunk to take on a guest role in a giant train set.

Construction site for AlpTransit Gotthard Base Tunnel

Tunnel building site © AlpTransit Gotthard Ltd

I had a similar sensation as I set off from the visitor centre at Erstfeld at the northern end of the Gotthard Base Tunnel, heading south on the existing railway route. At first the line climbs gently along the banks of the River Reuss. Soon the valley steepens, and to gain height the train throws a couple of balletic tricks. Beyond Gurtnellen, it disappears into the mountain to perform a dainty underground pirouette before re-emerging higher up; and near Wassen, it spirals into the mountain, and re-emerges pointing in the opposite direction, back down the valley – before repeating the move, tracing an elegant zig-zag up the mountainside.

From our family Caravette, I would watch the trains as they played hide-and-seek with us. Now, from the vantage point of my train seat, I felt as though the whole outdoor train set were laying on a show. Three times the whitewashed, onion-domed church of Wassen glided past on its craggy outcrop: once high above, then level with us, heading in the opposite direction, and a third time far below. It was as if the scenery were giving encores – including once backwards, just to show off.

The train finished its climb at Göschenen, where I alighted, before watching it vanish into the funereal gloom of the first Gotthard railway tunnel. This, too, was a pioneering feat of engineering in its time: drilled, dynamited and dug between 1872 and 1882, the nine-mile tunnel provided the first modern link between northern and southern Europe – and cost the lives of 199 labourers.

Hotel 3 Könige & Post in Andermatt

Andermatt

To continue my climb on to the massif, I switched platform and boarded a train of the Matterhorn Gotthard Railway. The narrow-gauge cog train grinds up the wild and rocky Schöllenen Gorge, passing the giddying stone “Devil’s Bridge” atmospherically painted by JMW Turner 200 years ago. It was the construction of the first bridge here eight centuries ago that first made the Gotthard into an important Alpine crossing.

Suddenly the walls of the gorge recede, and you emerge in a long, wide valley lined with high peaks, popular with hikers and cross-country skiers: the Urseren valley. Seconds later you pull into a small station, Andermatt, at the junction with another line running east-west.

This historic town, with its pretty shingled houses and converted coaching inns, is a good place to get your bearings. Leading away from Andermatt are four great river valleys, echoing the cross on the Swiss flag. Follow the Rhône to the west, and you eventually reach Marseille and the Mediterranean; hike to the source of the Rhine just to the east and head downstream, and you would reach Rotterdam. Leading north is the valley of the Reuss, which empties into the Rhine; flowing south is the Ticino – which gives its name to Switzerland’s only Italian-speaking canton – into the Po and finally the Adriatic.

Organ of Andermatt church

Andermatt’s ornate Baroque church

In each valley, a different language predominates. The Swiss to the west speak French, those to the south, Italian, and those to the north, German; while to the east live the 35,000-odd souls for whom Romansh, Switzerland’s fourth national language, is their first.

The Gotthard massif is not just a barrier and a junction, then, but a watershed, physical and linguistic, at the heart of Europe: a manifestation in rock of the divisions that lie at the core of this continent, as well as a meeting-point of peoples, and the centre of gravity of this curious little country of four languages and cultures.

It is also an intriguingly three-dimensional crossroads. Lowest of all is the new railway tunnel, at an altitude of about 1,800ft above sea level. The existing rail link is about 2,000ft higher – roughly level with the 10.5-mile motorway tunnel which, when it opened in 1980, was the longest road tunnel in the world. Another 1,000ft up floats the town of Andermatt, while the original road over the St. Gotthard Pass lies another 2,000ft higher still: a millennium of transport routes, laid under, through and over roughly a vertical mile of mountain that is as perforated as an Emmental cheese.

Some of the tunnels in the massif were excavated by Switzerland’s army, for whom this was both a stronghold and line of defence. A former subterranean fortress has been restored and reopened last summer – home to the new Sasso San Gottardo exhibition, devoted to environmental, strategic and other themes relating to the Gotthard.

Train of the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway at Gletsch

© Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway

My railway journey, by contrast, took me west up the Urseren Valley to Realp. A tunnel leading from here to the Rhone valley opened in 1981, providing the first year-round link between the two valleys. However, its opening spelt the death of the Furka line that from June to October every year carried passengers over the pass, 2,000 vertical feet higher up.

Just two years after the new tunnel opened, railway enthusiasts formed an association dedicated to the resurrection of the summit line. Nine years later they reopened the first stretch, and 18 years after that – in August 2010 – they completed the final link, and were able to run trains on the full 11-mile route for the first time in a quarter of a century.

At Realp I met one of the thousands of volunteers who have helped restore the line: Paul Güdel, retired owner of an electrical goods business in Lucerne. He showed me the railway’s workshops, and the line’s two prize steam locos, built in 1913 and sold to Vietnam in 1947 after the line was electrified. Enthusiasts traced them to a jungle depot where they had stood rusting since 1975, and in 1990 shipped them home and restored them.

Filling the water tank of a loco of the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway, by JBWe boarded a waiting train and within seconds were puffing up towards the pass. As we climbed, Paul told me about some of the challenges the restoration team had faced. We soon reached one of them: the Steffenbach Bridge, which spans a ravine scoured every winter by avalanches powerful enough to sweep away everything in their path.

The solution devised by the engineers who created the line was ingenious, and remains unique worldwide: a folding bridge that can be dismantled every autumn. The restorers retained the original design – but whereas in former days a team of 20 men needed eight hours to erect or fold away the 32-ton bridge, now a team of 10 can do the job in six hours, with the help of hydraulic winches.

After about 45 minutes of climbing through the thin Alpine air, the wheezing loco had reached the highest point of the line: the Furka station, 7,100ft above sea level. We shut the windows for the smoky ride through the one-mile summit tunnel, before a long glide down into the Rhone valley – starting with a glimpse of the glacier that is the river’s source.

At the village of Gletsch we embarked on the last sector to be reopened, with a renovated spiral tunnel through the rock and a steep descent through fragrant glades of pine. Just before we pulled in to the little station of Oberwald, where the old and new lines rejoin, Paul pointed out the ingenious new level crossing – automated so that the toothed rack disappears below the tarmac as soon as the train has passed.

Not for the first time on this trip I had the impression that there’s nothing the Swiss like better than solving a challenge – especially if it involves mountains and trains. This seems equally true whether they are working with steam locos designed to crawl up mountains at 15mph or their electrically driven descendants hurtling underneath the Alps 10 times faster.

Inside a locomotive of the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway. Photo by JBI wondered what my great-grandfather would have made of all this. He, too, was a railway man, who helped build a branch running from the main Gotthard line to Locarno. He used to tell how the construction workers, when they were laying track through the marshes north of Lake Maggiore, would receive a daily tot of rum to ward off malaria.

Three generations on, his successors are once again redefining the way the country sees itself. But by tunnelling under the great physical barrier at the heart of Europe, are they not undermining Switzerland’s raison d’être? After all, without the Alps, this quirky little country would not make sense.

Perhaps. But I am more than happy for busy folk to rocket underneath the mountains, clear of the spectacular scenery that is the best reason for lingering in this part of the world. And I am delighted that the line will divert much of the freight that currently crosses the Alps at higher altitude, and so reduce pollution – the main reason for building the line in the first place.

The mountains will be fresher and quieter as a result. I shall continue to catch the clanky old trains to get there, travelling at speeds with which my great-grandfather would have been familiar. And I like to think that, however far I travel from the childhood in which I first fell in love with this part of the world, I will never tire of playing with the world’s best train set.

Train of the Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway

© Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway

Basics

Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; www.raileurope.co.uk) sells through tickets to major Swiss cities. For travel within the country, the Swiss Travel System (www.swisstravelsystem.co.uk) offers a range of rail passes. For timetables – including connections with boats, buses, cable cars, etc. – see www.sbb.ch. For general tourist information, contact the Switzerland Travel Centre (00800 100 200 30; www.MySwitzerland.com). Admission to the three visitor centres of the Gotthard Base Tunnel (www.alptransit.ch) is free. A charge is made for site tours; reservations essential. Furka Cogwheel Steam Railway: www.dfb.ch; Sasso San Gottardo: www.sasso-sangottardo.ch.

Favourite Swiss train trips

A combination of glorious scenery and a faultless railway system ensures that train journeys in  Switzerland are invariably a pleasure. Here are some of my favourites: Full prices and timetable information – complete with details of connections with boats, buses and cog railways – can be found at www.sbb.ch. Prices given are for second class.

Lausanne to Martigny

The whole ride from Geneva airport towards the mountain resorts of the Valais fills me with happy anticipation. The most scenic stretch, perhaps, leads from Lausanne through the terraced vineyards of the Lavaux with their pretty winemaking villages – a World Heritage Site. The line then passes the medieval Château de Chillon, on the shores of Lake Geneva, before climbing up the Rhone valley, with ever more impressive Alpine views along the way. CHF 24 single, approx. 50 minutes (www.sbb.ch).

Golden Pass Line – Montreux to Lucerne

The train climbs steeply from the palm-lined shores of Lake Geneva up to the chic mountain resorts of Chateau d’Oex and, across the border in German-speaking Switzerland, Gstaad. The route then leads down the lush valley of the Simmental before threading along the shores of six mountain lakes to historic Lucerne. CHF 73 single, approx. 5 hrs 20 min (www.goldenpass.ch).

Bernina Express – St. Moritz to Tirano

Less famous than the Glacier Express to Zermatt (www.glacierexpress.ch), this ride is nonetheless spectacular, incorporating the highest railway crossing in the Alps, at the foot of the glaciers of the Bernina massif. With the Albula Line from Chur to St. Moritz, all  soaring viaducts and twisting tunnels, the Bernina line was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008. CHF 30 single, approx. 2 hours 30 min (www.rhb.ch).

Pilatus cog railway

The steepest rack railway in the world carries you from the shores of Lake Lucerne up a vertical mile to the summit of Mt. Pilatus, and spectacular views, in just 30 minutes. But it’s worth spending at least half a day on the trip – and heading down the mountain on the other side, via a cable car and then a gondola. CHF 68 return, or CHF 97.20 for the “Golden Round Trip”, which completes the circuit with a boat ride on Lake Lucerne (www.pilatus.ch).

Follow your nose…

A series of rail passes, available to non-residents only, offers total freedom – and good value. The Swiss Pass enables free travel on 12,500 miles of rail, boat and bus routes, as well as admission to 400 museums; from £185 for four days to £410 for one month. The Swiss Flexi Pass grants the same benefits on freely chosen days within a calendar month: from £177 for three days to £281 for six days. Two or more people travelling together at all times get a 15 per cent discount; children under 16 travel free when accompanied by at least one parent (020 7420 4900; www.stc.co.uk).

Skiing in high summer – on a glacier

Escaping the desert heat 3,000 metres up in the Alps: an introduction to glacier skiing for winter sports fans based in the Gulf.

Warren Smith Ski Academy summer course on the Fee Glacier in Saas-FeeWhen much of the region is roasting in the high 40s, the idea of chilling on a glacier is refreshingly appealing. But would you want to book a whole ski holiday on one – in summer?

High above the Swiss resort of Saas-Fee, in the next valley along from Zermatt, lies the Fee Glacier. Every year, in the middle of July, it opens to skiers, snowboarders – and anyone who wants to cool off in high summer in grand style.

It sounds like a gimmick. And you can be sure that when you tell anyone of your plans, you get the same questions: Aren’t you going to fall down a crevasse? Isn’t summer snow horribly slushy? And can’t you just wait for winter?

Warren Smith Ski Academy summer course on the Fee Glacier in Saas-Fee

Morning warm-up

As we snow addicts all know, there is never a bad time for skiing. But there are good reasons, too, why the summer snows attract not just amateurs but also national ski squads and top coaching organisations.

The Warren Smith Ski Academy, based during the winter in the nearby resort of Verbier, has decamped to Saas-Fee every summer since 2002. “We find our clients often progress faster in summer,” Warren Smith told me. “The altitude and the regimented nature of the environment make for more intense training, more focused on physical performance.”

It is hard, though, to imagine skiing at all on the first morning of the course, as you carry your skis through the pretty, car-free village, past hikers in their summer finery and chalets decked with flowers. A cable car carries you high above the treeline; a second whisks you, ears popping, over a wilderness of rock. Finally you ride the world’s highest underground funicular until you emerge on the flank of the glacier, your eyes dazzled by the pristine whiteness and your heart racing in the thin air up at 3,500 metres – about double the altitude of the resort.

Warren Smith Ski Academy summer course on the Fee Glacier in Saas-FeeUp here, three T-bar lifts serve 20 km of piste, smoothed by grooming machines. The pylons are movable, for this is a slow-flowing river of ice; the sight of gaping crevasses in other parts of the glacier are an effective reminder not to head off-piste. In the distance, freestyle skiers twist and corkscrew through the air above the snow park – the venue for the annual British Freeski Camps, where top slopestyle and half-pipe athletes come to train.

Warren and his team of instructors divided us by ability into groups of no more than eight, and had us looping the lifts as we practised a string of drills to fine-tune our technique. Doing this in summer made sense: with no other slopes to tempt you away, you’re happy to work for hours on end on technique – and you soon see the results.

Apart from 15-odd minutes for a picnic lunch on the snow, we skied until the lifts closed at 1pm. Back in the resort, we would spread out on the lawn at the back of the hotel and Warren would guide us through a sequence of athletic stretches.

Warren Smith Ski Academy summer course on the Fee Glacier in Saas-Fee

After-ski stretch in front of the Hotel du Glacier

Most of the afternoons we were free to relax or hike. We could visit attractions such as the world’s largest glacier ice pavilion or the world’s highest rotating restaurant, or indulge in activities from summer tobogganing to climbing via ferratas or whizzing down mountainsides on giant freewheeling scooters. Several in the group had travelled with non-skiing partners – so as well as a daily fix of snow, they had time for a conventional summer mountain holiday as well.

I loved our base for the week, the Hotel du Glacier, opened in 1901, and disarmingly relaxed, despite its 4-star status. A photo display at the entrance introduces all the staff – their hobbies, childhood ambitions and dreams, from the manager to the dish washer and the housekeepers; it is one of the most inclusive, welcoming and friendly places I have stayed.

On two afternoons we gathered in the hotel lounge to watch videos that the coaches had made of our skiing earlier that day. Surprisingly, the same basic errors in technique kept cropping up – even among the experts. We also saw how each of us had a weaker turning direction – and over the week the coaches worked with us to develop exercises to strengthen our weaker side.

Warren Smith Ski Academy summer course in Saas-Fee: dry-land exercises in front of the hotelThe Academy places a big emphasis on biomechanics, and one morning Warren and his team had us leaping around the lawn behind the hotel, practising the athletic movements we would need to make dynamic ski turns. At first, our legs and arms flailed everywhere, but we repeated the jumps until we could keep our hips, knees and feet the same distance apart – a prerequisite for controlled turns. We worked on increasing the flex in our ankle joints, and practised exercises to strengthen muscles in our legs that would help us maintain our stance in uneven terrain – and prevent injury.

The next morning, up on the mountain, I could feel a marked advance in the control I had over my skis. And over the week as a whole, I noticed big improvements: flexing my ankles more in order to edge the skis better and so carve more effectively, switching from steering with my feet to steering with my more powerful thigh muscles, activating my core muscles to prevent my body buckling when tackling bumpy terrain, and working on a host of techniques from quick jump-turns to thrilling high-speed carved giant slalom turns.

Decoration on a restaurant in Saas-Fee

Sculpture outside a restaurant

Others were equally enthusiastic. Jackie Hampton, a New Yorker based in London, thought the “quality of the course was phenomenal, the instructors fantastic. I’ll definitely do summer skiing again.” Julián Gay Meca, a currency broker who describes himself as Spanish/French, and who had previously only done four days’ skiing, said he was “very pleased with the experience, my improvement, the staff, the town – not pretentious, down-to-earth, lots of activities.”

The resort will see more visitors from the Gulf, too, if the national tourist board has its way. Given the strength of the Swiss franc and the weak economy in Europe, Switzerland Tourism is focusing on key markets elsewhere – including Gulf countries – to bring more summer tourism, especially to mountain resorts. Last year, ST opened an office in Dubai, its new headquarters for India, the Middle East and Africa, and in the first five months of 2012 saw growth of nearly 20% from Gulf countries compared to the previous year.

Some have already made the discovery. Dubai resident Simon Longley is regional director for a construction consultancy, and the veteran of four ski trips to Canada and some 20-odd days at Ski Dubai. “It’s been nice to come somewhere fresh and see some trees and greenery. The instructors have been very good, very patient, and I’ve enjoyed the terrain – you can really practice consistently what you’ve been learning. And Saas-Fee is a lovely village, there are so many things you can do in the afternoon. It feels like two holidays, you get the best of both worlds. So yes, I’ll be back on the glacier another summer.”

View from Saas-Fee towards the Fee Glacier

View from Saas-Fee towards the Glacier

  • From summer 2013, The Warren Smith Ski Academy (www.warrensmith-skiacademy.com) is running its summer training courses in the Italian resort of Cervinia. Courses run from 29 June to 7 September; £508 for five days’ tuition, including lift pass.
  • The Academy has organised special rates at the Hotel Mon Reve (www.duglacier.ch): 60 euros per person, per night, half-board (85 euros in a single room).
  • The Academy also runs autumn courses from November 2 to 30; £605 for five days’ tuition, including lift pass. Half-board accommodation 65 euros per person, per night (93 euros in a single room).
  • The British Freeski Camps take place from 13 July  to 3 August (www.britishfreeskicamps.com).
  • For information on skiing and holidays in Saas-Fee: Hotel du Glacier (www.duglacier.ch); Saas-Fee (www.saas-fee.ch); Switzerland Tourism (00800 100 200 30, www.MySwitzerland.com).

Strictly Come Cruising

P&O is launching Strictly Come Dancing cruises, complete with the show’s famously fastidious judge Craig Revel Horwood. Ballroom virgin James Bedding signed up for the inaugural trip – and inevitable humiliation

 

Craig Revel Horwood and James Bedding on P&O Oriana's Strictly Come Dancing cruise

Craig Revel Horwood plus aspiring dancer © Sam Pelly

Somewhere over that watery horizon lies the Sahara, I thought, as I lurched past one of the windows of my floating ballroom: what a strange place to be learning the cha-cha-cha. And then I trod on someone’s foot, and decided I really should concentrate.

Not least because I was on the inaugural Strictly Come Dancing cruise, and my dance partner and I seemed to be on a collision course with Craig Revel Horwood – of all the judges from the Saturday-night TV show, probably the most dreaded for his withering put-downs.

Surely here, I thought, far from the landlocked calm of a BBC studio, in the middle of the Atlantic, he would be more forgiving? If I looked less like a ballroom dancer than a drunken dodgem driver, I figured I could always blame the ocean swell. Unfortunately for me, the sea today was as flat as a dance floor.

Katya Virshilas and Pasha Kovalev, two of the professional dancers from Strictly Come Dancing, give a show on P&O's Oriana

Katya Virshilas and Pasha Kovalev © Sam Pelly

This was just the first in a series of themed Strictly cruises to be run by P&O in conjunction with the BBC. In July, enthusiasts will dance their way up the Norwegian coast on Oriana; a further seven voyages are planned for 2013. The inaugural cruise – on Oriana, to the Azores, Madeira and the Canaries – took place earlier this month [June], and Telegraph Travel was invited to take an exclusive peek.

Perhaps it is only inevitable that Strictly is broadening its horizons. The show has run to nine series in the UK, the most recent final attracting 13 million viewers. The format has been licensed to 40 countries; every week of 2011, a locally produced version of the show was on air somewhere in the world. After conquering six continents, Strictly is set to take on the high seas.

And cruising would seem the ideal format. As with most cruise holidays, the schedule for the inaugural Strictly voyage on Oriana offered dance classes and ballroom evenings for passengers, as well as tributes to the musicals and other shows by the resident theatre company. But the cruise also featured special extras, from performances by professional dancers on Strictly to an interview with Craig Revel Horwood – and a contest for passengers chaired by the famously fastidious judge.

Craig Revel Horwood

Craig Revel Horwood © Sam Pelly

The mere thought struck horror in my knees. I have a troubled relationship with dance. After an ugly struggle with salsa and two drawn-out but ultimately doomed attempts at tango, I settled on jazz dance – happily, you don’t have a partner to exasperate. I went several times a week for seven years, until I moved home. I suppose the fact that after 1,000 hours of classes I still enjoyed the challenge of the “Absolute beginner” level confirmed that my talents lie elsewhere, but I adored the exercise, the discipline, and the luxury of losing myself for an hour in intoxicating music without ever having to justify myself to anyone. Which is why the idea of performing to Craig gave me a feeling akin to seasickness.

I joined the cruise in Madeira. Glamorous costumes from the show glittered around the decks of the Oriana, and at the main ballroom, Harlequins, couples were practising their moves for the evening’s dancing.

I was relieved to learn that the ballroom is located conveniently close to the medical centre – and impressed by the stamina of one passenger who had used both. “I was jiving in my ballgown,” said 67-year-old Pauline Johnston, from Banbury, “when I caught a heel in the fabric, went flying, and broke my arm in two places.”  That was at 11.30pm – yet she carried on dancing until 2am, before having it X-rayed and plastered. “I should be wearing a sling,” she said, “but you can’t dance in a sling, can you? I’ll put it back on now, though, in case I’m caught.”

Pauline’s friend Alicia Mumford – whom she met through dance classes back home – was less impressed. “It’s amazing the lengths someone will go to to get Craig’s attention,” she said. “But it worked.” Now Pauline proudly sports a Craig autograph on her plaster cast.

Not all passengers I spoke to confessed to a passion for Strictly. Many had booked more than a year ago, before P&O had announced the theme of Oriana’s cruise. But the popularity of the trip’s Strictly events suggested there were plenty of closet fans on board, too. The 674-seat Theatre Royal was overflowing for a lyrical and emotional performance by two professional dancers from the show, Ian Waite and Natalie Lowe; their grace clearly rubbed off on the rather less youthful audience, which leapt to its feet with astonishing agility to applaud.

Craig Revel Horwood interviewed in the theatre of P&O Oriana

The Craig Revel Horwood interview © Sam Pelly

The theatre was packed again – 15 minutes before opening – for the interview with Craig Revel Horwood, who charmed passengers with tales of 30 years working in the theatre as a dancer, choreographer and director. They queued in large numbers, too, to be photographed grinning with the Strictly judge whose strictness has made him the pantomime villain they love to boo: his damning assessments have ranged from a withering “cha cha cha chavvy” for Patsy Kensit to “overwhelmingly awful” for Ann Widdecombe.

What crazed cruise passengers, you might wonder, would subject themselves to such merciless critique on their holiday? A pair of honeymooners, for starters: Daniel and Jenifer Simpson boarded Oriana the day after their wedding, with just three hours’ sleep, and were soon selected with two other couples to compete in the Strictly Come Dancing Showcase. At the rehearsal, Jenifer confessed it was “nerve-racking – we’ve only been dancing ballroom six months.”

They certainly had a tough act to follow: a dazzling and sensual display of Latin dancing by a second pair of professionals from the show, Katya Virshilas and Pasha Kovalev. Next, the pros joined Craig at a desk to watch as each of the competing couples took it in turns to glide across the melodies of a long, lyrical waltz.

Strictly Come Dancing Showcase - passenger competition

The Strictly Come Dancing Showcase © Sam Pelly

The audience applauded rapturously, but Craig sweetened his words for no one, not even the happy couple: “A complete and absolute honeymoon disaaaster: lumpy, wooden and nervous.” The gentleman in the next couple fared even worse: “a personality bypass – completely charmless, darling.” After some gentler words from Katya and Pasha, the honeymooners seemed heroically positive. “We expected Craig to be honest, and he was. It’s encouragement – we’re going back to the dancing lessons, we’re definitely not giving up. We’d come again even if only to watch the professionals dancing – it’s by far the best holiday we’ve had.”

For my own trial – in the form of a dance class, with Craig as guest expert – I wanted to be well prepared. Nutrition was clearly not going to be a problem, with six restaurants to choose from, including two waiter-served restaurants and two fine-dining restaurants (for an extra charge). And a healthy appetite? I was struck by how mine grew every day.

As for exercise, I must have spent hours ambling indecisively from one counter to the next in the two all-day buffet restaurants – not to mention wandering the corridors of the ship, because even after three days on board I could not remember where anything was. I even managed a short stroll around the elegant 18th-century streets in the heart of Lisbon, before feeling unexpectedly peckish and stopping for a bite.

Julie and Simon Curtin, resident dance instructors on P&O Oriana's Strictly Come Dancing cruise

Julie and Simon Curtin, resident dance instructors © Sam Pelly

Back on board, I was impressed by the spacious top-deck gym, and its fleet of treadmills and exercise machines. These faced a panoramic window looking out over the bow and across the open sea – unusually for a gym, you feel your exertions are actually getting you somewhere. I fancied riding one of the cycle machines and pretending I was single-handedly powering the world’s biggest pedalo. I also wanted to try one of the early-morning classes – yoga, “fab abs” or “stretch and relax” – but I found that by the time I had hiked to the front of the ship, scaled a couple of flights of stairs and glimpsed the ships’ resident dancers working out, I was hungry enough to go straight to breakfast.

When I arrived at my packed dance class – beginner’s cha-cha-cha – I knew I had little chance of out-classing Patsy Kensit. The resident dance instructors on this year’s Strictly cruises, Julie and Simon Curtin, demonstrated the steps, and as I moved from one partner to the next, praying that for once I wouldn’t kick any shins or crush any toes, I tried desperately to relax and enjoy myself – pretty much impossible, when Craig stopped to watch.

His feedback was no surprise. “You were nervous, stiff, agitated, wooden – as if you had a rod placed firmly up your arse and you weren’t going to release it.” He gave me 4 out of 10 – and some encouraging tips, too: “Work on your technique, especially your footwork, and you will get that lovely licentious lascivious hip action we’re looking for.” As for our overall standard as beginners: “very, very poor – but how brilliant and brave of everyone to try, it’s fantastic to see you all dancing!”

Maybe that’s the important thing – just to keep dancing, regardless of talent or technique. Simon and Julie told me about the partially sighted 94-year old gentleman they taught Argentine tango on an earlier cruise; about passengers with learning disabilities, and others in callipers, who they had all led onto the dance floor. The Curtins only took up dancing in their early 40s, inspired by Series 2 of Strictly; they applied to join P&O 18 months ago, intending to do two or three cruises a year – and have already clocked up 21.

Craig demolishes my cha-cha-cha

Craig demolishes my cha-cha-cha © Sam Pelly

I began to fantasise that I, too, although still painfully clumsy at 50, might nonetheless one day blossom as a dancer, and twirl my way around the globe. Craig was supportive: “I think if you were 90 you could have a dream to run away and be a dancer,” he said. He was also uncharacteristically diplomatic: “I would be concerned for your mental welfare if you said you wanted to be a professional dancer,” he said, “but you could become a pro as a teacher.”

I was not the only passenger to be inspired. After one of the shows, I bumped into the very first couple I spoke to on Oriana: Philip and Karen Norman – retired police officer and civil servant, respectively – from Pontypool in South Wales. They had booked the cruise – their seventh – before the Strictly theme was announced; neither had even watched the show before last year. “We danced 30 years ago, but gave up,” said Karen. “This has definitely sparked something. We’re signing up for classes as soon as we get home.”

If the idea of Strictly Come Dancing cruises catches on, as I suspect it will, the world’s floating ballrooms will soon regain the popularity they enjoyed during the glamorous age of the ocean-going liners. And I know I’m not the only one dreaming of dancing into the sunset for decades to come.

Pasha Kovalev, professional dancer from Strictly Come Dancing, gives a show on P&O's Oriana

Pasha Kovalev © Sam Pelly

  • James Bedding stayed at Reid’s Palace Hotel in Funchal, Madeira, before boarding the cruise. “Charming” category rooms cost from about £255 per room per night, including buffet breakfast and all taxes. “Deluxe” rooms cost from about £458. Book through Orient-Express (0845 077 2222; www.reidspalace.com).
  • P&O Cruises (0843 3740 111; www.pocruises.co.uk) is running seven Strictly Come Dancing cruises in 2013, between May and October. A 13-night cruise on Azura (A311N) from 11 to 24 May, 2013, sails from Southampton to Madeira, the Canaries, Cadiz, Lisbon and back to Southampton. “Getaway” fares cost from £1,361 per person based on two adults sharing including all main meals, entertainment and most facilities. (The cruise to Norway, departing 14 July 2012, has sold out.)