I spent 10 nights on a cruise with buffets and booze – and came back lighter

“Lose weight on a cruise, are you joking?” was the incredulous consensus from friends. We’re talking shedding weight over 10 nights in a floating, five-star Caribbean hotel with room service available 24/7.

Boarding the 930-guest Viking Mars in Panama City, the buffet restaurant beckons for lunch and I’ve been upgraded to an all-inclusive drinks package. Doubts surface. Is it possible? Is it even advisable to try – will this not just ruin the joy of the cruise?

Normally I try and stay fairly active on a cruise, but still put on an average of three to four pounds a week, so the choice of cruise line is crucial. I need decks I can yomp right around, restaurants with healthy options, a decent gym and excursions that get me off a bus and raise my heart rate.

Viking ticks all my boxes and swirls in a Nordic Wellness concept infused with Scandi-chic, hygge and pine-scented spa products.

The top deck of 'Viking Mars' (Photo: Robin McKelvie)
The top deck of Viking Mars (Photo: Robin McKelvie)

I don’t expect to meet a real life Viking, but here he is on my second night. Thomas is a swarthy six foot plus Scandinavian spa guru, who leads my Nordic Bathing ritual. Along with three other guests, we’re lulled into a false of security with scalp massages and a light meditation.

The Scandinavian element kicks in with alternating sessions in the steam room and Snow Grotto with its real white stuff – not something I’d necessarily expect when the temperature outside is in the low-30Cs. Thomas gleefully gets my circulation going with his birch whip and assures me that “in Scandinavian countries we mix hot and cold to aid both our physical and mental health”. He didn’t mention the sleep. I drift off later like a cocooned caterpillar.

I return for a Nordic Restart massage treatment and discover guests can enter the spa for free (some cruise lines charge extra for their thermal suites). I splash around the hot pools and rub snow into my skin every other day. An American couple is intrigued by my weight quest. They too have their doubts.

Access to the spa is included in the price of the cruise (Photo: Anthony Weller/Viking Cruises)
Access to the spa is included in the price of the cruise (Photo: Anthony Weller/Viking Cruises)

Undeterred, I push on. Or not, as the case may be. I thought my first-ever session with a personal trainer would be all pushing up weights and heart-bursting cardio. Instead, gentle Brazilian Ademir analyses my posture and alignment through the way I run and walk. He listens to my injury/excuse of a weak right knee, then works through muscle stretches to ease it and loosen me up. I’ve not run because of that knee for six months. On the ship, I run 20 minutes a day pain-free after stretching. Ademir prints them off so I can continue them at home.

I’m no gym expert, but the triple room set-up is easily as good as any club I’ve been to – and it comes with ocean views. A life-affirming bonus is the dolphins who join me for two sessions. There are free weights, a stretching and mat area, plus a swathe of swish machines. The Technogym jogging machine lets you connect your Apple Watch or smartphone to track your efforts. I’m not the only one impressed: a Spanish passenger in his 30s says he chooses Viking for cruising as “they have smaller ships with no riffraff in the gym and the crew don’t pack it out either”.

Robin in the gym (Photo: Robin McKelvie)
Robin in the gym (Photo: Robin McKelvie)

Over the days, my jogging gets easier and I get used to eschewing the lifts for the stairs after grumbling about it under my breath at first. I also choose active excursions, both the ones that Viking include at every port stop and their optional extras.

In Costa Rica it’s no hardship kayaking the canals of the Tortuguero National Park wetlands on the Pacific coast when my companions are tortoises and giant lizards within touching distance. I feel especially virtuous paddling by the soporific sloths splayed lazily around the trees.

Kayaking is offered on Tortuguero's rainforest canals (Photo: Kryssia Campos/Getty Images)
Kayaking is offered on Tortuguero’s rainforest canals (Photo: Kryssia Campos/Getty Images)

Swimming at postcard-perfect Tabyana beach on the Honduras island of Roatan and snorkelling the world’s second largest barrier reef in Belize raise my heart rate too.

The trickiest part is, of course, the food. And drink. Switching from piña coladas to less creamy cocktails is no real hardship. I head to the bar half an hour before dinner, rather than an hour.

But the food is normally such a highlight. Here I’m surprised. Ademir suggests switching out my stodgy cereal and dairy some mornings for salmon and eggs. Delicious. I savour them on my balcony to avoid catching sight of a pain au chocolat at the buffet.

I try to eat at least one salad-heavy meal a day. Instead of a hulking beef burger at the Pool Grill, I forgo the bun and enjoy a slab of freshly cooked pink tuna with a mix of tasty, fresh salads. I steer away from bread and desserts, as well as afternoon tea at the Wintergarden or snacks in Mamsen’s Scandi deli, but still enjoy four nights in the included signature restaurants – Manfredi’s Italian, and the Chef’s Table fine dining – feasting on king crab and Florentine T-bone. I eat like a king, but with more sensible choices I don’t feel too full and don’t top up with snacks.

Snorkeling off the island of Roatan (Photo:Antonio Busiello/Getty Images)
Snorkeling off the island of Roatan (Photo:Antonio Busiello/Getty Images)

After a final stop at the Mexican island of Cozumel, Fort Lauderdale brings D-Day. I approach the scales with trepidation, consoling myself that I actually feel palpably fitter, healthier and am sleeping better, even if I’m no lighter.

And actually a bit happier too – perhaps it’s the endorphins and better quality sleep. I step on. The numbers shoot up. Is that higher by a couple of pounds? The scales stabilise. I’ve lost four pounds – four pounds on a Caribbean cruise, a cruise that has proved one of my most enjoyable. On many levels.

How to do it

The writer joined Viking’s 10-night Classic Panama Canal Passage cruise from Panama City to Fort Lauderdale. Prices start from £3,290pp, including return flights from the UK, transfers, all meals including wine, beer and soft drinks with lunch and dinner, plus gratuities.