A luxury cruise that’s all about the adventures that await on shore? You'll find it on the Aegean.
Tucked into my king-sized bed, I reach out and silence the alarm. On day eight of Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ Ballad of the Black Sea itinerary from Venice (Trieste) to Istanbul, I wonder if I need to test out the rainforest setting on the spa’s experiential shower. Often during the 12-night voyage I think of excuses to stay on board Seven Seas Explorer but each morning, as I catch a glimpse of the Croatian coast, a Greek island or the shores of Turkey, it’s futile to resist seeing more. I stick to my schedule – guided short tours and day trips from Regent’s extensive list of shore excursions – and find there are still surprises in the best-laid plans.
Make Croatian pizza with the locals
In a sunny courtyard, amid lavender and a rambling garden that’s home to chickens and a sleepy donkey, Rino smiles as he mixes the dough for soparnik, a woodfired spinach and onion pie that I’m told is the Croatian spin on pizza.
We’re at Truša, a B&B tucked away in low karst mountains about a 40-minute drive from the port at Split. Our group of eight (“It’s like a private tour!” someone exclaimed earlier on the mini bus) watches as Rino throws together salt, flour and sugar measured by eye and handful. He pats white fingerprints on his apron and fetches sour cherry and walnut liqueurs – made from fruit grown on the property – for us to try. There’s a local family inside celebrating a christening and as our host works, women in their Sunday best drift out to watch and, apparent even to those who don’t speak Croatian, heckle the cook.
“Underneath it looks like the prettiest pizza you ever saw,” drawls a Texan, who tells me he’s been on “10-or-so” Regent cruises. We’re by the courtyard’s woodfired oven, cameras up as Rino flips the soparnik, thin and almost a metre in diameter, and brushes ash off the gently charred crust.
The day’s heat is at its heaviest as we sit with glasses of chilled Croatian white wine and pick at local olives, cheeses and cured meats. Our cook has cut the pie into diamond shapes and grins as we fill our plates with hot, moreish slices.
“I’ve been wanting to go there forever,” the charming wife of the Texan muses when talk turns to our final port, Istanbul. The couple prefers voyages of 12 nights or more (“It takes three days to find your way around the ship!” he says) and will stay aboard Seven Seas Explorer for its next trip, to the Holy Land and back to Istanbul.
When our host asks if anyone will have a go at making soparnik, a young guy from Las Vegas – on the cruise with his wife and wearing a GoPro body harness – jumps up. While he rolls out dough for the pie’s top and bottom and braids the long edge, our group is encouraging. Just like the locals, we band together and tease the cook: “He’s better than you!” A good sport, Rino hands our shipmate his prize – a pouch filled with fragrant dried lavender grown in this quiet corner of the country.
Kayak along the coast of Rhodes
“Rhodes has 300 days of sunshine a year,” shouts guide Yiannis across the water as the nine double kayaks in our flotilla drift this way and that on the twinkling Aegean.
“We’re fighting that floating nursing home stereotype every day!” jokes a 50- something guy from Boston, while he paddles in sync with his husband. They’re here with friends from San Francisco and my boyfriend and I have a laugh with them on most of the active shore excursions.
Today, we’re about a 30-minute drive from the port of Rhodes, where we pulled up at 8am and switched from ship to bus to explore the Greek island that’s closer to Turkey than Athens. After gazing at the sea from the pool deck, out the window at dinner (the ship’s restaurants have horizon-view tables) and in the pastel early mornings on our private balcony (all 373 suites have one), trailing my hand through the clear, cool water feels like just deserts.
“Any divorces yet?” someone quips as we bump into a raft formation. Teamwork may test tempers but it’d be impossible to stay mad here: water every shade of cliché kisses limestone cliffs framing crescent bays and clouds can’t conceal the blue above.
In sloshing swell, we nose our boats through a narrow opening in the rock wall until we’re bobbing like ducks inside a dark cave. The guides hand out watermelon slices and Yiannis tells us that legend says pirates used the small space as a hideout, although “divers haven’t found any gold”. We find treasure at Anthony Quinn Bay, all topaz and turquoise water, emerald trees and pearlescent sand. The Hollywood actor was so enchanted by the place (1961’s The Guns of Navarone was filmed here), he bought it from the Greek government.
When they reneged on the deal, he left and never returned. “He said he loves Greece and Greeks but not the Greek government – like us now,” says guide George wryly.
Back at Faliraki Beach after our roughly six-kilometre paddle, half the group goes for a swim while the others get started on chilled beers. Standing on the sand, one of my Boston mates and I agree that the afternoon was incredible but not something we would’ve organised ourselves. “I’d just google ‘what to do in Rhodes’,” he says with a laugh. It’s easy to have a good time in the Greek Islands but today feels like one of those happy travel accidents – exactly how Regent planned it.
Wander the streets of an ancient city
“Today was unbelievable,” says guide Muge (pronounced Moo-gay, “It’s Turkish for lily of the valley”), sitting in the shade and sipping fresh pomegranate juice. She’s talking about the temperate weather and relative lack of crowds at Ephesus – the ancient city and one of Turkey’s 19 UNESCO World Heritage sites – but I’m wowed from the moment we pile on the bus at 7.45am.
“All the flatness you see around? This was the Aegean Sea,” she tells us on the 25-minute drive from Kuşadasi’s port. “Everything you can think of is grown here – peach, pomegranate, fig, mulberry, olive trees. We’ll also see almond, quince, cotton and artichoke fields.” I watch it all whizz by and try to picture water.
“At every ancient site you want to see cats – they keep away scorpions and snakes,” Muge advises our group of 12 when we arrive at the slightly underwhelming “back entrance” to the city. On cue, a tabby stalks along a stone wall, looking for pats rather than prey.
We stroll further and the grandeur of Ephesus is revealed as columns, statues and the remains of amphitheatres, homes, marketplaces and shops rise against the green valley backdrop. “There’s a lot of sophistication to this city,” says Muge, warning us to step gingerly on marble pavers polished slick by centuries of foot and horse traffic. “Underneath every street was a sewerage and a water system. It sounds normal now but it wasn’t then.”
And what was usual then seems kind of weird now. “The public toilets were important for social connection,” says Muge outside the structure. “It would be normal to spend an hour here, gossiping and talking politics.” She points to the marble seats, which were pre-warmed by enslaved people in winter, and at what’s left of the decorative floors. “Remember before the iPhone, we’d just sit and stare at the floor? Here they would be looking at beautiful mosaics.”
There are still only a few small groups besides our own as she compares wide promenades to “Fifth Avenue in New York”, hooks a finger in a small hole bored into a cornerstone where animals would be tied up and leaves us slack-jawed in front of the city’s most-photographed façade, the two-storey Library of Celsus. Squinting up at the carved stone and neat arches, I try to picture the soil that covered it before the Austrian Archaeological Institute began excavations more than 120 years ago.
When we leave, the sun is just starting to sting. After draining her juice, Muge says, “In summer it gets to almost 50°C. You’re smart or lucky to be here now.”
Image credit: Pavel Dudek (Croatia), Andrei Nekrassov (Anthony Quinn Bay), Emrah Turudu (The Library of Celsus in Ephesus)