Of all the ways to explore the Mediterranean Coast, a luxury cruise is perhaps the cruisiest.
I’m sitting in a Jacuzzi about four kilometres off the coast of Monte Carlo. The sky – what I can see of it through the shade sails – is the colour of a faded aerogram, the sea dotted with gleaming superyachts. In the shimmering distance, apartment towers back into a limestone cliff as if even they are aghast at the excesses at their door. As jets of water gently pummel my lower back, a snappily dressed waiter appears just as he would in a cheesy dream sequence. “Would Madam like a drink?”
“Thank you,” I respond in a voice I barely recognise. “I’ll have a soy latte.” The waiter inches. Who drinks soy latte in a Jacuzzi on the French Riviera? In a Jacuzzi anywhere? I want to suck the words back in but it’s too late. I mean Bollinger! I mean Bollinger!
I really should have the hang of this by now. It’s day five of a seven-night Mediterranean cruise on board the Seabourn Encore, a vessel so geared to luxury that it’s a challenge, with the exception of a few personal lapses, to remember your real life. “What soap would you like during your stay?” our sparky personal suite stewardess, Miriam, enquired shortly after we checked in to our Deck 6 suite. She held forth a tray of options. My 15-second pause was about 14 seconds longer than I devote to soap decisions in the real world. Hmmm... maybe the L’Occitane?
This is going to be awesome. Seabourn Encore officially launched in Singapore in January this year, christened by the soprano Sarah Brightman. It’s built to carry 600 guests in 300 suites, all of which have, at the very minimum, granite bathrooms with twin basins and a full-size bath, a walk-in wardrobe, a blissfully comfortable queen bed, a sofa, desk, at-screen TV and a verandah. Wine and spirits – including Nicolas Feuillatte champagne – are complimentary throughout.
We board the vessel in Barcelona, the first of eight ports we’ll explore on our way to Rome, including Mahón on the Spanish island of Menorca, the French port city of Marseille, Saint-Tropez on the Riviera, Ajaccio on the island of Corsica, the Principality of Monaco and beautiful Porto Venere in Italy.
It’s a packed itinerary but the beauty of shipboard life is the ease of it: you unpack once, you enter new countries with the swipe of a key card – not the tedium of an immigration queue – and with destination experts on hand, there’s no excuse for missing the highlights.
Day one of any cruise, based on a lifetime sample of four, is generally spent checking out your cabin (our names are on the stationery!), checking out your shipmates, checking out the bars and restaurants and checking out of life as you know it. But before we do any of that, there’s the mandatory lifeboat drill. Assigned to lifeboat No. 2, we muster with our fellow “survivors” in the casino. “Who are you eating first?” an Australian behind me whispers to his partner – way too loudly.
Gallows humour aside, this is where you really get a handle on your fellow travellers. With one exception – a tall, slim, casually dressed man with long, black, rock ’n’ roll hair – they’re a fairly conservative, well-heeled bunch. Most are American (our ship has 69 Australian passengers), most but not all north of 50 and remarkably cheery given why, theoretically, we’re gathered. (Cool guy turns out not to be a member of The Strokes – a wide-of-the-mark early guess – but brilliant pianist/composer/Steinway artist/comedian Julian Gargiulo, an entertainer on the ship’s stellar roster.)
When we meet again, it’s poolside for the pre-dinner casting-off party. A band plays tunes by Captain & Tennille, waiters glide across the deck handing out Blue Lagoon cocktails and then, as the day gets drowsy and the planes above carve vapour trails into the sky, we set sail for Mahón, capital of Menorca. Though Gaudí’s Sagrada Família cathedral still dominates the skyline, already this is everything you imagine shipboard life to be – right down to Ashley Edwards, the relentlessly effervescent cruise director. “Another cocktail?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
Cruising in the modern era has all the good aspects of days past and few of the bad. Forget class division, stodgy food and set places at a dining table. These days, you sit where and with whom you like, order from an à la carte menu or circle a lavish buffet and have a choice of restaurants and, in many cases, cuisines.
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But some old habits die hard. Tonight, moving into dinner at The Colonnade – the most casual of Encore’s three main dining rooms – a sharply dressed waiter extends his arm, inviting me to loop my own through. This is awkward. Has he been counting my Blue Lagoons? No, as it turns out: waitstaff throughout the ship escort women to their tables this way, including (especially!) at The Restaurant, the ship’s fine-dining space, and The Grill by American chef Thomas Keller (where, if I can jump ahead a night or two, my husband declares his thick-cut prime New York strip steak the best he’s ever had). In the real world, I may bristle at an “armed” escort. At sea, it’s all I can do not to respond, “Charmed, I’m sure.”
A few days in, having recced every pampering opportunity on board – did I mention the spa? – I’m settling into the familiar routine of life on the Med. We sail through the night and each morning throw open the drapes to a new world: the Georgian-style bungalows that line the channel into Mahón’s beautiful deep harbour, the industrial muscle of Marseille’s bustling port, the low-key sophistication of Saint-Tropez, where artists sell their paintings on the boardwalk and tanned young deckhands sweep and varnish their bosses’ yachts.
We wake off the coast of ritzy Monte Carlo to the sound of swarming bees (actually Formula One racing cars; it’s Grand Prix weekend and we have arrived on practice day). In Ajaccio, Corsica, we window-shop along the warm cobblestoned streets – a slightly less strenuous activity than the guided hike we signed up for. That was cancelled due to lack of interest from our 598 shipmates.
Given the tight schedule, it’s impossible to dive deeply into any culture. But there is time to shop – places like Mahón, Ajaccio and Saint-Tropez have cool boutiques – poke around local landmarks and discover cosy restaurants (Le Schpountz in Saint- Tropez does a killer fish stew). Visiting eight ports in seven days is a great way to taste the Mediterranean with a view to a return visit, says the cruise line’s hotel director, Philipp Reutener. “You touch one port and say, ‘I’d like to come back here’ or ‘It’s not for me.’”
Or, for a fee, you can stay on board the Seabourn Encore and sip Bollinger champagne at The Retreat, a swank, adults-only eyrie on Deck 12 comprising 15 private cabanas, each with a sofa and TV, dining table – the area has a dedicated chef – sun lounges and a central whirlpool. Whatever you decide, you’ll be making happy memories.
Or refreshing them. About 15 years ago, on a typically unplanned European adventure, my husband and I found ourselves in Porto Venere, a colourful, higgledy-piggledy port town on Italy’s north-west coast, tantalisingly close to the once-isolated but now tourist-crammed Cinque Terre. So wanting was our preparation that we thought all five villages that make up the famous region would be a nice daytrip. On foot. In the searing heat of August. The near-death experience didn’t diminish our fondness for Porto Venere, a town so enchanting it famously inspired Lord Byron.
I relate this because today I’m seeing the Cinque Terre from the comfort of a local tourist boat, albeit one with a dodgy PA system. I can’t hear a word the tour guide is saying but it doesn’t matter. The sun is shining, the cottages clinging to the hills are aflame with colour and I finally comprehend the folly of what we attempted all those years ago. To bastardise a line from a wildly over-quoted American poet, sometimes it’s not what a destination does or what it says to you; it’s how it makes you feel.
I feel stupid. And lucky beyond measure. As we head back to the ship, I take one last look at Porto Venere, with its wooden fishing boats and cheery, Leunig-cartoon buildings and think of what’s ahead: a massage, a meal, a peaceful night’s sleep and Rome. I think I’ve found a fabulous way to travel.