Cruising in the Greek Islands or on the Black Sea is special enough, but when you are on board a Seabourn ship, prepare to be really spoilt.
There was a buzz of excited chatter punctuated by bursts of laughter – sounds of people having a good time – as the coach returned us to Seabourn Odyssey, the ultra-luxury cruise ship carrying us around the Greek Islands. All the talk was of the superb evening spent listening to the melodious popular classics, played by the Aegean Chamber Orchestra, drifting through the balmy night air as we sat among the ruins of the 2000-year-old amphitheatre at Ephesus in Turkey. Once the strategic coastal gateway to the eastern world and second largest city in the Roman Empire, it is said the Virgin Mary spent the last years of her life there.
Along with the other passengers, my wife Pat and I were on our way back from one of the most enchanting evenings ever experienced while on a cruise.
The night started with an early dinner – always a culinary experience on Seabourn ships. Then a 30-minute coach journey out of the port of Kuşadasi transported us to the historic ancient site, which was closed to the public for the night allowing us exclusive access.
The stroll through the ruins, uncluttered by thousands of tourists, contrasted with the earlier daytime visit. Once seated, we supped on Mediterranean fare of fat, fleshy olives, cheese, biscuits, nuts and other goodies, washed down with very good wine.
We were on back-to-back seven-night Greek Island and seven-night Black Sea cruises aboard the 450-passenger ship. Ports visited after boarding in Piraeus (Athens) were Milos, Mykonos, Santorini, Kuşadasi, Chios, Çanakkale and Istanbul where the Black Sea cruise began and ended. From there it was Nessebar, Constanta, Odessa, Yalta and Sinop. The night at Ephesus is included in the fare – just one of the many highlights that makes a Seabourn cruise so special.
There was another surprise in store for us as our coach approached the ship. Lined up on the wharf were smiling chefs, waiters and ship’s staff wishing us “welcome home” and offering – yes, you guessed it – more food and drink.
A superb way to end a perfect evening.
Kuşadasi is a fun port, with multiple traders right at the dockside, all with a catch-cry to attract attention. The silk rugs, made from millions of silkworms, are exquisite.
Earlier, on our initial boarding, we were warmly greeted by our stateroom hostess with a glass of champagne and a choice of fragrant soaps. The mini fridge was stocked with our choice of alcohol and soft drink previously nominated when we checked in online. All food and drink is included on a Seabourn cruise.
On the second day of the cruise, we were surprised when waiters we didn’t recognise welcomed us by name, both at breakfast and lunch as well as the evening meal. All staff are encouraged to learn and remember passengers’ names – it’s all part of the award-winning Seabourn service.
With the random seating at night we were given the alternative of dining alone or with others and we always chose the latter. Lasting friendships are forged from chance meetings on ships. The very efficient maître d’ had an uncanny knack of combining pairs or even groups so that our evening meals, apart from the wonderful food, were always congenial and informative affairs. And the arm-in-arm escort to the table with the waiter or waitress is a pleasant touch.
Occasionally we received an invitation to dine at a table hosted by one of the ship’s staff. We had meals with a comedian, musician, the doctor, Hotel Manager and ship’s Captain, David Bathgate who proved a charming host. On these evenings partners are separated, sitting at different ends of the table – which can be interesting – depending on the luck of the draw. Sitting at a hosted table is optional, but we always accepted the invitation and were generally fortunate in the match-ups.
In the Greek Islands, the ship was due to arrive at Santorini on one day and Mykonos the next. However, Captain Bathgate learned that on the days we were due in each respective port, so were three other large ships. So he swapped days. It was a masterstroke. We had the two locations to ourselves.
The seas were whipping up as we strolled along the Mykonos foreshore, with the distinctive white painted grout between the stones, and by the time we left port, the seas were rough. So rough that the big ships couldn’t tie up the next day and their passengers missed Mykonos altogether. Thanks to Captain Bathgate and Seabourn’s flexibility, we were tendered in to Santorini, dubbed the most popular island in Greece, in perfect weather. Instances like this set Seabourn apart.
We chose to ride the cable car to the town perched precariously on top of a hill and walk back down the donkey track. The donkeys carrying tourists all looked well fed and cared for. A cleaner with bucket and shovel quickly pounced on anything left on the track.
Into the Black
Rowdy, thriving Istanbul with its mosques, bazaars, bargains, delicious Turkish delight and copious offers of cups of tea, is a shopper’s paradise where bargaining is almost the national sport. A good starting point for negotiation is to offer about half the asking price and work toward meeting half way. It is fun and expected, so have no qualms at getting the best price possible.
Our first port in The Black Sea, the charming UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site of Nessebar in Bulgaria, is known as the ‘Pearl of the Black Sea’ and has a shimmering lustre of its own. After arriving by tender, we wandered through the winding maze of cobblestone streets, past churches dating back to the 5th century and admired the wares of the street sellers. Basically a fishing village, the picturesque town also relies on tourism for income.
Back on board our luxury ship, we enjoy the touch of formality in the main dining room. The atmosphere on formal nights, when most guests get “dolled up” in their finery, with tuxedos and black tie for gents and an evening gown for the ladies, is the pinnacle of elegant cruising. Jackets for gentlemen are required on many nights, while slacks and shirt suffice on others – but never jeans or shorts.
Seabourn Odyssey features one of the largest spas in a cruise ship; and a built-in marina. The 11 decks include two swimming pools, six outdoor whirlpools, water sports from the marina and a private diamond showroom. The Retreat features a nine-hole mini golf course, a giant chessboard and shuffleboard. •
Photography by Barry O’Brien and Michel Verdure
We flew Emirates to Athens and from Istanbul. Flights depart daily and route through Dubai. 1300-303-777; emirates.com
A 14-night cruise from Athens to Istanbul on Seabourn Odyssey departs 5 September, 2015, and includes calls to Mykonos, Kuşadasi and Nessebar.
• Seabourn: 132-402; seabourn.com
Where to Stay
In Athens we stayed at the Athens Gate Hotel. A full breakfast was included and the dining room overlooked the Acropolis. It was a short walk from the famous Plaka, the oldest area of Athens. +30-210/9238-302; athensgate.gr
• Taxis are inexpensive in Athens and the best way to see the sights.
• Our flight from Istanbul left in the late afternoon and Seabourn arranged a driver/guide after disembarking to show us the city and transport us to the airport. This was another great Seabourn service.
Where to Eat
The Plaka is filled with interesting shops and reasonably priced eating places. We shared a huge combination chicken and lamb yiros plate, with a soft drink and coffee for 20 euros.