A cruise on Crystal Symphony takes in some of the Mediterranean’s newest, most dramatic ports – and gets you there in style.
Cruising from Rome to Istanbul through the islands of Greece is a voyage through the origins of Western civilisation. It’s a trip through film culture, too. In Rome, we watch Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn scootering through Roman Holiday, spend an evening checking out The Godfather in Sicily and recall friends who were roped in as beachside extras for Shirley Valentine in Greece.
And most nights, the movies come to us – on Crystal Symphony, our transport for the 12-night journey, a television channel runs films that feature ports along our route.
Having departed Rome, the first stop on our voyage is a port the line, Crystal Cruises, has never visited before. It’s hard to believe there are any “new” Mediterranean ports, but the island of Ponza is a first for all of us. Floating midway between Rome’s Civitavecchia port and Sorrento, Ponza has been an escape for Neapolitans for centuries.
It’s April, and the shuttered cafés lining the harbour remind us how dependent on the summer sun these petite waterside towns are. Storme Brown, Symphony’s shore excursions manager, tells me the cruise line had been planning to add Ponza to its ships’ itineraries for two years. “Some of its infrastructure isn’t up to our standards – for example, the buses are pretty basic,” she tells me. “On the other hand, there’s the excitement of a new destination. That’s particularly important to our repeat passengers.”
In the luxury cruise-line pecking order, Crystal is consistently rated one of the standouts. Indeed, Crystal Symphony’s atmosphere is distinct from that of other ships I’ve been on. Built in 1995, she’s far from new, but Symphony radiates refinement and her public areas gleam without being brash.
Substantial refits in 2006 and 2009 saw modern amenities introduced – raised bathroom basins and ship-wide Wi-Fi – alongside sophisticated bars and restaurants. And this year, Symphony became all-inclusive, which means that passengers no longer have to fret about tipping etiquette and can concentrate on drinking. All beverages you consume on board are included in the fare, from your minibar to those offered at the various bars and dining venues.
“Open Dining by Reservation” has also been introduced: it’s a great system whereby guests can still select first or second sittings for dinner, but have the option of reserving a table for a different time each night, depending on the day’s activities.
Still, one of our favourite dining experiences takes place at The Sushi Bar, within specialist restaurant Silk Road, which takes no reservations. A handful of chairs front the bar’s open kitchen, offering lucky diners a front-row view of three Nobu-trained sushi and sashimi chefs working their culinary magic. It’s excellent food – and great interactive entertainment.
With the shipboard focus so firmly on eating, we’re relieved to reach Sorrento and have time to explore – and work off some kilojoules. Located on Italy’s west coast, Sorrento and its surrounds pose an immediate dilemma: do we stay in the cliff-top town itself, take a boat to the isle of Capri, drive down the winding road carved into the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast, or visit the nearby volcanic ruins of Pompeii? Fortunately, Crystal Symphony spends two days in Sorrento, so we get to do it all in a couple of very busy days.
And this is one of the fundamental joys of cruising: you can accomplish a lot each day because your floating hotel moves with you, which means you aren’t battling with luggage, taxis, transfers and check-ins at each destination.
Our next port is the Italian island of Sicily, which turns out to be a highlight of the trip. On the east coast, the small town of Taormina where we dock is set back from the sea, almost in the shadow of Mount Etna.
On the edge of town, we discover the Teatro Greco, a theatre built in the third century B.C. by the Greeks occupying Sicily at the time. The Romans expanded the site and the program; these days, it’s used for classical and rock concerts during the balmy summer months. Sitting in the back row watching Mount Etna erupt directly behind the stage would be worth any admission fee.
Having enjoyed a fair few cruises over the years, I’ve learned to choose itineraries that have at least a couple of days at sea. Our voyage had two: one during the 645-nautical-mile crossing between Sicily and Rhodes and the other, on Anzac Day, as we sailed through the Dardanelles towards Istanbul while Turkish military aircraft flew in commemoration just over our heads.
Both are days in which to appreciate shipboard life at our leisure, but they turn out to be rather busy: spa appointments have to be squeezed between French classes, an informative lecture on Istanbul, time on deck and, of course, meals.
After our first sea day, we dock at Mykonos. I haven’t been to this Greek island for decades and I find that the main town has grown, but hardly changed. I still get hopelessly lost in the winding alleyways – according to legend, they were built this way to confuse pirates – and the sea appears in front of me at unexpected turns. I remember the houses, so whitewashed they resemble sagging wedding cakes, but I’d forgotten that the gleam continues between the streets’ cobblestones. The whole of the main town is like a fantasy village and I fall in love with it all over again.
A few islands over, I discover that Santorini now has a cable car. On my previous visits, the only options for getting from the port to the town – 564 metres above on the rim of the flooded volcanic crater – was by climbing 588 steps or hitching a ride on a wheezing donkey. I pay the cable car fee with pleasure and enjoy a scenic entrance to the town, its whitewashed houses clinging to the cliffside.
The relaxed pace of life here is a world away from that of Turkey – my feet barely touch Turkish soil in the Aegean resort town of Kusadasi before I’m offered a taxi, Turkish delight, a guide and rugs.
Everyone comes to Kusadasi to visit the ancient ruins of Ephesus, nearby, but we rent a car and drive to Pamukkale, a hillside covered in white calcium pools. Driving several hundred kilometres across Turkey in a day, we discover to our relief that the country’s road system has definitely improved since I was last here; we also discover that, sadly, visitors are no longer allowed near the main pools of Pamukkale and that the geothermal water flow that used to fill the pools has been diverted.
Farther north, after we’ve spent a day exploring Istanbul – its chaotic Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia – it’s time to leave Crystal Symphony. There is more than a twinge of sadness in our farewell; having spent close to two weeks on the ship, we’d come to know a lot of the crew. Thankfully, Symphony will be back in these waters within the year. And I might just be tempted to join her. •
Photography by David McGonigal.
Etihad offers flights from Sydney to Milan via Abu Dhabi, with onward connections to Rome on Al Italia. 61-2/8024-7200; etihadairways.com
Air France flies from Sydney to Rome via Singapore and Paris. 1300-390-190; airfrance.com
For car hire, contact Holiday Autos. 61-2/8036-3128; holidayautos.com.au
When to go
Crystal Symphony next cruises from Rome to Istanbul departing June 27, 2013 and returning July 5, 2013. This is summer in the Med, so pack resort wear.
Destination information provided by Crystal Cruises, before and during your voyage, is so good you’ll barely need anything extra – except, perhaps, a history book. In Australia, book Crystal Cruises through Wiltrans. 1800-251-174; wiltrans.com.au