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|Cruising on Seabourn Odyssey|
There are some things in life that one should avoid confessing to when in serious company.
For example, in the mid-Seventies it was social suicide to admit liking Abba's music, as it is today with Sir Cliff Richard's canon; equally, to claim a secret fondness for the novels of Barbara Cartland or the paintings of Vladimir Tretchikoff remains cultural death.
Although cruise holidays no longer quite fit into the category of these levels of the shamefully naff, they are still sneered at by many who claim to be real travellers, and until my recent Seabourn Odyssey cruise I would probably have done likewise. However, having returned from a week-long trip with my family through the Peloponnese and Aegean, I found myself unselfconsciously recommending it to everyone I know.
First, let me explain that Seabourn Odyssey is no ordinary cruise ship. It is one of three new Seabourn luxury liners (Sojourn and the yet-to-be-launched Quest are the other two). Each carries about 450 passengers and, according to our cruising expert Douglas Ward, they "have the highest passenger-space ratio in the cruise industry".
The first three Seabourn ships – Legend, Pride and Spirit – are smaller, carrying half the number in extreme luxury and catering more for billionaires' widows and dowagers who prefer the security of round-the-year cruising to having to cope with the increasingly mean streets of their respective cities. On these cruise ships they can wear the family jewels without fear of mugging.
The Odyssey and the other bigger Seabourn ships offer a more egalitarian experience, all-inclusive luxury without the formality so beloved of the tux-and-tiara set who inhabit the smaller ships. Everything you eat and drink on board is part of the ticket price, and that includes champagne and caviar at sundown, a decent selection of wines (including Australian shiraz, Chilean merlot, Californian chardonnay, and a very nice petit chablis), and all the cocktails you can drink from dawn to dusk.
Of course, this is a restrained audience, so on this cruise there was no evidence of passengers overdoing it on the free alcohol.
The passengers were, in fact, the kind of people you would happily spend a week with, being an interesting mixture of Cheshire lawyers, an Australian restaurateur and vineyard owner, an Antipodean book publisher, American dentists, entrepreneurs from Tennessee and Alabama, and so on.
The Americans tended to be up at the crack of dawn, power-walking around the deck or ordering powerful coffees to kick-start their holiday mornings in the Seabourn Square, the so-called living room on deck 7 that has computer stations, a library and concierge desks as well as a coffee bar. The British and their colonial cousins tended to rise a little later but were invariably found in the pool at sundown, sipping at champagne flutes and nibbling at caviar blinis.
For the purposes of a successful family holiday, there was also a good selection of teenagers (provided by the parents, not the cruise company), all of whom seemed happy to hang out in various corners of the ship and do what they could to avoid their embarrassing parents.
As Douglas Ward points out, these Seabourn ships are large enough to get lost on. One of the unexpected bonuses of this cruise was that owing to intermittent Wi-Fi coverage I had the rare pleasure of seeing my daughters detached from their BlackBerrys; probably the first time they had been weaned from serial texting in years.
The itinerary – starting in Istanbul and stopping off at Dikili in Turkey, then Kusadasi, Bodrum, Santorini, Mylos and Navplion before disembarkation in Athens – was one reason why this particular cruise appealed to me. Santorini and Ephesus are two of those significant European sightseeing destinations that travellers feel they should visit but which seldom fit into summer holiday itineraries.
Ephesus was a particular treat, not least because we had been well prepared for our visit with a splendid lecture on board by Dr Mary Eaverly, an archaeologist from the classics department of the University of Florida.
As all scholars of this area know, this is where St Paul preached to the Ephesians, where Antony and Cleopatra took their honeymoon and where there stands the restored and reconstructed Library of Celsus facade. We were led around this magnificent site by Fulya Ozenc, a bright and articulate local archaeology graduate who breathed life into all we saw.
Even my daughters, exponents of the "whadevver" school of architectural tourism, were taken by the recently excavated section of terraced houses that revealed intricate mosaics and frescoes that have survived millennia. The same daughters were even more moved by the classical concert performed at the amphitheatre where St Paul once preached. A private, candlelit event, exclusive to the Seabourn Odyssey guests, it will long live in the memory.
Santorini, where we alighted two days later, was less edifying, but still somewhere I am glad to have visited, especially as it was made so accessible as part of a cruise itinerary. We arrived at around the same time as a well-stocked MSC cruise liner, which disgorged tender after tender of chattering, gesticulating Italian tourists.
The queues for the cable cars up to town seemed endless and the narrow streets were elbow-to-elbow with cruisers smelling of sun cream. It was a spectacular vantage point, looking out over the Aegean from these pretty whitewashed buildings, but I couldn't help feeling I was on a tourist conveyor belt.
The sensation was exacerbated by the return journey – the choice was either the 45-minute queue for the cable car, with much bickering and Italian queue-jumping, or a painfully slow descent down the mountain path on a ragged, moth-eaten donkey near to death. We settled for the cable car.
In between the sightseeing there was a great deal of what is apparently conventional cruise behaviour: lounging around, reading, drinking cocktails on deck and engaging in conversation with the aforementioned interesting fellow cruisers. The evenings were, of course, taken up with restaurant meals and on-board entertainment.
I was pleasantly surprised by the food. The Colonnade Restaurant, which was themed every night – American Bistro, Tuscany Market, French Bistro etc – was excellent, as were the main restaurant and even the informal Patio Grill.
Restaurant 2, the small, intimate gourmet restaurant that is supposed to be the ship's epicentre of haute cuisine, was, however, a touch disappointing. Perhaps I was there on a bad night, but the promising menu of seared beef tataki, followed by clear tomato presse, and slow roasted lamb shank all seemed rather insipid and greasy.
Apart from eating, drinking, reading and generally hanging around, there is always the in-cruise entertainment to keep you occupied. In my limited experience it is an aspect of cruising that has always been disappointing. Surely there are many top-class entertainers around the world who in their downtime would love to take a cruise and a modest salary rather than sit at home waiting for the phone to ring.
The Odyssey's house band was the Six of Hearts, and although they were a cut above end-of-pier entertainers I have experienced, it was only by a matter of degree. The comedian, Steven Stephens, started unpromisingly with a dreadful version of Save The Last Dance for Me, but improved to the point of being rather amusing. It was decent enough, but you do wish one of the cruise companies would start providing quality entertainment.
After a thoroughly relaxing and enjoyable week, we took our leave of the Odyssey at Piraeus. Most importantly, my easily bored daughters were amused for long enough and found enough good company to remember this week as a special holiday.
I had only been back in London a week when I bumped into a friend who had also just come off a cruising holiday, in his case a 12-day river cruise from St Petersburg to Moscow. His story was the antithesis of mine.
He had abandoned the holiday halfway through, swearing he would never set foot on a cruise ship again. He and his partner paid £8,000 and, although his complaints were many, his major problem was with his fellow cruisers.
"I'm no spring chicken," he said, "but my companions on that ship were ancient, largely overweight Americans, who all seemed to be taking part in an eating competition. They had no conversation and were hardly interested in the cities we were passing through. They were terrible company."
My friend knows that my holiday preference is to go tramping through the African bush or to nose around big cities such as New York, Rome, Paris and even my home town of London, taking in the cultural nuances and finding colourful characters to lean up against a bar with. So he was surprised, not to say sceptical, when I explained the great success of my Seabourn cruise.
The lesson, of course, is staring us in the face. If you choose a cruise carefully, you will end up with a memorable, cost-effective holiday. If you don't, you could end up, as my friend did, on a holiday from hell. Here endeth the lesson.