Travel: Cruising from Istanbul to Athens

Le Soleal off the coast of a Greek island. Pic: Contributed.
Le Soleal off the coast of a Greek island. Pic: Contributed.
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“DOES sauvignon blanc go with escargots?”, a fellow passenger asked during a wine tasting session on the French cruise ship Le Soléal.

“Escargots and sauvignon blanc? Non, non, non absolument non”, frowned Hubert Marie, our sommelier. “Pinot noir – now zat is ze perfect wine for escargots.”

I was in the middle of a leisurely cruise around the Greek islands, but the wine tasting wasn’t on the scheduled list of events.

During a dinner the night before, a New York socialite on my table had complimented Hubert on his excellent wine choice and before we knew it, he’d invited us to sample some wines with him the following afternoon.

The setting couldn’t have been more idyllic. We were berthed in the beautiful town of Symi, capital of a rugged island just off the Turkish coast.

Hubert had chosen the outdoor bar for the occasion and a delightful breeze was wafting down from the mountains, dissipating the fierce heat and sending sparkling ripples dancing across the harbour.

Fine dining is the trademark of Compagnie du Ponant, a small French cruise company that owns Le Soléal and its sister ships L’Austral and Le Boreal. Built to expedition standards, the ships spend much of the year navigating through icebergs in the Arctic and Antarctic but, in between luxury adventure cruising, offer more sedate itineraries in the Mediterranean region.

With just 132 cabins, Le Soléal feels more like a mega yacht than a cruise ship and its compact size enables it to berth in smaller, lesser known harbours such as Symi that rarely feature on mainstream cruise itineraries.

Embarking on a cruise is always an exciting event, but nothing quite beats setting sail from Istanbul. The cruise terminal is central and lies directly opposite the Old City’s fabled skyline.

Following the customary safety drills, our captain invited us all on deck for cocktails and a sunset departure. A small pilot ship sidled up to us and in a series of delicate manoeuvres guided Le Soléal out into the Bosphorus, carefully dodging the sprightly vintage ferries packed with rush hour commuters hurrying home to the suburbs.

Accompanied by a squawking flock of seagulls, we slowly glided pass the Blue Mosque, capturing the precise moment that the sun dipped behind its elegant domes and minarets.

Life on board Le Soléal firmly revolves around meal times and for dinner, guests can choose between casual buffet dining in Le Pytheas restaurant or a more formal à la carte option in L’Eclipse restaurant.

I was slightly nervous heading to dinner on a predominantly French-speaking ship, but I needn’t have worried. With 14 nationalities on board I was whisked over to an English-speaking table and an interesting group of North American professionals.

Over dinner I asked them what had attracted them to du Ponant and they all gave the same reason. They loved the idea of cruising but had tried the larger operators and had been put off by the crowds and raucous entertainment.

At lunch time the following day, we arrived at Myrina on the remote island of Lemnos. In honour of Le Soléal’s arrival, the island’s food producers had set up a pavilion with a display of local delicacies.

The timing was unfortunate as we’d just finished a mammoth poolside barbecue of sizzling tiger prawns but nevertheless I politely stopped to taste the delicious cheeses, helva and lokum that Lemnos is famous for.

Myrina has a slightly forlorn aura of faded elegance and is often overlooked by tourists. On a blissfully quiet beach lined by crumbling Ottoman mansions, I spent a contented afternoon snorkelling among the rocks beneath a Byzantine castle as shoals of glittering sardines flitted by.

In the following days we were treated to colourful vignettes of local island life.

On a baking hot afternoon in the pretty harbour town of Naousa on Paros, fishermen were unloading their catches of glistening pink squid. These were quickly snapped up by restaurant owners, stuffed with herbs and hung out to dry like gloves on a washing line.

Our last port of call was the holy island of Patmos where legend has it that St John the Evangelist wrote the Apocalypse.

In the harbour, I hired a tiny 50cc moped and sped off to explore the island, enjoying the refreshing pine-scented breeze.

Back on Le Soléal, it was time for our gala farewell dinner. After sunset cocktails we headed down to dinner where the crew teams appeared to say goodbye, each receiving affectionate rounds of applause from the guests.

The biggest cheers were reserved for the pastry chef. Cruising is the most self-indulgent form of holiday and with ten or so delectable French desserts on offer each day, you’ll be forgiven for adding an inch or two to your waistline.

•A seven-night cruise on Compagnie du Ponant’s ship Le Lyrial, departing from Istanbul to Athens on 6 October, 2015 starts from €2,960 per person – cruise only. Tel: 0800 980 4027 or visit www.ponant.com