From Venice to Genoa, cruising the Med is the best way to visit the ancient ports of the region. And when you’re tired, there’s no better place to return to than a luxury liner
We got lost in Venice. Well and truly, memorably lost. Almost forever lost. Venice was the highlight port of our 16-night cruise on the magnificent Celebrity Eclipse. We sailed from Southampton to Cadiz, Cagliari, Palermo, Venice, Split, Cartagena, La Coruna and back to Southampton.
Earlier, we took advantage of the Time to Cruise package at the Hilton Southampton. Enjoying the luxury of a room, dinner and convenient parking, we relaxed and anticipated our first sight on the ship. And what a stunning, sophisticated, classy lady she was.
There was everything to love – contemporary, innovative design, harmonious comfort and sophistication. Big but not brassy, this 2,850-guest, Solstice-class ship has so much, including ten dining areas – one with an 1,800-bottle wine tower, stunning art, an iLounge and a suspended tree.
Nothing is too much trouble for the officers and crew, and the warm camaraderie between them and guests even extends to games. But alas, we had no officer with us in Venice.
The day began brilliantly with a smoked salmon breakfast on Ocean View's verandah, followed by a visit to the calm Persian Garden in the AquaSpa, where we relaxed on heated loungers, before hectic, absorbing Venice.
Celebrity's shuttle boat took us to Zattere, instead of St Mark's Square, because it was the day of the Regata Storica. This regatta probably originated in the mid 13th century, and is a historical water pageant featuring typically 16th-century-style boats, sailed by gondoliers in period costume, preceding the race up the Grand Canal.
The boiling-hot city was also packed for the 68th Venice Film Festival. There were no visible film stars as we walked past a negotiating gondolier, stands of masks and jester hats, to the Bridge of Sighs (unfortunately spoilt by advertising hoardings), and past Arsenale, where the Venetians built their ships, then on to flop in Giardini's shady parkland.
Confidently, we retraced our steps past the Basilica and the Doge's Palace towards the Rialto Bridge, which police were closing for the regatta, and pushed our way over it, through sweaty, heaving bodies.
Then it happened. That sinking feeling, reinforced by a barman telling us we were on the wrong side of the Grand Canal with no vaporetti, as the regatta rowing boats appeared. However, our guardian angels, Venetians Lucia and Roberto, rescued us and so began our meandering hour-long trek through the maze of less-travelled Venice.
Every turn led to more tiny canals, bridges, squares and lines of washing. Anxious was an understatement, as I volunteered that our shuttle stop was next to a church. Lucia laughed. “There are 140 churches in Venice.” Eventually we reached Zattere, and they insisted on seeing us off on our shuttle.
At the ship, crew handed us welcome fruit punch and ice-crystallised towels to refresh us, and the day continued with a beautiful meal at Tuscan Grille, one of the speciality restaurants. All the food and service on Eclipse was superb, but the fare in the four speciality restaurants was, well, special. Venice was fading into the distance as we enjoyed minestrone and sea bass, and wondered whether Lucia and Roberto were thinking about us.
Deciding what to do next on Eclipse occupied considerable time as there was so much to do. Our favourite place had to be deck 15, with its real grass, half-acre Lawn Club and compelling, hot glass shows by the Corning Museum of Glass.
Most memorably idyllic, though, was lying on blue-and-green checked rugs on the grass, listening to the Eclipse orchestra's music as we left Palermo.
Then there were the gentle sports – putting, croquet and bean bag games, with Ron winning his celebrity medal in the bocce (Italian boules) tournament. It was also the peaceful place we loved to walk round late in the evening – its Sunset Bar is well named.
Other favourites were Eclipse's shows, and my cheeks ached laughing at Welshman Mike Doyle, who had the whole theatre singing and waving to Daydream Believer.
Eclipse, a breathtaking on-board circus show, featured entangled acrobats on a frame and unimaginable feats that included one performer floating by the theatre balcony.
From our super concierge-class stateroom balcony, I looked out on a sunrise over Cadiz. Many guests chose to go further on, to Seville, but we stayed put and explored Cadiz, founded over 3,000 years ago and believed to be western Europe's oldest inhabited city.
Early morning, it was already 22 degrees as we coached past fig trees along the bay and learnt about Cadiz's tobacco industry, olive oil production and importance as a port. It was from there that sailors, including Christopher Columbus, sailed to the New World. Our guide, Cecilia, provided a brisk, dense commentary as we struggled to keep up and cope with the searing Spanish heat.
She led us round the city, to museums, under a medieval arch partly made of oyster shells, and to the black, red and white marble cathedral that was started in 1722 and took 116 years to build. Climbing the stone steps from the dim, under-sea crypt and out to follow Cecilia, we emerged at last to Plaza de Las Flores, where you can buy flowers and fruit, including the small apple-like azofaifas, and seasoning for bull meat – but we simply enjoyed a rest. Finally, we finished the walk at a real Cadiz highlight, the Plaza de España, with its impressive monument to the 1812 constitution.
So many highlights, but best of all was our invitation to join Captain Dimitrios Manetas on the bridge, to sail away from magical Venice as Celebrity Eclipse hooted arrivederci.
The Time to Cruise (www.hilton.co.uk) package includes one night in a double room, with breakfast, 15-day car parking and direct transfers to and from Southampton docks. Additional car parking costs £6 per day. Prices start from £169 per room, for two adults sharing.
A 14-night Mediterranean cruise aboard Celebrity Eclipse (0845 456 0523, www.celebritycruises.co.uk) in September costs from £1,364 per person, including return flights from Glasgow to Southampton, a 14-night cruise, all meals, on-board entertainment and taxes/fees.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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