Memories of the Med from a floating world

The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower in Florence.
The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower in Florence.
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It’s like the thrill of hiring a newly valeted set of wheels – pristine carpets, upholstery and surfaces – only many times over, when you board the Seabourn Encore, the latest sparkling white addition to the cruise company’s fleet.

Inside, the public spaces, and particularly the amazing spiral staircase in the central atrium, with sometimes blue, sometimes green crystal artwork at its base, never cease to impress. As the 300 shiny new cabins are decorated to match the other Seabourn liners, frequent cruisers will feel instantly at home – though I imagine few passengers’ homes will be up to this standard.

Parc del Mar near the Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma, Majorca.

Parc del Mar near the Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma, Majorca.

Our suite, in common with the others on the ship, had a balcony. There was a marble bathroom and Molton Brown toiletries, cupboard space to accommodate many more clothes than I could pack, a wonderful floating-on-a-cloud bed, a TV and a fridge with my choice of drinks, not to mention the welcoming bottle of champagne. We were instantly put at our ease.

The captain, Mark Dexter, helped. We had already met this sociable host on other ships, and other lines, over the years. He was always ready to talk to the passengers, but had a firm hold on what is and what is not right for his ship. On a bridge tour my husband heard him laying down the law with a port authority on some safety aspects in a reasonable but “don’t mess with me”, tone. So off we sailed from Civitavecchia, northwest of Rome, to Corsica.

We should have been heading for Bonifacio, but the sea conditions were such that Captain Dexter decided it should be Bastia to the north of the island, and then on to Livorno, Italy. This was the port for tours to Pisa and Florence, and the latter was our pick. Florence is glorious, albeit crowded and rather smelly. The architecture and art makes you stand and stare – especially the pictorial bronze reliefs on the octagonal Baptistry of San Giovanni, the east doors of which Michelangelo described as the “Gates of Paradise”. Altogether the streets, the river, the museums and the galleries give an unparalleled sense of being in the middle of history – and all under a beaming Tuscan sun.

Also glorious was the Italian port of Santa Margherita, on the Ligurian coast. This is an old-fashioned resort in a port shaded by palm trees, with gardens and squares full of flowers, a church of baroque exuberance decorated with marble, gilt and frescoes, and streets with small cafés in which to pass many happy hours sipping coffee or a glass of wine.

The Seabourn Encore.

The Seabourn Encore.

On the French Riviera we stopped at Bandol before heading to Spain and Palamos in the heart of the Costa Brava. From there we took a trip up to Mas de Torrent, an 18th century Catalan farmhouse set among olive groves and vineyards, with a garden lush with clashing bougainvilleas. It’s now a Relais and Chateaux hotel, and there we ate the finest ever mushroom soup in which was poached an egg, before joining a wine tasting.

Our penultimate port of call was Palma de Mallorca, made unforgettable by the sight of the gothic cathedral, La Seu, towering above the harbour. The cobbled streets that make up the oldest district house the intriguing Moorish bathhouses, Banys Arabs, with their columns and arches still intact, a reminder of the history of these conquerors of Spain.

We had been alerted to the Moorish heritage by one of the lectures on individual ports given by Peter Quartermaine. These lectures took place back on board, of course. And returning to the ship was something we always looked forward to on each of our visits, for there we were very well fed, refreshed, and entertained. One stunning piece of entertainment was the Evening With Tim Rice production. The songs were familiar, and interspersed with anecdotes from the man himself on video, and the vocalists gave full throttle to the music.

Drinks are all inclusive – there seemed to be an endless supply of champagne – and the food in the main restaurant was of excellent quality, even down to the chips, which sent my dining companions from Glasgow into rhapsodies.

The Seabourn Encore is host to The Grill by Thomas Keller, the American chef from The French Laundry in California. It also features the exclusive Retreat, way up on the top deck. Set out in the style of the cabanas surrounding the pool in an exclusive old-style Miami hotel, there are 15 individual cabanas facing into a central whirlpool. They are under a canopy, and have their own televisions and fridges, and a supply of Bollinger champagne. Meals can be ordered up here, as can spa treatments, and a day will cost you $249 when in port, or $349 on a sea day.

We didn’t opt for such exclusivity preferring to mingle with our always interesting fellow passengers, but I did try the Spa by Dr Andrew Weil, and had a wonderfully relaxing sound treatment. Weil’s emphasis is on health and fitness, so I didn’t mention the French fries – though they too had a role to play in making this a heavenly cruise.