Back in the 70s, The Love Boat always intrigued me. It seemed luxurious and exotic – though I would have preferred to have watched it for the destinations, rather than the inevitable happy endings, love matches, and moralistic stories. Perhaps as a result, I’ve always wanted to go on a cruise. But group tours have never appealed – at least not while we’re still young (or, at least, not yet old). So we had assumed that a cruise might be something we would do when we were elderly, less able to travel about independently, navigate local transportation or drive to our destinations. Until last year.
I was researching a trip to Turkey and Europe, and was determined that any trip to Greece had to include at least one Greek island. That island had to be Santorini. As I was figuring out transport options, on impulse I googled cruises / Greek islands. It didn’t seem very long until we had booked and paid for a week-long cruise from Athens to Venice. The rest of our trip was then planned around the cruise.
- The route and destinations of the cruise. This was paramount. We weren’t taking a cruise simply to take a cruise. We were taking a cruise because it was transportation and accommodation combined, for places we’d always wanted to visit. We were in particular attracted by the fact that this cruise visited two Greek islands (Santorini and Corfu), Olympia, and two new countries, Montenegro (Kotor) and Croatia (Dubrovnik – another must-see in the region). I’ve already blogged about two of these destinations, here and here. And we knew that, once we were off the ship, we could do our own thing when visiting these destinations.
- The size of the ship. I hate the idea of the huge ships, full of thousands of people milling about, and so with only 200 rooms, the Quest sounded about perfect. If it was a hotel, it would be a boutique hotel. A classy one. And it lived up to these expectations; the public areas of the ship never felt crowded.
- The quality of the ship and its services. If we were going to turf out money for a week-long cruise, we wanted to enjoy the food and wine, and to feel comfortable in our cabin. And then the reviews of the food and wine on the Seabourn line. The rave reviews tempted us. Add to that my mild claustrophobia, and the fact that all cabins were suites with a window and (most with a) balcony made the Seabourn Quest sound just about perfect.
- Financial issues. Seabourn yachts are all-inclusive, and tipping is not expected. This was a bonus. Yes, it was expensive, but it was good to know, upfront, exactly what the experience would cost us. Besides, New Zealanders always find tipping – a practice unfamiliar to us – a bit stressful, so if we can avoid it, we will!
By the time we were ready to board the Quest, we had been travelling for several weeks, moving on every few days, and we were getting a bit tired. The idea of unpacking only once, of having a base (albeit moving), of not having to debate where to find a restaurant for dinner every night, and of not having to worry about our wallets or currencies or tipping for the next week – it all sounded like bliss. Plus, there was going to be bottomless champagne. We like that. And so excitedly, we boarded the Quest.
It started perfectly. The champagne was on ice in our room, and after the Sailing Away party – including champagne – we explored the ship and then retired to our cabin for, yes, more champagne. The sea was calm, our suite spacious and comfortable. We felt as if we were in a five-star hotel. And we were. Better in fact.
The Restaurant (the main dining room) was one of the biggest surprises. I think we had expected something along the lines of a good standard hotel coffee shop. But we were wrong. Arriving at the entrance of the luxuriously, lusciously decorated restaurant, the waiter took my arm (perhaps to ensure that women in high heels don’t totter over if the ship lurches? or maybe just a gallant touch) and led us to our table for two. There was no pressure to eat in a group, and this worked perfectly for us. It was also both more refined but more relaxed than I had originally envisaged – formal nights were optional – which made my husband very happy!
Every night at The Restaurant we had an amazing, romantic three course meal, with excellent wine selected to match the food. If we didn’t like the wine, we could ask for something else. We never did. The food was superb, the service was immaculate. In fact, we used to watch the waiters – they were always alert to an empty water or wine glass, or dropped napkin, and they never stopped moving. Before we had boarded the ship, we had assumed we would eat in The Restaurant one or two nights, but then try the other more casual restaurants. Other than at lunch, we didn’t. We missed The Restaurant only one night, when we ate in …
… Restaurant 2. This was advertised – erroneously if you ask me – as a more casual experience. It was a smaller, specialty restaurant seating only 30 people, with fusion food, a menu designed by Charlie Palmer. Reservations were essential. It was a degustation menu, with some extraordinary food, service and wine once again, in much more intimate surroundings than The Restaurant.
The ride was smooth. There was only one night and morning when the sea was a little choppy. The ship began to rock after dinner on our second night. I gulped, a bit nervous that I might get sea-sick. But the ship rocked me to sleep, blissfully. I wish I could sleep like that every night. Otherwise it felt as if we were gliding – the sea was so calm, the ship so smooth.
When we had free time on the ship, we rested in our room, read on our balcony listening to the swish of the waves, visited the library/internet cafe (with the best coffee on board), sat outside on deck and watched the world go by, watched movies (on deck and in our room), and visited a bar. The Observation Lounge was our favourite. Before dinner it was busy, with hors d’oeuvres, and a pianist as we watched the sun set. Champagne or cocktails. Such a difficult decision!
In fact, it seemed as if we did nothing on the ship but eat and drink. This is actually quite an accurate assessment, because after breakfast in the morning – room service or out on the deck – we would leave the ship, returning for a very late lunch and to rest our tired feet before heading out again, returning later for a shower and dinner.
There was a large spa available for massages and beauty treatments, but a) these were quite expensive, and b) we didn’t really have time to indulge. In comparison, some of the older passengers rarely left the ship, and probably used it and the other ship facilities more than we did. I heard one conversation – a man was asked if he had gone off the ship to visit Santorini, and he replied “No. We visited it 30 years ago. I don’t imagine it will have changed.” I was astounded – especially as I’d go back to Santorini like a shot!
I was a little nervous that the other passengers would all be elderly and retired, and that we would feel old before our time. And whilst we liked to think we were in the younger 10%, there were plenty of passengers younger than us, and very few noticeably elderly. In other words, we didn’t feel out of place, which was a relief. I did have a moment or two of discomfort when, during a party one evening, we watched all these 50 and 60-somethings dancing to the band. I wondered how they looked to the 20-30 year old staff members, and cringed. They certainly looked happy though, and maybe that’s all I should worry about.
The highlight of my day was always in the late afternoon, when we would (usually) sail away from our destination. We would make our way up to the 10th floor deck, grabbing a glass of champagne from the Observation Lounge, and toast our luck as the ship began to move, a soft breeze cooling us. This was how we sailed out of Santorini, and has to be the best possible way to leave that island, gliding past the lava islands, watching the white-washed villages on the top of the caldera gradually fade and disappear, sipping champagne, happy together.
That said, I also loved the mornings, arriving somewhere new! We arrived in Santorini in the middle of the night, and when we awoke we discovered an amazing view from the room. In Corfu and Dubrovnik, we floated slowly past the old town walls, amazed at this wonderful way to see a new town. In Kotor, we rose early, standing out on the chilly deck, as the Quest manoeuvred its way through some narrow channels and past tranquil villages. And in Croatia’s Tri Luke Bay, we found ourselves in a kind of watery moonscape, with not a wave nor breath of wind through non-existent trees.
On our last morning, we sailed into Venice. My husband and I rose early – we wanted to be out on deck as we arrived. By the time we got up to the 11th floor deck, the Quest was already making its way along the Riva degli Schiavoni. We were astounded how close we were to the shore – we saw the hotel we stayed in on our first visit to Venice in 1998, and could pick out all the major landmarks. Gliding along, in the hush of the early morning darkness, with the most amazing view of Venice, we knew how lucky we were, even as we felt sad we had to leave the ship we came to love so quickly.