Mediterranean cruise: Exploring in style
Tap into the knowledge of your crew, says Hollie-Rae Brader, as she explores the Mediterranean in style
I start to feel like a local as I wander through cobbled backstreets, over city walls and down off-the-beaten-track residential lanes
I’m in Antibes and the scent of freshly baked bread lures me into a boulangerie where I buy mid-morning treats: tarte au citron and tarte aux fraises. I stroll past a farmers’ market and countless trendy, Instagram-worthy cafes, while super-chic French locals strut around holding freshly cut flowers. I’m on a quest to reach Plages des Ondes, a tiny beach away from the main tourist tracks in Antibes, and one frequented by the aforementioned trendy locals, who frolic around in Chanel bathing costumes and Gucci sunglasses.
It’s a 45-minute walk (in 30C heat) from Antibes marina, where the tender from our mothership, Seabourn Encore, had dropped us, but the walk came recommended by our diligent crew, who after a few days of getting to know me, had quickly established that I like exploring places on foot. I’d joined Seabourn Encore a few days earlier in Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, with my husband Matthew in tow. We quickly established a daily routine on board: if we weren’t going on organised tours, we would want to explore for ourselves.
Knowing that the crew on a ship are always well-travelled, I sought out their recommendations each morning. While enjoying my daily dose of smoked salmon in the ship’s Colonnade restaurant, I’d get tips and suggestions from the waiting staff. My next stop would always be Seabourn Square – the beating heart of the ship – where I’d grab a map of that day’s destination and ask for advice from the concierge team. Each day was moulded using the expert knowledge of the Seabourn crew.
We remained anchored in the fortified city of Antibes – my favourite spot of our seven-night voyage from Rome to Barcelona – until 11pm, which gave guests ample time to explore this gem of the French Riviera. After a morning spent soaking up the sunshine at the beach, we ventured farther along the coast and clambered down into a rocky cove, which we had entirely to ourselves. We splashed around in the cerulean waters, which glittered in the intensity of the sun, until our tummies started to rumble.
When you think of luxury hotels in Antibes, one place is sure to spring to mind: Hotel du Cap-Eden-Rock (box, page 70). It’s one of the finest properties in the world and attracts affluent travellers en masse. We spotted several famous faces during our short visit. Knowing the hotel’s popularity, I’d made our lunch reservation in advance, but earlier that morning Seabourn Square staff could be seen working hard to snap up the last few tables for some of our fellow passengers. We all nodded and smiled as we took our seats in the restaurant, knowing others hadn’t been so lucky.
Our late departure from Antibes meant we had plenty of time to get back on board our home from home, freshen up and head back out to experience the city after dark. We hopped from bar to bar, sipping Côtes du Provence rosé and trying countless gelatos, and began plotting our future return to the South of France’s crown jewels.
Being on a small ship comes with many perks, the biggest being able to visit smaller ports of call that bigger ships aren’t able to reach. Ours is the only ship anchored when we reach the Italian town of Portofino. We spend our hours browsing in the high-end boutiques and sipping Aperol spritz.
We feel similarly secluded in Livorno, jumping straight from the ship and on to an excursion to the famed Cinque Terre. Expecting the area to be crammed with tour groups, we were surprised to find we had this charming string of seaside villages to ourselves, with hardly any other tourists in sight – rare good fortune considering the destination had even considered imposing a cap on daily tourist numbers in 2016. On our excursion we were treated to a whistle-stop tour of picturesque villages Portovenere, Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare, where we tasted local wines, trofie pesto pasta and focaccia bread.
There was ample time for more wine tasting during our call at the tiny, beautiful French seaside town of Bandol; here too, our cruise ship was the only one anchored. We opted for an organised excursion and headed to the mountains to visit the ancient village of Le Castellet, dating back to the 11th century.
While nearby Provence might be better known for its rosé wine, Bandol’s offering is arguably superior. Our tour’s next stop was the Domaine de Fregate vineyard, where we learnt that wines from Bandol are subject to more regulation and that producers have to be more selective with the grapes they use. Production is on a smaller scale here too, with more small-batch, family‑run operations. Of course, it was my duty to check out the final product for myself and I sampled a series of reds, whites and rosés. Given that I purchased four bottles to take home, I think my verdict was clear.
Returning to Seabourn Encore each evening was like returning home. We developed a routine, heading to the top deck to enjoy a glass of champagne as the sun slipped down and the ship set sail for our next destination. The golden hour at its very best. Knowing our penchant for bubbles, our suite steward would often bring two glasses of champagne to our suite each evening, which we’d enjoy on our veranda before dinner. Eating on board was always a treat. With six dining venues to choose from, there was plenty of scope to try a new one each day. I often headed to Japanese-inspired Sushi for lunch to feast on vegetarian gyozas and salmon sashimi.
For dinner, I had two favourites: main dining room The Restaurant and speciality option The Grill by Thomas Keller. My mouth is watering just thinking about the delicious dover sole meuniere I devoured in the latter.
Time for reflection
Our last afternoon on Seabourn Encore was spent in The Retreat, the ship’s exclusive area. If Seabourn already embodies all things luxury, then The Retreat is decadence upon decadence. Here, guests pay for the privilege of relaxing in a private sanctuary, with just 15 cabanas available to book for a half or full day. A separate cabana offers alfresco massages. Each cabana features a lounge area with a TV with Bluetooth headsets and an iPad loaded with the latest magazines and newspapers. Service here is exemplary, in keeping with the very high standard across the ship.
Being the only guests left in The Retreat, we jumped into the hot tub and reflected on our sailing – the places we’d been, the people we’d met and the food we’d enjoyed. We hadn’t visited any of the ports of call before, but the expert knowledge of the crew helped make us feel instantly at home in each. We might have got to see only a slice of each destination, but that’s my favourite thing about cruising – getting to sample the best of a destination, knowing that next time you return you’ll feel even more like a local.
BOOK IT: Seabourn has a seven-day Alluring Italy and Riviera itinerary on Seabourn Encore departing on August 29, 2020. The cruise will sail from Rome to Barcelona, calling at Livorno, Portofino, Bandol, Sete, Palamos and Palma De Mallorca. Prices start at £3,499 per person for a Veranda Suite. Flights are not included.
Discerning clients will want their shoreside experiences to match the standard of their ship. Agents can highlight their knowledge by booking their clients in restaurants at ports of call. Here I review two of my Mediterranean favourites
BELMOND HOTEL SPLENDIDO, PORTOFINO, ITALY
It felt like the entire ship had descended on this stunning property, with each table full of our fellow passengers. Belmond Hotel Splendido is tucked away on the hillside overlooking pretty Portofino. Madonna, Ava Gardner and Humphrey Bogart have graced this grand-dame property, and the chance to dine among the lush gardens of this monastery-turned-hotel is one not to be missed. The buratta and tomato salad is a must from the starter options. The signature dish of the Liguria region is trofie pasta with pesto – simple and delicious – and the best, in my humble opinion, is served at Hotel Splendido.
HOTEL Du CAP-EDEN-ROC, ANTIBEs, FRANCE
Wow. This hotel was the talk of the ship for the lucky few that managed to bag a table. An institution in the South of France, this stunning property served up the best meal I’ve ever had! Oysters, king prawns, meats, cheeses and smoked salmon all line the buffet station – a good option for those that can’t pick just one starter from the menu. Every dish is divine, but my favourites included the seabass carpaccio, lobster tagliolini and the restaurant’s signature fish dish: the Mediterranean sea bass. The pièce de résistance is the old-school dessert trolley – you won’t be able to resist.
Hollie is editor of Aspire’s print and online products. She is responsible for the running of the club and ensuring the content produced and the events organised are relevant to the Aspire audience. She was previously deputy news editor and cruise writer for sister title Travel Weekly. She loves exploring new destinations and is gradually ticking new countries off her list. She most enjoys writing about cruise, South America and Japan. Before working in the travel industry she held news reporting roles at the East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Star.