Modern odyssey in the Med

Discovering new lands in civilised comfort delights Audrey Ward

16 October 2011
The Sunday Times

Three-thirty on a blistering hot Friday afternoon and a swarthy man with thick, rippled hair has just boarded the Island Sky cruise ship and is making demands of our captain. He’s not a pirate, rather a Greek pilot in tight-fitting navy trousers and powder-blue shirt here to steer our boat, with a berth of 20 yards, through the 26 yards-wide calcareous walls that rise steeply on either side of the Corinth Canal in the Aegean Sea. To get a feel for the job in hand, imagine trying to thread a needle without letting wool touch steel.

The water is glassy and flecked with red and green jellyfish, there are no currents to send us ping-ponging from side to side and we glide effortlessly through the passage. The pilot lands safely and the default position of the staff — one of serene composure — is maintained. While his diminutive stature might be a hindrance for the pilot, the fact that the Island Sky is small by seafaring standards is of huge benefit, as I am constantly reminded by the other 77 passengers, many of whom have experienced the horrors of multistorey cruise ships.

Pru and her husband, Philip, both flossy white-haired and celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary, begin to cluck disapprovingly as one such beast draws up beside us in the port of Dubrovnik, and decants its thousands of passengers, all of whom have sacrificed country-hotel intimacy for an ice-skating rink and a climbing wall.

Our small but perfectly formed cruiser makes the most of its ability to navigate the tiniest and most unspoilt harbours, channels and bays in the Mediterranean. During our 12-day trip, we travel from Croatia to Albania and zigzag between the Greek islands before surging onwards to Turkey.

Our first night is spent docked in the port of Dubrovnik and I’ve been allocated a suite on the Columbus deck, which is so spacious that, had the man or woman who first uttered the words “cabin fever” slept here, they might never have bothered to coin the phrase.

Our temporary floating home offers plenty of diversions. Passengers can be found lolling about in the sun on the top deck or enjoying afternoon tea in The Club. At lunch and dinner, we graze on the fresh, delicious food on board. The baker prepares rolls and pastries for breakfast and scones for afternoon tea, while the pastry chef, a qualified chocolatier, takes the credit or blame, depending on how you look at it, for the delicious desserts and the captain’s ample girth.

We’re not here just to gorge on food and wine; we have some Unesco world heritage sites to see, and what better way to be introduced to one of them than with a walking tour beginning at Dubrovnik’s Pile Gate and a short drive offering panoramic views of the Adriatic Sea? Our Croatian guide tells us she was nine years old during the Serbo-Montenegrin siege of the city in 1991, and recalls leaving her home with her family for the safety of a hotel in the old town.

By first light the following day we have reached Itea in Greece, and our coach takes us to Delphi, best known for the oracle at the Grand Temple dedicated to Apollo and set nearly 2,000ft up on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. According to legend, Zeus released two eagles from opposite ends of the world and their paths crossed in the sky above Delphi, establishing the site as the centre of the world.

The mythology of the ancient world also dominates our tour of Troy, in what is now northern Turkey. Our earnest young guide, holding what looks like a broken car aerial, points to a picture depicting the nine cities that have been discovered here, built one on top of the other, the first dating back to 3,500BC. He attempts to separate fact from fiction on the subject of Helen and the Trojan Horse, but the snap-happy visitors don’t seem to care about what’s real or not — they’re too busy climbing into the huge wooden replica horse.

Another archeological highlight is the magnificently preserved site of Ephesus, located within easy reach of Turkey’s Kusadasi marina. The remains of the Roman baths, the amphitheatre built to seat 24,000 spectators and the breathtaking Library of Celsus bring the history of an ancient Greco-Roman town to life. The area is suppurating with tourists but we expertly snake through the crowds and regroup at the end of the tour.

Our visit to Ephesus is sandwiched between Symi, the beautiful island of the Dodecanese, with its rainbowcoloured Venetian-style architecture fronting onto the elegant harbour, and the bustling port of Chios, an area known for mastic, the resinous gum that grows there, which is used in everything from chewing gum to paint. These ports offer a contrast to the Colgate-white buildings with blue roofs or shutters on the islands in the Cyclades, such as Santorini, famous for its beautiful sunsets, and Folegandros, with its 13th-century Venetian Kastro nestling on a cliff up the hill and tree-shaded cafes where black-clad, raisin-skinned women are gossiping.

By dawn on our last day, we are sailing into the port of Istanbul, the Bosphorus to our right and the Golden Horn to our left. Skyscrapers spike the skyline and the Topkapi Palace squints in the sun. Our guide, Ahmet, sprints ahead and whisks us through the Blue Mosque, a masterpiece of meringue domes and minarets, and then through the Ayasofya museum. The afternoon ends with a visit to the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s oldest covered markets. It’s a shock of colours and voices spilling out from more than 4,000 shops selling spices, jewellery and carpets. A truly Turkish delight.

Mediterranean and Aegean cruising options

Noble Caledonia offers the 10-night Aegean Antiquities excursion on September 19-29, 2012, with special offer prices from £3,695pp. The price includes scheduled air travel, full board, wine, beer or soft drinks with lunch and dinner, guest speakers, shore excursions and gratuities.

Noble Caledonia also has the 12-night Island Life – Mediterranean Style cruise on September 7-19, 2012, with special offer prices from £3,995pp. From Barcelona, islands become stepping stones across the Mediterranean to the Corinth Canal and from there across the Aegean to the island of Rhodes. The price includes scheduled air travel, full board, wine, beer or soft drinks with lunch and dinner, guest speakers, shore excursions and gratuities.