FLAVOURS OF THE MED
boards a Crystal Cruises voyage for a taste of everything the Mediterranean has to offer – literally
By now it’s been a few months since I disembarked Crystal Serenity after a cruise through the Mediterranean, and my jeans tell me that I’m still living the after-effects. There’s no better way to indulge your appetite than to board a ship that houses the world’s best mobile restaurants and setting sail for some of the world’s best dining destinations – Istanbul, Santorini, Florence, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and more.
Our tour begins in Istanbul, with a handful of hours to kill before we’re allowed to board the Crystal Cruises voyage, a themed journey titled Mediterranean Delicacies that’s expressly designed to blow the mind and strain the stomach. A cruise is no place for travel snobs, those who have seen it all and hope to take in lesser-known sights. Instead, it’s more suited to first-time Med-goers, those who might be inclined to visit Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar to bargain with vendors for a spice set that will never be used, or a carpet that’s quite unnecessary. Nevertheless, even the very well travelled can find themselves seeing cities with new eyes: we spot Chairman of the Hong Kong Tourism Board James Tien ogling the Blue Mosque before eventually boarding the same ship as us. Crystal is a line that’s popular with high society, and so his presence is met with only a smidgeon of surprise – although the ante is upped in our subsequent socialite-spotting game with the arrivals of Anson Chan with her family, Peter and Bessie Woo, and Vincent and Patricia Fang joining the 900-plus passenger load.
It takes a couple of hours to find your sea legs, which is quicker than usual as the sailing speed of cruise vessels in the Med is about half of those traversing Asian waters. You have a couple of hours to settle in and unpack – or, depending on what level of room you are in, supervise your butler as he gently transfers your delicates into the specified drawer. At this time it would also be advisable to make reservations at the two speciality restaurants, Prego and Silk Road, as it’s likely that both will be fully booked for the duration of the cruise by the time the ship sets sail in the evening. Those in penthouse rooms or above can order room service from these two restaurants, but other passengers will be completely locked out of Prego, or have to line up at 6pm on the dot to score a seat at The Sushi Bar, which serves the same menu as Silk Road but has mainly bar seating.
Our first dinner takes place at Prego, a thoroughly enjoyable Italian experience even if it does subscribe to a more American philosophy when it comes to seasoning and portions. However, there’s plenty of time to sample more authentic fare on land, so for now there’s beef carpaccio laden with a creamy drizzle, hearty lasagna that miraculously retains its shape on the plate despite melting in the mouth, and glass upon glass of wines paired artfully by the in-house sommelier – although beware, as booze is not inclusive, a policy that’s set to change come 2012. If this is a foreshadowing of what’s to come over the next 10 or so days, then we’re in big trouble. Nonetheless, I pat my belly contentedly in the way that pregnant women do, carry my stomach back to our penthouse suite and sink into bed where I’m rocked to slumber by the gently swaying ship.
We spend the next 30 hours at sea, making our way to the next stop, Kusadasi in Turkey. Our day necessarily begins with breakfast, and the options are plentiful no matter what time you get up: there’s an early riser’s continental breakfast at Lido Café, the ship’s rooftop coffee shop, which begins at 6.30am and transitions into a full-on buffet from 7.30-10am; a proper à la carte breakfast at the Crystal Dining Room; a continental buffet at The Bistro; and a late-riser’s breakfast to order on the rooftop Lido Deck by the pool. On sea days, it’s wise to have a lie-in and take in the sunshine with a side of sausages poolside – and if you’re spoilt for choice, the apple pancakes served with ricotta and berries are fluffier than a Pomeranian. That dish, simple though it was in execution, is etched in my gastronomic memory for life. But enough pontification on pancakes. Cruise ships are known to be vessels of excess, so let it be known here that there are also more academic seductions, including a lecture by the American Olympian long-distance swimmer Janet Evans, who speaks on the ills of drug use in championship sports with the same passion and understanding that I have for breakfast. The lithe and still-very-fit Evans is entirely aware that her audience has no use for a discussion on the regulatory impact of various organisations associated with the Olympics and drug use, but it does little to reduce the consequences of her speech, which is received by a rapt crowd that bubbles with questions afterwards.
There’s an abundance of other entertainment options, including ballroom dance classes – which, to my pleasant surprise, run exactly as if they were part of a scene in Dirty Dancing, minus one Patrick Swayze – plus Computer University@Sea courses and something as esoteric and specific as Tricks & Hints of Scarf Tying. The anti-social and/or jet-lagged passengers are more often found in the library, which not only houses novels but also travel guides and a DVD and CD lending library a few hundred titles strong.
Evenings at sea tend to be formal affairs, and with a change of clothing, suddenly it’s prom night, except the kids are all grown up. It’s amazing how a party dress or a bow tie can impart such excitement to adults, but it does and the Palm Court, where the captain is hosting a champagne reception, is packed, complete with a band that has passengers busting out swing moves and box steps.
This being a food-themed cruise, Crystal has invited guest chef Michael Mina to create a menu for the evening, a task we’re told is no easy feat even for a seasoned chef, who must cater for 900 diners in two seatings. Mina is co-owner of the Mina Group along with Andre Agassi. It owns 11 concept restaurants across America, including an eponymous two-Michelin-star concern in San Francisco. The chef performs admirably, and it’s a dinner that’s delightfully different from other meals at the Crystal Dining Room, packing excitingly deviant spiciness and richer textures than your usual accomplished meat-and-potatoes package.
If there’s one place to get rowdy, it’s at the Avenue Saloon after dinner, where the lovely and huggable Colin Salter plays classics of the “American Pie”/“Proud Mary” variety, with a voice and attitude so infectious that guests young and old are on their feet jiving. “Our children would be so proud!” yells a silver-haired gentleman as he lifts an entwined arm to spin his wife, her silver sequins splaying a disco pattern against the walls, her head thrown back with mirth. Even Evans, the shipboard celeb, is persuaded to head bang a little in her booth.
When we awake, the ship has docked at Kusadasi and we’re unleashed to explore. Kusadasi’s Grand Bazaar is just as touristy as Istanbul’s, so don’t make eye contact with anyone in whose products you aren’t interested. Browsing is difficult in this aggressive atmosphere, so it makes more sense to stroll along the coastline, try one of the seaside restaurants and enjoy the views over hummus and pita. The ruins of Ephesus are accessible via the Crystal Excursions programme, and while the heat of Turkey in
September makes it scorching by day, there’s an exclusive classical concert in the evening that’s reported to be amazing, if the expressions on the faces of returning passengers is anything to go by.
There’s little question of when we’ve arrived in Santorini the next day. The famously picturesque island is stunning even from a distance, a hunk of steep and unruly rock flecked up top with stitches of white and yellow concrete surrounded by sky and sea that’s so very blue, you finally understand what everybody has been on about for all these years. There’s only one practical way to reach Firá Town, and that’s by cable car, but that sensible alternative becomes daunting at the peak of cruise season, when hour-long queues in the morning deter passengers. You can also walk up 600 steps or take a donkey, though these possibilities have obvious drawbacks, chief among them the assault on the olfactory organs (my four-legged companion also seemed to have a real need for speed, but that’s a whole other story). Half a day can be spent exploring the labyrinth of side streets filled with jewellery, knickknacks and lethal-looking sweet treats (Café NRG is one that’s known for its fresh crepes). We nosh on a late lunch of mussels and spanikopita, and then board the cable car to descend back towards the ship.
It should be noted that the beauty of travelling the Med by cruise ship lies in not having to pack, board flights at an allotted time, or pass through customs and immigration checks. You can also split your time between sea and land: dine on the ship for lunch then head ashore afterwards. We save our energy for Silk Road, Nobu Matsuhisa’s Japanese fusion eatery, where fresh fish and Nobu’s signature “new style” sashimi are served alongside sweet black cod and spring rolls that we order – and complete – by the dozen. The menu is tamed down for less adventurous palates when compared with its sister restaurants on land, but still holds plenty to entice. If only chewing were a form of exercise.
Tomorrow. Another sea day, another smorgasbord. The sun has reached its peak position when we descend the curving staircase to Serenity’s lobby and reception area, which has been transformed into a feast by table upon table of towering provisions. This buffet is called the Oceans 20 gala, so named because it unites the most popular dishes from Crystal Cruises of the past two decades. In the evening, we have the genius idea of ordering Silk Road to the room, and hitting the sack early before arriving in Italy.
Sorrento, Rome and Florence pass in a blur, each evincing Italian individuality but also the same historical grandeur. In Sorrento, we challenge Pompeii before being seduced by all manner and colour of limoncello, olive oil and pasta along various markets and alleys. In Rome, we ooh and aah over the likes of the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Vatican City before settling down to crispy thin pizzas, al dente arrabiatas and risotto balls. In Florence, we stare politely at the Duomo (so, it’s…a dome?), stroll across Ponte Vecchio and molest all the leather jackets at the Via de Guicciardini, then hunker down for a pot of gooey Tuscan lasagna and a dish of wild boar pappardelle. We consider giving up water and taking up intravenous olive oil, and screech to a halt every time we pass a gelato shop, tongues a-wagging like hungry puppies in the sun.
By the time St Tropez swings into view from the balcony of our cabin, we want nothing to do with fruity ice creams or perfectly cooked starches…until we spot the crepe stand. Yachts packed tightly together form a border for this Riviera town, staring in at a number of outdoor cafes and designer boutiques. In one, an ornery canine naps next to a shelf of Balmain footwear and an ashtray containing one lit cigarette. Luxury, it will come as no surprise, is common in this beach town for celebs.
Though the cruise continues through Monte Carlo to end in Barcelona, the capital of Monaco is our last stop for this trip. We disembark to move our suitcases into a hotel, and spend a pleasant afternoon in the city of Eze, crawling through the nooks and crannies of this castle-cum-town.Come dinner time, we consider dining at the institution Café de Paris, or at the Hôtel de Paris, where Alain Ducasse opened his very first restaurant, Le Louis XV, but quickly realise we’d rather sneak back onto the boat to join the French dinner buffet taking place by the moonlit rooftop pool. After that we use our keys (still functional until the ship sets sail for Spain) to return to our room and order the best of Silk Road and Prego. When we’re satisfied that we can eat no more – not just for the evening, but possibly the rest of our lives – we check under the bed for stray belongings and reluctantly make our way back to land.
+ The Siam
+ Abu Ahabi
+ The Sarojin
+ 137 Pillars
+ Conrad Koh Samui
+ The Kensington Hotel
+ The Pavilions
+ Renaissance Bangkok
+ Mandarin Oriental Paris
+ Waiheke Island
+ Hotel Icon
+ Phnom Penh
+ Buenos Aires
+ Shangri-La Paris
+ Passage to Hong Kong
+ Diving the Sweet Spot
+ The Far Pavilions
+ Hansar Thailand
+ Samui Wind
+ HOTEL DAS CATARATAS
+ The Ritz-Carlton
+ WALDORF ASTORIA SHANGHAI
+ Wolgan Valley
+ LA ISLA BONITA
+ SAIGON FOR MEN
+ ART OF THE CITY
+ Soneva Kiri
+ Langham Hotel
+ The Best of Boston
+ SULTANATE SUBLIME
+ SKYLIGHT VISTA – SEVEN STARS GALLERIA
+ MONGOLIA LUXE
+ The Plaza
+ INSTANT KARMA
+ HEAVEN SCENT, Phuket Pavilions
+ VINO, VIDI, VICI
+ ARABESQUE: A TASTE OF MOROCCO