Travel: Heaven is a place on berth

My beloved has longed to see Florence since childhood. To walk its cobblestone paths and piazzas, sip espresso in its elegant cafes and gaze upon its Roman palaces. All the chatter before our Mediterranean cruise was about the rare beauty of Italy’s renaissance city, built by Julius Caesar himself and eulogised by Mark Twain as “the fairest picture on our planet”.

So when Crystal Serenity docked in Livorno, the gateway port to this most scenic of cities, culture vulture Jenny should have been elbowing her way past crowds of Americans to the very front of the coach queue. Instead, faced with the full horror of 10 hours without mega buffets and our personal butler Claus, she was suddenly overcome by a Gillian McKeith-sized phobia of dry land. For Jen, when push came to shove, it turned out the fairest picture on our planet wasn’t the city built by Caesar but the chicken Caesar wraps built by grill chef Antonio at the open kitchen by the upper deck swimming pool. Et tu Jenny!

This is the crazy catch-22 to bear in mind when booking a Mediterranean cruise on the world’s most luxurious ship. Even ancient real estate like the Coliseum, Leaning Tower of Pisa and Sistine Chapel can struggle to compete with the pampering you get at sea. The ship is the ultimate destination.

Like Las Vegas hotels, cruise liners get bigger and bolder every year. The latest, Royal Caribbean International’s £1.3billion Allure of the Seas, set sail on its maiden voyage with 6,400 passengers earlier this month.

The £220million 1,100 capacity Crystal Serenity – recently voted the world’s finest cruise ship by Conde Nast Traveller magazine – can’t compete with such a big fish in terms of size. But what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in luxury. Which is just as well, because when it comes to spending endless laid back days at sea, service – not size – is what truly counts.

After boarding in Venice we were issued with photo ID cards to swipe us on and off the ship and use for onboard purchases instead of cash. One hour before departure guests don life jackets and gather in the vast Galaxy Lounge for the emergency drill where, without going overboard, the crew makes sure everyone is aware of the mayday procedure – and that even the lifeboats are fully catered.

The drill also provides a novel way to meet fellow passengers and figure out your port from starboard. With so many lifts and staircases leading to so many decks and lounges, bars and restaurants, shops and theatres – all attached by long corridors of identical doors – it can take a day or two to figure out the lie of the sea.

One third of the passengers on our nine-day Venice to Monte Carlo jaunt were first timers, shattering the myth that sea holidays are for the retired. More new customers are dipping a toe in the water for the first time thanks to Crystal Cruises’ recession-busting offers such as $500 of free onboard credit, two-for-one early-booking deals and entirely free cruises for loyal customers.

The lilting and tilting of the ocean and sense of isolation all around can seem strange at first. But after savouring a sunset on your balcony, sipping something medicinal as the ship cuts through the star-lit sea, you quickly get a taste for ocean life.

Mornings can seem magical – waking up 200 miles from where you fell asleep, bouncing out of bed to the balcony like a child on Christmas Day, keen to take in the sights and sounds of your next port of call.

Guests can follow the ship’s precise route on the live “bridge cam” feed broadcast on channel 52. A sort of “Berth Brother”, it also gives the lowdown on the next day’s itinerary – which is listed in the dailyReflections magazine delivered to your room each night.

Crystal Serenity comes to life before setting sail for its next destination. Louis Armstrong’s idyllic anthem What A Wonderful Worldis played through the loudspeakers to signal departure. That’s the cue for passengers to grab a flute of something sparkling and take a seat by the side of the ship as it inches away from port. At such a rousing and romantic moment, you may catch yourself furiously waving a waiter’s handkerchief at complete strangers minding their own business in the dock below.

Noshing your way from Venice to Monte requires having every restaurant, bar and buffet locked into your sat-nav from day one. Serenity has five restaurants. The elegant Crystal Dining Room in the heart of the ship is base camp where most guests eat lunch and supper. Specialty restaurant Prego serves regional Italian cuisine by Piero Selvaggio, owner of the Valentino restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. There’s Asian cuisine next door at Silk Road, where the salmon sushi is so exquisite that, if there were salmon in the Mediterranean, they’d be queuing up to leap straight on to your plate for the privilege of being on one of chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s plates.

Your wine seamlessly follows you around from restaurant to restaurant. So last night’s half- chugged bottle of white from Silk Road will be chilling at your table at Prego the next night. (Warning: you know you’ve been at sea too long if you hear yourself moan: “Pinot Grigio! Our butler promised our Chardonnay would be waiting for us!” You just can’t get the staff these days).

Less fussy food is served 24/7. Breakfast, elevenses, lunch and afternoon nibbles are at the country-club style Lido Café and takeaway-style open kitchen (where grill chef Antonio dishes up those Caesar chicken wraps). There are sweets and treats at Scoops ice cream bar and one is invited to partake in a spot of high tea at 3.30pm at the Palm Court restaurant. Menus change almost every day to include traditional dishes of the ship’s location.

In addition to Florence, our route took in many European must-see cities. Shore leave began on day two in the ancient Croatian port of Dubrovnick. Built around a medieval castle, this outdoor museum’s irreplaceable artifacts were spared the worst of the bombing during theYugoslav war in 1991, but the bullet-holed walls of its historic buildings show signs of scarring.

Next stop Sorrento, on the southern curve of the Bay of Naples. It’s perfectly placed for a quick hop to the hip island resort of Capri, just a few miles off the coast, and for views of Vesuvius looming on the horizon. There’s also just enough time to take in nearby Naples and the remains of Pompeii, which were both buried under the volcano’s ash in AD 79.

Our route also took in Rome, the epicenter of European culture. It’s home to the Sistine Chapel, Colosseum, St Peter’s Basilica and theVatican – although Gucci, Armani, Fende and Versace proved just as fashionable. Our final stop was the sleepy picturesque fishing village of Porto Venere. Its jagged hills, rolling vineyards and clusters of pastel-coloured houses once inspired bards such as Byronm Shelley and DH Lawrence – leading to it being dubbed the Gulf Of Poets. It’s also the birthplace of spaghetti’s best friend… hey pesto!

Crystal Serenity endlessly sails the seven seas. We checked out atMonte Carlo before it headed off to the Greek islands and the Israeli port of Ashdod. The last night onboard bears more than a passing resemblance to the fall of Berlin, as guests frantically pile food they will never eat onto more plates than they can carry and conspire to barricade themselves inside their rooms with the cleaner’s trolley. Creating such a scene is entirely unbecoming of guests on a ship boasting  Dame Julie Andrews as its godmother. Indeed, the Sound of Music icon’s picture is one of the final things guests see as they sadly disembark.

Listen carefully and you can almost hear the grand gold-framed portrait sigh: “Adieu, adieu, to yieu and yieu and yieu…”

• First published at http://www.dailymail.co.uk

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