“We’ve been driving the ship all night like we stole it,” announces Crystal Serenity’s droll captain, Birger Vorland, as his mighty craft motors towards Kotor.
The Montenegrin resort may not be on everyone’s radar, but, curiously, this cruise’s most enjoyable locations turn out to be the ones we’d least anticipated. Before the night trek to Kotor, for example, there’s a three-day Greek odyssey, the heart of this Ancient Treasures tour, with some unexpected highlights.
Hazel and I rise early on Sunday to see the ship pull into Piraeus. Then we eschew the organised trips, make our own way into Athens and – after the requisite potter around the Parthenon – discover some lesser lost treasures while admiring the view below: a headwear graveyard on the hill, countless hats dropped by careless tourists. We gather quite a crowd.
More memorable, though, is the scenic town of Navplion, the next day. After the novel-for-us experience of being tendered ashore – shuttled from the anchored ship by smaller boats – we take a bus up to the grand Palamadi Fortress, partly for a glorious gulls-eye view of Serenity’s position, but also for some much-needed exercise on the way down.
I’d been warned that you gain a pound a day while cruising, so we take steps to avoid it; literally, hundreds of steps, up and down cliff-top castles at several locations, before returning for late lunches at the ship’s Lido Cafe. That locally-themed buffet beckons us back like sirens, those temptresses from Greek mythology. Oh, how I’ll miss the tiny desserts.
Two other definite must-do’s on Serenity are its speciality restaurants, although pre-booking is invariably required (I hear a whisper from a waiter that passengers might be charged for multiple visits soon, to stop the seat-hogging that currently occurs).
At the Italian eatery, Prego, there’s a soufflé that needs pre-ordering too, due to the lengthy preparation time. It’s ok, although the most striking bit of that meal is the starter: mushroom soup served in a receptacle made of rustic bread. But should you eat the bowl? I take the plunge, which absolutely horrifies the head waiter, who is, of course, kidding. That’s the (very welcome) tone throughout, in fact; impeccable service, but with none of the obsequiousness I’d feared beforehand.
While there may be waiting lists for those restaurants, it becomes clear that Crystal’s less-guests policy means less queuing elsewhere. Being cruise newcomers we take it for granted, but several worldlier passengers point out that loungers, golf lessons and the like are much easier to access here, and even re-embarking is impressively swift. On Tuesday, for example, we take an official guided tour from Katakolon to Olympia, birthplace of the Olympics, which I find slightly tiresome, in truth. My favourite bit is when our large party strolls straight back onto the ship, past an enormous line at the similarly-sized vessel next door.
That quick return is particularly welcome, as there’s a major event lined up for the evening, unbeknownst to Hazel. It’s been three years since we got together, and as this trip is as luxurious as we’re ever likely to get, I’ve decided to take a more dramatic plunge, and propose, on our stateroom’s terrace.
After liaising with the Crystal people, a hasty plan is concocted with one of the ship’s butlers (who look after its penthouse passengers). And at the designated hour he arrives, to my enormous relief, bearing silver cloches concealing caviar, rose petals, and, yes, that jewellery box. I tempt Hazel out to the terrace, struggle to get the box open, finally drop to one knee, and blurt out the question. Thankfully, she says yes. The rest of the cruise would have been horribly awkward otherwise.
Actually our new era gets off to a wonderful start. On the way up to the captain’s latest party we share the news with a delighted American couple who then tip off the cruise director, he announces it to the assembled guests and we’re showered with handshakes and champagne, all night long. It really is the ideal setting for grand gestures.
The next morning is just about perfect too. We’ve been urged to rise early for the cruise into Kotor, and it doesn’t disappoint. A varied array of passengers brave the foggy ship’s bow at 7am and share the most glorious experience: a graceful wend through majestic fjords, past the mesmerisingly remote island church, into an unspoiled harbour. Truly breathtaking.
It could all have been so different, though. My original plan had been to propose at our final destination, Venice, which – it turns out – would probably have been a disaster.
Why? Well, that’s for part three.
See part 1 of Simon’s Serenity cruise here