Part 3: Into Italia

Part 3: Into Italia

Cruise virgin Simon Hawkins shares the last part of his time onboard Crystal Serenity, taking in Montenegro’s Kotor and welcomes Venice’s recent announcement after being unimpressed with its cruise guest experience.

Cruise virgin Simon Hawkins shares the last part of his time onboard Crystal Serenity, taking in Montenegro’s Kotor and welcomes Venice’s recent announcement after being unimpressed with its cruise guest experience.

An unexpected attraction: kittens in Kotor
An unexpected attraction: kittens in Kotor

If the cruise into Kotor is spectacular, then the town itself lives up to it. Approaching the latter stages of Crystal Serenity’s Ancient Treasures tour, Hazel and I – still celebrating our engagement the previous night – have made it to Montenegro, a proud nation still celebrating their separation from Serbia in 2006.

It’s easily our most memorable port of call. The ship looks impossibly impressive as it looms over the harbour, there’s an evocative tribute to Yugoslavia’s infamous dictator, Tito, above the archway into town, winding, tavern-lined streets brimming with life and music, and the requisite fortress overhead. And yet, oddly enough, the thing we’ll possibly remember most is a cotery of cats.

Our previous stops in Greece and Turkey were also fairly feline-heavy, but Kotor’s kittens take the biscuit. Particularly bizarre is an enormous group of them waiting expectantly outside… a sports shop. Attracted by the cheesy feet, perhaps.

Speaking of cheese – actually, no, that’s unfair, but the ship’s nightly entertainment does obviously need to cater for the older demographic. That evening’s post-Kotor double-bill of a ballroom dance team and a very pre-alternative comic aren’t my cup of tea, but there are more innovative efforts.

Crystal is particularly enthused about a show called iLuminate The Tourist, staged entirely in darkness apart from the lights on the cast’s outfits. It’s clearly a bit too loud for many spectators (although one chap behind us somehow manages to nod off), but is a welcome burst of energy for the cruise newcomers. I even detect some Radiohead on the soundtrack.

Simon and now fiancée Hazel in Kotor with Crystal Serenity in the background
Simon and now fiancée Hazel in Kotor with Crystal Serenity in the background

That said, in a more refreshed mood a few nights earlier we’d actively demanded older, less cutting-edge tunes. One of my missions on this cruise – after swiftly abandoning the one about visiting the well-stocked gym every morning – was to try the cocktail they’d recommend each evening. But at the ship’s classy Avenue Saloon we move on from the mandatory Kir Royale and start creating our own, with the encouragement of some enthusiastic mixologists.

They go down a bit too easily. By 3am we’ve gathered a small posse together in the Pulse nightclub next door, including Dwight, the Saloon’s excellent pianist/crooner, who’s winding down after a three-show shift. The music is a bit, well, modern, however, and so Hazel eventually marches up to the DJ booth with a none-too-polite note saying “70s/80s.” Which does the trick. All useful research, as the next day we discover that all-inclusive luxury cruises are also ideal for nursing nasty hangovers.

One tune that’s played bewilderingly often onboard, incidentally (admittedly in muzak form): Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, which you might think a bit inappropriate, given the film it’s taken from. But no, there’s even a lecture about the Titanic during the final day’s unforeseen extra morning at sea.

Continuing an earlier theme, the tour’s two final destinations – its Italian leg – confound our varied expectations. On Thursday, the relatively unheralded Trieste turns out to be a welcome departure from the previous run of tourist-focused resorts; lovely as they generally were, it’s good to be back in the reality of a proper working city. The first things we come across are a couple of fabulously quirky vintage shops, which make a change from gift emporiums, while the huge and beautifully lit Piazza dell-Unita d’Italia – Italy’s largest sea-facing square – looks gorgeous from the harbour at night.

Trieste from the jetty
Trieste from the jetty

Venice, on the other hand, was supposed to be the glorious culmination of this trip, but turns out to be a damp squib. A story emerges a few days later that the city plans to ban cruise liners from the port, which comes as no surprise: on Friday afternoon the harbour and hotspots are so choked with tourists that I can’t wait to take the water taxi back to the ship. It’s about as romantic as a crowded subway.

We’d actually been due to dock early on Friday morning, but heavy fog closed the port, much to the captain’s exasperation. Still, the Serenity staff do a fine job making up for it, laying on extra talks, classes, and a fleet of free water taxis when the ship does finally get the go-ahead.

In truth, after the initial disappointment, we welcome those extra few hours onboard. Hazel and I will probably visit Venice again (indeed, we spend a more agreeable afternoon outside the centre, before our airport transfer the next day), but this may be our only opportunity to indulge in the Crystal experience. It’ll be genuinely tough to return to non-luxurious normal life.

Then again, aren’t ship captains able to perform wedding ceremonies? Now there’s a thought.

See part one of Simon’s report here.

Part two, in which Simon proposes to Hazel, is here.

Gary Marshall
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Gary Marshall
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