It is easy to love the Mediterranean.
It's the color of the sea, the sparkling sun gently warming the air, flowers spilling from balconies and down cliffs. It's the beauty of discovering art gathered over centuries in a single, small, unheralded museum. It's the winding alleys of walled, medieval towns. And, on this trip, it was also the new friendships made amid the total luxury of Silversea's Silver Whisper.
Silversea is one of only four six-star cruise lines plying the waters of the world. It does cost a bit more than many other cruise lines bearing fewer stars, but Silversea adds value in many ways. Gratuities and port charges are included, and complimentary fine wines and spirits are poured freely. Silversea at press time offers discounts on selected sailings ranging from 15 percent up to 49 percent through Vacations To Go, making its six stars more affordable.
While some assume a six-star ship will be stuffy and unfriendly, the opposite is true on the Silver Whisper. In nine days sailing from Barcelona to Athens, my husband, son and I made more friends than ever before on a cruise. Perhaps it was because we traveled with a fun-loving, gregarious couple from home. Maybe it was our teenage son's influence as he got to know other young people on board.
But surely, the biggest factor was the ambiance of the ship itself. Silversea's 382- passenger vessel is personal, intimate and extremely accommodating. Tell the maitre d' at 6 p.m. that there will be six for dinner at 8 p.m., and it's no problem. Invite a few more to join the table and move the reservation up to 7:30 p.m.? Still not a problem.
A crew of 295 gives the Silver Whisper one of the best crew-to-passenger ratios afloat. As a result, passengers' requests are handled on an individual basis, whether it is booking tour tickets long after the deadline or creating special off-the-menu items during fixed-menu dinners.
Our journey began in Barcelona, where the majority of passengers embarked. But, two days later in Marseille, our merry band of voyagers was joined by a handful of newcomers. And when we disembarked in Athens, some fortunate ones chose to stay on board for a few more days and a few more ports. Silversea's flexible itineraries allow passengers to choose among a variety of embarkation and debarkation ports when booking a cruise.
Cruise ships apportion their limited space masterfully, squeezing more convenience, utility and luxury into every square inch than virtually any other type of accommodation. But space is liberally allotted on the Silver Whisper. All staterooms are deemed suites, ranging from the Vista Suite's generous 287 square feet to the Grand Suite's 1,435 square feet. All 194 staterooms have ocean views, and 159 have private teak verandas. To see Silver Whisper's deck plans, click here.
The popular 701-square-foot Silver Suite features a dining area, living room and floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open to a large veranda. These accommodations provide ample room for breakfast en suite, visiting with friends after a day ashore or lingering outside at sunset. Decorated with dark mahogany moldings, rich wood furniture and built-in cabinets and desk, the suite is elegant and comfortable. The list of stateroom amenities is long, from binoculars and a world atlas to a wall-mounted CD player, two televisions and a VCR. Enclosed behind glass French doors, the bedroom is a calm retreat. Then there is the walk-in closet - a much-appreciated marvel on a cruise ship.
Amid the all-out luxury on the Silver Whisper, the most noticeable feature was one element that was missing: noise. No hallway din, no noise from neighbors and no odd sounds from plumbing, air conditioning or any of the ship's other systems invaded our stateroom.
Maybe it was just me, but I sensed a tingle of excitement on board as passengers started exploring our new neighborhood at sea. Over time, I've devised a one-rule system for getting to know a ship: Start at the spa. The most desirable time slots are during afternoons spent at sea, and they fill up quickly. After setting up some spa appointments, I take a more methodical route, starting from the top and discovering the treasures each deck offers.
The Silver Whisper's spa shares the top deck with the fitness center and Observation Lounge, surrounded by views of Mediterranean blue. Deck 9 offers a golf net for those who crave the greens while looking across the seas, but the hub of daytime activity is on Deck 8. Here, water volleyball games and an impromptu table tennis tournament sparked friendships and camaraderie around the pool and hot tub. The computer center proved to be one of the most reliable Internet connections at sea. Then, there was the piece de resistance, the Panorama Lounge, where piano man Clarence held forth during early evening cocktails and after-dinner conversations.
Dining is one of the great pleasures on the Silver Whisper, largely because you can dine wherever and with whomever you choose. There are three restaurants, all presided over by European-trained staff. Additionally, during the day the pool grill helps keep hunger away, and in-room service is always available.
The Restaurant is the largest and most formal dining venue, offering a new menu each night with choices for the steadfastly health-conscious as well as the rest of us. My guilty confession: After a couple of meals, I immediately skipped over the "Cruiselite" menu items that I knew should grace my plate. The Restaurant also offers fine dining for breakfast and lunch.
The Terrace Cafe is a lovely, smaller bistro-style restaurant seating about 50 to 75 diners each night at a single 7:45 p.m. seating. The setting here is warm and convivial. Meals feature fresh tastes of the Mediterranean, authentically and traditionally prepared. Late each night, Chef Gavin Baxter would emerge from behind the scenes to meet his guests and share his obvious joy in food, travel and life aboard the Silver Whisper.
The most intimate restaurant, Le Champagne, offers a menu created by Joachim Koerper, chef-owner of Girasol on Spain's southeastern coast. Due to limited space, reservations are hard to come by here, so if your mood calls for a Relais & Chateaux Relais Gourmand meal, make your plans early in the cruise.
Nightly entertainment focuses on the Viennese Lounge for movies and live stage productions, the casino for gaming action and The Bar for spirited after-dinner dancing.
Despite intense jet lag and a too-late night enjoying the ship's entertainment, I was up early on the first morning of the cruise for our arrival into the harbor. It's one of my favorite times to be on deck - the engines are slowed and quiet as the port gradually comes into view. On its way into Marseille, the second-largest city in France, the ship silently slid past two fortresses standing sentinel at the harbor's entrance, just as they've done for hundreds of years. Craggy mountains frame this city of modern towers and intimate cafes. Though we were in the newer industrial port, the charming old harbor lined with small pleasure boats - Vieux Port - was just a short walk away.
We chose a tour to Aix en Provence, 45 minutes away, to see the fabled countryside where bright yellow Spanish broom covers hillsides and tiny, perched villages peer down to the sea below. Some say too many tourists corrupted Aix, the birthplace of favorite son Paul Cezanne. The truth is that the town's charms, though changed, survive its visitors. The trees and fountains along the broad main avenue, Cours Mirabeau, still breathe freshness into the warm summer air. Artists still paint in open courtyards. The sun still casts a warm glow on all who wander the alleys and avenues, and cafes still offer a place to sit and while away an hour or so in good conversation.
Our next stop two days later was Malta, an island just 180 miles off Libya's coast. It is the place where the legend of the Knights of Malta was born. Chased off the island of Rhodes by the Turks in the 16th century, 9,000 knights of St. John arrived in Malta, built a stronghold and withstood an onslaught of 40,000 Turks.
The Knights reigned over Malta for 268 years, until Napoleon came along in 1798. During their tenure, the Knights left their mark on the small republic whose rich history extends more than 4,000 years, earning Malta a reputation as the island "built by gentlemen for gentlemen." The cathedral built by the gentlemen is remarkable. It is ornately decorated and contains a large collection of art from the period.
The knights chose Valletta as Malta's capital, bypassing the former capital, Mdina, a visually stunning, walled city. Mdina is still home to noble families whose ancestors settled there hundreds of years ago. The town served as the center of activity under the rule of Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans and Castilians. Almost everything inside the city walls is constructed of native stone, which glows with a warm golden color. Ornamentation is limited. There are flourishes atop columns and blooms of native flowers spilling from balconies, suggesting the island's heritage and proximity to both the African and European continents.
Just as Malta stands out for its stark beauty, Taormina, Sicily, captures hearts for its lushness. Corso Umberto is the main thoroughfare in this town high above the Ionian Sea. It is touristy in the very best way - welcoming and interesting, with great views and good shopping. Shops overflow with colorful ceramics, beautiful linens, lacework and imaginative confections. The streets fill with people from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m. or so, when everyone breaks for lunch and the shops close, many not reopening again until 5 p.m.
Strolling along the avenue, we met several shipmates and eventually gathered for lunch on a lovely terrace overlooking the bay. For a moment, I seriously considered what it might be like to move to Taormina, but was jolted back to reality when trying to communicate my lunch order took on monumental proportions. Note to self: Learn Italian before making any sudden moves.
After lunch, during the warm, drowsy afternoon hours, we toured Taormina's Greek amphitheater. Originally built in the third century B.C. and reconstructed and enlarged in the second century, it is still in use for theatrical productions. The views beyond the stage are worth the price of admission. Where else can you see an active volcano, Mount Etna, in one direction and dramatic cliffs tumbling down to Naxos Harbor in another?
Some places, like Taormina, reveal their treasures at a glance and are easy to explore independently. In other places, the insight of a tour guide adds considerably to your experience, especially when the guide has a true passion for the area. Our first stop in Greece was a port near Olympia, site of the original Olympic Games, a place that must be seen with a local guide. Our guide, Konstantin, was one of the highlights of our trip.
Part storyteller, part historian and a bit of a poet, too, Konstantin enveloped us in the myths of Kronos, Zeus and Athena, taking us back in time before the first Olympics of 776 B.C. The cold, white marble statues in the archaeological museum took on life, motion and meaning as Konstantin helped us imagine the stories behind the art. Later, standing among the ruins of the Temple of Hera, I not only knew but felt the spirit of those first Olympic games.
And so began our immersion in all things Greek. Back on board, a group of local entertainers boarded our ship and turned a performance of traditional Greek dances into a spontaneous dance party on deck. They moved with speed and grace, and it was impossible to resist the music, the easy motion and the call to participate. The dancers fanned out and encouraged everyone to take part in the fun. Male, female, young, old and in-between accepted the invitation to become part of the circle, wrapping arms around shoulders and stepping over, across, dipping, faster and faster. The circle grew, the music gained speed and then suddenly stopped with a flourish. Amid our applause, the dancers disappeared, but the spirit of the dance remained among us.
Like several of the Greek Islands, Mykonos claims 365 churches and privately owned chapels - one for every day of the year. I didn't count them, but as I walked the narrow lanes, with sun splashing brightly off whitewashed walls and scrubbed streets, it seemed true. Mykonos is a willing and photogenic subject. The light is brilliant. The sky is blue, and at each new turn, there lies another vista, another charming corner and another photo to be taken.
Visitors to Mykonos are often advised to see the picturesque windmills, remnants of an earlier time, and to seek the island's waterfront mascots, three friendly pelicans. We did, but truly, it is the maze of streets leading to the windmills and the pelicans that is more interesting. Laundry billows from upstairs windows. Old women guide donkeys laden with baskets of fresh produce. Old men sit in doorways playing backgammon and smoking, oblivious to the young men careening around corners on their three-wheel delivery vehicles.
Mykonos is as well known for its lively nightlife as it is for its beaches and sun-drenched setting. Our ship was in port until midnight to allow passengers to see and be part of the island's night scene. For those staying on board, there was dinner and entertainment on deck under the stars. Either way, it was a perfect end to a day and night in Mykonos.
Though we didn't know it at the time, Mykonos was our last port call. Force 7 winds prevented us from anchoring in the harbor at Patmos. Though missing a port due to weather conditions disappointed some, the captain, crew and staff proved once again to be flexible, nimble and committed to passenger safety, satisfaction and enjoyment. The ship's guest lecturer presented a previously unscheduled talk. The gleaming galley was opened for a lavish walk-through lunch. Another water volleyball game was added to the schedule. We spent one last, leisurely day at sea.
Yes, it's easy to love the Mediterranean. It's the inviting tangle of narrow lanes and passageways in Mykonos. It's the warm, welcoming ways of the people in Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Malta. It's discovering the wonderful differences from my own streamlined, hurry-up life. And, it's climbing into bed, pleasantly tired at the end of the day and hearing nothing but the soft murmur of water against the hull of the Silver Whisper.
By Karen Northridge