Oceania Cruises diary: Cephalonia, Kotor and Red Ginger

Oceania Cruises diary: Cephalonia, Kotor and Red Ginger

Cruise Adviser’s Anthony Pearce is on board Oceania Cruises’ Isles & Empires itinerary. The trip, on the company’s Riviera, begins in Rome and ends in Venice, taking in Sorrento (Italy), Taormina (Sicily), Cephalonia (Greece), Kotor (Montenegro), Zadar (Croatia) and Koper (Slovenia).

Follow his adventures on FacebookTwitter as he travels around the Mediterranean in the lap of luxury.

It doesn’t take long on board Oceania Cruises before you begin to look forward to the evening meals as much you do the port visits. Conversations with fellow passengers invariably and quickly turn to food: where have you eaten so far? What did you have? Which restaurant is your favourite?

On Riviera there are four reservation-only restaurants, which, on most cruise lines, would fall under the category of additional fee ‘speciality’, but here they remain complimentary. These are Polo Grill, a steakhouse (which we dined at on Saturday); Red Ginger, which serves Asian fusion food; Toscana, an Italian; and Jacques, serving French dishes dreamt up by celebrated chef Jacques Pépin (and cooked by him if you’re lucky enough to be on the right cruise).

Unsurprisingly, each restaurant is heavily subscribed and guests are only allowed a table in each restaurant once. However, given that many passengers are return customers or, having flown long-haul from the US or Australia, are doing back-to-back cruises (Riviera sailed from Lisbon to Rome last week); you come to expect glowing reviews of any eatery you’re yet to sample from anyone you talk to.

It won’t be until Tuesday – our fifth night – that we’re next booked in to Red Ginger, but Sunday’s evening meal in the Grand Dining Room is beyond exceptional: I opt for a lobster soufflé as appetiser, seafood gumbo as soup, and herb-crusted chicken, a Pépin signature dish, as main. Our cheerful waiter, Kiran, is so keen for us to try the black cod marinated in ginger and soy sauce, he surprises us with an extra main dish and reminds me that, tomorrow, I must visit the gym.

In the morning, as we approach the Greek island of Cephalonia, we enjoy an early swim, the water still cool from the night before, and the pool virtually empty. By the time we get out – half an hour later at 9am – the sun is hot enough to dry us without towels. We enjoy breakfast at the terrace grill – Danish pastries, fruit and coffee – and then head to our room to watch us dock from the veranda.

This inquisitive guy swam right up to the ship

We’re told that sea life is abundant in these parts and we spot a beautiful sea turtle almost immediately. This one has a death wish, loitering about between our 66,000 gross tonne ship and the port buffers as we shift across. He disappears for a second only to reemerge unscathed.

Later we meander through the town, which although not without its charms, has a more modern feel to it than many Greek islands (much of it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1954); down at the waterfront, however, is a different story. We find the perfect spot to settle for a beer and Greek salad and watch more sea turtles swim by. Our waiter, fanning himself, complains that it’s the hottest day of the summer, before we wander onto a disused bridge to get a look at the strange obelisk that sits half way between here and Drapano, our ship resplendent in the distance.

The punishing heat continues the next morning, rising in to high 30s, as we breakfast early to make sure we see what cruise director Ray Michaels has promised is unmissable: our journey through the Bay of Kotor, known as the most southerly fjord in Europe. The scenery has been consistently incredibly since leaving Rome, but this is something else: the towering mountains, cerulean waters, thick, vast forests and tiny, neat villages, with their terra cotta roofs, are truly breathtaking. Seemingly half of the ship are on the top deck taking pictures.

The Bay of Kotor
The Bay of Kotor

Surrounded by a city wall built by the Republic of Venice, and sat in the shadow another enormous mountain (its ancient fortress some 1,000 steps up), Kotor itself has much to offer: its chalk stone houses with distinctive green shutters, many churches, restaurants and pedestrinised squares recall Dubrovnik, but again, we’re beaten by the weather after a few hours and head back to the ship, where Red Ginger awaits.

Of all the reservation-only restaurants, it is Red Ginger that appears to be firm favourite – and we quickly see why. My garlic and chilli prawn starter is stunning, but overshadowed by the superbly inventive crispy duck, watermelon and cashew nut salad that comes next; the main, a wasabi-flavoured rack of lamb, is my favourite dish of the cruise so far.

Krka national park
Krka national park

Having spent a few days wandering by ourselves, we returned the shore excursion route on Wednesday: taking an hour-long trip from Zadar, the ancient and quite beautiful Croatian city, out to Krka national park. Save for the occasional terracotta roof protruding above the verdant, expansive greenery that lines each side of the road we travel on, there’s very little sign of settlement. Indeed, when we reach Skradin on the edge of the park, we’re told it’s home to only 500 people, but has been kept its city status since Roman times.

We take a boat from the near by marina and weave down the turquoise waters, emerald treetops and shrubbery occupying the space from the banks to the hilltops. We arrive at the park itself, the temperature pushing 40c, to find a cascading waterfall, where we take the most refreshing dip of our lives. After an hour walk around the magnificent park, the sun mercifully behind clouds, we jump back on our coach and head back to the ship, passing through narrow and vertigo-inducing mountain roads. The view of the seemingly endless park below quickly becomes a highlight of the entire trip.

Up next are Koper, Slovenia and the magical city of Venice….

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