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).
Tucked away in southeastern Europe, and bordering Italy, Hungary, Austria and Croatia, the mountainous Slovenia is a country often overlooked in favour of its more famous neighbours. But, while the former Yugoslavian state is tiny – roughly half the size of Switzerland – it is blessed with natural and architectural beauty; from the city of Koper, where our ship, Riviera, docks, to its capital, the colourful, Secessionist-style Ljubljana, and the majestic, alpine retreat of Lake Bled, there is plenty to see and do. Some of the guests on board Oceania Cruises opt for shore excursions to the latter two, while we spend the day exploring Koper’s old town, partially from above, climbing the 204-step City Tower.
From there we take in the Venetian Gothic beauty of the Praetorian palace, the adjoining Cathedral of Mary’s Assumption and the neat, terracotta-roofed houses that lead to the sea and our ship. We enjoy a beer on the waterfront, adjacent to a pretty, but small, beach, and later take shade in Loggia, a former debating club-turned-café that overlooks the city’s picturesque Venetian square. The influence of Venice – or, rather, its former republic – exists across the region covered in the second half of the Isles & Empires cruises (notably in Croatia and Montenegro), but here it is most abundant and clear, and gives us a taster for tomorrow’s headline event: Venice itself.
Before then, of course, is the small matter of dinner: a chance to enjoy the gallic Jacques, the ship’s most famous, and for my mind, best restaurant. After a delicate and delicious goats cheese soufflé, and baked onion soup, I opt for the superb Maine lobster, served in its shell with a creamy mushroom sauce. In a lovely gesture, an exceedingly generous guest invites us to join him for a glass of champagne, sending a bottle over to our table. It’s another example of the wonderful atmosphere on board the ship.
There’s palpable excitement as we arrive in Venice on Friday morning, even from passengers seeing the Italian city for the third or fourth time. It’s our first and we’ve made sure we have time to make the most of it, booking a late flight back on Saturday. That said, we enjoy a leisurely morning before heading out at 10am, boarding a waterbus to the heart of the city, the stunning Piazza San Marco. Leaving from the cruise terminal, and heading down the Giudecca Canal, we dock at the mouth of the Grand Canal and in the shadow of the beautiful and instantly recognisable Santa Maria della Salute.
Saint Mark’s Square, comprising marble facades, the sky-reaching Campanile brick tower, the beautiful Basilica di San Marco, and a stadium’s worth of tourists, glistens in the late-morning sun. The heat and crowd make it a bit much, so we duck under a selfie stick or two, and head for the quiet and shade, meandering up through Castello’s streets, past endless canals until byzantine and baroque masterpieces give way to more modest properties and Venetians going about their everyday business.
It’s a fantastic city to get lost in – conveniently, given we’ve forgotten our map – and our first day is spent absorbing its beautiful buildings, narrow, winding passageways and cafés. Venice is packed with famous features and we stumble across many a landmark – the Rialto bridge, the Maddalena and Santo Stefano churches – but the city is blessed with great depth. The day’s highlight, in fact, is stopping for carbonara and a beer in a tiny, shaded and leafy square called Corte Prima del Million (which, it turns out, is where the 13th century explorer Marco Polo lived) in the Cannaregio area of the city. That evening we enjoy our final meal on board, suitably at Toscana, the ship’s Italian restaurant, and say our goodbyes to the ever-brilliant staff and the passengers we’ve been fortunate to spend time with.
The following morning after breakfast, and having deposited our bags in the city, we, more sensibly, attack Venice with a plan. We buy a day pass on the waterbus – costing 20 euros – and explore the city’s many waterways and islands with great ease (it may not be as romantic as gondola but offers a far wider scope of the city). After heading down the Grand Canal, we wander to the north of the city and head to the gorgeous and tranquil island of Murano, where the city’s famous glassblowers have practised their art since 1291. Back then, they were shipped out of the centre of Venice after authorities became concerned about the spread of the fire; the area, where you can watch tradesmen at work, or buy the exceptionally crafted products in almost every shop, has been synonymous with glasswork ever since.
It takes just eight minutes to get there and, on the way back, we call at the city’s island cemetery – or Isola dei Morti – which is equal parts beautiful and eerie. Utterly fascinating and almost entirely tourist-free, it’s proof that Venice can be enjoyed away from the crowds. After a final trip down the Grand Canal, taking in the famous Accedemia bridge, the sun beginning to set, we bid farewell Venice and a holiday that had it all: luxury, comfort, adventure and some truly unbelievable food.
- Look out for a full feature on Oceania Cruises’ Isles & Empires itinerary in Cruise Adviser’s Luxury guide, coming August