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).
It doesn’t take long to settle into a rhythm with Oceania Cruises. Having landed in sweltering Rome mid-afternoon Friday, we made our way across the city to board the line’s beautiful Riviera for its Isles & Empires cruise.
We arrived in the awkward post-lunch, pre-safety drill period, when the restaurants are closed. On some cruise lines, you’d just have to wait it out, but here we took immediate advantage of Oceania Cruises’ complimentary room service to sate our hunger and get an early experience of what is often said to be the finest cuisine at sea.
As our immaculately dressed waiter arrived promptly with a delicious roast chicken and bacon sandwich, the memories and stress of the baking Fiumicino airport begin to fade fast.
What is clear immediately is that Oceania Cruises’ success lies in its attention to detail. Our room, with air conditioning, spacious veranda, free (non-alcohol) mini-bar and oak-effect furnishings is nothing short of palatial, while our complimentary wi-fi works well (as this blog attests) and the shower – or, rather, showers – are excellent (there are two in the cubicle one in the generously sized bath tub), and the bathroom is beautiful.
We meet an American couple who swear by Oceania Cruises’ food (they won’t be the last)
There are smiling, helpful crew members at every turn, welcoming you on board and pointing you in the right direction, and the stirring sounds of a string quartet greet us as we make our way through the sixth deck. In Martinis, the ship’s suave, low-light cocktail bar, a pianist plays gently and we’re persuaded to stop and sample the bar’s signature drink, opting for its Hendricks gin, vermouth and cucumber variation.
At dinner, in the grand dining hall, we meet an American couple, sat a table across from us, who swear by Oceania Cruises’ food (they won’t be the last). When it arrives, it thoroughly lives up to the hype. I opt for an inventive butternut squash and mango salad starter, sea bass with tomato ratatouille main and, perhaps best of all, an indulgent strawberry cheesecake for desert.
We end with a quick late-night stroll on the top deck – stopping for a game of crochet and ‘shuffleboard’ (almost miniature curling on artificial grass) beneath the bright, clear stars, but opt out of tennis (not a good idea after a martini) – ready for an early start.
At 7.45am, as requested, a waiter arrives at our door with coffee and teas, to ease us in to our first day, in which we’ll be taking in the island of Capri. As we tuck into breakfast, with the beautiful steeped banks of Sorrento providing a backdrop behind the deck, the phrase la dolce vita enters our minds.
Having tendered across to Sorrento, a 40-minute wait for another boat across to Capri gives us chance to explore, in the baking sunshine, the town’s exquisite buildings, including the imposing Hotel Excelsior Vittoria, and pastel houses, which sit impressively on the edge of dramatic cliffs. Capri, where we jump on a funicular, is even more idyllic. From the top, the panoramic views are stunning, Mount Vesuvius faintly visible in the distance, the neat gardens and houses below.
Beyond the St Stefano Church, built 1685 in a striking white, we explore the narrow alleys and pedestrianised pathways where designer clothes shops sit next to cafes and restaurants, below balconied windows, with bright, neatly arranged flowers. Between the shops, and hotel pools, are verdant gardens where lemons grow naturally.
The Mediterranean sun is punishing and we’re happy to get back on board when the last tender arrives. That evening, we eat at the complimentary, but reservations-only Polo Grill, where our wine, unfinished from the night before (from a different restaurant, no less) is quickly fetched. The lobster bisque starter, given a kick with a drop of brandy, is gorgeous, as too is the succulent, rib eye steak for mains. They weren’t lying about the food.
The next morning, we wake to find the Sicilian coastline and the imposing view of Mount Etna outside our veranda. It’s the most active volcano in the world, and despite its summit standing some 11,000 feet high, smoke is clearly visible. We tender to the island early and take a coach to the ancient city of Taormina, perched on the side of a mountain, and built by the Greeks in the seventh century.
The Greek influence remains, from the amphitheater to the Trinacria, the symbol of Greek mythological origin, which appears on the Sicilian flag and in every tourist shop (often alongside T-shirts of Vito Corleone with the words El Padrino). The town itself is lively, brilliantly pretty and, while aided by a cool breeze, ridiculously warm. Even the locals are struggling, but a lemon granita – a sort of extra refreshing slush puppy – helps.
However, it’s the crumbling ancient theatre, still used today for live music and productions – there is a stage being constructed as we arrive – which steals the show. Remarkable for both its architecture and its view, it’s testament to the vision and achievements of the ancient civilisations: it would be a struggle to build even today. From its highest point, we can see acres of Sicilian vineyards, green gardens and sun-bleached ceramic roofs, the turquoise waters – where our ship, looking resplendent, is docked – and the dominating Mount Etna in the distance.
Any sadness at leaving is soon extinguished by the time we reach the air-conditioned ship and head, for the first time, to the pool, where a cocktail waiter promptly arrives, and the knowledge that up next is the Greek island of Cephalonia.