Cruising the Black Sea on a luxurious ship is a seductive way to explore Eastern Europe, writes Garry Maddox.
Captain Mino Pontillo, a bear of a man with a thick Italian accent, stirs his latte and searches for words to describe the sleek white ship on which we are cruising the Black Sea. The Silver Spirit, he says, is a "non-nervous, elegant product".
The good captain takes a sip and, seeing nothing but bafflement across the table, explains how this ship differs from the others in the luxury Silversea line.
"The Cloud, the Wind, the Shadow, the Whisper, are very elegant ships - very classic," he says. "But you hear the comment from guests that they sometimes feel nervous, like it's too elegant."
He takes another sip.
"The Spirit doesn't make you nervous."
As a newcomer to cruises - both nervous and non-nervous - seven days on the Black Sea is more than just about the history, sights and people of the Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. It's a chance to see why so many people, including thousands of Australians visiting Europe, have become cruise devotees.
Within hours of joining the Silver Spirit at the bustling Istanbul port, Texan couple Stella and Kent explain over dinner that they have been on more than 50 cruises.
They love them, even if the splendid - and endless - food and wine means they gain "five or six pounds" during a voyage.
They know exactly what Captain Pontillo is talking about. The Silver Spirit is not just a way of seeing new places - it's a stylish 10-storey hotel that some passengers don't actually leave during their voyage, despite numerous shore excursions on offer at every port.
Launched in 2009 for 540 passengers, it is the newest and largest ship in the fleet and a notch less formal than the others, with more space to get away from other passengers, if that's what you want. It's upmarket, but not assertively so.
But even on the first day at sea - crossing from Istanbul to the Ukraine - it is apparent the Silver Spirit is still very luxurious.
The suite comes with a butler in a tuxedo, for example. If you want a bottle of pinot noir or a risotto at any hour, Albert is the man. He can get your laundry done, polish your shoes, and even unpack then repack your luggage.
Attentive service is a big thing on the ship, with 376 crew for 505 passengers on this cruise. While the officers are Italian and many crew are Filipino, the passenger list is dominated by Americans, Australians and Brits.
The suite is not exactly modest, either. The 35-square-metre space includes a sitting room, two TVs, a marble bathroom with both shower and bath, a super-comfortable bed, a walk-in wardrobe and a verandah. On the writing desk is personalised stationery so you can send notes "from the suite of" to other passengers or family back home.
Day one was the chance to try out the activities program - a session on the jogging track, trivia, high tea, blackjack and roulette lessons at the ship's casino and an "enrichment lecture" on the region.
"The Black Sea is the youngest sea in the world, but it's second only to the Mediterranean in the richness of its history," former US ambassador Andrew Steigman says.
The talk - covering the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Mongol and Turkish eras - is so popular he runs out of handouts.
Passengers clearly want to learn, rather than just party.
Dinner is at one of the ship's five restaurants - La Terrazza, which specialises in slow-cooked Italian food - and is followed by an Abba show performed in the show lounge by a hard-working group called the Artists of the Silverseas. Their repertoire on other nights includes Motown hits, opera selections and Broadway show tunes.
There is Wi-Fi on board, for a charge, and an IT technician, who is in heavy demand every morning hooking up tablets, laptops and phones. As well as a pocket newspaper tailored to your country at the door every morning, the ship's library has facsimile papers from around the world.
The first stop after a day at sea is the Ukrainian resort Yalta. Determined to be independent, we go our own way until meeting persuasive Ivan by the port and joining his two-hour tour, which includes the Livadia Palace, the summer retreat of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, where Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin determined the fate of Germany at the end of World War II. Afterwards, we head to a lookout to see the Swallow's Nest, a castle perched on a cliff edge.
In baking heat, a swim at a packed rocky beach suggests Ukrainians are much less body conscious than Australians. Then there is time for a colourful walk, it being a public holiday, along the cosmopolitan promenade, where there is an art show, monkey acts and sprightly seniors folk dancing to a band.
The next day in Sevastopol, an absorbing tour of Crimean War sights includes the Valley of Death, infamous for the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854; Balaklava, a military port that was reputedly banned from appearing on maps, with a secret submarine base under a hillside, and a military museum called Heroic Sevastopol. As the bus returns to the ship, patriotic guide Natasha sings about her love for heroic Sevastopol.
"We have legendary city, which is obstacle for enemies," she sings.
The third Ukrainian port, Odessa, is surprisingly elegant, with hotels, apartments and an opera house reminiscent of Paris in the central city. It proves well worth a ramble, which also takes in a lively tourist market, until it starts to rain. We buy an umbrella, shelter in a footpath cafe, find another one when the staff seem spectacularly disinterested in serving us, and order a tasty borscht.
For a film lover, the Odessa steps that featured in Eisenstein's classic Battleship Potemkin are part of the attraction of the city - the stairway cascading from the city to the port. With the city downplaying their interest, and little for visitors to see that connects to the film, touts show off giant eagles and lizards for tourist photos on the steps.
Back on board the Silver Spirit, there is more evidence of super-attentive service. On the Cruise
Critic website, there are reports of staff bringing spectacles on a silver tray to lend to passengers who cannot read the menu because they've forgotten their glasses, a waiter warming a beer for a German passenger who preferred it at room temperature, and a butler drawing a bath with flower petals.
On this trip, there are similar examples. You can hardly walk away from the handsome breakfast buffet without a friendly waiter offering to carry your plate to your table. And if staff know your name, there is a reason. A tour of the galley by head chef Jerome Foussier reveals staff entering the restaurants pass posters with photographs, names, cabin numbers and often occupations of the guests. Four days into a voyage, they are tested to see if they can match faces with names.
There is no shortage of places to eat: as well as La Terrazza, The Restaurant has signature dishes that change daily, as well as low-carb, low-calorie, vegetarian and vegan options; the smaller Le Champagne wine restaurant matches regionally inspired dishes with fine wines; the casual pool bar and grill is for cooking your own seafood or steak on a volcanic rock plate in the open air and the small Japanese restaurant Seishin has elegant tasting dishes. There is a reservation fee for Le Champagne and Seishin; all other food and drink, including room service, is covered in the cruise fare.
Having read that Silversea provides "distinguished gentlemen" as dinner and dancing companions for unaccompanied women, I try to work out who they are - and whether this was a future career option. But they are either not required on this cruise or are too discreet to be noticed.
When the ship docks at Constantza for its sole stop in Romania, a city highlights tour reveals both the country's economic struggles and the damaging heritage of the Ceausescu dictatorship, with many vacant lots and buildings under construction. The city's rich Roman history is apparent in the Archaeological Museum and a Roman edifice dating back to the fourth century outside. As the rain pours down, a visit to the resort of Mamaia outside the city is not exactly a summer experience; visiting a souvenir shop in a mall is no more cheerful.
When the ship reaches Bulgaria, it moors off the resort of Nessebar, with passengers taking a tender to the shore this time. A tour jauntily called Cooking Bulgarian Style starts with a walking tour through the old town, visiting churches dating back to the fifth century, and a museum that features 16th-century Bulgarian icons, Greek terracotta statuettes and Roman vases. The tour finishes with a cooking class at a restaurant, which turns out to be more like watching someone else cook, although it does produce an impressive meal on a terrace overlooking the sea.
Some time during the week, it's a shock to realise that - even if you see yourself as an adventurous traveller looking for the next cultural experience among real, down-to-earth people - you are actually enjoying the attentive service.
There is too much of it at times - I cling to enough self-respect to carry my own breakfast plate - but no doubt this service is appreciated by elderly and less-mobile passengers.
And it is surprisingly easy to slip into a routine, with the day starting with some early-morning exercise - 10 laps of the jogging track or a swim in the pool - and finishing with dinner at a different restaurant and a show.
There is so much entertainment on board, including other lectures, jazz and piano performances and a DJ, that there is no time for what seems like a great range of in-house movies.
On the satellite television news, though, there are riots in Egypt and violence in Iraq. But being on the Silver Spirit is a hermetic and privileged experience, where the day's biggest decision often seems to be which restaurant to choose. And tours - either guided or under your own steam armed with advice about sights and currency from the ship's concierge - are easy introductions to new cities. Disembarking in Istanbul is the chance to spend time in this exceptional city; the rich Muslim history of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, the teeming Grand Bazaar, the underground Basilica Cistern, a hamam for an invigorating wash, scrub and massage, contemporary Turkish music at an outdoor concert in Sultanahmet, a whirling dervish at a late-night tea house and the buzzing street life.
Seeing all this in a week, without having to juggle transport connections, switch hotels and repack suitcases: no wonder cruising is so popular.
The writer was a guest of Silversea.
FIVE BLACK SEA MUST-SEES
ISTANBUL'S AYA SOFYA
It's worth getting a guide to discover the history of this magnificent museum, above, which was consecrated as a church in 537 and converted to a mosque in 1453. The dome, the mosaics and the nave are among many striking features.
The summer residence of Tsar Nicolas II is just outside Yalta in the Ukraine. In 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin discussed plans for Europe after World War II at the famous Yalta Conference.
If there is nothing to commemorate the classic film Battleship Potemkin in the Ukranian port of Odessa, the so-called Pearl of the Black Sea, has a striking city centre with a French feeling and a stunning opera house.
THE VALLEY OF DEATH
The Charge of the Light Brigade, the subject of Tennyson's famous poem, took place on a plain in the Balaklava Valley outside Sevastapol in the Ukraine. Today there are pastures with a service station near where the charge started, but it's not hard to imagine the carnage.
It's not the prettiest or most tourist-friendly city in Romania, but it offers a sense of both the extent of the Roman empire and, by talking to the locals, the extremes of the Ceausescu dictatorship and the shock of opening up to the rest of the world once it was over. Ancient history meets social history.
British Airways has a fare to Istanbul for about $1955 return from Sydney including tax. Fly via Singapore in about 23 hours; see britishairways.com. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect. Australians can apply for a visa at evisa.gov.tr/en or obtain it upon arrival for US$60 ($63) for a stay of up to 90 days.
WHEN TO GO
The Silver Spirit cruises the Black Sea next year on July 21 (priced from $4050), August 20 (from $4950) and September 29 (from $4950). The ship is in the Mediterranean region from April to November, with voyages starting in Lisbon, Monte Carlo, Venice, Istanbul, Athens, Rome and Barcelona. It then visits the Caribbean and Panama Canal from November to January then March, and the South Pacific in February.
The ship has 270 owners', grand, royal, silver, verandah and vista suites, taking up to 540 passengers with 376 crew.