Mal Chenu discovers three of the world's iconic ports-of-call.
Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Silhouette looms large in her departure port of Venice as we approach by water taxi on a perfect, sunny day. Imposing and strikingly white, the ship elicits excitement just sitting in her moorings, like an unopened gift. At 319 metres long and catering to almost 3000 passengers over 13 decks, Celebrity Silhouette is a commanding presence as we putt past in our taxi at canal level. The anticipation of boarding softens the sadness of leaving the city known as 'La Serenissima' (The Most Serene), where we have spent a day and a night exploring and sampling Venetian delights. And there is the promise of more to come on this seven-day cruise of the Mediterranean, which includes visits to some of the Med's most intriguing cities. As luxurious as the ship is – with its fabulous restaurants and bars, Art Studio, Spa, Cellar Masters wine experience and real-grass Lawn Club on the top deck - a goodly part of the allure are the historic and romantic cities that are scheduled ports-of-call.
The pretty hamlet of Mykonos Town is particularly photogenic on this big blue-sky day.
There are beautiful Greek clichés as far as the lens can focus. Little fishing boats sit on the foreshore and attached to nearby moorings. Flat-roofed buildings and crates of vegies gleam in the astonishingly bright sunlight. All along the waterfront al fresco restaurants offer dolmades, octopus, flat breads and salads with enough oil to lube a truck. Families laugh and play together on the pebbly beach. Hirsute men with emancipated shirt buttons drink strong black coffee and watch the passing girls. Old people talk and gesticulate.
Mykonos Town is a perfect cruise destination, in that it can be explored in a few hours – the usual amount of time you have in any port on a cruise. Celebrity Silhouette provides lectures on its destinations and it is well worth dragging yourself away from the pool deck to learn a bit before your visit. Mythology tells us Mykonos was named after Apollo's grandson and is the petrified remains of giants killed by Hercules. And the large granite rocks all over the island are the petrified testicles of said giants.
The labyrinthine streets of Mykonos Town were deliberately designed to confuse pirates rather than tourists and, as I round yet another corner, Pétros the pelican is blocking the way. The bird's wing span extends from wall to wall and he poses for selfies, his every move greeted with delight. The pelican has been the unofficial mascot of the island since 1954, when the original Pétros was rescued here after a storm.
The tight walkways are paved with gunmetal grey cobblestones, the gaps between them whitewashed for maximum effect. Balustrades, window frames and doors are mostly painted that same trademark Greek-island-blue and climbing vines and purple bougainvillea add to the romance.
As Celebrity Silhouette sails away, picture-postcard Mykonos turns on a sumptuous farewell: the steamy sky emphasises a broiling orange sunset over the white buildings.
Five more things to do in Mykonos
1. Beaches – dozens of them – all claiming signature themes, all easy to reach, all unforgettable. Kalamopodi (Paradise) is a party beach, Ornos is family friendly, Elia is preferred by naturists and Psarou is total glam.
2. Hire a quad or motorbike and explore the island yourself; it's cheap and relatively safe. Helmets are optional but recommended. You need to know where your horn is.
3. Just up the hill overlooking Mykonos Old Town and nearby islands, Castle Panigirakis offers peaceful cobblestone pathways, lush gardens, wildflowers and olive trees.
4. Little Venice in the Old Town is the best place to see the famous Mykonos windmills and enjoy an iconic Mykonos sunset over a cocktail.
5. Take a ferry to sacred Delos Island, birthplace of Artemis and Apollo. Explore the monumental antiquities, walk the mosaic floors and climb the stairs to Mount Kynthos.
The next afternoon the ship docks in Corfu. This time I take an organised tour, hosted by a delightful bronzed local named Magdalini. As the bus heads for the Achilleion Palace, Magdalini offers a fascinating potted portrait of the island. Corfiots call their home Kerkyra. There are 100,000 of them and they have 800 churches as well as 3.5 million olive trees, many of which are more than 100 years old and are protected under pain of jail. Magdalini tells us that Corfu has been occupied by many invaders – the Byzantines, Venetians, French, Russians and British to name a few - and each left something behind on which the cosmopolitan Corfiots have built their society. There's even a cricket pitch in the Old Town.
The Pompeiian-styled Achilleion Palace is an exquisite example of the blend of mythology and modernity that makes Greece so fascinating. Magdalini recounts the tragic tale of the stunningly beautiful Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sisi to her friends) who built the palace with themes from the works of Homer, principally Achilles, whose beauty, she considered, rivalled her own. Enormous paintings and statues of Sisi, Achilles, Hermes, Apollo and the nine muses dominate the spectacular, ornate palace. The famous statues Dying Achilles and Victorious Achilles are the gardens' centrepieces.
The tour then heads back to Corfu Old Town where we find Spianáda - a lovely large square in the centre of the city - and the elegant French-style Liston Arcade, a shopping/restaurant/bar/café hub. The group shops and Magdalini and I are left alone. We wander around the Old Fortress, the 32 Doric columns of Saints Michael and George Palace and the most imposing of the city's cathedrals, the Church of St Spyridon. She is a font of dedicated, passionate knowledge and suggestions, the best of which is to have a beer. She leads the way down to the shoreline, where Enplo Restaurant overlooks the 6th-century Byzantine Old Fortress, and orders a blonde Royal Ionian Pilsner - brewed fresh and only drinkable for three months. In the Corfu afternoon sun we swap anecdotes and watch more bronzed people frolic in the ocean.
Five more things to do in Corfu
1. Mon Repos beach - just south of Corfu Town - offers soft sand and a taverna, as well as the remains of Roman baths, a Doric temple and an early Christian basilica.
2. Visit the kitschy yet instructive Casa Parlante, a 'living' 19th-century mansion-museum featuring robotics, aromas and sounds.
3. The hairpin bends on the way up to Mount Pantokrator make the ascent, well, hairy, but the summit provides the best view on - and of - the island.
4. Kassiopi is a resort town at the foot of Mount Pantokrator boasting pebbly beaches, a picturesque harbour and plenty of restaurants.
5. Kanoni peninsula and Mouse and Vlacherna islands are much-photographed and archetypal Ionian Island landmarks, right next to the airport runway.
George Bernard Shaw said "those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik". And this is Celebrity Silhouette's next stop. The beyond-gorgeous Old Town part of the Croatian city on the Adriatic Sea is about half-an-hour from the dock by bus and on the way we are regaled with the city's triumphant and tragic history. Dubrovnik was established in the seventh century on a rocky islet called Laus and existed as a maritime force or vassal city-state over the centuries, confronted variously by fires, earthquakes and sieges. The Yugoslav war did extensive damage to the city walls and the enclosed buildings as evidenced by comparing the colour of the roofs.
The walk around the city walls is the highlight of our visit and, despite the oppressive heat, we are immediately captivated by the transcendent splendour of our surroundings. The deep blue of the Adriatic glimmers as it laps up against the base of the walls some 25 metres below. In the distance, rugged limestone mountains make a spectacular backdrop. There are two kilometres of uninterrupted walls to walk and people stop for photo ops every few steps. The walls were constructed in sections over time – hundreds of years in fact – beginning in the ninth century until the entire city was encircled and 'safe' from invaders. Modern marinas, ancient gates, towers and forts add to the spectacle and sense of history. A well-placed cafe at the half-way point does a roaring trade in beer and fresh orange juice.
The walk of the walls finally completed, we head into the tangled laneways of the Old Town, which, if anything, are even more alluring. The pedestrians-only 'Stradun' is the main street and Sveti Vlaho Cathedral and Orlando's Column are just two of the dozens of marvels along the promenade. Lovely cobblestone lanes lead off in every direction revealing enchanting town squares, churches, museums, markets, bazaars, cafes, bars and restaurants. If anything, Bernard Shaw was underselling the gorgeous 'Pearl of the Adriatic'. Dubrovnik, once a rival of Venice as the principal naval power of its day, is today an equal-footing suitor for tourism love.
Five more things to do in Dubrovnik
1. See the islands. The most popular is the verdant Mljet, known for its sandy beaches, Roman ruins, saltwater lakes and National Park.
2. Ride the Dubrovnik Cable Car up the 412 metres to the top of Mount Srd and take in the stunning views back over the Old Town and islands of the Adriatic.
3. Climb the Baroque staircase off Gundulic Square to the Church of St Ignatius of Loyola and discover beautiful frescos and the oldest bell in Dubrovnik, cast in 1355.
4. Fort Lovrijenac – first built in the 11th century to keep the Venetians at bay - is famously inscribed: NON BENE PRO TOTO LIBERTAS VENDITUR AURO. (Roughly, Freedom is not sold for all the gold in the world).
5. Visit the poignant Museum of Croatian War of Independence in a wing of Fort Imperial atop Mount Srd.
Celebrity Silhouette mainly cruises the Mediterranean and Caribbean. She won Best Mediterranean Cruise in the 2014 Cruise Critic Cruisers' Choice Awards. See celebritycruises.com/ships/celebrity-silhouette