Black Sea change

The Mediterranean's poor relation surprises Sara Macefield with its scenery and excellent shore excursions.

'So, why is Stalin so disliked by the Russian people?" The question echoes around the billiards room of the former Soviet leader's dacha high in the hills above the Crimean resort of Sochi in the Black Sea.

In the silence that follows, I await the reaction of our formidable guide. After all, this is a topic I thought was common knowledge and I wonder if she will berate us for daring to make such an impertinent inquiry.

Drawing herself up to her full height and flashing an icy stare at the hapless inquirer, she imperiously barks that Stalin's policies cost the lives of 40 million Russians. It is hard to take in, particularly in such a peaceful setting, chosen as the Soviet leader's rural retreat for its mountain air and spectacular views.

Today, the dacha is a hotel and guests can stay in Stalin's former bedroom (room eight) or that of his chief of security (room nine). Some areas have been maintained as they were in Stalin's day, notably the billiard room and his office, where a life-size model of the man himself is seated behind his original desk, adorned with a pen set from Chairman Mao.

Wandering around the holiday home of such a notorious figure is one of several fascinating shore excursions during a cruise of the Black Sea with Princess Cruises.

The voyage begins in Venice, calls in at Istanbul and then enters the Black Sea, where I join at Sochi, its first stop on the Crimean Peninsula. From here, the ship sails west, calling at other Crimean ports before returning to Athens.

The Black Sea has always been something of a poor relation to the Mediterranean for cruises and, as a result, is easily overlooked. But I never imagined quite how picturesque the coastline would be, nor realised the richness of the region's history. Sailing on Royal Princess, one of Princess Cruises' smallest ships, which accommodates about 700 passengers, compared with 3000-plus on its larger vessels, is the perfect complement.

This vessel was formerly the much-loved Minerva II, run by Swan Hellenic, before it was moved to Princess in 2007. It now has a more international flavour, with passengers drawn from a wider area and less of a US bent than Princess's larger vessels.

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The classic decor - dark-wood panelling, brass fittings and artworks - gives the stately surroundings an upmarket country house-style hotel feel, while its smaller size lends it an informal and cosy ambience.

Yet it still offers some of the facilities of its larger counterparts, such as a spa with a long list of treatments and a gym that, for a ship this small, is a good size and well equipped.

Dining options are also varied, with a pleasant main restaurant accompanied by two speciality dining venues: Princess's trademark Italian restaurant, Sabatini's, and its American-style Sterling Steakhouse Grill, which open on alternate evenings. Wherever we dine, the food is of an impressively high standard.

On my second morning on board, I sit on the deck soaking up the sun and views of Swallow's Nest Castle, then later the pretty Ukrainian resort of Yalta and the mountains beyond.

I could be anywhere on the French or Italian rivieras but there is one clue to this town's heritage - the gleaming gold onion domes of a Russian Orthodox church.

As well as being one of the Crimea's most popular holiday resorts, patronised by the Romanovs in the early 1900s, Yalta is famous as the setting of one of the most pivotal events of the 20th century - the Yalta Conference of 1945. The Alupka Palace is where Winston Churchill and the British delegation were based during negotiations to decide how Europe would be carved up after World War II.

The main discussions took place at Livadia Palace, a short distance away and the next stop on our tour.

While our guide is informative and the tour riveting, the numerous photographs and displays have frustratingly little or no explanation in English.

One thing that needs no explaining, however, is the copy of the last major document signed at the conference by the Allied leaders. Apparently, Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin argued over who should be first to put pen to paper. It was Churchill who then stepped in and artfully suggested they sign their names in alphabetical order.

The first floor of the palace is devoted to the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, and his family, who spent many holidays here before the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Odessa is another surprise - its wide boulevards and statuesque buildings seem very European and its pretty central park could have been plucked out of any French town.

Cruise excursions aren't always value for money but on the Black Sea, they are worth every penny.

TRIP NOTES

GET ON BOARD

Princess Cruises is offering two departures to the Black Sea on August 7 and September 12 aboard Pacific Princess, one of its smaller ships. The 12-night Crimean and Aegean Coasts itinerary leaves Athens for Volos in Greece, Varna in Bulgaria, Constanta in Romania, Odessa and Yalta in Ukraine and Istanbul in Turkey, before finishing in Venice, Italy. Prices are from $3979 a person, based on two people sharing.

The Royal Princess sails on April 30 from Fort Lauderdale to Seattle, with other itineraries this year to Alaska, Hawaii and the South Pacific. A 12-day cruise from Honolulu to Papeete, leaving September 24 and November 17, starts from $2658.50 a person, based on two people sharing.

Phone 132 488, see princess.com.

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