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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sue Lawley's Aegean cruise on Regent Seven Seas Voyager

There are now hundreds of books, magazines and websites devoted to cruising, endlessly feeding the addiction of a growing group of travellers. The cruise lines are dissected in minute detail. Everything is compared, from the marque of champagne to the quality of the sheets on your bed and the precise square footage of your bathroom. I find this rather off-putting. We all want our holidays to work, but weighing them with this exactitude makes them feel like commodities rather than experiences to be enjoyed. So I would call myself an approach-with-caution cruiser.

From the moment I stepped aboard Voyager, I could feel the worrying signs of addiction starting to take hold. My first fix was the suite – all passengers on Regent Seven Seas get one – and with a balcony, too. It was spacious and well-appointed, with a wonderfully comfortable bed. Good start.The next fix was dinner. That first night, we ate in the main restaurant, where the food was top-quality and the house wines well chosen. If you can eat, drink and sleep well, the basics of a good holiday are all in place. There was more and different to come.

Hugh and I are independent travellers. Generally, we prefer exploring to our own timetable. But neither of us had spent much time in the Aegean and it’s hard to think of an easier way than cruising to see what it has to offer. We awoke each day to the cool clarity of an autumn morning on the doorstep of some of the most famous sights of the classical and medieval worlds: the ruins of Knossos on Crete, the wonderful Byzantine fortress at Monemvasia, the unique archaeological ruins of Delos, the volcano of Santorini – where we swam in the thermal springs – and the marvels of Ephesus, once one of the greatest cities of the Roman Empire, whose treasures are still being unearthed.

By day, the weather warmed to a pleasant temperature as we were driven through orchards of mulberry, quince and pear, drank fresh pomegranate juice and ate ripe figs in the markets. By night, Voyager swished us on from place to place. We walked around Rhodes and Mykonos, and on our last day enjoyed a tour of Istanbul – all in the space of 10 days. To organise that yourself would take months – unless you had a private yacht. It made me stop being squeamish about organised sightseeing. Let’s face it – we’re all tourists now.

More reviews of Regent Seven Seas ships

It’s the grey pound that keeps the cruise business booming. Most of the travellers with Regent are over 60 – although there were some younger couples and one or two (well-behaved) children, too. Most of them were mainly American (Regent is an American company based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida), friendly and easy-going. We were asked not to wear shorts and jeans after 6pm, but otherwise the dress code kept to a holiday style. There were no so-called “formal evenings” when passengers change into full evening gear for no discernible reason other than a curious desire to dress up. And while nearly 700 fellow cruisers may seem a lot, we found we could keep our own company, or join others, as much as we wanted.

We prefer, for instance, to eat together alone, and that was what we did, on the whole. Furthermore, 700 passengers means that the Voyager has four restaurants – including a terrific surf-and-turf dining room, a French restaurant that would rival some of the best in Chelsea (no supplements for eating in these), plus a grill on the top deck – something a smaller ship couldn’t offer.

And there are plenty of bars: bars with a view, bars with music, dark bars, light bars and a bar in the open air. You can eat and drink as much as you like, whenever you like – it’s all in the price. I have never been anywhere where everything, from canapés to champagne, was so liberally on tap.

When guilt about our food and booze consumption overcame us, Hugh went to the gym and, as the sun rose each morning (not until after eight at this time of year), I tried to make a habit of jogging around the top deck – seven circuits to a mile. I didn’t always succeed.

One evening, the captain, a charming, self-effacing Briton called John McNeill, invited us to dinner with a group of regular cruisers. Regent boasts a 60 per cent return trade: what is it that attracts these people back time after time? Casey from Springfield, Virginia, on her third cruise this year, told me: “I don’t have to cook, somebody else makes my bed and I get to see the world. What’s not to like?” Judy from Calgary was planning another Regent cruise at Christmas, this time in the Caribbean with her teenage children. “They love it,” she said. “And the great thing is that you don’t get nickel-and-dimed. You don’t have to pay for anything else once you’re on board.” You definitely don’t.

I was occasionally sidetracked into the casino to improve my blackjack (no luck there, I’m afraid), but otherwise our evenings were as we like them on holiday – gentle and relaxing. We put our heads into the ship’s theatre on a couple of occasions but the energetic song-and-dance routines that formed the mainstay of each evening’s show were not to our taste. That’s all right. I don’t expect to be entertained like that on holiday – so I didn’t miss it. But I did miss a spot of tranquil poolside sunbathing. I had to look elsewhere to avoid the incessant music, which I found irritating.

On our penultimate day, there was a minor drama when the captain announced that we wouldn’t be able to visit Lesbos because high winds made it too dangerous to ferry us ashore. On that brilliant but blustery day, as sun beds cartwheeled into the pool and tables into the hot tub, we sailed gloriously on north, spurred by the promise of a daylight passage through the Dardanelles, the narrow straits that link the Aegean through to the seas of Asia. Nobody minded. In fact, it made for a rather better end to the cruise than the one that had been planned.

And so it was that 2,500 bottles of champagne, 1,200 lobsters, 5,000lb of prime beef and heaven knows how many kilos of caviar later, the Regent Seven Seas Voyager arrived in Istanbul. There’s no better way to arrive in this fascinating city than by ship, and as we ploughed majestically up the Bosporus, into the mouth of the great crossing-point of Western civilisation, it occurred to me that Casey from Virginia was right: we had seen a significant part of the world, in exceptional comfort. Regent is a top-class operation, impeccably run, and its passengers undoubtedly feel it offers value for money at the luxury end of the cruise market. It’s hard to argue with customers who keep coming back.

We rounded off our holiday with three nights exploring Istanbul, staying on the Asian side of the city, at the friendly but rather remote Sumahan-on-the-Water. As we bobbed across the strait that divides East from West, we reflected on how a sleek modern ship had pampered us on a voyage through history, and asked ourselves: will we ever kick the cruising habit now?

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