Sailing odyssey to find oddities

 

Sailing the Mediterranean – the sea of love – is an odyssey that explores grand ports and tiny, secluded islands along the way.

I had never had cause to flick a burning ember off my arm on a cruise before, but for a few precious seconds I let it hover there. Free of the smoking red dot I looked through the inky night sky and watched burning hot lava run down the walls of Mount Stromboli on the little island of Stromboli. A hush fell over the yacht as the passengers watched great lumps of molten lava plop into the sea not far from us – but far enough away to be safe.

Off the north coast of Sicily, being up close to one of three active volcanoes in Italy was one of the highlights of a memorable week of sailing on a luxury mega-yacht. And ready for  speedy getaway – we had no need to flee from the towering inferno!

The journey began in Athens. SeaDream 1 was waiting for us in Piraeus. Up on deck, guests were catching the last of summer’s bright rays. (SeaDream yachts chase the sun, and after the Mediterranean, the Caribbean was the ships next playground for November to March.)

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We departed Piraeus on an afternoon, fresh from summer in October through a flint-like clarity of light.

On this voyage were 95 crew and 95 guests – so you can guess the rest – we were indulged all the way. The feeling is small, intimate and happily familiar. Within 24 hours, crew who had seen me once knew my name.

And so to the first of many splendid dinners to come – Alaska crab, fresh salads tonight and the start of my dessert obsession for the duration.

After a sleep lulled by the thought of tomorrow, I was up and ready for the day on the pretty Greek island of Hydra. No rushing in the morning, meandered up on deck for breakfast. Freshly squeezed juices (“do you have some fresh ginger for my juice?” of course!) And it was the beginning of a game played out every morning. I pick up a few things and head to a table and an attentive staff member and I play tug-o-war with my plate). I’m not even allowed to carry my own plate to the table. Just call me Princess.

Each morning on this voyage we would breakfast at a new port where our small ship can sneak into because of its size. Each morning one of the staff members (sniggering and pulling faces) would bring a jar of Vegemite to the table too – OK, laugh if you must, you non-believers.

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The yacht (the ship is call a yacht because it is small and has the ambience of an intimate sailing craft) moored at the edge of Hydra’s harbour and from 9am until 6pm we could jump in and out of a tender to visit the island whenever we chose. I had two trips that day. I spent a lazy day on Hydra to enjoy the harbour front as the tourist season had cast off its high season frantic pace…

A little shopping and a walk up the narrow backstreets past snoozing cats, aromatic bundles of oregano and wild sage and I spy, tucked into a corner, a true mama and papa taverna. Settled in we ordered simple fare: whitebait, a Greek salad, fresh bread and a cold beer. Perfect!

 

Day three and the trip was showing its stripes as we headed into another glorious experience. The vessel smoothly negotiated a straight line through the narrow cutting of the Corinth canal. It is an almost out-of-body experience to think that this great chunk of land between two seas was chopped, chipped away and bled on by slaves and cheap labour to make a journey around the Peloponnese (approx. 185 nautical miles) easier by going through rather than over. Emperor Nero dug the first sod himself in 67AD. Determined to get the job done with the help of 6000 slaves, Nero’s idea didn’t get very far because of the times: politics, war and financial hardship stalled the project for centuries.

Whether it was Poseidon originally putting the kibosh on the project or not, it was revived during the late 1800s and was completed and put to use in 1893.

The day just got better and better. We anchored at Galaxidi, gateway to one of Greece’s most treasured sites – Delphi.

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Galaxidi is ordered and its neat grand villas and 19th century homes gleaming in the midday sun, sit smugly along the bay. And Delphi is an evocative cultural ancestral memory. The ruins are magnificent still, the standing pieces strong and bold, the fallen, melancholy and redolent with voices – calling for the advice and prophesy of the Delphi Oracle. The amphitheatre is in good shape still, as you would expect from the original builders – the Gods.

The Oracle did speak to me, it was mostly in riddles but the gist of it was: “You are a lucky woman to be doing this cruise, be grateful.” OK, I got the message.

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Sipping ‘sundowners’ on Top of the Yacht Bar, guests were mellowed out and a little sleepy after a day in the sun and an encounter with ancient Greece’s top consultant.

The following morning onboard I discovered the tai chi class, and each morning from then on I was taught to stretch and bend, which made my day a lot more physically livelier.

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A visit to Fiskado, Kefalonia was all about the excursion on the island. This is where the film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was filmed. A friend and I chose to mooch around the port, take a desultory look at a local folk museum and spend a couple of hours sitting. Just sitting here is better than meditation. The day was beautiful, warm and clear. Little fishing boats bobbed softly and their bright colours reflected in the calm water of the bay. A few cups of Greek coffee, a chat to to the locals, an extended sit and the world balanced perfectly on its axis.

Back on board to cold drinks and chilled wet, towels. Life onboard is casual and unpretentious and a return after a day excursion is warm and fuzzy – and sincere. As we passed through various maritime regions, the movies shown on the yacht’s TV network reflected where we were. There was Mama Mia in the main lounge one night and we ate popcorn as we watched Meryl Streep sing and dance her heart out.

As we entered Italian waters, in Sicily we watched The Godfather (there was a brilliant day visit to Taormina on Etna) and we glimpsed many of the locations used in the film.

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Amalfi was a delight, we took a bus around and up the narrow coastal road on the way to Pompeii. As it was late in the season the crowds were scattered and small – a relief when we saw the territory to be covered. What an extraordinary experience to see such exquisitely preserved artworks, buildings, frescoes – all at the expense of a vast city being buried under molten lava along with its inhabitants.

A wedding in Il Duomo (Cathedral) Amalfi, Italy

Back in Amalfi, we sat around the corner from St George cathedral which features in the film A Good Woman. It was hard to tear ourselves away as we stuffed ourselves with the region’s specialty cakes – cannoli and ricotta pies. Mmmm, the sweet life.

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The last day of this glorious Mediterranean adventure took us to the ultimate romantic destination: Capri. Unfortunately the tide was too high for us to enter the renowned Blue Grotto but we did get a glimpse of the coloured marine phenomenon when a local took us in his boat into a (about three metres deep) cave where we saw the shimmering aqua marine water splash against the walls of the cavern. A brilliant display that only Neptune has the secret to…

Capri is so cosmopolitan, with charming fashion boutiques and restaurants, pastry shops and gelato bars. Romance abounds as we feel a bit Grace Kelly, a bit Sophia Loren as the classic white convertible swoops us up and around the curves of Capri, the island of love, to the town of Ana Capri. Among the mixed Euro flash travellers we checked out the boutiques and then hopped on the gondola to be taken up to the top of the island. We gazed upon the tiny vineyards, terraced up the side of the hills, and the villas that have housed Italians for centuries and seen many of us tourists over the years – and still know exactly how to look after us… a smile, a wave and a gracious invite to sit down in the sun to eat.

The farewell meal on SeaDream and the chefs and wait staff pull out all the stops. A degustation of impeccable creation and construction – worthy of the Gods.

Arriving at the port of Civitavecchia (Rome) it was tough to walk away from the yacht – perhaps I should have asked the wisdom of the Oracle: “Stay a few more days to see a few more ports..?” I just had to take my chances with the choice to stay on in Rome for a couple of days. Not a bad choice either…

Cruise trivia

The volcano on Stromboli has erupted many times and is constantly active with minor eruptions, often visible from many points on the island and from the surrounding sea, giving rise to the island’s nickname ‘Lighthouse of the Mediterranean’. The most recent major eruption was on 13 April 2009.

(SeaDream I. Visit: [@] http://www.seadream.com for itineraries and bookings or see your travel agent.)

Writer Bev Malzard asked for guidance from the Oracle of Delphi and still has not heard back whether it’s still cool to wear hoop earrings.

(Special thanks to travelling companion Jane Hodges for many of the pictures here.)

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