Natalie Paris, The Daily Telegraph, March 07, 2012
We lined the upper deck, clinging to the railings and waving farewell to the shrinking tower of St Mark's basilica. The chorus from Time to Say Goodbye blared cheesily from loudspeakers behind us. Below, on canal-side terraces, tourists squinted up from their Bellinis as all 93,330 tons of us slid by, rudely blotting out the sun. Our Mediterranean cruise had finally begun, with a showy sail along the Grand Canal in Venice. Even for this apprehensive first-timer, it was a pretty exciting moment.
In common with most independent people in their twenties or thirties, I wouldn't have chosen a cruise for myself. Holidays for me are about the freedom to get out and explore. And once I'm out, I tend to want to stay out. Late. But this trip was not solely about me. Our party consisted of three generations of my boyfriend's family, all avid cruisers. One was celebrating a significant birthday and so those of us unaccustomed to itineraries and fixed mealtimes had agreed to be open-minded. What the occasion required was easy sightseeing at a reasonable price, with plenty of opportunities for ballroom dancing. "We don't have to spend every minute together," the cruising regulars assured us, "just don't be late back or the ship will leave without you."
We booked a week-long voyage on the MSC Magnifica, a new, Italian-owned ship that offered an enticing itinerary, visiting ancient sites in Greece, Turkey and Croatia. Launched in 2010, the Magnifica was glitzy and immaculate, from her marble lobbies to the gleaming gym equipment. Described as "a medium-sized" ship, she seemed to me a hulking vessel, housing all manner of facilities on 16 levels. Immediately obvious were the smartly-decked indoor and outdoor pool areas, numerous hot tubs, restaurants and six bars. It took me longer to locate the mini-bowling alley, tiny "4d" cinema, cosy library and cheery – and surprisingly affordable – Balinese spa.
Any worries that I would be spending my days stuck by the pool were unfounded. There was table tennis (an increasingly popular pastime) and even quoits (unlikely to make a resurgence any time soon). The cabins were a pleasant surprise, too, with large, comfy beds, lots of storage space, thick towels and bright, sturdy bathrooms with Grohe fittings.
The plan was to tick off some of Europe's most important ancient sites, while barely lifting a finger and being mindful of the advice of our elders: "try not to miss the happy hour on cocktails." The downside to this kind of cosseted travel is that it is easy to limit exploration to what you can cram between breakfast and your next free feed. But we were determined to maximise our time on dry land. Not wanting to confine ourselves to the tourist areas of the ports of call, we arranged our own trips rather than taking ship-organised excursions for around €50 per person. It was easy enough to walk off the ship and hire a car, jump in a taxi or pick up public transport.
We found we had time for a decent wander around medieval Rhodes Town, though an early start was required to avoid the crowds at the Palace of the Grand Masters and the dusty archaeological museum. In Athens, we managed to walk Nana – who is in her eighties – up to the Acropolis and back, but at Ephesus, owing to the half-an-hour drive from the port, the swarms of people and the late-morning sun were unavoidable. Olympia, however, was an undoubted highlight. Seemingly a less popular attraction, the site was peaceful in comparison and carpeted with wildflowers, making the ruins, from the stadium grounds to the temple of Zeus, a joy to stroll around. The attached museum also stood out for its finely crafted bronze shields and magnificent marble sculpture of Hermes, by Praxiteles.
On the way back from sightseeing, we stopped off anywhere that looked interesting to get a better sense of where we were. This ate into our spending money, but I preferred chatting to a Turkish man over bitter coffee in Izmir, eating taramasalata by the sea in Katakolon and hunting out a recommended bar in Dubrovnik to returning to the ship for whatever its lunch buffet had to offer.
Come the afternoons, we were all back on board and out on deck, where life had an Italian feel to it. The people-watching was more fun than I imagine it would be on a British or American cruise. Each day, middle-aged Italian women in velour sportswear and full make-up took over the tables and sat gossiping while their husbands played cards. At dinner, tasty, regional Italian food was served in the main restaurants – up to five courses involving risottos, pasta, meat and fish. When we tired of this, there was a choice of alternative restaurants at an extra cost. The Oriental Shanghai made a refreshing change both in terms of decor (lacquered tables, bamboo) and flavours (real chillies).
The on-board entertainment did not translate quite so well, aimed as it was at a mixed-nationality crowd of stir-crazy over-50s. Shows incorporating acrobats and cabaret were on the whole enjoyable, save for some underwhelming dance routines. More "out there" entertainment included ice sculpting and an excruciating Mr Magnifica contest, where a handful of ageing, shirtless passengers were encouraged to gyrate with a female member of staff. The pub quiz, we thought, would be a safe bet, but it was run by a young man wearing oversized sunglasses and bunny ears and slowed down to an agonising pace with musical interludes after each question (which were already being repeated in five different languages).
While the colour schemes in the carpeted piano bars were loud (one was tiger-striped), the atmosphere was more airport-waiting lounge, mostly because of the open-plan design. But there was enough to keep us amused over the course of a week, including a thumping disco, dance lessons and the chance for the more coordinated to practise their cha-cha-cha.
There were two gala dinners scheduled – special occasions with a sense of fun, when staff paraded flambéd desserts through the restaurants and formal dress was required. The evening dress code, decreed in the daily newsletters and adhered to by almost everyone, was something I came unprepared for. Most nights required evening or cocktail dresses for ladies, so my wardrobe of sundresses and skinny jeans never quite cut it.
Luckily, any sartorial clangers and awkward attempts at rumba were easily forgotten the following day, so relaxing were the hours spent at sea. As we sailed to our next port, there was always an empty hot tub and enough space on the top decks to spread out and switch off. Better still, retreating to watch the churn of the ship's wake from our private balcony was gloriously peaceful – the trip would have been much less enjoyable in a cabin without one.
The more experienced cruisers in our party had opinions about the ship's pros and cons. Positives included the stylish, well-appointed cabins, friendly staff and cocktail sessions; negatives the lack of free water available outside meal times.
Would I go on a cruise again? Possibly, if there were some exciting destinations on the itinerary. I'll have to admit, it was nice to fly home feeling refreshed rather than exhausted. And as a multi-generational family holiday, the cruise had provided much. Nana (in Athens) tasted her first kebab, spotted dolphins from our balcony and, after sampling a cocktail the size of her handbag, danced a waltz with her grandson. It wouldn't have happened anywhere else.
- Natalie Paris travelled on an eight-night cruise to Italy, Turkey, Greece and Croatia, starting and ending in Venice, with MSC Cruises (0844 561 7412; msccruises.co.uk) . A similar cruise, with the larger MSC Divina, departs on June 16 and calls at Venice, Bari, Katakolon, Izmir, Istanbul and Dubrovnik. Prices start at £499 per person, excluding flights.