On a sunny Monday afternoon last November, I was walking through the sunken ruins of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia. Two days later, I headed for the Sicilian baroque and golden stone city of Ragusa. The week-long marathon ended with a walk through Umbrian vineyards, a stroll through a Provencal town and a tapas tour of Barcelona.
Try to navigate a week in Europe like this on your own in the age of COVID, and you would need the help of multi-tasking travel agents. The dizzying array of border regulations, the possibility of sudden new restrictions and the constant threat of new quarantines would make a multi-stop European junket a study in constant anxiety.
But I was on a cruise – one of the few reliable ways right now to travel seamlessly across Europe, skip borders without even noticing, and take the big trip we’ve set ourselves on all felt deprived after two agoraphobic years.
I had chosen a Mediterranean cruise from Venice to Barcelona with Oceania Cruises. Before anyone was allowed to board the medium-sized MS Marina, we were all herded into a room where coronavirus tests were administered, ensuring everyone had tested negative before settling into their cabins. Masks were zealously applied and the ship cleaned daily with obsessive-compulsive fervor. (From March 1, passengers from Oceania will instead be required to provide a negative test upon boarding, and masks will be “strongly recommended” but not required.)
But these are the only reminders of the pandemic. For both home and COVID holidays, Oceania has relentlessly focused on entertaining its guests. Part of the reason European cruises for 2022 are now filling up fast is that very promise of seeing a large swath of the continent without having to navigate the ever-changing maze of COVID regulations. And the chance to explore freely in certain countries meant seeing more than the obvious sights.
We were not only failing in Rome, Florence, Naples, Palma, Syracuse and Marseilles, but were going further. Forget old-fashioned port-of-call excursions – a quick photo op at the Trevi Fountain, a sprint past the Colosseum. Like many of the best cruise lines, Oceania offers a new and improved cruise experience, and it starts with its immersive port excursions.
Of course, passengers could still visit the Roman Forum and the Accademia in Florence, but the excursion options – sometimes up to 15 to one destination – allowed for more creative and personal experiences.
The stop in Rome included a tour of Etruscan Italy, a farm dining experience, a winery tour and wine tasting, a truffle hunt, and a guided walk through the Jewish Quarter. Among the choices when we anchored in Palma, Spain: a vintage train journey; a tapas and flamenco show; a bike ride in the old town; a hike in the Mallorcan hills; a tour of modernist art and architecture; and a visit to Olivar Market followed by a market lunch.
I would have signed this cruise only for the excursion to the baroque villages of southeastern Sicily. Ever since reading Duncan Fallowell’s classic travel book “To Noto”, I was fascinated by the trio of towns – Noto, Ragusa and Modica. All razed by an earthquake in the 17and century they had been rebuilt as models of Baroque town planning, and they did not disappoint. We headed straight for the golden stone heart of Ragusa, its jutting townhouse balconies supported by a chorus of gargoyles and saints, Madonnas and cherubim. At dusk, the whole city lit up.
The stop in Florence, Italy allowed a detour through Umbria to San Gimignano, where the hilltop village was dotted with tall towers, erected to protect the city from invaders and, ultimately, each other. This was followed by lunch at a farmhouse, where a long wooden table was laid out with charcuterie, and an afternoon tour of the walled city of Volterra.
Pleasures on board
For those who just wanted to relax on the ship, however, there were plenty of incentives. Non-stop daily entertainment ranged from shuffleboard, croquet and golf sessions to cooking lessons, Beluga vodka tasting, health and wellness event, color understanding session with the artist in residence Noel Suarez, afternoon tea and evening string. quartets.
There was the inevitable spa and a casino that was thankfully more low-key than the flashy mini-Vegas lookalikes found on larger ships. Nighttime entertainment also mostly avoided the kitsch factor. A medley of Broadway tunes sung by the ship’s production cast felt, in retrospect, as a kind of premonition, a tribute to Stephen Sondheim just weeks before his death.
Yet the strongest incentive to stay on board was the ship’s food. There were four specialty restaurants – Jacques, the Polo Grill, Toscana and Red Ginger. Chez Jacques, the lobster thermidor was a rich throwback to old-fashioned haute cuisine.
But Red Ginger quickly became my favorite perch. Almost everything on the menu did justice to Pan-Asian cuisine: a spicy duck and watermelon salad topped with cashews and basil; caramelized tiger prawns in a spicy garlic sauce; a miso-glazed sea bass wrapped in a hoba leaf. The star was a trio of bay scallops served three different ways: one with makrut lime, another with sea urchins and the third coated in a wasabi kizami crust.
Could I have navigated this voyage alone? Even before COVID, a marathon trip that involved four different countries, a multitude of European ports and forays into back roads would have required major planning. In the age of COVID, it would take courage to attempt.
This cruise was more than just a pandemic vacation. It was an opportunity to go out, after a long year at home, and to rediscover a very big world.
Food and travel journalist Raphael Kadushin writes for Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other publications.
COVID-19[FEMININE:[FEMININE:All passengers must be fully immunized and provide a negative test result taken within 72 hours of departure (48 hours for US ports). Masks are highly recommended.
Mediterranean cruises: Various itineraries from March to November 2022-23, from $1,299 (oceaniacruises.com).