Seabourn’s Italy

 

Taormina
Taormina is set way up on a mountainside and is filled with shops and restaurants. The Seabourn Spirit is shown here, in port at Naxos.

 

We sailed on the Seabourn Spirit in June, departing Venice just a day or two ahead of the Seabourn Odyssey’s maiden voyage from the same port. While the Odyssey garnered all the attention during those few days, we found ourselves blissfully content to sail upon its smaller, more seasoned sibling.

Life on board: Indeed, carrying just 208 passengers, the Seabourn Spirit was the smallest ship we’ve ever sailed on but it was one of the most luxurious experiences we’ve ever had. No matter where we were on the ship, our cabin seemed just a short sprint away. The staff quickly gets to know you and your preferences, and they’re overwhelmingly accommodating without being formal or stuffy. The majority of the folks we met on the cruise had sailed the ship several times, in fact, it seemed that many stay on for three weeks at a time and some seemed to sail it several times a year. Not surprisingly, Seabourn travelers tend to be affluent, although they’re quite understated about it. Often, the person you’ve been casually chatting with turns out to be a CEO or chairman of a huge corporation. Dress on board is casual during the day, though we found the majority of the evenings defined in the ship’s guide as “elegant casual,” when the men wear slacks and nifty sports jackets and the women don simple cocktail dresses and resort wear. On the formal night, everyone dressed up, with most men in tuxedos and women in fine gowns.

The Seabourn Spirit is an all-suite product; with the standard size measuring 277 square feet, comprising a walk-in closet, bathroom with double sinks, full tub and shower and plenty of storage space. Balconies are not standard on the ship; however, we found that the sliding doors opened wide enough to give us fabulous views of the scenery outside.

 

Sorrento
Sorrento offers stunning views from its cliffside perch, including one of Mount Vesuvius.

 

Dining: Celebrity Chef Charlie Palmer oversees the restaurants on Seabourn’s ships. Need we say more?

Sailing: The itinerary was to die for. We were on a weeklong cruise that stopped at a port every day except one: Venice, Hvar (Croatia), Bari, Taormina, Lipari, Sorrento and Civitavecchia. Because we were visiting several Mediterranean ports that could easily be explored independently, we didn’t sign up for a lot of shore excursions. Making it all the easier was the fact that Seabourn typically provides complimentary shuttles to the heart of town, often on the half hour. It also sets up comfort stations (with water, towels, umbrellas) at every port, so we never felt we were parting with luxury, no matter where we were.

Unfortunately, strapped for time, we didn’t do a pre- or post-cruise stop, so we flew into Venice, embarked and departed in a glorious sail-away party on deck.

Hvar, Croatia: Our early afternoon arrival in Hvar the following day gave those guests (us) who had just arrived in Europe the day before a chance to catch up on some sleep. When we finally made it out of the suite, we found that all the action was at the deck bar, where the international clientele was casually sipping espressos, champagne and Bloody Marys. Nice Touch: While a formal lunch was served in the restaurant, the staff set up a barbecue on the deck.

Located on an island off mainland Croatia, Hvar is a great walking town where everyone seems happy. It’s ancient, with winding lanes that all meet eventually at a huge plaza, the largest in Dalmatia. Be sure to visit the Cathedral of St. Stephen. Shore excursion options included highlights of the area, the chance to listen to a capella concert at the 15th-century monastery. A note on Hvar: Outside of town there are fields filled with lavender, heather, laurel and rosemary; we were there in late June when the lavender festival was on and the town square was literally filled with the delicate scent.

Bari, the capital of Apulia, is in the region of Italy that’s widely described as “the boot.” For some reason, we thought Bari would be a small village, but it turned out to be a big city divided into the old town and modern area. It’s a university town of half-a-million people with a thriving commercial port. The guide Seabourn gave us to explain the varied stops on the cruise described Bari as “bumptious.” We didn’t know what that meant until we’d spent an hour or two walking around the old town, which comprises a series of medieval streets with buildings where people contentedly raise their families, hang their laundry out the window to dry and drive their loud motor scooters down every twisting, turning alleyway.

You can hear the sound of children everywhere and men on the streets seem to really enjoy life in this great Italian city. Many women in Bari spend their days making ear-shaped pasta known as “orecchiette.” This craft, often executed on the sidewalk outside their kitchens, makes many wives the primary wage earners in their families.

While just watching the people of Bari is fascinating enough, you should make it a point to visit the impressive Norman-Suevian castle and the two Romanesque churches: the Cathedral of St. Sabin and St. Nicholas Basilica. The two churches are very much a part of the city’s culture.

Marina Day: When the Spirit is out at sea, in certain areas, it opens up its marina doors and allows guests to enjoy banana boating, water skiing, kayaking and pedal boating. Marina Day is also a good time to visit the small spa or take a fitness class, like Tai Chi.

Note: An elaborate Afternoon Tea is served daily in the Horizon Lounge with a nice variety of desserts, champagne and cocktails and live piano music.

Taormina in Sicily, a medieval town set high on a cliff, is one of the best Mediterranean cruise stops we’ve visited so far. Even though tourists flood its main boulevard, you get a real sense of people living here. Mothers walk up and down the streets with baby strollers, and cars and motor scooters are everywhere—a fact impossible to ignore as they navigate their way around you at every turn, honking if you take too long to get out of the way.
The town is filled with coffee shops, pastry shops, pizza shops, nightclubs and full-fledged restaurants. After checking out antique shops and beautiful ceramics, we came upon Granduca
, a ristorante-pizzeria garden, which advertised on its doorway pizzas for 10 euros and a sea view. Feeling brave, we descended into a dark, club-like lounge that led to a naturally lit restaurant overlooking the bay. For the next two hours we sat, sharing two different kinds of pizza with a fine, thin crust, a good sauce and excellent cheese, enjoying the sight of the water below us. It started to rain as we were about to leave and so we decided to stay back for a glass of Campari and soda, a cocktail I’d seen on every menu in Italy all week.

To visit Taormina, we ported in Naxos, a former Greek settlement. After tendering in, we waited for the Seabourn shuttle bus, which drove us through a series of man-made tunnels and up a winding mountainside road. On alighting from the bus, we took an elevator up several flights onto the Corso Umberto.

Another amazing thing about stopping at Naxos to visit Taormina is that you can see Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. Put this town on the list of places you must see before you die.

 

Lipari
Lipari is an elegant island filled with shops that sell unique resort wear.


Lipari: This elegant, upscale destination is the largest of the Aeolian Islands in Sicily. It’s a very vibrant village and it reminds us a bit of Mykonos, with fewer stark-white buildings. All the same, it’s an island of cats, just as Mykonos is; you’ll find them everywhere, at the top of long stairways, in a patch of sunlight or in a nook in an old stone building overlooking the sea.

Lipari is filled with shops that sell some very beautiful resort-wear items, so be sure to save some of your travel budget to purchase a caftan or sundress.

Historical sites to see on Lipari: St. Bartolomeo Church and the Aeolian Museum. Good to know: Lipari is close to Stromboli, another active volcano, and day trips abound from its port. We were very fortunate: The Spirit’s captain, Emil Holthe, sailed right up to Stromboli the evening we departed Lipari, hovering around until the volcano finally showed a bit of spark, as we all enjoyed an amazing dinner on deck. Luxury doesn’t get any better than that.

Sorrento, on the Bay of Naples, is a beautiful city set on a cliff.
Although there are amazing day trips available to Pompeii, Amalfi and Positano, we wanted to see Sorrento for itself; so, we set about, wandering around its residential area, the modern area and the old town. Hint: Be sure to stop at Gargiulo Jannuzzi
on the main square, which sells beautiful inlaid wood furniture, pottery and embroidered items, and at Piazza Italia, an H&M-style store with an Italian flair.

One of the greatest surprises of the day was discovering the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria. It’s set right on the main thoroughfare (Piazza Tasso, 34), or, rather, its entry is. As you walk through its noble gates, you’re greeted by beautiful gardens and archways of flowers that lead into an aristocratic estate.

Hint: If you’re just passing through as we were, you might not realize that the hotel overlooks the Bay of Naples.When you finally reach the main building, keep walking through to the other side, where you’ll find yourself on a terrace that provides views that are just stunning, with Mount Vesuvius in the distance. (Yes, that would be the third active volcano we saw on this itinerary.)

As we were leaving, we noticed a walkway lined with olive and orange trees that led to a holistic center set in an old converted greenhouse called La Serra. The literature we picked up said that the spa had just introduced new Salin de Biosel facial treatments that use algae, Dead Sea salts, spices and natural plant extracts. We decided we could definitely spend a few days at this hotel, which simply exudes Old World charm. Have you heard the song, “Return to Sorrento?” I totally get it now.

We disembarked in Civitavecchia (Rome), taking a luxury coach through the countryside where fields and fields of sunflowers were in bloom; an ideal ending for our “Italian Idyll.”

 

Bari
Bari is a city of winding streets filled with families living a true village life.