Not quite the Med
Silversea has added a number of fascinating Black Sea ports to its European cruise program
A SMILING, white-gloved waiter hands out glasses of French bubbles as soon as we arrive on board. The grit and grime of Istanbul instantly melts away. The indulgence has begun.
The Italian-based Silversea line’s latest ship, Silver Spirit, is plying the waters of the Black Sea, exploring some of the region’s less-discovered coastlines, such as the seaside playground of Yalta, where Russian billionaires party in summer.
Silversea is not the only cruise company with Black Sea itineraries. Experienced passengers are begging for more exotic European ports of call and the 34,000-tonne Silver Spirit has come up trumps, docking in ports billed as too small for many of the megaliners.
Our seven-night round trip departs from the old port of Karakoy, Istanbul’s main cruise ship terminal, positioned smack where the Golden Horn flows into the Bosphorus.
Silver Spirit has 376 crew aboard cosseting 463 passengers, including an angus cattle baron hailing from Queensland and a Melbourne-based dentist.
There’s a bottle of Italian sparkling wine glistening in a silver, ice-filled bucket in our veranda suite and a little box of Belgian chocolates awaiting their fate.
Each suite has its own butler; ours is the tall and goodlooking Chendu from Kochi in southwest India. Decked out in tails, he produces a choice of Bulgari, Neutrogena or Ferragamo soaps, shampoos and shower gels; he has won my heart.
Passengers can drink and dine in various restaurants and intimate bars on Silver Spirit, including Japanese, modern Italian or French style at the Relais & Chateauxaccredited Le Champagne. There’s DIY tabletop cooking poolside with ‘‘hot rock’’ fillet steaks, lamb chops or stacks of prawns. Or order something as down-home as an inroom Tex-Mex turkey burger or as kilojoule-conscious as a strawberry, salmon and spinach salad.
At Silver Spirit’s signature The Restaurant, the pick of the daily-changing menu could be black angus beef tartare, followed by lobster bisque, fillet of Atlantic salmon or a filet mignon with choice of sides and sauces. Complimentary wines are matched to each course.
Some days there are cooking demonstrations led by the ship’s young Brazilian executive chef, Guillermo Muro, showing the making (and offering tastings) of a dreamy truffle and mushroom risotto or conducting a tour of the ship’s gleaming galley.
No matter what the nature of an onboard tour or activity, they all have a happy ending as a smiling whitegloved waiter offers glasses of sparkling wine to send passengers happily on their way.
However, the food and drink is not so bountiful when we disembark in Sevastopol, one of Silver Spirit’s first ports of call.
Described by one American passenger as ‘‘sad and hard-scrabble’’, this Ukrainian port city is crowded with teenagers hoping to con tourists into paying for photos with their pet rabbits or pairs of battered-looking white or brown doves.
Portside, elderly women sell bunches of lavender. Jars of Nescafe, Coffee-Mate and Nutella plus boxes of Ferrero Rocher chocolates are so prized they are padlocked behind glass doors in the classier supermarkets.
Russian produce, ranging from potato chips to vodka, stands proudly on the shelves.
The mood picks up further along the coast in the cosmopolitan port city of Odessa, otherwise known as the Pearl of the Black Sea. Here you can worship at a new marble cathedral, stroll wide, tree-lined boulevards or visit the local markets for curios such as rabbit fur hats complete with Soviet hammer-and-sickle badges for as little as $22.
There’s a specialist Ukrainian chocolate shop called Lviv that serves silver bowls of vanilla ice cream beneath layers of thick white chocolate, and ridiculously cheap chocolate confections with names such as Magnifica and Whirligig.
The boulevards of Odessa, including Deribasovskaya Street, feature top fashion brands such as Karen Millen and DKNY; there are home-schooled opera singers in its parks and frolicking pet dogs. Ascantily dressed wedding party poses for pictures, but there’s also an air of violence simmering just beneath the surface. After legging it down the city’s famous Potemkin steps (built between 1837 and 1841) in 35C heat, it’s bliss to reboard Silver Spirit, where Chendu has thoughtfully filled my suite’s marble bath with foaming hot water and rose petals.
Of the three Ukrainian ports on the Silver Spirit itinerary, Yalta is the show stopper. With abundant oleanders
Silver Spirit’s seven-day Black Sea round trip departs from Istanbul