Not quite the Med

Sil­versea has added a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing Black Sea ports to its Euro­pean cruise pro­gram

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - LISA ALLEN

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

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