Tauck takes Ponant’s small, luxury ships to Croatia and Montenegro.
Tauck, the New England-based touring company, has had more than 90 years experience organizing escorted trips to more than 70 countries. So it was no surprise that its evolution and expansion from luxury river cruising to small ship ocean cruising has been such a success.
As it does with its river cruises, Tauck leases small, intimate ocean ships from several companies, mainly the French line, Ponant. As usual with Tauck, virtually all extras are included and all tours are accompanied by a team of dedicated directors who work closely with small groups of guests and find the best local guides.
Our itinerary, along the west coasts of Croatia and Montenegro, began in Venice aboard the newest vessel in Ponant’s growing fleet. Le
Lyrial, more like an elegant luxury yacht than a traditional cruise ship, features a stylish, modern interior with muted color tones of cream, tan, and grey. Our deluxe cabin was 200 square feet and very comfortable, with a sophisticated TV/movie system, excellent bedside reading lights, and high-end Hermès toiletries in the bathroom.
Along with 215 fellow guests, we began our cruise by sailing slowly along the Grand Canal of Venice with the iconic buildings of St. Mark’s Square glowing in the sunset. We had already spent a day touring Venice (including a surprise Tauck gondola ride with Italian tenor accompaniment) followed by a boat ride to the Venetian Lagoon islands of Murano, famous for its glass, and Burano, known for its colorful fishermen’s houses and exquisite lace. But we were looking ahead to a week on the Dalmatian Coast filled with historic medieval communities, stunning topography, thriving vineyards, and ancient Roman landmarks.
Luxury on the Adriatic
Before our first stop the next morning in Croatia, we had time to fully explore Le Lyrial – not difficult with its compact size. Panoramic lounges were spacious and comfortable (one includes a small library) and the large, comfortable theater had great sight lines. The resident troupe of six dancers presented several complex and entertaining productions during our week at sea. There were two main dining areas – the major restaurant on Deck Two and the more casual buffet area at the rear of Deck Six (including many tables by the outdoor pool). Food, in the French style, was usually excellent and the fine complimentary wines at lunch and dinner were of high quality. The cheeses, both French and local, were especially good. The chefs made a point of seeking fresh fish in several of the Adriatic ports and we remember one memorable lunch of very fresh sea bream, grilled whole. Delicious.
Croatia and Montenegro are two of the seven nations that constituted the former Republic of Yugoslavia. The region is a complicated crossroads between historically Christian and historically Islamic territories. Some tensions continue in the region but tourism is important to the economy and we always felt welcome.
A major benefit of touring with Tauck is the wide range of tours available in each port — all complimentary. Our first stop was the ancient walled city of Korčula, Croatia, reputed to be the childhood home of Marco Polo. Guests could ould choose among a city walking tour, hiking on nearby mountain ntain trails, or kayaking in crystalline waters. With our interest in fd food and d wine, we chose a visit to the 100-year-old Bire family estate and winery. It was our first taste of Croatian wines and we were impressed, especially with the wine made from plavac mali grapes, related to California zinfandel. This wine tasting, and most of the others we enjoyed, were accompanied by traditional prosciutto, fresh bread, olives, and cheese.
Before we returned to the ship, Tauck surprised everyone with one of its unannounced but very special “extras.” At a local theater, the community band accompanied a traditional 15th-century moreška sword dance with 20 or more red- and black-clad warriors fighting over the affection of a maiden.
Dubrovnik is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet. Its well-preserved stonewall, ramparts, and cobbled streets were started in the 10th century and are key reasons why UNESCO designated the whole city a World Heritage Site. Tauck offers several walking tours but also includes a cable car ride for a splendid overview, more kayaking, a visit to local villages and wineries plus the Maritime Museum. We were very keen to include a visit to the Karaman Winery, winner of several major international awards, especially for its malvasia wine.
To reach the harbor city of Kotor in Montenegro (literally, “Black Mountain”), Le Lyrial sailed several miles up a picturesque fjord that could be mistaken for one in Scandinavia. The fortified town of 14,000 has kept its Middle Ages feel and is a delight to explore by foot. Several boat trips were offered by Tauck (including one to the famous Our Lady of the Rocks island church) but we chose the “Gastronomy Experience.” Just eight of us visited a local home where the proprietor (a cookbook author) and her husband prepared a traditional local meal of prosciutto, cheese, and sardines, followed by potato gnocchi (she showed us how to make it) and tender beef. An excellent local red wine accompanied the gnocchi and beef. A soft meringue dessert with forest berries was followed by home made cherry brandy and grappa. Our host even sang us a traditional song as she played the piano.
Before we left Montenegro, a troupe of folk dancers local to the Boka came aboard in elaborately embroidered costumes and entertained us in the ship’s theater. Another extra touch that makes Tauck so special.
Heading north again, we stopped at the long, slim island of Hvar, Croatia, first established as a Greek colony around 385 B.C. It remains a center for lavender and several stands are set up to sell the fragrant product. The village of Stari Grad was full of interesting shops and roving entertainers (including one with an unusual goatskin bagpipe).
On our last day, we stopped at two communities on the northern Croatian peninsula of Istria. The huge, first- century Roman amphitheater in Pula was remarkable, a slightly smaller version of the Colosseum. It once held 23,000 Romans and is still used for concerts, including comparatively recent performances by Pavarotti and Leonard Cohen.
The peninsula is also a major source of olive oil, so we visited the Chiavalon family farm, producer of some of the world’s best olive oil. We naturally had an extensive tasting of the fresh, grassy, and spicy oil. It was so good, we couldn’t resist buying a bottle.
Our last stop was in the quaint town of Rovinj, a 2,000-year- old community with tangles of cobbled streets that felt very Italian. In fact, because of its close proximity to Venice ( just across a narrow part of the Adriatic) the village has two official languages, Croatian and Italian. The area is renowned for its truffles – black truffles were in season – and one Tauck tour took guests on a truffle hunt. We’re told it was outstanding.
Our tour included Croatia’s best-known sparkling wine producer, Misal, with bubbly made the traditional French way from malvasia and pinot noir grapes. We were amazed at the quality of its brut, sec, and semi-sec varieties. Along with the other guests on this tour, it gave us a chance to make a final
cruise.• toast to Tauck and a remarkable Dalmatian Coast
Outside Marco Polo's house
Le Lyrial in Korčula
View from Mount Srd, Dubrovnik