Sunday 23 October 2016

Ship of Dreams: Sailing with my sister from Sicily to Siena

Mediterranean Cruise

Published 20/04/2015 | 02:30

Holland Ameica's MS Noordam
Holland Ameica's MS Noordam
The deep blue sea: The romantically pretty town of Cefalu, in Sicily, is dominated by it’s magnificent 12th-century, twin-towered cathedral
Shore leave: Madeleine Keane and her sister Jane explore the shore
View of Naples, Castel Sant Elmo and San Martino from the sea.
Chateau D'If near Marseilles

Madeline Keane and her sister take a Holland America cruise in the Med, and find an easy and enchanting way to travel.

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'They said she was a murderer. They said she killed her sister.'

I'm in The Chocolate Lounge in T2, one of my favourite places - as it signifies I'm through check in and security and (often) on my way somewhere wonderful.

It's a dark dawn, and I'm heading off on an 11-day cruise of the Mediterranean with my elder sister Jane. She's just shown me the tag line on the novel she's reading. It's an interesting start, and seeing as we're going to be in close confines for the first time in many years, I suggest a safe phrase in case fights break out: we agree on 'man overboard.'

At Rome's Fiumicino airport the impeccable organisation required to run a ship containing over 2,500 souls becomes apparent - I count half a dozen Holland America reps greeting and directing us. We board a bus to Civitavecchia and all at once, there it is: our ship of dreams, its immense navy and white bulk rising from the glistening Italian waters.

Located on the upper verandah, our stateroom is compact, comfortable and, in civilised fashion, stocked with champagne, chocolate, fresh fruit and Elemis bath products. After a mandatory safety drill off we set. Feeling grimy after the rigours of travelling, I go up to the Lido deck for a swim and watch the hills of Rome recede from view.

Madeleine Keane IMG.jpg
Madeleine and her sister, Jane

It's a big boat and though well-mapped, we have to ask a security guard to escort us to the crow's nest for the welcome cocktail reception. In days of yore, security was usually needed to escort us out, observes my sister (in jest, obviously.)

We wake the next morning to the announcement that the MS Noordam has docked in Naples and it's exciting to run out onto our balcony where we both catch our breath at the sight of this historic and fascinating waterfront.

Taking a shore excursion, we start with coffee in Gambrinus, the famous tea room and Neapolitan institution which sits at the end of the main shopping boulevard. However it's the side streets, hung with washing, that draw us with their hints of menace and intrigue. We stop at a tiny authentic eatery - Pizza e Baba - after all it would be a crime not to eat pizza in the home of its invention and ours are memorable.

Back on board we visit the cabaret for a night of music which features in its repertoire The Wind Beneath my Wings, Danny Boy and You Raise Me Up before seguing with tragic inevitability into Riverdance. We escape to the Northern Lights disco for a quick bop at the Abba tribute night.

The waterfront at Naples

Another dawn, another destination.

Today, it's Sicily's capital Palermo from where we take an hour's drive along the coast to the romantically pretty town of Cefalu: with its narrow cobbled streets selling a mix of ceramics, soaps and limoncello, it reminds me of Sorrento without the crowds.

Cefalu's magnificent cathedral boasts two towers (one representing the power of the church, the other the power of the king) and a sumptuous interior of gold mosaic fashioned by 12th century Byzantine artists. That evening, inspired by our setting, we opt for room service and watch The Godfather.

As my sister insists on informing our fellow travellers, we are cruise virgins, so we're fascinated by our introduction to this world. For example, on this vessel there are two doctors (female), four male nurses, an infirmary and sadly, a person-sized fridge: with the age profile, passings do occur. Mass is celebrated daily and there's also Sabbath service, LGBT get-togethers and daily AA meetings.

You can try everything from bridge and blackjack to Suduko and the art of flower arranging, there are art exhibitions and computer lessons. Our cruise also features guests artists and chefs, shore excursions and lectures and a daily movie based on our port of call (in Monte Carlo for example, Grace of Monaco is screened.)

There's a gym with a wide variety of classes from pilates to yoga and a spa which though pricey is very good - a superb hot stone massage is really blissful after which I rejoin my sister on deck, order a margarita and think how very lucky I am.

Cefalu, Sicily

Despite firm avowals, we never once darken the door of the gym but do a five kilometre walk - a brisk hike nine times around the ship's deck.

In fact, on this all-singing, all-dancing vessel you can even raise money for charity by doing said 5km walk; if reality shows and/or ballroom dancing floats your boat (as it were), not only can you take part in their talent show, you can win a prize. Of a cruise.

There are two evenings designated formal dressing and most guests don their finest: men in tuxedos and medals, some of the ladies in full length gowns and diamonds. Such glamour demands their premier restaurant, the Pinnacle Grill and off Bulgari plates and finest Frette linen, we enjoy a retro but delicious repast of prawn cocktail, steak tartare, filet mignon, baked Alaska and chocolate soufflé.

We've done four cities in as many days so we take full advantage of a sea day - simply swimming, reading and generally relaxing before enjoying Champagne and canapés with the captain and his senior officers, followed by pasta and vino at the one of the ship's specialty restaurants, Italian bistro Canalettos.

Aptly the next morning we wake in the port of Livorno, gateway to glorious Tuscany. Plenty of passengers pick up coaches to Florence and Pisa. My first choice of the Cinque Terre is cancelled due to bad weather so I head instead to Siena, visiting the beautiful basilica of St Catherine and the celebrated Palio.

A farmhouse lunch of local organic salamis, cheeses and rustic breads is followed by a visit to San Gimignano, known as the Manhattan of Tuscany for its many towers. A visit there to the Collegiate Cathedral with its exquisite frescoes is a must, as is a gelato from world champion ice cream makers Dondolis.

I adore falling asleep in Italy and breakfasting the next morning in the shade of Monaco's casino, from where we take the local bus along the corniche, through enchanting Beaulieu and Villefranche before stepping off at Nice where we sit for a while on the Promenade des Anglais, and paddle in the balmy Baie des Anges before taking in vieux Nice. We cap a delightful day with late lunch (salade nicoise of course) at the vivid Marche aux Fleurs.

Chateau D'If near Marseilles

Our penultimate place is Marseille, France's second biggest city after Paris and portal to the Luberon. Today's tour will take us through three Provençal villages.

We start with the handsome hamlet of Lourmarin and onwards then to Roussillon, famous for its ochre quarry: with its dramatic planes and cliffs shading from terracotta to peach, lit by the midday sun, it's a sight to behold. Past plane trees, fields of lavender, rows of vines and sleepy villages, golden in hue, perched on hilltops we travel to our final stop of Gourdes, officially known as One of the Most Beautiful Villages in France.

Our impressive local guide also informs us that Saint Madeleine is the patron saint of Provence, a fact that makes me very happy.

So far, so fabulous. In fact one of the best vintages is left till last. Our final stop and port of disembarkation is Barcelona. Despite visiting Spain countless times, I've never been to the capital of Catalonia and I fall madly in love.

Our affair is as brief as it is intense and there's time only for a whistlestop tour taking in just a handful of highlights - Las Ramblas, the Barri Gotic, Gaudi's unfinished, staggering masterpiece the Sagrada Familia, Casa Batllo, Park Guell and the Fundacio Joan Miro.

Some of our gang have snagged coveted tickets for a Barca game (the city's football team have passionate followers the world over) but we're happy with a final dinner. Over farewell post-prandials, a widow from Vermont tells us, "I'm seventy, it's an easy way to travel," to which both sisters emphatically add, and an absolutely enchanting one.

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Getting there

Madeleine's autumn voyage was an 11-night Mediterranean Explorer cruise with the five-star Holland America Line. A similar 11-night cruise onboard 1,964-guest MS Zuiderdam departing Civitavecchia (Rome) on 19th June 2015 and visiting Naples, Palermo, Sardinia, Livorno (Florence/Pisa), Corsica, Monte Carlo, St Tropez and ending with an overnight stay onboard in Barcelona will start from £899 per person (cruise only) and £1,189 per person including scheduled flights from London airports and transfers between airport and ship. Other departure dates available.

For more information call 0044 843 374 2300 or visit

Take three

Italian Islands

Our cruise also takes in the island of Corsica where we dock in Calvi, drink cappuccinos at chic Quai Landry and walk up the historic citadel to view the reputed birth place of Christopher Columbus, attacked by Nelson in 1794. Another day we explore Cagliari, Sardinia's capital which has a faded but dignified elegance and wonderful shopping - big sis buys me a stunning leather handbag. I recommend too a climb of Bastion St Remy.

Cruise control

Holland America Line started life in 1873 as a Dutch steamship company bringing immigrants from Rotterdam for a new life in the United States. Exactly a century later they built their first purpose-built passenger ship and started Carribean cruises. Bought by the American Carnival corporation in 1989, the fleet travels from Alaska to Australia. Our bateau displayed a bust of Queen Beatrix and served Dutch afternoon tea.

Ahoy there, authors!

The Luberon has rich offerings for literary lovers. It's home to Peter Mayle, the advertising guru who wrote A Year in Provence, and a place so beloved by the Algerian creator of L'Etranger, Albert Camus, that he's buried there. Samuel Beckett stayed near Roussillon during World War 2. And a mile outside the port of Marseille we spy the Chateau d'If, immortalised by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo and visited by Mark Twain.

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