My sail of the century
Gemma O'Doherty thought cruising would be a floating nightmare until she sipped cappuccino on deck, dined out under the stars and woke up in a new place every day
I'll be honest. The theory that cruising is for the overfed, newly-wed and nearly dead is one I have espoused for some time.
A few years back, I boarded one of the world's mega-ships when it lumbered into Dublin, the sort that feels more like a high-rise apartment block with bingo halls and climbing walls. My instinct was to jump overboard. I knew right there that floating holidays were definitely not for me.
And then I found her. A ship that would leave me smitten with cruising and relieve me of the old-fashioned stereotypes that had blinded me to its unexpected pleasures until now. She was called the Odyssey, and when the tickets for our voyage together landed in my letterbox, encased in leather inside a pretty box tied up with a bow, I knew something special was on the horizon.
Mention the word Seabourn to cruising aficionados and you elicit an instant pang of jealousy and respect. Famed for its painstaking service, meticulous crew and first-rate food, this brand of super-yacht, which is the small-ship luxury wing of US industry giant Carnival Corporation, represents a throwback to the days when cruising was a more sophisticated, less cheesy form of travel. A time before every deck had its own casino and amphitheatre, and you didn't have to use walkie talkies to communicate with your sailing companions.
Despite the stormy economic waters of the times, Seabourn took delivery of its state-of-the-art Odyssey last summer, the first luxury new-build to debut on the seas in more than six years.
A 450-passenger ship with sleek Scandinavian design, spacious suites and stylish decks, it feels more like a floating boutique hotel than a modern-day cruiser.
Mum and I boarded in Venice after a couple of days exploring the city's palazzos and churches. As we stepped onto the red-carpeted gangway and were shown to our gleaming suite, the wear and tear of Italy's most frenetic town began to subside and we soon became experts in the art of idling on our own private deck.
That evening, we set sail from the colourful Giudecca canal, gliding past St Mark's Square, before heading into the quieter waters of the Adriatic. The next morning we would wake up in Croatia, but there was time to explore our new home before then.
From port to starboard, bow to stern, Seabourn takes luxury very seriously. Cabins are solidly comfortable with plenty of space, a perk often lacking in modern cruisers. At one end, there is a walk-in closet with lots of hanging room and a marble bathroom with twin sinks, a full-size tub and separate shower. At the other, a cosy sitting room comes with a flat-screen TV and a serious selection of movies, fully stocked bar and French windows leading to the open balcony.
Warm, rich drapes separate the lounge from the sleeping area, where beds are dressed in soft Egyptian cotton, fluffy duvets and stacks of pillows, plumped up twice a day by your personal steward, who'll even draw your bath if you're feeling too lazy.
We loved coming back here in the evening after a day seeing the sights. The hi-tech soundproofing meant that you couldn't hear a peep from next door and could drift off to sleep in silence to the gentle roll of the waves.
On our first morning, the initial streaks of dawn were lighting up the craggy Dalmatian coastline as the ship prepared to anchor beside the medieval town of Sibenik.
After breakfast -- a feast of fresh fruits and berries, perfectly poached eggs on toast and warm pastries with coffee -- we strolled onto solid ground for a ramble around the cobbled streets and fortress walls of the old town.
The town's crowning glory is the remarkable Cathedral of St James, a World Heritage Site whose most unusual feature is a frieze of dozens of 15th-century faces carved into the exterior walls.
Sibenik is also the perfect base for a day trip to the pristine pools and waterfalls of Krka National Park, where you can swim and hike in one of Croatia's finest landscapes.
After an easy day in the balmy autumn heat, dinner was looming and it was time to dig out the finery. I'm not one for dressing up to the nines on holiday but, to our relief, only one night on the itinerary was billed as formal.
A Floridian neurologist we got to know on the ship had parted with his luggage in Miami, but a crisp black suit and bow tie landed in his suite that morning lined up by housekeeping, who seem to have a knack for knowing what you want even before you do.
The Odyssey has four different places to eat and, unless you're ordering vintage Petrus every night, you never have to reach for your pocket even for a tip, as everything is included in the price. Our favourite place to eat was the laid-back Patio Grill next to the pool, where a team of chefs served up the most succulent steaks, chops and prawns to order hot off the coals.
After dinner, depending on our mood, we would drop into a piano recital, watch a movie with a box of fresh popcorn in the Grand Salon or pick up tips on stargazing with one of the ship's officers on the solitude of Deck 11. Some nights, way out at sea, the captain turns off all the ship's lights so that you can admire the Milky Way in all its glory without a hint of neon marring the view.
Leaving Croatia, we headed south again towards the heel of Italy and the port of Bari, a town utterly unfazed by tourism where old women weave fresh pasta in the street and young men zip through alleyways on Vespas.
Then it was overnight to the first of the Greek islands on our itinerary: Kefallonia, where the book and film Captain Corelli's Mandolin was set. We sailed into the milky turquoise sea off the tiny fishing port of Fiskardo after dawn and spent the morning mingling amid the glamorous yachts, garlic-laden restaurants and trendy boutiques.
We probably should have taken a drive along the nerve-racking stretch of road nearby that leads to Myrtou, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but afternoon tea beckoned back on board, where we gave in to the most sinful confections served on fine bone china and crisp linen.
The following morning, we docked at Katakolon for a ramble through the ancient ruins of Olympia. The previous day, the ship's resident lecturer, Californian Professor of Classics Howard Clarke, had given a talk on the site, which meant we could leave the guide books behind and explore the leafy sanctuary where the Olympics began armed with his useful tips.
Considered the holiest sanctuary of ancient Greece, it was here that the first official games began in 776BC. The site lay under 10 feet of mud until it was excavated in the 1820s, but today you can imagine the games in all their glory as you wander around the remains of a gymnasium, bathhouses and temples and even run a lap of the world's first stadium.
Our next port of call was Gythio, the home of ancient Sparta -- today a fishing village where Orthodox priests and Greek grandmothers dressed in traditional black sit in doorways watching the world go by.
It was distinctly different to our next stop, the chic whitewashed town of Mykonos. We spared our plastic the glamorous boutiques, took a taxi to a nearby beach for a swim and spent the rest of the afternoon over a gorgeous lunch of freshly caught seafood and Greek salad.
Our last night on board had arrived and we decided to ease the pain of leaving with a visit to the ship's spa, the largest of its kind to grace a luxury vessel, complete with waterfall, outdoor treatment areas and waiters bearing herbal teas.
We dozed off in the heated loungers and cooled down in the thalassotherapy pool, before succumbing to the wonders of a detoxifying seaweed wrap. At $213 (€146) a pop it came at a price, but we could feel the benefits long after we were back on terra firma.
By the time we reached Athens, our final destination, we were becoming quite twitchy about leaving our floating home. How would we survive without our morning cappuccino out on deck watching paradise drift by, the excitement of wakening up in a new place every day, dining under the stars at night?
Mum and I are paid-up cruising converts now. You won't find us on board the Oasis of the Seas, the biggest cruise ship ever built which set sail in December with a terrifying 5,000 passengers in tow. But we'll be keeping a close eye on the delivery of Odyssey's stunning new sister, Sojourn, who makes her maiden voyage this summer.
You never know, we might even find ourselves on board.