Celebrity Equinox: A cruise of a lifetime on the Mediterranean
Holiday on the high seas
Can't decide on one destination for your holiday? A Mediterranean cruise might just be the ticket, writes Mark Evans.
The Mediterranean is the playground of choice for most of us - but the choice of holidays can be bewildering.
A week on the French Riviera? A city break to Rome or Barcelona? A bucket-and-spade chillout in Majorca, or a trip around the rolling hills of Tuscany?
Taking in such a disparate array of destinations would take most of us years, and at major cost. But it's possible to see them all - plus a few rarely visited spots - in a week.
So why lug the baggage around, when you can have the destination come to you, courtesy of a cruise ship? The beauty of life onboard is that it's free of stress, and once you embark you leave the rush of city life behind, and let others do the work - baggage, dining, entertainment - for you.
Celebrity Cruises is renowned as a step up from your typical cruise. It's high-end, without being high-cost, elegant without being stuffy.
Think Four Seasons at sea.
Its Equinox ship (above), one of the cutting-edge Solstice class, is one of the line's finest. Flying into Rome, we spent the night in the Eternal City before the short trip to Rome's nearest port, Civitavecchia. The organised chaos of Italy's capital - Vespa-choked streets, baking heat and a lot of foot-slogging to see the sights - gave way to a sense of calm as we set foot on Equinox.
Staterooms set the scene for a classy week on the Mediterranean. Aim for a balcony room (perfect for catching the rays and watching the gentle waves with a glass of wine), but all rooms are excellent with state-of-the-art flatscreen TV programming (with onboard map of your voyage), plush furnishings and a comfy double bed.
The biggest criticism of ships is that non-cruisers worry they'll feel cramped. There's not a chance - Equinox is enormous, with dozens of bars, restaurants and entertainment venues, but you'll get your bearings pretty sharpish.
My favourite spot is the Lawn Club, on the top deck. Okay, you're sailing by Italy, but this is pure Hamptons: croquet, golf or bowls on the lawn, plenty of seating for sun-lovers, or even a picnic in the great outdoors (and yes, it is real grass).
Equinox is all about one thing: getting pampered.
First night, we hit what became our favourite watering hole, the Martini Bar, for a pre-dinner drink. It's a lively spot, and there's no danger of your martini going warm - the bar itself is covered in ice!
It's handily placed beside the main Silhouette dining room, an elegant spot that showcases this ship's crowning attraction: its cuisine. From gluten-free, lactose-free and no-sugar-added options right up to exquisitely rich dishes such as lamb chops provençal, Cornish game hen and sesame-encrusted seared tuna.
And if none of the specials take your fancy, there's always the reliable menu of escargot, lobster bisque, steak, chicken and crème brûlée every night. It's a hive of activity, great for people-watching - especially as the days move on and you watch your fellow diners' waistlines expand.
A ship like this is all about choice, though: if you want a less formal experience, head to the Oceanview Café and stack up your tray.
If you want to dine on something extra special, a small fee will give you a myriad of choices. Murano is the upmarket hotspot for French/continental fine dining; Tuscan Grille is a classy northern Italian steakhouse for rib-eye fans; and Silk Harvest is the perfect spicy spot for Asian-fusion foodies.
Shopping on board the Equinox
Our Western Med itinerary showcased some of Europe's most beautiful spots with our first port of call, Livorno, a quick train hop from Florence and Pisa. Livorno itself is a smart-looking spot and it's worth spending a bit of time checking out the Italian fashions when you visit.
A full day at sea, after a vivid exploration of Tuscany, will allow you to explore the ship more - catch a show in the stunning Equinox Theatre, or log on at the iLounge, where you can buy Apple hardware or learn some new computing skills.
The next stop is the French Riviera. The port of Villefranche is beautiful enough in itself for hanging around, but Nice and Monaco also beckon, so get up and out early.
Of all the wonders we encountered, the highlight of the trip for us was Corsica. We docked in Ajaccio and were taken aback by the welcome, particularly for Irish visitors. It's not an island on my travel brochures, but it should be. Corsica is certainly one of those places which must be visited again - for a week or two next time.
A day later and we're back in Italy, this time the island of Sardinia.
Majorca - final port of call
Our advice? Move on quickly from the workman-like port of Olbia, and head for the beach. The denizens of Olbia did their best to welcome the tourists but this is a backwater with little to offer in terms of shops or eateries
The last time we sailed with Celebrity, the port of call in Sardinia was Cagliari, which is a much more vibrant town, full of great restaurants, a bustling main square and typical Sardinian welcome. Mainland Italy is not great for sand and surf, but the island makes up for it, with beautifully clear seas and soft hot sands underfoot.
Another day, another island - and country. We docked at Palma, the jewel in the crown of Majorca, and then Barcelona, where a spot of relaxing at the marina and a cathedral visit made it the perfect finale.
You pack a lot in on a Celebrity Cruise, but it doesn't take a lot out of you.
What to pack
Formal nights divide cruise-goers - we either love or hate dressing up. Why not go for it - pack a tux/decent suit and cocktail dress for at least one night of glamour on the high seas. Chinos and even jeans are fine for other nights, and don't forget the shorts and runners for all that sightseeing.
Hit the gym
Why? The average passenger puts on a few pounds each week. With all those food choices, you should try to burn off a few calories here and there. The Equinox's gym is high-tech, with all the running machines and weights you'll want. Classes like yoga, Pilates, bootcamp and Zumba are also available.
Visit the spa
Why? Chances are you're going to ignore my advice and steer well clear of the gym. So pretend you're working out with a trip to the onboard spa. Get a facial, get a massage, or just hit the hot tub. If the weather turns bad, there's also a beautiful indoor solarium pool, again full of hot tubs.
Why? The ship has two main shopping areas - the high-end galleria boutiques (think Michael Kors, Armani and Versace) and the less pricey Boulevard, where you can pick up alcohol and cigarettes at duty-free prices. Don't forget to bring some cash for the ports too.
Get me there
The best upcoming deal for Equinox is westbound - flying from Dublin to Fort Lauderdale, with one night pre-cruise in a four-star hotel and 10-night Caribbean cruise with all meals and entertainment. It costs from €1,449pps for two adults sharing an interior room (November-January departures), but gratuities are extra.
Still want the Med?
Try 12 nights onboard Celebrity Constellation this September or October from €1,399pps. It includes return flights with Turkish Airlines and takes in Istanbul, Kusadasi, the Greek islands and Dubrovnik in Croatia.
Both deals with Independent Travel - call (01) 539 7770. Book here.