Cruises: Tempestuous movements on the Med

The Mediterranean weekend
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The Independent Travel

A phalanx of anxious Americans formed an unbroken national chain from the boat to the coach in a desperate bid to secure their seats. Elbows buffeted ribs, trainer trod on trainer and nation swore at nation.

A phalanx of anxious Americans formed an unbroken national chain from the boat to the coach in a desperate bid to secure their seats. Elbows buffeted ribs, trainer trod on trainer and nation swore at nation.

Welcome to the world of the international weekend cruise. We'd just arrived on the Greek island of Mykonos as the sun was setting. It was our first port of call since leaving smoggy Piraeus that morning. And we'd hit our first problem: the wind was up and the captain of the Olympic Countess adjudged that the choppy waves would be too much for the little boats to ferry us ashore.

So we moored up at a sheltered quay further down the coast where buses would transport us to town. The snag was there weren't enough of them, and pandemonium ensued ­ led by this expeditionary force of screaming US geriatrics. After all, time was short, and they'd probably never see Mykonos again. I don't know if everyone made it to town, but I did, and managed a swift gin and tonic, had a glance at the jewellery shops, and a glimpse of the sunset behind the town's white-washed windmills before we set sail for Rhodes.

I was testing out the viability of going away on a weekend cruise to the Aegean. Royal Olympic Cruises' weekend jaunts are certainly not the pinnacle of luxury, but they are a great introduction to cruising.

There are not many weekend breaks in which it's possible to take in a show, gamble in a casino, visit four places in two countries, enjoy a long boozy lunch in a taverna, buy a carpet and still have time for a lie-in each day and a browse through a bagful of books.

We flew out from Heathrow at midday on a Thursday and spent the night in Athens before embarking early the next morning. The Olympic Countess, a former Cunard ship, is rated three-star plus, which means it has many of the facilities of a luxury cruise ship but little of the polish.

We should have known that all would not be well as we left Piraeus. A force eight wind whipped up the sea in great foaming waves, and the water in the swimming pool sloshed about in giant plumes all over the sun-deck. The strength of the wind would later put the mockers on our scheduled docking at Santorini. This time the sheer, volcanic cliffs offered no alternative means of disembarkation and we sailed off.

But, happy to be away, we sat on deck with a salad and a bottle of wine and played "name that island" in the hot May sun as scrubby hills dotted with white churches came into view. I recklessly got windburn as I lost myself in a trashy novel.

Like many older ships, the Olympic Countess has her eccentricities. These include a bizarre system of having to collect a plastic landing tag before going ashore, and then hang it up on a big board when re-embarking. Not surprisingly, passengers were always forgetting to hang up their tags, and each departure was fraught with multilingual pleas on the ship's loudspeaker for people to present themselves at the purser's desk. More modern ships operate a swipe- card system. I am convinced we left a family in Rhodes.

Fellow passengers are always an area of concern when you are on a cruise. This long weekend had attracted a surprisingly mixed crowd, which included Greek families, a large and glamorous crowd from Venezuela, a smattering of German and French couples, a few British and some large American tour groups. The passenger manifest revealed that there were 27 nationalities on board. Dinner was served according to a fixed seating plan. We had asked for a young, lively table. How, then, did we end up dining with two matching pairs of name-tagged Americans on a religious tour of Europe? They were polite but glum in that travel-weary way of people who have seen one temple too many and no longer care if it's Tuesday, Athens or Greek theme-night.

Rhodes, the next day, was less of a rush than Mykonos. Keen to see the Acropolis at Lindos, we booked a shore excursion. It turned out to be a very thorough guided tour of the ruins, which overlooked a dramatic, curving bay far below. Having regaled us with the story of how St Paul the Apostle landed here, the guide looked crestfallen when a member of the religious tour group piped up: "Say, are we talking BC or AD?"

I could also have done without the obligatory stop at the pottery on the way back. I skulked in the dusty car park while the other passengers wandered around a showroom bedecked with truly hideous black lacquer-ware, embossed with golden Greek gods. It was time to get away. I had a quiet word with our guide, and he recommended a taverna just inside the vast, medieval walls. It had a sunny terrace and did a fine line in red snapper and retsina.

On Sunday, we woke up in the Turkish port of Kusadasi, far too late for the 6am shore excursion to Ephesus. Kusadasi lacks both charm and beaches but does have a decent souk, where I found a beautiful silk kilim in cream and burnt orange among all the designer T-shirts and fake Louis Vuitton luggage shops.

The final port of call was Patmos, where there were more jewellery shops and more ouzo to drink in the quiet, sunlit square of Scala. Now I really was relaxing. After just three days, mellowness had set in.

The sharp crack of fireworks, shouting and bell-ringing suddenly broke the mood. A jubilant wedding procession appeared out of a narrow side-street, complete with mandolin players, singers, old ladies in black and a bride in a white, frothy dress. Despite the reminder of our floating hotel dwarfing the scene from the quayside, I felt quietly satisfied that our short perambulation had at last touched a fragment of the real Greece.

Sue Bryant is editor of 'Cruise Traveller' magazine, which launches in August. Getting there

Olympic Countess and her three sister ships operate the four-day Aegean Discovery Cruise most weekends until November this year. An inside cabin costs from £568 including flights, the cruise, all meals and on-board entertainment. The 18,000-ton Olympic Countess has a swimming pool and Jacuzzi, spacious sun decks, casino, nightclub, show lounge, beauty salon and shops and carries 814 passengers. Telephone Royal Olympic Cruises on 020-7734 0805.

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