AS gondolas glide among vintage speedboat taxis, the modern cruise liner looms large above all. Like a large, white palace set adrift in Venice, the ship floats along the lagoon toward the sea.
From the top deck, it’s an unbeatable view across the antique city’s jumble of terracotta roofs, dome-topped marble churches and bell towers that tilt with old age. Two thousand passengers are tightly packed around the edges, surveying the lively scene below. Cruise ship entertainment doesn’t get much better than departing Venice as it settles into sunset.
The curtain is coming down, though, on one of cruising’s best spectacles. New laws are set to ban the biggest vessels from Giudecca Canal next year, amid concerns about environmental damage or disaster. This means 2014 is the final season for ships exceeding 96,000 tonnes to be permitted the pleasure of passing the Piazza San Marco.
Peering down from my position on the helipad of Celebrity Silhouette, I have a better vantage point than the hundreds of people staring back at me. Better sounds, too, as Madame Butterfly is played over the bow’s loudspeaker. The dramatic Italian opera cuts the perfect soundtrack to this almost-theatrical event.
Smaller ships will continue to be allowed into the Venetian lagoon, under the government’s new rules. This means the 91,000-tonne Celebrity Constellation, measuring 294m long, will be welcomed, while our 122,000-tonne, 319m Celebrity Silhouette will not.
Cruise companies insist their ships are harmless to Venice’s structure, but the industry – through the Cruise Lines International Association – has agreed to support plans for an alternative route.
“Venice is one of the most breathtaking ports to sail in or out of,” says the Silhouette’s master, Captain Emmanouil Alevropolous. “When the daylight comes up, you look out and think it’s not real. The city is like an art piece in the morning.”
I make a mental note to set my alarm for 5am on the last night of the voyage. In the meantime, our itinerary includes other destinations in Turkey and Greece.
I sign up for a shore excursion to see the ruins of Ephesus, a short drive from the port of Kusadasi. Partially destroyed by earthquake in 614, this pilgrimage site serves as an open-air archaeological museum dating back to 10BC.
Our local guide shows us a section excavated the week prior, as well as a gladiators’ graveyard, 22-room brothel, 24,000-seat theatre and the grand Library of Celsus.
In Corfu, I’m keen to dive into the deep blue ocean that has surrounded us for days. I strike gold at a bar with a private beach, chill-out music and showers. Swimming in the Mediterranean is such shivery bliss, best followed by a cold Mythos beer.
In Mykonos, I have one thing on my mind: Greek food. After strolling the island’s dazzling white maze of shops, I choose a waterfront restaurant where the waves slap against the balcony. The feast includes seafood, stuffed vine leaves and salads. Meanwhile, an old pelican appears on the terrace, poses for tourists’ photos and then wanders into the kitchen.
Dinner is taken on board the ship at Qsine. “Disco shrimp” comes in a dish with a flashing light; a mezze selection is presented in a drawer with 12 compartments and the sushi lollipops look too cute to eat.
Celebrity Cruises has also overhauled its evening entertainment. Moving away from the cheesy and stopping short of sleazy is the new Sin City, held at midnight, with adults-only comedy and burlesque.
Another addition is Liquid Lounge pool parties, where mermaids lie around the solarium while a DJ transforms the space into a nightclub. Pop-up performers also roam the ship, launching into dance routines or acrobatic acts.
On the last night, at the Martini Bar, our group orders three of the six-cocktail samplers. The bartender prepares the 18 mixtures and lines up 18 glasses, then joins all the shakers together, like a long silver snake, and somehow pours them simultaneously without spilling a drop. Seriously impressive.
Fortunately, the martinis don’t shake our resolve to stir at 5am for one of Celebrity Silhouette’s last returns to Venice. Rugged up in warm clothes, we head to the top deck and snuggle up against the railing on the starboard side. Standing with the dark, salty breeze in our hair, we wait for the first twinkles of the city.
Only a dozen other passengers have come out for the occasion, cradling cups of coffee and cameras in cold hands. Usually buzzing all day, the canal-side promenade is creepily silent, empty of people, and the tightly packed buildings appear as vacant facades.