Italian Treasures

by Ilona Kauremszky

cover story - Cruise Magazine

ROME — I am on the Crystal Symphony luxury liner in search of Italian treasures as we cruise past the myriads of coves and inlets along Italy’s west coast.

Earlier in the day my beau Stephen and I were whisked from the palatial setting of Rome’s historic Hotel Eden, one of the leading hotels of the world to Civitavecchia, the departure port city for our seven-day cruise.

We chose this fine 50,000-ton gal for a few reasons. Last April Crystal Cruises completed a $12-million overhaul; the shipping company’s most extensive interior refurbishment to date that allots guests the highest guest-to-space ratio at sea. So you can be guaranteed sheer seclusion while only steps away from the ship’s vibrant social scene. In addition, readers of Travel + Leisure and Conde Nast Traveler magazines in 2004 rated Crystal Cruises as the “World’s Best Large Ship Cruise Line” for an unprecedented ninth consecutive year plus we were interested in discovering the allure of the Italian Rivera made famous by Roman emperors, European princes and Hollywood jet setters.

True to form upon arrival Victor, our discreet personal butler escorted us to our penthouse suite complete with balcony, lounge chairs and uber chic interiors. Amid crystal light fixtures, crisp Egyptian cotton sheets, honeyed inlaid wooden cabinetry and cool sage and rich burgundy accents, a calm “serenity now” mood easily transpired as I glanced inside the ultra luxe bathroom decked out with Jacuzzi, separate shower laced with Aveda products while a bucket of chilled GH Mumm Rouge Champagne eagerly awaited us.

Since we were on the prowl in the playground of the rich and famous our luxury suite served as the perfect introduction. “Please know I am here for anything you wish,” replied our white-gloved Bulgarian who turned in his tuxedo tails and disappeared.

Aboard the Crystal Symphony there are tasteful touches of musical motifs such as Mozart Tea Afternoons and the Starlite Club. I also discovered the 545-man crew unlike other cruise ships emphasizes a “family friendly” atmosphere where the staff is nearly two to one for each guest, offering warm smiles and assistance anytime.

On our voyage we had our own celebrity line up. Captain John Økland, a Norwegian, previously captained the Crystal Harmony before taking over this ship. The energetic Executive Chef, Harald Gramm, co-penned a Crystal cookbook and Crystal Cove pianist Joe Fos was discovered by Liberace with whom Fos performed a duet with in San Diego years ago. Stephanie Edwards, a PGA teaching professional, offered golf lessons while international dance champions Tony and Margaret Long taught ballroom dancing. I particularly loved the Phantom of the Opera diva Broadway vocalist Dale Kristien who graced the Galaxy Lounge stage.

The cruise had only just begun.

A typical Crystal Symphony voyage takes about 10-14 days but we were on the shorter one-week version perfect for those who are short on time but still wish to see the world.

From the moment you set foot on the 940-guest vessel, the accent is on detail, personal service, state-of-the-art amenities, spacious rooms and the grand pageantry of cuisine. With four dining venues, the casual Lido Restaurant on the 11th floor for breakfast buffets beneath umbrellas, the Asian fusion of Jade Garden using inspirational dishes from Chef Wolfgang Puck, the Venetian decorated Prego for rich Italian cuisine or the ship’s signature classic, the regal Crystal Dining Room, one thing is definite. There’s never a shortage of choice on the menus.

On our first night at The Gala Welcome amongst tuxedos, pearls and sky high Manolo Blahniks we were ushered into the 50s inspired Starlite Club for medleys, hoers d’ouvres and flutes of champagne. Darwin our server mysteriously knew my name and so it went for the rest of our journey.

We dined in the Crystal Dining Room where Riedel crystal and fine Villeroy and Boch China were set. I chose the Chef’s suggestions of sautéed jumbo shrimp, northern crab soup with brie cheese followed by broiled fresh Norwegian salmon fillets, a homage to our Norwegian captain as we sailed north passing the isle of Corsica, Napoleon’s birthplace and into the Ligurian Sea.

Our first stop was the picturesque seaside village of Portofino where weathered buildings in shades of sunflower, peach and pale blue stood against the brightly bobbing fishing boats “gozzi”. The Romans named this coastal sanctuary the “Port of Dolphins.” The tiny enclave became the exclusive stomping ground of wealthy and aristocratic Italians.

In the 20s it was considered “the” fashionable place to be. Baron von Mumm of champagne fame, screen legends Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and later Frank Sinatra were known to frequent this part of the Italian Riviera. In fact, Old Blue Eyes’ song “Love in Portofino” is still a favorite here.

Shore excursions are available but we chose to independently tour the town and its neighboring city, Santa Margherita. We hiked the promontory laden with canopies of jasmine that perfumed the air as we ascended the cobbled stone steps and visited the Castello Brown, a medieval castle overlooking the harbor then finished our tour with a gelato at the lighthouse.

Life along the Italian Rivera is pure “La Dolce Vita” from the cuisine to the spectacular scenery to the azure blue Mediterranean. The piazzas are filled with sunglassed patrons of Prada sipping cappuccinos. Their only burden was lugging shopping bags named Pucci, Gucci and Ferragamo. It’s a cocktail of elegant social life and supreme privacy behind the luxe villas that cling to the cliffsides. You can buy the latest designs from chic boutiques or opt for historic sightseeing where the polished stones of Italy can transport you back in time.

Back at the ship the Symphony sailed effortlessly to our next stop -- Monaco -- where fairy tales really do come true. The world’s second smallest kingdom after the Vatican was made famous by starlet Grace Kelley who stole Prince Rainier’s heart on a visit to Cannes during the premier of the Hitchcock classic, “To Catch A Thief” in 1955. The two later wed but in 1982 Princess Grace died in a tragic car accident. Today, her tomb beside her prince is festooned with fresh flowers every day.

With the Cannes Film Festival in full swing and the Monte Carlo Grand Prix just a few days away, we chose to avoid the crowds and took a group shore excursion along the famous Cote D’Azur to Nice France.

Getting to Nice is like a dream as we coast along the spine of the craggily cliffside of the Middle Corniche where sheer cliffs drop into the blue abyss below. The coastal paradise of this ancient port city bears an uncanny resemblance to Portofino noted our guide, Eva Zeijlon, a Belgium who added the two seaside villages once belonged to the kingdom of Sardinia and thus the old port buildings don a similar fashion.

Considered the Capital and Queen of the Riviera, Nice sits on a stage surrounded by a natural amphitheatre of mountains that reign over the Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels). A constant rival to Monaco for its lavish hotels and casino erected during the Belle Epoque period, you can still see vestiges of the old days along the famous Promenade Anglais that lines the famous pebble beachfront.

Matisse’s studio was here in Nice overlooking the frenzied street market in the old city. There’s also a caricature statue of Miles Davis that hangs outside the exclusive Hotel Negresco. Bono, Elton John, Tina Turner and Bill Gates all have heavenly pads enroute from Monte Carlo to this exclusive seaside resort town.

After a lunch of wine and cheese samplers in the historic old Jewish quarter we return to the ship that sits like a crown in the blue Mediterranean. At night, passengers reminisce on their day and romanticize about the next day’s stop in Livorno where many will visit Florence, San Gimignano, Pisa or other Italian hillside villages.

Later that evening, snuggling in matching Frette bathrobes with a crystal glass of robust Merlot from Napa Valley, we cued “Under The Tuscan Sun,” a complimentary DVD rental from the ship’s library. “Hey why can’t we live there?” I asked my mate as we observed Diane Ladd dust rooms, open shutters and wave at old Tuscan men bearing bouquets of flowers. “No worries, we’ll meet up with Amy and Duilio tomorrow,” I declare as we prepare to visit our friends in Florence. Amy Barnes, an American expat, has been offering private tours for over 25 years. A Tuscany expert, she worked on the “Crypt of the Medici,” for the Discovery Program “Mummy Detectives” so I knew catching up with her would be interesting.

Over a simple penne pomodoro and white wine from Santa Margherita, we learned that she and her filmmaker husband ventured to the island of Capri with a stop to Pompeii the previous week.

Perched majestically atop the highest easternmost mountain of Capri, the couple traipsed through the imperial villa of Tiberius where the silhouette of the ruin against the blue sky continues to dominate the island’s skyline. The massive structure reveals how the Roman emperor possessed a love of the good life with heated baths and a birds’ eye view of the azure sea. Few passersby venture on this stretch of Via Tiberius that starts in the Piazzetta and meanders up the slopes of the terraced gardens and whitewashed villas where the million dollar estates are named “Serenity” “Calm” and “Paradise.”

“I love Capri. It is my most favorite island in the world,” she coos about the ancient world immortalized by the Romans and hands me a small gift from Capri to take home.

Once the playground of Roman emperors, Capri was where Ulysses resisted the call of the Sirens in Homer's "Odyssey" and the paradise isle was the final home of the great Tiberius who owned 12 villas. The forgotten city of Pompeii was buried in ash by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD and only came to light when discovered in 1748.

“You could spend all day roaming the ruins of Pompeii,” they suggest and recount how the ancient port city during its hey days contained mammoth sized buildings of forums, amphitheaters, a Gladiator Court and a stadium. Today, there are even startling casts of some of the dead of which among them was a single dog figure when you visit Granai del Foro, the city’s former fruit market.

Unknowing our plans, Stephen and I hightailed it back to our ship contemplating our visit to our final coastal city, Sorrento, that hugs the dramatic Amalfi coast. We were to spend two days here so there were boundless opportunities to explore the area. Southbound from Sorrento lies Positano and the famous Amalfi Drive with its hair raising rugged switchback road while northbound the Roman ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the lively city of Naples are situated.

“I’ve heard so much about Sorrento,” I explain leafing through my Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guidebooks.

But early next morning before breakfast, I skim our copy of “Reflections” newsletter that daily makes its way to our doorstep. “Hey we’ve got a chance to visit the Isle of Capri and Pompeii,” I announce as we jump up and down like two school kids pondering over the possibilities. I open up my dainty box illustrated with lemons and realize Amy has surprised me with two bite size cakes of Buonocore Caprilu al limone, a traditional island specialty made with honey, almonds and lemons, all the natural flavors of Capri. It was a perfect gift to start our explorations. Excited, we ventured into the tender and hit the Mediterranean waves to the Bay of Naples, the sun shining brightly as we sailed closer to the craggily cliff tops of Capri. We both smile broadly knowing there are more Italian treasures still to discover.

-30-

photos: Stephen Smith


To Know:

The 7-day Crystal Symphony “Italian Treasures” cruise serves as a perfect precursor to all the exquisite coastal cities along the scenic Italian Riviera and Amalfi Coast. Ports include Portofino, Monaco, Livorno and Sorrento. For reservations and more information on Crystal Cruises, visit Crystal Cruises

or call them at toll-free 1.866.446.6625.

For flights, British Airways offers daily connecting flights to Rome. For more information visit British Airways

For customized private tours of Tuscany, the Lake District and the Ligurian coast, contact tour guide Amy Barnes based in Florence Italy. She can be reached at ringressibarnes@tiscali.it Florence phone is (011 39) 055 486614 / cell 011 39 (0)328 225 7784

For travel information on Italy, visit the Italian Tourism Office online at Italian Tourism


If You Go:

The seven-day Italian Treasures luxury cruise aboard Crystal Symphony takes visitors along the scenic Italian Riviera with a stop at picture perfect Portofino followed the next day with a visit to the French Riviera where guests can disembark for a one-day stop in Monaco. The cruise then embarks southbound to Livorno where passengers can take a day trip to Florence and other Tuscan hillside villages. For the final port, Crystal Symphony sails to Sorrento for a two-day stopover. Crystal Symphony provides organized shore excursions that you can prebook before your cruise or the day before you visit your port city.

Here are some highlights:

Portofino
A longstanding playground for captains of industry, statesment and movie stars, Portofino typifies the pure symbol of “La Dolce Vita” (the sweet life). Around the charming seaside village, the winding streets ascend to ancient churches, lighthouses and million-dollar villas. Visitors can spend a lazy afternoon shopping in chic boutiques, dining in fine trattorias and restaurants facing the sea or sipping a refreshing Lemoncella, an alcoholic citrus drink renowned around the region.

Piazzetta
Overlooking the sea, Portofino’s main piazza is spacious and open but is lined with uber chic restaurants and high-end boutiques.

Castello Brown
The castle dominated and protected the area from Venetian attacks in the 1400s and was used as a fortress by the viscounts of the day including Napolean. Today, visitors can view rare finds of that period including architectural elements such as carved slate, marbles and the castello’s exquisite garden. Via alla Penisola 13A
www.castellobrown.it

For more travel information on Portofino, contact:
AZIENDA DI PROMOZIONE TURISTICA DEL TIGULLIO
Main Office
Via XXV Aprile, 4 - 16038 S. MARGHERITA LIGURE
Tel. 0185 29291
www.portofinobayarea.com/

Monaco
Carved from the rugged cliffside overlooking the azure Mediterranean, Monaco is where dreams come true for the rich and famous who for years have ventured to this tiny kingdom in search of the finest things in life. Easy access to Nice, Cannes and Menton.

Monte Carlo Casino
The architect of the esteemed Paris Opera house constructed the Riviera’s first casino in 1878. Today the Monte Carlo Casino remains the biggest fixture in this regal city and provides a glimpse back into the lavish Belle Epoque period.
Place du Casino
MC 98000, Monaco
Tel.: (+377) 92 16 20 00
Web site: www.casino-monte-carlo.com

Place du Palais
The recent death of Prince Rainier III has reawakened an interest in the Mediterranean monarch’s dynasty. Today, visitors can tour his palatial home and journey back to the times of the Guelfes and the Gibelines. Roam through the handful of rooms open to the public which include The Louis XV Salon in yellow and gold, The Salon Bleu, a marvelous harmony of blue and gold, the Mazarin Salon, paneled in polychrome wood with arabesque motifs, the Throne Room, containing a large Renaissance fireplace, where historic festivals and ceremonies have been held since the XVI century and the Palatine Chapel built in the XVII century.

Hours: Open daily from June to September: from 9:30AM to 6:00PM; during October from 10:00AM to 5:00PM. Annual closure from November to May.
Price: per person 6€ and children from 8 to 14 years old are 3€
Tel.: (+377) 93 25 18 31
Web site: www.palais.mc
For other travel information on Monaco, visit http://www.visitmonaco.com/

Florence
The birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and all that the era spawned, Florence casts its spell on all those who walk through her magical streets. Cross the ancient Ponte Vecchio where goldsmiths sell exquisite rare jewelry pieces at affordable prices.

Pitti Palace
Built as one of Florence’s largest architectural structures around 1450 for the Pitti family today the Pitti Palace houses several museums open to the public.
Address: Piazza Pitti, Florence, Italy
Phone: 055/210323

Uffizi Gallery
Simply, the most important museum in Italy. Avoid the crowds around this always popular venue and visit during lunch or late in the afternoon for views of rare masterpieces like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi.
www.uffizi.firenze.it. COST: EUR6.50, reservation fee EUR3. OPEN: Tues.-Sun. 8:15-6:50. Other location: Consorzio ITA, Piazza Pitti 1, 50121, PHONE: 055/294883.
Address: Piazzale degli Uffizi 6, Florence, Italy
Phone: 055/23885

Duomo or Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiori
The Duomo is arguably the jewel of Florence. The mammoth cupola designed by Brunelleschi crowns the Birthplace of the Renaissance. Visitors can climb 463 steps up to the dome for a birds’ eye view of the ancient city. Other highlights of this Gothic Florentine cathedral include paintings by Andrea del Castagno entitled Niccolò da Tolentino and Paolo Uccello’s masterpiece entitled Sir John Hawkwood.
www.operaduomo.firenze.it.
COST: Free, crypt EUR3, cupola EUR6. OPEN: Crypt: weekdays 10-5, Sat. 10-5:45, 1st Sat. of month 10-4. Cupola: weekdays 8:30-7, Sat. 8:30-5:40, 1st Sat. of month 8:30-4.
Duomo: Mon.-Wed. and Fri. 10-5, Thur. 10-3:30, Sat., 10-4:45, Sun. 1:30-4:45, 1st Sat. of month 10-3:30.
Piazza del Duomo, Florence, Italy
For more travel information on Florence, log onto www.firenzeturismo.it

Capri
Situated in the Bay of Naples, the many islands along this rugged coastline include a must see visit to the paradise isle of Capri. Once the vacation spot for Roman emperors, today Capri is like a fairy tale, a jewel of an island, a mixture of Mediterranean and tropical that attracts jet-setting celebrities.

Villa Jovis
Once Tiberius’ largest summer villa, the rocky palace that stands atop the island’s highest easternmost point remains a fixture among history buffs. Although there’s a long pedestrian route that is quite arduous, the walk is well worth it as you are rewarded with breathtaking scenery with rare examples of unique vegetation found only on this Mediterranean isle.

Blue Grotto
Another favorite place for the Romans, the Blue Grotto is one of the main tourist attractions of Capri. The Karst cavity and the famous faraglioni have made this island an enigma around the world.

Capri Tourism
Piazza Umberto I
Tel.+39 081 8370686
www.capritourism.com


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