It was a perfect sail away. We were with an American tour company—on board a small, elegant French cruise ship—sailing slowly along the Grand Canal of Venice with the iconic buildings of St. Mark’s Square glowing in the sunset.
We were about to sail east and south into the Adriatic Sea with visits to the Dalmatian coasts of Croatia and Montenegro. Along with 215 fellow guests from the United States, Australia and Canada we were looking forward to a week filled with historic medieval communities, friendly people, stunning topography, thriving vineyards and olive groves plus ancient Roman landmarks.
New England-based Tauck organizes land, river and ocean tours in more than 70 countries. Small ship cruising is one of its newest ventures.
The company, which started in 1925, is unique because virtually all extras are included and all tours are accompanied by a team of dedicated Directors who work closely with small groups of guests and find the best local guides.
Sailing on Le Lyrial, a luxury yacht
Our ship, leased by Tauck, was Le Lyrial, the newest vessel in the growing French cruise line, Ponant. Built more like a luxury yacht than a traditional cruise ship, it features a stylish, modern interior with muted color tones of cream, tan and grey.
The atrium includes a large, imaginative mobile. The standard rooms are small but very comfortable with a sophisticated TV/movie system, excellent bedside reading lights and high-end Hermes toiletries in the bathroom. Almost all the rooms have a private balcony but many, like ours, have a solid steel slab beneath the handrail making viewing from the balcony chairs impossible. The Hotel Manager told us it was a design flaw, planned to make the exterior of the ship look sleeker.
But there was no design flaw in the spacious lounges, large comfortable theatre (with a resident troupe of very fine dancers) and twin dining areas – the main restaurant on Deck 2 and the more casual buffet area at the rear of Deck 6 (including many tables by the outdoor pool).
Food, in the French style, was usually excellent and the fine complimentary wines at lunch and dinner were of high quality.
The cheeses, both French and local, were especially good. The chefs made a point of seeking fresh fish in several of the Adriatic ports and we remember one memorable lunch of very fresh sea bream, grilled whole. Delicious.
Our pre-cruise adventure with Tauck
For this tour, Tauck offered all guests two complimentary pre-cruise nights in a canal-side hotel in Venice, a surprise gondola ride through the canals (with accompaniment by an accordionist and singer), plus an excellent tour of several top attractions in St. Mark’s Square, including the Doge’s Palace.
On Day 2 we all took a boat ride to the Venetian Lagoon islands of Murano (famous for its creative glassware) and Burano, a lace-making centre with colorful fishermen’s houses.
Splendid shore excursions
The major destinations of this cruise were the countries of Croatia and Montenegro, two of the seven nations that constituted the former republic of Yugoslavia. The region is a complicated crossroads between Eastern and Western Christendom and between historically Christian and historically Islamic territories. Some tensions continue in the region but tourism is important to the economy and we always felt welcome.
A major benefit of touring with Tauck is the wide range of tours available in each port – all complimentary. Our first stop was the ancient walled city of Korcula, Croatia, reputed to be the childhood home of Marco Polo. Guests could choose among a city walking tour, hiking on nearby mountain trails or kayaking in crystalline waters.
With our interest in food and wine, we chose a visit to the 100-year-old Bire family estate and winery. It was our first taste of Croatian wines and we were impressed, especially with the wine made from Plavac Mali grapes, similar to American Zinfandel. This wine tasting (and most other ones) was accompanied by traditional prosciutto, marinated sardines, fresh bread, olives and cheese.
Before we returned to the ship, Tauck surprised everyone with one of its unannounced but very special “extras”. At a local theatre, the community band accompanied a traditional, 15th-century Moreska sword dance with twenty or more red and black-clad warriors, representing good and evil, fighting over the affection of a maiden.
Split (population, 175,000) is the second largest city in Croatia and has seen many regimes over its 1600-year history. Again, Tauck offered an array of intriguing excursions including biking, sea kayaking, a boat ride on a river between towering limestone cliffs, touring by bus or just joining a guided walk through the old city. Most tours include the 4th Century Diocletian’s Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site, used as a location for “The Game of Thrones.”
Dubrovnik is one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.
Its well-preserved stone wall, ramparts and cobbled streets were started in the 10th century and are key reasons why UNESCO has designated the whole walled city a World Heritage Site. Tauck small ship cruising offers several walking tours but also includes a cable car ride for a splendid overview, more kayaking, a visit to local villages and wineries plus the Maritime Museum. We were lucky enough to include a visit to the Karaman Winery, winner of several major international awards, especially for its Malvasia wine.
To reach the harbor city of Kotor in Montenegro (literally, Black Mountain), Le Lyrial sailed several miles up a picturesque fjord that could be mistaken for Scandinavia. The fortified town of 14,000 has kept its Middle Ages feel and is a delight to explore by foot.
Several boat trips were offered by Tauck (including one to the famous Our Lady of the Rocks island church) but we chose the “Gastronomy Experience” where just eight of us visited a local home where the proprietor (a cookbook author) and her husband prepared a traditional local meal of prosciutto, cheese and sardines followed by potato gnocchi (she showed us how to make it) and tender beef. A soft meringue dessert with forest berries was followed by homemade cherry brandy and grappa. Our hosts even sang us a traditional song as she played the piano.
Before we left Montenegro, a troupe of Boka local folk dancers in elaborately embroidered costumes entertained us in the ship’s theatre. Another extra touch that makes Tauck so special.
Heading north again we stopped at the long, slim island of Hvar, Croatia, first established as a Greek Colony around 385BC. It remains a center for lavender and several stands are set up to sell the fragrant product.
The village of Stari Grad was full of interesting shops and roving entertainers (including one with an unusual goatskin bagpipe).
On our last day of Tauck small ship cruising, we stopped at two communities on the northern Croatian peninsula of Istria. The huge, first-century Roman amphitheater in Pula was remarkable, a slightly smaller version of the Rome Coliseum. It once held 23,000 Romans and is still used for concerts including past performances by Pavarotti and Leonard Cohen.
The peninsula is also a major source of olive oil so we visited the Chiavalon family farm, producer of some of the world’s best olive oil. We naturally had an extensive tasting of the fresh grassy and spicy oil. It was so good we couldn’t resist buying a bottle.
Our last stop was in the quaint town of Rovinj, a community with tangles of cobbled streets that felt very Italian. In fact, because of its close proximity to Venice (just across a narrow part of the Adriatic), the village has two official languages, Croatian and Italian. The area is renowned for its truffles (black truffles were in season) and one Tauck tour took guests on a truffle hunt. We’re told it was outstanding.
A final toast to Tauck small ship cruising
Our tour included Croatia’s best known sparkling wine producer, Misal, with bubbly made the traditional French way from Malvasia and Pinot Noir grapes. We were amazed at the quality of its brut, sec and semi-sec varieties. Along with the other guests on this tour, it gave us a chance to make a final toast to Tauck small ship cruising and a remarkable Dalmatian Coast cruise.
IF YOU GO
**John and Sandra Nowlan are food and travel writers based in Halifax. All photo credits: John and Sandra Nowlan
Disclosure: The Nowlans were guests of Tauck small ship cruising but any opinions expressed in this post are their own.