Regular readers of this blog understand that Mevrouw T and I are two to three star people, seldom treated to five star anything.
So although a chance to glide around the Black Sea in luxury French ship l’Austral and get paid for writing about it was an offer too good to refuse, we also feared we would feel uncomfortable among the smart set.
We need not have worried.
There’s a theatricality about the cruising event that is at once charming and mildly intimidating to those of us without the required experience and savoir faire.
The crew forms a guard of honour on the dock at Istanbul to welcome us aboard. We’re greeted in French and English by impeccably-suited staff, and our battered suitcases look slightly shamefaced among the elegant luggage in the lobby. On the other hand, we note with satisfaction that we experienced tourists are travelling considerably lighter than anybody else.
In the cabin we’re issued with the program for the week and invited to choose from a bewildering buffet of entertainment and onshore excursions. Decisions must be made.
What should one wear to the ‘Captain’s Gala’? Or the Odessa Opera House? Mevrouw T always has an elegant outfit to slip into; I know I will be scruffier than anyone on the ship, including the deckhands.
I slip my least crumpled shirt over my zip-off trousers and we shuffle out to join our fellow passengers to see if anyone is prepared to talk to the poor neighbours from Australia.
A pre-sailing emergency drill helps to break the ice a little. Orange lifejackets will never be fashion items, and they’re great social levellers.
Everyone is wary at first, but within the hour most people have found someone to talk to. We gravitate towards the English speakers and find a couple from Sydney and a party of cheery Kiwis.
Inevitably, a few of our fellow passengers apparently have too much money and too few manners. They regard it as their right, if not sacred duty, to complain long and loud about the wine temperature, the slightest rolling of the boat (excusez-moi, but that’s what boats do) or the runniness of a poached egg.
Mevrouw T and I, without previous cruising experiences from which to make unfavourable comparisons, have the advantage of being mightily impressed by almost everything. The cabin comfort, food and above all the service from the friendly staff (French, Mauritian, Philippino and Indonesian) are exceptionally good.
The vast majority of our fellow passengers also seem very happy with the arrangements, and we soon begin to really enjoy the company. About half the passengers are French speaking, and the rest of us come from around fifteen different countries – the US, UK, Uruguay, Poland, Mexico, Norway, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, Georgia, Netherlands, Japan, Germany…and a couple I’ve missed.
Inevitably there’s a language divide at the dinner tables. I try to improve my French on a few occasions, but generally we Anglophones stick together, particularly since we’re travelling together (‘at the back of the bus!’ someone points out) with English speaking guides for the shore excursions.
But the luxury on board is for us just a bonus. We really signed on because of the itinerary. We’ll be visiting places we know little about – Nessebar, Odessa, Sebastopol, Yalta, Bartin and back to Istanbul.
It promises to be fascinating. More soon.
The writer was the guest of Compagnie du Ponant.