I'd imagined the centre of Istanbul to be a collection of packed alleys, smoky bazaars and ram shackled shacks on a little hill. What a daft thought. We flew into a huge sprawl of a city of 14 million people and seemingly almost as many mosques yet more than a sprinkling of western institutions like MacDonalds and Starbucks. The traffic was so gridlocked I never thought the airport bus would never make it to Discovery before she set sail and she wasn't due to pull up anchor until the following day. Up the gang plank to a warm welcome and to find our cabin. It looked rather small at first. Yet everything's there. Bathroom, twin beds, loads of storage, TV, a safe and a hairdryer. And what you learn quickly about cruising is that the whole of the ship is really your room and you only return to the cabin to kip and to brush up. Of course if you have a bob or two you can splash out on a fabulous suite and have caviar canapes delivered daily. Istanbul became wet, very wet but undeterred we plodged off the gangplank, waded through thick puddles over a soaking bridge determined to have a quick sniff of the old city before we set sail. And it was worth it. There it was the world famous Spice Market thick to the rafters with every aroma you could imagine and a countless range of Turkish Delights including one said to be infused with Viagra and promising Turkish delight five times a night. Well the sellers certainly had big smiles. Exhausted through barging around bazaars we sat down at a market stall for the strongest Turkish coffee I've ever drunk with a similar effect to downing a dozen Newcastle Brown Ales in one session. The rain was lashing but we didn't care. The sun shone every day afterwards. Dinner first night on Discovery and an early gin and tonic with a dash of nerves in case we were going to be sat next to the meal companions from hell. We cowardly opted for a table for two in the splendidly elegant restaurant but the couple on the next table turned out to be excellent company. The food didn't disappoint either. How on earth the chef's teams could dish out five great courses to hundreds of discerning diners all at once and every night continued to amaze me. For a County Durham lad brought up on egg and chips and bacon stotties this was a journey into a culinary new world. I still dream about the "Trellis of Salmon and Sole with Champagne Saffron Cream Sauce". If you got bored with this fodder you could always pop up to the Yacht Club restaurant for an Italian or Oriental banquet.
A day at sea was most welcome to get to know your floating hotel with its spa, gym and health centre. Here you could try to work off the excess weight gained by digging into five square meals a day including breakfast, lunch, tea time snacks, dinner and late night feast with tea and coffee on tap 24 hours a day. After all that grub few people had the strength to use the two small pools and two smaller Jacuzzis. A big lounge featured a resident band and trivia quizzes and a theatre played host to a show troupe performing excerpts from the great musicals. There was also a lot of interest in a troupe of travel and history lecturers who set the scene for the major ports of call and the ancient sights. These slide shows and talks became an essential part of the experience of really getting to grips with the rich cultures and civilizations that we'd be sampling as well as outlining a range of organized excursions that were on offer when the ship docked.
After Istanbul, Discovery called into four further ports in Turkey and each had a distinct charm. Kusadasi, Bodrum, Antalya and Fethiye with its delightful harbor are maybe more familiar to the north east as a summer holiday playground easily accessed from the region but out of season when they're quieter visitors are able to sample so much more of the wonderful history attached to these places. Great civilizations left their footprints here including the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and the Ottoman Empire. I loved Bodrom Castle with its links to the mysterious Knights Templars who found refuge here. One of the castle towers is dedicated to a faction known as the English Knights of St. John. On our trip there was a first for Discovery. It was the first time the ship had ever had dropped anchor in the lovely harbor of Fethiye, a charming place to wander. Passengers from the ship wanting lunch on dry land for a change could buy a fish from the market and have it cooked at one of several adjoining cafes. After a day rubbing shoulders with ancient cultures more modern examples of music culture took centre stage. This was reflected in the music on board. A particular highlight was a group of three classical musicians called the Cafe Concerto Strings. All three are Romanian and all of them have played in major orchestras throughout the world. There was also a thriving bridge club with a full house every night where the British and the smattering of Americans and Canadians joined hands across a sea of cards. Onto Greece and back into Europe with a drop off at the city of Rhodes where it's easy to spend all the Euros you've kept locked in the safe. Rhodes is another favorite of north easterners with an image hangover from lager louts. If there are any left they don't come to the city which historically was plundered and settled many times over by invaders. Now the natives try to hold tourists captive in the myriad of shops and restaurants. The ancient city walls are still there to hold them all in. Heraklion in Crete is not the prettiest of ports of call for Discovery but looks deceive. A stiff walk into the city centre revealed several lovely Catholic churches set in impressive squares and the liveliest of friendly street markets. The crew on board Discovery are led by a Liverpool captain and his mainly British crew but what really kept the ship buzzing with friendly efficiency are the fantastic service staff almost all from the Philippines. The waiters, bar teams, cabin stewards, cleaners and cooks. Nothing was ever a problem. Tips were included in our package but you just wanted to hand out a few Euros to the ones you got to know. A Grand Finale aboard Discovery as she entered the port of Alexandria in Egypt. This was where Marrisse and I decided to go take our one big excursion involving a three hour coach ride to the Pyramids at Cairo and a short boat ride on the Nile. Having done a proper cruise down the Nile I would have preferred, in retrospect, to have missed the boat with its belly dancer and whirling dervish and perhaps taken in the famous Cairo Museum instead.
Egypt can be annoying if you don't like being pestered by a procession of hard sellers and locals simply asking for cash. But, for us, the aggro was worth it for a our first close up view of the Great Pyramids. They are simply overwhelming and quite astonishing. It was a historical climax to a wonderful voyage through around five thousand years of human history. But there was another modest and modern climax on board Discovery. Out with the bow tie and on with the glad rags for the privileged invitation to the Captain's table and a rather classy Chablis, a fine steak and a well rounded port. Of course only high class history travellers like us got this rare invite to sit with the Captain. Back home eggs and chips and a ham and peas pudding stottie are never going to taste quite the same.
Discovery facts and figures: 8 passenger decks. 698 berths. Length 169 meters. 2 pools. 2 Jacuzzis, 3 lounges, Library. Internet facilities. 2 restaurants plus buffet dining on deck. Three lounges. Five bars, Gym, Health Centre, Beauty Salon and Card Room. Medical Centre and Duty Free shop. Marrisse and Bob Whittaker paid under Â£1100 each for ten days all inclusive except drinks and organized excursions but currently there are lots of cruise bargain so haggle hard. Check out the website: www.voyagesofdiscovery.com for destinations.Community Manager's Note: 'This review was written when the ship sailed for Voyages of Discovery. As of February 2013, it is now sailing under the Cruises & Maritime banner"