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Island life

Hotel on the water

On a super-yacht dripping with elegant luxury, Stephen Cole proves big isn't always best

There I was, sailing around the Aegean on a super-yacht... and there wasn't an oligarch in sight. 

Crystal Cruises' new Esprit is one of the new generation of smaller cruise ships, and it was the perfect home for a tour of the beautiful Greek islands, the Holy Land and the Jordanian port city of Aqaba.

The Esprit was recently christened in the Seychelles with a bottle of champagne (Louis Roederer, Cristal Brut 2004 since you ask), and its 31 suites are spread over two floors.

There are no balconies - it's a yacht, remember - but each suite comes with lovely picture windows.

It felt like I had been invited to a house party - albeit one held at sea - rather than a cruise, and there was a sense of immediacy and familiarity that is not readily apparent on larger ships. It really does feel like you've checked into a fabulous floating boutique hotel.


Jump aboard a speedboat from the Esprit marina


Boarding in the Greek port of Piraeus, I walked up the gangplank to a champagne reception.

Crystal really does know how to make guests feel welcome. My butler Clarke showed me to my stateroom, unpacked for me, and before long we were sailing towards the party island of Mykonos.

WELCOME COCKTAILS
That evening Esprit's director Harry Ter Horst arranged for the yacht's small crew to meet the guests. It broke the ice and friendships were made over some truly shipshape cocktails. Dinner was also superb. Fine dining at sea is a wonderful experience and the wines were carefully matched. Best of all, it was all included in the price.

Most sommeliers can't wait to show off their knowledge and end up boring you towards a wine you didn't really want, but Ramon made choosing one a pleasure. Still, I decided the time wasn't right to order a £4,300 bottle of Chateau le Pin.


Fine dining on board the Crystal Esprit


The first night at sea always takes some getting used to: the hum of the engines and the slight rolling of a smaller ship. The stabilisers aren't quite as good as those on bigger vessels but the stateroom technology is certainly better. There were iPads to make in-room dining and communications more passenger-friendly.

As an experienced cruiser, the most important elements for me during a trip are the quality of the food and choice of excursions.

Louisa Kierman was in charge of the tours and she chose the destinations wisely. 'I prefer working on a yacht because everything is far more personal,' she said. 'You get to know people and they aren't just buddies on boats - we feel as though we are welcoming guests into our family.'

One of her excursions during our tour of the Aegean was to Santorini - perhaps my favourite destination. The skies were blue and the whitewashed houses in towns such as Oia sparkled in the sunshine. And if you visit out of the peak summer season, as we did, the crowds have gone and you feel as though you have the island to yourself.


Mykonos: Where mega-yachts moor next to traditional fishing boats


THE HOLY LAND
All of our guides were good but in the Holy Land they were outstanding. One, Barak, was a major in the Israeli army and he helped bring familiar stories from the Bible to life. As for the food, after a week I didn't think the chef, Rainer Buss, could prepare a better dinner, but he did - a sublime lobster with hot butter sauce, and sea bass with asparagus risotto. Everything was Michelin standard.

Crystal Esprit is sleek and nimble, with a shallow draught of less than 15ft. And because of her relatively small size it means a new array of harbours can be accessed, allowing visits to exclusive marinas, hidden coves, and secluded islands where the docking infrastructure - so critical for big ships - doesn't exist.

SUMMER ROUTES
Crystal Esprit sails the Adriatic through the summer, with seven-night cruises between Athens and Dubrovnik, and Dubrovnik and Venice. Included are all meals and drinks, butler service, marina and water-sports activities, a choice of complimentary shore excursions and gratuities.

The only problem is that spending a week on board the elegant and luxurious Esprit spoils you for life.



First published in the Mail on Sunday -  April 2017

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