MINI ANTIQUES- VOYAGES TO ANTIQUITY OFFERS SHORTER FLY CRUISES

Mount Vesuvius at sunrise. See it from the Aegean Odyssey in May

Mount Vesuvius at sunrise. See it from the Aegean Odyssey in May

In a move that is possibly a test run for future sailings, specialist operator Voyages To Antiquity is offering a pair of shorter fly cruises this May aboard the small, beautifully styled Aegean Odyssey.

The fly cruises are of five and nine nights’ duration respectively, and come inclusive of all flights, transfers, shore excursions with knowledgeable, in depth guides, and inclusive beer, wine and soft drinks with dinner each evening. And, with no single supplements to boot, they represent quite extraordinary value.

The first, five day jaunt departs from Istanbul on May 10th, with calls at Lemnos and Izmir to see the stunning, magnificent ruins of Ephesus. Moving on, the Aegean Odyssey then offers a morning touring among the sacred grave sites at Delos, followed by a few hours’ people watching in classy, stylish Mykonos, before disembarking in Athens on May 14th. Single fares for this trip begin at £895.

The second, nine night itinerary begins in Athens on May 14th, and finishes in Rome’s port of Civitavecchia. En route, the Aegean Odyssey visits Nauplia, to see the fabulous site of Epidaurus. After a day at sea, she sails on to Taormina, with it’s fantastic Greco-Roman hilltop theatre, and then on to the historic Sicilian city of Palermo for an overnight stay.

From here, Aegean Odyssey makes her way for another overnight stay; this time in fabled, springtime Sorrento. There is ample time to see such landmark sites as Pompeii, Herculaneum and, of course, the brooding Mount Vesuivius itself, as well as leaving time to enjoy some serious people watching in Piazza Tasso, or even a drive along to fabled Amalfi, or perhaps a boat trip out to Capri.

This cruise concludes the next morning. Prices for the inclusive, nine night package start from £1,495. Again, there is no single supplement.

The pretty little Aegean Odyssey

The pretty little Aegean Odyssey

Flights are usually arranged on the scheduled services of British Airways, and include domestic flights to Heathrow where necessary.

The Aegean Odyssey is a small, destination intensive cruise ship with an ambiance more akin to that of a floating country club than a vast maritime theme park. With a capacity for less then four hundred passengers, she offers fabulous service and dining- both indoors and out- and a smart casual dress code.

This is not a ship for those wanting a lively, late night environment. Think of her as a very comfortable combination of a boutique hotel and a fantastic, fulfilling and educational travel experience, and you have the gist.

I particularly recommend the cove balcony cabins in the aft part of the ship as a great buy. Nicely sheltered, and with lovely canvas chairs, they offer you an expansive and roomy vantage point from which to savour those balmy spring time Aegean and Mediterranean sunsets.

CRUISING CONUNDRUMS; THE POTENTIAL FALL OUT FROM PUTIN

Russian delicacies might seem less appealing this year

Russian delicacies might seem less appealing this year

Vladimir Putin’s Sudeten-esque power play in the Ukraine is potentially redolent with big implications for the 2014 cruise season. With the region slowly but steadily growing in popularity over the last few years, more and more lines were committing themselves to two, three and sometimes more departures in and around the region.

Most lines will now be hedging their options, or trying to read the situation as it unfolds; a stance about as practical as trying to stuff a cloud in a suitcase. And, while summer temperatures in that region can, indeed, be hot, I suspect the unwelcome heat of the moment will dampen the enthusiasm of many potential visitors over the next few months.

In the upper echelon, both Crystal and Azamara have plans to cruise the Black Sea. When it comes to adventure cruises, Voyages To Antiquity had a couple of round trip cruise tours scheduled for the Aegean Odyssey. But it is the main stream lines, such as Costa and MSC, that stand to be hardest hit by the current situation.

It may well be too early to state definitively yet just what the end result of Putin’s hard ball game will be; the principal Black Sea ports of Odessa, Sevastopol and Yalta have always been popular draws. So, too, is Sochi, a city that would have been a landmark port for many after the recent winter Olympics.

Of course, Russian itineraries might already have been impacted to some extent by a gay backlash and boycott, the obvious consequence of Putin’s shocking acts of regressive demonisation, and the potential consequences of that alone could be significant. But as Russia keeps its foot firmly on it’s neighbours’ wind pipe, the residual, simmering world wide anxiety of the moment could well spread like a forest fire.

The magnificent Swallow's Nest in Yalta

The magnificent Swallow’s Nest in Yalta

And it is not just the Black Sea that could take a hit. Summer time cruises in the Baltic are hugely popular, with a large number of ships- from the standard to the ultra luxury-  offering cruises that have overnight stays in Saint Petersburg as their main attractions. Some ships make a normal daytime visit, but by far the great majority stay from anything between one and three nights.

If things were to spiral further downward, and cruise lines start to boycott Russia’s star attraction, that would be hugely disappointing for many passengers. Admittedly, it would also put one hell of a dint in Russia’s local tourist economy. Not to mention triggering a sudden rush to find alternative ports, each for the most part woefully ill equipped to cope with the sudden potential tidal wave of cruise refugees.

Of course, all of this could be snuffed out as quickly and easily as a candle. Cold blooded, callous and calculating as he undoubtedly is, Vladimir Putin is not stupid. Money still talks louder than any of the sycophants whispering in his ear.

But it would be a very blase cruise line indeed that did not keep an ear to the ground, and a raft of options at least ready for launch. These are, indeed, scary times.

As always, stay tuned.

TRAVEL TRENDS TO WATCH OUT FOR IN 2014

The magnificent Swallow's Nest in Yalta

The magnificent Swallow’s Nest in Yalta

With the last rites for 2013 about to be intoned, now is as good a time as any to look at some of the potential highlights on offer in what could be quite a shiny 2014. So, for your consideration, here are some of the more tasty prospects on offer across the cruise spectrum.

Expect Nile Cruises to make a slow but steady comeback in 2014. It was barely noticed, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office recently lifted it’s advisory on not travelling to Egypt, and the numerous river cruise operators on the Nile are gearing up to rebuild that shattered trade. Expect low initial prices, plenty of availability, and some of the most fascinating and ageless sightseeing anywhere on the planet.

The Black Sea is hugely under rated as a cruise destination, quite astonishing when you consider the wealth of attractions it can offer within a relatively short distance. With evocative names such as Sevastopol, Odessa and Yalta, the region is a historical glut. Offering such sights as the famous Swallow’s Nest at Yalta, and the field where the Light Brigade made it’s infamous, doomed charge, it should be on everybody’s ‘to do’ list at least once.

Voyages To Antiquity offer a couple of Black Sea cruises in 2014 on the small, highly styled Aegean Odyssey. With all excursions included in the price, and top quality lecturers on board to put the region in its proper historical context, this is definitely the way to go ‘back to the future’.

More historical reminiscence is on offer with the 40th Anniversary of D-Day in June. With lines as diverse as Cruise And Maritime, Fred. Olsen and even Holland America offering invasion themed itineraries, there will be no shortage of options to relieve the first few months in the story of Operation Overlord, and the eventual Allied breakout from Northern France.

Meanwhile, the seemingly endless expansion of Caribbean cruise options gets another boost with the January debut of the new, Miami themed Norwegian Getaway. With a vibe and an on board lifestyle aimed at echoing the sultry, seductive ambiance of South Beach, the huge, new 154,000 ton ship will be cruising from Miami year round, and definitely ups the ante in terms of on board eateries, entertainment, and watering holes. She should be an absolute smash.

Rome will be a highlight for Oasis Of The Seas passengers in autumn 2014

Rome will be a highlight for Oasis Of The Seas passengers in autumn 2014

Heading the other way, the enormous Oasis Of The Seas begins a brief European season in the early autumn, as she brackets a handful of Mediterranean cruises in with essential dry docking in Rotterdam. One of the two largest cruise ships ever constructed, the mold breaking leviathan is using the cruises as a series of obvious trial runs for future deployment of one of these ships in the more crowded ports of Southern Europe.

These are just a handful of the forthcoming highlights for 2014. No doubt many, many more will be unveiled over the course of the next few months or so. My advice, as ever, is to stay tuned.

NEW ANTIQUES- VOYAGES TO ANTIQUITY’S WINTER 2014-15 CRUISE PROGRAMME

The Aegean Odyssey returns to the Far East in 2104

The Aegean Odyssey returns to the Far East in 2014

Following on from the cancellation of this year’s scheduled programme of winter cruises, Voyages to Antiquity unveiled a carefully rethought season for next winter on September 9th.

A series of twelve cruise tours are scheduled between November 2014 and March 2015, and these will once again be carried out by the refurbished, highly styled Aegean Odyssey. The ship has recently benefited from the addition of some twenty six single cabins, making her a more affordable option for solo travelers interested in long range expedition voyages.

The cruises showcase a string of inaugural calls along east Africa, and each features an included three day, two night tour that takes in both Tsavo and Ambroseli national parks to savour the diverse array of wildlife this region is famed for.

In addition, there will be Indian Ocean cruises, intended to showcase such gems as Zanzibar, Mayotte, and the Seychelles and Maldive Islands,

There will also be a special India cruise, highlighting the showpieces of the fabled subcontinent, including the Taj Mahal, as well as an inclusive, five day land tour that takes in the highlights of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi.

Aegean Odyssey offers old style pleasures; steamer chairs and parasols

Aegean Odyssey offers old style pleasures; steamer chairs and parasols

After the success of her 2012 season, the Aegean Odyssey also makes a welcome return to the mystical lands of Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Here, the small size of the ship comes into its own, allowing her to dock right in the heart of such historic cities as Saigon and Yangon for overnight stays.

Most intriguing for me personally is an evocative adventure that takes in Indonesia and the Phillippines, allowing for the chance to get up close and personal to the legendary Komodo dragon, if you’re feeling particularly brave.

All things considered, this is a broad and sweeping schedule that allows passengers to take in such fabled sights as Angkor Wat, the imperious Taj Mahal and the glories of Shweydaggon, while also allowing some potentially idyllic downtime on the gorgeous blond beaches of the Maldives and the secluded, splendid Seychelles.

Aegean Odyssey operates as a comfortable, floating ‘home from home’ in the style of a casually informal country club, with a smart casual dress code. With a maximum of around 379 passengers, she offers open seating dining both indoors and alfresco, with complimentary beers and wines included at dinner.

The ship offers top rate guest lecturers on each itinerary, and all tours are included in the price of the package, as well as flights, pre or post cruise hotel stays, and all transfers. This is cerebral, in depth educational cruising, carried out in very fine style indeed.

Savour the majesty of beautiful Burma

Savour the majesty of beautiful Burma

It is also worth mentioning that all tours are carried out in small groups, and all passengers are supplied with ‘quiet boxes’ in their cabins. These allow you to hear your tour guides quite clearly at all times when you are off the ship exploring.

Brochure prices start at £3,150 for an eighteen day cruise tour for the season, based on inside cabins. These are fine but, if you can spring for it, I definitely recommend upgrading to one of the lovely, cove balcony cabins in the aft part of the ship. These are definitely worth the extra.

GOING FORWARD- VOYAGES TO ANTIQUITY IN 2014

The Aegean Odyssey

The Aegean Odyssey

There’s a reassuring mix of the familiar and the fascinating in the newly announced Voyages to Antiquity programme for 2014, aboard the line’s small, highly styled Aegean Odyssey.

Familiar in the sense that all the creature comforts that have made the ship such an outstanding and appealing travel option are still there; things such as all shore excursions included, as well as beer and wine at dinner, plus a series of intriguing pre and post hotel stays in landmark cities such as Istanbul and Athens.

The new? That comes in the shape of new ports of call at Bodrum, and gorgeous Greek gems such as Syros and Kos. Owing to demand, the company is stepping up the number of its popular Black Sea itineraries to four in the 2014 season. One of these will also encompass the best of the Greek islands at the same time.

All told, the Aegean Odyssey will offer something like seventeen cruises from March through November, beginning with a sweeping, twenty eight day progress from Athens through to Istanbul, by way of the history and highlights of ancient Egypt. This should provide one of the most comprehensive exposes of both the Greek and Roman empires ever offered on such an inclusive basis.

These tie in with a pair of diverse itineraries that will put the focus firmly on both Athens and Istanbul. Like many options in the itinerary, these can be combined to make one outstanding long voyage.

Voyages to Antiquity is also offering some very attractive, low priced single supplements for the season. All cruises will feature the line’s usual high standard of in depth, on board lectures with experts in the fields of the history of the visited region. Coupled with the largely inclusive nature of the experience, and the sheer quality of the on board product, these cruises represent an outstanding return on the cost.

The entire Voyages to Antiquity operation is the brainchild of Gerry Herrod, fondly remembered in the cruise and leisure industry as the creator of both Ocean Cruise Lines and the legendary Orient Lines.

Aegean Odyssey is a low key, extremely comfortable ship, more than a bit akin to a floating country club. With a smart casual dress code and open seating dining either indoors or outside, she can access a great many smaller, more intriguing ports that bigger ships cannot enter. With a capacity of just 330 passengers, this is intimate, informed cruising for people more interested in feeding their minds than partying until daybreak.

GETTING TO KNOW GEORGE TOWN; THE PEARL OF PENANG

CNV00001Cruising in the waters of the Far East is far out in comparison to anywhere else you might have been. The entire region is such a vast melting pot of different creeds, religions and races that any attempt to pigeon hole it is bound to end in failure. The best thing to do is just go with an open mind, and absorb what you can.

I did a cruise out there just before Christmas, with Voyages to Antiquity aboard their stylish little Aegean Odyssey (see previous blogs). Each of the ports was a show stopper in its own right, but it was quite nice to go back to Penang after an absence of a few years.

CNV00010The capital of George Town was established by a British trader, Francis Light, back in 1786. The most obvious relic of what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (since 2008) is the squat, grey walled fastness of Fort Cornwallis, with its brooding battlements and ancient cannon still jutting out to sea.

Much of the architecture of the public buildings still has a very old English feel. The Queen Victoria clock tower in the city centre, the railway station and the many grand, overly fussed hotels give parts of George Town the look and feel of a perfectly manicured Victorian theme park. But you don’t have to look far to find some jarring contrasts.

CNV00025A series of spindly, hugely overcrowded jetties loom out into the waters of the harbour. Here, many of the local Chinese and Malay natives live, work and socialise together. Wooden boardwalks tack off at crazy angles, while small Buddhist shrines appear almost everywhere, and the scent of incense floods the humid air at certain times of the day. Here, children are educated, fed, clothed and bathed on a series of rickety piers, festooned with old tyres and capped with thatched roofs. Shops thrive, tourists come to visit. Markets abound, full of fresh local produce that attracts locals and lotus eaters alike. It’s a mad, slightly claustrophobic cacophony of sight, smell and sound, and one not easily forgotten, either.

CNV00033Wander a little further north, and you enter a neighbourhood of buildings blackened by decades of smoke from traffic exhausts and local fires.Colonnaded archways provide shade for baskets overflowing with fresh fruit, sweets and spices. Tuk tuks splutter along the woefully ill tended roads; pavements here are almost non existent, and real care needs to be taken when walking here. But the sights and sounds are fascinating; a sharp, piquant counterpoint to all the chocolate box cuteness of downtown.

CNV00034This part of town is gritty rather than gilded, but this is how people work and live every day. Stacks of bottled water wrapped in bubble plastic stand outside shop doorways, while men in boiler suits inside make shift garages try to kick start antiquated cars one last time. Roadside cafes made up of rickety, grimy tables and plastic chairs are filled to overflowing, while the local peanut stalls do a roaring trade.

CNV00038There’s the cry of a baby and a supine, uncaring cat, curled up in the shade as the early afternoon heat homes in like a laser beam. Lines chock full of washing hang limp between the shutters of gaping, blackened windows. There are shrines in vibrant, electric shades and idle, barely ruffled street awnings that yawn above hopelessly pitted pavements. Motor scooters appear like angry, maddened swarms of mosquitoes. Again, there’s the aroma of incense, hanging in the air like fine perfume.

CNV00040CNV00045It’s an eclectic, engaging slice of life but, after a while, it becomes strangely uniform, even when enlivened here and there by huge, screaming red swathes of signage in Chinese that adds a  surreal splash of colour to those gaunt, grimy walls and buildings. But after a while, enough is enough.

CNV00056Being a creature of habit, I wander slowly back to the more gentrified part of town. As I walk into the air conditioned opulence of the waterfront bar on the Queen Elizabeth II pier, I do feel pangs of guilt. It is unlikely that many of the locals can afford the prices here. But compared to home, it is still amazingly cheap. The views are outstanding, the beer cold, and the air conditioning is truly a godsend.

And, after all, I’m a traveller. And this is just how I happen to roll.

ANZAC WAR GRAVES, GALLIPOLI

ImageThe summer of 2011 gave me a rare and very welcome opportunity to visit the ANZAC war graves on the Gallipoli Penninsula, in Turkey. As an Australian by birth and a lover of military history by choice, I have always been awed and amazed by the incredible bravery displayed by both sides during what I still believe to have been one of the most brutally misconceived military adventures of the war of 1914-18.

ImageThe history of the botched landings, and the subsequent battle of attrition is well enough known not to repeat here. It would also require the labours of a more accomplished historian than myself. Suffice to say that the Australian and New Zealand forces found themselves pinned to a few stretches of narrow, open beaches for months on end, in searing heat, and confronted by a Turkish army that fought with the suicidal desperation to be expected of men defending their own soil. 

ImageFor months, the air was rent with a series of brutal artillery bombardments, as Allied warships in the bay belched flame, smoke and steel death at the entrenched Turks. Attack after attack was mounted with a bravery that defies either logic or description.Snipers ruled the day. Yet the Turks hung on and, eventually, common sense prevailed. The beach heads were evacuated in a series of brilliant feints at night; silence returned to the Gallipoli shoreline.

ImageANZAC casualties had been enormous. All told, the twenty one cemeteries on the Gallipoli beach fronts contain the remains of around twenty-two thousand men. Of these, less than half were ever actually identified. Many are interred at the famous cemeteries, such as Lone Pine. The atmosphere there has to be felt to be adequately described.

ImageWe stopped off here from the small, highly styled Aegean Odyssey, during our Voyages to Antiquity cruise from Athens through to Istanbul. From the port of Canakkale, coaches and a short ferry ride took us to the site of that ancient, blood soaked battleground.

ImageToday, those same beaches where so many men lost their lives are silent, serene, and more than a little sad. A wistful kind of uneasy peace hangs over them like fine mist, but the only sound on our visit was nothing more deadly than that of gentle surf, drumming on the sand beneath my feet.

ImageAnd, of course, there are the graves. Row upon row of brilliant white markers, springing like molars from the ground. Rank after rank after rank, arranged with military precision. Even in death, the ANZAC troops were clearly expected to display a posthumous discipline.

ImageYou would need a heart of stone not to be swamped by a tidal wave of different emotions. Pride, anger and, above all, pity for a whole raft of needlessly lost youth, fetched up forever on the shores of a foreign country, far from home and loved ones. Did I cry? Hell, yes. How could you not? The sheer beauty of the scene combines with the futility of the past to knock you sideways.

ImageIt is not an easy thing to see, but the bravery of those incredible men required nothing else. We, after all, were going back to a very comfortable and well run ship. They never got the opportunity to go anywhere but right here.

ImageWhat makes it even more poignant is the obvious care, respect and gentility shown to the fallen ANZAC troops by their Turkish opposite numbers. After the war, they worked diligently with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to create a series of apt, beautifully manicured cemeteries and memorials. The result is this string of stunning last posts for the fallen thousands who flocked to the King’s colours, and died on a foreign field, far from home.

ImageSo, for the curious who might wonder about these sights, here are the pictures I took on a beautiful summer’s day, two years ago. If you are wondering whether it is worth making the journey, I would certainly say ‘yes’. The Turkish people are incredibly kind and generous hosts. In many ways, they were also dragged by events into fighting a war that they neither wanted, nor could afford. They are very conscious that the young men on both sides suffered a common fate, and they bear no animosity.

ImageMost of the physical scars that littered this once ravaged landscape have now healed. Butterflies flit skittishly through the remains of old trenches where men once fought and died. The flowers, the fauna and the sheer beauty of the place returned a long time ago. 

ImageThere is something incredibly cathartic about visiting this hallowed ground. Moving, disturbing and yet, ultimately, incredibly life affirming, Gallipoli and its cemeteries beg for your attention. Those interred forever in this peaceful, rolling patchwork quilt overlooking the sparkling sea deserve absolutely nothing less.ImageImageImageImageImage

AEGEAN ODYSSEY-A GREAT LITTLE FIND

CNV00029Gerry Herrod’s latest small ship creation is something of a finely polished jewel. At only 12,000 tons, the Aegean Odyssey is the perfect ship for summer cruises in the Mediterranean, as well as an excellent winter season spent out in the Far East.

A big, big advantage for history lovers is that all tours are included in the price. Each passenger has their own ‘quiet box’ that lets them hear their tour guide quite clearly, no matter how far away he or she may actually be. It’s a smart bit of thinking; indicative of the thought and effort that has gone into the whole project.

Most cruises encapsulate one or more overnight stays in port; perfect for a little late night people watching in Mykonos, Sorrento or Kusadasi. This allows you to get a little more ‘under the skin’ of a destination, rather than just seeing the fabled sights and relics. It’s also a definite plus when compared to the conventional, seven day ‘Meddy-go-rounds’ of the usual mega ships. These usually only stay in port until tea time and, often as not, can’t get into the kind of small, sweet places that the nimble little Aegean Odyssey can snuggle up to.

This was shown to stunning effect when we docked in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, for a three day stay last December. Sailing a full sixty miles up the meandering Irrawaddy, the Aegean Odyssey pirouetted as neatly as a swan to dock right on the front street of the capital. The ease of access was incredible; no big ship could ever have made that same berth.

Better still, each cruise includes a two night pre or post cruise hotel stay. Our Mediterranean cruise finished with two nights at the fabulous Ritz Carlton in Istanbul, and this really rounded out  a super journey. With two full days to peruse one of the most fabulous cities in the world, this is a real winner and, indeed, could be a true deal breaker for some. I could have spent the entire time in the hotel spa. Maybe next time…

CNV00018To top it all, the Aegean Odyssey herself is exquisite. There is free wine, beer and soft drinks included at dinner each night. The cabins were greatly expanded by deleting every third one of the originals, and then knocking down the walls to create much larger, more commodious spaces.

My cabin on both trips had excellent quality bedding, and a gorgeous little cove balcony worked into the hull, complete with canvas chairs and a small table. It was a sweet little spot to return to after a day’s touring the stunted magnificence of Ephesus, or the soaring limestone escarpments that litter the waters off the coast of Phuket. Sunsets were mellow viewed from here, and sometimes the opportunity to enjoy a late night cap under a blanket of stars was just too good to resist.

Food on both cruises was very good to excellent. The Aegean Odyssey offers open seating, with many passengers opting for the stunning, outdoor ‘Tapas on The Terrace’ with its side orders of warm sea breezes and mellow moonlight. Quality and presentation was of a very high standard and, as on all of Herrod’s previous ships, great emphasis is placed on the style and the quality of service. No complaints at all in that department.

That service was always deft, gracious and heartwarming. A superb Filipino staff combines with a low number of passengers- usually a maximum of three hundred and seventy- to provide a consummate, quite personalised experience. Other lines could learn a lot from this approach.

Physically, the ship is muted and tasteful; shorn of screaming colours and the trappings of the modern mega ships. Aegean Odyssey is  a quiet ship at night- you’re unlikely to find anybody up and around after midnight- but that’s so obviously not the kind of market that they aim for here.

CNV00052In short, the Aegean Odyssey is a small diamond. Beautifully styled and handsomely served, she wafts passengers effortlessly from one jaw dropping vista to another without fuss, but always with considerable style and charm.

As an in depth cruise experience goes, I can’t recommend this charming little lady highly enough.

SHWEDAGON AT SUNSET

ImageOur entire twelve night adventure aboard the Aegean Odyssey was stupendous, but if I had to pick out just one highlight, then I would have to go with Shweydagon. The sights, sounds and scent of the place are indelibly etched into my memory forever.

ImageThe entire complex is more than 2,600 years old, and is without doubt one of the most serene, stupendous visual feasts you will ever see. There are vaulting, blue and gold temples and vast, smiling Buddhas everywhere. The main pagoda, sheathed in literally acres of shimmering gold leaf, dominates the ancient Rangoon skyline like a spectacular exclamation mark. All around it, slender, ornate gold stupas splinter the humid night sky, and the smell of incense hangs in the air like fine perfume.

ImageThe sheer scale of this amazing space is mind blowing, and matched only by the incredible sensation of serene, almost surreal calm that it radiates from every angle. We were fortunate to see the sumptuous, sprawling expanse of the entire complex at twilight, as the last rays of the sun burnished the giant, golden cupolas and stupas with several amazing shades of burnt orange.

ImageYet what truly amazed me was a complete absence of jostling, despite the early evening crowds. Sauntering around this beautiful Buddhist masterpiece was like being awake in some incredibly vivid dream. Even now, there still seems something wispy, almost ethereal, about the entire amazing experience.

ImageBuddhism is endemic in the daily life of the Burmese as a people. It runs through their very history like some deep, underground current, and it has allowed them to survive the brutal narcissism of one of the most awful military dictatorships ever known. And while that dictatorship seems to be slowly wilting, like some sagging puppet with its strings cut, the ancient religion that preceded and survived it is encompassed indelibly in Shwedagon, the stunning spiritual heartland of one of the most amazing peoples I have ever been privileged enough to visit.

A JAUNT AROUND JAMES BOND ISLAND

ImageThe long, brightly painted longboat thumped and skipped across the sparkling Andaman sea, throwing up ghostly wisps of spray that vanished as quickly as they came. Ahead of us, something hugely impressive was filling our field of vision.

ImageThe outcrop known as James Bond island looked like nothing so much as some jagged, long decayed molar, flung from the heavens into the ocean by a vengeful god. Stark and swathed in serried layers of dense green foliage, it loomed up in front of us like some ancient monolith.

The island itself is known to the locals as Koh Tapu, but it will always be always ‘James Bond Island’ for the estimated three thousand or so visitors who make the pilgrimage to it each day. It starred as the lair of Scaramanga, Bond’s would- be nemesis in The Man with The Golden Gun, and was used again as a backdrop for the more contemporary Tomorrow Never Dies.

Truth be told, it’s not hard to see why Koh Tapu makes for such a great locale. It is by turns part impregnable fortress and prison. The soaring limestone face has an imperious, craggy stance. Studded with small caves at different heights that look like gaping battle scars, it has an air of aggressive self confidence; the perfect lair for any cultured megalomaniac.

ImageAnd yet… as we beetled up to the brute… it revealed a softer, more layered facade just under the surface. The clumps of gaunt white limestone came splashed with shades of silver, grey and even rust red in places. What seemed like one solid facade folded back into several layers. Maybe the scales of some ancient sea dragon? In this land of half realised myth and legends, who knew the real truth?

ImageThe vast, emerald green carpet that sheathed and shielded the exterior was reflected almost to perfection in the still, silent expanse of water that lapped at the base of the island. At one point, small boats could actually sail right through the middle to emerge on the other side.

ImageOur visit to Koh Tapu was only one of the string of highlights on our cruise aboard the smart, stylish little Aegean Odyssey. The Voyages to Antiquity team created a series of excursions that unveiled a series of shimmering, magical experiences with almost each new day. And while I was stunned and awed by the jagged majesty of Koh Tapu, there was more- much more- waiting just beyond the line of the horizon…..