A true gem of a cruise in the Western Mediterranean on the Marella Explorer 2
I'm reclining on a sun lounger on the deck of the Marella cruise ship Explorer 2 under a blazing Mediterranean sun, the obligatory piña colada in hand - well, it would be rude not to - when the giant TV screen splutters into life.
It's cruise director Matthew Shaw - who'd been on sister ship Explorer on our previous Marella cruise - being asked his take on the differences between the two vessels.'This ship is very much like its sister' he says, 'both excellent and special, but the Explorer 2 is perhaps a bit quirkier'.
He sums up my feelings exactly. I was amazed at the luxury and thoughtful design of the first ship, but can see that a few heads got together and made even more of space, layout, decor and content.My wife and I are on Marella's Mediterranean Gems itinerary, which on my week-long cruise visits Toulon in the south of France, Tarragona in Spain and three Italian ports - Livorno, Civitavecchia and Olbia in Sardinia - but more of that later, as there's much more of the ship to explore.
So where to start?
Food and Drink
Everywhere you stroll exudes class, from the luxury cabins to the gleaming stairwell balustrades, from the rich pile carpets to the elegant fixtures and fittings. Dining is no exception to this, with a selection of enticing places to eat and drink, whatever your whim or fancy. The Market Place restaurant is open throughout the day for self-serve breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner - ideal for those who don't want any fuss, and there is an amazing selection for every mealtime (Tip: take a waistsize-larger pair of trousers for later in the trip).
For those who do like the fuss, you can visit either Vista or Latitude 53 restaurants where every courtesy is extended by the hard-working waiters, and these are included in your all-inclusive price, as are pizzas and pasta dishes in Nonnas, Beach Cove (in the day) and the Snack Shack on the pool deck.
For those who want to try something that extra special in the evening, for an additional cover charge why not try the ship's a la carte restaurants which include The Dining Club for a gastronomic food and wine tour de force, Surf and Turf for a steak or fish prepared just as you like it, Kora La for a Pan-Asian fusion experience second to none and the BBQ-inspired Beach Cove for a bellybusting bonanza (see the amazing ferris wheel dessert spectacular on the video!)
Did I just say all-inclusive? Yes all Marella Cruises are all inclusive, so once you've paid your fare it's fine fare all the way, and all your drinks are included, be it in the restaurants mentioned or in the ship's nine bars.
There's always something to do on board. If it's sunny there's nothing much better than enjoying a cocktail or three by the pool or relaxing in the whirlpool baths, and entertainment is always provided whether it's a live band, one of the entertainment team performing DJ duties, or something of interest on the giant TV screen. A bulletin for the following day is delivered to your cabin each evening with a packed programme of activities around the ship including quizzes, competitions, informative talks and much, much more.
Try your hand at the minigolf while you take in the panoramic views, or stroll along the Broadstreet Shops. One of the newest attractions is the 19th Hole bar where you can take up a seat in a golf buggy, order a themed cocktail and tee off on one of the golf simulators for a little extra. Explorer 2 also has its own Champneys Spa, where you can relax with a massage or treatment, including facials and acupuncture to name but two, or gaze out to sea in the impressive infinity pool.
In the evening the bars come alive with the sound of music and laughter with live bands, comedy acts, piano music, pub quizzes and audience participation fun. The silent disco in Indigo is a must. Put on the headphones, decide which of the two songs you want to dance to and get boogieing! (...then take them off for a second and see people dancing to apparently nothing!)
The jewel in the ship's crown is the Broadway Show Lounge with an amazing 12 professional shows on offer - and big enough to rival a theatre on, well, Broadway!
Ports and excursions
We joined and left the ship in Naples - Italy’s most red-blooded city and one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world and, for those already on the ship or staying for a longer cruise, it's from here you can visit the time-frozen cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, whose citizens were stopped in their tracks by the famous Mount Vesuvius eruptions of 79 AD.
Fusing French Riviera glam with the feel of a traditional old town, Toulon is a gorgeous gateway to the Côte d’Azur, where you can follow the sound of popping corks and clinking champagne flutes to über-stylish St-Tropez, or venture into Aix en Provence and find out about its dual identity. This place is known as the Town of Water thanks to its fountains and the Town of Art because of its many museums.
Once a Roman capital of Spain, beautiful Tarragona is brimming with historic landmarks and monuments. In the old quarter, with its magnificent Gothic cathedral, we were especially pleased with how reasonable prices were in cafes, shops and restaurants - well worth a trip off the ship with buses laid on by the local tourist board.Our first port of call in Italy was Livorno, where we were able to embark on our eagerly-anticipated trip to Pisa. We were not to be disappointed as we entered through the walled gateway and the vista of the leaning wonder suddenly came into view. Unforgettable. Cue many, many photos.Civitavecchia was our next stop, and from where we joined the ship's Express to Rome excursion. In less than an hour by train we were in the capital on a breathtaking tour which included the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, with some fantastic pasta dishes and wine thrown into the mix.
Olbia in Sardinia was an altogether more laidback experience following our excursion exertion the previous day and a place where you can simply spread out a towel and relax on the beach. Or, if you’re an active traveller, there are plenty of ways to explore this tranquil spot. Bike rides take in charm-filled villages, while boat trips allow you to experience the French island of Corsica and the peaceful La Maddalena archipelago.
Wi-fi packages, premium drinks upgrades, cabin types - there is simply not enough time and space here to write about all the fabulous facilities on board this magnificent ship and the amazing places it takes you to. Please watch the video for an extra insight into this thoroughly gem-orable experience.At the time of writing a Mediterranean Gems cruise costs £1001 pp for a week's all-inclusive cruise on May 6 with direct Manchester flights, and from £812 from other airports. Visit https://www.tui.co.uk/cruise/
A great way to start your holiday is to relax in VIP surroundings before your flight. In the Aspire Lounge you can help yourself to tasty, wholesome food and let the bartender pour you your favourite drink – complimentary, of course. Whether you wish to work, have some much-needed quiet time, or relax with the family, your journey gets off to a perfect start. Available in T1 & T2 at Manchester, prices start from £22.49 per adult. Visit www.executivelounges.com/aspire
Holiday Extras is the market leader in UK airport parking, hotels, lounges and transfers, and 98% of the time Holiday Extras can find you a hotel and parking package that’s cheaper than the cheapest airport parking on its own (based on two-week breaks). Booking an Airport Hotel with Parking ensures that you can enjoy more holiday without the hassle, as we found by checking into the first-rate Clayton Hotel. To book the Clayton with eight days’ hotel parking at Manchester Airport for £135, visit HolidayExtras.com or call 0800 316 5678 (Price searched on 15 October 2019 for arrival on 15 February 2020).