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LUXURY CRUISE: Queen Elizabeth on the Black Sea

As we took photographs of a seemingly never-ending parade of young brides in vertiginous heels and eye-popping crystal-studded dresses - in turn being snapped by their friends and official photographers - elderly women dressed in black with knotted headscarves whiled away the afternoon on shady park benches, a young musician played tunes to passing visitors and daredevil skateboarders swept past.

In the space of half an hour on Primorsky Boulevard we'd seen a snapshot of life in Odessa, a pretty city with fading pastel-coloured buildings that looks as if it was picked up in France or Italy and deposited on the seashore of Ukraine. Totally different from many of the rather austere cities from the former Soviet Union, Odessa has an unexpectedly warm, cafe culture atmosphere.
russion dolls and cathedral in odessa
russion dolls and cathedral in odessa
grand lobby
medieval nessebur
swallow's nest
queen elizabeth
odessa opera house
It is just one of the surprises awaiting those who venture beyond the Mediterranean, the most popular European cruise destination, and set sail further east into the Black Sea. In fact, we - well, in fact the royal we as in the Queen Elizabeth to be correct - had also been the subject of countless photos, a few people people waving Union Flags and a stirring welcome by a brass band when we'd docked in Odessa on the ship's maiden call to the city known as the Pearl of the Black Sea.

We'd sailed from Venice and the cruise was a mix of the familiar, including the exotic Turkish city Istanbul and ever-popular white-washed Greek island of Santorini, coupled with new destinations - Odessa and the neighbouring Ukrainian city of Yalta, plus Bulgaria's Nessebur - giving both cruise rookies and seasoned seafarers the chance to head to new horizons in this fascinating region.

Odessa's Primorsky Boulevard has long been the place to see and be seen, and in days gone by wealthy women would promenade up and down in the latest French fashions. These days it's a more eclectic mix of shore-going cruise passengers and all kinds of locals, but it's nevertheless a great place to people watch.

It was founded back in 1794 by Catherine the Great who wanted a sea port on the southern edge of the then Russian Empire and modelled on St Petersburg, hence the grand avenues, statues and fountains. In its hey-day it was one of Russia's richest cities, and this legacy can be seen in the ornate opera house at the end of Primorsky which is the favourite photographic backdrop for the local brides.

Fans of classic films will recognise Odessa's trademark sight right next to the port. The Potemkin Steps were immortalised in the celebrated 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin and create an interesting optical illusion, depending whether you're standing at the top or the bottom. At ground level you can't see the wide landings and the steps look as if they're a continuous unbroken flight, but from the top the main view is the landings. Unfortunately views can be obscured by the tourist trap of hawkers trying to put golden eagles on visitors' arms and demanding money to take photos. Animal-lovers won't enjoy the sight of these magnificent birds being alternately touted around and tied to railings or the small crocodiles with mouths taped shut that are offered for similar 'photo opportunities'.

Yalta, a day's sailing from Odessa, has an altogether different atmosphere. Legend has it that it was founded in the 1st century by Greek sailors who got lost in a storm. Originally they moored up in the bay to take shelter, but when they discovered its warm climate and its scenic surroundings of green mountains they permanently dropped anchor and made it their home. It then became the summer seaside playground of Russian aristocracy and these days quite a few cruise passengers probably don't make it further than the long waterfront by the port which is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants.

But we hopped on a coach for a journey up steep, winding roads to take in some of the main sightseeing spots. A highlight, in every sense of the word, is the Swallow's Nest that is a permanent fixture on Yalta postcards and guide book covers. The Gothic fairy-tale castle perched on a cliff was built by a German oil magnate in 1912 house his mistresses, and on clear days you can get great views from the dedicated viewing platform on the road, flanked by obligatory souvenir shops selling a wide range of tat and a few things that you might want to give house room to on return.

Next stop was the gorgeous Italianate palace of Livadia, the summer home of Tsar Nicholas II and later famous as the site where the Great Britain, the USA and former USSR met in 1945 to re-draw Europe's map after the Second World War. A short drive away is Alupka Palace and curious 19th century fusion of a Moorish fortress crossed with an English castle and where Winston Churchill stayed during the conference. It makes more sense when you find out that architect Edward Blore, who designed part of Buckingham Palace, was involved in the design.

Another gem on this cruise is Nessebur, built on the edge of a peninsula that was once an island and reached by tenders from the ship. It's one of the oldest towns in Europe and is well-known for having countless churches decorated with bright stones and brickwork. When you've had enough sightseeing the narrow lanes lined with cafes and shops are great places to chill out and indulge in some retail therapy.

Back on more familiar territory in Aegean waters, we decided to give Santorini a miss after seeing the number of cruise ships that were lined up to take their passengers to shore. However, if you haven't been there before it's definitely worth braving the inevitable crowds at peak times. From the landing point there are 657 zigzag steps up to the town of Fira, a great way to walk off some of the inevitable culinary overload that goes hand in hand with cruising, unless you have willpower of steel. You'll have to jockey for position with the donkeys and mules that cart tourists up and down, and again, whilst some view the mule train as fun, animal welfare issues will raise questions among others. The easiest and quickest way to the top is by cable car and the main street has plenty of cafes and shops, including tempting upmarket jewellery stores.

If you want the best high tea while sailing the high seas The Luxury Travel Bible reckons you should travel in style and the Queen Elizabeth is certainly the way to go for the unashamed glamour and elegance associated with a bygone era, especially on the formal nights when you can don your best LBD as you cruise the Black Sea.

Luxury Facts
Cunard Queen Elizabeth
Passengers: 2,068
Pluses: An iconic name that delivers old school service and a real sense of occasion at sea.
Luxury berth: Queens Grill and Princess Grill suites have their own exclusive restaurants.
Luxury Cruise link: www.cunard.co.uk
Jeannine Williamson 9/5/13
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