IF the mere mention of Star Cruises brings to mind gambling cruises to nowhere or to neighbouring Asian isles, then the time is right for you to rediscover a whole new holiday at sea - for the very first time, Star Cruises is heading to Europe.
For the SuperStar Libra's maiden voyage, it chose the exotic Eastern Mediterranean - a seven-night journey which began in Valletta, Malta, and making its way through Italy's port cities like Civitavecchia, La Spezia, Olbia and Naples, before returning to Malta.
While Valletta is the base for Libra's scheduled cruise itineraries this summer in the Eastern Mediterranean, you can choose from other itineraries that include stops at places such as Santorini, Rhodes and Corfu in Greece, Istanbul and Izmir in Turkey, Venice in Italy, Dubrovnik in Croatia and Alexandria in Egypt.
As the capital of Malta, which has a population of 400,000, Valletta is itself an interesting base for Libra. As you fly into Malta to join the cruise, it's worth taking some time to explore this historic city with its elaborate fortifications, palaces, museums and churches, highlights of which include the Grand Co-cathedral of St John, the walled city of Mdina, the Grand Master's Palace and the church of the Knights of St John. For those in search of culinary and social sustenance, head out to St Julians, which boasts a beautiful promenade studded with restaurants, cafes, bars and clubs.
History was high on the agenda at the first two Italian ports of call. Civitavecchia is a major cruise and ferry port - in fact, the original harbour was built by the emperor Trajan during the 2nd century AD. It became the modern port of Rome in the late 17th century, but the entire city was pulverised during World War II. Since then, it's been completely rebuilt, although you can still visit the old monuments such as the Forte Michelangelo, part of which was built by Michelangelo himself in 1535.
While in itself Civitavecchia warrants just a quick visit, it also allows you time to make a quick trip to Rome for a whistle stop tour that covered all the major sights like the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and Vatican City. The Vatican, in particular, stands out not just for its historical grandeur but as an inspiring place for believers.
The second stop La Spezia is a tiny but elegant city with magnificent gardens, and is also a gateway to Florence and its cultural attractions. A full-day excursion is only enough to offer you a glimpse of the many major works that stem from the patronage of the powerful Medicis. Unfortunately, there was no time to explore Uffizi Gallery and its collection of priceless art.
Culture of a different sort was on the agenda at the next two stops Olbia and Porto Cervo, where glimpses of the life of the international jet set awaited. At Porto Cervo, for example, were the opulent villas of the Aga Khan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. As a bonus, the Aga Khan and his magnificent yacht were in Porto Cervo when we were there.
Our last stop was Naples, situated on breathtaking blue bays at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Don't miss out on an excursion to picturesque Sorrento, where the ruins of ancient Pompeii are an awe-inspiring sight. Not to mention that the shops in Sorrento are a pleasant change from the usual brand names we come across in major cities.
But in the end, the seven-day cruise was just too short. There wasn't enough time to shop during the shore excursions - in particular, I wished there was more time to buy leather bags and shoes in Florence. There was barely enough time to sit down and recharge, eat an ice cream or sip a cappuccino, in between pounding the cobblestone streets in Italy in early summer.
As for the cruise ship itself, the Libra is by today's standards a mid-size ship, with a capacity of over 1,400. It may not have the jaw-dropping facilities of some of the new mega ships, but it's comfortable enough. My deluxe ocean view stateroom offered a decent-sized window, perfect for watching the sun rise over the Mediterranean sea each morning. At 126 sq ft, the room packs in a fair amount of storage space, though larger passengers might find the shower area a tight squeeze.
The nightly shows on board the Libra may not be of the quality of London's West End or Cirque du Soleil. And the food on the ship may not match that of top restaurants in major cities, though it is a sight better than a hotel buffet back home.
But what made the cruise enjoyable was the crew. Maybe it has something to do with being out at sea, but the friendliness and enthusiasm of the service staff gets top marks. Time went by swiftly, thanks to the cheerful crew and interesting ports of call. After a hectic day of shore excursion, catching as many sights and doing as much shopping as possible in a very finite space of time, there's nothing like rolling back into the welcoming confines of the ship for dinner, shows and after-show drinks.
Yes, it's almost like home - if home looks like Italy, that is.