A cruise on board Swan Hellenic’s ship Minerva to the Gulf of Corinth is a real sword-and-sandal adventure, discovers Sara Macefield

Our ship seemed to be steaming straight towards an impenetrable wall of rock stretching across our path. I should have been panicking. Instead I was intrigued.

In normal circumstances I wouldn’t have been quite so relaxed, but I was on board cultural cruise line Swan Hellenic’s ship Minerva and we were approaching the entrance to Greece’s Corinth Canal – an engineering masterpiece which links the Ionian Sea with the Aegean, so saving a 131-nautical mile journey around the Peloponnese peninsular (which effectively became an island once the waterway opened in 1893).

As dusk fell, I couldn’t see any sign of the canal opening and only hoped the Captain had better eyesight than I did and knew where to go. Of course he did, he’d done this many times – sailing through the canal is one of the highlights of cruising this corner of the Mediterranean, and for some of the more experienced passengers on board it represented another canal to tick off their list, along with the Panama Canal, Suez and Kiel.

At just four miles (or 6.3km), the Corinth Canal is by far the shortest of the four and at 75ft (24.6m) wide, certainly the narrowest.

Minerva is one of the largest vessels to squeeze through the canal and, as we neared its mouth, it seemed everyone collectively held their breath. Then, for three hours we inched our way between the sheer sandstone walls towering 260ft above us, with just two feet to spare either side.

I joined the lines of passengers watching from the deck – convinced that Minerva’s protruding bridge wings would crunch into the sides. Amazingly they didn’t, but a chorus of cracking branches from overhanging trees signalled that the lifeboats didn’t escape quite so lightly.

It was a tight fit, but infinitely preferable to the ancient alternative, which meant hauling ships across the isthmus along a paved road. Early attempts by Roman emperor Nero to construct a canal proved unsuccessful, and it was nearly 2,000 years before this waterway was finally built.

I’d enjoyed a bird’s eye view of it a few hours earlier when, as a bystander, I had looked down and admired the vista from one of the two bridges spanning the canal.

This had been part of an excursion to nearby Ancient Corinth, Greece’s most important port before Piraeus rose to prominence from the 5th Century BC. As our group attentively followed the guide on the dusty path past the arches and columns, it was hard to grasp that this was once a city some 40,000 strong under Greek and then Roman rule; and where St Paul preached for 18 months, later penning his Letters to the Corinthians.

Such details were intently absorbed by my fellow travellers who clearly appreciated the rich history and fascinating culture represented here. And that is the essence of Swan Hellenic, whose voyages are renowned for the depth and quality of their shore excursions and onboard speakers drawn from the worlds of academia, diplomacy and the Church.

Our first lecture was due the following morning on our first full day at sea, straight after breakfast and clearly, I thought, aimed at die-hard cultural buffs. Definitely not me.

I decided to go but with the intention of staying for just a few minutes just to get a flavour of the talk. However, I was soon plunged into a world of conquests, child sacrifices and gladiatorial conquests that could not have been more at odds with the genteel atmosphere around me. The audience was entranced as Edinburgh University Emeritus Professor Robert Hillenbrand peppered his talk with tempestuous tales. And so was I.

Admittedly, his lecture wasn’t all blood and gore. Its main focus was on early Greek immigration to Sicily – our next stop on this Athens to Lisbon cruise – and the impact the Ancient Greeks and Romans had on the island.

So, far from sneaking out early as I’d intended, the fascinating content and Professor Hillenbrand’s authoritative delivery, delivered without notes, kept me listening until the end. Something I congratulated myself on the following morning as I sat on the stone steps of the Greco-Roman amphitheatre in the pretty Sicilian town of Taormina.

My appreciation of the stunning view of Mount Etna deepened as I recalled the professor’s explanation of how the Greeks had positioned the theatre to capitalise on its setting – only for the Romans to arrive years later and build a wall across the columns, blocking the vista. Thankfully, its partial collapse over the centuries has opened up the theatre once again to the glory of its scenic backdrop.

Other lectures on the voyage, examining the Normans of Sicily and birdlife of the Mediterranean, were of a similarly high standard and also well attended.

I did have a small moment of disappointment during the cruise. I’d hoped to see a talk by TV war reporter and former MP Martin Bell, a fascinating character I’d bumped into on the ship on a few occasions. Unfortunately I disembarked before his first session, which was due to be a gripping account of his time in Bosnia.

Musical diversions also played their part on the cruise with operatic group Opera Barcarola holding the stage on some evenings, while cabaret duo The Totties provided light-hearted shows and choir classes.

A cruise with Swan Hellenic is like no other. With its 4,000-book library, which is always occupied by bookworms and puzzle buffs hunched over the communal jigsaw, Minerva is more a floating country house hotel with an air of studied contemplation and polite conversation that flows through the comfortable bars and lounges. The ambience is gentle and refined, with craft classes and quietly competitive games of bridge.

It’s a winning combination for a particular band of cruisers who form the fiercely loyal group of repeat passengers (who average at around 80 per cent on sailings) known as Swans, and made up of distinguished types from the upper reaches of society, sometimes with an impressive military background.

I had been warned that the Swan Hellenic crowd could be cliquey and, as I was travelling on my own, I wondered whether I would feel like a fish out of water. I needn’t have worried as the friendliness of everyone I met was evident from the outset and there was a sizeable number of other solo travellers.

Also, as the Minerva is a compact ship – carrying just 350 passengers – I would often bump into familiar faces and acquaintances I’d met on shore excursions. And at dinner the waiting staff would obligingly direct me to larger tables made up of disparate couples and other singletons, paving the way for many a convivial evening.

Not only was the company good, so was the cuisine. There was a fine selection of buffet fare for breakfast and lunch, with a welcome outdoor seating area around the pool. Meanwhile, the main Swan Restaurant served delicious five-course dinners from its varied international menu, with dishes ranging from goats cheese soufflés to pan-roasted duck and Greek-style roasted leg of lamb.

This was clearly a cruise where food for thought came in many guises – and set the seal on a voyage that really brought out the full flavour of every destination I visited. There was culture aplenty, but it certainly wasn’t dry and I could see why such this engaging mix brings the Swans flocking back time after time.

GETTING THERE: A 12-night cruise from Athens to Venice, sailing through the Corinth Canal, departing on November 27, 2016, starts at  £1,696pp, including flights and gratuities. Ports of call include aKotor, Dubrovnik, Split, Sibenik, Rijeka and Koper. Visit swanhellenic.com.

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