For once, I’m going to start as what was almost literally the end of this trip. But please bear with me, and I think that you’ll see where I’m coming from here.
It’s around 2030 on a picture perfect, late summer evening, and I’m having dinner at the open air Terrace Cafe aboard Oceania Cruises’ Marina. It’s the highest spot at the very stern of the ship and, in good weather, it allows for a fantastic panorama of the ship’s wake. And, in that respect, tonight is just about as good as it gets.
Behind us, the magnificent chalk cliffs that range along the coast of Dorset are falling in slow motion into a gently rolling, gunmetal tinted sea. It resembles a block of slowly melting ice cream as it sags and sighs almost reluctantly into the waters of the English Channel.
Above this, dark, gossamer bands of low grey and saffron clouds are pierced by shafts of brilliant, rosy sunset as the day slowly gives ground to the oncoming night. It all looks like a series of amazing celestial brush strokes, defining the textures and shades of the very universe itself. But even this is merely one detail in a much larger picture.
If light is one part of this fantastic natural smorgasbord, then you have to tip your hat to the soundtrack that comes as an appetiser. Though the terrace is busy, the tone is hushed, almost awed, even. As if there is a kind of symbiotic- and totally apt- natural reverence for the amazing visual display unfolding all around us.
There is the subtle murmur of tinkling glassware and polished cutlery, vibrating gently on tables sprinkled across the trim, tidy expanse of deck space. That, and the seductive swish of water boiling alongside the soaring flanks of our ship, gives the evening an air of detached, almost Olympian splendour that seemed to stand still in time and space. I hardly dared breathe, in case I shattered the spell forever.
There’s an ambient musical soundtrack, too. I can still hear Billie Holliday crooning wistfully through Good Morning Heartache, and the strident, soulful tones of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet as the first notes of La Vie En Rose rise up to kiss the warm evening breeze. There is just the faintest hint of a ghostly, glimmering star or two in the sky by now. It’s almost as if the heavens themselves have been stirred into casual curiosity by the sight of this beautiful ship so far below, cutting like an arrow across the darkening carpet of the ocean.
Waiters weave between the tables with the subtle, artistic elan of a ballet troupe, delivering food and drinks to the score of people lounging outside on the terrace. The aromas from that food hang in the air like fine perfume. The whole thing is like some beautifully orchestrated symphony that, by it’s very nature, can only ever be performed once. And here we sit, with the best seats in the house, watching it all unfold. Savouring it like fine wine.
And the food? ‘Sublime’ does not begin to cover it. A perfectly crafted sirloin yields without a fight, washed down with some gorgeous Woodbridge Zinfandel. At one stage, the setting sun glances like some fleeting lover’s kiss against the rim of my wine glass, turning it briefly into a shimmering little rose bowl that makes me smile like a kid on Christmas Day.
Now the theatre is emptying. People have to pack, and prepare for our inevitable Southampton landing in the morning. Like some tired, gently sighing swan, the Marina surges gamely towards the end of her journey.
But there is still time for a final few of those gorgeous ‘Big O’ martinis, time to enjoy some last conversations and laughter. To say ‘goodbye’ for now to new found friends and old ones alike, among both passengers and crew.
Yes, it is ending. But it is doing so just as it started; with style, grace and elegance. And, right at that soulful, mellow little interlude, I was truly grateful for that.