Indulging in six-star luxury on the Seven Seas Mariner is the friendly way to visit the turbulent Middle East, writes Nick Jenkins.

Unless you grew up somewhere like Downton Abbey, the chances are that — like us — you've never had a chance to get used to having a butler.

It probably explains why, when we heard we would have a butler on this cruise, our daughter said we should insist on calling him Carson at all times.

Maybe our butler would have got the joke, but we were just happy calling him Melwyn. And, worryingly, after a few days we realised we could very easily get used to having a butler around to sort everything out for us.

The Seven Seas Mariner is classy, but it's also a very informal ship. No tuxedos or long dresses are needed, as every night is designated "elegant casual" on cruises up to a fortnight.


To virgin cruisers like us, it is easy to see the appeal of this sort of holiday. But there is more to cruising than sitting around and being waited on.

Like sightseeing!

Ashdod, where we berthed for two nights, is a modern city and an industrial port, but it is handy for most sights in Israel.

All tours from the ship were heavily booked and our guide on the Jerusalem tour, Mordecai, was determined not to lose any of us as he led us down the narrow alleys of Jerusalem's Old City.

The Old City is a maze of narrow streets packed with distractions for the curious tourist.

We were entering the Christian Quarter from the Jaffa Gate, heading for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the world's great pilgrimage sites.

It's allegedly the site of the crucifixion and Jesus' tomb — and, handily, it's all under one roof. But it's a sprawling building, decrepit in parts and maintained by a holy alliance of the Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic churches, a rather uneasy coalition that has been known to descend into fisticuffs over perceived breaches of an 1853 agreement.

Guides love to point out a wooden ladder on a ledge outside the basilica. It has allegedly been there since the early 19th century because no one can agree who has the right to remove it.

It is a symbol — if any more symbols are needed — of the millennia-old conflicts over this piece of land in the eastern Mediterranean.

Mordecai told us he was a military reservist for many years and it is hard to avoid the subject of conflict, big and small, when visiting Israel.

It is a country where, even when all seems peaceful, you are never far from reminders of a turbulent past and present.

But there is a lot to be said for visiting an often-volatile region such as the Middle East by ship.

Our ship, the Seven Seas Mariner, is a regular visitor to that part of the world and, as an all-inclusive ship, there is no added charge for excursions — or for anything.

It is described as "the world's first all-suite, all-balcony ship", so every guest has a suite with a balcony.

Even the smaller suites were described by cruise experts we met on board as the best they had ever stayed in. Our "penthouse suite", up on the 11th floor, was enormous. To a couple whose previous overnight experience on ships was limited to twin cabins on a ferry, this definitely fell into the luxury category. In the parlance of the cruise industry, a six-star experience.

But what struck us was the classlessness. Unlike on some other cruise lines, guests can eat in any of the restaurants on board, whatever level of cabin they are in.

It is possible to spend money on board — there is a pricey spa, and you can lose as much as you can afford in the casino — but you could enjoy a full cruise, champagne all the way, without putting your hand in your pocket once. Even tipping is not expected.

Seasoned cruisers — and we did not meet a single fellow traveller on Seven Seas Mariner who had not cruised many times — told us that excursions and drinks bills can sometimes double the cost of voyages on "non-inclusive" ships.

Several made the point that the ship was more sociable as a result — not because everyone was drunk, but because no one had to worry about adding to what would have been an already-heavy drinks bill run up on other cruises by offering to share rounds with new acquaintances.


Fares for a deluxe balcony suite on a 10-night cruise from Athens to Istanbul (including Haifa and Ashdod) start from $8755 a person and include flights, transfers, overnight pre-cruise hotel, on board food, drink, shore excursions and gratuities.

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