It's an iconic journey that dates back to the 16th century when Spanish ships starting making the arduous eight-week trip to the New World, braving the unpredictable ocean in small wooden ships. But this Atlantic crossing would be done in a state-of-the-art cruise liner with every need catered to — the actual crossing taking just four days; the cruise 14 — proceeding down the coast of Spain through the Strait of Gibraltar and across the Atlantic to South America.
If you're accustomed to travelling on bigger ships, a cruise on the Marina will open your eyes to another type of cruise holiday; one where relaxation and rejuvenation is key and the days go by in a blur of sun, food, reading and exploring the on-shore destinations, not queuing for food at the buffet. And there's no better way to do it than on a leisurely Atlantic crossing, with plenty of sea days and a chance to visit the Canary Islands, get a taste of Africa in Cape Verde and end in Brazil's spectacular Rio de Janeiro.
I flew in a few days early to explore another legendary city — Barcelona.
The Catalonian capital is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and the unique architecture of Antoni Gaudi (the mastermind behind Casa Mila, Casa Batllo and La Sagrada Familia) along with the art and the food were the reasons I flew in early.
I visited Casa Batllo (literally "house of bones"), named after the textile industrialist Josep Batllo who commissioned it.
It was built by Gaudi between 1904 and 1906 and is second only to the still unfinished La Sagrada Familia in popularity.
After entry — around 30 Euros ($50) — you're given a tablet that unlocks information as you walk around.
Up close it's the attention to detail that impresses: eccentric doorknobs, mushroom-shaped fireplaces and an undulating ceiling that evokes the sea are just some of the touches.
There's a great gift shop too, so set aside at least an hour, but get there early to avoid the queues.
Of course, pretty much anywhere you wander in Barcelona is a feast for the senses — even if the playfulness of Gaudi isn't your thing — there are beautiful buildings everywhere you look. A great way to see them all is on the Barcelona Bus Turistic, a hop-on-hop-off bus that will get you close to all the sights and provides a pre-recorded audio guide (just get a seat on the upper deck).
Jetlag ensured I was up early the next day so I made my way to La Boqueria Market and spent an hour watching the vendors set up their stores. The only thing open for business was the tapas bar Bar Pinoxto, no bad thing as it has a reputation of serving some great, fuss-free tapas.
I ordered a cortado and two tapas dishes — one of chickpeas and pork, another of eggs and zucchini — simple dishes, but hearty and delicious. Be prepared to wait for a seat.
The Museu Picasso is another must visit.
The museum focuses on Picasso's early years from 1890 to around 1917. There's an audio guide with admission and you can follow the artist's development as you move through the rooms; there's also a set of 42 ceramic works. Of course, you could spend weeks just visiting museums — there are over 34 — including the Museu del Futbol Club Barcelona, the Museu del perfum, and the Fundacio of Barcelona-born artist Joan Miro, but I had an ocean to cross.
There are no dodgem cars, rock-climbing walls, simulated sky diving or bungy jumps on the Marina; if you're after adrenalin-pumping activities, look elsewhere. The Marina is old school in the best way possible — offering personalised service with a focus on elegance and comfort, and Marina's older demographic love it.
So instead of robots serving you drinks (one option offered on a recent cruise I took), you have waiters in formal attire offering afternoon tea and scones with clotted cream, while a string quartet plays.
Unsurprisingly, many on board were brand loyal (converts to the "O" life).
One couple I spoke to were on their eighth cruise on the Marina; the itinerary seemed to matter less than the cruise experience itself — indeed, they would only leave the ship on a couple of occasions throughout the cruise.
Inspired by Miami's Mondrian Hotel and the Palm Court at NYC's Plaza Hotel, the first impression is one of chic elegance. The Marina's grand staircase is movie worthy and my balcony cabin well appointed with ample storage, and a bathroom with both a tub and shower and plenty of Bulgari amenities.
The food is among the best I've experienced on a cruise ship, with multiple dining venues, and four signature restaurants (the Asian-themed Red Ginger, the Italian Toscana, the Polo Grill steakhouse and Jacques, the first-ever restaurant by celebrity chef Jacques Pepin).
Better still, there's no extra charge for these and on a longer cruise like this, you can try each one multiple times (I found myself most often at the Polo Grill, wowed by its handsome decor and mouthwatering steaks, with Toscana a close second; seafood lovers will flock to Red Ginger and its famous sea bass dish served in a banana leaf).
The ship was purpose built for a food-focused experience, befitting a line that boasts it has the "finest cuisine at sea".
Each restaurant has its own galley (there are around 150 chefs on board) and only the freshest ingredients are used. The ship even carries multiple types of French flour and butter for the 24/7 bakery, while the Versace plates at Toscana are a work of art.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the Canary Islands
After two sea days, the first stop was the capital of Tenerife — Santa Cruz. Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago 100 kilometres west of Morocco. While there were various shore excursions available on board, I opted to do some independent sightseeing. Santa Cruz's main shopping street was just a five-minute walk from the port and offered the usual high-street stores in a pretty, pedestrian mall with a series of smaller, more interesting side streets running off it.
Back on board that night, the destination was reflected in a Spanish-themed night at the buffet — with paella and other Spanish dishes served. Another special was available a few days later on Thanksgiving and much appreciated by the many American passengers who enjoyed roasted Turkey, sweet potato and cranberry sauce.
San Sebastian, La Gomera
A day later, we arrived at San Sebastian (population 8000) on the island of La Gomera, and its slow pace and relaxed vibe was a world away from neighbour Santa Cruz. This was the first time the ship had visited San Sebastian (one of the advantages of sailing on a smaller ship is that it can get access to ports like this) and it turned out to be a highlight.
Brightly coloured buildings rose up the sides of the town, accessible by steep narrow lanes. It was like walking around a film set — the town eerily quiet in the middle of the day ...
We were able to walk off the ship into one of the most picturesque towns I've ever visited.
Brightly coloured buildings rose up the sides of the town, accessible by steep narrow lanes. It was like walking around a film set — the town eerily quiet in the middle of the day — until a motorbike or car appeared around the bend. I lunched at a local restaurant, the owner taking me inside to choose the type of fish I wanted — all caught that morning. Afterwards I wandered around, had a coffee in a cafe and visited the Church of Assumption where Columbus and his men prayed in 1492 before setting off to the New World.
This would have been a hard place to leave.
This was one of those surpass-all-expectations days that travel throws us once in a while.
Mindelo, Sao Vicente, Cape Verde
Also called Cabo Verde, this group of islands 600km off the west coast of Africa was a fascinating stop. Mindelo is the main city on the island of Sao Vicente. On a guided shore excursion I visited a West African market and fruit market before busing out to the volcanic Monte Verde (the island's highest peak at 744m).
On the way back to the port we stopped at a beach, its fine white sand blown in from the Sahara desert.
Mindelo is an odd place, a third-world city that still has a way to go if it wants to compete with the Canaries as a tourist destination. It experiences water and electricity shortages and has limited employment opportunities. The city wasn't developed until the 19th century because of its arid nature, and its main industry today is as a refuelling point for transatlantic freighters.
As our mini-bus drove the empty roads back to the city we passed women walking in the brutal heat with jugs of water on their backs, when they saw the bus they all turned and waved. I wasn't the only one who felt strange that evening returning to our luxury cruise ship.
With four sea days ahead, I took the opportunity to explore the ship.
Much time was spent in the English-style library — a comforting place with a fireplace, big leather chairs, a wide selection of books — from classics such as Dickens and Proust to self-help books, biographies and the latest thrillers — and a cafe, with a skilled Barista Paulo, just around the corner.
The Spa and gym were also great places to pamper yourself and work off the extra calories.
Don't miss the culinary classes — the first custom-designed, hands-on cooking school at sea. Our class was taught by (now New Zealand-based) chef Stephanie Hersh who worked for 16 years as Julia Child's secretary.
Cooking classes are run throughout the cruise, but you need to book.
We went though some Latin-based recipes in anticipation of our Brazilian destination and the two-hour class flew by. Hersh says the classes are fully booked on most cruises and in many destinations she also takes culinary adventures with groups — exploring the destination's local markets, and sourcing products.
"When you follow food you get a great insight into the local culture," she says.
The onboard culture was also food focused. Over the 14 nights, I dined at all the restaurants and each had their highlights — the spicy miso soup and the watermelon and duck salad at Red Ginger; the Waldorf salad and New York strip steak at the Polo Grill; the handmade tortelloni stuffed with ricotta and spinach at Toscana. If you're a foodie, this is the line for you.
Within a couple of days we were crossing the equator — a feat celebrated on board by a light-hearted ceremony, which included a mock inquisition, egg throwing and other gooey punishments around the main pool. At this stage in the cruise many passengers were getting to know each other, with many arranging evening meals together, a reminder of the community feel on the cruise.
After four days at sea we reached Recife, the capital of Brazil's northeastern state of Pernambuco (bonus: passengers didn't have to bother about going through immigration as the Brazilian authorities had already cleared our passports, which the Marina took on embarkation).
Recife is sometimes called the Venice of Brazil, because of its interconnected islands — although this is a gritty port city with few tourist niceties — taking a guided shore excursion here is recommended.
We bused up to Olinda (transferring to minibuses so as to get through the narrow cobblestone streets) where we spent time at the beautiful Se Cathedral and Misericordia Church. The square here used to be the site of slave trading in the 19th century but is now a popular tourist destination. Come Carnaval — which lasts five days in February — the streets around here are packed.
We also got a glimpse of the local Frevo dance (Rio has Samba, Recife has Frevo) at a nearby souvenir shop.
We then visited the baroque Golden Chapel, built in the 16th century, one of the most admired religious monuments in Brazil (its name derives from the amount of gold used to cover the many woodcarvings that decorate the walls, altar and ceiling).
It was quite a jolt to go from the tough streets of Recife to a seven-course degustation with wine pairing in Marina's La Reserve (dining here will set you back US$95 plus gratuities) but if you're a foodie, you won't want to miss this.
It's also a great way to meet new friends — as all tables are shared.
It was raining as we sailed into our final port Rio de Janeiro but that didn't stop us ticking off the most famous Rio attraction: a visit to Christ the Redeemer, the towering art deco statue built in the 1930s, sitting atop Mount Corcovado.
The concrete-and-soapstone statue is big business for Rio — a city so vast and unique a one-day visit doesn't begin to do it justice — and it's certainly the spot to get a panoramic view of the city.
We took the rail car up and our Brazilian guide instructed us to all pray for a break in the weather.
Twenty minutes later as we got to the top, the rain stopped and the clouds parted for a few minutes and afforded a view across the city no photograph can do justice to.
A fitting end to a unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime journey.
Free Wi-Fi on board
No extra charge for signature restaurants
An onboard (complimentary) barista
Complimentary raw juice bar
1200 guests and 800 staff.