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By Rob Mills

It’s a perfect spring evening on the Adriatic as our ship pulls away from the ancient preserved medieval Montenegrin port of Kotor bound for Dubrovnik, just 83 kilometres up the Croatian coast.

We’re sipping champagne at the pool deck bar, watching the fortified old town at the foot of the limestone Dinaric Alps grow smaller, when the gentle words of Captain Etienne Garcia are broadcast, urging his 250 “dear guests” to savour this “beautiful navigation”.

His ship, the French small luxury liner, Le Soléal, glides through the glassy, turquoise waters of the 28-kilometre long Bay of Kotor. It may look like a fjord but is, in fact, a ria or submerged river canyon. As we continue, two exquisite islets can be seen from the port side. One is Our Lady of the Rocks, which bears the 17th-century church of the same name. The other, Ostrvo Sveti Đorđe, is home to the 12th-century Saint George Benedictine monastery. Both are important pilgrim destinations.

Captain Garcia circles the striking islands before leaving the Bay of Kotor via the Verige Strait and its narrow 230-metre wide opening, giving some idea of the strategic importance of what was once thought to be Europe’s southernmost fjord. Fourteen days aboard Le Soléal exploring the ancient ruins of Southern Europe from Istanbul to Venice is a feast for the eyes, the intellect and – because this is a sophisticated French ship after all – a feast of the literal kind.

We are in fact being enthusiastically spoiled on APT’s 17-day Ancient Mediterranean luxury cruise from Athens and Istanbul to Venice. As well as two nights at Athens’ magnificent Hotel Grande Bretagne with its Parthenon, Parliament, Syntagma Square and Mount Lycabettus views, a packed itinerary includes Santorini, Mykonos, Canakkale, Gallipoli, Troy, Assos, Istanbul, Kepez, Kusadasi, Ephesus, the Corinth, Canal, Itea, Delphi, Kotor, Montenegro, Dubrovnik and Venice.

There’s another aspect to this 3,471-kilometre experience. APT has chartered Le Soléal, one of French cruise company Ponant’s four exploration and discovery ships, for Gallipoli’s 100th anniversary. This means Gallipoli is front and centre for a few days, before Le Soléal continues her Aegean (Aegean) and Adriatic exploration.

But while this cruise is a one-off, it is also a dry-run for APT’s 2016 Boutique Collection Cruising program between Venice and Istanbul, which includes the 15-day Aegean and Adriatic Seas cruise aboard Ponant’s newest ship, Le Lyrial (almost identical to Le Soléal), and the 15-day Adriatic & Aegean Odyssey aboard APT’s even smaller, 114-passenger luxury ship, MS Island Sky.

Gallipoli will still be on the itinerary but the emphasis will swing towards the Aegean and Adriatic ports, with an itinerary very similar to Le Soléal’s. It’s tempting to lounge around this sleek ship – thankfully casino-free – but Le Soléal and APT, with its “Freedom of Choice” excursions, focus on providing a sophisticated experience that includes an active engagement with its destinations.

And so we find ourselves diving from a traditional wooden caïque into the bracing Mediterranean to swim 60 metres into Santorini’s Nea Kameni, where sulphurous gases heat the water to 37 degrees. Next, we’re hiking to the top of nearby Palia Kameni, an active volcanic centre in Santorini’s circular archipelago. The awe-inspiring site was once a single volcano that erupted catastrophically 3600 years ago.

In Montenegro, we choose between kayaking, swimming and snorkelling in the picturesque Bay of Kotor, speedboating to the Lustica peninsula’s luminous Blue Caves to swim and sunbathe, walking the walled old town of Kotor, then climbing the zigzag path to St John’s church.

In Croatia, we must decide between a fascinating cycle in the wine and olive-growing valley outside Dubrovnik (including lunch, wine tasting and a crash course on Croatian history and culture), walking the old town, or navigating the ramparts Game of Thrones aficionados might recognise. It’s serious FOMO territory.

And don’t get me started on Istanbul. From the moment we glide into the Golden Horn, with the city’s minarets silhouetted against the sunrise, and dock beneath Topkapi Palace, we’re offered a cornucopia of choices.

Something we can all experience is a dawn crossing of the Corinth Canal. Our 18-metre-wide ship navigates the 21.4-metre wide, 6.4-kilometre high-walled channel that cuts through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, slicing the Greek mainland from the Peloponnesian peninsula. Few cruise ships are small enough to manage the journey, making this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It would be remiss to omit what some consider the raison d’etre of this cruise – the total immersion in the ancient world’s diverse civilisations that produced such wonders as Ephesus, Troy, Delphi, Assos and Delos. Not to mention Athens’ Acropolis, Parthenon, Emperor Hadrian’s Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Poseidon and many more.

It would be remiss to omit what some consider the raison d’etre of this cruise – the total immersion in the ancient world’s diverse civilisations that produced such wonders as Ephesus, Troy, Delphi, Assos and Delos. Not to mention Athens’ Acropolis, Parthenon, Emperor Hadrian’s Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Poseidon and many more.

It would be equally lax to gloss over shipboard life. Le Soléal’s interiors are sophisticated, with good use of neutral colours – sand, caramel, chocolate, pale aqua and cream. Paintings and sculptures have a nautical or galactic theme, with an eye-catching, two-deck sculptural “shoal of fish” in the role of central atrium light. And I defy you to stay awake in the theatre’s luxurious armchairs.

The 132 private-balcony cabins spread over four decks accommodate 264 guests (there’s lift access). Prestige staterooms are 22.6 square metres, with decent storage space, flat screen TV, desk, safe, air-conditioning, fridge and a shower with an optional glass screen so you can enjoy the view and your L’Occitane products simultaneously.

There’s butler service for Deck 6 guests and room service for all others. The ship’s spa operates in association with French beauty brand Sothys As the Med races past, Restaurant L’Eclipse serves excellent degustation-style a la carte dinners, with matched European wines and champagnes. Restaurant Le Pytheas, boasting outdoor seating on the pool deck, is more casual. Buffet-style dining is complemented by made-to-order hot meals and to-die-for desserts including delicate crèmes brulees and, a piece de resistance, chocolate and sugared-pistachio tart.

Breakfast is another treat – one you can order to your bed! Amazing croissants and pastries are a highlight. Room service is also available for dinner, though the lure of fine food and good conversation beyond your door is strong, which brings me to the bars. Galilee resides in the main lounge but it’s the airy Observation bar that lures us most strongly. Its huge skylight and wraparound glass offer the perfect setting for Bruno’s magnificent pre- and post-dinner cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, accompanied by the delicate sounds of concert pianist, Valentyn Smolianinoff

Le Soléal’s name is a combination of the French “sun” and “the one who shows the way.” It’s appropriate for this wonderful experience.