FULL SPEED A-MED; TRAVEL; Nigel Thompson enjoys a cruise from Venice to Santorini via Dubrovnik and takes in some late summer sun.
Is Montenegro mountainous?" asked a fellow cruise ship passenger as we waited to board a tender to Kotor.
Well, there's certainly a clue in the name - translated from the Italian it means black mountain.
SHIP Nigel The That name was bestowed by the Venetians when they arrived on a rainy day in 1420 and thought the spectacular treeclad ranges around a gorgeous fjord-like inlet looked black, rather than dark green.
25 straightof Top Clearly they liked the place. They hung around for nearly 400 years until ousted by Napoleon.
Modern tourists like it too and it's easy to see why - the setting and Kotor's fortified old town with Venetian buildings are genuinely stunning.
Apart from visits via flights to nearby Tivat airport and Dubrovnik airport in Croatia, less than two hours away, there will be 500 cruise ship arrivals by the end of this year. Of course, that means it's a very busy place. When we visited on Royal Caribbean's Rhapsody of the Seas, Cunard's Queen Victoria and Celebrity Constellation were also berthed there.
We'd signed up for an all-day coach excursion, so were on the road at 7.30am. And what a road it was.
The Road of 25 Curves (it felt like 125!) is a straightout-of-Top-Gear monster that winds its way up the mountains behind Kotor and provides a magnificent view from the top.
Road of Curves was out Gear We marvelled at the skill of our coach driver and tried not to look down on some of the drops. Seriously, this is a hairy hairpin horror (single track in parts) that I wouldn't drive if you paid me.
Our tour also took in the tiny village of Njegusi to try its renowned cheese and smoked ham, and Budvar (the 'Montenegro Miami'), which has a charming walled old town on a much smaller scale than Dubrovnik.
And we'd unexpectedly had a chance to visit the Croatian city the previous day when strong winds meant we could not dock at Split as intended.
No matter. Dubrovnik is a dazzling port of call, stunningly beautiful and now Game of Thrones TV gold for its King's Landings filming locations. A walk round the 2km city walls is unmissable, as is an ice cream from one of the shops on the beautiful Stradun main street.
Our next stop was the Greek island of Santorini, some 600-odd miles away, which meant a day at sea and a chance to make the most of Rhapsody's excellent facilities.
We had a great balcony cabin, but it's hard to resist being up on deck enjoying the sunshine and island spotting in the Ionian Sea (kalimera, Kefalonia, kalimera, Zante!).
Food is, of course, important on a cruise and we dined very well. The main included restaurant and buffet were dependable, but the payable Giovanni's Table Italian and Chops Grille steakhouse excelled.
Service everywhere on the ship excelled too, from our cabin steward and restarant waiters to the Solarium's bartenders.
The entertainment was a mixed bag, but fun. An Il Divo-style quartet of tenors, 4ever, got a standing ovation from a packed main theatre and later the atrium, while the Schooner bar was a favourite spot for trivia and music quizzes, and boasted a slightly cheesy piano player.
On the pool deck, the action is nonstop with anything from line dancing to a Caribbean band and blockbuster movies at night, although you can easily find quieter spots.
New day, new country and we were at anchor in Santorini in Greece - a collection of volcanic islands fringing a flooded caldera 60 miles north of Crete - it's undoubtedly a highlight of any Eastern Med cruise.
You dodge donkeys On our stop we joined an early morning boat excursion to Nea Kameni, an active (and growing) island in the middle of the caldera. It's a fair old uphill slog but you do get to see a steaming crater, feel the heat from vents as plod and enjoy outstanding the and Budvar Old Town views. There's also a chance to jump off the boat to swim in an area of the Aegean warmed by a vent and take in the novelty value of spotting floating pieces of rock (lava with air pockets). Sink like a stone? Not here!
In the afternoon we took the ship's tender to the old port and headed up on the cable car to Santorini's capital, Fira. With its white buildings it sits on top of 1,000ft cliffs like icing on a chocolate cake cut by a chainsaw-wielding madman.
And talking of madness, it was heaving with tourists. With four cruise ships hill anchored in the caldera, there was barely room to wander around the tight streets. So we headed to a bar with a stunning panorama of the caldera for a cold beer (and the price reflects that - you're renting the view).
What goes up must come down and we needed to get back to the old port for the ship's tender. The queue for the cable car was insane, so we opted for the fabled 600-odd steps used by dozens of donkeys to ferry tourists up to Fira.
This is an interesting experience. The worn steps are extremely slippery, there is donkey poo everywhere and you have to dodge the animals as they plod resolutely uphill (it's their hill, you are in the way).
However, the views are stellar and you can say you've done it. And the smell will stay with you for the rest of the day to remind you of your achievement!
All too soon, Rhapsody left Santorini for the long cruise back to Venice, from where we'd enjoyed a glorious sailaway five days STEEP Santorini donkey steps earlier, passing St Mark's Square, the Doge's Palace, the Grand Canal and Bridge of Sighs.
But there was time for the ship to make a call at Katakolon, on the Greek Peloponnese. We'd been years ago and gone on a tour to the ancient site of Olympia (a must if you've not been), so this time we looked around the town.
It's developed quite a lot since our last visit and you can easily enjoy a few hours here.
We found a terrific little museum dedicated to Ancient Greek inventions, took a ride on a Dotto train, went for a paddle in the bathwater warm Ionian Sea (there's a beach 10 minutes walk from the port) and opted for a route one lunch of souvlaki and cold Mythos beers by the harbour. Not a bad way to spend a day.
So, finally faced with the enviable task of amusing ourselves for 36 hours at sea in the Adriatic, we read, sunbathed, snoozed, ate and drank well.
The Venetians were not daft - they clearly liked Kotor. But I bet their days at sea weren't as good as ours.
Get on board
Royal Caribbean has a 7nt Greece & Croatia round-trip cruise from Venice on Rhapsody of the Seas from PS861pp, based on two sharing and departing on June 23, 2018. Calls at Dubrovnik, Kotor, Santorini and Katakolon. Flights not included. royalcaribbean.co.uk, 0844 493 3033
Tourist info: italia. it, croatia.hr, visitmontenegro.com, visitgreece.gr
TIME ZONE UK +1hr/+2hrs CURRENCY US$ on board PS1 = 1.29
BEST TIME TO GO Get your Kotor running next summer.
The Road of 25 Curves was straight out of Top Gear You dodge donkeys as they plod up the hill
SHIP SHAPE Nigel sails away
ON HIGH A stroll around Dubrovnik's walls is a must PERCHED Santorini's white houses (above) and Budvar Old Town
STEEP Santorini donkey steps