St. Malo, France, has the swiftest and most dangerous tides in Europe, and on the first morning of my first cruise, impatient to get back on land after crossing the English Channel, I slipped on a rock on my way to a tidal island fortress built during Louis XIV’s reign. An hour earlier I had skipped down the gangway into a yellow tender bound for shore, and peeled off alone while others left for group tours. I hurried through town for a buckwheat galette with salted caramel, then I skirted the medieval ramparts and descended to the beach, where I twisted my ankle and jammed my foot into a narrow crevice full of seawater. “Hurry up,” a woman cried as she passed, sweeping her hand to indicate the onrushing ocean. I knew about the tides, yet here I was, risking life, limb, and a sublime Breton crepe just to prove that no cruise could hem in this militantly independent traveler.
A cruise, I was certain, could never suit me. Solitude, detours, and improv are more my style, not stem-to-stern tourists on the same rigid itinerary. Lately, though, I’d heard that we are in a new golden age of ocean travel. That some ships are sophisticated luxury resorts, can offer all the privacy one desires, and can be restorative and even spiritual. So I boarded Regent’s Seven Seas Explorer in Southampton, ready to see if it might convert a committed skeptic and vagabond.
We would sail along three coastlines, calling on ports in France, Spain, and Portugal. I was eager to see how Bordeaux, Bilbao, Porto, and other places might differ when visiting by water. The last time I’d arrived in Bordeaux, it was still dark at 7 a.m. I carted my luggage to the hotel, where I was met by the dreaded, “Unfortunately your room will not be ready until three o’clock.” This time, when our Italian captain, Serena Melani—one of seven women in the cruise industry of that rank—docked at Quai Louis XVIII, I was scrubbed, fresh, and ready to walk unfettered into the city’s gleaming heart. Breakfast was a canelé—Bordeaux’s crusty, custardy local pastry—followed by a climb up the 217-foot Pey-Berland bell tower (in an Ace bandage). I was surprised by the twinge of comfort when, from the top, I spied the great white hulk of a ship. My glamorous cabin with a walk-in closet, marble bathroom, and breezy veranda waited patiently and was floating in tandem with me, and not once would I need to repack my bags or navigate a car through tight European streets.
Our second day in Bordeaux, I joined a sojourn to a château in St. Émilion. We sipped Villemaurine Grand Cru Classé on a terrace overlooking acres of Merlot grapes, surging September-ripe from the region’s chalky terroir. It was a revelation to learn that most people, like me, enjoyed the occasional off-piste exploration. Such is the nature of ultra-luxury sailing, Regent style, where there are hundreds of choices and plenty of structure but the well-traveled guests are encouraged to live the cruise on their own terms. “We don’t make announcements. We never herd people around like they do on other ships,” says Andy Heath, who is the Explorer’s cruise director and who, some nights, performs music for the guests. “For the independent traveler, that’s the last thing they want.”
I began to subtly socialize my way into the ship. My resistance slackened, and kind people responded. It was boring to always eat alone like a new kid in the dining hall. I met a group of Australian women on my corridor who invited me to lunch as we left Bordeaux. Hundreds of us gathered on the pool deck as we passed under the Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas, a statuesque marvel that spans the Garonne River. Sometimes, I could not help riffling through my storehouse of nautical clichés, and “all in the same boat” sprang to mind. There were sun hats, champagne, and a feverish buzz for the next leg of the journey as we set out for open sea. To be fair, sailing on the Explorer was baptism by milk and honey. The $450 million vessel was christened in 2016 as the “most luxurious ship ever built.” Although there are 158 chandeliers, some made from Bohemian handblown glass, a gleaming Canyon Ranch spa, and countless edgy twists on formal, old-school ocean liners, other extravagances are barely visible. The 552-member crew is friendly, subtle about it, and trained to recall details about all 750 guests, 500 of whom are on their second, or tenth, Regent cruise. “The crew and the culture is really different here,” says Andy Heath. “Even in the depths of the ship, people look you in the eye and smile. It’s genuine.” The barista at the Coffee Connection knew how I liked my latte from Day 1: “Iced, with half and half and cocoa, Miss De Sanctis?”
When weather changed our plans, the crew and (most) passengers stayed upbeat. After we left Southampton, a hurricane churned across Britain, sending dangerous swells to the Bay of Biscay. It was deemed too risky to land in Hendaye, France, where tenders were necessary to get to shore, so Captain Serena and Regent made the difficult decision to proceed directly to Bilbao, where the ship could dock. “People think that with modern technology we can do whatever we want,” she explained over tea in her office. “Hurricanes are showing us that this is wrong, and we still need to respect Mother Nature.”
With an extra day in Bilbao, I could go rogue one day and join up the next. I rented a bike, whirred along the Nervión River to the Guggenheim and Calatrava’s bridge, then back to Plaza Nueva, where I rested a spell under the palms for pintxos and a cool glass of Txakoli. I know of no sweeter pleasure than a solo spin through a gorgeous city, but the following day came close. A group of us hiked along the Basque coast, past Gilded Age mansions and along jagged limestone cliffs, fields of flowering honeysuckle, and groves of heavenly-smelling figs. After, dazed by the wind and sun, I was delighted to repair to the elegant confines of my cocoon.
Each time we shipped out, I retreated to the infinity pool, heated by the sun, which thrust right over the ocean in the sternmost part of the vessel. I got a primal thrill from watching the wake ripple right in front of me like an unfurled bolt of linen. It was the realm of sea and sky, painted every shade of blue and green, aqua, indigo, mint, emerald, and turquoise. There was no feeling in the world but stillness and wind. This contemplative ritual sealed my desired solitude, but I also knew I could find dinner and conversation with one of my shipmates, or Andy’s wife, Tammy, the Explorer’s social hostess. I could now balance the need for company with the need to be solo.
In Porto, pilot boats guided us out of the smallest parking spot imaginable, through a charming pair of lighthouses and fortress walls. It had been a great day, with a boat ride along the Douro River, the fresh smell of early autumn, and lively new friends from Houston who invited me for Italian food that evening. It was too chilly for the pool, so I sat on a lounge chair and wrapped myself in a big towel. There was one other passenger on deck, and we chatted about Captain Serena’s expert maneuvers.
“It’s a tight squeeze,” I said. “This wind is fierce,” my acquaintance said.
We approached Cádiz on a sparkling morning and the sun washed the city with an orange glow. From my veranda, marveling at the panoramic sweep of the Tavira watchtower and the great cathedral, I was jarred by a sense of history. Christopher Columbus sailed here; so did Elizabeth I’s warships. Until recently, water was all that connected the people on earth. When we left, I stayed awake munching almond toffee from a shop in town. The lights of Morocco twinkled to the south as we crossed the Strait of Gibraltar toward Barcelona. At the very least, this cruise had been an idyllic respite and revelatory new way to explore in perfect, partial freedom. At most, it was a reminder of where I came from and a reset on the way I look at the world. Best of all, and to my surprise, my wayfinding heart is full…and intact. From $12,799.