Stepping onto the gangplank my stomach churns with a sense of excited anticipation, but the crew’s beaming faces immediately help to settle any initial nerves.
Our Peregrine guides, Rachida and Fatima, greet me warmly and I eagerly make my way into the ship’s main lounge. I set myself down next to a trio of chatty Americans and begin to fill out my boarding card when a chilled glass of iced tea is placed on the table in front of me. A welcoming gift from Avi, the ship’s infectiously cheery bartender.
As I scout out the rest of my fellow passengers, perching on plush sofas around the room, it becomes clear to me that I am one of a handful of solo travellers. Many others sit talking animatedly with friends and partners. This marks the start of a week of firsts for me: my first time exploring alone and my first experience on a cruise ship.
But I should say that this is not a cruise ship as you know it. The Harmony G is sleek, modern and compact. Only made to accommodate forty-four guests at a time, and far more reminiscent of a luxury private yacht than your typically gargantuan ocean liner. She sits gracefully on the waters of the Port of Lisbon, waiting patiently to embark on a journey along the stunning coasts of Spain, Portugal and Morocco.
Our eight-day escape will take us to discover the striking natural beauty of the Algarve and on strolls around the beautiful city of Seville. Into the fragrant fruit markets of Tangier and for a glass or two of sangria at the hidden hole-in-the-wall tapas bars of Huelva. Before long I come to the realisation that the focus here is placed almost entirely on fully submerging ourselves in the amazing destinations we dock at. With small pockets of time reserved for relaxing on deck, basking in the sun and appreciating the tranquillity of the open ocean.
Pre-holiday jitters behind me, I’m blown away by how easy it is to get to know my cruising companions – everyone here has a story to share. New Zealanders, Graeme and Robin, tell me anecdotes from their boating days and of the seafaring adventures they’ve enjoyed to Cuba, Papua New Guinea and Antarctica. I learn that my roommate Tess edits reality TV for a living and Australians, Graham and Gaye, let me in on the time they successfully capsized a catamaran in the middle of Sydney Harbour during their early 20s.
On a walking tour through Granada, we find out that this charming Andalusian city was the last Moorish kingdom to fall into the grasp of Ferdinand and Isabella during the infamous Reconquista. And our leader Marco teaches us that the final Nasrid ruler, Boabdil, handed over the keys to the city peacefully in order to secure the safety of his people and avoid the destruction of his beautiful Alhambra.
At the Caves of Hercules in Tangier, our local guide Mohammed divulges a few of the legends that surround them. With ancient mythology claiming that they were once the resting place of the Roman demi-god. A spot to lay his head before completing his eleventh labour – retrieving the golden apples from the Garden of Hesperides.
During an afternoon excursion to El Rocio, Fatima explains the importance of its Pentecost pilgrimage. For centuries almost a million people have descended upon this tiny Spanish village to walk the historic footpaths around the River Guadalquivir. But what baffles us all is the fact that it looks more like the abandoned set of a Spaghetti Western film than a place of devout Catholic worship. You could easily be forgiven for thinking that a cowboy could emerge from one of the saloon-style taverns at any moment, ready to ride off into the sunset down a deserted sandy street.
Back on board, we begin to pen the chapters of our own odyssey. The spontaneous evening spent huddled together on the terrace, enjoying a bottle of wine with our jolly crew. Swapping stories of loved ones and travels, laughing so hard we cry – the only break in the ruckus coming when we try to catch our breath after the hysteria.
The somewhat impromptu early morning dip in the Alboran Sea. Launching ourselves from the Harmony’s swimming deck one-by-one, shrieking at the cold and splashing about like young children, before looking up in awe at our captain, Nikolas, as he soars from the ship’s second tier like a swallow.
The cocktail party that evolves swiftly from a sit-down affair into a lesson in Greek dancing. We stumble clumsily around the deck, linking arms, skipping through the lounge and jumping up and down in time to the music, chanting “zorba”. High-spirited onlookers cheering us on enthusiastically.
Our brief jaunt along the Iberian Peninsula goes by in a flash. The cliché is totally true – time really does fly when you’re having fun. I blink and we’re disembarking, reluctantly making our way out of the cruise terminal at Malaga and bidding fond farewells.
If this trip has taught me anything, it’s that the people you meet, the places you see, the hidden gems you uncover and the experiences you have, are all responsible for lodging great new memories within the folds of your brain. This may have been my first solo journey and my first ever cruising endeavour – my maiden voyage if you will – but I can assure you that it certainly won’t be my last.