Mt Stromboli rose out of the sea in solitary splendour. A thin plume of white vapour drifted from the crater into the clear, blue sky; a reminder that the kilometre-high island is in fact an active volcano.
This awesome sight heralded our dawn entry to the Strait of Messina between the southern "toe of Italy" and the island of Sicily in the Tyrrhenian Sea.
We were into the second day of a 10-day Roman Empire Mediterranean cruise, having boarded in Civitavecchia (Rome's seaport) the previous morning after three delightfully chaotic and interesting days in Rome. This was our second cruise, and we are now committed to the cruising culture. Our noon boarding of the ms Noordam was almost a homecoming and we were soon settled into our stateroom and were under way.
We cruised through the Strait of Messina and north into the Adriatic on this first "at sea" day familiarising ourselves with our splendid surroundings. The Noordam was spectacular.
The central curving glass staircase between decks was striking and the art-bedecked lounges and the nautical paintings, antique model ships and collections of period navigational instruments were fascinating.
We relished our dinners. The ever-changing Vista Dining Room's five-course menus never failed to satisfy. Rosenthal china, gleaming silver and sparkling crystal glasses set on crisp white tablecloths were a pleasure to behold. We opted for "open dining" and made many new friends. There were three "formal" evenings and seven "smart casual".
The casual Lido Grill buffet food court offered a choice of cuisine and made-to-order "super sandwiches" or burgers and hot dogs, all of which you could carry back to your stateroom, or out on to the deck to enjoy by the pool. Occasionally, we requested a room service meal to our stateroom. The Indonesian crew anticipated our every need and delivered morning tea, orange juice and a fresh flower to our stateroom.
On morning three, we ghosted with the sunrise into the harbor at Dubrovnik, Croatia, and after a substantial breakfast, we rode the Holland America Line shuttle to the gates of the ancient walled city.
The Old Town's Pile Gate opens on to the white marble streets and buildings of the medieval city. This fairytale place is completely enclosed within its 13th century 2km-long fortified wall. We walked the wall to spectacular views which changed at every turn. Along the Placa, the main street below, cafes and shops are tucked into the old buildings, and churches and monuments dominate the plazas. The ornate 16th-century Sponza Palace museum keeps the Dubrovnik archives and art collections.
After another smooth overnight sailing, we awoke to a crimson sunrise over the island mountains of Corfu, Greece. The shuttle carried us into town, but before discovering its delights, we climbed the steps to explore tunnels under the fortress castle overlooking the island's harbour.
The town of Corfu is charming. We looked and shopped and then relaxed outside a cafe in the town square, devouring baklava oozing honey with our iced moccachinos.
Having cruised south overnight, we docked at Katakolon, Greece. Our third shore excursion was to Olympia, a name that is legend as the site of the first Olympic Games around 776BC. The Olympic torch is lit here every four years for the modern games. The Archaeological Museum exhibits sculptures, bronzes, pottery, jewellery and other artefacts.
Those famous white buildings and bright blue domes adorned the island's skyline. We had arrived at Santorini and were soon tendered ashore, anxious to explore the alleyways and courtyards draped with crimson bougainvillea.
But first, we had to scale the 220m caldera (cliff). There is a cable-car and the donkey ride up was tempting, but we opted to walk and shared the gradual, winding cobbled path with the donkeys and their mounts. The dwellings, shops, narrow alleys, open plazas and churches of Santorini, and the nearby town of Oia were enchanting.
Kusadasi, Turkey, is the port gateway to the Roman city of Ephesus. The shore excursion and tour of this best preserved of Roman ruins brings alive the day-to-day life of its citizens of 2000 years ago. The walk down Curetes Street past villas, public baths, fountains and meeting places to the Augustus Gate, the Library of Celsus, the Temple of Hadrian and the amphitheatre is intriguing.
Ferries have priority over cruise ships, so we waited a while outside the narrow entrance to Piraeus Harbour, the ancient port gateway to Athens.
To walk around the Acropolis and gaze up at the Parthenon is the fulfilment of a lifetime dream for many - it was for us. To stand on those smooth granite rocks where the ancients had trod and absorb the grandeur was memorable.
Messina was our last port of call and the drive down the coast to the picture-perfect Sicilian community of Taormina, high on an escarpment overlooking the Ionian Sea, was a popular shore excursion. The old village, "the pearl of the Ionic Sea", provided a last chance for shore shopping or walks through the pretty streets to the English Gardens and the Roman Greek theatre.
One last sea day on the return voyage, a final glimpse of Mt Stromboli, one last grand dinner before retiring and at 7am we berthed at Citeveccia before returning to Rome.
· For more information on the Holland America Line cruises, hollandamerica.com.