Tied up at Rhodes’ Mandraki Harbour in mid-October, the Princess Danae presented a striking contrast to the pair of large, modern mega-ships sharing pier space with her.

The low-slung hull with its soaring sheer, huge welded plates looked simply stunning as the ghost of a fading autumn sun glanced briefly along it, bringing every curve into sharp, contrasting relief. Staunch and graceful, Princess Danae looked for all the world like a refined Bentley parked between a pair of hulking SUV’s.

And that would be the constant refrain from my 7-night cruise aboard the Danae; the distinct, pronounced and marked differences between this beautiful, immaculately maintained ship and the flotillas of modern, amenity-laden ships that are the backbone of today’s market. At every turn and corner, the proud old lady emphasised her sheer style and sense of individuality with a poise and charm that hooked me from day one.

She was originally built back in Belfast in 1954 as a cargo ship and extensively rebuilt into a cruise ship in 1976. For many years, she operated high-end cruises for Costa with her sister ship, the equally beautiful Daphne. Even then they were special and attracted a loyal following that sailed on them all over the globe.

While many vessels of this vintage are finding their way to scrapyards, Danae was lucky enough to come under the umbrella of Classic International Cruises, a Portuguese company that has acquired a diverse, eclectic quintet of older, smaller ships that were brim full of character and style.

‘Princess Danae looked likea REFINED BENTLEY parked between a pair of HULKING SUV’s’

In what can only be described as an amazing on-going labour of love, each ship was restored to prime condition, polished and cared for with a dedication that is almost fierce. In fact, few ships anywhere are sailed with as much pride as these small, highly styled ocean dowagers. By design and deliberate marketing, they truly stand apart from almost anything else at sea.

While each ship shares a sense of history and heritage, every single one is as individual as a fingerprint. Princess Danae is nothing so much as a floating time capsule that turns conventional cruising on its head. Where the modern ships are packed with time-killing diversions, Danae eschews frills and thrills and, instead, emphasises the experience of the voyage itself; the simple pleasure of being on a well-run ship for the sake of the voyage alone. The contrast with modern ships is truly amazing, and makes for a very real, rich experience.

The hull alone is a thing of wonder. Studded with thousands of rivets, it sheers gracefully upwards at the bow and then, surprisingly, repeats this at the stern. The sensation of walking slightly uphill to reach the ship’s fantail is one of the most abiding memories of my time on board.

Another thing that beguiled me was the bridge, with its brass telegraphs and fittings that could have been lifted intact from the Mauretania. Standing on the bridge wing as the tugs made fast at Kusadasi, the years simply seemed to melt away. The hull is also deep and strong below the water, making the Danae a highly stable ship indeed. I have been on many larger ships that handled these same Aegean waters far less admirably.

Cabin Comfort

The cabins are huge, some of the largest I have ever seen on any ship. My mini-suite had authentic, period wood-panelling and a full-size bed in a separate partition.

A trio of huge square windows flooded the room with light during the day.

Interestingly, the bathroom was tiled, and set at a right angle to the bed rather than the customary location just inside the cabin door. It took a few days to get used to.

There was no shortage of storage space either, along with a marvellous sitting area that boasted a sofa and two huge, chunky chairs that were pure 1950s style; the sort you sink into – pun intentional – rather than sit on.

As rooms go, it was supremely comfortable, and very hard to leave.

Many of the cabins are actually quite large suites, and there is a group of six balcony suites on the upper deck that are just out of this world, with angular verandas jutting out above the rows of lifeboats.

The public rooms are few but finely styled. My favourite was a small conservatory at the stern. Filled with wicker furniture, it stood on a teak deck that curved right around what I can only describe as a real cruiser stern. Here, the gentle vibration of the propellers and a glass of wine at sunset combined to provide one of the most sublime, soulful shipboard experiences anywhere today.

The main lounge was flanked by a couple of graceful corridors lined with windows and tables and chairs. This was a definite QE2 flashback if ever there was one. Aft of this, there is a large bar-cum-card room, with a tartan carpet and honey-coloured, winged chairs and sofas that just begged you to relax. Throw in Hannibal, barman extraordinaire, and you had one of the most eclectic retreats on the ocean.

Hannibal worked for many years aboard the old Norway (ex-SS France) and his stock of amazing stories brought back some wonderful memories.

The main dining room is a single storey chamber, lined with floor-to-ceiling windows on both sides. While the menus are not as extensive as modern ships, the food and service were unfailingly good. The restaurant ran as smoothly as a Swiss watch and, because our voyage was a French charter, table wine was free with both lunch and dinner each day.

But what really marks out the Princess Danae is the exceptional hospitality factor on board. The senior officers and staff are mostly Portuguese and were constantly to be seen in the passenger areas, checking on dinner tables and, in general, giving the ship a quality and sense of presence that cannot be artificially manufactured. Professional to a fault, they were charming and agreeable hosts, and contributed hugely to the wonderful atmosphere that permeated the whole ship.

On the upper decks, both breakfast and lunch could be taken in the sun. The Aegean that late autumn was obligingly benign and, because of the limited size of the ship, there was the real feeling of eating at some charming seaside caf