Something Special for Destination-Focused Cruise Fans

September 22, 2011  
Filed under Travel

By Robert Selwitz, CNS

The MV Aegean Odyssey is the centerpiece ship of Voyages to Antiquity. Photo courtesy of Barbara Selwitz.

Cruise fans who prize intelligently led visits in small groups to intriguing destinations need look no further than Voyages to Antiquity. Aboard the 198-cabin, 378-passenger capacity MV Aegean Odyssey — which focuses on the Mediterranean with occasional forays into the Black Sea and, late next year, Asia — calm definitely reigns.

Two restaurants, three comfortable lounges, an Internet center, well-stocked library, lecture theater and an outdoor pool head the amenities roster. But Voyages is also lauded for what it isn’t: Rock-climbing walls, blinging slot machines, heavy drinking, minor-league Las Vegas-type shows and hourlong waits for embarkation and debarkation simply are not here

The reason is that everything fits with the line’s mission: to maximize the number of port calls and time spent off the ship, since that’s what their passengers seek. Even though this is just the line’s second year in operation, it is seeing an impressive number of repeat passengers. Many return for the ship’s appealing itineraries, relaxed atmosphere and excellent service.

All of this became quite evident during a Greece-to-Turkey venture that featured seven days at sea and visiting multiple ports of call, plus two pre-sailing days in Athens and two post-sailing days in Istanbul. This schedule allowed passengers valuable extra time to experience these capitals of culture.

Voyages had  originally arranged for passengers to stay at the Grand Bretagne in central Athens prior to sailing, but major riots related to Greece’s financial problems happened right below the hotel’s windows. The night before passengers arrived, their Athens hotel was switched to a suburban Westin resort.

Even from there, we enjoyed free Athens options, including a guided look at the Acropolis and 2-year-old Acropolis Museum. Some guests also chose to participate in extra-charge excursions to Cape Sounion, Delphi and Athens’ National Archaeology Museum.

After departing the port of Piraeus (essentially the port of Athens), the first call was Nauplia, the takeoff point for a half-day visit to Mycenae. This was the actual capital of a civilization that predated classical Athens by nearly 1,000 years. It was particularly exciting to view the actual settings for the “Electra” plays of Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles.

Beyond the myths and legends, the monumental Lion Gate and tomb of Agamemnon were most impressive. An optional tour of the ancient theater of Epidaurus followed Mycenae.

Visitors experienced a much greater step back in time the next day when the Aegean docked on Crete. The highlight was a visit to the heavily reconstructed Palace of Knossos. This was the capital of the Minoan civilization that thrived between 1900 and 1500 B.C. The throne rooms, painted columns and royal living quarters — much of it discovered and enhanced by 19th-century British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans — may not be entirely accurate. But the work produced a fascinating example of a civilization and economic powerhouse that should be better-known.

Earlier, from our dock at Rethion, Crete, passengers were also able to get a brief glimpse of Chania, an hour’s ride away. This ancient city, which retains its appearance as a Venetian seaside village, has plenty of narrow streets that encourage strolling. Indeed, on one such walk, my wife and I encountered a virtually hidden synagogue and a small but enticing archaeological museum.

A blend of the otherworldly and all-too-worldly waited Aegean’s passengers the following day. The best came first via a visit to Delos, the deserted but once powerful island where commerce reigned. And since Delos was also the reputed birthplace of the twin gods Apollo and Artemis, worshippers joined traders to make Delos a most dynamic place. In addition, no one was allowed to be born or die there, so for centuries it has been resident-free. It is still guarded by replications of its iconic lions (the originals are protected in a nearby covered museum), and visitors can hoof all over the former commercial center and come face to face with a wide variety of businesses circa 500 B.C.

For example, we encountered markers indicating the streets where prostitutes plied their trade. Not far away were the stone frames of windows from currency-exchange sites where merchants traded in cash from their homes for that of Delos. This was particularly important since Delos was a major multi-national center for slave trade. Since this was strictly a cash business, little would have happened without those exchanges.

For a complete change of pace, our vessel then sailed for less than an hour toward Mykonos. Famed for its iconic 16th-century windmills, it offers plenty of shopping opportunities, likely encounters with one or more resident giant pink pelicans and a vibrant party scene. Mykonos proved to be a relaxing change of pace.

Then followed a brief sojourn at Samos. Highlights here were its signature temple of the goddess Hera, plus a look at a 16-foot-tall marble statue dedicated to Apollo that now resides in an archaeological museum. With this we said goodbye to Greece and sailed to the Turkish port of Kusadasi for a two-day stay.

From here it was a short ride to Ephesus, one of the ancient world’s leading cities. Even under a blazing sun, passengers trekked down the main avenue past public buildings, temples and homes. The tour ended at the Library of Celsus and nearby stadium.

But Aegean’s passengers got an additional bonus — almost an hour’s worth of climbing through a former Roman housing complex where archaeologists have been unearthing secrets for two decades. Advance reservations are required to see these mosaics, frescoes, paintings and columns, so some tour operators don’t make it available. But the Voyagers group was able to make this side trip, which for many was a trip highlight.

The next day passengers had the choice of relaxing aboard, strolling and shopping in highly commercial Kusadasi, or venturing out on a long ride to see Aphrodisias, one of the ancient world’s best-preserved sites. Among the dozen or so who signed on for the three-hour-each-way trip, almost everyone was fascinated by its theater, 30,000-seat stadium, impressive walls, temple of Aphrodite and replicas of Sebasteion Hall. Originals from these lifelike Hellinistic structures are housed at a nearby museum. While the trip was long, this less-visited site offered a chance to view and contemplate something truly special. It was a fine example of the kind of places to which Voyages takes its passengers.

Next the ship sailed north to Canakkale, Turkey, where passengers chose between half-day excursions to either Gallipoli — site of a devastating Allied World War I defeat — or the scattered ruins of Troy, long thought to be the legendary or imaginary base of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey but which, in 1873, was discovered to actually have existed. Though there’s little here beyond rough foundations to see, the visit offered great food for thought.

Istanbul was the last stop, and embarking passengers were accommodated for two nights at hotels including the Ritz Carlton. From there they were shown such sites as Topkapi Palace. Suleymaniye Mosque, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Chora Church. Here, as in Athens, many opted to stay longer in order to savor more of the fascinating sights Istanbul offers.

Beyond its unique itinerary, Voyages offers several other distinct appeals. Casual dress is the rule, with no formal nights. Another plus is all mealtime drinks, including beer and wine, are included in the cabin price.

WHEN YOU GO

Voyages to Antiquity: www.voyagaestoantiquity.com

Istanbul Ritz Carlton Hotel: www.ritzcarlton.com/istanbul

Ciragan Palace Hotel: www.kempinski.com/istanbul

 

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