By Lisa TE Sonne
My oldest friend from childhood, Jamey, and I had waited patiently to take this girlfriend trip. Her last child was off to college and her law firm and husband could spare her for the 11day “Ancient Mysteries” cruise on Holland America’s Noordam. Here, peeling back the curtains every morning was like opening a present. Beyond our verandah was a dawning invitation to have fun on shore. The first morning it was the gleaming domes and minaret spires and skyscrapers on the Bosporus’ shores of Istanbul – the only capital to straddle two continents. Other mornings, the yachts, whites and windmills of Mykonos, Greece beckoned. Dollops of brown islets dotted a cerulean sea and a windmill tower of Rhodes (a World Heritage site) seemed close enough to touch.
The trip for us was time travel in multiple ways. We visited sites where scenes from the Odyssey had unfolded and where St. Paul had preached. We walked the chariot tracks of Roman gladiators in Perge, climbed the steps of Greek theaters 20 centuries old, looked at tile mosaics in terrace homes from the 1st Century BC, ambled under Hadrian’s gate (3rd century CE) in Antalya, visited the home in Ephesus believed to be the last earthly domain of the Virgin Mary, and photographed Crusader strongholds and the intricate designs and Islamic calligraphy in Mosques converted from churches, with the Christian artwork left intact.
We re-visited the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s from trick-or-treating and rollerskating to the Patty Hearst and Charles Manson news, our favorite teachers and the dynamics of our family relationships. While sitting on our verandah cruising the coasts of the Mediterranean and Aegean, we sipped margaritas and chatted about our lives on opposite coasts of the country.
Both the vessel and venue were wonderful for an extended slumber party, a kind of stimulating summer camp with uncontrollable giggling, pondering life’s big questions, and discussing what to wear. We had all the childhood curiosity and fun of poking around and playing by day, and the homelike security of coming back to our familiar base at night. Only in this case, our home had a huge staff to cater to our comforts. Our daily exploring was in places with different languages. When we were using our flashlights to see in the dark, it wasn’t in the backyards of our youth, but a tunnel leading to an underground view of cisterns and burial tombs from before the early days of Christianity and Islamism. Every port was rich with history and culture, food and drink, shopping, and beautiful beaches. There wasn’t enough time to do it all.
We could order room service anytime and dine al fresco on our deck or in the room. We could pick and choose at the Lido Deck’s buffets, order delectable fare at the main Vista Dining room, dress up and savor a New-York-like Le Cirque experience or enjoy la dulce vida at the Canalleto Italian restaurant (Master Chef’s Rudi Sodermin’s Balsamic vinegar was so good that I got a bottle to take home.) The Pinnacle Grill was equally scrumptious. The ship’s wine steward, Ingo Jagnow-Polonis, was entertaining and informative, pairing lively liquids with courses. And we never had to worry about driving or hailing a cab. Transport to sleep was a simple matter of choosing among the stairs, a glass elevator with sea views, or a regular elevator.
As cruise fans know, we only had to unpack once for many ports. Well-designed closets with under-bed storage and bench storage space gave us enough room for both our formal night attire, casual clothes and gear. The en suite desk provided room to re-charge camera batteries and use internet service to call or email our husbands.
A ship as large as the Noordam (2,200 passengers and 800 crew) provided a enormous variety of onboard entertainment and activity. Jamey choose the gym one of our two “At Sea” days while I walked laps on the 10th deck enjoying the people watching, brisk air, and conversation with a new friend made on the trip. I relaxed with a “Five Steps to Heaven” spa special and jamey glowed from a facial.
On Mykenos, we enjoyed the windmills and the winding whitewashed warren followed by a feast of seafood. Jamey went jewelry shopping and I took a cab to Paradise Beach for scuba diving in the Mediterranean. On nights we didn’t stay up late talking like school girls, Jamey liked to tuck in to read while I enjoyed being out on the verandah communing with the stars and sea.
Originally, our tour included sightseeing in Egypt. But the political unrest a month before departure made getting up close to the pyramids unadvisable. Israel replaced Egypt and I was thrilled. Only two days before we were due to arrive, it was announced that Israel was also scratched. Talk of the US bombing Syria in response to chemical weapon use prompted Israel to gear up for retaliation, and the cruise line opted to maximize passenger safety adding ports in Greece and Turkey instead.
If our trip had been solely about the destinations, we would have some gaping holes. But for us it was really about the journey. We saw Bodrum in Turkey and Antalya and Nafplion in Greece, places we knew almost nothing about but came to appreciate. We watched as Holland America quickly offered a “Sail Away from Bodrum” party with complimentary drinks and food, and provided us with new menus of shore excursions of castles, palaces, shopping and other highlights.
Seeing Mycenae and the Bee Hive tomb (aka the Treasury of Atreus) that some believe held the Agamemnon chronicled by Homer was memorable as was the Corinth Canal. We marveled at what I call the “carry overs” of the columns and sculptures of the Mauseleum of Hallicarnassus (now Bodrum,) built 2,300-plus years ago and one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World. I joke that we don’t want to call the surviving bits of mass “ruins” since our own aging would take its toll ultimately. We discussed how the choices our parents and friends’ parents had made at our age seemed to influence their current lives.
On our final day of the cruise, we realized we didn’t take advantage of a lot of the activities the Noordam offers: the casino, pool, Jacuzzi, disco, art auctions, digital photography classes, imaginative “Signature” drinks of the day, gym classes, trivia games, Dancing with the Stars competition or afternoon tea. And we hadn’t made our way to the front of the ship to shout out we were Queens of the World.
But we felt like royalty.
Lisa Sonne has visited and photographed all seven continents and many seas, and written for award winning movies, television, internet and print. She and her husband founded a pioneering nonprofit www.CharityChecks.us that provides gifts that give—Giving Certificates are good for any charity that the recipients choose.
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