Story and photos by Robert N. Jenkins
On one side is the 2,000-passenger Splendour of the Seas, one of Royal Caribbean’s ocean-going playgrounds. On the other side is the all-suite Seabourn Quest, which boasts a walk-in closet and fully stocked bar in each stateroom.
But the 350-passenger Odyssey, flagship of the Voyages to Antiquity cruise line — actually, its only ship — is no one’s short order. Close to marking 40 years afloat and celebrating the second year of its latest makeover and new name, the Aegean Odyssey is not for the tattooed masses nor the jewels-by-Harry-Winston crowd. Its passengers love something you cannot purchase or wear — knowledge.
The day before the bigger ships docked nearby, the Odyssey’s passengers had spent two hours at the ruins of the Temple of Hera then visited a museum displaying 2,500-year-old works of art from that sight, on the Greek island of Samos.
After that, while lunch was served, the ship cruised for an hour to a bustling vacation port. Most of the passengers, 250 on this itinerary, were bused 25 minutes to the magnificent remains of Ephesus, considered by some as “the cradle of civilization,” where St. Paul came to preach at least 1,400 years after Ephesus was founded.
A narrator in your ear
Listening through ear pieces to radio transmitters tuned individually to their guide, the passengers spent 2 1/2 hours absorbing lessons in art, history, culture, archaeology and mythology. They also climbed hundreds of metal stairs, observing experts piecing together a zillion fragments of stucco and stone and touching up frescoes uncovered in Ephesus’ multi-story villas known as the Terrace Houses.
And after dinner that night, the Odyssey passengers filled the banquettes and tub chairs in the Ambassador Lounge for an engaging presentation on the next day’s historic destination by guest lecturer Dr. Thomas Mannack. One of Oxford’s leading scholars on art of the early Greeks, Mannack skillfully leavened his comments with humor.
The passengers can’t always count on laughing during their pre-tour lectures, but the people booking cruises on Voyages to Antiquity are assured of authoritative presentations followed by educational, even fascinating, visits to places where Western civilizations began and prospered, struggled and sometimes were extinguished by ruthless competitors.
The cruise line was founded by a veteran maritime entrepreneur, Britisher Gerry Herrod. He is the former chairman of such small, upscale operations as the Orient Lines and Pearl Cruises. Having sold the latter in 2008, Herrod found time to read The Middle Sea, by historian Lord John Julius Norwich. It focuses on how great civilizations flourished around the shores of the Mediterranean — the middle sea.
Herrod decided his next venture would take the curious to see the remnants of these civilizations. He bought a ship first launched in 1972, had it revamped from inside the hull to the funnel, reduced the number of cabins to make the remaining ones larger and added balconies where there had been none.
In May 2010, the Aegean Odyssey sailed the first of its 16 departures on nine itineraries. Destinations included the Greece, Italy, Albania, Croatia, Malta, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.
What is (and isn't) there
There were some stumbles at first but the educational theme proved popular enough that 2011 saw an expanded cruise season, more itineraries and longer trips. And this winter the ship added itineraries around India, Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Notable changes aboard the Aegean Odyssey after its first season include improved food service, more staff and a loosening of the dress code so that men no longer need a jacket in the more formal of the two dining rooms.
What has not changed are some of the more popular offers: the cruise passage includes economy-class tickets from 60 U.S. and Canadian gateways, most excursion costs, on-board gratuities and complimentary wine and beer with dinner.
Although the ship has no Wi-Fi, its low Internet fees shame the bigger lines, as they see our need to stay connected electronically as another rich stream of revenue.
Other cruise ship staples missing on the Aegean Odyssey are a casino, performance theater and recreational activities. Nope, it does't even have Bingo. The library, heavy on history and the classics, has board games and now and then a card game breaks out.
Otherwise, the entertainment consists of a string trio performing familiar classical works and music for slow dancing and a pianist-vocalist working through Broadway and movie tunes, plus down-tempo rock and roll.
“The type of passenger we are aiming for is interested in destinations, lectures and itineraries, not floor shows or drinking late,” Voyages’ managing director David Yellow told me.
“We want a like-minded group of people. The big cruise lines say their ships are the resorts; we say itineraries are the prime reason to come aboard. We want people who don’t want to cruise with 2,000 others.”
Instead, the most you’ll find on board is 350 people looking for that quality educational experience, a chance to not just unfold the map of some far-off land but to walk where the legends once did. You'll need sturdy shoes, but not tatoos or sparkling necklaces.
After more than a year of honing the shore excursions, Voyages to Antiquity has that part figured out. Each passenger is mailed a suggested reading list as a primer to visiting the sights. The personal earphones are fine for keeping you with the relevant narration at sights that can be crowded and confusing if you listen to the various guides’ conflicting descriptions.
The dining menu has broadened since I first sailed on the Aegean Odyssey in July 2010. Waiters circulate at breakfast with trays of pastries and at lunch with a selection of thin-crust pizzas that are quite good.
There are no “dress-up’’ nights in either of the two restaurants.
Cabins are adequate but not as spacious as their counterparts on mass-market or premium cruise ships.
An interesting touch: The in-cabin TV carries several English-language news channels as well as Al Jazeera and a Japanese news station, plus, four channels loop a selection of movies from classics to the relatively recent.
The cruise line added a new set of itineraries focusing on India, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. These 16- to 21-day cruises call on Cambodia and Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore. For this set of cruises, air add-ons from the United States start at $595.
Though the Aegean Odyssey is relatively small, some of its destinations do not have a pier, which means going ashore by tender — the ship’s lifeboats. Depending upon the wave action, loading and unloading can be difficult.
Lunch and dinner menus change daily in both restaurants, but having just two dining rooms to choose from for all three meals can get monotonous. Dining al fresco at the casual Terrace Café is pleasant but not enough of it is under cover to allow a significant number of diners to be out of the direct sun — a consideration in the warm climes for most of the ship’s sailing season. Table umbrellas would help.
The 2012 season of Mediterranean itineraries begins March 18 with a cruise titled The Minoan Civilization. Some intriguing cruise titles include: Pompeii is Something so Wonderful, Italy from Designs by Michelangelo, Those who Seek Paradise and Time Fears the Pyramids.
These spring/summer itineraries typically run 14 to 16 days. However, the fall/winter schedule, beginning Nov. 13, tends to be longer. That schedule commences with a repositioning cruise titled Grand Voyage: Delhi to Singapore, and is 28 days.
More info: Consult a travel agent or go to www.voyagestoantiquity.com.
Robert N. Jenkins, former travel editor of the St. Petersburg Times, has sailed on nearly 60 ships. bobjenkinswrites.com
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