By Robert N. Jenkins
Here’s a novel idea: Spend money to sit through history lectures on your vacation.
Actually, you’d really be getting informative presentations about the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Italians before touring the remnants of those great civilizations. And your classroom is aboard a special cruise ship sailing on what are termed Voyages to Antiquity.
The itineraries – 24 of them in 2011 – aboard the totally renovated and renamed Aegean Odyssey last 14 to 16 nights. The ship calls in destinations such as Sicily, Malta, Libya, Egypt, the Italian peninsula, Turkey, Greece and the Ukraine.
The Aegean Odyssey is comfortable and understated – more like a seagoing living room than the entertainment centers most cruise ships have become. The Odyssey has no casino, no theater, no shopping mall, no rock-climbing wall. For meals, passengers choose from a formal dining room with wait-staff service for lunch and dinner, or a casual, buffet-line restaurant.
Nightly entertainment consists of a string trio typically performing familiar classical works, alternating with a pianist working through Broadway and movie tunes.
''The type of passenger we are aiming for is interested in destinations, lectures and itineraries, not floor shows or drinking late,’’ David Yellow, Voyages’ managing director, told me as we sailed from the Italian mainland to Sicily.
“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.''
He means Voyages wants an older, better-educated, English-speaking group, who seek to rummage about in the birthplaces of Western civilization.
This is the raison d’etre for Voyages to Antiquity, and the cruise line does well by that.
With the cruise documents mailed to passengers is a suggested reading list, as well as a list of the excursions; except for a handful of special tours, all are included in the price of the voyage.
Guest lecturers present a facet of the history of the place that will be visited next. These experts – authors, professors from Oxford and Cambridge, lecturers from the American Museum of Natural History and even former ambassadors and multi-national chefs – often narrate a slide show to help put into context the importance of the port of call.
Each passenger is given a personal earphone to use throughout the trip. For each excursion, the earphone plugs into a tiny device that receives the live narration of that tour’s guide.
History and culture are each day’s objectives. For that reason, the cruise line brochure advises against bringing children younger than 12. As Yellow put it:
''If the children get bored, they get irritated, and then no one enjoys the cruise.''
Even though it is a relatively small ship at 461 feet long, the Aegean Odyssey uses its tenders – the lifeboats – for many port calls. The process of helping 40 or more passengers into each tender as it bobs alongside the ship’s loading platform is time-consuming, and the ride to the dock can be discomforting to some even in gentle seas.
Life on board
The Terrace Cafe and Grill serves all three meals from a circular buffet line mainly featuring American fare, with a large number of choices. The Marco Polo Dining Room serves only lunch and dinner from an a la carte menu that is typically Continental. There is no assigned seating in either restaurant.
A choice of wines, beer and soft drinks is included with dinners. Otherwise, all such beverages are sold at lunch and at the bars.
Afternoon tea is served as are hors d’oeuvres, at the cocktail hour of 5 and again at 10:30.
Most gathering spaces, from the eight tub chairs in the library to the 350 seats in the Ambassador Lounge, are on the Promenade Deck.
The Ambassador is essentially a ship-wide lecture hall, with a gently sloping floor. Those sitting on its six levels have clear sight lines toward the projector screen and podium used for the daily lectures.
Also on the Promenade is the main bar, the Charleston Lounge. This is the only place passengers can count on regular bar hours plus live music.
Farther aft is a small library, open 24 hours. It is stocked with hundreds of histories, plus atlases and travel guides.
The only other room on the Promenade is the Terrace Café and Grill and its adjacent Tapas on the Terrace, the popular open-air extension to the dining room
The ship’s Internet café consists of six terminals. There is no WiFi onboard.
A multitude of cabins
There are 17 cabin categories, located on four decks. The cabins are a variety of sizes and shapes, ranging from 130 square feet up to 550, for the two owner’s suites. The larger, Concierge Class, cabins have teak-floored balconies.
Every cabin has a mini-fridge stocked with soft drinks; there is no charge for these or the liter of bottled water atop the bureau. Each cabin also has an electronic safe and a flat-screen television – the owner’s suites have two – that have six news and four movie channels.
The Aegean Odyssey has 16 cabins created as singles. There are also two spacious, wheelchair-accessible cabins.
If you go
Its thick brochure likens the Aegean Odyssey to a country club. Because it sails generally in a hot and humid region, shorts are common for men and women. Jackets and ties are not required, nor is there a “formal’’ night.
Gratuities for cabin and wait staff are included in the price of passage, though a 12.5 percent charge is added to all bar orders.
Included in the cost of passage is free or low-cost air fare to Europe from dozens of North American gateways, plus most excursion costs, onboard gratuities, wine or beer with dinner, and transportation to and from the airports before and after cruises. A few itineraries include overnight stays on land, also included in the fare.
Photos courtesy of Voyages to Antiquity unless otherwise indicated.
Robert N. Jenkins is former travel editor of the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times.
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