Aegean Odyssey 2011

Story by Tony Leighton

After two glorious days in Rome, we met the Aegean Odyssey in Civitavecchia, the nearby port where countless cruise ships take on and off-load hundreds of thousands of passengers each year. She was unmistakable, like a gazelle in a herd of hippos. On one side was an enormous cruise ship with ÔÇö and I am not making this up ÔÇö a football-field-sized illustration on its starboard flank of Sylvester the Cat chasing a mammoth yellow Tweety Bird. Nearby was a ship with lips inexplicably painted on its prow. The Aegean Odyssey, small but dignified, sat between them, undoubtedly anxious to flee the scene. As were we.

This was our second time aboard the Aegean Odyssey. In 2010, on our first two-week voyage, we travelled to the major centres of the Byzantine empire. Starting in Istanbul and finishing in Venice, we saw fabulous mosaics from the Middle Ages, churches more ancient than any we’d visited, and formidable Venetian outposts of imperialism, like Corfu and Dubrovnic.

But during that inaugural season, there had been mechanical hiccups. Soot fell from improperly adjusted smokestacks, which was an irritation to wearers of white pants, and the AC had a habit of refusing to work in record-breaking summer heat. On top of that, the food was nothing special.

We were invited to return by the owners of the ship to experience the Aegean Odyssey in its full second-season glory, and we eagerly came back.

There is much to like, starting with the ship itself. The Odyssey is eight decks of four-star elegance. In addition to two decks of typical twin-bed cruise ship rooms (larger than most), there are another two decks of surprisingly spacious staterooms with king-size beds and generous floor space. There are two restaurants ÔÇö one more formal, the other more casual ÔÇö plus an aft deck for outdoor dining. On the top deck are a small swimming pool, a large hot tub, and plenty of lounge chairs. In the summer heat, that’s the place to sip drinks and read your novel under an umbrella.

A Little Larger Than an Oligarch’s Yacht

The Aegean Odyssey is a small ship devoted to history, and that is its greatest charm. In the crazy world of cruising, floating behemoths are the dominant species. On those, you join thousands of other cruisers for Vegas-like buffets, live entertainment, and casino gambling. The ship is the show, and some passengers never get off. On the Aegean Odyssey, the ship is the sanctuary. The show ÔÇö guided tours through history ÔÇö is onshore.

On this 14-day tour, ruins were the focus. Often they are in places that time has left behind, places you wouldn’t visit on your own. Our ports of call were: Palermo, Sicily; Tunis, Tunisia; Valetta, Malta; Chania and Heraklion, Crete (Greece); Rhodes, Greece; Antalya, Turkey; Tasucu, Turkey; and Limassol, Cyprus.

Our cruise was billed as “The Crusades: The West Must March in Defense of the East.” And while we visited outposts of the Knights Templar and Hospitaller (especially on Rhodes and in southern Turkey), we mostly visited the best Roman ruins we’d ever seen, well-preserved symbols of Rome’s mighty imprint across the Mediterranean.

Would we recommend it? Absolutely. Here are nine reasons:

The size of the ship is ideal.

Cruising comes in all sizes, from canal boats for a dozen people in rural France to the Oasis of the Seas, the monster ship that carries more than 6,000 passengers.

The Aegean Odyssey, with capacity for 350 guests, allows you to experience a certain familiarity with other passengers while remaining as separate as you choose. The three dining areas are comfortably enclosed, so you feel like you are in a restaurant not an eating-stadium.

Single people don’t get lost in the crowd. An elderly man travelling by himself seemed sad to me, until my wife pointed out that the staff were especially solicitous, and he had companions at dinner and on excursions. He is seeing the world safely and in good company.

Agility is the other benefit in a ship of modest size. The Aegean Odyssey is able to dock at smaller ports where large ships cannot go. It can also drop its anchor then drop its tender boats and take you into really small ports. On Rhodes, we landed at Lindos on a narrow wooden dock below the town’s 12th-century acropolis and were able to walk up easily.

The atmosphere is relaxed.

The atmosphere of a ship is important. You either feel comfortable or, by degrees, not. Too many chandeliers or too much brass trim would make me uncomfortable. The Aegean Odyssey is bright and tastefully decorated. Our room felt like a calm, pastel oasis.

Someone on the ship described the atmosphere as “casual but never sloppy.” Exactly. Propriety prevails. For finer dining in the Marco Polo restaurant, you wear what you would wear to a decent restaurant. In the more casual Terrace Room or on the aft deck you can wear shorts if you like. Alcohol never gets in the way. While free wine flows liberally at dinner, there are no drunks to dodge as they lurch from the casino, because there is no casino.

There is also none of the relentless upselling that frequently occurs on big ships where increasing the profit margin is the priority. Aside from drinks at the bar, everything on the Aegean Odyssey is included. That alone is relaxing.

The excursions are outstanding and part of the package.

The best inclusion is daily excursions. On many ships, you pay for these, and they are not cheap. On the Odyssey, on most days, you join your group ÔÇö Red, Green, Pink, Yellow, etc. ÔÇö board a coach with a guide, and motor off to a world-class ruin or church or fishing village. Some days, we would return to the ship for lunch and head off again in the afternoon. Being with the same busload of fellow travellers breeds convivial familiarity. We sat in the back of our bus with several other couples and bonded over the two weeks. We felt like a small tribe that looked forward to meeting every morning.

The hired guides are mostly excellent.

Guided touring is so much better than trying to understand things on your own. Skilled guides are a special blessing. Voyages To Antiquity, the company that owns the Aegean Odyssey, invests in quality guiding. That paid off for us in many colourful stories that brought history to life and helped us understand the countries we were visiting.

Our guide in Tunisia was a case in point. An erudite man in his late forties, well dressed and well spoken, he was obviously proud of his recently liberated country and its long history. He spoke from the heart. As we drove past flocks of pink flamingos standing in the shallows of the broad and briny Lake Tunis and out through the dusty, disordered suburbs of the city, he told us that Tunisian women are the most emancipated in the Arab world, that Tunisia exports more olive oil than any country except Italy, and that many people don’t finish building their homes because until recently if your home was not finished you were not taxed on the property. So the suburbs of Tunis look like a construction site.

The same excellent guide was with us in Dougga, a Roman town dominated by a magnificent Parthenon-like temple high on a hill in the olive-groved countryside outside of Tunis. We toured the foundational remnants of private homes, the public market, the baths, a brothel, and the public toilet ÔÇö a semicircular limestone 12-seater that remains today almost fully intact. According to our guide, slaves would dip cotton-tipped sticks into fresh water so the master could swab his bottom. Grey water from the nearby baths flushed away the waste through a channel under the keyhole-shaped openings. We could almost envision 12 corpulent Romans, togas hoisted, sitting together and chatting every morning at roughly the same hour. Had we not had our guide with us, we might have overlooked the privy never mind played the entertaining mental movie in our heads.

The emphasis on history is edifying.

Travel always educates. Travelling while purposefully learning is, as far as we’re concerned, the best way to go.

On this cruise, we could feel the waves of empires rolling through the centuries across the Mediterranean, starting in tiny Malta on a windswept hilltop, where 7,000 years ago Copper Age people built the breathtaking Hagar Qim temple from enormous slabs of limestone; to Knossos, where tens of thousands of Minoans worshipped the Minotaur; to Segesta, in Sicily, where fleeing Trojans apparently took refuge in the 4th century and built a spectacular Doric temple and hilltop amphitheatre; to Carthage in Tunisia, which ruled the seas until the Romans pulverized the entire civilization in about 146 B.C.; to Anemurium in southern Turkey, a Greco-Roman town with a sprawling necropolis of more than 300 stone tombs that look down mournfully from a hillside like shattered sentinels; to Rhodes Town, one of the largest intact walled towns in Europe, where the crusading Knights of St. John spent two centuries before being ousted by the Ottomans.

Onboard lecturers added to our education. This is another strength of Voyages To Antiquity. On each cruise, historians ride with you. We had three, all fine lecturers. Our favourite was Robert L. Vann, a professor at the University of Maryland. Among his talks were “Architecture for Entertainment in the Roman World,” a fascinating picture of the Roman forum and the Circus Maximus, which, we learned, held upwards of 400,000 spectators ÔÇö about the same as the grandstand at a large NASCAR race ÔÇö and “How To Build a Greek Temple,” during which, via his slides, he showed us that most of the jobs during temple construction were efficiently outsourced to specialized crews that included stone haulers, foundation builders, column makers, and marble carvers. Interesting stuff.

The food was consistently good.

Our 2010 cruise on the Aegean Odyssey was slightly marred by a fair bit of boring food. The ship’s owner apparently got the message. This time, there wasn’t a single disappointing meal. The difference seems to have been made by a Canadian of Asian extraction named Van Chinh Pham, the new Executive Chef.

Out of Mr. Pham’s kitchen came a succession of grilled and roasted meats and fish, fresh salads, and freshly baked cakes, tarts, pastries, big loaves of fresh bread, and, on one memorable evening, an unforgettable warm custard trifle. I made note of three meals because they were so comforting: roast turkey with roasted vegetables and caramelized onions; beef filet mignon with garlic mashed potatoes and Swiss chard; and liver (a buffet choice I made in error, then appreciated), thinly sliced in a rich, rosemary-tinged gravy, with caramelized onions and first-rate french fries.

One of the drawbacks of cruising is that you don’t eat much of the local cuisine along the way. The resourceful Mr. Pham compensated us with locally themed buffets. One evening, sailing off the Greek coast, we enjoyed spanakopita, small grilled fish, spiced beef kabobs, stuffed tomatoes, and baclava.

Many passengers preferred the elegance of the Marco Polo dining room for dinner. We were the opposite, preferring the less-formal Terrace Room at the back of the ship and, on warm evenings, eating outside on the aft deck, sipping wine and peering into the inky night.

Our onboard hosts worked hard.

We travelled in November near the end of a long season that had begun for the staff in March. Nevertheless, they were unflaggingly cheerful and helpful. Alison Lewin, the Cruise Coordinator, kept us coordinated. Excursions Manager Zoe Bromley-Fox and her four young staff members kept us moving onshore. And the predominantly Philipino housekeeping and restaurant staff kept our rooms marvellously clean and our wine glasses full. “Philipinos,” said a fellow passenger, “seem to have a culture more advanced than our own. Many are poor, yet most are happy. Family matters to them. Their country matters. They like to work. They like people.” It showed and we were charmed.

At the end of the cruise, we generously tipped the man who made up our room twice a day, and gave 20 euros each to our four favourite restaurant servers, one of whom delivered a lovely handwritten farewell to us on our final night.

This cruise hit the value sweet spot.

We feel that the Aegean Odyssey cruises are a good deal. You get four-star quality with a motherlode of excursions that would normally cost somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000 per couple, plus the lectures and the intimacy of a smaller ship. One measure of the value was the presence on our cruise of about 100 guests booked by a single Canadian tour operator. The president of the company was there too. He told us, “My clients are seasoned travellers, not tourists. They want unique experiences at a good price. They are getting it.”

The rhythm of this cruise was perfect.

Great vacations, for me, are active yet relaxing; time passes slowly because you fill it with adventure, yet you rest enough to come away relaxed. We achieved that rhythm on this ship. The daily bus excursions were nicely balanced by the sanctuary of the Odyssey. We toured all day, ate well, mingled appropriately, and retired to our room. Compression. Relaxation. Compression. Relaxation. We left the ship yearning to stay aboard as the Odyssey sailed on toward the Suez Canal. Others expressed the same reluctance to disembark and end the trip.

Things we are confident they will improve:

1) The coffee isn’t good. For many of us habituated to caffeine, quality coffee and tea matter. Both are decidedly inferior on the Aegean Odyssey.

2) The included wines at dinner were rough. We started with a decent Sicilian red, but the supply ran out, and it was replaced for the duration of the voyage by a miserable Greek red. In the Mediterranean, palatable wine can be acquired cheaply. There’s no good excuse not to serve it.

3) Our final port of call, Limassol, was a disappointing place. I expected Cyprus to be somewhat exotic. Instead, we docked in a busy industrial port and found almost nothing redeeming about the city. All charm had been wrung from its dispirited centre by chain stores selling fashions or electronics you can buy in Milwaukee or Toronto.

There was moment when it all came together for me. I felt an overwhelming sense of privileged tranquility one night at dinner as we pulled away from Antalya. My wife and I sat outside at a small, candlelit table beside the broad rail of the aft deck. Anatalya receded like a glowing rim on the horizon. A long string of aircraft, tiny dots against a range of dark mountains, landed one by one like orderly fireflies. The wake of the ship unfurled like foam embroidery on the blue-black sea. In our glasses, mercifully, was the Sicilian red. We were contentedly in motion and about to have a good meal ÔÇö a state of near-perfection in travel.

Disclaimer: My wife and I were invited on this cruise. We accepted on the condition that whatever I write or photograph is in no way influenced by the cruise company. And it has not been. Travellers today want trusted recommendations from other travelers. The best tour companies want their stories told well and honestly. I try to make my travelogues as helpfully insightful and authentic as I know how. ÔÇö Tony Leighton

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