Posted by: cruise2 | 24 June, 2011

AEGEAN ODYSSEY, Voyages to Antiquity, 31 May to 15 June 2011.

 

Where to begin? Well, the logical place is Toronto’s Pearson International Airport where I boarded an Alitalia plane on the late afternoon of 31 May for an overnight flight to Rome. I had made the booking through The Cruise People several months earlier and, with documents and passport all in order, I settled in for a seven-hour flight.

At Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport the meet-and-greet service functioned properly and before long I was aboard a coach for the journey to my hotel. The route took us through some of Rome’s most historic areas and, in fact, it took about 1 hour 30 minutes from the airport to the Hotel Visconti Palace where I stayed for the next two nights. Most, if not all, Voyages to Antiquity journeys include a land-based component either prior to the cruise or immediately after. The Visconti Palace hotel was modern and efficient, and my room was ready without any waiting period. The word “Palace” in the hotel’s title seemed a little excessive, but there was no doubt that it was an entirely satisfactory location for the next two days. Breakfast was included, and for other meals there were several restaurants nearby in addition to the hotel’s open-air restaurant on the seventh floor.

Voyages to Antiquity takes its name seriously. The itineraries are destination driven and the rich history of the Mediterranean forms the basis of every shore excursion. My journey, titled “The grand object of all travel is to see the shores of the Mediterranean,” a quotation by Dr. Samuel Johnson, was to take me from Rome to Venice, with 12 days aboard Aegean Odyssey but only one full day at sea. The first two days in Rome, though, included tours each morning, one to St. Peter’s Basilica, the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon, and the other to the Colosseum and the Forum, followed by a coach journey of about 40 miles to Civitavecchia, the port from which the ship departed. Rome itself is some miles from the sea and it does not have its own port. The nearest one of any size is at Civitavecchia.

For each tour in Rome and during the following 12 days a considerable amount of walking was required, often on rough and uneven surfaces, some paved and some unpaved, and frequently uphill and downhill. A descriptive booklet issued to each passenger grades each tour as 1, 2 or 3 in its degree of strenuousness. In my opinion most of these tours are not suitable for anyone with limited mobility. Add to that the fact that the Mediterranean can be quite hot during the summer months and that the historic sites tend to be busy with visitors. Still, I have to say that I really enjoyed these shore excursions. The sites were unfailingly interesting and had much to tell me of the history, architecture, religion and art of the various regions. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be Segesta in Sicily, where the Greek temple and the nearby open-air theatre had survived for 2,500 years in an excellent state of preservation. A close runner-up would be St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, where Aegean Odyssey’s passengers had a private evening tour of this impressive cathedral.

A bonus for two of the three shore excursions in Sicily was that they were about 15 to 20 miles from the ports where Aegean Odyssey was docked and the coach trip showed us the highlights of the cities of Trapani and Messina where we docked as well as the neighbouring countryside. However, I have to point out that for two of these excursions the ship was due to tender her passengers close to the historic sites but the captain stated that the weather forecast predicted choppy seas so he decided to dock his ship at the nearest city, thus making necessary the overland coach trips to the sites.

At each port at least one shore excursion was included in the fare. The fare also included gratuities to waiters and stewards. Several afternoon excursions were optional at additional cost. After Civitavecchia the ports were Bonifacio (Corsica), Cagliari (Sardinia), Trapani, Palermo and Messina (all three in Sicily), Valletta (Malta), Dubrovnik and Split (both in Croatia) and Venice.

For each shore excursion, the coaches were air conditioned and in the hands of capable drivers. The local guides that accompanied each excursion had a good command of English and were remarkably well informed about the sites we visited. Modern technology being what it is, the passengers carried a voice-controlled transmitter system that consisted of a receiver that could fit into a shirt pocket, with a neck strap and an earphone. This allowed the guide to talk in a conversational voice, and even at a distance the guide’s comments were audible. It is a fact, however, that even the best guides tend to talk to excess and seem unaware that people can sometimes learn on their own through their eyes without the need of a spoken commentary.

Still, I must state that the guides were pleasant, professional and knowledgeable.

My cruise took place in the first half of June when temperatures ranged from 24 to 30 degrees Celsius (76 to 86 Fahrenheit). A nice touch occurred when we disembarked from the ship to board the coaches for the shore excursions. A steward stood at the foot of the gangway handing out bottles of ice-cold water. On our return he offered small cups of iced tea or some other drink before we ascended the gangway..

Which bring us to Aegean Odyssey herself, a ship of 11,563 gross tons and a length of 461 feet.

From an unlikely beginning as a roll-off roll-on cargo ship built in the 1970s, she was first converted in the 1980s to a cruise ship that could accommodate 576 passengers and she operated budget-level cruises mostly in Mediterranean waters. Then she was acquired by her current owners in 2009 and completely updated and refurbished. Instead of 576 passengers she now carries a maximum of only 370. She has 198 suites and staterooms, 40 of them having private balconies. I never saw the ship in her previous incarnation, but it appears that the most recent transformation was carried out with a generous budget.

After her several conversions and updates, the white-hulled Aegean Odyssey has a pleasing and distinctive profile and in the ports that she shared with much larger and more modern cruise ships she did not in the least look out of place.

The reduction in passenger capacity has brought a number of benefits. For example, on Deck 3 the Marco Polo dining room is the same one as she had previously but now, completely refurbished, there is more space between tables and there is a good number of tables for two persons, something that is frequently lacking in many cruise ships. Other tables hold four or six people.

The Marco Polo room is open for lunch and dinner and within a two-hour time frame passengers can dine when they like and with whom they like. The waiters are nearly all Filipino and I found them pleasant and efficient at all times. The menus themselves offer a good selection of dishes for each course and the plates are attractively presented. The food has a Mediterranean influence, appropriate considering the itinerary of the cruise. I recall that the day after we left Palermo the menu included swordfish that had been bought in that city the previous day. Dinner on the day we left Messina included fish that had been obtained in port that morning. Dinner includes red or white wine (or beer or a soft drink) at no additional charge. However, more sophisticated vintages are available at extra cost. While the journey, land and sea, included at no additional cost at least one shore excursion from each port, the fare also included gratuities to waiters and stateroom stewards, as well as transfers between the airport and hotel at the start of the cruise and from the ship to the airport when the voyage ended. These features make it simple to calculate the entire cost before making a booking.

For dining, passengers are not limited to the Marco Polo Room on Deck 3. The Terrace Café and Grill aft on Deck 6 is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Terrace has both an indoor section (nicely air conditioned like the rest of the ship) and an outdoor area. When the ship was in port I frequently used the outdoor section with the harbour forming an always interesting background. Although the meals were self-service buffet style, invariably a waiter was always on hand to carry the tray from the buffet to the table. Breakfast included all the standard dishes, while lunch and dinner always offered a fairly wide selection for each course.

At four o’clock each afternoon tea was served in the Terrace Café and at 10:30 every evening snacks were provided in the Charleston Lounge. Throughout the day coffee and tea, along with pastries, were available on the Lido Deck near the Swimming Pool. While a swimming pool is a standard item on nearly all cruise ships, it is not always widely used, and this applied to Aegean Odyssey’s pool. The chairs around the pool were made of wood and I noticed that the ship’s directory correctly described them as chaises longues, not as chaise lounges, a faux pas that is all too common in North America. Sun worshippers could find many chaises longues aft on Lido Deck while passengers that preferred a shady location could locate a few aft on the Bridge Deck.

Most of Aegean Odyssey’s public rooms were on Deck 6. Forward was the large Ambassador Lounge. Although only one deck high, the floor was slightly raked so that those on the back row could still see the stage. This lounge was where the ship’s lectures were held. On my voyage, the ship carried two enrichment lecturers who were well qualified to talk about their specialties and were always approachable to the passengers. Lecturers are mostly British and sometimes American, often recruited from the ranks of academe or diplomacy.

Midships stood the Charleston Lounge, perhaps Aegean Odyssey’s most attractive room. It was the social centre of the ship, where passengers seemed to congregate instinctively. At one end stood a bar (beer US$3.50, whisky US$5.00, service charge 12½ per cent). Mention of the bar reminds me that the ship’s policy regarding alcohol is that bottles brought aboard must be handed in to Security at the gangway and will be returned to its owner at the end of the cruise. This regulation, common to many cruise lines, tended to irk more than a few passengers.

At the other end of the Charleston Lounge stood a platform where the entertainers performed. Aegean Odyssey does not go in for flamboyance. The entertainment consisted of a trio that played the lighter classics, and a cocktail pianist who specialized in the works of Kern, Berlin, Gershwin and Rogers. There were no comedians, vocalists, magicians or chorus line—and no one seemed to miss them. If you want to know what else Aegean Odyssey did not provide, there was no casino, no photographer, no offers of gold chains at $1.00 per inch at the ship’s shop, no birthday cakes with sparklers in the dining room and no Baked Alaska at dinner on the final night.

The ship had a well laid-out shop with above-average quality merchandise. It was located on the port side aft, close to the Terrace Café. On the corresponding position on the starboard side was the Library, a comfortable and inviting room. Voyages to Antiquity takes its journeys seriously, as a glance at the enrichment lecturers listed on the website will prove. Thus the Library contains a wide selection of books related to the voyages. Many are serious books written by authorities past and present. Personally, I think that few, if any, passengers will get through all three volumes of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in the course of a single voyage. Still there was also a selection of lighter titles as well as board games such as chess, Monopoly and Scrabble. At several ports English-language newspapers were brought aboard.

A room that saw only limited use during my voyage was the Observation Lounge on Deck 9. The windows on three sides gave commanding views of the sea but the lounge’s most frequent occupants were bridge players who were more concerned with their cards than with the scenery.

Aegean Odyssey’s passenger accommodation is spread over four decks. The suites and cabins fall into 14 price categories. I occupied Cabin 433, an inside cabin forward on Columbus Deck (Deck 4). Although it measured only about 130 square feet, it was sufficient for my needs. It had two single beds, which could not be combined to form a double bed. The drawer space and closet space were satisfactory but I noted that the closet has plastic coat hangers rather than wooden ones. The cabin had a small flat-screen television and a safe. The bathroom had a shower but some of the larger staterooms and cabins had a combined tub/shower. The higher-priced staterooms and suites had additional amenities such as refrigerators. My cabin steward was efficient and friendly.

On most of Aegean Odyssey’s voyages, most passengers come from the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, with a few other nationalities thrown in. The ship operates exclusively in the English language. A point to remember is that there are very few announcements on the public-address system.

One feature that sets Aegean Odyssey apart from most cruise ships is that no two consecutive voyages follow an identical itinerary. Thus on my voyage after most passengers disembarked at Venice about 40 remained aboard for the next cruise. For the remainder of 2011 and for the 2012 season she will operate almost exclusively in the Mediterranean, with a foray or two into the Black Sea. Her cruising season runs from March to November.

My cruise ended at Venice where the ship stayed overnight. I disembarked and boarded a coach for Venice’s Marco Polo airport where I took a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, to be followed by a much longer Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Toronto.

In summary, I enjoyed my journey more than I had anticipated. The ship herself has been converted thoroughly and what she offered in the way of accommodation, cuisine, enrichment, entertainment and service surpassed my expectations. The shore excursions were consistently interesting even to someone like me, who has only a limited knowledge of the long history of the Mediterranean. Travel arrangements from arrival to departure went off without the slightest problem.

Voyages to Antiquity and its one-ship fleet operate in a niche market. The company seems to have a firm knowledge of the desires, tastes and interests of its typical passengers and what they want to achieve from their cruise. Its ship and the itineraries are likely to attract return passengers.

If questions arise, I will be pleased to respond.

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