November 29, 2014

Mediterranean Odyssey

The sparkling six-star Crystal Serenity takes passengers to a land of picturesque villages, Greek lore and sun-washed beaches

By Alan Fox

Vacations Magazine: Mediterranean Odyssey
Karen Fox

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

The ground began to shake on Aug. 20, and the earthquakes continued for four days. Some people fled, but unfortunately, many stayed behind.

Then, in the afternoon of Aug. 24, Vesuvius erupted in a fury of fire from the center of the Earth. A plume of smoke shot nearly 20 miles upward, spreading to block the sun and the sky, turning the day to night.

For 19 hours, hell rained down on this corner of the Roman Empire, burying 1,000 square miles under as much as 75 feet of volcanic ash and cinders. Every living thing perished.

The year was A.D. 79, and when the air finally cleared, Pompeii, Herculaneum and nearby villages were ... gone.

Buon giorno!

I'm checking in from the Gulf of Naples in Italy, where the Crystal Serenity, one of two six-star ships from Crystal Cruises, is anchored near the lovely seaside town of Sorrento. Small pleasure boats dot the deep-blue water in this natural harbor, and hills covered with olive and orange trees rise from the sea. Along sections of the coastline, sheer cliffs jut 50 to 100 feet out of the water, crowned by hotels and restaurants, apartments and private homes.

I'm just back from a tour of the town, which dates to the seventh century. Narrow pedestrian-only streets are lined with small shops and cafes, overhanging balconies are filled with bougainvillea, and the few sand and rock beaches are covered with fun-seekers of all ages on this warm and sunny day.

It took 120 years to restore Sorrento following that blast from Vesuvius, and five major eruptions since that time have damaged the city, but none have shut it down. Residents have shown the same indomitable spirit that spread the Roman Empire throughout the entire Mediterranean and to what are now the countries of Germany, France, Spain and England.

Pompeii was buried and lost for nearly 1,700 years before its accidental discovery in the 18th century. Along with the stunning island of Capri, just offshore, Sorrento and an excavated Pompeii are the prime tourist destinations in the region.

This is my fifth day aboard the extraordinary Crystal Serenity. There are only 13 six-star vessels in the world, and at 68,000 gross registered tons and carrying up to 1,080 passengers, the Crystal Serenity is the largest.

Imagine traveling the world with your every need anticipated, on a sparkling vessel with superb food and service. Each morning, a fascinating new city appears off your balcony, begging to be explored. Passage is effortless and exhilarating, even to the most remote corners of the planet. You have imagined a Crystal cruise.

I chose the Crystal Serenity because I knew the ship would be perfect for a three-generation family celebration. My son and his best friend are celebrating new high school diplomas, and this cruise is a graduation gift of the best kind -- a continuing education.

My mom and dad are celebrating a respite from a spate of health problems that had prevented them from traveling. Her dream of seeing Rome helped keep my mother alive this past year, as her corps of doctors would attest. Yesterday that dream was realized, as she knelt in the world's largest church -- St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City -- with a long list of names on her prayer list.

As for me, the celebration is about having us all together again on the open sea, and if this should prove to be our last voyage, I wanted to make it a trip to remember. We arrived 10 days ago from Houston, with pre-cruise stays in Paris and the Spanish island of Mallorca. The weak U.S. dollar was painfully evident at every turn. I'm almost ashamed to admit that on our first morning in Paris, we ordered a room-service breakfast for two at the Hotel Lutetia -- eggs, bacon, a small bowl of fruit, a basket of bread and two coffees -- all for only $120! It would have been smarter to pick up a croissant or pain au chocolat at one of the many patisseries nearby, and stop for coffee at a cafe.

Despite the prices, it was good to be back in Paris. We used hop-on, hop-off double-decker buses (Les Cars Rouges) and the subway (Metro) for sightseeing and ate in charming, informal brasseries.

This was my first visit to France since pro-America Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president, and we were treated courteously everywhere we went. But then I also visited during the height of the tension between the U.S. and French governments and never felt unwelcome.

Mallorca is spectacularly beautiful and just a bit more affordable. Located southeast of Barcelona in the Mediterranean, the island boasts clear blue water and hundreds of beaches. Mountains rise to almost 5,000 feet, and much of Mallorca is covered with groves of olive and almond trees. The medieval village of Valldemossa is a must-see excursion in the mountains outside the main city of Palma.

Then it was on to Barcelona, where we boarded the Crystal Serenity for our 12-night cruise, sailing first to Portovenere on the northwest coast of Italy. For our shore excursion, we took a smaller sightseeing boat along a section of coastline known as the Cinque Terre, where lovely and historic seaside towns welcome tourists in the summer and rows of grapes line the hillsides. We sampled the local wine and frutti di mare at an open-air trattoria by the water.

Next we were off to Civitavecchia, the main port serving Rome, and a full day in the Eternal City. The sheer number of sights to be seen and the scale of the Colosseum, the Forum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica make this one of the world's most fascinating cities. There's far too much to see in a single day, so we tried boosting the odds we'd return by tossing a coin into Trevi Fountain.

Tonight we sail for Greece and a rendezvous with the ancient Olympians. I'll sign off now from my perch in the tranquil Palm Court of the Crystal Serenity, gleaming white in this idyllic harbor.

Arrivederci, Sorrento. May Vesuvius sleep for centuries.

I am writing today from my balcony aboard the Crystal Serenity, sailing somewhere in the Ionian Sea. It's warm in the late afternoon, and to the west, the sun is glistening white off the water. In Homer's epic poem, "The Odyssey," Odysseus spent 10 perilous years in these waters, trying to return to his home in Greece following the Trojan War.

Odysseus was the architect of the Trojan Horse ruse, which led to the fall of Troy and ended the decade-long war. Later, he was captured by the Cyclops but escaped by blinding him with a wooden stake.

If you listen carefully, you may find that the summer breeze still carries the enchanting sound of the Sirens, who hoped to lure Odysseus onto the rocks. As a fallback, the equally beguiling string ensemble is playing in the ship's Palm Court.

Today is a sea day, time for the ship to shine, and none shine brighter than the Crystal Serenity.

Some who have never cruised assume they would be bored on sea days, but most folks enjoy a day of cruising mixed into every two or three days in port, just to relax and let it all sink in. I generally find that there is not enough time to do everything I want to do on a day at sea, and this afternoon I missed a movie and a photography class that sounded intriguing.

Between the paddle tennis, lecture, trip to the fitness center, extravagant lunch buffet, the best spa at sea and tonight's Broadway-style show, I'll barely have time to read my e-mails from the office.

Tonight is the second of three formal nights on this 12-night voyage. Most cruise ships have become more casual in recent years, and I may be out of the mainstream on this subject, but I still enjoy formal nights. Maybe it's because I don't get dressed up very often in everyday life, or maybe I just want to get my money's worth from my tuxedo after finally splurging on one a few years back, but I look forward to seeing everyone decked out in the main dining room.

The Crystal Serenity has two specialty restaurants, Prego and Silk Road. The former is Italian, and the latter serves Asian delicacies and sushi. Order family-style to sample as many different dishes as possible.

On a day like this, it is Crystal clear that the officers and crew are one of this ship's greatest attributes. They are friendly, attentive and eager to ensure that every task is handled to perfection. They're also most interesting to talk to and a rare example of how to bring people of varying backgrounds, religions, nationalities and educations together in a system that performs at the highest level. No one runs a better ship than the folks at Crystal.

At the heart of Crystal's extraordinary service is the industry's lowest turnover rate, in itself a testament to how well the crew is treated. These are jobs that require long hours each day and long months away from loved ones, yet employees from top to bottom seem genuinely happy to be here. Crystal understands that a happy crew makes happy guests.

Crystal leads in other ways as well. In addition to a long string of awards as the best cruise line overall, Crystal has won "best" awards for its dining and spa and took home the Port of San Francisco's first-ever environmental award.

The Crystal Serenity, launched in 2003, and the Crystal Symphony, launched in 1995, feature the highest quality furnishings as well as onboard service that is unsurpassed on land or sea. Both vessels are spacious and uncrowded, and there are no lines at restaurants or tenders.

At each port, Crystal offers shore excursions that appeal to guests with a wide range of interests and physical capabilities. Some ports feature " Crystal Adventures" -- unique, once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as a private helicopter excursion over Italy's Amalfi Coast or your own Ferrari or Maserati to drive through Tuscany.

If that's not exciting enough, try a flight in a MiG fighter on a Crystal cruise that stops in St. Petersburg, Russia.

As a group, the six-star ships are not known for having many young families or children on board, but Crystal attracts the greatest number and has the most facilities and activities for children of all ages. That's one of the reasons I chose this ship for my three-generation family reunion, and our son and his friend have made several new friends on board. It's also worthwhile to note that children under age 12 pay 50 percent of the minimum fare when accompanied by two adults.

I'll sign off now from my own odyssey aboard Crystal, where I'm eager to see what the chef has in store in the dining room. The delights just keep coming, and like the Trojans, I never look a gift horse in the mouth.

We left Sorrento, in the shadow of Vesuvius, and sailed on to Greece. The port of Katakalon is the gateway to Olympia, home of the ancient Olympics. I've been to the archaeological museum there, and to the site of the original Olympic stadium, where games were first held in 776 B.C. I highly recommend them both.

While some of my family went to stand in the footsteps of the early Olympians, my wife and I opted for the ship's excursion to a nearby beach, which included the use of the facilities at a luxury hotel and a long swim in the Ionian Sea. The water was perfect.

Then we were off to one of the highlights of the itinerary as far as I am concerned, Corfu, an island I first visited as a college backpacker on the $10-a-day plan. Corfu is rugged and scenic, and its green and heavily forested hills are a stark contrast to many arid Greek islands such as Mykonos and Santorini.

Olive trees grace the valleys and low-lying areas, and beaches both sandy and rocky ring much of the island. Several of the beaches are easily accessible, but the most spectacular require a steep climb in and out.

We took a strenuous mountain bike ride that followed the coastline before winding up into the hills, through clusters of faded, pastel-colored homes. The maximum elevation of the mountains on Corfu is 3,000 feet, and there are many excellent vantage points. Albania is only two miles off the coast and clearly visible most of the time.

I really, truly love Corfu, the friendly people and the gentle pace of life. I've wondered many times if the island was as beautiful as I remembered. I know now that it is.

From Greece, we sailed north to the picture-perfect Old City of Dubrovnik, Croatia, where it's easy to lose yourself for a day in the narrow alleyways, historic churches, art galleries, shops and restaurants. The self-guided audio tour along the high wall that surrounds the city is worthwhile, though it requires a good bit of stair climbing. Maybe it's the light, or maybe it's just me, but somehow colors seem richer here. From the top of the wall, the views of the red-tiled roofs and the deep-blue Adriatic Sea are spectacular.

We sailed on to Trieste, Italy's second oldest city, barely a hundred miles from Venice. It's perfectly laid out for cruise passengers, as ships dock across from the main square and a dozen shopping streets are within easy walking distance. There are tempting outdoor restaurants on three sides of the square and on the numerous pedestrian-only avenues.

Trieste is a friendly place, but there's not a lot happening. In the morning, we jogged through the town and to the castle on top of the hill overlooking the harbor. In the afternoon, we hit the shopping district, and though I'm not much of a shopper, I managed to purchase my only souvenir of the trip -- Italian shoes. They looked fairly normal surrounded by all the other Italian shoes, but back in our stateroom, beside my other clothes, they reminded me of the shoes Dorothy tapped together to get home to Kansas in "The Wizard of Oz." Look out, Houston, here we come.

In the evening, the town of Trieste graciously saluted our ship's visit with a fireworks display in the harbor, which we watched from our balcony.

All of which brings us to Venice, our final destination. We arrived this morning and docked on the Grand Canal near San Marco Square, the center of everything.

The square and the broad pedestrian boulevard along the Grand Canal were absolutely packed with tourists and counterfeit-purse peddlers, but relief was waiting only one block back from the water. There, the alleys are shaded and cooler and have fewer people, the shops and restaurants are not crowded and the real character of this unique city shines through.

We hired a gondolier for some water-level sightseeing, ate spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti and clams) alfresco and plowed down as many alleys and across as many bridges as we could.

Quite a few cruises begin or end in Venice, and some, like ours, include an overnight docked in town to allow passengers more time to explore. After dinner this evening, we'll head out for a stroll as the sun sets. When the lights come on, Venice is mesmerizing.

Tomorrow, I am homeward bound. To anyone who has not yet cruised this region of the world, I say come to the Mediterranean if you can, and let the waves of history wash over you.

Stroll the stone streets of Mallorca, and pause in the shade of an olive tree that was alive when Columbus sailed.

Stare down at the killing floor of the Colosseum, where the grandeur met the cruelty of the Roman Empire.

Bike the switchback hills of Corfu. Swim in the Ionian Sea.

See it all in a state of perfect serenity, Crystal-style.


The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in November/December 2008. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.


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