There's nothing like 3,500-year-old frescoes and 1,000-year-old cathedrals to put 50 years of life or 30 years of marriage into perspective – both are a mere heartbeat in the history of humanity. If you're the kind of traveler who lives your life forever looking forward, but are entranced by the past, you may want to consider a cruise with Voyages to Antiquity. This two-year-old company offers a variety of 14- to 33-day itineraries in the Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Aegean (through late October) and Asia (November to March and featuring nine new itineraries). What differentiates VTA from other cruise lines is its laser-like focus on ancient cultures explored via extended voyages with lyrical names like “The Light of Greece” and “Those Who Seek Paradise.”I traveled back in time last month on VTA’s 15-day “Venice – My Dream Became My Address” itinerary, which began in Venice, ended in Istanbul, and traced the expansion of the Venetian empire through Croatia, the Greek Islands, and Turkey (with plenty of Roman, Minoan, and Hellenistic melodrama thrown in as well). The history lessons play out aboard Aegean Odyssey , VTA’s sole ship (shown above at right in the charming port of Korcula, Croatia), which accommodates 350 passengers. An older vessel (it dates to the 1970s, but was fully refurbished in 2010), Aegean Odyssey lacks the bells and whistles of newer ships – there’s no casino, just two restaurants, and extremely limited nighttime entertainment – but it’s a snug and comfortable base from which to explore multiple ports of call and enjoy educational lectures by guest specialists. While other cruise lines play up their onboard frills, VTA, as its name suggests, focuses mainly on the allure of ancient cultures it seeks out on land – and on the amazing ruins and relics they left behind (that’s the Minoan Palace of Knossos on Crete at left). That said, the ship’s passenger age tends toward post-retirement (on our cruise the average age was 67), so it’s not a ship for anyone craving a disco or midnight buffet.
Aegean Odyssey has seven decks and more than a dozen stateroom categories, from small Standard Inside cabins (130 square feet) to spacious and panoramic Owner’s Suites (550 square feet). If you can, splurge on one of the Category C, C, or D Deluxe Balcony Staterooms (shown at right), which are 275 square feet, most with a good-size bathroom and a full-size tub, plus a balcony from which you can enjoy the view while approaching port – or share a bottle of wine in private on a starlit night.
Three noteworthy pluses: Almost all shore excursions, pre- and post-cruise hotel stays, and wine with dinner are included in the standard cruise fare. Food-wise, while the onboard cuisine is tasty, varied, and well executed (multiple appetizers, entrees and desserts – including a vegetarian option at each meal – in Marco Polo, the a la carte restaurant), travelers should not expect a gourmet experience at sea (such as on Silversea or Seabourn ships). And I found the lunch menus in Marco Polo superior to the buffet offerings at the less-formal Terrace Café, but others onboard loved the ease and informality of the setting.
As itineraries are “antiquities” focused, passengers are invited to participate in morning excursions (mainly walking tours) to the sites of interest, from churches, temples, and fortresses to major archeological ruins. Guests are divided into very well organized, color-coded groups and are each given a rechargeable Quietvox listening device with an earphone. You simply tune into your guide’s frequency and enjoy an expert-guided narrative – you can even wander off a bit to snap photos and still hear the commentary. With the exception of a few additional afternoon tours (for an extra fee, typically $55-$65), all excursions focus on historical sites; if you’re interested in food and wine or shopping, you can simply head off on your own while in port.
Highlights of my Venice to Istanbul itinerary included a private nighttime visit to Venice’s Basilica of San Marco, where we arrived in the dark and marveled as lights were slowly lit to reveal over 40,000 square feet of 10th-century gold Byzantine mosaics adorning the soaring ceiling (shown at left); a walk around the 15th-century old town wall of picturesque Dubrovnik, known as the Pearl of the Adriatic; a tour of the 3,500-year-old excavated ruins of the Palace of Knossos on Crete, where the enterprising Minoans created vibrant frescoes and enjoyed indoor plumbing; a visit to the just re-opened (after a seven-year restoration) prehistoric ruins at Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini; and the enthralling dimensions of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia in one-of-a-kind Istanbul.
For romance, there is an aft Jacuzzi on the Lido Deck as well as nightly “Tapas on the Terrace” hors d’oeuvres and wine (shown at right), beginning at 6:30pm – both with a lovely ocean view. The Lido Deck features a small pool, filled with seawater each day, surrounded by comfy, contemporary chaises and sofa arrangements. There’s also a small gym and yoga classes are held on the aft Lido Deck in the morning, weather permitting. A favorite perch at sail away is the al fresco Lido Bar, where the drink of the day takes its theme from the port (Venetian Welcome, Split Surprise, Corfu Crush). It’s the perfect spot to raise a glass and toast mankind as you ponder the stunning achievements and perplexing mysteries of the ancient world. Voyages to Antiquity cruises start at $3,995 per person.
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