Classical Cruise

October 08, 1995|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

They're equipped for pleasure, with their lavish dining rooms, sun decks and casinos. Their uniformed crews promise romance and adventure.

But beneath the "Love Boat" exterior, cruise ships also can be floating classrooms, offering an easy way to explore foreign lands so that passengers learn without realizing it.

That was my experience when I took a cruise to the "birthplace of Western civilization," Greece, and parts of Turkey.

Ever since I studied architecture in college in the 1970s, I wanted to visit the monuments of antiquity I had read about, starting with those on the Acropolis. I was equally fascinated by legendary places such as Troy and Ephesus.

Renaissance Cruises offered a chance to visit these sites and others with a seven-day cruise from Athens to Istanbul, calling on a different port every day.

It was an ideal way to cover a lot of territory in a short time, without worrying about the logistics of finding each town or lugging bags from place to place. That left more time to savor the adventure itself, including side trips to some of the most beautiful islands in the world.

"Destination-intensive cruises," such as the one I took, represent a growing segment of the cruise industry, which now attracts 4.5 million North American passengers a year.

Based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Renaissance has eight luxury ships and specializes in destination-intensive cruises to places such as Greece, Egypt, Africa and the Far East.

Because its ships are smaller than most in the industry, it can carry passengers to ports that other ships can't reach, such as the Greek isles or the Seychelles.

I traveled in April with three others from Baltimore, a relative and two friends. My companions were all experienced world travelers.

This was my first cruise, but it didn't take long before I felt like a veteran, too.

Our ship was the Renaissance VIII, an Italian vessel that holds 114 passengers and a crew of 72. With seven decks in all, it had a large dining room, lounge, club room, library, casino, pool, Jacuzzi and other amenities one expects of a cruise ship, in a compact arrangement that was easy to navigate.

As part of the package, we flew from Baltimore-Washington International Airport (via Cincinnati, Ohio, and Frankfort, Germany) to Athens, where we joined the other passengers.

Our itinerary called for us to spend two nights in Athens, then begin our trip through the Aegean Sea. We stopped at four Greek islands: Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes and Patmos, and two ports on the west coast of Turkey, Kusadasi and Canakkale.

From there, we headed to Istanbul for two nights.

Renaissance took care of everything from the moment we arrived in Athens -- the "Big Olive." The ship's crew met us at the airport and transported us by bus to the Athenaeum Inter-Continental, a modern hotel within walking distance of many historic and cultural sites.

The cruise directors arranged excursions from the hotel to destinations in and around Athens. They also provided advice about places to go for dinner and shopping, including an open-air market that stretched for blocks.

Athens was a filthy city, made all the more unattractive by hundreds of half-finished [See Cruise, 2N] buildings. The air is so pol-luted that the Greek government this year imposed a three-month ban on all cars and motorbikes in the city's historic center for 12 hours a day, in an effort to cut down on auto emissions.

But Athens' ancient monuments were were every bit as stunning as I thought they would be; the most awesome was the Acropolis, which dates from the fifth century B.C. and consists of a collection of architectural masterpieces on a plateau overlooking the city. They include the Propylaia, the Parthenon, the Erechtheum and the Temple of Athena Nike. Visitors are likely to find scaffolding around one of more of these structures, as preservationists work to restore stonework damaged by pollution.

Some of my fondest memories of our stay on the Greek mainland are of the bus trips we took in the country. We rode for hours along winding mountain roads to Delphi, where ancient Greeks came to consult with the famed oracle. The adjacent museum contains several world-renowned works of art, including the bronze statue known as the Charioteer, dating from 470 B.C.

View of severn islands

Another side trip took us along a scenic coastal road past some of Athens' most beautiful suburbs to Cape Sounion, where the Temple of Poseidon was constructed around 430 B.C. on a bluff overlooking the Saronic Gulf. The breathtaking view foreshadowed the cruise to come: On a clear day, it is possible to see seven islands.

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