Ports of Call

A grand cruise liner visits seven sparkling Mediterranean cities in seven days

Cover Story

October 06, 2002|By Robert Cross | Robert Cross,Special to the Sun

On the morning of our departure from Barcelona, Spain, I opened the drapes at the Grand Marina Hotel and saw The Ship.

That gigantic ocean liner, European Stars, our home for the next week, had docked right outside our window as we slept.

As we looked it over, a man and a woman in terry-cloth robes emerged from their stateroom onto their little veranda. They embraced and began twirling like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Not a bad little prelude for a swing around the Mediterranean: warm Catalan sunshine in our faces, magical Barcelona beyond our hotel window, the Mediterranean beckoning and a big luxury liner awaiting our pleasure, a ship so romantic that passengers tango before drinking their orange juice.

My wife, Juju, and I would be among the newcomers joining the seven-day European Stars cruise that spends each week from May through November visiting seven ports along the Mediterranean Sea -- a different city every 24 hours.

Today, Friday, we would sail from Barcelona at 6 p.m. Then, Saturday morning, we would arrive in Marseille, France. Sunday, Genoa, Italy. Monday, Naples, Italy. Tuesday, Messina, Sicily, Italy. Wednesday, Tunis, Tunisia. Thursday, Palma, Majorca, Spain. And Friday, Barcelona again.

Festival Cruises, the parent company of European Stars and other ships, set up a system that would let passengers board at different ports and, on their last day, disembark where they had started.

Americans, for example, were encouraged to begin and end their voyage in Barcelona, because it offers the best trans-Atlantic connections of any port on the schedule.

Lively Barcelona

Juju and I never tire of Barcelona and its flamboyant yet elegant architecture, its lively street scenes, terrific museums and food that we can't find anywhere else. Some of the motor coaches lined up across from European Stars that morning would be taking passengers on a quickie tour of the city's delights. We prefer strolling, combined with local transportation.

We wandered through town on our own, starting with a promenade up La Rambla, the main pedestrian walkway. Some of the most imaginative mimes in Europe work La Rambla; that's hard to appreciate from a motor coach, although the passengers do avoid the pickpockets.

Later, we watched an engaging human spectacle -- including mimes, buskers, shoppers and skateboarders -- from our sidewalk table outside Hotel Colon, across from the imposing cathedral.

Reluctantly, in late afternoon we made our way back to the pier. Our luggage had preceded us, so all we had to do was ride an escalator to the pier's upper level. Past the gangway, we found ourselves in the main reception area, where a handful of greeters wore costumes no doubt meant to convey the European and northern African history that would inform the days ahead.

The Genoa-based cruise company markets itself in the U.S. through First European Cruises, and tries to add Ameri-cans to its largely European clientele.

Americans who don't mind a near-total immersion in the ways of the Continent should be delighted.

"When you cruise with us, you're definitely not in Kansas anymore," says First European chief executive officer Makis Xenatos.

Veteran American cruise passengers will find that the French-built European Stars is pretty much like a lot of the new ships. Their layouts go something like this: open space with swimming pools in the middle, dining areas aft, a theater and a show lounge near the bow, public areas with boutiques and reception desk, an Internet cafe, health club and spa, video game room, rock-climbing wall, golf simulator, a business center and, of course, a casino.

Fortunately, European Stars is a bit more dignified and subdued than some ocean liners.

For example, light woods and pastel fabrics defy the general cruise ship trend toward garish atriums with massive chandeliers, bizarre statuary and flashy neon.

Travel agents might advise clients that it isn't a good idea to go directly from a spacious hotel room with big windows, such as our quarters in the Grand Mari-na, to a standard cruise-ship cabin. We took one look at the stateroom assigned to us and immediately arranged for an upgrade to a minisuite with a veranda.

We found pleasant blond-wood furniture and abstract prints on the walls. A maroon spread with gold circles covered the queen-sized bed. We had a little glass coffee table and a red-toned loveseat. A 20-inch TV sat atop the handsome minibar-cabinet. Our marble-topped desk could double as a dressing table because of its big mirror.

An upholstered side chair matched the couch. Closets and drawers were generous by cruise-ship standards, and so was the marble-trimmed bath, complete with tub.

And there was the veranda -- a little slice of teak decking with a couple of beige plastic chairs and a matching table just the right size for a couple of mimosas. Nothing fancy, but it would be opening up a world of scenery.

Excursion in France

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