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AEGEAN ODYSSEY To Antiquity, Part Three

It is a pleasure to re-post this final installment (with enlarged images) of a triple Sea Treks aboard Voyages To Antiquity’s AEGEAN ODYSSEY that was originally written last year as the recently renovated vessel made her way from Stromboli to the shores of Sicily. All of the start up issues mentioned herein have since been addressed and the ship is receiving excellent reviews from a growing legion of loyal passengers.

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Originally posted Sunday, June 13, 2010

Friday, June 4, 2010

Stromboli simmering.

Although the AEGEAN ODYSSEY’s guest volcanologist Michael Higgins was hosting a “sail-by” talk at 5:15 AM on deck, I was a bit too brittle to do more than crawl out to our verandah and watch as we approached Stromboli. Off our port bow, the 3,000 foot volcano’s steep, blackened flanks gradually emerged from the turning sky. A pink nebula of clouds surrounding the mountain eventually parted, revealing intermittent mushroom-shaped plumes of ash in a display that has been going on for the past 20,000 years.

Voyages To Antiquity website

Review and Photos by Paul Motter of CruiseMates.com

Symmetrical sunrise.

As we navigated its outer edge, Stromboli’s silhouette evolved from knob-topped to almost perfectly symmetrical. After an hour, the spectacle was behind us and I retreated back into the cabin for an attempt at sleep. The ship continued on her course of the ancients, through the Aeolian Islands and eastward along Sicily’s northern shore.

Our typical morning routine consisted of calling room service repeatedly (never an answer), then the front desk (where one of the sweet and helpful but over-worked receptionists would take our order for coffee). Puzzlingly, the ship’s management had vetoed what every other cruise line and hotel have found useful from time immemorial — an order form to hang on one’s door the night prior. Since breakfast ended at 8:30 and there was no 24 hour coffee or tea service, let alone snacks, this was the only way to obtain caffeine or nourishment until lunch began at noon.

Perhaps to avert the prior day’s tendering issues, the AEGEAN ODYSSEY arrived in Cefalu earlier than planned. With the queue in the Terrace Cafe extending the full length of the room and since we were not fans of the cuisine in the Marco Polo Dining Room, we quickly decided to take an early tender (still no padding on the overhead beams) ashore for lunch before joining the walking tour of Cefalu. It was a wise choice, for we found a friendly and inexpensive cafe to enjoy some bruschetta, pizza and cappuccini.

Cefalu cathedral.

Prior to this trip, I had never heard of Cefalu. Named for the rocky headland (“kefalos” is ancient Greek for “head”) that towers over it, Cefalu has been occupied by Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Normans and Arabs since around 400 BC. In 1861, it became part of the Kingdom of Italy and today, the 13,000 resident town is one of Sicily’s prized tourist destinations. Its most prominent attraction is the King Roger II Cathedral, which was begun by the Normans in 1131 and most recently restored after near destruction in World War Two.

Cefalu beach.

In the late afternoon, the sun breached a rather gloomy sky, casting an entirely new light on the colorful town. The beaches looked particularly inviting with their clean, white sand and turquoise surf.

Cefalu shoreline.

We took a tender back to the ship well before her scheduled departure for Palermo at 6:00 PM.

Cloudy wake.

Dinner on the terrace was highlighted by the salmon-colored cloud formation off our stern. At twilight, we were entering Palermo and berthing alongside its Stazione Marittima.

There was a lecture on Atlantis at 8:45, a pianist in the Observation Lounge at 9:45 and the string trio in the Charleston Lounge at the same time. I decided to do some writing with the hopes of finding a cafe with wifi in the morning to make my first blog post.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

At 7:40 AM, a constant flow of announcements began, mustering passengers for their tours. Sleeping in was out of the question. We had to laugh at the irony of it all — the “no announcements” policy that wreaked havoc with tendering the day prior had obviously been rescinded. But since the ship was berthed, announcements weren’t necessary, especially not in the cabins.

Porto Palermo.

I’ve gotta admit that Palermo did not exactly wow me on my one prior visit aboard board MSC’s MONTEREY three summers ago. I found it gritty, bleakly industrial and not exactly tourist-friendly. In some ways, that can be a welcome relief from the commercial crush of tourists in places like Rome and Venice but at least in the latter places, there are truly magnificent sights to behold.

Refleccione Marittima.

Christopher and I were joined by CruiseMates’ Paul Motter on our morning quest for a cafe and cappuccini. Other than the usual Tirrenia, Grimaldi and SNAV ferries, there were no other cruise ships in port as we headed from Stazione Marittima into town.

Patroness of Palermo.

At the main entrance to the port, a bronze statue of a maiden serves as a beacon to visitors. Too bad she was not the hostess at a nearby cafe where we settled in to check our e-mail. Two hours, four cappuccini, two pastries and a juice later, our brazen signorina began flailing her arms and shouting that we spent too much time and did not buy enough. Mind you, the place was largely empty  — we were not taking seats or wifi waves away from other potential customers. Thankfully, my blog entry had just been posted before we were shown the door.

Pizza Margherita at La Posada, Sorrento.

We crossed the street to the much friendlier La Posada and enjoyed a delicious pizza margherita (the best one of the trip so far) and some spaghetti neapolitana, returning to the terminal for the  afternoon tour to Cathedral Monreale and a hosted visit to Palazzo Gangi.

Palermo from Cathedrale Monreale.

Cathedrale Monreale overlooks Palermo from a 900 foot vantage on the slopes of Mount Caputo. It was such a lovely day, we chose to wander the town instead of queueing up to go inside the 1172-built church.

Fountain at Cathedrale Monreale, Palermo.

As our fellow voyagers were poring over mosaics and Benedictine cloisters, we were savoring gelati deliciosi with a view of the fountain in the Cathedral’s courtyard.

Harlequino Palermo.

The next part of the tour was one of the week’s highlights. For a very reasonable $55 per person, Voyages To Antiquity offers a visit to the Palazzo Gangi, a 15th century palace that is open to a limited number of visitors for tours led by none other than Princess Carine Vanni Mantegna. We were instructed to stow our cameras once we ascended the landing where the statuesque princess awaited. She led us through a series of increasingly ornate salons until reaching the grand ballroom where Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film, “Il Gatopardo” was filmed. Her silver, bow-topped shoes, delicate perfume and elegant elucidation were mesmerizing. After pastries and wine, our tour of the gold leaf, velvet, Murano glass and fresco-festooned wonderland ended just as it had begun, with a smiling princess at the top of the landing.

Palermo Pericolo.

Back on board, there was a farewell dinner with the press group on the terrace. Afterwards, we decided to head into Palermo for a walk. Alas, the port gates were closed and the only access was via the ferry terminal entrance a half mile or so away. With AEGEAN ODYSSEY staying overnight, it is curious that arrangements were not made to either keep the gate open or to provide some sort of shuttle service to the other entrance.

On our return to the ship, we were greeted by a pack of mongrel dogs. Something was not quite right about their demeanor, so we chose not to engage them.  A  fellow passenger was followed by one that I later learned had bitten his hand.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Facing the ODYSSEY.

At 8:30, a shuttle took us to Palermo Airport for the first of a series of flights home.

In theory, Voyages To Antiquity is my kind of cruise line. The ship is a charmer, the passengers a nice mix of well-heeled Brits and Americans and the itineraries (aside, perhaps, from that three night stay in Palermo) interesting and unique. But after five nights on board, it was unfortunately clear that the product was not living up to expectations. In addition to the safety issues, food, enrichment and entertainment were subpar or just adequate at best. I could not in good faith recommend this line to anyone until these things are sorted out.

My heart goes out to the crew (ie, the girls at reception, people like Andrew from the shore excursion staff, the girls in the spa and many of the bar and wait staff) who tried so hard to compensate for the obvious shortcomings. They are the ones that had to face unhappy passengers while the management was either not accessible or oblivious.

Hopefully, these are all just teething issues and things will improve quickly.  I’ll be watching with great interest and will be keeping my fingers crossed. I want this venture to succeed.

October 16, 2011 Update:   All of the start up issues mentioned herein have since been addressed and the ship is receiving excellent reviews from a growing legion of loyal passengers.  MaritimeMatters will be rejoining the ship again in the near future for a follow up report.

Special thanks: Martin Cox, Johanna Jainchill, Heather Krasnow, Christopher Kyte, Paul Motter, Mitch Schlessinger

End

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