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 Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch

martin A GOLDEN ODYSSEY

BY MARTIN B. DEUTSCH

January 1, 1986 -- Guilt is still in—it probably always will be. Right? Just ask any shrink in the glitzier neighborhoods of Manhattan. So I took this cruise last August, thirteen flawless days in the Mediterranean, thirteen ports of call—most of them jewels—under that hard bright sun. Even this jaded traveler was bowled over by the brilliant blend of itinerary, sunshine and salt breezes, an unexpectedly good gallery, and a ship that rode royally, even when the winds acted up.

And since there were quantifiable business reasons for this voyage, like figuratively holding hands with a best client, I can comment with a clear conscience that there’s nothing much better for the relaxation-starved executive than an extended cruise. The family also benefits from the togetherness encouraged by the experience. (Nothing’s perfect, though. The ship-to-shore phone had me connected to New York and Chicago with inbound and outbound traffic—at a mere $11 a minute.)

The carrier was Royal Cruise Lines, Greek-owned but managed out of San Francisco. The ship was the Golden Odyssey, vintage 1974, small at 226 cabins with a maximum of 450 passengers, a complement that allows for both privacy and easy socializing. Out particular program was "The Best of France, Italy & the Greek Isles," something of a misnomer, since it ignores Yugoslavia, and we only docked once in France. But I quibble.

This itinerary has to be considered a shining example of what I call the sampling syndrome. There’s only one full day at sea; otherwise we went ashore at least once a day, sometimes twice. Despite some early grumbling about this pace, virtually no one chose to stay aboard when the sightseeing and shopping opportunities beckoned. The formula of a half-day on land, the result under the sun on deck, gave us an ideal combination. Nor was the sunbathing the only daytime activity at sea; there was bingo, the gaming room, lectures, video films, shuffle board, jogging and, of course, tea with cakes and sandwiches at four o’clock.

As for me, I became an ice tea junkie those afternoons we were abroad, and I usually managed to bypass the cookies and cakes. Deckside by the small swimming pool also became a favored venue for backgammon, dominoes and reading. I ingested four or five novels; the best one was Herman Wouk’s Inside, Outside. There was also a nightly slate near first-run movies, a different one each day, ranging from the appealing Witness, to the appealing The Purple Rose of Cairo, a rare misfire by Woody Allen.

Let me skip the daily opportunities to gain calories—they are legion. But the continental/Greek kitchen was always commendable, sometimes creative; the choices were always generous. And the wide selection of fresh fruit was the best I’ve ever had, especially the melon. There was a pasta dish at every lunch and dinner, the Greek salad with feta cheese was wonderful, and the daily poolside buffer ranks with the best. The wine selection was respectable and reasonably prices.

The quality of the service loomed as a problem the first day or two; the crew seemed tense. But attitudes warmed up considerably as the stiffness wore off. On Royal’s ships the tips are pooled, $7 per person per day is recommended, and there were passengers who felt this lessened the incentive for those who depend on tips. I don’t buy this theory; I like not having to agonize how much to tip. I found the service friendly and component, and the disembarkation arrangements by the cruise staff were a logistic wonder.

Now for the ports, those memorable Mediterranean jewels. Since this magazine now features a monthly "At Leisure" section, I feel justified in giving a capsule rundown of the destinations. Boarding was in Venice on a Monday evening (from New York via London on British Airways). The next day was all Venice, canals and bridges, strolling and shopping, traveling the waterways by vaporetti (diesel powerboats), people-watching in the Piazza San Marco. The pasta at Harry’s Bar was as good as any I’ve ever had. Then we sailed for Ravenna, renowned for mosaics, and a stop I could have down without. Across the Adriatic lies Dubrovnik; this deservedly renowned Yugoslav city occupies a gem of a setting. Later that afternoon we circled the magnificent Bay of Kotor on the Dalmation coast; the ship will call at the town of Kotor next summer.

Corfu was a letdown; I remember this Greek isle in the Ionian as somehow crisper, prettier, less crowded and dusty. Very early the next morning the Golden Odyssey navigated the tricky Corinth Canal on the way to Athens. What is there to say about the Greek capital, except don’t miss the Acropolis, or any of the other wonders of antiquity, as time allows. That night three of us dined in Mikrolimano, an Athenian port lined with outdoor cafes and restaurants; the fresh local fish was excellent. Santorini and Mykonos are among the most visually stunning islands in the Aegean, if not the world; and Rhodes is an alluring resort island with a large dose of history.

Malta is a pleasant surprise: bustling, attractive, encircled by massive Crusader walls that arrest to its strategic importance as a Mediterranean crossroads during those turbulent medieval centuries. There are also a few fine early seventeen-century paintings by Caravaggio, particularly "The Beheading of St. John the Baptist," on view at St. John’s Cathedral in the capital of Valletta. I was also surprised that we had to commute to Valletta by tender, while two huge Soviet cruise liners, flaunting the hammer-and-sickle, were able to dock.

After a delightful evening transit of the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Calabria, we out in at Capri at the mouth of Bay of Naples, a marvelous island despite its jet-set reputation. Winding alleys that climb up the steep cliffs, crammed with shops, restaurants and hotels, like the nearly hidden Hotel La Scalinatella. Remember that name. Portofino on the Italian Riviera is laid-back and classy; Nice lies at the center of the brassy but captivating French Riviera, or Cote d’Azur, with Monte Carlo and Cannes on its flanks. Drive up into the mountains to St-Paul-de-Venece for a memorable meal at Colombe D’Or, where artists like Picasso and Utrillo painted to pay their meals; the paintings and drawings are still there—and what a setting. Another place at which not to miss a meal—the elegant Chanticler at the fashionable Negresco Hotel in Nice.

The passengers on this cruise, mostly from the U.S. West Coast, were agreeable and low-key—and virtually all of them said they’d travel on the Golden Odyssey again. (There’s a sister ship, the Royal Odyssey, and the company is investing $300 million in two liners that will be launched in 1987.) Rates for this voyage were considered by the customers to offer good value; average cost per person per day was $190, or $270 including airfare. A point of interest: at ports where there was a choice of sightseeing or shopping tours, it seemed to me the majority preferred the latter. And while the men often grumbled, they did at least as well as the wives in the shops. An American disease. And if there complaints about the cruise, they were minor. Examples: this was not a swinging ship, like you might get out of Florida; and while there was laundry service, there was no dry cleaning.

I had a complaint. I missed the closing episodes on PBS of "Reilly, Ace of Spies," and "Citadel." If anyone taped them, please get in touch; maybe I can borrow them?

The next time you feel the urge to say "Gimme a break," think about joining a cruise.

About 40 of the passengers tool the optional three-day "Theatre Break add-on in London. The shows were nothing to write home about, although I enjoyed a musical spoof called Me and My Gal. The impossible ticket right now is Pravda, about a ruthless newspaper tycoon, maybe from Down Under. We stayed at the delightful Park Lane Hotel; the restaurant there, Bracewells, is not only outstanding but offers one of the best values in London. The prix fixe lunch at £9½ and dinner at £13½ are outstanding buys.

This column originally appeared in Frequent Flyer magazine.

Copyright © 1991-2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.