With our 18-year-old son heading off to college, the summer family vacation took on added meaning. Would he deign to travel with his parents and kid sister in the future? I had visions of Jon cavorting with coeds in Cancun and Cabo. To compete, I would have to come up with something really good.
So I began a desperate mother search for that elusive combination -- an educational trip that would also be fun -- when the brochure landed in our mailbox: a 10-night cruise on the Corinthian II tracing ancient Mediterranean civilizations, a program offered by Travel Dynamics and our alma mater, Stanford.
With daily treks to ancient ruins, the ambitious itinerary was geared to energetic travelers with a strong interest in antiquity. I checked the Travel Dynamics Web site and learned that the New York-based company specializes in such programs, offering educational programs aboard its three small ships: the 114-passenger Corinthian II, 34-passenger Callisto and 106-passenger Orion.
After two and a half days touring in Rome, we would sail aboard the Corinthian II from Civitavecchia, Italy to Thessaloniki, Greece with port calls in Cagliari, Sardinia; Tunis, Tunisia; Marsala and Syracuse, Sicily; Katakolon, Itea, Delos and Syros, Greece; and Kusadasi, Turkey.
Our 15-year-old, Clara, gave the voyage her picky thumb's up. It turns out that the Phoenicians, Etruscans, Romans and Greeks were a big part of her ninth-grade history curriculum. Two other factors seemed auspicious. The passenger list included half a dozen other teens; plus two engaging professors we knew from our college days at Stanford would lecture on the classical world and modern Mediterranean.
We boarded the Corinthian II in Civitavecchia, the port that's about an hour's train ride from Rome, and entered a whole new world. Champagne in hand, we are escorted to our cabin. I fell head over heels for our spacious and elegant rosewood-paneled stateroom with its calm slate blue decor, large picture window and attractive sitting area with plush couch and matching arm chairs. Next door, Jon and Clara are also settling in happily. In a nod to Jon's leaving for college, Clara takes the sofa sleeper and gives her 6'7" brother the two twin beds, pushed together to form a queen. A curtain between the bed and sitting area works nicely, offering them privacy for changing and sleeping.
As Corinthian II sets sail, we attend a safety briefing and proceed to explore the yacht-like ship. Jon and Clara breathe a huge sigh of relief upon discovering internet access in the cozy library. I enjoy afternoon tea in the adjoining Club while my husband Doug locates the fitness center.
Back at our cabin, Doug watches Gladiator (because of a satellite problem, TV is limited to one in-cabin movie each evening) while I unpack. And it's then that I begin to notice small and quite comforting touches -- a fresh bud vase, cotton robes and slippers. We consult our map of the Mediterranean. After crossing the Tyrrhenian Sea, we're scheduled to arrive in Sardinia by tomorrow afternoon.
Better late than never, I start D.H. Lawrence's vivid travel book, "Sea and Sardinia." On the flight to Rome, I'd finished Mary Renault's excellent historical novel "The Last of the Wine," about a young Athenian during the Peloponnesian war, one of dozens of books on our recommended reading list. I realize my kids are far better prepared than I for this voyage, having read Homer's epics, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." Clara has recently penned a history paper on the impact of classical Greek and Roman sculpture on Renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Donatello.
Still, our recent family vacations have typically been of the soft adventure variety to remote places like the Galapagos Islands and the Sea of Cortez. I wonder if ancient ruins will be as captivating as the wildlife we've seen. I also hope the kids will have the maturity to enjoy lectures, five-course dinners and historical movies like The Fall of the Roman Empire.
Before Sardinia ... We Settle In
Over an American-style breakfast buffet, we continue to meet our fellow passengers, the majority of whom are Californians. The six other teens include brothers from Minnesota, brother and sister from Seattle, and two girls from the Bay area who are already so close I mistake them for sisters. Our group also includes avid photographers, a retired college admissions director, teacher and engineer, and a young woman doctor. We take an immediate liking to a backpacking Bay Area couple who teach high school physics and college biology. Doug and I also form an easy rapport with a recently married couple from Lake Tahoe who've left their teenagers back home.
Our leisurely morning at sea continues in the lounge where Stanford classics professor Marsh McCall unravels the mystery of Rome's rise to greatness over rival powers. I'm happy to see that Jon and Clara have chosen to join us when they could be otherwise sleeping, instant messaging friends, or listening to their iPods. We've taken the high and risky road on this cruise -- allowing them to choose what they want to do and not requiring attendance at lectures. Listening to Professor McCall takes me back to my college days. He's every bit as enthusiastic as he was in my undergrad seminar on Greek tragedies. I look over at Jon, excited for him as he gets ready to embark on his own college experience.
By afternoon, we arrive in Cagliari, Sardinia's busy capital city. In "Sea and Sardinia," D.H. Lawrence compares this rugged Italian island to Jerusalem "...strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy." En route to the ancient port of Nora, we see our first strange and wonderful sight: an enormous saltwater pond filled with flamingoes. Some 4,000 pink birds stop here in summer and winter on their annual migration between Tunis and the Camargue in France. Several hundred older and younger birds stay behind, unable to make the long trip.
At Nora, we learn about the Phoenicians, a civilization that dominated the Mediterranean from the 9th to 6th centuries B.C. Ancestors of today's Lebanese, the Phoenicians were skilled sailors who established colonies from Cyprus to the Aegean, Italy, North Africa and Spain. Because conquerors like the Romans destroyed or built over Phoenician settlements, much about their ancient culture remains a mystery. The Roman ruins we visit include a forum, baths and well-preserved theater.
Returning to Cagliari, we stop at the atmospheric Su Cumbidu restaurant, where the long wood bar is topped with bottles of local wine and large antipasti platters with pecorino cheeses, olives, fruits, nuts and traditional flat bread. We leave the kids snacking with fellow passengers and visit a nearby wine shop in search of a local red wine called Gabbas that's been linked to Sardinia's large number of centenarians. The owner helps me select two bottles of this elixir; then pours us glasses of chilled mirto, a smooth and sweet digestif made from myrtle berries and honey. Most unfortunately, the shop doesn't ship and we have to leave the mirto behind.
Back onboard, we change into our dressy casual clothes for the welcome cocktail party, where we formally meet the Corinthian II officers and guests. Besides the Australian-born captain and American cruise director, most of the officers hail from Greece. Jon and Clara hit it off with the other teens so they join them downstairs for the captain's welcome dinner. Doug and I are somewhat surprised to find ourselves dining at a romantic table for two.
I'm still full from the pecorino cheese in Cagliari, but that doesn't stop me from finishing my quiche lorraine appetizer and oven roasted veal entree. Nor can I resist ordering the "Absolutely Fabrizio" -- a custard cream with caramel named for the chef. Doug opts for an equally sinful concoction of mascarpone and amaretti cream. Our Ukrainian wine steward doesn't speak much English, but he is very generous with the local wines. Our waitress, also from the Ukraine, delivers olive oil and balsamic vinegar for our bread and cappuccino with dessert.
Excited and Nervous
Excitement mixed with a bit of trepidation surrounds our full-day excursion in Tunis, capital of Tunisia, a small North African country bordering the Mediterranean Sea between Algeria and Libya. The war between Israel and Hezbollah has just begun and I wonder how locals will receive American tourists.
As we bus to the ancient city of Carthage, we discover a way to improve our country's image in the Arab world -- hire Mariah Carey as special envoy. Everywhere we turn, we find the singer's image plastered on billboards advertising her upcoming concert. Tunisians might not like our foreign policy, but they sure like Mariah.
Our knowledgeable guide Tarek is moonlighting. His real job is teaching linguistics at the local university. He tells us about the history, culture and government of his country, which gained independence from France just 50 years ago. According to Tarek, neighboring Moslem countries consider Tunisians second-class Arabs because they are not sufficiently religious.
Not much remains of the great city of Carthage, razed by the Romans in the third Punic War. We learn how Carthage's brilliant military leader, Hannibal, defeated Roman forces at the Battle of Cannae. But in a tragic reversal over 30 years later, Hannibal poisons himself rather than be handed over to the Romans.
At the Roman baths, we listen as Professor McCall recites Queen Dido's moving speech from Virgil's Aeneid. Looking out to the sea, I imagine Aeneas leaving Carthage forever, breaking Dido's heart. Before she commits suicide by throwing herself atop a funeral pyre, the Carthaginian queen chillingly prophesizes the Punic Wars. Amidst the ancient ruins, her famous lines take on added poignancy.
Clara and I nearly miss the bus because I have to take her photo atop the tallest ruin in Carthage. I'm glad we make it because our next stop, Essaraya in the Medina, is one of the city's oldest and most atmospheric restaurants. Multi-colored painted ceramic tiles, a national art form, decorate the walls of the restaurant's stunning arched courtyard -- even the ladies room is beautiful. Our feast features a lamb couscous, fresh fruit, and harissa, a traditional Tunisian condiment made from crushed dried red peppers, garlic and spices.
After lunch, we convene in the upstairs showroom of a nearby rug merchant. Over mint tea, we are introduced to handwoven kilims, mergoums and allouchas. The gorgeous motifs and colors reflect the influence of numerous cultures -- from ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to Turks, Spanish and French. In fact, rug making is an ancient art form here, celebrated by Greek poets back in the 5th century B.C. I'm smitten with several rugs, though the one I like best is silk and $6,000. Doug ushers me out quickly and I help Jon negotiate for a $20 Tunisian World Cup soccer jersey.
Our next stop is the American Embassy, relocated four years ago to improve security. The attractive complex is designed around a series of courts, with Tunisian motifs and a garden based on geometric patterns of Islamic architecture. Following a security screening, we assemble in a meeting room for a briefing by embassy staffers. Though Tunisia is considered a moderate Arab nation, we learn the government blocks Web sites and limits freedom of expression, much like in China and Syria. We learn about the screening process for Tunisians applying for U.S. visas, an absolutely critical job. The war in Iraq is clearly making it harder for the staff to foster democratic reforms. I leave feeling grateful to this dedicated group, but less optimistic about our role in the Middle East.
With its superb collection of mosaics from Carthaginian, Roman and Arab-Moslem archeological sites, the Bardo Museum is reason alone to visit Tunisia. Mosaics, invented by the Carthaginians and taken up by the Romans, were used to create elaborate landscapes, seascapes, hunting scenes and portraits, including one of the museum's masterpieces: a 210 A.D. mosaic of Virgil writing the Aeneid. I'm amazed by ancient jewelry that looks so modern -- Carthaginian necklaces of gold and semi-precious stones, cameos of Jupiter and Athena, the engraved initials on a 5th-century gold ring. The sheer quantity and quality of this collection housed in a 19th-century palace is staggering.
Back onboard, we set sail for Sicily as historian Bob Hamrdla talks about current events that have shaped the Mediterranean region. With our kids ensconced with the other teens at dinner, Doug and I join a couple from Northern California. Over Roman saltimbocca, gnocchi in tomato basil sauce and monkfish tournedos, we discuss Antarctica, Italy's Cinque Terre, and parenting. We finally look around and realize that everyone else has left the dining room. The evening entertainment really sparkles: the cruise director turns off the lights on the observation deck and regales us with tales about the spectacular night sky. The pack of teens is out in force.
Two Days in Sicily
Over the next two days, we explore Sicily, which like Tunis has a long history of invaders. From Marsala, we transfer to a pier for a short ferry to Motya Island, one of Sicily's three Phoenician settlements. My disappointment with the modest archeological site and small museum is heightened by our proximity to Palermo, whose 12th-century cathedral and famous La Vucciria market I've always wanted to visit. In retrospect, a shore excursion on our own would have been a better choice.
My mood brightens at our next stop, the lovely medieval hilltop town of Erice. After exploring the narrow winding streets and courtyards, we sample famous Sicilian cuisine at the nearby Hotel Ermione. Our multi-course lunch features wine, homemade pasta, a beef dish, fresh fruit and espresso. At Segesta, a five-minute climb rewards us with one of the trip's most memorable sights, the beautiful temple. Set against an idyllic green backdrop, the temple is considered one of the grandest Doric monuments. At the nearby semicircular Greek Theatre, Professor McCall takes the stage and teaches us about Greek drama.
Back on the Corinthian II, we set sail for Syracuse on Sicily's southeastern coast. Doug and I are really enjoying the local wines at dinner and the talented Greek pastry chef continues to test our willpower with homemade baklava and tiramisu. After dinner, we head to the lounge to watch Burt Lancaster in Il Gattopardo, The Leopard. But the movie is interrupted by an astonishingly beautiful voice. We follow the music upstairs to the club, where one of the teens is giving an impromptu concert accompanied by Sergiy, the ship's Ukrainian pianist.
The following morning, we scurry out onto the deck as Corinthian II sails into the harbor at Syracuse. This is where the underdog, Syracuse, defeated the invading Athenians, becoming the leader of the Greek world. Our first stop is a stone quarry where the Athenian prisoners of war were put to work and the famous hillside grotto Dionysius used to eavesdrop on his slaves. Nearby, we marvel at the 15,000-seat Greek Theatre, a spectacular setting for classical summer performances.
Though I lose Jon, Clara and Doug to a kayak/basketball game in Syracuse's Old Town, a walking tour with our guide leads to the city's moving Cathedral, which incorporates the ruins of a 5th-century B.C. Greek temple. On my walk back to the ship, I figure out how to use an ATM in Italian and buy a lovely 5 euro blouse at the local flea market. That afternoon, we set sail east across the Ionian Sea toward the Peloponnese, a journey immortalized by Homer in the Odyssey.
Why Does the Bridge Have ... Handcuffs?
After breakfast, I join a dozen guests for the cruise director's bridge tour. In addition to the impressive technology, there's a collection of national flags and set of handcuffs in case of a stowaway (no kidding). From there, I met my family in the lounge for the first of two lectures on the European Union by Bob Hamrdla, during which he describes the organization's various councils and commissions and updates us on the most contentious issues, like the budget, constitution, and Turkey's application for admission.
At Katakolon, we are met by a trio of experienced guides from Athens who will travel with us throughout Greece. During daily shore excursions throughout the cruise, we break into three groups of about 25 passengers, each led by a local guide. Transportation is by air-conditioned buses stocked with bottles of cold water, an absolute necessity in July. Passengers are also free to arrange their own tours.
We drive inland on the Peloponnese to Olympia, site of the original Olympic games. Set in a beautiful valley of olive trees, with a backdrop of pine-covered Kronos, this city was a vast sanctuary of altars and temples under the spiritual leadership of Zeus. Greek city states set aside their differences for the games held every four years. At the Stadium's 200-meter track, Jon races other guests. In the old days, victorious athletes were honored with performances of choral lyric poetry and statues. We tour the remains of the gymnasium, the Palestra and Temple of Hera before stopping at the Archaeological Museum to see the impressive pediment sculptures from the Temple of Zeus.
Back onboard, Clara and I treat ourselves to a neck and foot massage in her cabin. Our masseuse, one of many crew members from the Ukraine, tells me about her 14-year-old son back home. I start to realize how difficult it must be for crew members to leave spouses and children for long periods.
We've fallen into a wonderful routine that includes chess or card games with the kids during cocktail hour. Dinner tonight is especially good, with choices of lasagna Bolognese, rice and herb stuffed tomatoes, or halibut. For dessert, I opt for the tiramisu with berries, mainly because I can't pronounce Galaktobouyriko, Greek semolina and milk cream pie.
Our Pilgrimage to Delphi
In ancient times, pilgrims to the religious center of Delphi arrived by ship, then walked or rode mules up to the mountaintop sanctuary. We had a far easier journey, arriving in the early morning by air-conditioned bus, enjoying spectacular views of the olive plane (with an unbelievable five million trees) and Mount Parnassos (a popular winter ski area for Athenians). The Greeks chose this rugged, evocative setting as the center of the ancient world, site of the omphalos or navel of the earth. We hike past the rubble of temple-like treasury houses built by various city states, zigzagging our way up the Sacred Way to the Doric Temple of Apollo. For over 1,000 years, this was the site of ancient Greece's most important oracles. Inhaling vapors, receiving lavish offerings, the oracles chanted the will of the gods in a language the priests redelivered as riddles.
From the Temple, we hike up to the large 4th-century theater, used every four years during the Pythian Festival. While Doug and the kids continue along the path to the well-preserved stadium, site of the Pythian games, I duck into the museum. Among its treasures are the carved friezes from the Treasury of the Siphnians. I am awestruck by the museum's masterpiece, the 5th- century Charioteer. Discovered in the late 19th century beneath the Sacred Way, the elegant life-size statue is one of just a handful of ancient Greek bronzes to survive.
Back onboard the ship, we listen to Professor McCall discuss Oedipus the King, for which Sophocles had to settle for second prize. We convene on the observation deck as the Corinthian II enters the narrow Corinth Canal joining mainland Greece and the Peloponnesus. Conceived in antiquity, the six-mile-long Canal wasn't completed until 1893. After navigating the Canal, we enjoy my favorite dinner of the cruise -- an outdoor buffet complete with a gorgeous sunset and a pair of dolphins leaping in the distance.
History in Greece's Delos & Syros
Early the next morning, we tender from the ship to windswept Delos, center of the Cycladic islands. Lately the sea has been too rough for boats from Mykonos to dock and we feel lucky for the calm. Uninhabited since the 7th century, the entire 1.5 square mile island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. French archeologists continue excavations begun at the end of the 19th century.
According to legend, the pregnant Leto took refuge here from the jealous Hera, giving birth to Apollo, god of truth and light, and his twin sister, the moon goddess Artemis. The moment Apollo was born, the island was covered with flowers and gold. By 1000 B.C., Delos had become a thriving religious center. Under the Romans, the island flourished as an important trading center, with shops, cafes, and taverns.
We follow our guide along the Sacred Way, once lined with statues of rival kings, to the Sanctuary of Apollo, containing three temples to the god. We recognize the much-photographed replicas of 7th century B.C. white marble lions sitting watch over the Sacred Lake, Apollo's birthplace. Inside the Archeological Museum, we see seven of the original lions, along with mosaics, statues, vases and pottery (much to Greece's dismay, one of the original lions stands guard at the entrance of Venice's Arsenal).
Back onboard the Corinthian II, Doug and I find respite from the harsh sun with a served lunch in the dining room. That afternoon, we disembark at Ermoupoli on Syros, the cultural and commercial center of the Cycladic Islands. The highlight of our visit is a charming performance of traditional folk dancing. Afterwards, the costumed dancers invite us to join in, and we do our best Zorba imitations.
On our stroll back to the ship, I tag along with Clara and two of her buddies in search of Ermoupoli fashions. Most unfortunately, the alluring boutiques are closed until early evening. Window shopping just doesn't cut it. "I am not happy," declares one of the stymied fashionistas. We're forced to settle for iced coffee drinks at a seaside cafe.
Great Shopping! Really! In Kusadasi!
From the Cyclades, we cross the Aegean and continue toward Turkey's coastal port, Kusadasi, a popular summer holiday destination and cruise ship port of call, not to mention the gateway to the ancient city of Ephesus, considered one of the best-preserved ancient metropolis' in the Mediterranean.
After a stop at the Ephesus Museum to see Roman and Greek artifacts, we arrive at the hugely popular site. With our Turkish guide, we walk along the mile-long paved marble street, past reconstructed buildings like the 25,000-seat Great Theater. I try to imagine visiting VIP's arriving by chariot -- Alexander the Great, Hadrian, Marc Anthony and Cleopatra.
The recently discovered Terrace Houses, where archeologists are restoring rooms, mosaic floors and wall frescoes, are astonishing. Another must-see is the beautifully restored Library of Celsus. With its graceful white marble facade and fine carvings, the two-story library was the third largest in the ancient world, boasting 12,000 scrolls. Before leaving, we take advantage of a memorable photo opportunity. For $1, Clara sits atop a camel, a popular method of conveyance in ancient times.
After refueling with a buffet lunch back aboard the ship, the kids and I leave Doug with his science fiction book and set out for an afternoon of shopping. Jon negotiates for a Turkish leather wallet, Clara buys a dress (made in France), and I snag sandals at Scala Nuova, a new air-conditioned retail complex by the ship terminal. So immersed are we in shopping, we lose all sense of time and have to hurry back to the ship. It turns out we aren't alone. The chef, last seen in a local cigar shop, is missing. Fortunately, the captain decides not to leave without him.
That evening, we learn how to lead a good life from Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the Epicureans, courtesy of Professor McCall. The teens are all present, evidence of his engaging style. After dinner, we enjoy our final stargazing session.
Change of Course
Most unfortunately, a fellow passenger takes ill and the ship's doctor decides she needs to be hospitalized as soon as possible. The medical emergency results in a change of itinerary. Rather than spending the day exploring the island of Samothraki, we head directly for Thessaloniki, giving us a final day at sea.
No one is complaining. The pace of the voyage has been challenging for everyone but the teens. We spend the leisurely day reading on the observation deck and enjoying a relaxed buffet breakfast and lunch. Doug and I share the decadent captain's impressive farewell dinner of Lobster Armoriquenne and Baked Alaska with our friends from Tahoe. During the meal, we arrive at Thessaloniki.
With Doug packing and Jon and Clara roaming downtown Thessaloniki with their friends, I have time to download photos to my laptop and reflect on the cruise. Our excursions whetted my appetite for more of Sardinia and Sicily. It seems clear we'll have to return someday -- perhaps for the International Couscous Festival in Marsala or to attend a classic performed in Syracuse's stunning Greek theatre.
I feel truly grateful to our professors and guides who challenged us and shared their enthusiasm, adding so much meaning to the voyage. Of course, I treasure the time with my family. I'm wondering if my clan shares my feelings during our flight home from Athens, when Clara declares this "one of our best trips ever."
And Jon? It's too soon to tell if he'll be traveling with us next summer. In the meantime, he's taken his Tunisian World Cup soccer jersey to college, along with the email addresses of the other teen passengers and a photo of his sister hugging him at Segesta.
--by Susan Jaques. Jaques is a Los Angeles-based writer whose favorite travel adventures are with her husband and teenage son and daughter. In addition to Cruise Critic, Jaques' articlse have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine.