It was not without some trepidation that we went ahead with this cruise, after reading some of the earlier reviews on Cruise Critic. In fact we came very close to cancelling our booking at one point as the barrage of bad news regarding earlier cruises piled up. I am so glad we did decide to go ahead. Voyages to Antiquity delivered a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable adventure that will live with us forever. We have hundreds of photos, some wonderful memories and a host of new friends as a result. This is a small ship adventure to ports less visited and, though not without some issues to be addressed, represents excellent value for the intrepid traveller.
The ship has only recently been fitted out, so its decor is clean and fresh, there is plenty of light in internal areas and it has the feel of a new ship. Aegean Odyssey is a smaller ship than we were used to. Our only earlier experience of a cruise ship was HAL's Zuiderdam in 2008, which is a magnificent and exceptionally comfortable ship. The Aegean Odyssey is a much smaller vessel. This smallness in size has some positives and negatives. One negative is that it seemed sensitive to ocean swells. The sensation of rocking about was quite marked in relatively minor seas (sea sick pills are available free at reception!). There is less choice of open space. The swimming pool is small and the water sloshed about, sometimes with such energy, that it was usually not possible to swim on our voyage. The positives far outweighed the negatives in my mind. We got to know other passengers fairly quickly; we soon had our favourite spots on board. The ship is able to visit and dock at ports which are just not accessible to larger vessels. (Zuiderdam would not have been able to get anywhere near the dock area at Darnah - for Cyrene). Importantly there were only 260 passengers aboard. When visiting the historic sites on shore it was much more enjoyable to do so in relatively small groups. And in addition, we all got to know each other, passengers and crew, and I enjoyed that aspect very much.
We had booked a Concierge Class cabin on Belvedere Deck, Cabin 549. The cabin was small, but clean and tidy with a very large "porthole" which provided a clear view. A fridge was installed and soft drink and water were free. We had a flat screen TV which showed CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera, with a number of non-English channels, plus a number of channels showing movies. I watched "Gladiator" and "Cleopatra" through new eyes! However this cabin turned out to be very noisy - it was next to the funnel and therefore close to the engine. There was a constant knocking noise like the sound of the engine of "The African Queen", rather like being camped next to an idling diesel truck. We spoke with the staff at Reception, who conversed with the Purser, and they were able to upgrade us to a cabin on Bridge Deck. We agreed to pay a little extra for this, which in the end turned out to be a very wise investment. The cabin we took on Bridge Deck was also close to the funnel, but much quieter, much larger - with four large portholes offering wonderful views and a great sense of spaciousness. And that bath came in handy after we got caught in the cold and the rain at Cyrene!. Some on-board friends had a "B" class cabin, a Junior Suite with a balcony, at the rear of Bridge Deck and they are very nice indeed, if a bit expensive. Some other friends had cabins on Belvedere Deck, but away from the funnel, and they reported that they were very happy with their cabin, comfortable and cosy with no noise problem. So it seems you may be ok if you stay away from the funnel.
The Public Spaces and Facilities
The pool area was popular but the pool was difficult or impossible to use at times due to the rocking of the ship. The lounges at the rear of the Lido Deck were pleasant if the wind was in the right direction, but the engine roar emanating from the funnel area in conjunction with sometimes heavy smoke exhaust meant this was not always pleasant. We found a nice quiet spot at the rear of the Bridge Deck which was sheltered from the wind and offered pleasant views of the wake and we were often here on the "At Sea" days, reading our guide book (or more often snoozing). I liked the eating area at the rear of the Promenade Deck, "Tapas on the Terrace", where we always ate breakfast, usually ate dinner and sometimes indulged in the afternoon tea. On the At Sea days we often got this area to ourselves outside meal times, and we enjoyed some great times out there, catching up on the diary or having a chat over coffee. The Charleston Lounge was very pleasant for pre and post dinner drinks and afternoon liaisons. The Ambassador Lounge forward on the Promenade Deck is a large cabaret style auditorium but underutilised and inclined to be stuffy. This made paying attention at the lectures, held in this room, a challenge at times. The Observation Lounge at the bow on the top deck has some of the best views on the ship, but it was often deserted. It needs a cafe, reading area or something to give it some life as this area was very underutilised. Nice place from which to watch the approach to a new port away from the wind however. The library is comfortable, cosy and with some interesting and useful books, but get in early if you want to borrow a guide book. The ship's shop is small, but has a range of very handy items, which are reasonably priced. The main dining area is the Marco Polo Restaurant in the bowels of the ship. Nicely decorated with comfortable seating, the lack of windows meant that we preferred to eat there in the evening and did not use it often for lunch.
The crew are outstanding. I found their attention to passenger requests first rate. They really seemed to care that we were enjoying our experience. The attentiveness of the staff was an outstanding feature of our cruise. I'm an Australian and apparently we have a well deserved reputation for not tipping unless we receive very good service. I did tip, and I tipped quite a number of crew members on this cruise. I also intend to write to Voyages to Antiquity to let them know how much we appreciated this aspect of our experience. Outstanding! There, I've said it again. Well done V2A.
It was the itinerary which attracted us to this cruise and it did not disappoint. The highlights for me were Syracuse, the Port of Valetta, the excitement of the first view of the North African coast, the visit to El Jem and, without a doubt, the visit to Leptis Magna. Now that made the whole trip absolutely worthwhile.
The Tours and Tour Guides
The tours were included in the fare, and all took in just exactly the sites we wanted to see. There were a couple of optional tours which we did not do, but they were relatively inexpensive and judging by reports from fellow passengers, equally enjoyable and stimulating. The "whisper" devices are excellent in the hands of a competent guide, especially for someone like me who tends to lag behind the group taking photos and enjoying the scene alone. The quality of the guides, however, was variable. In Libya particularly one or two were very poor. Some had poor English, or very heavy accents which made them difficult to understand. On occasion I wasn't sure whether the historical narrative being provided was truth or apocryphal. I suspected the latter. Greater attention needs to be given to better vetting the guides to ensure they are up to scratch. However, in those countries much better versed in supporting tourism, the guides were excellent, notably Sicily, Malta and most impressively for our group, Egypt.
We found the lectures that we attended interesting and on each occasion came away with a new perspective on the history surrounding the sites we were visiting. I must admit that we missed a few - on occasion we were enjoying the conversation at the dinner table too much, or given the high level of activity on some days, just too tired. One lecture stood out as poor however, and that was one we attended given by a Professor from the university in Tripoli. I am sure he is a learned man well qualified in his area of expertise but really, I had no idea what he was talking about. Someone should have interviewed him first, or maybe he is Colonel Gaddafi's cousin? The other lecturers however were informative and enjoyable. I particularly liked the comparison of the Athenian expedition to Syracuse with the abortive Gallipoli campaign in WW1.
We met and enjoyed the company of some very interesting, stimulating and on occasion, hysterically amusing passengers. There was definitely a bias towards the late 60's to early 80's age group, which meant the dance floor was usually available in the evenings. However on the whole they were an open minded, easy going, adventure loving, interested and interesting group of people.
Of variable quality and average overall. I didn't join the cruise for the culinary experience, but V2A could do more to include regional dishes for the areas visited. My favourite meal was breakfast. The omelettes were great although the cereal did taste like someone had just shredded the box. I think the food at the Tapas Cafe was better than that provided at The Marco Polo Restaurant, but we did go to the Marco Polo a few times. It was easier to meet people there and, on occasion, on board ship, I do like to dress for dinner. One or two dishes stood out as tasty, but I must say not a patch on my only other cruise experience, Holland America. Edible certainly. Imaginative? No. The food experience at the Marco Polo is a major improvement opportunity.
There was not much in the way of organised entertainment, which largely centred on the lectures and activities at the spa and gym (the latter is very small and hardly worth the bother). There was however a very good string and piano quartet who played most evenings in the Charleston Lounge and gave a very fine farewell concert in the Ambassador Lounge. The lack of organised entertainment was not a problem however. We spent many enjoyable hours in the company of some very entertaining fellow passengers, or an occasional good book.
There are still some problems with the ship which we believe are being addressed. They need to be addressed if the ship is to succeed. There was one day when the toilets did not flush for most of the day. When they did flush they seemed to flush for a long time. In fact at our first experience we thought the flusher had become stuck. The air conditioning appeared to be patchy. I wondered whether they were rationing or cycling access through the ship, as sometimes it was fine and sometimes it was very stuffy indeed. The weather was quite mild for our trip, but I would think that in the heat of summer the lack of air conditioning would be quite a problem. For us the biggest issue was the black smoke frequently belching from the funnel. This was particularly embarrassing during the departure from the beautiful port of Valletta in Malta. As we were leaving that picturesque and historical city our ship virtually blanketed the town with thick black smoke. It felt like being invited into someone's home and then walking your dirty muddy boots all over their beautiful new carpet. I did not like the black smoke belching from the funnel - it is not acceptable in these days of greater awareness of the environment. I was told that the ship is going into dock early in 2011 to address some remaining "technical issues". I hope this smoke issue is one of them.
Post cruise accommodation
Voyages to Antiquity arranged post cruise accommodation for all passengers at The Fairmont Nile City in Cairo. On our first day in Cairo they arranged lunch for us all at the Mena House Oberoi, maybe the top hotel in Cairo. The Fairmont Nile City was an outstandingly comfortable hotel, in fact the best accommodation we had on our extended trip abroad. V2A appeared to spare no expense to ensure our comfort and for that we are very grateful. Once again, this was evidence that they are more focused on the quality of the experience than saving the pennies, which is unusual in this age of economic rationalism and parsimonious tight-fisted business practices. Very much appreciated.
The Little Extras
A rose for my wife when we boarded, a free bottle of very nice Champagne, free water throughout the cruise, free soft drinks from the hospitality fridge in the cabin, all tours included in the fare, attentive, courteous and conscientious crew, chocolates on the pillow at night, free and freely flowing good quality wine with dinner and a very pleasant ambience aboard ship. Well done V2A
Tipping is included with the fare, apparently, but service was so good that I did want to give a little extra to some individuals who helped make our holiday experience so enjoyable. There was no guidance on how much is appropriate, so I hope I wasn't too stingy. I left our cabin steward an extra 20 Euros for always having our cabin fresh and tidy when we returned from the day's adventures. I gave two waiters at the Tapas on the Terrace 10 Euros each for being good company and for filling my coffee cup at breakfast just exactly when it needed to be filled. I pressed the palm of one of the attendants at the servery with a 5 Euro note for making my wife laugh every evening, and I gave one of the waitresses at the Charleston Lounge 5 Euros for always having a welcoming smile, no matter what. Hope that was enough. I felt awkward offering any money to officers or hotel management staff, but I will write to V2A to thank them directly.
The Value for Money
This shipping line includes in the fare so much which is extra on other cruise lines. Free bottled water in the cabin and on tour, and free soft drink from the cabin fridge. Free white or red wine with dinner. Tours are included in the fare, as well as the cost of guides and lectures. Accommodation subsequent to the cruise included. Relatively cheap internet access, which was fast too I hasten to add. All this in addition to a newly decorated ship, attentive staff, acceptable food, access to the ports less travelled and an experience never to be forgotten. This trip represented real value for money and I would very much like to travel with this shipping line again. Well done and thank you "Aegean Odyssey".
Ps. Clean up the funnel!