I'm a seasoned cruiser who enjoys cruising more for the ports and sights than for relaxation or entertainment onboard. I've cruised with several lines, but also enjoy land vacations. I'm very interested in ancient history; also I often travel solo and have no problem doing things on my own in port. For me, Voyages to Antiquity sounded like a great idea. They offer some very interesting itineraries on a small ship that holds about 350 at maximum capacity. The itineraries are usually built around a theme, and guest lecturers provide additional history and enrichment onboard to complement the shore tours (which are mostly included in the fare).
The line debuted in 2010 and I first sailed with them last year in November (to Syria and Lebanon as well as Egypt!). You can read my earlier review of that voyage here as well. It was a very good experience, more than good enough to prompt me to book another trip in 2011. (As a side note, the itinerary I originally booked for 2011 was to have been to Libya to see Leptis Magna!) This time around, the 2011 early reviews were uniformly more positive, so I looked forward to another great experience.
The ship, Aegean Odyssey, was completely refurbished prior to starting her new career as the only ship in the Voyages to Antiquity line. She is nicely decorated but certainly not glitzy. I won't rehash the details of the ship's public rooms as they have been well described by others. My favorite place to sit and relax indoors remains the Charleston Lounge. However, the best place of all on board is either sitting in one of the very comfortable loungers or at an outside table on the Terrace (Promenade deck aft), of which I'll say more later. The only mild complaint is that with a full group in the main lounge (Ambassador Lounge), which is used for briefings and lectures, there are a lot of seats where the sight lines to the presenter and screen are not great.
Embarkation at Civitavecchia was very fast and easy -- once I found the ship. Since I had been staying in Rome a few days, I took the train to the port and hopped on the shuttle there. The driver didn't seem to understand what ship I wanted. When we got to the large board listing all the ships in port, the Aegean Odyssey's name was not there. A bit concerning, until I spotted the ship's funnel and could direct the driver. Still, it would be nice if the port agent would make sure the ship name shows up. I seem to recall the same thing happened at another port as well.
My cabin on this sailing was a wonderful plus. I had initially booked a basic solo cabin -- one of the things I like about the line is that there are several solo cabins on the ship and often they have deals with low or no solo supplements on various sailings. A few weeks before sailing I was notified of an upgrade to a deluxe balcony solo cabin (810), and what a treat it was! The room was a great deal larger than my previous cabin, with a layout that was lengthwise to the ship. There was a window as well as glass balcony doors that let in a great amount of light, and the balcony ran the length of the cabin. It was quite narrow, but plenty of room for the two chairs and small table placed there. The bed was larger than a twin but seemed a bit smaller than a standard double. The mattress was quite comfortable -- much better than some lines I've sailed with (are you listening, Princess?). The room was nicely decorated with heavy drapes to block out the morning sun. There was plenty of storage space, including a large 3-drawer dresser near the bed and a closet with good hanging space and some smaller drawers (and a room safe) inside. As this cabin is considered "Concierge Class", there were two really nice perks associated with occupying it: first, a mini-fridge stocked with free soda and water (and restocked throughout the cruise with my favorite Diet Coke), and second, you are automatically put into the "Red" tour group, which is the first group to depart on tours at every port. Other perks included a bottle of champagne upon boarding, fresh flowers in the room, and deluxe toiletries (Molton Brown) in the bath. Speaking of the bathroom, it was about the same size as I had in my previous cabin but then shipboard bathrooms are never spacious, are they? A perk related to the cabin location was the availability of fresh coffee and pastries in the morning just steps from my cabin door (outside on deck 8), just in case I was rushing to get ready for an early excursion.
Service throughout the ship was at a very high level. Within a few days, almost all of the personnel that I interacted with on a daily basis knew my name and my preferences. My cabin steward was helpful but unobtrusive (which is what I prefer). The maitre d' hotel and two headwaiters were very much in evidence in both dining venues (the Marco Polo Restaurant and the Terrace Cafe). The shore excursion staff, while young, seemed to have things running very smoothly at all times. There was almost always one of the staff with our tour group, which at times came in very helpful, as when one woman fell and seriously injured herself at one of the ancient sites we visited. Within moments several people were tending to her.
Speaking of excursions, most are included (as I mentioned above) and range from half-day to full-day tours, some of which are quite strenuous. The staff did a much better job this year in accurately presenting the level of activity for each tour and thus there were fewer people on the excursions who really couldn't handle the pace. Our bus also had fewer people than last year and the guides, in my opinion, were generally better. I think some of this is due to lessons learned in their first season. Overall, all the included and optional tours that I did were very satisfactory except one. The excursions were one area I had noted last year had some room for improvement, and I'm happy to say that comments from myself and others must have been noted and acted upon. The one excursion that was unsatisfactory was the half-day tour at Souda -- it simply included too much for a half-day tour and was very rushed. I mentioned it to the staff and they agreed; hopefully the head office will take note and re-think things at this port in future.
Dining on board was very pleasant. I ate in the Marco Polo dining room (the main DR) almost every night. The head waiter put a group of 6 solo women of all ages together and we all hit it off and had a blast; we ended up dining together most nights. I found my fellow passengers were well traveled and very good conversationalists. The food last year in Marco Polo was comparable to what you might expect on most mass market lines, but this year I feel it was a step higher in quality. At least two meals really stand out in my memory as excellent. The house wines were good (mainly Greek) and were poured generously throughout the meal. Although the dining room was also open for lunch, I enjoyed most lunches (when not ashore) at the Terrace Cafe, sitting outside. I must say that V2A really upped the ante over last year in regards to this venue. Inside the regular buffet had good choices, but outside they also added a pizza station and had a daily pasta made to order, as well as a selection of antipasti (often with a local slant) set up outside. Breakfast is only available at the Terrace Cafe buffet, with more or less the same selection each day. Omelets could be made to order.
There is not much in the way of planned entertainment onboard the Aegean Odyssey, other than the advertised lecturers. This was a high point on my previous cruise and I enjoyed them again this time. We had two lecturers who each provided 4 lectures over the course of the cruise. Both were good speakers. In addition two of the ship staff each provided an additional lecture. Of the 10 lectures, I only missed one. The same musical group, Cafe Concerto Strings was onboard this year and I remain impressed with their musical talent -- they add just the right touch to the cruise for me. Another musical duo were on board but I was less fond of them. The ship also arranged a group of Greek dancers/musicians to come aboard and give a show while we were in Rhodes.
There are no facilities for children onboard, no casino, no production shows. Internet was inexpensive and speed was good relative to other ships I've been on. There is one shop onboard that stocks a variety of essentials, jewelry, logo items, and books. The library is excellent; it was almost my first stop on this cruise to check out the selection of books -- novels, history, guidebooks -- most related to the ship's itineraries. I have yet to set foot in the salon, spa, or gym, so I cannot say much there.
I generally provide more detailed reviews of individual ports on the Ports of Call boards, but some basic thoughts on our ports visited are listed below:
Palermo -- We overnighted here and saw quite a bit, with three included half-day tours. The Palatine Chapel and Monreale were standouts. On the last afternoon, the bus tour started at Palermo and visited Segesta (the highlight for me) and the nearby Greek theatre before heading to Trapani to meet the ship there. A bonus -- V2A decided to include Erice in the the Segesta excursion and it was just lovely to walk around this medieval hilltop village. After leaving port, we encountered some rough weather (swells) enroute to Tunisia.
Tunis -- We overnighted at Tunis (La Goulette, a beautiful new facility) and I found Tunisia to be lovely and peaceful -- no signs of any civil strife. One of the highlights of the entire trip for me was the full-day excursion to the ancient ruins of Dougga. The setting is spectacular and the ruins are in very good condition; the tour also included a nice lunch at a local hotel in Dougga. Our guide was outstanding. The next morning, our included trip was to Carthage, where the ruins are less complete, but (for me) just being at the site of the ancient city was fascinating. We also briefly visited Sidi Bou Said. I would've liked to have visited the Bardo Museum to see the mosaics, but I know the museum has been under renovation (many rooms not accessible) for quite a while....
Valletta -- We had a half-day tour of Mdina (beautiful, and nearly empty when we were there early on a Sunday morning) and Valletta. Unfortunately, being Sunday, we could not get into the Co-Cathedral even for a look. However, visits to the Grand Master's Palace and the Archaeology Museum were included. In the afternoon, I had made separate arrangements to go to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a very important prehistoric site; advance reservations are needed and only 10 people per hour can take the tour. The ship had an optional tour that visited the nearby Tarxien temples (also prehistoric) and the fishing village of Marsaxlokk.
Chania -- As I already mentioned, the half-day tour here, which covered the old town and Venetian harbor at Chania, as well as a one-hour drive to Rethimnon to see the Venetian fort and harbor there, was just too rushed and included too much. There was not a single unplanned second to savor the views or enjoy a leisurely stroll through the streets around the area(s). I'm sure that contributed greatly to my general dissatisfaction with this port. There was time in the afternoon to go back to Chania (about a 15 minute taxi ride from the port; local buses were also available and easy), but honestly it didn't seem worth it.
Iraklion -- This port, also on Crete, was much more successful. The included half-day tour to Knossos was another highlight for me, greatly aided by the fact that our guide was superlative and we arrived at the site quite early and beat the crowds. Compared to some archaeological sites, Knossos is actually quite small and I can see how it can get quite crowded at peak times with people queuing up to get inside the various areas. In the afternoon, it was an easy, scenic stroll of 15 minutes or so along the water to get to the old town of Iraklion, where I did a little shopping and also visited the Archaeological Museum (note: the full museum is closed for renovation, but the most important items from Knossos and other excavations are on display in a small area in the basement of the museum; it is still well worth going).
Lindos -- An interesting day and our only tendered port. We were to tender to Lindos, spend the day there, then re-board the ship and sail to Rhodes Town, around to the north of the island. Seas were quite choppy, however. Our group was as usual the first to get off, and the water was so rough that some had trouble boarding the tender. I should mention that the briefing the evening before had focused extensively on the difficulty of the climb up to the Acropolis at Lindos (the main focus of the tour), so some people had already opted not to tender in. The ride from ship to shore was a bit like a roller coaster. When we tied up at the dock, Zoe (shore excursion manager) stuck her head in the boat to let us know that there was a change of plans. Once everyone tendered in, the ship would sail for Rhodes, as the weather was predicted to worsen. V2A arranged for buses to pick us up from Lindos at the end of our excursion and take us into Rhodes. I highly commend V2A for making such a quick decision and arranging the change with a minimum of fuss. We were well taken care of (even got to see an additional site on the way to Rhodes Town), and the weather later that evening, where waves were washing over the dock at Rhodes, made it clear that the right decision was made.
Rhodes -- Although some of us had already gone into Rhodes the previous afternoon, the included excursion was a half-day tour of the old city and included the Grand Master's Palace (yes, another one -- later than the one on Malta and refurbished by Italian kings and Mussolini) and the Archaeology Museum. Although the tour itself was interesting, our guide was not. After the tour ended, I grabbed a taxi to take me up to the acropolis of Rhodes to get a few photos (our tour had driven by but didn't even stop); then I enjoyed wandering the Old Town for a while longer. Before sailing, the ship brought some Greek dancers and musicians on board for a show; they were quite good and had us all dancing. Opa!
Antalya -- Luckily the seas had died down and our sailing from Rhodes overnight was fine. Having been to Antalya twice before, I opted to skip both the included and the optional excursions and just head into Antalya on my own. (One should definitely NOT miss Perge and Aspendos on a first visit, however). Here is another area where V2A did well by its passengers: they laid on a free shuttle into Antalya (Old Town area) from the ship. Since it was about a 30-minute ride, this was well appreciated. From the Old Town, it's easy to get to the Archaeological Museum on the tram (1.75 Turkish lira per person, each way), which I did and spent a lovely morning seeing the museum at leisure. Then I headed back to the Old Town where I had lunch at a restaurant built right into the old Ottoman walls and looking at the lovely harbor. A bit of shopping and I headed back to the ship on the next-to-last shuttle.
Tasucu -- This little-known port in Turkey turned out to be a lovely surprise. The port is a 2-hour drive from the sites we visited. V2A wisely decided to combine both the Crusader castle (Mamure Castle) and the Roman ruins (Anemurium) into one tour rather than having one included and one optional tour. The ride to the sites, although long, was on a winding highway that clung to the hillside right at the edge of the sea. The views were incredible, even if the turns were at times a bit exciting. The ride was also enlivened by the fact that it was the first day of the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha (festival of sacrifice), where families traditionally kill and share one of their livestock (sheep, goat, etc) with those less fortunate. We were warned that we might see some butchering along the road and indeed I did (though it was easy to miss if you didn't want to see). Certainly something I will remember.
Limassol -- Our last port; we had a full day here before leaving the next morning. This port was also a repeat of last year's V2A cruise for me, so I skipped the included tours. I had hoped to get to Paphos to see the mosaics there, but it seemed quite expensive to take a taxi on my own, and I couldn't seem to find anyone to help figure out the supposed "shared taxi" system I'd read about. At any rate, V2A again laid on a shuttle into town, so I walked around a bit. Perhaps because it was the end of the trip, but I didn't find much to recommend there.
The ship included transfers to the airport, and disembarkation was smooth and relatively painless (except for the very early hour). I would not recommend ending a cruise in Limassol; it made for a long travel day back to the US -- about 21 hours for me.
All in all, my second experience aboard Aegean Odyssey was better than the first in almost all respects. I really am fond of that little ship and I know I'll be sailing on her again in future. V2A just recently announced new itineraries to Asia, and there is always the chance that Libya will be back on the program.....