If you can't afford your own yacht, Athena is the next best thing.
With warm wood paneling, wooden window shutters, brass fittings, a beamed ceiling and decor that reminds of a vintage yacht, this jaunty new 50-passenger ship has more the look of a private ship than a commercial vessel -- and this was precisely the spirit fostered by the attentive crew throughout the cruise. As soon as we boarded, Zoran, the ship's hotel manager and host, told everyone, "This is your ship; don't worry about dressing up. Please feel at home." There was an intimate feeling and an informality beyond what I had experienced on other small ships.
Instead of a formal reception area, you register at a long table/desk with chairs on each side -- this is the same place that, on other days, you can find the two trip leaders for a chat. You can swim off the back of the boat, relax in a chaise on the shaded top deck or in front of the big-screen TV in the homey sitting room, and go up to visit the captain at will. Cabins were comfortable enough to invite lounging, especially those with balconies. And as Zoran promised, there was never a need to dress up; even the gala dinner nights were informal.
The Athena was built to sail the Dalmatian Coast, one of the most beautiful routes in Europe, and the destination influences the ambience of the ship. The line commisioned a photographer to capture everyday life in the countries visited, and his fine original black and white photos are found throughout the ship, in public spaces and in cabins.
The small size of the ship means it can navigate small coves, land in less-visited ports and usually dock right in the town rather than needing tenders to get passengers ashore. The pacing of our trip on this intimate ship was excellent. Often, we came into cities in the afternoon, and our tour guides led a brief orientation walk so that we could find our own way. The next morning brought a more extensive tour with a local guide and more free time. Some days there was the chance to swim from the boat or visit a local beach.
Athena accommodates two passenger groups of 25, each group with a trip leader. While on shore, the groups remain separate, but everyone dines together onboard at open seating dinners, and pretty soon everyone feels like friends. Airfare is included in the tour price, along with almost all guided tours and complimentary wine at dinner. Since this company has a lot of repeat passengers (on our cruise, many people were on fifth and sixth trips), this line must be doing something right.
Built in 2007 by Grand Circle for its Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) division, Athena is the prototype for two identical sister ships that will be in service by spring 2008.