The single ship of the Voyages to Antiquity
fleet is Aegean Odyssey, a decades-old vessel that was radically overhauled to upgrade cabins and public areas, giving the ship a casual sophistication. But its real lure is the specialized itineraries it sails -- from its origin carrying historic-minded passengers to visit remnants of great civilizations that originated around the Mediterranean, to its later expansion into exploring the cultures of Asia.
Aegean Odyssey was originally launched as a car ferry in 1973. After about 15 years, it was converted to a cruise ship, sailing under at least two other names, both of them containing "Aegean." The vessel had been tied to a dock in Greece for about four years when veteran cruise-line entrepreneur Gerry Herrod bought it in 2009 and renamed it Aegean Odyssey.
Herrod is known as an innovator, specializing in small, destination-oriented, upscale ships; he is former chairman of Discovery World Cruises, Orient Lines, Ocean Cruise Lines and Pearl Cruises. Inspired by "The Middle Sea," a book about the fabled ancient civilizations that flourished in the eastern and central Mediterranean, Herrod teamed up with its author, Lord John Julius Norwich.
Together, they crafted cruise itineraries focused on the still-visible remains of the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations. Initially, the new line, called Voyages to Antiquity, sailed around Greece, Italy, Croatia, Malta, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. In 2012, due to uncertainty in the Middle East, itineraries calling on Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Brunei, Maldives, Philippines and Hong Kong were added.
After a significant refurbishment -- including reconstruction of everything from cabins and public rooms to the galley and funnel -- the ship now carries up to 378 passengers, down from its original 570. However, popular pricing for single passengers means the passenger list typically maxes out at around 350.
Cabins are relatively spacious, as reducing the number of staterooms allowed the refurbished cabins to be larger. For example, 57 existing staterooms were rebuilt into 39 cabins without balconies, and 80 additional cabins were reconfigured into 40 with balconies.
In early 2013, additional work was completed that created 18 new outside cabins on Lido Deck, while moving the spa several levels lower to space previously occupied by inside cabins. According to the cruise line, this latest reconfiguration was prompted by customer requests for additional premium cabins.
The ship has the feeling of an oceangoing living room, its decor a palette of soft colors and blonde woods. The overall experience is comfortable and understated, neither pretentious nor overwhelming. It does not have the glitz of most mega-ships: there are no flashing neon lights, glass-walled elevators on the hull, theaters for musical reviews, casinos, shopping malls nor any food courts with various restaurant choices.
"The type of passenger we are aiming for is interested in destinations, lectures and itineraries, not floor shows or drinking late," Voyages managing director David Yellow told one Cruise Critic contributor, as they sailed from the Italian mainland to Sicily. "We want a like-minded group of people. The big cruise lines say their ships are the resorts; we
say itineraries are the prime reason to come aboard." Yellow added, "We want people who don't want to cruise with 2,000 others."
That means what you'll find is an older demographic that's driven by curiosity. The cruise line brochure advises against bringing children younger than 12. On an August cruise in the Mediterranean, there were only three teenagers aboard; on an Asian itinerary in December, there were none. But, with the de-emphasis on entertainment or group activities beyond the daily lectures, some passengers may feel they have too much time on their hands while onboard.
The cost of passage includes most excursions, onboard gratuities, wine or beer with dinner and transportation to and from the airport before and after cruising. A few itineraries include overnight stays on land, also packaged into the fares. Aegean Odyssey sails longer itineraries -- the shortest are 10 nights -- during a year-round cruising season.
Voyages to Antiquity cruises are marketed in the U.S., the U.K. (the line maintains offices in both), Canada and Australia. Many cruisers are former passengers of cruise line founder Gerry Herrod's earlier ventures, Orient Lines and Pearl Cruises; in our experience, there is a high rate of returning passengers. Aegean Odyssey is marketed as a small-ship alternative for passengers used to paying for premium vessels and specialized itineraries.
Because of the educational focus of Voyages to Antiquity itineraries, the passengers tend to be educated, intelligent and curious. Generally, they are well-to-do, older than 50 (the average age on an Asian cruise was 68) and speak English as their native language. English is the only language used in the handful of daily public address announcements, onboard signage and in the daily bulletin.
Many Voyages to Antiquity cruises are the backbone for Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) tours. Onboard groups typically range from 25 to 80 passengers, with one or two Road Scholar tour leaders, depending on group size. In some instances, the Road Scholars have alternative or additional shore excursion itineraries and meals, but aside from that, they mingle well with other passengers.
Voyages to Antiquity also hosts Smithsonian tours and university alumni groups on some itineraries.
Country-club attire is the norm onboard. Shorts are common for men and women in the daytime and are acceptable in the Terrace Cafe for breakfast and lunch. The more formal Marco Polo dining room requires at least long pants and collared shirts for men and skirts or dressy slacks for women; jackets are suggested for men.
While jackets and ties are not required for men, and there is no "formal" night, due to the older age of the passengers, many prefer to wear dressier clothes in the evening. The daily bulletin does not include an evening dress code suggestion.
Some shore destinations, particularly in Asia, may require modest dress for both sexes, such as long pants or dresses that cover the knee and tops that cover the shoulders.
The ship has a laundry service with charges that are relatively reasonable for a cruise ship, though same-day service has a 50-percent surcharge.
Gratuities for cabin stewards and waitstaff are included in the price of passage, though a 12.5 percent charge is added to all bar orders. The cruise line offers no guidelines as to amount if passengers want to tip specific crewmembers.
For shore excursions, it is suggested to tip $1 for the driver of the bus and $2-$3 for the guide. Most tours last at least 3.5 hours, so this seems like a bargain.