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Exploring the eastern reaches of European civilization aboard a luxury ship

February 07, 1999|CHARLES CORN | Corn is the author of "The Scents of Eden: A History of the Spice Trade" (Kodansha), to be reissued in paperback this spring

VENICE, Italy — The ship loomed at dockside like a gleaming white apparition. Having taxied the few miles to Athens' port city of Piraeus, and after much tipping of porters, we passed through the liner's imposing foyer and climbed the grand staircase en route to our comfortable stateroom. The room, furnished with dark mahogany and brass, had a queen-size bed, private veranda and Jacuzzi, and was large enough for us to entertain a few guests.

My companion, Rosalie, and I had cruised before, on such craft as rust-bucket inter-island steamers plying the Banda Sea in the southern Moluccas. A few years ago we upgraded, enjoying a pleasant sail on the elegant Crystal Harmony from Buenos Aires to San Juan. This time we had chosen the Crystal Symphony, the second and even more lavish of the L.A.-based cruise line's luxury ships, specifically for its itinerary. With an abbreviated amount of vacation time, we wanted to see and experience the eastern reaches of European civilization, dating from thousands of years ago, that otherwise might have been denied us.

Our 12-day cruise included ports of call in Ephesus, Perga and Aspendus in Turkey, Santorini and Corfu in Greece, and Dubrovnik in Croatia, before disembarkation in Venice. And as veterans of travel in often steamy, rank places, we were ready for a bit of shipboard pampering. With a capacity of 940 passengers, the Symphony is a veritable floating city, with casinos, theaters and restaurants--something for every taste, but with every opportunity for privacy as well as conviviality.

Once aboard the ship, we enjoyed dining alone the first night at our assigned table for 10 in the ship's main dining room, with its looming chandeliers. The Chilean sea bass, and the crab-and-brie soup that preceded it, were enjoyable, and the prices for good wine hovered at about the $30 mark, so we didn't feel put upon. But we were curious about who would be our table mates for the rest of the cruise. Assigned seating can be both a blessing and a curse. But with two additional restaurants (specializing in Asian and Italian fare) where one could reserve a table in advance (plus the 24-hour room service option, for caviar within minutes), we figured we could escape any unpleasant dinner companions. We were soon to learn there would be no offenders.

The next morning came in a rush for Rosalie, who did an hour on the treadmill in the well-equipped spa--and a load of laundry--before I could bear to face the day. After a buffet breakfast at the Lido Cafe on the ship's stern, I swam laps for an hour in the pool above decks as we sailed slowly southeast through islands in the Aegean Sea. It was early last October, and the weather was balmy.

At dinner that night, our new table mates soon became pleasant company: Pam and Paul from Vancouver, Audrey and Jim from Los Angeles, and Ian and Ardith from London (the former at once stuffy and gregarious, and the latter delightfully charming), as well as Jeremy and Jill, who lived outside London. Ian fancied himself a wine aficionado, so we deferred to his selections on most nights. An exception was the following evening, when we were joined by an old friend and California wine expert; her wry opinions of Ian's wine choices made for some moments of irony and mirth. As amusing as our subsequent dinners aboard were (and the food was almost always superb), they were largely rewards after days in ports and land excursions. After dinner there was a variety of entertainment: the Las Vegas-style floor shows in the Galaxy Lounge, gambling in the casino, perhaps a nightcap in the Avenue Saloon.

We relished the days at sea. Mornings were spent at one of the two pools, with a hamburger or more elaborate buffet for lunch. Afternoons found us walking the promenade deck, watching the shuffleboard players or those on recliners taking the air, and afterward enjoying tea and sandwiches in the informal Palm Court.

But we were really aboard to see places for the first time, and, both being amateur historians, we brought a keen sense of curiosity to places we might never see again. Upon docking in early mornings, we were no more than an hour by bus from any of the ancient capitals of Asia Minor, trade centers that in their day had imported all the riches of the East.

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