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12 Sunny Days on a Mediterranean Cruise

Gerrie_on_gondola (3)
Gerrie E. Summers on the canals of Venice.

By Gerrie E. Summers

As the gondola adjacent to ours moved slightly ahead, the musician inside picked up his accordion and began to play. Che bella cosa na jurnata ‘e sole,” he sang.  At the time I had no idea what any of that meant (What a wonderful thing, a sunny day), but when he got to the chorus, I couldn’t resist the big goofy grin that formed on my face, and I started to sing along: “O sole mio. Sta ‘n’fronte a te!”

I am in Venice, Italy, doing what I had only seen in romantic movies–floating along the Venetian canals in a narrow, single oar boat steered by an Italian man in a familiar white and black striped shirt. Next I was swaying my head to “Volare, oh, oh. Cantore, oh, oh, oh, oh.” It would be days before “Santa Lucia” stopped playing in my head. This is what I call a Triple T – Typical Tourist Thing.

The day before, while wandering the streets of Venice, I purchased a gorgeous blue feathered mask for way too many Euros, and then for a 45-minute Daytime Gondola Serenade, $94 was deducted from a shrinking bank account. So I better have had a goofy grin on my face!

There were more Triple T’s on my trip–a stop for real pizza in Rome (although I guess I was really supposed to do that in Naples, since some believe that is where pizza, or a form of it, was invented in the early 18th century) and
standing in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa where I posed for the must-have photo– the corny image of me with my hand out as if I am knocking the tower over. Well, actually, I think most people pretend they’re holding it up.

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ms Oosterdam.

I was booked on a 12-day Mediterranean Cruise on the ms Oosterdam. The Oosterdam (pronounced OH-ster-dam) was the second addition to Holland America’s Vista class of ships. The ship, which holds 1,916 passengers, would head out from Venice and make port stops in Dubrovnik, Croatia, three stops in Greece (Corfu, Argostoli and Santorini), four stops in Italy (Catania/Sicily, Naples, Civitavecchia (Rome), Livorno (Florence/Pisa) before arriving in Barcelona, Spain.

The ms Oosterdam has the typical attractions that most mega cruise ships have these days–casino, karaoke, audience participation games, shops and kitschy shows. The ships’ free Digital Workshops, which always filled up fast, would have been beneficial if I had the time. The line’s As You Wish Dining, in which passengers can choose to dine in the main dining room on a traditional preset seating or flexible open seating schedule, was a blessing, especially when the train I took back from Rome got me thisclose to departure time.

Several cruise lines have been adjusting to a common cruise passenger complaint, which is having to rush to an early dinner after a long excursion.

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Pinnacle Grill.

As expected, there were plenty of places onboard to gorge yourself, if you so chose. By reservations only and for a $20 surcharge for dinner or $10 for lunch, passengers can experience intimate dining experience in the Pinnacle Grill, which features steak and seafood, Bvlgari china, Riedel stem ware, Frette linens and an extensive wine
list. Other dining choices include Carnaletto Restaurant, which serves classic Italian fare. The restaurant is free, but requires advance reservations. The Lido Restaurant serves casual breakfast and lunch, and also dinner with waiter
service, the Terrace Grill on deck, Explorations Café for pastries and specialty coffee, and of course 24-hour in room dining. It took me a few weeks to come out of my Chocolate Chip Cookie Coma from late night visits to the Lido
deck. That, and some killer desserts at dinner, are a perfect way to end the day.

The Culinary Arts Center presented by Food & Wine Magazine, brings in top chefs from kitchens and restaurants around the world for complimentary demonstration classes, including hands-on cooking classes for kids. There are also other activities for a fee, such as wine tastings and Dine With the Chef, a combination cooking demonstration and fine dining experience. On board this cruise was Chef Lee Hillson, Executive Chef for T. Cook’s at the Royal Palms Resort & Spa in Arizona.

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Fira, Santorini.

Cooking classes have become a popular tourist activity both on board cruise lines and at restaurants on land. Selene Restaurant in Fira, the capital of Santorini, has full day Greek cooking classes, but on a cruise you just don’t have the
time. Selene, which is owned by George Hatziyianakis, is open from April until the end of October and uses indigenous herbs and vegetables and serves wine produced in the rich, volcanic soil. The produce and vineyards grow virtually without water (since there is very little rainfall there) absorbing moisture and humidity from the ground and atmosphere. The signature dish is Baked Sea Bass with caper leaves and tomato wrapped in a crepe of fava beans, and green salad for 27 euros. A popular dessert is fresh cheese mousse with mini tomato on top of shredded pastry.

Fira is a lovely cliff top town, reachable by cable car, donkey, or by climbing 588 winding steps. Be aware that the aroma on the way up (or down) if you chose to walk, which I did, can be quite unpleasant. You definitely don’t want to ruin a great gastronomical experience.

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Pompeii. Photo by Gerrie E. Summers.

There were a great deal more photo opts on this jam-packed itinerary: the fortresses and Gothic structures of medieval Dubrovnick: a 4X4 drive in Catania, Sicily’s second largest city after Palermo, to the slopes of Mount Etna, a volcano that has erupted eight times in the past 30 years. No extreme photo opt there–and that’s a good
thing. Cruising to Naples, Stromboli gave us a look at an active volcano from a safe distance. Its sporadic eruptions tossed a splash of brilliant orange lava against the dark sky. There was also the archaeological site at Pompeii, the cathedrals and art of Florence, and finally, a stroll along Las Ramblas in Barcelona, one of Europe’s most famous promenades, filled with vendors, artisans and colorful street performers, gave a glimpse of what is definitely a destination for which a few hours is not enough.

As a final note, I must say I was struck more by the crew of the Oosterdam than the ship itself. Cruise ship life can be grueling, but I got a sense that most of the staff enjoys their jobs. During the only night at sea, the Filipino crew members had a cute, amateur show of cultural dance and song, with a master of ceremony/comedian that had a distinct (read: weird) laugh–again another thing that replayed in my mind for several days. The crews’ personalities and cordial interaction with the guests, no doubt drew the sizeable number of passengers to the theater.

This year the 12-Day Mediterranean Cruise is available on the ms Westerdam (May 16) and the brand-new ms. Nieuw Amsterdam (July 26; August 31; October 6).  Visit www.hollandamerica.com for details.

New York-based writer Gerrie Summers has been writing professionally for over 31 years in the areas of entertainment, beauty, lifestyle, travel and wellness.  She has been the Travel Adventures columnist for
Today’s Black Woman and now writes the blogs Summers Retreat (http://blog.summersretreat.com) and The Tranquil Traveler (http://tranquiltraveleronline.com).

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