Lessons learned on Voyages to Antiquity vessel

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The Aegean OdysseyFans of enrichment-style travel had a new reason to celebrate when Voyages to Antiquity launched in the spring. The line is the latest cruising venture from Gerry Herrod, the pioneering industry veteran who founded Orient Lines and Voyages of Discovery. Herrod's name is synonymous with off-the-beaten-track, itinerary-and-culture-rich cruising for the well-heeled, adventure-seeking traveler.

Last year, Herrod purchased a high-density Greek cruise ship, the 11,563-ton, 650-passenger Aegean One (built in 1973 as a car-carrying ferry but converted for cruising in 1986) and rebuilt it into the 378-passenger Aegean Odyssey. Two decks of cabins were gutted and replaced with larger units; a new funnel and teak decking were added; and the public rooms were completely redecorated in an airy, contemporary style.

During a five-night segment in June of the Aegean Odyssey's third cruise, a 16-night voyage from Civitavecchia, Italy, to Venice, first impressions of the ship were extremely positive.

The Aegean Odyssey is a handsome, compact vessel with many low-key but nice features, including an 85-seat observation lounge, acres of open deck space, an inviting lido bar adjoining the pool area and sheltered terraces overlooking the stern. Two stair towers and three elevators connect the ship's seven passenger decks, and one entire level, the Promenade Deck, is exclusively devoted to public rooms, including a 350-seat showroom, 125-seat cabaret lounge, shopping arcade and well-stocked library. At the stern, there is the 164-seat Terrace Cafe buffet eatery, with room for an additional 110 at the adjoining al fresco Tapas on the Terrace. There is also a full-service, 200-seat dining room on the lowest level, the Marco Polo Deck; a beauty parlor; and a six-station Internet cafe.

The Charleston Lounge on the Aegean OdysseyThere are seven accommodations categories, ranging from 130-square-foot inside cabins to two 500-square-foot Owner's Suites with separate bedrooms, balconies and living rooms. All are air-conditioned and have flat-screen TVs, safes and hair dryers. Concierge-level cabins feature a refrigerated minibar; complimentary bottled water; bathrobe and slippers; Molton Brown bathroom amenities; a DVD player with a selection of DVDs; priority sightseeing boarding; personal concierge service; and a welcome bottle of champagne.

Unfortunately, on that early voyage, there was no cruise director or hotel manager, re-sulting in a lack of organized activities and spotty service. Perhaps because of supply and labor delays due to a shipyard strike shortly before the ship's debut, the tenders were in need of repairs and various parts of the ship still needed work, namely the exterior stairtowers, which had prominent lips that presented a trip hazard.

Pulling it together

With high expectations based on Herrod's prior track record and the relatively pricey per diems (starting at $255 for a small, inside cabin), the onboard product was not quite ready for prime time.

Thankfully, VTA's management pulled it together, hired a cruise director and hotel manager and brought in an executive chef to tweak the menu. The safety glitches were also addressed, with new, more powerful tenders and the removal of the trip hazards.

The pool on the Aegean OdysseyThe Aegean Odyssey repeated its "Pompeii Is So Wonderful" cruise segment in August, this time without hitch. Following the initial tendering issues, Amalfi was dropped from the itinerary, which included Sorrento (for Pompeii/Herculaneum), Salerno (for Paestum), cruising past Stromboli and the Aeolian Islands and a call at the Medieval Sicilian coastal town of Cefalu.

The enrichment lectures were extremely well received, and an added attraction was having the guest speakers join passengers on key excursions. Most excursions were included in the fare, but there was also a selection of extra-tariff tours, including a delightful visit to the 18th Century Palazzo Gangi in Palermo. Thoughtful touches included radio headsets that enable guests to better hear their guide's narrative and bottles of water that are distributed at the gangway.

Food presentation, choices and quality have improved dramatically, with an emphasis on authentically prepared regional selections. Five-course dinner menus feature appetizers, soup, salad, entrees and dessert with selections that include baked tart of ricotta cheese and zucchini; minestrone with focaccia crostini; pan-seared hake fillet; and walnut parfait. Local wines, beer and soft drinks are included with dinner and generously replenished by the ship's attentive staff.

Cruise fare includes economy-class, roundtrip airfare; transfers to and from the ship; and gratuities for cabin and dining stewards.

Sailings this year visit the Mediterranean, Aegean, Adriatic and Black seas, with departures from Athens, Rome, Istanbul and Cairo. In 2011, the itineraries will also include the Red Sea and Middle East. Seven- to 12-night cruises with two- and three-night, pre- or postcruise land stays will be available for those with limited time.

For more information, visit www.voyagestoantiquity.com.

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