Flamenco's Appeal Transcends Nat'l Borders


Writer Anne Kalosh cruised on First European Cruises' Flamenco from Savona, Italy, to Morocco in the spring. Her report follows:

ABOARD THE FLAMENCO -- Arching his brows, the sinister-looking Davidoff, Prince of Illusion, punctuated his magic act with just one word, a repeated, resounding "Si!" He got the point across to his shipboard audience of Italians, French, Germans, Swiss, Austrians, Poles, Slovenians, Welsh, Irish and Americans.

Aboard the FlamencoDavidoff performs on the Flamenco, a ship that's a veritable floating United Nations. Mixing so many nationalities on a ship is usually a no-no for reasons that include divergent tastes in food, drink, entertainment and shore excursions, not to mention language problems -- one objection is the need for endless announcements in several languages.

But First European's attitude toward multinational cruises is different. The result, for adventurous Americans tired of megaships, bland food and cookie-cutter itineraries, is a ship that offers the novelty of seeing Europe like, and with, Europeans.

Built in 1972, the Flamenco, which earlier sailed as Premier's Majestic, was given a $10 million refurbishment last year that brightened the public rooms, adding more vivid fabrics and lighter woods. However, the putty-colored cabins remain spartan by contemporary U.S. standards, although they have roomy closets and good reading lights. There isn't a bathtub or private balcony on the ship.

The smoky library offers few titles in English, and finding an empty lounge chair on a sunny afternoon was sometimes an exercise in frustration. And, yes, there were long announcements in several languages.

But the Flamenco's Greek officers and friendly international crew work hard to please every nationality, creating an atmosphere that's charming. All are fluent in English -- a plus for the minority of Americans and U.K. guests on board our sailing (more English-speakers book the summertime sailings, officials said). The cruise staff and crew never failed to greet me in English in the corridors. Daily programs, menus and news sheets were distributed in English, Italian, French and German. Buses for shore excursions were assigned by language.

Still, the handful of Americans on my sailing missed the easy socializing that's a feature of most seagoing vacations. The large contingents of Europeans were cordial but stuck together, seldom intermingling. For this reason, U.S. clients might feel more comfortable on this ship as a group. Flamenco passengers tend to be in their 50s but my cruise carried many young couples, including honeymooners, and even a few children.

The Flamenco's public rooms include a pleasing mix of lounges, with the sleek, wood-paneled Starlight Lounge and the bright, centrally located casino bar the most appealing spots for before- and after-dinner drinks. The main Universe Lounge features good views thanks to tiered seating. Shows focused on the visual, including Davidoff's magic, a puppeteer and sequined-and-feathered dancers.

A small health club is equipped with a treadmill, stair machine, two exercise bikes and weight machines. Daytime activities included multilingual quizzes and scavenger hunts.

Food is one of the Flamenco's big pluses. Noontime and midnight buffets were held at the indoor-outdoor Satellite Cafe, with poolside seating at umbrella tables the choicest option, but most Europeans flocked to the no-smoking dining room for every meal and, no wonder: The food was outstanding.

The breakfast menu was jammed with everything from buttermilk pancakes to brioche to broiled kippers. The one thing missing: bagels. Lunch and dinner featured superb fish and chicken dishes, terrific pastas, a memorable Champagne risotto, fresh salads, rich desserts, exquisite cheeses and the best coffee at sea. Special diets (including Kosher) were available with advance notice.

On-board services were inexpensive. In the gift shop, Murano jewelry and French colognes were priced at a fraction of their shoreside cost and, in the beauty salon, a shampoo/styling cost $15, while a full-day spa package (aromatherapy massage, facial, manicure, pedicure, shampoo and styling) was $130.

First European is positioning itself in the U.S. market featuring unusual ports at competitive prices. On my spring sailing, the ship visited Menorca and Ibiza in Spain's Balearic Islands; Cadiz and Barcelona on the mainland; Lisbon in Portugal, and Tangier in Morocco. The line operates its own tours, which were generally of high quality and reasonably priced.

The Flamenco cruise experience is not without some rough edges. Crowds formed at the reception desk and the gangway -- it was best to avoid those areas at peak times. Sending faxes and making ship-to-shore calls was expensive and time consuming. Dollars (and other currencies) were readily accepted, but Italian lira is the official shipboard currency, forcing Americans to tote around calculators to figure the cost of everything from cappuccinos to casino chips.

Ship: Flamenco.
Line: First European.
Size: 17,042 tons.
Length: 535 feet.
Passengers: 784.
Itineraries: Through August, the Flamenco offers seven-day alternating itineraries from Kiel, Germany, to the Baltic capitals and Scandinavian fjords. In the spring and fall, there are 10-day Mediterranean trips from Savona and Venice, Italy, to destinations including the Greek Islands, Turkey and Croatia. Per diems, including air from New York, start at around $300. Longer transatlantic repositioning cruises featuring ports in western Europe and the Caribbean are also offered. The ship is under charter to a Canadian tour operator in the winter.
Reservations: (888) 983-8767.

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