Ample diversions on Louis Cristal Aegean sailing

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There is hardly enough time to fully realize the variety of onboard diversions offered to a cruiser -- especially when floating in the Aegean, where the main diversion is the destination itself. (View a slideshow of the ports of call here or by clicking on the photos.)

Louis CristalNevertheless, during my recent week aboard Louis Cruises' 1,200-passenger Louis Cristal, I got a little help from an unlikely source. The ship's hotspot for wireless computer access is in the Rendez Vous Lounge, an activity and entertainment hub on Deck 8.

So there I was, researching on the Internet and, finally, filing a story and photos to Travel Weekly against the backdrop of "dancing and listening melodies with the Plug 'n' Play Duo." The singers were good, too.

On another occasion, I checked emails while a trivia game was under way in the background, and I resisted the temptation to shout an occasional answer.

OK, it was not all work and no play for me aboard the Louis Cristal, which in a couple of former lives was the Leeward and Superstar Taurus for the Norwegian Cruise Line/Star Cruises Group.

For starters, I overate. Passengers could opt for buffets at every meal, but there were some sit-down lunches and dinners with service.

Dishes ranged from the very familiar -- pasta comes to mind -- along with tasty Greek choices such as meat from the gyros station at poolside and the ubiquitous Greek salad. Two dinners were Greek meze (appetizer) events.

Our press group dined twice in the small a la carte restaurant, Thalassa, which is owned and operated by Greek celebrity chef Christoforos Peskias. With a menu featuring Greek fusion cuisine, the four-course dinner is priced at 19.95 euros (roughly $25 U.S.). The chef was creative with the foods, so I did not have to be: I ordered mostly the same things both nights.

Even with eight port calls, there still was time for things like dance classes, language classes, swimming or the Sana Health Spa. The spa offers everything from Balinese massage and reflexology to facial treatments and mud baths. Its broad umbrella also embraces hair care, manicures and pedicures.

Live entertainment was on offer every night after dinner in the ship's Deck 8 Metropolitan Show Lounge. I watched "Broadway @ the Movies" for a reimagined take on popular shows. The quality was uneven, but the laughter quotient was high.

Louis Cristal twin cabinThe Stars Lounge and Disco on Deck 10 offered more action, especially appealing to the 50 or so Vancouver high schoolers who joined our cruise. My visit was tamer, sitting near a group of Americans gathered to watch their favorite basketball team (Kentucky) advance in the NCAA tournament. The shipboard casino entertained the gamblers among us.

There wasn't a lot of reason, or time, to hang out in the cabins, but for those seeking more private space, there are 16 suites among the 480 units. Cabin sizes range from 265 square feet to 592 square feet for the largest suites, and all have TVs, hair dryers and safes.

Computer access, besides in hotspot territory, is via the Internet cafe near registration on Deck 5.

My cabin, on Deck 7 (388 square feet), was comfortably furnished with a small couch, table and chair near the window plus a desk and chair closer to the door.

Our itinerary was precisely timed for punctual arrivals and departures, allowing leeway, mostly in daylight hours, at each port for a sampling of highlights. We were efficiently tendered to docks at Patmos and Santorini, aboard vessels that accommodated 180 and 100 passengers, respectively.

That is, everything was punctual except for a delayed departure at Istanbul. In the end, we left five people behind, and a number of passengers made it clear to Cristal staff the ship should not wait for laggards.

Besides sailing out of and into Athens, we called at eight ports in seven days: Istanbul, Izmir and Kusadasi for Ephesus in Turkey and Mykonos, Patmos, Rhodes, Crete for Knossos and Santorini in Greece. (View a slideshow of the ports of call here or by clicking on the photos.)

Kyriakos AnastassiadisIn Athens, during an interview with Travel Weekly, Louis Cruises CEO Kyriakos Anastassiadis said the line plans to revamp its itineraries to provide more variety. He said most Greek cruises feature four destinations among the 140 inhabited Greek islands but that the line will include more islands over the next two years, he said.

In addition, Anastassiadis said, Greece and its products "haven't been marketed the way they should be. ... We will differentiate ourselves by focusing on our roots. We will put emphasis on the cuisine, the local wines. ... We'll be niche specialists on Greece and Turkey because we're from Cyprus; we know our home, and the interest in this area is huge."

Louis Cruises is not principally about an onboard experience, he continued, but about the destinations. "That doesn't mean you will get a bad experience on the ships; it will be a fantastic, three-star experience."

He said Louis Cruises' nine ships include vessels that "allow us to do what others cannot" when it comes to docking at smaller ports.

The goal, Anastassiadis said, is to use all ships to their full potential and add greater innovation.

Meanwhile, the company continues to face the challenges engendered by Greece's ongoing financial crisis.

Anastassiadis said Louis Cruises' passenger counts are up for 2012 but revenue is flat because of "some slight discounting" to counteract events in Greece and the Costa Concordia catastrophe. He said it wasn't clear which factor -- the economy or the Costa event -- is the bigger one influencing customers.

North Americans, he said, remain the largest and most important source of Louis Cruises' business, but the share has fallen from a previous 30% of bookings because Louis has expanded its marketing area in Europe and in Latin America. The vast majority of U.S. bookings come through tour operators.

Domestic business is important, too, and Anastassiadis said the Greeks still account for a significant share. However, he said he was "not sure how this year will play out. With cruises, we have a good story to tell about the value. We might be surprised, and [Greeks might] turn to cruising more than previously because of the value."

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