An Ionian Odyssey

| Sunday, 05 Mar. 2000

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Looking for the ultimate high? Grab a couple of beloved, grown-up grandsons who are good travelers, bright (of course!), curious and outgoing, and plan a trip to the Greek Islands. Last spring I did just that. Booking with Classical Cruises (more of them later), I opted for the Ionian Islands, off the country's western coast. That was about as close as I wanted to get to the chaos in the Middle East; moreover, the boys' schedules didn't give us much wiggle room.

After months of planning, e-mails and phone calls, we landed at the stunning new (opened in March of 2002) Athens Airport, where we were met by Classical Cruises personnel and taken to the Athens Plaza, right on Constitution Square, the center of downtown Athens. Two days of sightseeing in this capital city was just the right amount. We visited the Acropolis (somewhat disappointing, since it is mostly under scaffolding -- as is a lot of Athens, in preparation for the 2004 Olympics), went to the National Archeological Museum, and spent some time wandering in the Plaka.

Then we were bused to Pireaus, the port of Athens, to board the Pegasus, a superb small ship (see review), and we sailed away for a week of travel and learning under the aegis of the American Institute of Archeologists and Vanderbilt University. In mid-afternoon of our first day, we transited the narrow Corinth Canal -- barely wide enough for our small ship -- and for the next six days, we enjoyed a port-intensive cruise that stopped at little-known islands like Katakalon, Sami and Paxos.

The boys enjoyed the times when the Captain would anchor the ship off a small island and lower the swimming platform, allowing some hardy souls to swim to shore. One day, I judged they had had enough of ruins and bus rides, and we opted for a beach, some chairs, an umbrella close to the lapping waves, and a pick-up lunch in the local village. It was a nice break, giving us some time to review what we were seeing and to have a little time to ourselves. The boys were two of only three young people on the ship, but they were warmly accepted. People went out of their way to make them feel welcome, even special, as though they were grandchildren of all of the passengers.

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The Pegasus' dining room is arranged so that passengers sit at tables mostly for six, so we all got a chance to meet and touch base with fellow passengers over relaxed meals, or in the comfortable, informal lounge. It made for a nice trip for all of us. By the time we returned to Athens at the end of the cruise, we said some reluctant good-byes, and we've been in touch, by e-mail, with several passengers; some have sent stunning photos that we will cherish.

Some thoughts on Classical Cruises:

This highly respected company has been in business for more than 30 years, offering "learning trips" of the highest caliber, on small ships, to upper-end passengers who are thirsty for knowledge and willing to pay the price. My own feeling about Classical is that you get what you pay for. Are these trips pricey? Yes! Are they worth it? Yes! I've been on several of their cruises over the years, and they have always been rewarding.

Clasical's lecturers are of the highest quality, and there are a lot of them. This trip was no exception. The group of alumni from Vanderbilt brought their own lecturer, and the AIA provided its President, Nancy Wilkie, head of the Department of Ancient Studies at Carleton College in Minnesota. For many years, she has shared her profound knowledge of ancient Greece with countless lucky travelers. Lecturers mix and mingle with the paying passengers, and help us put into perspective the history and culture of this magnificent area, so rich in both Greek and Roman history.

Headquartered in New York with their sister company, Travel Dynamics, Classical Cruises presently has four ships (with a fifth to be added in November of 2003): Pegasus (46 passengers), Callisto (34 passengers), and the two Sun Bays(each 92 passengers). The company also charters the Victoria for Yangtze River trips in China. The company's new ship, to be named Orion, will have a passenger capacity of 106.

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Classical covers a lot of ground -- literally. Pegasus and Callisto are mostly in the Adriatic, the Aegean and the Mediterranean. The two Sun Bays cover Africa (there will be a circumnavigation in 2003), a stunning Orinoco River cruise and Central America, as well as the Baltic, Russia and the British Isles. They keep these little ships busy!

Private charters are available.

Nit picking is my job, and nobody's trip is perfect. We did experience what was to us -- and to many passengers -- some disappointment in the timing of the itinerary. The brochure states that "At every site we visit, you'll have plenty of time to listen to the presentations...and then strike out for some in-depth investigation of your own." Most of us found that by the time the on-shore lecture or tour was over, there was seldom time to explore the fascinating places ourselves. The consensus among passengers seemed to be that to skip one or two stops would have given us more flexibility. The place most opted to skip was Corfu -- which, unfortunately, has more or less been "sacked" by mass tourism. Exploring Corfu takes a couple of days -- to get out to some of the lovely unspoiled areas, see the Museum and have some time in the capital city, where there is some really good architecture. Otherwise, it could be skipped.

For reservations and additional information on Classical Cruises/Travel Dynamics call 800-252-7745 and visit www.classicalcruises.com

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