ISTANBUL, Turkey — As we sat on the Breeza, the open aft deck of the Azamara Quest, we watched the shadow line of the sunset climb the sheer, volcanic cliff above Skala, the tender landing area on the island of Santorini in the southern Aegean.
It wasn't this iconic Greek island with dazzling white villas and churches that had lured my wife, Laurel, and me aboard this 10-night cruise from Istanbul to Athens. Rather, it was the chance to visit Black Sea ports in countries that were terrae incognitae to us, thus adding pages to our personal atlas. Odessa and Yalta, both in Ukraine, were names that piqued our curiosity, but Santorini did turn out to be a memorable bonus. But first things first.
And that first thing was Istanbul, where we boarded the 694-passenger Quest, one of Azamara's two vessels, both among the eight "R-ships" made surplus when Renaissance Cruises shut down in 2001.
Though this was our first Azamara voyage, we were familiar with R-ships because we'd sailed in Princess Cruises' Ocean Princess and Oceania Cruises' Regatta, both sisters. Service and protocols on the ships differed, but we liked all three for their intimate size, woody décor and "shippy" feel, in contrast to the high-rise luxury-resort vibe of the big cruise ships.
Darkness fell as we awaited departure, and lights came up to bathe the minarets of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, visible from our ship at its downtown berth. A crescent moon rose above them; at 10 o'clock, lines were loosed, and we sailed through the Bosporus, where the amplified call to worship sounded from both the European and Asian sides of the narrow strait.
Next morning we docked at the Bulgarian port of Varna. Whenever possible, we prefer to experience ports independently rather than on the organized tours. In Varna, we walked along a beach adjacent to the port and into an expansive park and gardens before lunching at an outdoor café. We ordered "Bulgaria on a plate": feta and tomatoes with pesto, tiny meatballs, tzatziki (yogurt-based sauce), peppers in yogurt and taramasalata, an appetizer that usually contains roe.
Other than being able to say we'd been to Romania, the Port of Constanta didn't offer much, still muffled in dour Soviet bleakness. (Perhaps we should have taken the ship tour this time.)
But the Ukrainian ports were winners. At Odessa, we walked off the ship and up the Potemkin Steps, 192 in all, the formal entrance to a city filled with elegant architecture, the best of which is a magnificent opera house completed in 1887. We returned that evening for "Swan Lake," danced, disappointingly, to recorded music, though the splendor of the Viennese Baroque interior made up for that.
Sevastopol, on the Crimean Peninsula, has long been a naval base for the Russian and now for the Ukrainian Black Sea fleet, and the ships were in. Despite the extreme July heat — which dogged us throughout the cruise — I walked around town, especially the promenades along the harbor, and visited a maritime museum, where there was not a word of English.
Perhaps Sevastopol's greatest contribution was on deck that evening, during the "White Night" celebration with a buffet dinner and a thoroughly engaging song and dance performance by the Black Sea Navy Ensemble.
Yalta, also in Crimea, was the best of all, with its promenade along a harbor beach swarming with bathers, and the Livadia Palace, once the summer residence of Nicholas II, the last czar, and the site of the Yalta Conference in 1945 that brought together President Roosevelt, Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin.
We skipped the ship tour again but were fortunate to find a multilingual guide who offered an inexpensive van tour to Livadia and other sights. She led us through the palace, enriching the experience.
Even on this port-heavy itinerary, there was plenty to do onboard: lectures; entertainment every night; and meals in the extra-charge ($25) restaurants, Prime C and Aqualina, the main dining room, Discoveries, or the buffet-style Windows Café, which led onto Breeza, our favorite spot. Deck chairs and books figured heavily in our time on the ship.
This line calls itself Azamara Club Cruises, with a "You'll love where we take you" tag line, so long days in port were the norm, with sailings as late as midnight — not good for committed shoppers and gamblers because the casino and all onboard shops must close while the ship is in port. We missed more "steaming time" in daylight. The only sea day came when we sailed back through the 19-mile-long Bosporus and into the Sea of Marmara, another welcome chance to view Istanbul's minarets and watch the plethora of ferries scooting back and forth on multiple routes.
But a late sailing from Santorini, our penultimate port, gave us that perfect sunset on the Breeza. That day we'd tendered into Skala and hopped on a small boat for a brisk ride to Oia, on the northwest end of the island.
Oia, all dazzling white, with villas tumbling down the lava cliffs to the sea, was so picturesque it could have been a movie set. We strolled along the cliff top, had lunch overlooking the water at Thalami, billed as a "traditional tavern," caught a bus back to Fira, then a cable car down to Skala and a tender to the Quest.
That evening, from Breeza, we looked back at Fira, which crowned the cliff like white icing on a cake. It caught the last rays before sunset, then the afterglow. Lights twinkled on, and a full moon off its shoulder completed the most vivid mental picture I took home from the cruise.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun