They're equipped for pleasure, with their lavish dining rooms, sun decks and casinos. Their uniformed crews promise romance and adventure.
But beneath the "Love Boat" exterior, cruise ships also can be floating classrooms, offering an easy way to explore foreign lands so that passengers learn without realizing it.
That was my experience when I took a cruise to the "birthplace of Western civilization," Greece, and parts of Turkey.
Ever since I studied architecture in college in the 1970s, I wanted to visit the monuments of antiquity I had read about, starting with those on the Acropolis. I was equally fascinated by legendary places such as Troy and Ephesus.
Renaissance Cruises offered a chance to visit these sites and others with a seven-day cruise from Athens to Istanbul, calling on a different port every day.
It was an ideal way to cover a lot of territory in a short time, without worrying about the logistics of finding each town or lugging bags from place to place. That left more time to savor the adventure itself, including side trips to some of the most beautiful islands in the world.
"Destination-intensive cruises," such as the one I took, represent a growing segment of the cruise industry, which now attracts 4.5 million North American passengers a year.
Based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Renaissance has eight luxury ships and specializes in destination-intensive cruises to places such as Greece, Egypt, Africa and the Far East.
Because its ships are smaller than most in the industry, it can carry passengers to ports that other ships can't reach, such as the Greek isles or the Seychelles.
I traveled in April with three others from Baltimore, a relative and two friends. My companions were all experienced world travelers.
This was my first cruise, but it didn't take long before I felt like a veteran, too.
Our ship was the Renaissance VIII, an Italian vessel that holds 114 passengers and a crew of 72. With seven decks in all, it had a large dining room, lounge, club room, library, casino, pool, Jacuzzi and other amenities one expects of a cruise ship, in a compact arrangement that was easy to navigate.
As part of the package, we flew from Baltimore-Washington International Airport (via Cincinnati, Ohio, and Frankfort, Germany) to Athens, where we joined the other passengers.
Our itinerary called for us to spend two nights in Athens, then begin our trip through the Aegean Sea. We stopped at four Greek islands: Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes and Patmos, and two ports on the west coast of Turkey, Kusadasi and Canakkale.
From there, we headed to Istanbul for two nights.
Renaissance took care of everything from the moment we arrived in Athens -- the "Big Olive." The ship's crew met us at the airport and transported us by bus to the Athenaeum Inter-Continental, a modern hotel within walking distance of many historic and cultural sites.
The cruise directors arranged excursions from the hotel to destinations in and around Athens. They also provided advice about places to go for dinner and shopping, including an open-air market that stretched for blocks.
Athens was a filthy city, made all the more unattractive by hundreds of half-finished [See Cruise, 2N] buildings. The air is so pol-luted that the Greek government this year imposed a three-month ban on all cars and motorbikes in the city's historic center for 12 hours a day, in an effort to cut down on auto emissions.
But Athens' ancient monuments were were every bit as stunning as I thought they would be; the most awesome was the Acropolis, which dates from the fifth century B.C. and consists of a collection of architectural masterpieces on a plateau overlooking the city. They include the Propylaia, the Parthenon, the Erechtheum and the Temple of Athena Nike. Visitors are likely to find scaffolding around one of more of these structures, as preservationists work to restore stonework damaged by pollution.
Some of my fondest memories of our stay on the Greek mainland are of the bus trips we took in the country. We rode for hours along winding mountain roads to Delphi, where ancient Greeks came to consult with the famed oracle. The adjacent museum contains several world-renowned works of art, including the bronze statue known as the Charioteer, dating from 470 B.C.
View of severn islands
Another side trip took us along a scenic coastal road past some of Athens' most beautiful suburbs to Cape Sounion, where the Temple of Poseidon was constructed around 430 B.C. on a bluff overlooking the Saronic Gulf. The breathtaking view foreshadowed the cruise to come: On a clear day, it is possible to see seven islands.
After two days on the mainland, we finally boarded the ship in Piraeus, Athens' port. Before we could even get settled, the crew popped open the champagne and led us to the lounge for a welcoming reception and informal briefing. The most important rule, they told us, is that we had to check out whenever we went onshore, and check in when we returned, so the crew wouldn't leave without us. And we always had to be back on time.
Our cruise directors were an American husband-and-wife team named Michael and Midge Seltzer. Michael explained that he was a lawyer who left the bar to work for Renaissance. The ship's captain, Michele De Rosa, greeted us with a serenade. We sailed at dusk, with the lights of Piraeus twinkling in the distance, and then moved into the dining room for our first dinner on board.
Our suites were like little hotel rooms, complete with separate sitting and dressing areas, and portholes providing ocean views.
We soon fell into a routine. The ship generally traveled at night and docked by the time we woke up. True to the floating classroom concept, the staff peppered us with information about every port.
On television at night, we could view travelogues about the places we would visit the next day. Every morning under the door to our suite, we found fact sheets about each port and maps to use when we went ashore.
After breakfast, we were free to go ashore. At just about every stop, the cruise line offered one or more guided tours, and many passengers took advantage of them.
These tours were surprisingly rigorous and, in some cases, strenuous -- covering temples, museums, castles and other key sites. For me these were the highlights of the cruise -- field trips from our floating classroom.
In most cases, we boarded buses for long drives before arriving at our destination. Renaissance arranged for us to have local guides -- sometimes they were college students working on local excavations. They also took care of museum entrance fees and other monetary details.
In Santorini, we visited the ancient site of Akrotiri, a Minoan village that has been partially uncovered by archaeologists. Legend has it that the island is the lost city of Atlantis because of its amazingly intact ruins. Santorini is also known for its black-sand beaches, remnants of a volcanic eruption that carved a great bay in what are now 1,000-foot cliffs. Our bus tour included a stop at Thera, the village at the island's highest point, with houses and restaurants perched precariously over the cliffs.
In sun-drenched Mykonos, which draws jet-setters from around the world, we marveled at the colorfully trimmed houses in "Little Venice," and the silo-shaped windmills built to harness the fierce island winds.
Rhodes was the largest and most modern of the islands we visited -- a link with the 20th century. We visited the spot where the Colossus of Rhodes stood before it was destroyed by an earthquake in 220 B.C. We also toured the port city of Lindos and the medieval architecture of Old Town, a walled city that former Italian Premier Benito Mussolini used in the 1930s as a summer residence.
For many, shopping was as much a part of these trips as sightseeing. The American dollar has been strong against the Greek drachma and the Turkish lire in recent years, and the merchants knew it.
The coast of Turkey
After four days on the Aegean, we traveled up the coast of Turkey.
Our first stop was Kusadasi, gateway to the ancient city of Ephesus. Archaeologists have reconstructed much of the town, including the Library of Celsus and the Temple to Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Antony and Cleopatra once traveled along its marble road.
Our guide was especially tactful in explaining the ancient plumbing system, which produced what he described as the world's first toilets. We came within 100 yards of the 20,000-seat amphitheater where St. Paul preached to the Ephesians, as recounted in the Bible. We also visited the grave of the apostle St. John, one of the most heavily visited shrines in the Christian world during the Middle Ages.
The next stop, Canakkale, was a letdown after Ephesus. The port is near the ancient city of Troy, which dates from 3000 B.C. and was made famous in Homer's "Iliad."
In that tale, Odysseus and other Greek soldiers at war with the Trojans managed to invade the city by hiding inside a giant wooden horse. It was supposedly left outside the city gates to signal the withdrawal of the Greeks and the end of the war, but when the Trojans opened the gate to let it in, the hidden soldiers broke out of the horse's belly and defeated the Trojans. This is the origin of the saying, "Beware of Greeks bearing gifts." At the entrance to the city is a replica of the Trojan Horse that led to the city's downfall.
The city itself was thought not to exist until a German businessman, Heinrich Schliemann, starting digging in the area in the 1800s. Looking for the jewels of Helen, he found not one but nine layers of civilization. Unfortunately, he took many of his discoveries back to Germany without the permission of the Turkish government, and his primitive bulldozing techniques left the city irreparably damaged. In contrast with Ephesus, little now remains of Troy but a few piles of stones.
Also disappointing is the crude wooden replica of the Trojan Horse. It's billed as an exact copy of the original, but it looks as though it belongs in an Ocean City miniature golf course or amusement park.
Back in Canakkale, we visited the Archaeological Museum, where many of the finds from Troy are kept, and got a lesson about Oriental rugs from one of the country's top merchants. While we sipped Turkish tea, the merchants explained the differences between the various wool and silk rugs, how they're made, and what the patterns signify.
Our guided tours usually were arranged so we were back on board in time for a swim and a drink before dinner, which was always a good point to reflect on the day's events with fellow travelers.
The passengers were a diverse lot -- young couples on a honeymoon, families on holiday, retirees. For many people, I discovered, cruising is a way of life. Industry reps call them "repeat cruisers." I was amazed how much of the discussion around the dinner table involved comparing our cruise with others. Ours, I was glad to hear, rated favorably. After seven days, we arrived in Istanbul for one last weekend of sightseeing. It's a magnificent city, with layers of history and miles of attractively developed shoreline that could be a model for Baltimore's.
Renaissance and its affiliates planned several side trips, including an "Imperial Tour" of mosques and palaces and a "Turkish Delight" extravaganza with belly dancers and casino gambling inside a converted palace.
Crossroads of the world
Istanbul is the only capital city that straddles two continents, and it has been known as the crossroads of the world for centuries. Our party of four hired a private guide who took us to many of the landmarks -- the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Dolmabahce Palace and Topkapi Palace. A good way to see more than the tourist magnets is to take a public ferry up the Bosporus to the Black Sea, a three-hour ride that costs less than $5.
Our guide would not take us to the Grand Bazaar, the city's most famous open-air market, because there had been recent bomb threats. But she took us to the Asian Market, a "bazaar for beginners" on the Asian side of Istanbul, a less-lively place that nevertheless enabled us to sample the local wares.
She also led us through the Spice Market, a historic shopping area that is reminiscent of Lexington Market in Baltimore but filled with more exotic herbs, spices and aphrodisiacs. That's also where we had one of our best meals on the trip, sea bass baked en papillote (in paper), at the famed Pendeli Restaurant overlooking the Galata Bridge and the Bosporus.
After lunch, we stopped to consult with one of the market's most unusual tenants, a fortune-telling rabbit. Customers would pay a man with a patch over one eye, and he would prod the bunny to pick out a slip of paper from a tray. The feat, apparently, is that the bunny comes up with a message printed in the same language as the person whose fortune is being told.
My fortune promised: "Your journey will finish happilly [sic]." And it did. Guides from the cruise line stayed with us through the weekend in Istanbul, then made sure we got to the airport safely for our flights home.
Reflecting on our trip during the flight home, I was struck by how much we were able to cover in such a short period, and how vivid the sights can be when one is not preoccupied with the minutiae of travel.
Our overview may have been cursory, but the lessons we learned will last a lifetime.
If you go . . .
For the 1996 season, similar itineraries through the Greek Isles on Renaissance Cruises are from $2,995 per person (double occupancy) in a Classic Suite and include round-trip airfare from New York, as well as pre-and post-cruise hotel stays. For more information, contract your local travel agent or call Renaissance Cruises at (800) 525-5350