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Aboard the Radisson Diamond

Ode to Aegean Cruising

Among the cognoscenti of travel there is no consensus about cruising. But even the naysayers admit that certain spots on the globe are easiest visited by boat. You could drive, rather than sail, along Norway's coast, but you would miss the spectacular views of the fjords from the sea. You could take the train from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan and skip the Nile, but you'd lose the chance to observe the rich sights of life on the river. You could see the Hawaiian Islands by flying from Oahu to Maui, Kauai and to the big island of Hawaii, but you'd be doing a lot of packing and unpacking, not to mention checking in and out of hotels and airports.

Now that I've rationalized all the reasons for signing up for a cruise, I'll admit the truth. Those floating hotels are my version of heaven and it's the only way that I would travel in the Aegean where I've been twice. Scale is what makes island cruising near Greece and Turkey, not only beautiful, but beautifully convenient. Inter-island distances are short. Every day we entered a different port of call and on one day we visited both Delos and Mikonos.

I remember my first Aegean cruise aboard the modest M.V. Delos some years ago as being great, but it was better, in fact, a lot better more recently to visit the Greek and Turkish islands on the Radisson Diamond . I could, instead, have ferried to most and flown to a few of the places as some tourists do. Perhaps I might have overnighted in Mikonos, a hot stop on both the jet set and the drop-out circuit, or Kusadasi, Turkey's Riviera-like resort and site of the Ephesus ruins. But no thanks, I handed over to others the task of navigating through a week-long odyssey starting in Athens and ending in Istanbul with seven ports in between. There were no multiple reservations to be made, no checking of schedules and no concerns about transfers. Because the Athenaeum Intercontinental was designated as the pre-cruise hotel, I booked it knowing I'd be shuttled to the ship, which docked six miles away in the harbor town of Piraeus. If the cruise had a theme, it was ancient civilizations and the view from my hotel window was a sneak preview. I could see the acropolis sitting still and forever above the modern city of narrow streets and traffic-clogged avenues. Crowning the citadel is the Parthenon, which even in its age-old, blasted-out decaying state still has the power to literally take one's breath away.

Once aboard the ship, life on the Radisson Diamond turned out to be pretty much whatever each passenger wanted it to be. Though I glory in being relieved of the anxiety of deciding which port to visit on which day, I opt out of most escorted tours. After all, the natives have to get around without using tour buses. There were those guests who at the outset signed up for every available tour. And there were those, like me, who made the decision whether to go it alone or by group based on the information they were able to garner as to whether it was possible to get around efficiently on one's own in a short period of time. While in Athens, instead of joining an organized group, I traveled from the city to the spectacular Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion by public transport, alternating inland and coastal routes.

Though the pull to the shores was strong, the attractions onboard held their own. I even heard rumors that a few people never left the ship. The design of the Radisson Diamond is unconventional twin-hulled to eliminate heaving and pitching and is outfitted with a "hydraulically controlled marina" that allows passengers to participate in various water sports when the ship is at anchor in some ports. A fully-equipped gym, a jogging track and even a putting platform for golfers, as well as the usual swimming pool, Jacuzzi and spa with sauna and steam, are located on the upper decks. Rooms with spacious terraces are comfortably-sized and the two dining rooms serve some of the best cruise food around.

Our first stop was Santorini where a volcanic eruption that collapsed the island's center in 1450 B. C. wiped out Minoan civilization. The event gave rise to the belief that this was the mysterious lost land of Atlantis. The main town, Thera, which is crowded with tavernas and shops, perches on the rim of the crater. The 900-feet drop, created more than 3,000 years ago, still presents a startling appearance.

When I last visited Santorini the only way up and down was by donkey. (You could walk, I suppose.) A cable car now operates between the harbor and the town. The village of Oia on the tip of the island was partially destroyed by a 1956 earthquake and has been rebuilt under a government program to restore old communities. Buses from Thira, the center, are $1.00 and the ticket to incredible seascapes.

Rhodes presented a challenge. Should I revisit the acropolis in Lindos, which is accessible only by tour bus, and brave the 30-minute climb uphill on unlevel terrain in 90-degree heat? I have a photo of myself triumphantly posed at the top, but that was a long time ago. Seats on the Mt. Filermos outing were all filled. The only choice remaining was to spend the day in Rhodes Town, the former home of the Knights of St. John. It turned out to be a lucky option. After entering the walled city and walking up the Street of the Knights past the restored knights' inns to the Palace of the Grand Master, I learned that in the afternoon the ramparts would be opened, an event that occurs only once each week. I explored the cobbled streets and the antique shops and then returned to circle the entire medieval area via the two and one-half miles-long footpath of history on top of the crenelated walls.

Delos, an island where no one lives, seems haunted by ancient yesterdays. Its signature statues, five marble lions, preside over what in the seventh century B. C., was the Aegean's wealthiest and most sacred island where Apollo and Artemis (Diana) were born. I was touched by the notion that real people once walked these deserted acres. With the use of a map I found remnants of a theater, gymnasium, sanctuary and temples, which archeologists had painstakingly laid out. This time I wished for a knowledgeable guide like the ones who accompanied all the other groups spilling off the ferries.

In Mikonos, as in Delos, the Radisson Diamond's passengers were on their own. This dazzling white and famous island is said to have over 300 chapels and is linked by a network of narrow streets. I wandered through arched alleys to discover tiny squares shaded by fragrant fruit trees and many picturesque windmills, of which no one seems to have an accurate count. Since we departed Mikonos at midnight, there was ample time to sit in a waterfront cafe, sip retsina, ponder the lively scene and see the sparkling lights reflected in the sea.

The highlight of the stop in Kusadasi was the excursion through the green hilly countryside to the partially reconstructed 11th-century B.C. Ionian city of Ephesus in which the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, once stood. The ruins are some of the most impressive and most beautiful on earth, attesting even today to the area's greatness. The road that took chariots down to the sea in the third century B.C. is still smooth and straight and is lined with broken columns and crumbling facades of temples, shops, libraries, gymnasiums and bathhouses. A tour is the only way to see the excavation for without an informed leader one would miss the history of the buildings and of the people who had lived there.

The Greeks who built Ephesus did such a good job that parts of it can still be used. In the evening we listened to a classical concert under the stars in the huge reconstructed amphitheater scooped from the side of a hill.

Dikkili, Turkey, a port that is seldom visited on an Aegean cruise and one that is little-known to tourists, was our next to the last stop. Because the nearby ruins rival those of Ephesus I again opted for a half-day bus tour. Bergama or Pergamun was the center of a highly developed ancient civilization. Built on top of a hill, the ruins were visible from the motorcoach; even from the distance we could see the acropolis. We also explored the remains of a library, grand house, fountains and temples, including one that was dedicated to the god of medicine, Asklepicon. Our guide told us that during Hellenistic times patients visited the temple and were treated with water and mud baths, massages and medicinal herbs, diets, incubation, a number of forms of physiotherapy and dream interpretation. Evidence of man's earliest cultural advancement is buried in these ruins and again a knowledgable guide was an important factor in understanding what life was like centuries ago in this part of the world.

In the afternoon we explored the sleepy little beach town, another place where time seems to have stood still. Dikkili is authentically Turkish and mostly locals were sighted on the streets. The harbor is lined with open-air restaurants and the shops do not sell touristy items. Only national foodstuffs—delicious juice, made from local cherries and many fragrant, vibrantly colored spices— are offered in the stores. The beach was quiet; native children were frollicking in the water and older people sat in the park to shade themselves from the sun.

An almost perfect voyage ended up in a perfect port. I'm not quite sure what I expected in Istanbul, but I was overcome by its handsome gardens, exotic beauty and vistas of water. The sweep of the Bosphorus from the balcony of my room at the Istanbul Hilton made me want to sit there interminably and sip raki. But then if I had I would have missed an even more impressive sight, the view of the Golden Horn from a terrace of the treasure-filled Topkapi Palace.

It was all very special, the melding of past and present in this part of the world, the ancient ruins and the seeds of our civilization, the white villages and the romance of the sea. It was all too short, especially my visit to Turkey. But I know I'll come back, hopefully soon and for a long, long stay.

Radisson Diamond, Tel. 877-505-5370, www.rssc.com

Spring 1994