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Onboard the MS Deutschland

Sailing the Mediterranean

Most passengers onboard the MS Deutschland would choose one of the teak chaises on the open decks for daydreaming. I saw the possibility of passing time in reverie, perched on a couch in the Colonnades, a foyer fronting the beauty salon and boutique in the mid-section of the Commodore Deck. Here in the Colonnades the designer-architect crystallized the vessel’s mood, the "golden age" of cruising by mounting two impressionist-type oils that face each other, perhaps because the subjects in one are looking at the opposite scene.

MS Deutschland docked in Portoferraio
(credit: Edwin C. Fancher)

On the port wall the artist painted smartly clothed passengers in fashions--caps and knickers, cloches and ankle length coats--that were in vogue during the third decade of our century. Some stand at or stare past the rail; others are tucked into deck chairs. The painting on the starboard side is of a busy harbor, as it might have appeared 75 years ago. Smoke pours from the chimney of a luxury liner flying the Dutch flag and tugboats seem ready to tow the liner through port traffic out to sea on the first leg of a romantic journey. In the travel office, a few steps down the corridor, I discovered antique steamer trunks crafted by the master maker of luggage, Louis Vuitton, and proudly bearing his logo, LV. Like other quiet symbols throughout the ship, the message is quality and taste, quality in the workmanship and materials and taste in the design.

The MS Deutschland’s white exterior with red trim looks rather ordinary, a characteristic of many small ships, and gives no clue to the sumptuousness within. But once I stepped past the gangplank, déjà vu set in, transporting me to the backdrops in old movies. I have sailed on many cruise lines, but the only "grand hotel" Edwardian-era style liners I had seen before were the ones filmed by Hollywood.

The 1920s ambiance extends from the public areas to the cabins. My comfortable standard accommodation with burled wood furniture, heavy upholstered fabrics and a cozy down quilt was decorated like a room in a chic hotel. And the lighting was bright enough for nighttime reading. But what really stood out about the nine-deck, 574-foot ship is the amount of space devoted to the entertainment and dining facilities, lounges, outdoor decks, gym and spa, translating into lots of elbow room for 505 guests who were well looked after by half as many crew.

Everywhere I wandered there was cause to fantasize that I was traveling the world in high style during the heyday of cruising. Might the crimson Kaisersaal (Emperor’s Ballroom) with its sparkling chandelier be a copy of a copy, a ship’s ballroom in the 20s modeled after the theaters in 18th- and 19th-century European palaces? I recalled the movie houses that I went to as a child. Could the cinema have been moved, plush seats and all, to the Admiral Deck? When-ever I walked around I found lavish accoutrements--marble statues, brass lamps, Tiffany-style glass ceilings, old seafaring photographs, gleaming wood paneling and blowups from motion pictures where, after dark, men wore black tie and women dressed in gowns--throwbacks to former times.

I remembered scenes from films of formally clad guests being served seven-course dinners on the ships of yesteryear. I was certain that the superb food and attentive service in the intimate Four Seasons and the Art Deco Berlin, the main dining salon, matched the standards that were set at a time when cruising was an exalted experience.

I don’t know whether there were gambling casinos on those early luxury liners, but the absence of one on the MS Deutschland, boosts its image as a classy boat. Although the ship is handsome in a formal way, the public spaces are seductively inviting. At the Old Fritz Pub I was reminded of a Heidelberg beer hall I had visited during my student days. I would not have been surprised if the Germans--the ship is owned by a German company--who were drinking beer raised their glasses and sang, "In Munchen schtat in Hofbrau House, eins, zwei . . ."

The Adlon Bar, meant for cigar smokers and serving top-notch wines and cognac, reeks with glamour. Had the Lili Marleen, the main bar, been smaller, it, too, would be atmospheric.

Other spots where guests gather are four open and covered decks, an outdoor pool, the Lido Terrace, which doubles as a library and tea salon, a gym and a spa with an indoor pool. Both the gym and spa have saunas and deliciously relaxing multi-fauceted Swiss showers. To reach the gym you have to climb a set of outdoor stairs between two decks. I wondered whether the architect had forgotten about choppy, windy or rainy days at sea.

Passenger boats belonging to the Peter Deilman EuropAmerica Cruises have been plying Europe’s rivers for more than 20 years, but their newest ship, MS Deutschland, whose maiden voyage took place in May 1998, is the only one in the fleet that circles the globe stopping at six continents.

When I traveled the Mediterranean from Genoa to Venice in fall 1999 there were 21 Americans on the cruise. We did not feel left out because most of the guests spoke another language. Since there were only 11 to 16 participants on the English-speaking tours, which had to be purchased as a pre-arranged package with one excursion in every port, we felt rather pampered. The staff is bilingual and daily programs and menus were printed in English, as well as German. Peter Deilmann EuropAmerica Cruises hopes that with extensive marketing efforts in America, within a year or two, the number of vacationers from the States will equal those from Europe.

Neapolitan family troupe entertaining on deck,
MS Deutschland
(credit: Edwin C. Fancher)

Problems with communication occurred occasionally. At show time when the MC delivered his spiel, the German passengers laughed and the Americans looked as though they had missed something. The language of all the other pleasant evening entertainments--opera, dance, classical concerts, a trio, an orchestra and vocalists--was universal and mostly performed by very likeable artists. On two evenings the presentations approached amateur night. A Naples family troupe of musicians and singers appeared to be untrained and an Italian baritone without talent left the stage abruptly.

Despite the registry and flag under which the ship sails, the food was not heavy. No Mitteleuropean fare here, but Continental cuisine whipped up with flair. On three occasions I ate at the Four Seasons, the special (open in the evening only) restaurant, seating about 70 persons by reservation and at no extra charge. Consisting of exquisite cooked-to-order food, the meals were as leisurely as those at any four-star restaurant. The menu was often similar to the one in the Berlin. Maybe it was the extra panache with which it was served and the TLC with which it was prepared that made the food taste so special.

Conscience sent me to the Berlin and gave my shipmates their shot at the Four Seasons. Both dining rooms offered seven delicious courses: three appetizers, like vitello tonnato, carpaccio and a seafood terrine; two soups, one was usually creamed, the other a rich consomme that had simmered for hours; an intermezzo, fruit or wine-flavored sorbet; a fish dish; an entree such as quail, beef entrecote, or loin of wild boar; a selection of cheeses; and wonderful cakes, pastries, truffles and other fanciful desserts. Table service for breakfast and lunch was also available in the Berlin.

The Lido on the top deck offered buffet-style indoor and outdoor dining at all three meals. At lunch about six meat and fish items were grilled on request. Some of the leftovers from the previous evening had been recycled into casseroles, but they were always tasty. I counted 25 salads, hot dishes and vegetables, as well as soup and pasta, five desserts, three flavors of ice cream, waffles, fruit and cookies. At breakfast my tally totaled even more choices. The herring, the only bow to German comestibles, was lip smacking. Since the country borders the North Sea where the best herring is fished, I would have been disappointed not to find it on the table.

When selecting a sailing, my primary concern is the ports at which the ship stops. You might say that I am a cheerleader for cruising since it is such an effortless way to visit a region. I seldom pick a cruise with more than a full day or two at sea. The appeal of the 12-night Italian trip was that we docked every day but one allowing us to trace Italy’s boot as it juts into the Mediterranean. I had been to the Italian mainland many times, but never to the islands on this itinerary. Cruising was a way to see several of them, with multiple stops at some, as well as three coastal cities and Rome.

The ship left Genoa at 1 a.m. and 11 hours later it moored in Portoferraio, the principal port of Elba, where it remained until late in the evening. The organized tour took us along the irregular coast to Porto Azzurro and to La Grotto, seaside towns favored by vacationers. Before returning to the historic center to tour Napoleon’s residence, Villa dei Mulini, we stopped to admire the sea and the scenery. Although there are more than 200 hotels on Elba, it is an unspoiled center of tourism. The island’s attraction lies in its tranquil beauty--white sand and limpid blue bays backed by rugged hills. Portoferraio has the flavor of the Italian Riviera with cafes and shops lining the three main streets surrounding the harbor; there was ample time to explore them on our own.

In the wee hours of the next day the MS Deutschland arrived in Citavecchia, near Rome. Some English-speaking passengers took a nine- and one-half hour excursion to the capital to see a few of the major sites, such as the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Cathedral, the Spanish Steps and the Coliseum. Several American guests hired cars to visit Ostia, Rome’s old port and one of the country’s largest excavationsand Tarquinia, formerly the seat of the powerful Etruscan principality.

Baja Sardinia (credit: Edwin C. Fancher)

The following two days were spent in Sardinia, sightseeing near the northeastern coast, first from a base in Olbia and then from Cagliari. Olbia’s main attraction is its proximity to the Costa Smeralda or Emerald Coast where the Aga Khan built luxury hotels. The inlet-filled 34-mile shore is edged with granite rocks and pristine beaches lapped by a sea of brilliant colors. The tour centered on the exclusive holiday resort towns, Baja Sardinia in the Gulf of Arachena and Port Cervo, directly on the Mediterranean.

The second Sardinian destination, Cagliari, took us from a contemporary setting near Olbia back a few hundred years to Castello, a medieval section of Cagliari, and back a few thousand years to Nora, outside the city. The ruins at Nora, founded by the Phoenicians in the 7th century BC, contain the remains of an amphitheater, thermal springs, Thanit temple and foundations of Roman villas with their beautiful mosaic floors still intact.

Main Piazza, Monreale, Sicily (credit: Edwin C. Fancher)

Then it was on to Palermo, Sicily’s capital. The boat remained there for the entire day so that the morning could be devoted to a bus tour of Palermo and of Monreale, which is famous for its splendid cathedral adorned with gold-painted biblical scenes and its Benedictine monastery and cloister. For some passengers, the afternoon was devoted to wandering Palermo’s old section on foot.

The next stop, Naples, was surely one of the highlights of the cruise. Not for Naples itself, which lacks the character of other major Italian metropolises, but for its nearness to Pompeii, which may be the most famous and crowded ruin in the world. The lost city, destroyed by a volcano eruption and rediscovered in the 18th century, reveals daily life in a wealthy Roman town. Not only is it an archeologist’s dream, but it is a sightseer’s, too.

Pompeii (credit: Edwin C. Fancher)

On subsequent days the ship was scheduled to dock at Capri and Stromboli, two islands of mythic beauty. Highlights of Capri included a boat ride into the blue grotto cave and a tour of the village of Anacapri situated on the cliffs above Capri Town. Because of the strong wind we could not board the tenders to reach Stromboli, but we circled the island and came close enough to see the small town with its white houses and the smoke from the volcano.

The next to the last stop was Catania, our second Sicilian port. Because the ship arrived shortly after dusk we were able to walk in town at night to see the old buildings. The illuminated Cathedral of Saint Agatha particularly catches the eye. Its striking facade looks like grey and white Wedgwood. The pre-arranged excursion to Syracuse, about one hour away, was another opportunity to enjoy remarkable ancient remains. In the archeological park are the ruins of one of the largest amphitheaters in antiquity and the "cave that talks" where the echoes, which can be heard twice, improved the theater’s acoustics.

The last night was spent in Venice, the most romantic port of all. The ship’s tour of the Doges’ Palace and Piazza San Marco was the only one that disappointed, since we could have easily visited the palace and the piazza on our own. In the other ports we had to be part of a bus tour to reach the sites of interest. Of all the places at which we stopped, Venice is the one where I most wanted to linger and luckily I could since it came at the end of the cruise.

Peter Deilmann EuropAmerica Cruises, 1800 Diagonal Road, Suite 170, Alexandria, VA 22314. Tel. 800-348-8287, 703-549-1741. www.deilmann-cruises.com

Spring 2000