While I’d visited the Mediterranean before, the focus had always been more about beaches and nightlife than heritage and culture; however, when Holland America graciously invited me to experience their 11-Day Ancient Mysteries cruise through the Mediterranean on the MS Noordam, I accepted, excited to visit the destination in a new way.
Exploring Ancient Mysteries In Turkey
Often touted as the “Cradle of Civilization,” Turkey has played home to a large array of ancient cultures. While it would be impossible to fully discuss all of the ancient sites and experiences I explored on the 11-Day Ancient Mysteries cruise, there are more than a few that stood out.
The departure port, Istanbul, is full of historical wonders, like the Hagia Sophia, a church completed in 537 under Emperor Justinian in an attempt to bring back the greatness of the Roman Empire; the Topkapi Palace, home to Ottoman Sultans for 400 years; Basilica Cistern, an underground water cistern dating from the 6th century; and the Archeological Museum, which showcases a large collection of historical and cultural artifacts recounting the story of Istanbul. You’ll find most of Istanbul’s ancient sites within the UNESCO World Heritage Sites listed as ‘Old Istanbul.’
At the port of Kusadasi, almost all the boat’s passengers opted to explore one of Turkey’s most famous ancient sites: Ephesus. Located about 20 minutes from Kusadasi, Ephesus is an archeological site featuring ruins of a civilization built by Ionians fleeing Greece from 1200 BC. Here you’ll find important remnants like a column from the Temple of Artemis, once one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; the Commercial Agora, an open-air market place where everything from goods of all kinds to slaves were bought and sold; the Terrace Houses, beautiful homes with mosaic tiled floors and frescos inhabited by Ephesus’ elite; and the Celsius Library, once the third largest library in the world.
Exploring Ancient Mysteries In Greece
Greece, the other major destination of the Ancient Mysteries cruise, also holds a rich and fascinating history. In fact, the first Greek-speaking peoples were the Mycenaeans, who arrived on mainland Greece in the late 3rd and the first half of the 2nd millennium BC. During this period, Greece played home to numerous cultures, with the Greek culture spreading beyond the borders of the country to places like Egypt and Afghanistan.
The first port for exploration of Greek history was Mykonos. Mykonos makes a great home base for exploring Delos, an uninhabited island and archeological site. Delos — which was initially inhabited in the 3rd millennium BC and was thought to be the birthplace of Artemis and Apollo — was meant to be a sacred place where nobody was allowed to die. For this reason, inhabitants who became ill or pregnant were immediately moved to other islands. To this day archeologists continue to unearth artifacts from this mysterious and uninhabited island.
In Rhodes — an island inhabited since the Stone Age — ancient history is brought to life through the the study of the Acropolis of Lindos. During Byzantine times, in the period of the Knights of St. John and the Ottoman Empire, Lindos was used as a fortress, which visitors can explore today.
On Crete — the largest of the Greek islands — you can explore the ruins of an ancient Minoan civilization. The Palace of Knossos was the first Minoan palace ever constructed. It was destroyed in 1375 BC, marking the end of Minoan civilization. At one time, this palace was a grand labyrinth with multiple stories and an intricate design that served as a place for religious ceremonies, a royal residence, and an administrative hub.
Exploring Ancient Cultures On Board
While there is often a belief that once you’re back onboard a cruise ship you’re taken away from the cultures that you’ve been visiting, the truth is that fun and relaxation are combined with learning and on this curise there were many cultural activities that you can participate in while at sea. For example, a Turkish High Tea experience allowed me to sample traditional apple tea and baklava while learning about the history of hand-made Turkish carpets. A Greek barbecue paired strong anise-flavored Ouzo liquor with typical delicacies like chicken gyros, roasted leg of lamb, moussaka, and fatoush with fried pita. Some of the many other Turkish- and Greek-inspired activities aboard the Noordam included Greek cooking classes, replica Turkish and Greek Bazaars, and belly dance classes.
Seeing The Mediterranean On A Budget
As someone whose preferred style of travel is backpacking on a shoestring, I was impressed with how affordable Holland America’s “Ancient Mysteries” cruise can be. Room rates start at about $1,899 per person, with a several dining options like room service, the casual Lido Deck buffet, and the opulent Vista Dining Room. This allows one to experience fine dining options to include everything from tender, juicy filet mignon grilled with jumbo prawns to rack of lamb with tomato couscous without having to pay a penny extra. Beautiful touches like Rosenthal china, starched linens, silver service, fresh flowers and wait staff who know you by name enhance the experience.
Moreover, complimentary and inexpensive on-going activities throughout the day and no additional cost amenities like movies, full time travel assistance, tech support, photography classes, comedy shows and theater productions made the cruise even more budget friendly. I especially loved their performance of “Droom,” a love story told through song and dance featuring everything from beautiful ballet to aerial acrobatics.
Food And Drink Experiences
For those who don’t mind spending a little extra and who want to enjoy very special food and drink experiences, the Noordam offers many options, to include: martini tastings (about $3), mixology classes (about $12.50) and cooking classes with the onboard Culinary Arts Center (about $30). You can also opt to dine in Pinnacle Grill ($10 for lunch, $25 for dinner) or the Canaletto ($10 per person). The Pinnacle Grill offers an intimate and upmarket experience focusing on Pacific Northwest specialties like Filet Steak Diane, Cedar Plank Black Cod with Shrimp Scampi, and Colorado lamb chops.
The Canaletto is sophisticated, yet laid-back, serving up authentic family-style Italian fare. I also recommend attending Pinnacle Grill’s Le Cirque experience, which transforms the venue into New York’s famous Le Cirque restaurant for one night each cruise.
No matter where you eat, there is one thing that’s certain: The goal of the eatery is to spoil guests. Keep in mind, their ‘As You Wish Dining’ program allows you to choose between having set meal times or a more flexible dining experience where you make reservations each day.
Aboard the Noordam there are myriad ways to be entertained, like indulging in a spa treatment, taking a cooking class with the Culinary Arts Center, gambling in the casino, taking an iPod art tour, enjoying Las Vegas-style shows, nightclub dancing, playing Bingo or Trivia, listening to live music, shopping and much more. One unique program offered by Holland America is Dancing with the Stars: At Sea. Travelers can enjoy complimentary dance classes and learn dance routines based on ABC’s hit show, Dancing with the Stars.There are multiple competitions culminating in the selection of finalists who take the main stage to perform with the Holland America Line professional dancers. From there a winner is chosen, and at the end of the year the champion with the highest score from each ship will have the opportunity to compete on a complimentary Champions Cruise in January 2014.
– I highly recommend getting a wine package, which can turn a multi-course dinner into a truly epicurious experience. If you’re lucky enough to meet Cellar Master Ingo, you’ll be enjoying spot on wine recommendations paired with great food and a serious helping of German comedy.
– Opt for a room with a balcony, as the Mediterranean is home to some of the world’s most inspiring and pristine ocean, city, island and mountain views. Additionally, part of the Ancient Mysteries itinerary is cruising the Dardanelles — a strait in northwestern Turkey linking the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara — and you’ll be able to enjoy the vistas right from your room or from the bow of the boat with commentary.
– Create your own tour: While Holland America offers an excellent selection of shore excursions, you can also have some fun on your own by renting a car and taking a scenic drive; exploring a port’s non-touristy areas; having a local tour guide show you around on a private tour; or dining in a cozy restaurant where locals eat.
– Make the Noordam’s Crow’s Nest your home away from home. This upper-level bar and lounge never seems to be crowded. So, order a cocktail from the bar, put your feet up on a foot stool and melt into a plush leather chair as you enjoy aerial views of the azure waters down below.
Written by and photos (unless otherwise noted) by Guest Contributor, Jessica Festa.
Jessica Festa, a New York native, is a world traveller who is always looking for a new adventure. Some of her favorite experiences include teaching English in Thailand, volunteering at an orphanage in Ghana, trekking her way through South America, road tripping through Australia and traveling solo through Europe. Follow her travels on sites Jessie on a Journey and Epicure & Culture.