The Shore Experience: Voyages to Antiquity (Part 1)

I have a favorite saying: “I never met a ruin I didn’t like.” So, I was naturally curious about Voyages to Antiquity, the new premium cruise line founded by Gerry Herrod of Orient Lines fame.

Cruisers are most intrigued by the line’s itineraries, which take guests to multiple ancient sites, some accessed via off-the-beaten path ports. Voyages to Antiquity’s enrichment-intensive experience focuses on the history and culture of the Mediterranean – from the Romans to the Phoenicians, from the Greeks to the Carthaginians and other civilizations.

In other words, the ancient world, not the line’s refurbished ship, is the top draw.

I sailed on Aegean Odyssey from Rome on August 10, spending five nights of a regular revenue cruise onboard. I ventured ashore on three line-operated shore excursions. While I’ll offer gleanings about my specific shore trip experiences (to be published here in a few days in Part 2 of this report), here’s Part 1, my personal “take” on the structure and components of the shoreside experience.

Photos by Susan J. Young

Planning Time Ashore

When my cruise documents arrived, the packet included a colorful shore excursion booklet detailing voyage-specific options and a sign-up form. A strong value proposition for this line is that most shore trips are included in the client’s cruise fare.

The booklet detailed both included and optional tours, which carry a fee. Guests may fax the form to the line, or simply give it to staff at the purser’s desk upon arrival.

Aegean Odyssey is a small-ship experience, and with only 350 guests onboard, I felt the number of included shore trips offered were quite good. The line tells Travel Agent that these tours operate regardless of the number of guests signed up, a nice touch. However, a minimum number of guests may be required for optional tours.

As part of the cruise document package, guests also receive a suggested reading list for their voyage. Ours featured such choices as Jan Morris’ “The World of Venice,” Ellen Grady’s “The Blue Guide Sicily,” and Mary Beard’s “The Fires of Vesuvius, Pompeii Lost and Found.”

A Note About Fitness

Voyages to Antiquity’s materials stress that to fully enjoy the shore experience, guests should have “a reasonable level of fitness” with “no walking difficulty.” We’d definitely concur.

At ancient sites, we observed highly uneven surfaces, slopes and stairs, as well as a lack of seating. That’s not surprising, given that most sites are hundreds if not thousands of years old.

There were plenty of mature travelers taking the tours. But even the few who used canes seemed an active, hardy bunch. Voyages to Antiquity says it will attempt to accommodate guests with special needs, as long as the guest’s mobility issues aren’t an impediment to other guests on the guided tour.

To be frank, given what I observed in terms of use of older ship tenders; uneven surfaces on piers, streets and throughout ancient sites; steps or full staircases at points ashore; and lack of handicapped restrooms and other facilities in some destinations, this may not be the right cruise product for clients using wheelchairs nor those with significant mobility issues.

Voyages to Antiquity categorizes its tours in three intensity levels. Even Level One requires moderate walking over relatively level terrain with some steps. Level Two is for tours with medium to heavy walking, including over cobblestones or slippery surfaces, and with some climbing perhaps.

Level Three is for heavy walking for one or more hours over uneven terrain, with multiple uphill segments, or the need to climb in and out of small vessels or boats.

And no matter the tour intensity level, it’s a good tip to advise all clients to wear a hat for touring, or bring a small fold-up umbrella for shade.

Shore Information Onboard

You won’t find a separate shore desk on this small ship; guests utilize the purser’s desk for questions related to shore trips or to turn in excursion order forms.

Each evening, if guests have booked a tour for the following day, they’ll find a plastic tour ticket – with such coding as Yellow Group 1 -- under their cabin door. Some cabin categories receive priority for boarding the initial tenders.

When the tender is ready for boarding, an announcement is made over the ship’s PA system telling those in the specific color groups and numbers to come to the gangway.

In addition, each night the cabin steward delivers the latest Aegean Odyssey Journal to guests’ cabins. The Journal is essentially the daily cruise program (with a full color photo of the next port or tour site). To help guests understand options and the flow of a port call, a ship’s staffer also gives a port talk prior to arrival in each port.

If you want to hear it, though, you must show up at the appropriate public lounge at the appointed time. We’d really like to see both port information talks and enrichment lectures videotaped and shown at other times of the day on the in-cabin television.

Enrichment lectures are a critical part of the destination experience for Voyages to Antiquity guests. These aren’t broad-brush, pie-in-the-sky talks. They are destination-specific and tend toward the academic variety.

For example, one lecturer on our cruise was Mary Beard, a professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. Her most recent book, “Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town,” was available for sale in the ship’s boutique; Beard participated in a book signing one evening.

Clients who sail on this line want to do more than just see the sites and take photos. They want to feel “in the moment” of a past civilization, to walk where the Greeks or Romans did, and to really understand how these people lived. They want detail and lots of it.

Lecturers outline the sociological, philosophical, religious and cultural threads of each civilization and, thus, why this or that happened a particular way at the sites to be visited. Even after an intensive day of exploration ashore, it was clear that the ship’s clientele – 55 plus and tending more toward 65 and up on our cruise – simply couldn’t get enough of these talks.

The Ambassador Lounge was packed nightly as Beard and others lectured.  The daily Journal outlined the lectures, speakers and times for talks. Advise clients, though, that lectures may sometimes be late. Beard’s post-Pompeii/Herculaneum lecture was at 9 p.m.

Gangway and Tender Service

The line will swipe your clients’ electronic key cards when they depart the ship and when they return. Crew members at the gangway or ashore offer chilled bottled water free of charge to passengers heading out on tours.

A sturdy plastic gangway leading to the tender was more stable than many of the rather rickety gangways I’ve traversed at times in this industry. Crew members were exceedingly attentive in holding onto passengers and assuring they made it safely into the tenders.

That said, the ship’s older-style tenders were not the best. Once inside the tender, guests were signaled to sit on the other side of the tender, requiring them to walk -- in rather rocky seas -- all the way around the boat to reach their seats, or, alternatively, to sit on the center console and swing their legs over. I felt it just wasn’t the best set-up for guests.

The good news, however, is that Voyages to Antiquity will be replacing the tenders with new ones when the ship visits Athens in early September. 

Motorcoach Transportation

Motorcoaches we boarded in Sorrento, Agropoli and Palermo were all new, clean and quite comfortable. Our motorcoach drivers seemed highly skilled and customer-centric. They assisted tour goers in stepping down from the bus and truly seemed to care whether guests were having a good time.

One driver in the small town of Agropoli was amazing – adeptly navigating tight streets and seemingly impossible turns during one of the busiest times of the year. I was pleased to see that the guests on our tour did tip both drivers and guides. The line advises that guests might tip $2-$3 for the guide and $1-$2 for the driver, although many on our tour tipped more.

Guided Tours

The shore tours that deliver expert commentary at ancient sites are the crown jewels of the Voyages to Antiquity cruise product. Thus, it’s important for guests to hear the guides easily during the tours.

I was pleased with the Quietvox audio system that Voyages to Antiquity provides to tour goers. It’s a small, light rectangular receiver that hangs by a cord around the passenger’s neck; the receiver has an on/off and volume adjustment knob.

Earphones were provided to us at no charge; we kept them for use throughout our cruise. Still, the crew had extras on the gangway for anyone who lost or forgot their earphones. While the line’s literature says an additional 2 euro fee is charged for a second earphone, we didn’t see anyone being charged for a second earphone set on our cruise.

The audio system totally avoids the need for guests to hover tightly around the guide and lean in as he or she talks. So guests hear clearly even if the guide is 50 feet away. I loved having the ability to stroll away from the group to take photos, and yet still hear the commentary.

I would rate the quality of the tour guides as expert, definitely a cut above some other tour companies’ guides I’ve heard in many of these same ports. Again, clients taking these cruises expect extensive detail. I felt the guides we had really knew their stuff.

At times, even though I love Roman history, it was even a bit too much detail for me. But that wasn’t a problem; I just dialed down the volume to take a bit of a breather from “enrichment-overload.”

In addition to the value of the tours as inclusions within the cruise fare, guests also receive other inclusions on some tours; our Pompeii-Herculaneum tour included a full lunch with wine. Many guests told me the line’s inclusive approach to the shoreside experience was a big factor in their ultimate decision to book the cruise.

Overall, I thought Voyages to Antiquity did an admirable job on delivery of the shoreside product. Yes, I'd like to see the line televise its port talks and excellent lectures on the stateroom cabin television system.

But the tours themselves were fantastic, the guides well-trained, and the sites, of course, simply unforgettable.

Again, stay tuned here for Part 2 of this story, detailing my specific destination tours at the ports of Sorrento, Italy (for Pompeii/Herculaneum); Agropoli (for Paestum); and Palermo (for Norman-era religious sites, and a luxurious private palazzo featured in the 1963 movie, The Leopard).

For those interested in an assessment of the onboard experience for Voyages to Antiquity, check out the August 30 edition of Travel Agent magazine.