VENICE - You can keep your inland towns that rise over farmland or crouch beside busy rivers. Give me a city that turns its face to the sea.
I like looking out at urban skylines from the deck of a ship. From here, at penthouse height and away from the tangle of crowds and avenues, you get an almost map-clear view of how a port is shaped. So when I read about a Crystal cruise that left from Venice, nosed into the Aegean and Black seas, and ended up in Istanbul, I started imagining myself peering down at ancient capitals of trade like a king atop a sailable throne.
“Why don’t you go?’’ said my wife. “Or, better yet, why don’t we?’’ Kathy liked the exotic sound of ports such as Constanta, Romania, and Odessa and Yalta (both in Ukraine). And sailing in September on Crystal’s Serenity - often tapped in surveys as a top-of-the-list passenger favorite - would let us celebrate a round-number anniversary at sea.
I had always been a little suspicious of Crystal’s fragile-sounding name. But stepping aboard the 1,050-passenger, 69,000-ton Serenity you feel its muscular grip: painted steel, wood that has been waxed to a shine, and polished stone create a strong but luxurious cocoon. Cabin decor relies on moldings and marble trim to make you feel as if you are floating inside a fine hotel.
Though the line is Japanese-owned, the first thing we see seems British to its core. It’s a portrait of Dame Julie Andrews smiling just slightly, as if she knows some secrets about the days ahead.
“She’s our Crystal Serenity godmother,’’ crows a passing crew member.
“Your godmother?’’ I say.
“She christened the ship in 2003.’’
A rumble of engines signals that it’s time to sail. A tug named Emilio Panfido guides the Serenity past the arching bridges and tiled squares of Venice. Night has just begun to drape its purple cloth over the canals. Pinpricks of light appear on shore and drip their rippled colors into the lagoon.
We cruise past restaurants on the quay, a shadowy Piazza San Marco, and wedged between two spires, a hint of moon.
Sea days teach us some things about Serenity. For one, onboard staff seem, eerily, to know passengers’ names. Many are genuinely upset if you try to save them a step. Our cabin steward, Megdalene, is crestfallen when we say no to a turndown. When we relent, she hums and beams while racing around to fluff pillows and drop off fresh sets of bath salts.
Serenity has an interesting specialty restaurant, the Japanese-inspired Silk Road, but Kathy and I are delighted with the regular dining room and its classic meals. Led by an Austrian named Franz, an expert at crêpes suzette, waiters here have that perfect blend of formality and cheer. And according to our tablemate Dr. Marty Rubenstein of Los Altos, Calif., personal requests are a specialty of the house.
“On a previous cruise,’’ Rubenstein says, “my wife was telling someone about her recipe for lamb with mustard sauce. The head waiter overheard this and asked her, ‘Would you like that?’ He jotted a few things down, and disappeared to talk to the chef. Out came an excellent lamb with mustard the next evening.’’
To try to erase the poundage from our lunches and dinners, we take to circling the deck. We are not alone. “Direction of the Day,’’ instructs a sign on the rail, pointing passengers in a clockwise sweep. Around and around we go, like hands on a watch.
Among our early stops is Navplion, Greece, a perfect port for this cruise since the fortified town was Venetian for a time and, at a different point, part of Turkey. Awash in ochre walls and red-tiled roofs, it feels more Italian than Greek. Fishing boats bob in the gentle Aegean chop, and coastal pines bend and turn in the breeze.
With its ghost-like former casino and nearly-empty promenade, Constanta, Romania, makes for a much more mysterious day. Kathy is part Romanian, so we make a point to walk deep into the town. There are still vestiges of its years as an Eastern Bloc outpost - concrete high-rises and old Soviet cars - but street stands and stores are sprouting. It’s a city that’s stretching and rubbing its eyes from a long sleep.
Our next port, Odessa, has a checkerboard of ethnic roots. There’s a French Street, a Greek Street, and a strong Jewish presence even today, after centuries of persecution. The city is as bustling as Amsterdam, as decorative as Prague. From atop the famous Odessa Steps, buildings look like frosted cakes, set out for a celebration. Kathy and I smile at the lemony colors and find ourselves in manicured parks where we admire flowers and pass time watching children play.
Yalta, site of the historic 1945 conference between wartime leaders Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin, is far from the staid resort town we had imagined. From a distance, it looks like a Swiss ski village with its gondola and mountain backdrop. Up close, it’s Reno or Atlantic City - a vacation spot for Ukrainians who pour onto the pebbly beaches, line up for colorful rides, and drain steins of beer at stands along the waterfront.
Back on the Serenity, Kathy and I watch the mountains shrink as we sail away. We are circling the deck again, circling and circling, when suddenly it hits us. We are nearing the end of our cruise.
Starting in Venice - with its quays and canals - eased us into the mood of living for more than a week on water. Now we remember land.
The ship has sailed into the Bosporus, and we are close. Encircling hills press in. We’re in a shadowy stretch of busy, boat-churned strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean - between Asia, in a sense, and Europe.
“Minarets,’’ says Kathy, pointing ahead.
I can see them, too, and as we watch, a flash of sun sets evening fire to the curve of a dome. The sounds of streets and an echoing call to worship are suddenly stronger than waves, or wind.
Hagia Sofia. Blue Mosque. Galata Tower.
If you go... Beginning this spring, Crystal Cruises (www.crystalcruises.com) will have a new “all-inclusive’’ policy. Listed fares will include onboard specialty dining, alcoholic drinks, and gratuities. Free flights for cruise passengers, with various restrictions, are also part of the new policy.
Crystal will offer several cruises that are similar to the Venice-to-Istanbul “Beyond the Bosporus’’ itinerary, including:
The 12-day “Ancient Treasures’’ Rome to Istanbul cruise April 15-27 aboard Crystal Symphony, featuring ports such as Rhodes, Greece, and Kusadasi, Turkey; fares from $4,685 per person.
The 12-day “Black Sea Explorer’’ Venice to Istanbul cruise June 19-July 1 aboard Crystal Serenity, including ports such as Katakolon, Greece, and Yalta and Odessa, Ukraine; fares from $7,385 per person.
The 12-day “Minarets & Monuments’’ Istanbul to Venice cruise Sept. 18-30 aboard Crystal Serenity, featuring ports such as Navplion, Greece, and Kotor, Montenegro; fares from $6,470 per person.
The 12-day “Mediterranean Majesties’’ Venice to Istanbul cruise Oct. 24-Nov. 5 aboard Crystal Serenity, including Navplion and Kusadasi; fares from $5,570 per person.
Fares are subject to change, so be sure to check with the line for updates.