Hoist the sails for ancient Italy. Voyage on the Sea Cloud: history lessons round out luxurious tall-ship cruise through Mediterranean Sea

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`HOW would you like to join our cruise on the tall ship Sea Cloud in the Mediterranean? We leave on Saturday,'' my friend said on the phone. Naturally, I had to think about it for a few minutes, but then I called her right back to say yes; this was too good an opportunity to miss.

I knew the Sea Cloud had been built as a luxurious pleasure craft for Marjorie Merriweather Post. My decision to go was based on the fact that, apart from the chance to sail on a four-masted tall ship, this was also a study tour, with passengers drawn largely from alumni and faculty of two Eastern colleges in the United States, which were supplying their own lecturers.

So we'd not only be seeing the Mediterranean on this cruise, but learning about its rich history and cultures, too.

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From the moment we boarded the majestic 316-foot, square-rigged barque in Barcelona, it was obvious that Sea Cloud itself was the star of the tour, billed ``Waves of Civilization in the Central Mediterranean.'' My friend and I and 50 other passengers embarked on a route that would take us south along the western shores of Italy and around Sicily, stopping for excursions inland to visit archaeological sites.

We spent the first day at sea getting acquainted with the ship. Our cruise director assembled us on the lido deck and introduced us to our Polish captain and his crew, consisting of 55 young men and women of 13 nationalities who had signed on for a six-month tour.

``There is a lot of learning going on here,'' we were told. Training is mostly done on board. It was quite intriguing to watch both male and female crew members scampering up the rigging for the ``setting of the sails'' - all 29 sails hanging from four masts, of which the tallest measures 197 feet. As might be expected, however, Sea Cloud was powered most of the time during our cruise by its four diesel engines, in order to keep us on schedule.

Our first port of call was Civitavecchia, the modern seaport for Rome. We had been prepared by a splendid lecture on ancient Roman architecture and daily life, and now we were ready to visit Ostia Antica. According to legend, this ancient city, which once had a population of 80,000, was founded by the fourth king of Rome to guard the River Tiber. It contains well-preserved ruins of middle-class homes and public buildings, very different from ruins elsewhere in this region. We continued a few miles on to Cerveteria, site of numerous tombs of the mysterious Etruscans, who left such strong traces of their advanced civilization in central Italy.

Only seven meals a day

We were a little late in getting back to Sea Cloud for dinner that evening, but our forgiving chefs allowed us some time to put on our dinner finery before sounding the bell. The food at this meal, and throughout the cruise, was not only delicious but beautifully presented in the paneled dining room and adjoining lounge. Seating was at random, except for the captain's table, where it was by written invitation. We always had fresh floral arrangements and fresh linen, and the napkins were works of art in their own right, folded in a different way every night by the Filipino waiters.

The two German chefs and their staff were indefatigable, serving coffee for early risers, then a buffet breakfast, mid-morning coffee and cakes, lunch (either in the dining room and lounge, or occasionally buffet style on deck), afternoon tea and cakes, dinner, and finally a midnight snack.

Overnight our ship remained in the harbor at Civitavecchia, and the next day we enjoyed a full-day excursion to Rome. For any trip, it may be well to consider whether you want to see new territory, travel with a group, confine your activities to sightseeing and shopping, or pick up some education along the way. I've found that my favorite trips have fallen into the last category.

Although I had been to Rome several times, I had never appreciated the Pantheon as much as on this visit. Our lecturer had made a special study of the building, and his appreciation of its engineering and construction added depth to the information I'd gotten on earlier visits.

Shopping on board and off

I found the organization of our life aboard Sea Cloud superior to other cruises. One reason had to do with shopping. There was no boutique aboard. We were told the first day that the cruise line had many items on board for sale that would be available later. Meanwhile, if we needed some item, the purser would obtain it for us. When shopping day arrived, a whole array of items was displayed in the lounge. Each of us took an order blank, tried on the articles of clothing, examined the other sample items, and handed in our order blanks. Sure enough, in two days the articles appeared in our cabin, with the prices totaled.

Some of us were beginning to get a little edgy with no time allowed for shopping on land, unless one passed up an excursion. Finally, we arrived at Amalfi one evening at 9 p.m. Tenders took us ashore at 9:30 for a nighttime shopping spree that, for some, lasted until 2 a.m.

The next morning we disembarked to follow the spectacular Amalfi drive, overlooking the terraced mountainsides. We were enroute to the ancient Greek city of Paestum, not far from Salerno, to see the 6th-century Temple of Poseidon, the oldest Hellenistic ruin in Italy and a perfect example of Doric architecture. This and the other sites were chosen for our study at least partly because they bore traces of many successive invasions and overlapping cultures. It was easy to see why: The central Mediterranean contains some choice real estate, attractive for its strategic location, climate, and resources.

Among the other sites we visited were: Agrigento, famous for its many temples; Selinunte, where excavation and restoration is going on at ruins and temples; Palermo, where one can see the decorative styles of successive conquerors; and Monreale, where the Norman Cathedral contains magnificent mosaics and the Palatine chapel in the Palace of the Normans features Norman-Arab art.

After a final day at sea, when we packed, settled our accounts, and made our farewells, we docked at Nice. And somehow, we couldn't help feeling a bit sad to see Sea Cloud putting sail that same afternoon with a new crowd of perfect strangers.

If you go

For information about Sea Cloud's cruises (Mediterranean and Caribbean), contact Sea Cloud Cruises, 2701 South Bayshore Dr., Suite 40, Coconut Grove, FL 33133; (305) 854-4464.

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