Luxury cruising in the Mediterranean: a tasty experience

It is not easy to maintain a reputation for haute cuisine when faced with a customer who has no taste. Just ask Gerhard Auer, Austrian sous chef for a Royal Viking cruise ship. ``Once a passenger asked for sauerkraut topped with raspberry sauce,'' winces Gerhard. ``An abomination. I refused.''

Actually he didn't quite refuse. That could have cost him his job on the luxury liner. Instead he served a succulent sauerkraut and a superb raspberry melba in two separate dishes -- then turned his head. ``What they did with it after we served it was their business,'' he sighs.

What Gerhard prefers over such idiosyncratic requests is a tableful of passengers who challenge him with a special order such as, ``Make us the most delectable Salzburger Nockerln on earth.'' He and the ship's 31 other chefs, dressed in black-checked trousers, double-breasted white, and napkins knotted around the neck, are up to the challenge.

That is evident if you dine at their tables and reinforced if you tour the ship galley -- more like an art gallery than a kitchen. In the pastry section I was so overcome by the petits fours that I impulsively proposed to the pastry chef. You would have done the same if you'd tasted one of those tiny iced cakes melting on your tongue.

Forgive me. Here I am talking about food when this is really a Mediterranean cruise story. To put food first when describing a journey that features stopovers like the Great Pyramids of Cairo, the Acropolis in Athens and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, might seem like a bad case of misplaced priorities.

But within two weeks 625 passengers and I witnessed a fantastic parade of food presentations that included 900 pounds of shrimps that were big as fists, 1,300 pounds of lobsters flown in from Maine and Australia, and 26,000 pounds of kiwi, strawberries, and other fresh fruits. When that happens, well, one mentions the food.

But there is, indeed, much more to cruising than pleasure for the palate. There are ports. How many and how diverse obviously depends on the destination and length of the cruise you choose.

I joined up with a 17-day Holy Land cruise, one of some two dozen trips offered on Royal Viking's three ships. This particular journey included eight ports of call, beginning in Piraeus near Athens, ending in Venice. It was a fascinating but dense itinerary with rather few daylight hours at sea and a good bit of ``If this is Tuesday it must be Belgium.'' One passenger commented during a shore excursion, ``This feels like a working vacation -- I've been going nonstop for a week!''

In truth, each passenger chooses port activities with the intensity that he or she desires. One has a variety of options including staying aboard ship, lolling on beaches, taking a half-day bus tour with minimal walking, or venturing off on vigorous overnight explorations.

At most ports in the sunny Mediterranean I witnessed an eager throng of behatted tourists lining up to disembark. Most hadn't troubled their minds a tad to prepare for these outings, for the ship's shore-excursions office takes care of tours.

Boasts shore-excursion officer Leanne Boyer, ``The aim of the line is to enable customers to check their brains when they come on board.'' There are advantages to this. Passport clearance, luggage hauling, transportation, guides, and meals are all arranged for you. Poof -- the battles of travel are swept away. Those who don't mind the battles and who would rather not put their lives entirely in someone else's hands do have options.

The excursions office will arrange rental cars for passengers who prefer self-designed outings. Or you can hop off the ship and just wing it, with only one essential responsibility: that you get back on board before the next launch.

Ship life itself is a delight. To my surprise, I didn't get bored on board. The 676-foot Royal Viking Sea is equipped to keep up to 725 passengers happy, and has a staff-client ratio of 1:2. It is a floating town where you can go to the movies, get your hair done, have a sauna, or take a stroll over to one of several ``local'' pubs or caf'es.

Among the on-board offerings, you will find a library (where you can check out novels or the kinds of books that tell you something about where you're going or where you've been); a card room (where bridge foursomes and cribbage twosomes gather around the clock); daily afternoon bingo games (52 varieties, including ``blackout bingo''); shuffleboard tourneys (tough when the ship lists); a casino (where ladies in sequined gowns deal the decks); the proverbial open-air promenade deck (lined with deck chairs for reading, snoozing, sunning, watching).

For the physically active bunch, there are dancing lessons, aerobic workouts, two ``five stroke'' swimming pools, and a sports deck equipped with a track, golf tee, and paddle-tennis court.

It is said that the passkey for luxury cruising is gray hair, but this cruise included many younger passengers as well. On the whole it was a rather sporting group.

Evening entertainment on this cruise ranged from dancing to the swoony tunes of the RAMA III orchestra in the Emerald Lounge, to song, dance, and comedy routines by the ship's entertainers in the Oslo Lounge.

In addition to their ``regular'' show people, some cruise lines feature guest stars. Metropolitan opera singer Anna Moffo joined our cruise. As did former CIA director William Colby. She sang. He lectured. There is often heavy-duty educational entertainment as well. On this trip, scholar Dr. Giovanni Costigan brought insight to the journey with a series of fascinating historical lectures highlighting Mediterranean civilizations through the ages.

Delightful as all of this is, I wouldn't recommend cruising for everyone. If seeing a foreign country means gaining a feeling for a people and their culture, you don't really have the chance to see countries on most cruises. But if your time is very limited (and your budget less so), and if to you vacationing means glimpsing the exotic while moving about within a sweet reliable shell of familiar food, language, and transportation, you and cruising were made for each other.

Ditto if you hate hauling your luggage, like shopping for beautiful bargains, and prefer having a clear idea in advance of what your trip will cost. (Tips, shopping, and occasional shore meals are the only expense not delineated in advance.) Cost and duration of stops at each port will be minuses for some people. My plane and cruise fares (traveling from Maine), plus shore excursions, were valued at some $7,000. You could take the same two-week trip on the same ship, with equal service and food, for as little as $3,000 (if you shared a small windowless double deep in the ship's belly), or as much as $20,000 (if you wanted a penthouse with private balcony completely to yourself).

It occurred to me more than once that I might have traveled train and bed-and-breakfast style for a half year or so on the sum of my cruise journey -- taking deeper looks, meeting local people, eating the distinct fare of each town (and, yes, handling all the difficulties myself).

What the cruise does offer would-be lingerers is an overview, a chance to shop around for where you'd like to return.

If you want to carefully investigate whether or not cruising is for you,I suggest you send for Ocean Cruise News, a magazine edited and published by George Devol, a man who has made a career out of cruising. The magazine tells what lines go where, and provides a list of upcoming cruises. It features a passengers' cruise ship survey and a guide to the service offered by the various cruise companies. Readers of the magazine can get special rates of 10 to 20 percent off on certain cruise lines. (PO Box 92, Stamford, Conn. 06904. Tel: 203-329-2787.)

Or contact your local travel agent who will have a variety of cruise offerings at hand.

Bunny McBride's cruise was partially sponsored by the Royal Viking Cruise Lines, 1 Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, Calif. 94111. Tel: 415-398-8000.

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