Cruise the Greek Isles in style

Bucking tradition, the new Renaissance 1 lets you eat where you want,

Picture this: You're up in the Goodyear blimp and there's an announcement from the captain that they're going to show a movie: "The Hindenburg"!

Yipes! Pass the parachute.

So it was a bit disconcerting as I relaxed in my cabin on board the Renaissance 1 (R1) and up popped Leo and Kate on closed-circuit TV running around the deck in the movie "Titanic."

That takes chutzpah.

But it was, in a way, symbolic of how this cruise line is bucking the tide.

People are usually passionate about cruises, either for or against. "It's like being stuck on a tiny island -with 1,500 strangers -in the middle of a huge moat with no bridge," remarked a colleague, who, admittedly, had never been on a cruise.

Another, who had been on a few, said she didn't like being assigned a dining table "with eight people I may not like. And what if they're boring, or if they smoke?"

But Renaissance (800-525-5350 or is not afraid to do things differently. And it's really what it doesn't do that has the most appeal.

A recent cruise from Athens to Istanbul brought some of these differences to light. I chose the Greek Isles excursion, a tour that included two days in Athens, a five-day cruise touching a few Greek Islands, and two days in Istanbul. First-class hotel accommodations were included on both ends. The price of $1,299 (and up) per person, including round-trip air fare from New York, was indeed a bargain.

Two days in Athens, unarguably Europe's most unattractive capital city, is long enough to do the obligatory tourist things. We crawled up the Acropolis to the Parthenon like a trail of ants over yesterday's wedding cake, took a bus tour in the congested city, and ended with a delightful guided tour through the superb, though sweaty (no air conditioning) National Archaeological Museum.

After Athens, it was all aboard the new R1. The ship, one of what will be eight identical liners, is mid-size (640 passengers), spit-and-polish clean, and more Evelyn Waugh than Moby Dick in theme.

The public rooms are right out of the pages of British "Country Life," complete with portraits of proper lords and ladies, Chesterfield couches, frescoed ceilings, and walnut paneling. (Actually the walnut, like most of the "wood," is faux, to accommodate fire codes.)

One of the most charming and inviting rooms aboard is the library, with its marble fireplace, broad wing chairs, and birds-of-paradise fresco. It's straight from a stately home - without the meerschaum pipes and hand-rolled cigars.

Not on this ship.

Renaissance is the first cruise line to adopt a strict no-smoking policy. Not even in the privacy of your cabin. No ifs. No ands. No butts.

Oh, and no kids either. If your darlings are under 18, they must be left on shore, or risk being cast adrift. You can leave your tux and cummerbund at home as well. Dress is "country club casual," never formal.

Food aboard cruise liners is legendary. And while the meals here are well prepared and presented, there are two dining differences.

Open seating is one. You can eat when, and sit where and with whom, you wish. The other is that the midnight buffet - long a tradition on luxury liners - has been jettisoned. "Who needs it?" one well-stuffed passenger said patting his belly.

Once out of Athens (either in the countryside, or in this case, the islands), the scenery improves dramatically. The Greek islands are legendary in their diversity, interest, topography, history, and beauty, and the two we visited (only Santorini and Rhodes) were but a tease that beckoned us to return.

Crescent-shaped Santorini, from its gaping volcano caldera to its whitewashed houses and churches atop the cliffs, has been called the most extraordinary island in the Aegean.

On Rhodes, the "Island of Eternal Summer," most passengers spent the leisurely day exploring the honey-colored fortress and shopping, or shuttled off to the neighboring quaint Greek town of Lindos.

"Visit the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World," my itinerary beckoned. I don't think so. The towering lighthouse was destroyed in 227 BC and exists only on T-shirts, tacky figurines, and postcards.

These island visits were complemented by a stop at Kusadasi to visit the ancient city of Ephesus, and a cruise around Mt. Athos and through the Dardanelles. Then it was on to two days in the magical city of Istanbul, the highlight of the trip.

All passengers I spoke with were delighted with the cruise, although there were a couple of groans about the price of land tours. These tours are extensive - from four to 12 hours long, and the local guides are encyclopedic in knowledge, but they don't come for naught. Prices range from $60 to $80, per person. One passenger noted that she and her husband had "spent $840 on land excursions so far, and we haven't even hit Istanbul yet."

Some more-adventurous travelers saved a sack of shekels by hiring an English-speaking cab driver at each port. Or they rented a car and went out on their own, as I did on Santorini.

When you figure out the per diem, cruising is usually a good deal, with meals, room, entertainment, sports, travel, and more included. On my cruise, it seemed even more so given that round-trip air fare was thrown in.

Renaissance's policies of no smoking and open seating make you wonder why other liners haven't picked up on these innovations. And for those who don't want to spend too many days cruising, it was an advantage to have the sail broken up by four days on land. Even my esteemed colleagues couldn't have argued with this trip.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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