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by Margaret M. Johnson
After several years of shouting "no cruise for me," I'm happy to report that I'm now a seasoned veteran and have just returned from yet another delightful maritime experience -- this time aboard a floating palace called MS Noordam, one of 14 ships in the Holland America fleet.
With tastes of Italian, Spanish, and Tunisian cultures, I found cruising round the Med both enchanting and delicious.
The Noordam set sail from Civitevecchia (Rome), and after getting acquainted with the ship (maps are provided for the 11-deck, 1,900-passenger vessel), enjoying the first of many fabulous dinners, and spending a night at sea, we docked at the port of Livorno, "Gateway to Tuscany."
Like the rest of the passengers, we scurried off bright and early to excursions throughout the region, including Florence, Lucca, Pisa and Siena.
We chose the latter, which included a walking tour of two medieval hill towns -- Siena, home of the famous Palio (a bareback horse race held July 2 and Aug. 16 each year around Il Campo), and San Gimignano, famous for its photogenic towers, 13 of which are still intact.
Even driving rain and slippery cobblestone streets couldn't detract from the stunning beauty of Siena.
Blessed with several beautiful churches -- the still unfinished, black-and-white marble Cathedral; the Basilica of San Domenico; and the Sanctuary of St. Catherine (the woman who helped bring the popes back from exile in France) -- Siena is also well known for its shops selling local produce such as Panforte (fruitcake), Tuscan wines, and wild boar.
In between the visits, the sun came out and we enjoyed lunch and an entertaining wine tasting / tutorial at Tenuta Torciano, a farmhouse/winery near San Gimignano.
Home to the Giach family of winemakers, Pierluigi Giach gave us wine tasting "lessons" along with a four-course lunch along and a few "bada bings" a la "The Sopranos" to please the mostly American audience.
If you love Tuscan wines -- Giach labels include "supertuscans," Brunello de Montalcino, Chianti, and some whites -- this is the place for you.
Best part is you can ship it home and the wine will be on your doorstep in about 10 days.
The next day brought us to Monaco, but because of two prior visits, we toured the countryside instead of Monte Carlo and enjoyed the ambiance of other Cote d'Azur "jewels" like the hilltop village of Eze, perched halfway between Monaco and Nice.
If you're a first-time visitor to the famed principality, however, the ship docks conveniently at the Port of Monaco with the Old Town, Royal Palace, Oceanographic Museum, famed Grand Casino, and fabulous shopping just minutes away by cab or foot.
BARCELONA and MALLORCA
Barcelona is one of Spain's most cosmopolitan cities and an art-lover's paradise.
The political center and heartbeat of Catalunya (a region that extends across the Spanish-French border), Barcelona is blessed with more avant garde architecture than any other city in the world, thanks in part to Antonio Gaudi, whose work is protected by the U.N. World Trust. To view his Sagrada Familia (Holy Family Cathedral) alone is worth a visit. Considered to be his most visible work, the church was begun in 1882 and its construction, which is still considered incomplete, became his obsession.
Other notable artists like Picasso and Joan Miro have museums dedicated to their work, while the Catalan Art National Museum houses some of the world's most important Romanesque paintings.
A stroll along Las Ramblas, one of Europe's most famous promenades, is a "must" for visitors, as is wandering through the medieval Barri Gotic, filled with markets, shops, and cafes. Be sure to stop for tapas or coffee here.
For an authentic "adventure," you can even rent a bike at one of the 100 bicycle stations in the metropolitan zone, part of the city's new "Bicing" program that hopes to aid the climate crisis. A Barcelona "bonus" is that it's situated directly on the sea, so you can also go for a swim!
Next stop on the cruise was lovely Palma, Mallorca, largest of the Balearic Islands.
Here our interests turned to culinary rather than visual arts, and after docking, we joined a guide who took us to the Mercado de Santa Caterina where we "simulated" shopping for shrimp, chicken, pork ribs, octopus, rabbit, mussels, rice, and saffron -- the necessary ingredients for paella, Spain's national dish.
We actually helped prepare the dish later at Son Amar, a Spanish-style winery with outdoor space for pig roasting and paella making.
The word "paella" refers to the large frying pan the meal is prepared in, and our pan was large enough to feed all 40 of us.
Local wines, suckling pig, and authentic paella -- now that's what I call lunch!
TUNISIA AND SICILY
The Noordam next docked in La Goulette, Tunisia a port that required a scorecard to fully comprehend the ancient history that spread across North Africa from invasions by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, and Ottomans.
That aside, we enjoyed a visit to the seaside village of Sidi Bou Said, a place that looked a lot like a Greek island with whitewashed homes and brightly colored windows and doors, but with a distinctive casbah atmosphere.
After another lovely day at sea, we arrived in Palermo, Sicily, and once again enjoyed an excursion to a seaside village, Cefalu (pronounced CHEF-a-lu), an hour's drive from Palermo.
Reminiscent of an Italian hill town with a warren of narrow streets and alleyways filled with restaurants and cafes, the landscape is overshadowed by the 12th-century Cathedral-Fortress built by King Roger II in thanksgiving for a safe return from sea.
We heard lots of English spoken here, too, as it's a favorite summer getaway for English and Irish tourists.
GRAND FINALE, CAPRI
While the Noordam's last official port was Naples, the city is really the starting point for shore excursions to the Amalfi Coast, Vesuvius, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Capri (pronounced CAP-ri), playground of the rich and famous.
Saving the best for last is always a good idea, and there are few places that rival this rocky outpost.
Capri's touristy side is at Marina Grande, where ferries arrive from Naples and where you catch the funicular to reach the village of Capri.
Here the island's haute couture side surrounds Piazza Umberto I, otherwise known as the "Piazzetta," a square lined with outdoor cafes, and shops like Gucci, Pucci, Ungaro, and Versace are found on the narrow passages that spiral down from it.
The Piazzetta is the center of the island for tourists and locals alike.
Higher still is Annacapri, also with shops and restaurants, and a chairlift that takes passengers to Monte Solaro, the top of the island, for a spectacular 360-degree view over the Bay of Naples and the nearby island of Ischia.
Capri's famous Blue Grotto is also a "must-see" for anyone who has the courage to explore a watery cave while lying on your back in a rowboat -- just not me!
DAYS AT SEA
When people tell you "touring is tiring," believe them, and enjoy the days at sea that can include anything from relaxing with an Asian-inspired massage in the Green House Spa and Salon to catching a lecture sponsored by the ship's Speaker Series to checking your email in Explorations Cafe.
If cooking excites you, you can take a class or watch a demo in the Culinary Arts Center presented by "Food & Wine" magazine, have Dutch royal afternoon tea, participate in an Indonesian tea and coffee ceremony, or tour chef Martin Kusin's incredible kitchen to see how 810 crewmembers orchestrate the ship's diverse meals -- would you believe upward of 6,000 pounds of fish and seafood and 12,000 pounds of meat are consumed on an average voyage?
Lounging by the pool is also a good thing -- at sea or not -- and joining "On Deck for the Cure," a 5K walk to benefit the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation is even better. Trust me, you need a daily planner to keep up!
Although it's doubtful you'd ever tire of the five-course menus in the Noordam's two-tiered dining room, you can select "As You Wish" dining that allows for flexible seating and times, opt for the reservations-only Pinnacle Grill, where gourmet meals are served on Bulgari china and wines in Riedel stemware, or simply enjoy casual buffet-style dining in the Lido.
With no "Where to Eat" or "Where to Stay" details necessary for cruising, you only need to know where and when you want to go.
The signature-class MS Eurodam joined Holland America's original 13-ship fleet in spring 2008, and the MS Nieuw Amsterdam is scheduled to begin sailing in 2010.
Together, the line offers nearly 500 cruises to 320 ports in more than 100 countries, and some itineraries include transatlantic sailings. Two- to 108-day itineraries visit all seven continents, and highlights include Antarctica, South America, Australia/New Zealand and Asia voyages. Ports in the Caribbean, Alaska, Mexico, Canada/New England, Europe, and the Panama Canal are among the most popular.
Holland America also offers Grand World Voyages (from 22 to 117 days), with some segments aboard MS Rotterdam still available to book for 2009: a 22-day trip from Sydney to Hong Kong sails on Feb. 11(extend to Singapore for 33 days or Dubai for 46 days).
For the ultimate transatlantic adventure, set sail on March 16 for a 58-day voyage from Singapore to Fort Lauderdale with stops in Kenya; Madagascar; Mozambique; Richard's Bay, Durban, and Cape Town, South Africa.
Visit www.hollandamerica.com for complete itineraries and fares.
© TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
About Margaret M. Johnson
Margaret M. Johnson has been writing about food and travel for more than 20 years.
She is also the author of many Irish cookbooks , including "Irish Puddings, Tarts, Crumbles, and Fools: 80 Glorious Desserts ," a desserts cookbook published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
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Vacation Travel | Mediterranean Enchantment Cruise Onboard MS Noordam
World's Fare Margaret M. Johnson