Voyages to Antiquity Update

| June 14, 2010

We had high praise for this new cruise line's business model. Now that we've sailed on it, let's put the promise into perspective.

I recently wrote about a new cruise line I had yet to sail, Voyages to Antiquity, noting that it appeared to be a great value. Now that I have cruised on the line's only ship, the Aegean Odyssey, it's time to update that initial impression based on real world experience. You can read those initial reports here: VTA: First Impression and VTA: Surprises. These article were written before my recent cruise was more than a full day completed.

Now that I have completed my first sailing on this cruise line there are some things I like, but also several areas I believe need work. This update to my original articles should give you the perspective you need to enjoy your Voyages to Antiquity cruise, if you choose to try one.

My Initial Expectations

During my first discussion with Mitch Schlesinger, a vice president for Voyages to Antiquity, I was impressed with the line's concepts: port-intensive itineraries with airfare, shore excursions, enrichment host/lecturers, and wine with dinner all included in the price.

That concept reminded me of a Viking River cruise I took from Moscow to St Petersburg. One of four Russian guides were each assigned to a group of about 50 passengers for the entire cruise. They were with us from the moment we landed in Moscow until we departed from Saint Petersburg airport at 4:00 a.m. 11 days later. The guides went on every tour with us, backing up the local guides by answering questions and giving us non-stop personal attention.

I envisioned this kind of experience during my Mediterranean cruise on Aegean Odyssey, a cruise ship rather than a river boat -- but it appears the ship was launched before the onboard experience was fully defined.

Cruising on Aegean Odyssey

Under earlier identities, the Aegean Odyssey was operated by Epirotiki, Renaissance Cruises and Golden Sun Cruises. Voyages to Antiquity improved her by reducing the number of berths from more than 500 to 380, including several "Concierge Class" staterooms with new furniture, carpet and paint. This is the class of stateroom I had a chance to try.

I was met at the Rome airport by representatives holding Voyages to Antiquity signs and transported to the ship, where I checked in immediately, even though it was still well before noon.

I was escorted to my Concierge Class balcony stateroom, which comes with a number of amenities. But the austerity of the decor made it feel like a furnished apartment where it was up to me to provide the personality. It's a bright white rectangle with no wood accents. I found a bottle of warm champagne in an empty ice bucket on a small glass table next to a small couch that appeared freshly reupholstered, but not exactly new. There were no fresh flowers or the usual literature one finds when checking into a stateroom. The bathroom had a hair dryer and complimentary products but there were no storage shelves, cabinets or shower curtain.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Austere cabins with no desk or pictures   Bathroom - no shelves or shower curtainm

The only things on the stark white walls were a tiny framed print with an odd jungle theme and a tiny 19-inch, flat-panel TV mounted on the wall. I turned it on and only saw a few ghostly images that were supposed to be the free in-room movie channels - which never worked in my room. Finally the news channels came in -- CNBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg and the BBC.

Public Rooms - Somewhat Austere surroundings everywhere:

Reception Area   Interior Stairwell   Library - One of the nicest rooms

At least the balcony was roomy and had appropriate wooden chairs and a table.

As I set my computer on the bureau (no desk), I noticed the room has only European wall sockets, one taken by the mini-fridge inside the bureau - emitting a constant hum and a concerning amount of non-ventilated heat. Inside the fridge were six included soft drinks I never touched. A warm liter of complimentary bottled water sat on top of the bureau.

Dining and Room Service

At lunchtime we were directed to the empty starboard side of the Marco Polo dining room. The port side was full of people leaving the previous cruise, eating and waiting for the announcement that their bus to the Rome airport was ready. Seeing people already checked out getting a full lunch made a positive first impression.

Unfortunately, the meal turned that impression around; a salad of faded iceberg lettuce, followed after an interminable wait (with no visits from the waiter) and an entrée on a plain plate, cold and with overcooked vegetables. I began to voice concern.

By the third day, we were taking all our meals in the buffet area called Tapas on the Terrace, having given up on the dining room. And even there we had problems. Breakfast is only served from 7:00 to 8:30 a.m., (forget sleeping in. Windstar serves delicious, freshly cooked eggs Benedict to order until 10:30 any morning.) Our breakfast and lunch always started with a hunt for silverware, nowhere to be found until we asked for it. Tables were often not cleared and entire meals would go by with no one offering us beverages, including the vital morning coffee.

At least Aegean Odyssey has a chef making fresh omelettes on the terrace. Unfortunately, the breakfast bacon was as limp as wet newspaper, and I have never understood why so many ships offer waffles from a steam-warmed pan (making them soggy like sponges) and only frozen butter pats which never melt.

For more pictures, go to the photo album here: Voyages to Antiquity Aegean Odyssey

Technology Challenges

As a non-retired person my next step was the ship's communications systems. I need constant Internet access via my laptop to get my email and to configure and upload web pages to this web site even when I am on a cruise.

Here my vision of a premium, river cruise-like experience quickly ended. With no wireless access offered anywhere onboard I had to tote my laptop to the ship's computer center and plug in with the network cable I had fortunately brought. Unfortunately, the network is configured to block email programs and the FTP programs I use to update web sites. My laptop was nearly useless -- except that the ship's own workstations are even less utile.

The ship's computers are set up not to work at all unless you are paying to be connected to the Internet. They contain no word processing or graphics programs, nor do they accept thumb drives -- so there is no way to upload pictures or pre-typed documents. You will have to use Web mail - so don't forget your password. Many ships with computer centers have instructors onboard for classes on digital picture taking and management, for example. Aegean Oddysey has no tech support for the computer center at all.

The ship also has no cellular phone service; even the cabin phones can't be used to leave or receive messages, but at least I had a phone in my cabin. I met some guests who did not. The good news is that you are in the Mediterranean and "world" cellphones (European GSM compatible) work pretty well, often even several miles out to sea.

Setting Sail from Rome

I wanted a room service continental breakfast sent to my cabin at 7 a.m. the first morning, but there were no breakfast order cards in the room. I called and left my order with reception the night before, but my order got lost. I had to call back and reorder the next morning, and my coffee finally arrived at 7:30 - muddy and cold.

The first day of the cruise included a complimentary shore excursion to Pompeii followed by a stay in Sorrento until midnight. I skipped Pompeii since I had just been there, but I waited in the lounge with my fellow reporters who had opted to go. They were also in Concierge Class cabins, and thus were supposed to receive priority tender boarding; 45 minutes later, they were the last to leave.

But the day was redeemed by an itinerary that kept us in port until midnight, giving us the rare opportunity (for a cruise) to have a sunset, al fresco dinner onshore in a real Italian restaurant. The next morning, we reached the Stromboli volcano as announced at 5:00 a.m. -- but the sun did not rise until 6:30. While it looked beautiful in the morning light, no food or coffee was available anywhere on the ship until 6:30.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Stromboli with the ship in view   Stromboli Volcano at Sunrise   Sunrise makes the volcano look like it is erupting (not)
Tendering to Sorrento   A scene from old Sorrento   Shopping in Sorrento - tile, limoncello, gelato

Later, all the morning shore excursions were canceled due to high seas too rough for tendering. We had an entire morning onboard with no activities offered at all. Logically, they should have rescheduled a lecture for that morning, but there was no cruise director onboard to manage that kind of flexibility. We soon learned the previously hired cruise director had left the ship before our cruise and there was no replacement yet. With nothing to do, most passengers sat on the comfortable, new Balinese beds by the pool, dozing off.

For more pictures, go to the photo album here: Voyages to Antiquity Aegean Odyssey

That afternoon we enjoyed an excellent, included-in-the-cruise-fare tour of a rare Greek ruin on mainland Italy which I had never heard of - Paestum. Our local tour guide was excellent, and the mobile headset system that allowed her to speak directly into our ears worked perfectly.

click on pictures below for larger images:

The Greek ruins at Paestum, from 600 B.C. very well preserved.   Our guide at Paestum using the ship provided headsets allowing her to speak into our ears.

That night the lecture scheduled for 8:45 p.m. was about "The Volcanoes of Naples, Vesuvius and the Phlegrean fields." We had already sailed past Etna and Stromboli, and were on our way to Sicily. Not only was this bad scheduling, but the lecture was marred by a bad sound system that both the lecturer and audience complained about -- but there were no crew members on hand to lend assistance.

Voyages to Antiquity - What to Expect

While the line offers everything mentioned in the brochure -- airfare, transfers and a daily shore excursion included in the cruise fare (although not all shore excursions are included, many have a surcharge) -- what is missing is the excellent service level you'll find on other cruise lines. In cruise industry-speak, Voyages to Antiquity has the hardware, but not the software. They have done a decent job of reconditioning this older ship, but the staff on board seems to have no direction.

The shore excursion planning was unpredictable. After the first day's fiasco where the Concierge Class passengers left last, they started to announce shore excursion by groups. That was the same morning I wanted to sleep in; but the announcements started coming into my owner's suite bedroom at 7:45 with no way to turn them off and did not end for 90 minutes.

The menus are very limited, and mealtimes are short with no food available in between. This is highly unusual for a cruise ship - even riverboats keep snacks and coffee on hand 24 hours a day.

The onboard activities are limited to one daily lecture scheduled for 8:45 p.m. The lectures are not repeated, nor are they taped and replayed on the cabin TVs. In fact, I never saw any kind of stage manager or technician on the ship at all. The two lecturers onboard did not act as hosts, and were never seen roaming the ship to answer questions as we were told they would.

Without the service element, the best way to get value from this cruise line right now is to book a lower category cabin, since it is not worth paying a premium for what are described as Concierge Class amenities. There are no ice buckets, the room service is limited to continental breakfast, and the extra space in the Concierge staterooms is not well utilized - except for the balconies.

In fact, I was moved to the top Owner's Suite halfway through the cruise, and it was spacious with a nice bathtub, but there were no curtains in the living room and a public deck right outside -- so it was too bright during the day, and at night I felt like a goldfish where anyone could watch my every move.

click on pictures below for larger images:

Owner's Suite - no curtains, small TV, recovered furniture   Desk Area - no US sockets, no Internet, no curtains, small prints on wall   Owner's Suite Bedroom - yes curtains, small TV

Recommendations and Comparisons

I had plenty of initial enthusiasm for this new destination-oriented cruise line started by former Orient Lines founder Gerry Herrod. But here is the bottom line: If you go on this ship expecting a deluxe experience comparable to Oceania or Azamara Club cruises, you are not going to get it.

If you are willing to bring your own snacks, can tolerate cold coffee, and choose a lower category cabin so you are not over-paying for this ship's onboard offerings, then Voyages to Antiquity is good enough now. But an experienced cruiser who prefers to pay more for better onboard food and service should wait for further updates before booking this cruise line.

Let's compare a few prices. Oceania Cruises' Nautica has a 14-day Holy Land cruise from Athens to Rome with two days in Israel and two days in Egypt. Other ports include Ephesus, Cyprus, Syria, Sicily, and Sorrento. This cruise, with airfare and a shore excursion package with nine tours included, costs $8,043 per person for a verandah cabin (lowest price $6,143). Compare this to Voyages to Antiquity where a similar 16-day cruise, Athens to Cairo, costs $7,696 for a verandah cabin (lowest price $4,150).

For a well-traveled person, Voyages to Antiquity offers the more exotic itinerary ("Carthage is to be Deleted" is the title for that cruise; Athens to Sicily, Malta, Tunisia, Libya (four days), Alexandria and Cairo), but Oceania has a more popular itinerary.

On Oceania you will get gourmet food with a menu designed by Jacques Pepin (he once did PBS cooking shows with Julia Child) in alternative restaurants at no additional charge, plus free 24-hour room service. You get decent nighttime entertainment such as live music with dancing; the staterooms have wood cabinetry, fine linens and special mattresses, etc. You also get the same basic amenities as in Concierge Class on Voyages to Antiquity (free drinks in your room, priority embarkation, etc. You do not get alcoholic beverages).

A Viking River cruise on the Nile (a river cruise boat, not a cruise ship) is 12 nights for $7,545 including airfare, for accommodations in a top suite; lowest price is $4,643. You get free wireless Internet access, shore tours, beverages, airfare (roundtrip to Cairo) and transfers. You can add an alcoholic drinks package for $395 per person.

So the value proposition in Voyages to Antiquity is in the lower category cabins. It is not worth paying extra for the limited Concierge Class services. Aegean Odyssey offers a very austere shipboard experience, not too different from a riverboat. You get lectures, but little else in the way of entertainment.

If this line works out the kinks in 2010, then 2011 holds more promise. The line is changing its inclusive fare to be closer to the Orient Lines approach. Instead of the 2010 series of 14-day cruises, it will offer two- or three-day pre- or post-cruise hotel stays and shorter cruises, seven days on average. Pre-cruise city stays will include Athens, Rome, Istanbul and Venice, for example. These stays will all be included in the cruise fare, along with airfare and some shore tours.

I hope Voyages to Antiquity can make its promise of immersion in the local culture come to life. I'd like to see them schedule lectures in the mornings when there are no ports of call. There should be documentaries on local culture and taped replays of the lectures on the television - rather than movies averaging a year old.

And they need to get their food service together.

Finally, there were notable safety issues. Many of the ship's outdoor staircases have lips at the top that one must step over to get down to the first step. Anyone could easily trip over this lip and suffer a serious fall down a flight of steel stairs. Even the dance floor has a one-inch lip around the edge, which I imagine people trip over all the time.

click on pictures below for larger images:

One staircase with dangerous lip   Yes another dangerous lip

I hate to say anything bad about any cruise line if its heart is in the right place. But in this case, improvements are needed in the basic shipboard offerings before I can say this is an excellent cruise line. I still like the premise and wish them luck - and I will give you another update when I can.

For more pictures, go to the photo album here: Voyages to Antiquity Aegean Odyssey

We also recommend a link to fellow reporter Peter Knego's article at Maritime Matters:

Peter Knego Maritime Matters: Aegean Odyssey Part 1 Peter Knego Maritime Matters: Aegean Odyssey Part 2 Peter Knego Maritime Matters: Aegean Odyssey Part 3

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