Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea (Part 1)

So tell us all about your trip. So sayeth our well-meaning friends. Believe it or not, I have trouble dealing with that seemingly simple request. You expect me/us to encapsulate a twelve-day cruise – one in which we toured six ports of call in five countries – in the usual four minutes one is given before the conversation veers in another direction. That’s a tall order, my friends!

What I usually do is talk about the ship, Mano Line’s Crown Iris (the latest in a series all named Iris, after the wife of the current Mano), the vessel on which we sailed on ‘AACI’s Kosher Mediterranean & Adriatic Seas 12 Night Cruise.’ That I can do easily, well within the four minutes I know will be allotted to me. Start with this. Mano Lines is designed for Israelis, meaning that: The ship leaves from Haifa, so you don’t have to deal with Ben-Gurion Airport at 3AM. The cruises are relatively inexpensive – especially if you take an inside cabin (one without a window), which we didn’t. The accommodations are hardly deluxe, but the staff are well-trained and very helpful.

Most important, the food – served buffet style – is very good, with a lot of choices and variety from day to day, and that, as you might expect, is the main attraction. Barbara and I did something amazing. Neither of us gained any weight on the cruise; Barbara, because the desserts looked better than they tasted, me, because I was very, very disciplined, taking the smaller sized plate and never going back for seconds. Because I am my mother’s son, I have been trained to finish what’s on my plate. Many of our fellow passengers apparently did not have this kind of upbringing, or else they adopted an I-paid-for-it-so-it-doesn’t-matter attitude and put everything they saw on their plates, going back to the buffet for seconds in case they missed something the first time. Or they liked the pasta and French fries so much, they simply had to have another helping. And why not bring a heaping plateful of desserts back for the table? You get the idea. I’ll leave the post-cruise dieting to them, although for some of our fellow travelers, d-i-e-t is a four-letter word.

The other question we get asked is whether it’s worthwhile to go with the AACI. After all, anybody can contact Ophir Tours directly and book a cabin at a lower price. (That’s what some Anglos we know did.) Of course, the lower price doesn’t include the cost of transportation to the port, all the usual gratuities, land tours with an English-speaking guide, and entrance fees. It doesn’t include having a scholar-in-residence (the highly esteemed Rabbi Aharon Adler). Nor does it include the special treatment you get by being part of an eighty person group: getting admitted to a dining room fifteen minutes before they open the doors to let a horde of hungry Israelis attack the buffet; having a private room for Ashkenazic davening and shiurim; having our own AACI den mothers (Sheila and Eleyna) to make sure we all behaved. Plus, not having to think about or plan anything: send in your money and show up on time. That’s all we had to do, and that’s worth something as far as I’m concerned.

I’m not suggesting that everything went smoothly (not the case!). Nor am I suggesting that there aren’t inherent limitations to this kind of group activity. There are definitely advantages to going to places like Venice on your own – assuming you have the knowledge, the time, and the motivation to doing your own planning and making your own arrangements. However, Barbara and I (I think) are in agreement that if you’re going to uncharted territory, where the locals might not speak your lingo, and what you can find to eat is questionable, you might want some friendly faces to go with you the first time. Then, if you want to go back, you can do it by yourself.

There was one thing we had to do – besides packing – to get ready for our trip: make arrangement for Pooms and Lucky to go on vacation as well. It’s one thing to leave our two cats by themselves in our apartment for a few days with friends coming in to take care of them, but not two weeks. If you’ve ever housed a cat, you will understand what I mean. Fortunately, Tzvia and her daughter Michal had agreed to provide ‘hospitality’ while we were gone. The biggest issue was not the logistics of getting our felines to their apartment a few minutes away. As we got closer and closer to ‘D’ day, my worry level kept increasing. Our two felines have never been Best Friends Forever (more like Best Friends Never), and they tend to express their mutual disdain about 4 AM – usually after Pooms has done her nightly run about the apartment with her ‘prey’ (a small cotton ball) in her mouth, emitting blood-curdling sounds. Would we get a frantic message while we were sailing the Adriatic, GET THESE CATS OUTTA HERE! Most likely there was nothing to be concerned about (Pooms would find one or more places to go into seclusion; Lucky would sooner or later settle in; there was no way either of them could panic and bolt out of the apartment to who-knows-where; they would be well cared for) had nothing to do with my emotional state. Maybe it’s like sending your kids off to camp for the first time. Anyway, all went well; they survived being in their home-away-from-home and were returned to us two weeks later none the worse for wear. I gradually calmed down as the days passed with no frantic messages from Tzvia or Michal.

As I mentioned, part of our package included getting us to and from the port in Haifa. Not only would there be a bus, we could board said bus right here at the mall in Ma’ale Adumim, after which it would stop hither and yon: Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, a senior residence in Shoresh, the rest stop on route 6, etc., etc. Boarding an ocean liner is not as nerve-fraying as dealing with the interminable madness at an airport, but still there is Security, something that must be endured. As is the mandatory safety drill. On an airplane these days, it’s kind of perfunctory; no one is actually paying attention. On any ship plying the seven seas, they make everyone listen up. At the signal, you are absolutely required to show up at the assigned spot with your life preserver. In case of emergency, that’s your lifeboat right there. Good to know!

The ship is about to sail.

One thing about setting sail from Haifa and heading west and then north, you get to spend a LOT of time on the ship, and there’s only so much to do. How much time can one spend ‘exploring?’ The pool, the hot tub, and one restaurant are on deck ten; the casino and the spa are on deck seven, along with a quarter mile once-around the ship walking track; the information desks are on deck five, as are the  shul, the card room, duty-free, and the other restaurants. The main theater is on deck six. The coffee shops, bars, and lounges are all over the place. OK, now that we know where everything is, what next?

That’s what we would find out for ourselves – in the next twelve glorious days. Stay tuned.

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