By William Wolf



(Si Liberman is a renowned travel and feature writer)

I don’t own a Rolls Royce. Probably never will, but a 12-day Mediterranean cruise sure had that privileged, luxurious feel.

Russian caviar? All you can eat.

Moet & Chandon Champagne, other wines and cocktails? Also unlimited and complimentary. Cuisine? Honored member of prestigious Relais & Chateaux Relais Gourmands and hors d’oeuvres, ranging from caviar to shrimp to cracked stone crab claws, delivered to your suite every afternoon.

Our accommodations? A 700-plus square foot suite, the size of a one-bedroom apartment with two TV sets, marble bathroom with stall shower and tub jacuzzi, built-in wall stereo, two floor-to-ceiling sliding window walls and a long veranda.

Entertainment? Broadway-caliber.

Any wonder Conde Nast Travelers Magazine readers voted Silversea “The World’s Best Small Ship Line” the last six of the company’s eight years of existence?

One criticism, though. We would have been even more comfortable if smoking were banned in all sections of the Panorama showroom as it was in most other enclosed public areas of the ship. However, it wasn’t the promise of unbridled luxury as much as the itinerary that included visits to three war-touched areas of Croatia that sold us on Silversea, an Italian-owned four- ship fleet with corporate headquarters in Fort Lauderdale.

My wife, Dorothy, and I boarded the year-old, all-suite, 382-passenger Silver Whisper in Istanbul after a hurried, haggling visit to the fabled Grand Bazaar. Our booty: a few knockoff golf shirts (don’t tell the other passengers) and pashmina shawls.

Two days later we were in Dubrovnik, a spruced up old city struggling to regain its reputation as one of Europe’s premiere resorts.

“They were shelling us from up there in the mountains,” the middle-aged Dubrovnik guide with brushed-back blond hair explained. “For seven months, we were under siege. Two hundred people were killed; many homes had their roofs blown off. One woman I knew was killed while sitting in her kitchen.”

That was in 1991. After declaring its independence from what was Yugoslavia, Croatia was attacked by big brother neighbors Serbia and Montenegro. Dubrovnik was an early casualty of the ethnic-cleansing warfare that ultimately led to the dissolution of the six republics that made up communist Yugoslavia. Their city under the gun and in chaos, many of the 50,000 residents fled – some not returning until 1996.

Nearly two-thirds of its buildings were damaged but a democratic-prone government and a populace that treasures its antiquities appear to have erased most evidence of those horrific days. Broken buildings, for the most part, have been repaired, and the old coastal city which weathered other attacks and in some cases occupation in years past by Italian, German, French, Hungarian, Austrian and Turkish forces is gradually regaining its groove as a popular tourist destination. Or so it seemed from the visiting crowds we observed within the old, fortified, double-walled city that’s designated a UNESC0 World Heritage Site.

It was a gloomy, overcast June day, and the town was abuzz with traffic. Buses lined streets outside of the medieval inner city. Armed police officers directed a steady stream of cars. Inside the walled area, umbrella toting guides and tourists dodged intermittent showers while traversing the very narrow streets, some dating back to 900 A.D. and Roman times. Others were lined with outdoor restaurants and coffee shops.

Pointing to a glass-enclosed exhibit of ancient mixing bowls and crude utensils, our guide who called herself Gordona (CQ) beckoned. “Look. This was Europe’s first pharmacy. Founded in the 14th century.” Since 9/11 American visitors have been greatly outnumbered by those from Germany, Italy and England, she said, and the biggest spenders these days are Russians. “Free of communism and its restrictions, they’re enthusiastic travelers who like to flaunt their wealth,” Gordona continued. “One can only imagine how they got their money, though.”

A nation of only 4.7 million residents, there’s certainly no shortage of politicians in Croatia. “We have more than a dozen political parties. Sometimes it seems there’s one for every Croatian,” she laughed. “I favor one party, my husband supports another and my mother who lives with us votes for a different one altogether.”

We also visited Korcula (pronounced Kor-chew-la), a tranquil, little-known island about 100 miles east of Dubrovnik, and Split, a picturesque Dalmatian city of 190,000 residents situated between the sea and a range of mountains. Both are summer resorts with preserved thick fortress walls, marinas, outdoor markets, ancient churches, small hotels and flower lined streets. Marco Polo, the earliest and probably best known travel writer and explorer, is said to have been born in Korcula. Local legend has him leaving here for China in 1254 with his father and uncle, crossing the Gobi Desert and eventually finding himself in Mongolia.

A small sign in English marks the birthplace -- a nondescript, three-story stone building near the town’s 700-year-old St. Peter’s Church. After paying a small entry fee and climbing a series of treacherously narrow stone steps, we found ourselves in an empty room no bigger than our shipboard bathroom. This is where Marco Polo was reported to have been born. Outside, a chipped sculptured stone bust of the bearded explorer rests against a wall, calling attention to the VIP who’s believed to have lived here.

Like Dubrovnik, Split survived the 1991 Serbian onslaught but not without some damage. Today it’s a rehabilitated, vibrant, clean city with a busy port, growing population, thriving 28-year-old university, pristine beaches, mountains and treasured remnants of a 1,700-year history. Evidence of those perilous, early ‘90s days aren’t apparent – at least not in the downtown area. But evidence of its occupation by Rome a millennium or so ago is.

Its No. 1 attraction, the remains of an enormous palace complex built by Roman Emperor Diocletian, was barely a half-mile from where our boat docked. We spent several hours there, first strolling through a big open air market, then inside the enclave which has been transformed into a tidy marketplace with boutique designer shops, narrow alleyways, upstairs apartments, Roman monuments and a Medieval church.

At the crowded open air market, my attempt to snap a picture of a shell game hustler furtively scooping up cash from unlucky players was met with hostility. An agitated stocky male spectator threw himself in front of the camera, shaking his head menacingly, and pushed me aside. Being the fearless journalist that I’m not, naturally I backed off.

Other days we visited the port of Napflion, a former capital of Greece, and Venice where we toured the old Jewish ghetto area, took a 40-minute gondola ride and dined at the five-star Hotel Cipriani whose guests have included a long list of celebrities ranging from Bruce Springsteen to former presidents Reagan, Nixon and Bush and whose room rates go from $600 to $6,000 a night. We also stopped at two other important port cities in Italy – Bari and Civitavecchia. After disembarking in Genoa and touring old and new sections of the city en route to the airport for our return home, there was a long wait at the airport.

Our plane was more than an hour late. We were frantically rushing to make a connecting Air France flight at Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris when we heard a thunderous explosion. Then all hell seemed to break loose. Two armed security men suddenly appeared, looking very agitated. With arms outstretched, they refused to allow us to proceed. Despite pleadings that our plane was about to leave, my wife and I and others behind us were ordered to go back downstairs and wait.

Maybe 10 or 15 minutes later – of course, it seemed longer – an Air France employee motioned us to ascend the stairs and follow her. We did, and made it to the plane just in time. We later learned what caused the blast. An unattended suitcase was found in the terminal. Fearing it may have been left by a terrorist, authorities summoned anti-demolition technicians who blew it up.

Truly, this was one vacation we got a bang out of, literally and figuratively.

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IF YOU GO . . . . . .

Silversea Cruises, 110 East Broward Blvd., Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301, operates four small, relatively new, all-suite luxury vessels with capacities of less than 400 passengers and itineraries, covering the Mediterranean, New England, Northern Europe, the Caribbean, South America, Africa, India and the Far East. Alcoholic beverages, port charges and gratuities are included in the price as is bus shuttle service to center city at some ports. Airfare is extra.

Call your travel agent or visit Silversea’s website, for more information. You can also reach the cruise line by calling 800-722-9955 or FAX 954-522-4499.

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