By William Wolf

CRUISING INTO A TROUBLED AREA  Send This Review to a Friend

(The following is a guest column by noted travel writer and journalist Si Liberman)


Days before our ship, the MSC Divina, docked in Istanbul there had been anti-American demonstrations in the city and elsewhere in the country. A State Department memo cautioned American visitors to beware.

As fate would have it on the very day of our arrival, Oct. 3, five persons were killed by Syrian forces’ gunfire in a Turkish border town, touching off cries for revenge and adding fuel to the Mid-East tinderbox. The reaction wasn’t immediately apparent, though. We learned of the incident after returning to the Divina (Italian for divine) from the legendary Grand Bazaar.

Strolling in and around the 3,000-shop covered bazaar, my wife and I only found beckoning smiles, a few spirited sales pitches and thousands of other curious tourists like us. No real bargains or apparent anti-American feeling, though. Near the bazaar we accepted a seemingly pleasant street merchant’s invitation to get a panoramic view of the city and take photos from the roof of his four-story furniture and art objects emporium. There was no buying pressure.

Up we went in the elevator, and what you mostly saw was a sea of dark, weathered roofs and a faraway mosque dome. A smoky, carbon-smelly haze hung over the congested, vehicle-packed city of 13.5 million residents and nearly 3,000 active mosques.

Unfortunately, of all the 20,000 taxis in the city, we got into one with an overly aggressive driver. After handing him the agreed 20 euros ($27 at $1.35 per euro) for the 20-minute drive from the bazaar to the port, he demanded more money and tried to snatch some bills from my wallet. Pushing away his hand, I quickly folded and pocketed the wallet, flung open the cab door and we made a fast exit. Driving off, he muttered words we couldn’t understand. Didn’t sound like a thank you, though.

Istanbul was the fourth of five major cities in four countries we visited during the seven-day Mediterranean cruise. Earlier, we had taken in Venice and Bari in Italy, the Greek island of Katakolon where the first Olympic games are believed to have originated and Izmir, Turkey‘s third largest city, which has an active Jewish community of 2,600 and seven synagogues.

Dubrovnik, Croatia, was the last stop before returning to Venice and disembarking. The 3,500-passenger Divina, christened in May by Sophia Loren, billed as its godmother, is the 12th vessel in the privately Italian-owned MSC fleet, ensuring MSC’s place as the world’s third largest cruise line. Interior décor melding art deco and art nouveau with extensive use of different colored marble in all the public areas and sparkly, diamond-like Swarovski glass steps leading to the atrium create a very luxurious feel.

Our 16th deck stateroom (decks are named after Greek goddesses) was in the Yacht Club section, a kind of ship within a ship sealed off area with 69 butler-serviced balcony suites, its own private swimming pool, concierge, restaurant, lounge, bar, library and elevator with private spa and fitness center access.

Wines and spirits were complimentary in the restaurant and lounge, both of which afforded views of the sea. A variety of finger foods was always available in the club’s Top Sail lounge. And as club members, we were provided with a daily newspaper of our choice--USA Today.

Meals in the Yacht Club’s roomy, French-styled Le Muse restaurant were very satisfying and relaxing. Service by formally attired waiters was unhurried with availability of off-the-menu, made-to-order choices plus always available filet mignon, grilled salmon and Caesar salad, among other staples. The one time we opted to try one of the regular restaurants we found it somewhat confining with tables close together, noisy and service seemingly hurried.

The Yacht Club $2,099 double occupancy fare, by the way, was nearly triple the lowest price for a standard inside cabin. If any Americans were aboard the ship we really didn’t come across any. However, the concierge insisted there was a couple from the U.S. in our section of the ship. Couldn’t help thinking she might have been referring to us. Just about everyone else appeared to be European, and public announcements routinely were in four languages -- Italian, French, Spanish and English.

Entertainment as well as dining were big pluses. Nightly 45-minute stage shows compared to the best of Broadway and Las Vegas in this writer’s view. The 1,200-seat theater rocked with themed productions by incredibly talented, elaborately-costumed singers, dancers and Le Cirque-like acrobatic teams.

A Michael Jackson themed show was especially appealing. Amidst flashing strobe lights, pulsating music and a full screen movie view of Jackson dancing, an imitator with exactly the same look and a backup group of dancers kept pace with the filmed star. It was like a duet. When the imitator and screened Jackson launched into the moon walk, the theater exploded with applause and howls of approval -- obviously a testimonial of Jackson’s international acclaim and a Divina performer’s extraordinary talent.

In all, it was a rare experience we‘ll not soon forget. Posted October 20, 2012


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