Despite the fact that I'm now based in the Pacific Northwest, I'm your classic Northeastern liberal egghead elitist. I read The New York Times and Washington Post daily, thrive on modern art and a vegetarian diet, and even own a few black berets. But there's at least one big dichotomy in my life: I make a chunk of my living writing about cruise ships -- a world that, in the public imagination, at least, is decidedly lowbrow.

"But you don't understand," I tell my latte-sipping friends. "There are some really great cruises out there. Some of the big megaships are even pretty fantastic."

At which point they say, "Yeah, but you like Adam Sandler movies, too," and rip my Northeastern liberal egghead elitist membership card into tiny little pieces.

Well, I finally have an example of egghead cruising they can't argue with.

In 2008, Martin Randall Travel ( -- a long-established British tour company that Arthur Frommer once called "probably the most erudite, serious and highly cultural tour operation on Earth" -- went into the cruise business, planning Mediterranean cruises that are unashamedly highbrow, themed on art, history, and philosophy and pegged above the usual absolute-beginner level.

"Voyages with some degree of pedagogical intent have been plying the Mediterranean for the best part of a century," reads the company's introductory copy. But, "during the last decade or two there has been a process of diluting or downgrading the content of cultural cruising. Nothing wrong with that necessarily -- the appeal became wider and more people experienced the attractions of such cruises. But it is our belief, based on our twenty-year experience of organising cultural tours and music festivals, that there is room for cruises which offer a little more challenge and stringency."

Stringency! When was the last time you heard the word stringency associated with cruising? So, without further ado, here's Martin Randall's 2009 cruise schedule, which warms the cockles of my egghead heart:

The Matisse Cruise: Sailing from Malaga, Spain, on April 15, 2009, this 10-day trip begins in Málaga, Spain (where Picasso was born) and ends in Nice, France (where Matisse died), visiting some 25 collections of modern art in ports like Marseille, St-Tropez, the Côte d'Azur, and Nice. Art-themed tours highlight each day, with visits to museums focused on the works of Picasso, Miró, Matisse, Chagall, Léger, and Vasarely; a stop at Paul Cézanne's studio in Aix-en-Provence; a trip to St-Tropez's Musée de l'Annonciade, with its collection of Pointillist, Fauve, and other Post-Impressionist works; and a stop at St-Paul-de-Vence's Maeght Foundation, with sculpture by Miró, Giacometti, and Calder. Onboard lecturers include noted art historians, professors, curators, and writers, with talks presented both on the ship and ashore. Per-person prices start at £2,650. Flights from the UK to Malaga and Nice to the UK are included in the price.

In Pursuit of Caravaggio: Sailing from Rome, this 13-day tour follows the career of 16th-century Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in Southern Italy, Sicily, and Malta, with stops in Naples, the ancient Greek city of Agropoli on the Amalfi Coast, Messina, Taormina, Palermo, Trapani, Syracuse, Agrigento, and Valetta (Malta), ending at the Tunisian port of Tunis. The trip retraces Caravaggio's journeys and allows viewing of many of his finest paintings, including The Calling of St Matthew, David with the Head of Goliath, and The Beheading of St John the Baptist. Other elements of the trip include concerts of period music in Rome, Naples, and Valletta and opportunities to visit Pompeii, Herculaneum, Mt. Vesuvius, Mount Etna, and Agrigento's Valley of the Temples. Onboard lecturers include professors and writers on art, European history, volcanology, astronomy, and archaeology. Per-person prices start at £2,990. Prices include flights from the UK to Rome and Tunis to the UK.

The Romans in Africa: Concentrating on relatively little-visited Carthaginian, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine cities and sites on the Mediterranean's North African coast, this 12-day cruise sails from Tunis, visiting Carthage, Sousse/El Djem, and Kairouan (Tunisia), Sabratha, Tripoli, Leptis Magna, Benghazi/Tolmeita, Tokrah, Cyrene, and Apollonia (Libya), ending in Heraklion (Greece). The cruise includes a performance of Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas at the ancient Roman theater in Sabratha and dramatic readings of classical authors in the theaters of Leptis Magna and Apollonia, plus lectures onboard and in port by professors of classical languages and literature, archaeology, and Egyptology. Per-person prices start at £2,690. Chartered flights from the UK to Tunis and Heraklion to the UK are included in the price.

Classical Civilizations: This 13-day cruise provides a chronological survey of Greco-Roman civilizations, including the Minoan, Mycenaean, Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods. Sailing from Heraklion, it visits Minoan sites in Crete, Mycenaean sites in mainland Greece, the ancient site of Olympia, Athens, the islands of Delos and Syros, the oracle of Apollo at Didyma and the Roman city of Ephesus (Turkey), the ruins of Troy, and ending at Istanbul. Onboard lecturers include Martin Biddle, Professor of Medieval Archaeology at the University of Oxford; classicist and ancient Near Eastern historian Professor Trevor Bryce, and art and naval historian David Cordingly. In Istanbul, passengers attend a private concert by a string quartet at the 6th-century Haghia Eirene church. Per-person prices start at £2,990. Chartered flights from the UK to Tunis and Heraklion to the UK are included in the price. Flights from the UK to Heraklion and Istanbul to the UK are included.

Ancient Greek Philosophy: The winner of the "you'd never find this on a mainstream megaship" award, this 12-day cruise sails round-trip from Istanbul, concentrating on sites where the great philosophers, scientists and physicians lived and practiced, and (through lectures, etc.) instilling an understanding of philosophy and its relevance in the modern world. Ports include Miletos (Turkey), where the discipline of philosophy began; the Greek island of Kos, associated with the 5th-century BC physician Hippocrates; Athens, home to Protagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; the island of Samos, home to Pythagoras and Epicurus; Stageira, Aristotle's birthplace; Abdera, home to Democritus, the founder of the theory of atoms; Chios, which might be the birthplace of Homer; and Pergamon, home of the great Greek physician Galen. The cruise includes guided walks, lectures by professors of philosophy and classics, and -- as an antidote to (or lubricator of) to all that philosophical thought, there's an emphasis on Greek wine and winemaking. Per-person prices start at £2,620. Flights between the UK and Istanbul are included.

The Ships

Cruises are offered aboard two small ships, the 15,000-ton, 236-passenger MV Columbus (Caravaggio, Romans in Africa, Classical Civilizations, and Greek Philosophy cruises) and the 8,282-ton, 180-passener Le Diamant (Matisse cruise).

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