Yes, time flies. I took my first cruise in 1993, round-trip out of Malaga, Spain, on the cozy 960-passenger Cunard Princess to Corfu, Greece; Palmero, Sicily; and Naples, Italy. Since then the ship has been bought and sold a few times and last I heard, is sailing in the Med for an Israel-based company. Ships come and go, but memories last forever. That first cruise was special because of the friends I met on board, whom I'm still in touch with. Well, and those amazing ports won me over as well. Plus, the ship had a great long aft deck where sail-away parties were held -- wind in our hair and classic tiered decks above us. Over the years I've realized that the best cruises are those that espouse all three of these attributes: an amazing itinerary coupled with a special ship and great traveling companions. Though it's hard to narrow it down to just five, off the cuff, here are five of my favorite cruises of all time.
1. Star Flyer (www.starclippers.com) in French Polynesia. March 2008.
Itinerary: 7-, 10- and 11-night itineraries round-trip from Papeete, Tahiti, through February 2010. Ports include some combination of Fakarava and Rangiora, in the Tuamotu Islands, and Bora Bora, Tahaa or Raitea, Huahine and Moorea, in the Society Islands. Warning: this part of the world is so gorgeous you may go into shock by the sight of the unreal teal green water of the lagoons and the Gilligan's-Island-style palm-fringed islets. The snorkeling in these parts is mind-altering.
Ship: Calling all romantics. This replica of a 19th-century clipper ship oozes charm and character. Four tall masts, flapping sails, and the heave-ho of lines and booms made for a great backdrop to the stunning scenery of French Polynesia. Though the cabins were very comfortable and the restaurant cute, it's the open top decks where you want to spend your time. That's the whole point: by day it's to lean against the rails and spot dolphins, watch the sailors work the rigging and feel the wind in your hair as you fantasize about a life at sea. Come night, it's all about star gazing and crashing on chaise lounges under the inky black sky as the 170-passenger ship rides the waves.
People: I did this one with my two best friends from college. We shared a cozy cabin and had oodles of time to blab and psycho-analyze each other, and occasionally, bicker. As girl's getaway material, we're talking A+++.
2. Disney Magic (www.disneycruise.com) in the Mediterranean. Summer 2007
Itinerary: The 10-night cruise sailed round-trip out of Barcelona and hit the highlights: Palermo, Naples, Olbia (Sardinia), Civitavecchia/Rome, and Le Spezia (for Florence and Pisa), all in Italy; and in France, Marseille and Villefranche. We need most of our exploring on our own via train, taxi and horse-drawn carriages and kept the pace flexi and fun. Disney's next foray into Europe is in summer 2010, when the Magic hits the same waters, plus throws in a handful of Northern Europe cruises out of Dover, England.
Ship: Classic and old-worldy (believe it or not), Disney's ships are not tacky or theme-parky, but lovely tributes to ocean liners of yore ... only these are decked out in awesome amenities: try five restaurants, gigantic playrooms and teen clubs, high-tech stage theatre, three pools, and super roomy family-friendly standard cabins with 1.5 bathrooms -- did I mention a great spa and several adults-only bars and lounges?
People: This was a cruise with my hubby and young sons. At the time they were 4.5 years old and just lovveeedddd the sprawling Oceaneer Club, running up and down the giant pirate ship, watching Disney movies and classic cartoons, spotting Mickey and crew out and about for photo ops, and looking forward to the magical production shows after dinner each evening. In port we enjoyed amazing places together, from the CCCC///">Colosseum and images of gladiators, to a horse carriage ride in Naples, and a beach day in Sardinia.
3. Wind Spirit (www.windstarcruises.com) in the Mediterranean. July 1998.
Itinerary: On this week from Istanbul to Athens, it didn't matter that our suitcase didn't show up at the gangway when we did. Three days with only the clothes on our backs and a few purchases in the tiny gift shop didn't dampen our instant love of the ship and itinerary. We cruised to Bodrum and Kusadasi, Turkey, and marveled at the amazing ruins of Ephesus, and absolutely fell in love with the history, beauty and delicious seafood and Mediterranean fare in Santorini, Mykonos, and Rhodes.
Ship: The 170-passenger yachty ship has four masts and engines, so you get both a real sailing experience when conditions are right, plus the option of driving so that you're assured of getting to the next great port on time. Though the sails can be unfurled electronically at the touch of the button, the teak deck, brass details, nautical navy blue fabrics, and those towering masts give the whole sophisticated experience an adventurish tone. The food is gourmet, the service on the ball and the overall experience: top shelf.
People: Pre-kids, my husband and I took a lot of great trips (and post-kids too!). A match made in couple heaven, Windstar in the Greek Isles and Turkey is pure romance. From dinner served on deck under the stars one evening to laughing with new friends over drinks at the breezy deck bar and kayaking off the stern of the anchored ship to paddle near a castle on shore. A decade later we still talk about this cruise.
4. Spirit of Endeavour (www.cruisewest.com) in Alaska. August 1997.
Ship: The 102-passenger Spirit of Endeavor is no-frills compared to today's Vegas-like mega ships, but we loved the cozy all-purpose lounge where lectures and readings were done. We appreciated the cute little bar where we had a glass or two of wine each evening before filing into the one restaurant for family-style dining. We liked the focus on being up on deck and didn't mind the cozy cabins with barely an extra inch of space to spare. The Endeavour is small and lithe enough to explore remote inlets, harbors and fjords and we loved the intimacy between us and nature.
People: It's rare that adult children get to spend quality time with their parents. Before I had kids of my own, I was able to take several cruises with my parents individually. While my mom is more into luxury, dad is the more academic one. He appreciated the naturalist talks, the well-traveled granola-eating passengers, and simple pleasures like our watching Johnny Carson videos each night in our cozy little dormroom-like cabin. Whale spotting was thrilling for him and so was walking through a forest of tall Cedars and totem polls. We enjoy halibut sandwiches and bottles of local brew in port, and at sea, up on deck in our rain slickers checking out the bergy bits, wild life and amazing natural beauty of Alaska.
5. Celebrity Zenith (www.celebritycruises.com) in Bermuda. May 1997.
Itinerary. The beauty of this route was two-fold: first we could avoid flying to the ship (the hassles and the money); I lived in NYC near the docks and my mom was just a few hours away by bus. We hopped on board the Zenith in Manhattan and spent a day and a half at sea each way, and then three full days in Bermuda. We enjoyed the island's easy pace, beautiful powder-soft beaches, and colonial history. Overall, what a gem.
Ship: This mid-size ship carried just about 1,350 passengers, and though no longer with the fleet, was a lovely size that enabled us to socialize and not feel overwhelmed -- yet the ship wasn't too small either (my mom likes her privacy). The Zenith was an earlier incarnation of Celebrity's penchant for classy, yet affordable every-man's cruise ships.
People: My mom and I were assigned a table with three 30-something couples. At first I thought, oh no, a pair of ladies matched with a trio of love birds. Boy was I off base, we all had a fabulous time and dinner was a highlight of this first cruise we my mom. They adored her and she them and laughs and chatter marked the entire week. Several times we all headed to the nightclub together and enjoyed dancing and after-dinner drinks like a bunch of old friends. My mom was glowing that week.
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