ON THE MEDITERRANEAN - Gazing out to sea from a chaise lounge tucked inside a white-curtained cabana on an upper deck of Nieuw Amsterdam, it comes to me ...
The reason I love cruising is no two days -- at sea or on land -- are alike. Each of the 12 days on this Mediterranean Tapestry itinerary is like a different vacation. And with 10 ports -- and multiple shore excursions in every port -- you could take the same cruise several times and have different experiences on each sailing.
My choices have shaped a cruise that is part five-star resort with spa treatments and fine dining, part walking in the footsteps of the ancients, and part brushes with royalty of the European and Hollywood varieties.
RELAX TO THE MAX
Today is a sea day -- one of only two on this port-intensive cruise from Barcelona to Venice -- and it's all about relaxing and enjoying everything Nieuw Amsterdam has to offer.
Launched in 2010, Holland America's newest ship is 11 decks of understated elegance accented by $3-million worth of art. With inviting turquoise swimming pools and hot tubs, a tranquil spa, several fine-dining restaurants, and attentive yet unobtrusive service, a day on the ship is much like being pampered at a five-star resort, with one key difference -- this floating hotel transports you effortlessly from one fabulous European locale to the next.
My day begins with breakfast served on the verandah of my suite -- 79% of Nieuw Amsterdam's 1,053 staterooms have verandahs. I've booked an airy cabana for the day, where I will recline -- fruity cocktail in one hand, Henning Mankell murder mystery in the other -- until it's time to slip off for a delicious dim sum lunch in the Tamarind restaurant.
Then it's more relaxing before my late-afternoon appointment at the Greenhouse Spa. After a foot-pampering pedicure and hot-stone massage, I'll take a dip in the hydro-therapy pool, try out all the aroma-therapy showers, then relax some more on the heated ceramic loungers positioned toward the sea.
Later, I will indulge in the decadent dining experience An Evening at Le Cirque. At least one night of every cruise, the Pinnacle Grill is transformed into a floating version of New York's tony dining establishment with special menu and whimsical circus-inspired china.
An apres-dinner cocktail at the ocean-view Silk Den will kick-start some late night bar hopping with stops at the Ocean Bar, the Piano Bar, the Crow's Nest and finally Northern Lights for a little dance action.
On the second sea day, I will -- perhaps -- opt for more active pursuits. Nieuw Amerstdam offers opportunities to brush up on culinary and entertaining skills at the Culinary Arts Center, and to learn new computer tricks in one of many popular Digital Workshops.
Guests who have ordered a few too many delicious desserts, stopped by the late-night chocolate buffet, or sampled generous helpings of Holland America's signature bread pudding, may want to schedule a trip to the well-equipped fitness centre or join the on-deck yoga class. Not into organized exercise? Take an old-fashioned stroll on the wrap-around deck.
I am not sure what to expect from the Roman Holiday movie-themed shore excursion but it turns out to be good fun. Designed around locations used in filming the 1953 romance starring Audrey Hepburn, as the unhappy Princess Ana, and Gergory Peck, as the American newspaperman who rocks her world, the retro tour also provides a good overview of the Eternal City for first-time visitors.
Stops include the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, a gelato shop, Navona Square, Palazzo Brancaccio -- the last patrician palace built in Rome -- and the Mouth of Truth at Santa Maria in Cosmedin. Visitors line up to stick their hands in the "mouth," which apparently has the power to determine who is telling the truth and who is not. But beware: According to legend, liars risk having their hand bitten off!
There is some free time before a delicious lunch at Da Vladimiro Ristorante, where Hepburn and Peck often dined to escape the paparazzi way back when, and a chance to have your photograph taken on the vintage Vespa the stars rode around Rome.
The film seems to be enjoying a moment of retro chic. At market stalls near the Trevi Fountain, you can find postcards, calendars, notebooks, sketches and other souvenirs featuring the Roman Holiday stars! I even noticed designer handbags in chic shops emblazoned with Hepburn's image.
The tour also takes in other sights and includes excellent commentary from the guide.
Many on the tour are fans of the film, which creates a festive vibe despite the fact most participants -- including myself -- were not even born when the movie was made.
If you have never been to Ancient Olympia -- birthplace of the Olympic Games -- this is the thing to do during a port call in Katakolon, Greece.
I opt for the Ancient Olympia and Museum excursion, which includes a guided tour of both the ruins and the museum.
Thanks to an excellent and entertaining guide, who paints a vivid picture of the times, it is easy to imagine the park-like site brimming with athletes, merchants and philosophers from another time.
The ruins of the Temple of Zeus -- toppled by a powerful earthquake in 370 BC -- and the Stadium are standouts. Inside the Stadium, modern-day visitors can place their toes in the marble starting blocks, where long ago runners took their marks.
After touring the ruins, we visit the newly renovated museum, which displays artifacts found on the site. These include some of the country's most important treasures -- terracottas, bronzes, friezes and sculptures dating back to the very origins of Greek civilization.
Look for the 4th-century-BC marble statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus from the Temple of Hera, a sculpture of Hera's head, and the enormous pediments from the Temple of Zeus.
Empress Elisabeth of Austria -- Sisi -- is a footnote in history today but she was the Princess Diana of her time. A shore excursion to Achilleion Palace -- Sisi's beloved home on Corfu -- provides a glimpse into her tragic life.
In her prime, Sisi was considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe. Married to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria in 1853 at age of 16, she had the first of their four children two years later.
But royal life -- and a difficult mother-in-law -- didn't suit the free spirited empress, who was plagued by bouts of depression and obsessive about her looks and weight.
Often in poor health, Sisi spent increasing amounts of time away from the royal court of Vienna. After the death of her only son in 1889, the Empress -- who loved Greek culture and spoke Greek -- had the Achilles-themed palace built.
Paintings and sculptures of Achilles and the Trojan War grace the house and gardens. James Bond fans might recognize the wonderful Terrace of the Muses from For Your Eyes Only.
Sadly, Sisi didn't enjoy her palace for too long. The Empress was assassinated in Geneva in 1898 by an Italian anarchist. Achilleion changed hands many times since. It was bought by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1907, then later used as a military hospital, government offices, a casino, and finally a museum.
IF YOU GO CRUISING
For details on Holland America Line cruises, contact hollandamerica.com or 1-877-932-4259. On select dates, per-person fares for the 12-day Mediterranean Tapestry Cruise (Barcelona to Venice) aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam begin at $812.17 (inside stateroom), $899.07 (ocean-view), $1,198.66 (verandah), and $4,066.86 (deluxe verandah). Taxes are extra. Holland America also offers seven-day and 24-day Mediterranean cruises.