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Gems of the Med: Malta, Gytheion, Sparta, and Heraklion

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Continuing our cruise aboard the Corinthian II, our arrival into Malta was very dramatic. We approached the harbor with the sun just beginning to rise behind us, illuminating the port city of Valletta with breathtaking golden light. Malta is a mystical island with a deep multi-cultural past. Its capital city of Valletta is highlighted by limestone architecture that is surreal at first sight. Our guided tours here included the Upper Baracca Gardens, the National Museum of Archeology, the Armory, and the Cathedral of St. John. All of these national treasures were extremely interesting and our walk through the city of Valletta, between these sites, was equally stunning.

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In the afternoon, we decided to do something on our own, venturing off to the extreme end of Malta closest to its sister island of Gozo. Here, we entered the emerald green grotto of Paradise Bay and had an amazing snorkel and free diving experience with Aquatica – www.scubadivingmalta.com. If you’ve never snorkeled in the Mediterranean you owe it to yourself to experience the incredible water clarity and underwater seascapes that await. Later that day, as our ship pulled out of port, sadness fell upon us. It was clear that Malta had much more to offer, however this would have to await our next visit.

Our next day would be at sea, and we awoke to our butler bringing us our pre-ordered hearty breakfast. We found room service on the Corinthian II to be very timely. This day at sea provided an excellent opportunity to burn a few calories in the ship’s gym located on the sun deck. Although smallish, it offered several cardio exercise options via quite modern equipment. Our daily itinerary, which was provided on each preceding evening, listed two lectures on this day; one by an astral physicist from Yale - Paul Tierney entitled “An Armchair Tour of the Universe.” The second by Roberta Frank, a professor from Yale was on “The Cretan Labyrinth,” which we would be visiting later in the week. Both speakers were quite articulate. The bonus however, was when the expert in astronomy invited everyone to the sundeck that moonless evening. To everyone’s delight, the Captain turned off the ships lights, whereupon a star-studded milky white sky emerged.

Following these excellent presentations, and coupled with the outstanding locally guided excursions we were experiencing daily, it became obvious that Travel Dynamics was providing everything and more in so far as its touted enrichment style cruise. Considering that all of these guided shore excursions were included in the price of the cruise, the value of this journey became obvious. With Alumni groups on this cruise from Harvard, Yale, John Hopkins and even an institutional group from the Smithsonian, it appeared that everyone was getting their ‘educational’ money’s worth!

The ships next port of call was the seldom-visited shore side village of Gytheion, Greece. Built along a steep hill, Gytheion is the port for both ancient and modern Sparta, with its waterfront lined by quaint shops, cafes and restaurants. The view from the ship’s entirely outward facing suites on this stunning town can be awe-inspiring. Our transit ashore was once again by zodiacs. Arriving ashore, we connected with our motor coaches for our escorted tour of Mystras and Sparta. Mystras, the best surviving town in Greece from the 14th century was built on a mountainous hillside. Our trip took us through its upper ramparts and down through its palaces and ancient churches, each adorned by early frescos. Along the way, we passed through the Pantanassa Convent where nuns continue to inhabit this winding path hillside respite.

Next, all guests visited the Archeological Museum in Sparta, followed by a classic Greek meal at Keramo Restaurant in Paori Village. This captivating outdoor café is situated next to a series of waterfalls providing ample photo opportunities. Here, as with the other shore side dining during the voyage, guests that had dietary restrictions were served alternate plates. Each of these passengers that I spoke with seemed to be happy with their requested lunch options. Finally, we visited the Olive Oil Museum in Sparta, which highlighted the culture and technology of the olive oil industry.

After a day jam-packed with interesting things to see and do, most excursionists were a bit tired and looked forward to the sight of our ship. Later that evening, we had the opportunity to review some of the fine wines offered each evening in the main dining room. Although the dining staff offered alternate ‘upscale wines,’ it appeared that everyone was very satisfied with the ‘all inclusive’ offered wines, which included highly rated Italian, Spanish, Chilean, French, Argentinean, and South African reds and whites. A few highlights were: Baron Philippe D’Rothchild, Merlot, France 2009 – Marques de Caceres, Rioja, Spain 2004 – Charles Vienot, Cote D’Rhone, France 2009. And, as always during the cruise, Piper Champagne was poured freely upon request.

At our next port of call, Heraklion on the Island of Crete, we depart our ship for Knossos. This legendary birthplace of Zeus was also the home of the mythical Minotaur kept by King Minos in his interlocking labyrinth of chambers. Uncovered by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900, surprising architecture now houses art, pottery and vivid frescos amongst this expansive site. As with our other excursions, all participants brought along their reusable aluminum water bottles provided to every passenger by Travel Dynamics. Although this is a highly applauded green initiative, the design of this particular bottle is inferior and difficult to use. Nevertheless, Travel Dynamics should be applauded for providing an ample supply of bottled drinking water in guests’ cabins, as well as on all excursion busses.

Following the tour, we stop for a freshly squeezed glass of orange juice and enjoy the garden-like setting just outside the entrance to these ruins. Lastly, on this excursion we visit the Heraklion Museum, which houses some of the best artifacts from this site. Back on board, we took in an exceptional lecture from Walter Goffart, a professor of medieval history and Senior Research Scholar at Yale’s Department of History. Walter’s talk was on The Knights Hospitaller at Rhodes during the period of 1309 to 1522. Peter, our energenic cruise director, also gave a short briefing (as he did every day) on the next day’s port of call and excursions. On this day, everything focused on our extended port call at the island of Rhodes, and its incredible history.

Please click on "slideshow" above to view images of the forgoing Mediterranean Gems. Also, be sure to read the final part of this cruise adventure revealing amazing sites in Rhodes and Turkey.

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