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O SOLO MIO...Lone Single On A Couples Cruise

By DOMINICK A. MERLE


 

     Ah, alone at last!  Still, this is a Mediterranean Romance cruise for couples.


 

     Won’t I look a little weird, like some sort of a Peeping-Tom specializing in twosomes?  Or perhaps stuck in mid-transgender, neither here nor there?


 

      Oh well, I’ll be meeting at least one old friend, the ship itself.  I’ve sailed on Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam twice before and know it well, from the A-Deck crew’s quarters to the 11th-Deck observation  and lounge area, crowned with a caged basketball court where I can do a little “one-on-none.”


 

       We (them and me) were off on a 12-day voyage from Venice to Barcelona.  There were exactly 2,089 of us, and I initially assumed that I was the cause of the uneven number.  But a few days out, I learned there were two recent widows aboard and, according to reliable shipboard gossip, one was cradling  a urn.


 

         That would still make me the odd man out, save for the fellow in the vase.


 

          I hadn’t planned on traveling alone.  My wife had to cancel because of an unexpected family matter that required her attendance, and she quickly convinced me to soldier on.


 

          To be perfectly honest, there are a few pros to cruising solo.  You get the entire stateroom or suite to spread your stuff.  The bathroom and shower are always open.  You can eat and drink what you like whenever you want, watch TV when you want and select what ship events you like.


 

          On port tours, you will usually have two seats to yourself on the buses, and a table for one, either on shore or at any of the ship’s restaurants, is always available.


 

           And there was an unexpected perk.  One of the ship’s officers, noticing me dining alone for several days, struck up a conversation with me and I explained my awkward situation.


 

            “Meet me on the observation deck at about 2,” he said.  “I’ll bring you into the bridge deck to meet the captain.”


 

              The bridge deck is an off-limits area that is almost sacred, where the captain and his officers control the ship and just about everything else on board.


 

           Captain Edward G. van Zaane greeted me in what looked like the control room of the Houston space center.  There were computers and other electrical equipment in a curved arc, and at least 20  floor to ceiling windows offering a panoramic view of the sea.


 

             He explained some of the systems, and I pretended I understood.  “Don’t worry,” he smiled, “we are looking out for your safety at all times.”  So ended my first and perhaps last visit to a ship captain’s bridge.

 

        

      The Nieuw Amsterdam has a little something for everybody on its 11 decks---two pool areas, a large showroom for nightly entertainment, a spa, casino, observation lounges, specialty classes and lectures throughout the day, even little quiet areas where one can be alone.  Obviously, I did not seek those out.


 

               And food! food! food!  There are four specialty restaurants---Pinnacle (steak and seafood), Manhattan (continental), Tamarind (pan-Asian) and Canaletto (Italian).  The spacious Lido Restaurant is a casual option for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and for quick bites there is a New York Pizza counter and a Dive-In stand for burgers and hot dogs.


 

               You can work off all those calories in the 7th deck gym.


 

              Here are some of the highs and lows of the port stops:


 

               VENICE---If there’s a more majestic port to enter, I haven’t seen it.  But therein  lies a problem.  Venice looks better from afar; up close and personal it’s crowded and a little too touristy.  And if you’re looking for gondoliers who actually sing, you took the wrong boat, Singers come extra, so a gondola with a singer can run as high as $250 for a 30-minute row.  Venice also isn’t high on Italian cuisine, so hold your appetite in check for Naples, Florence and Rome.  Strangely enough, there are a couple of excellent Chinese restaurants near Piazza San Marco.  Why not?


 

               CROATIA---Dubrovnik’s Walled Old Town is always the showstopper here, although there are now less than 800 fulltime residents (and 48 churches).  But first we headed to the countryside village of Komaji and found ourselves enjoying wine and figs at 9 a.m. Next, we went back in time to a farmhouse where virgin olive oil was being made the ancient way, with the assistance of a 30-year-old horse!  The animal goes round and round a well-like structure and is tied to some stone grinding wheels in the well that crushes the olives.  That’s the best way I can explain it.


 

               MONTENEGRO---We were bused up serpentine roads to get some spectacular views of Kotor Bay, then  proceeded to the small village of Njegusi to snack on smoked ham and cheese.  About the size of Connecticut with a population of  under 400,000, Montenegro is often described as a land of contrasts, where you can snow ski and sunbathe on the same day.  A short drive from Kotar is Budva, one of the oldest cities on the Adriatic Sea, and Skadar Lake, the last remaining habitat of pelicans and largest bird reservation in Europe.


 

                CORFU---I didn’t take a tour on this Greek island, but walked from the ship to the Old Town.  It was about a 40-minute stroll and I chatted with several locals---a newsstand operator, a man sipping espresso at an otherwise empty outdoor café, a young woman sitting outside a beauty parlor.  “How’s it going?” I asked each of them.  They all shrugged, eyes upward.  It seemed almost a standard response.  But once I reached the Old Town it was like entering a new and prosperous country. Cruisers were everywhere and shops and restaurants were booming.  The economy there was alive and well... until the last ship sailed away.


 

                NAPLES---Most cruisers (even many Italians) view this city as the bad boy of Italy and use it merely as a stepping stone for the nearby attractions of Pompeii, Capri and the Amalfi Coast.  I opted for a tour of Old Naples and discovered there was a soft side to the bad boy.  The narrow cobblestone streets were shared by pedestrians, motorbikes and cars and the aroma of simmering tomato sauce was everywhere.  I stopped at a pizzeria named Lombardi near Piazza Domenico Maggiore for a classic Neapolitan pizza (tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil), and then to Via San Gregorio Armeno, a small street known as “Nativity Row” where hand-crafted, elaborate scenes of the birth of Christ are sold year-around.  So give Naples a try, but be careful.


 

         ROME---It usually takes about 90 minutes to go from the port of Civitavecchia to Rome but we made it in an hour by bus in unusually light traffic.  As an added bonus, the weather was perfect with low humidity for our walking tour.  We began at the Spanish Steps, then to the famous Trevi Fountain, which was undergoing restoration work.  Consequently, we had to go to a designated area to throw coins over a wire fence.  That can definitely curb your excitement.  Then it was off to St. Peter’s Square, the Colosseum, Navona Square and back to the Nieuw Amsterdam.


 

      LIVORNO---Poor Livorno.  Most cruisers never even set foot in this port city, heading instead to Florence and Pisa, some 90 minutes away by bus.  Consequently, there are no set tours in Livorno.  And that’s what made it a breath of fresh air, sort of Italy “au naturel.”  It’s a fairly modern city of about 160,000 inhabitants.  I walked the covered shopping promenade, visited the outdoor markets and had a pleasant lunch of linguine with clam sauce with the locals.


 

      MONACO---Even the pigeons have attitudes in this super-rich municipality, finely feathered and turning up their beaks at anything less than freshly baked croissants.  We walked the narrow streets past the Royal Palace, the Grand Prix circuit, the cathedral where Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly were married and the famed Monte Carlo Casino and Square.  Then on to the French Riviera and Nice, which was more down to earth and lived in.  Hardly anyone lives in Monaco,  anyway, it’s more like a revolving-door community for the rich and famous.


 

      SAINT TROPEZ---Name-dropping is a way of life in this Provence resort city at the south of France.  And the one you’ll hear most is Brigitte Bardot, now in her 80s and living here with an assortment of animals.  The former international film star has devoted her life to animal activism since retiring from the screen in 1970.  Besides “Looking for Brigitte” in St. Tropez, we took a ride through the countryside to visit two small villages, Port Grimaud and Grimaud.  “Elton John and Bono also come here,” our guide said.


 

       BARCELONA---End of the cruise.  We took a city tour before heading to the airport, stopping at the Gothic Quarter, the colorful Las Ramblas walking street, the main shopping areas and watched a flamenco show.  Our final stop was to La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s most famous work. The Catholic Basilica has been 132 years in the making since Gaudi designed it in 1883.  Through private donations, it is expected to be completed in 2026, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. Unfinished, it has been Barcelona’s main tourist attraction for almost a century.  “But we wonder,” our guide said, “if we finish it, will they still come?”


 

            (Dominick A. Merle is a travel writer/consultant based in Montreal and co-founder of the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Assn.  Email dmerle@videotron.ca)

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