- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

VENICE — If the MS Monet’s overnight in Venice doesn’t do it, and if fascinating old cities on the sunny Dalmatian coast don’t do it, then the friendly staff, the chef’s creations and spotless cabins certainly will make a memorable voyage.

Officially, this two-week Elegant Cruises itinerary is called Natural Wonders & Artistic Heritage of the Adriatic, but fellow cruiser Larry Hungerford of Winston-Salem, N.C., jokes: “They should call it Canals, Caves, Walled Cities and Waterfalls — Treasures of the Adriatic. And you could add churches; that just about covers everything.”

On this cruise, that “everything” will be found in Venice and in Kopar, Slovenia, and many places in Croatia: Mali Losinj, Cres, Split, Trogir, Solin (where “History is written almost everywhere on each bell tower, on the pavement, on each stone”; Dubrovnik, one of the Mediterranean’s best-preserved walled cities; Kotor in Montenegro, the newest nation to emerge from the former Yugoslavia; and Sibenik and the nearby waterfalls of Krka National Park.

Getting to all these places is half the fun. The 223-foot Monet’s shallow draft lets it dock at ports impossible for larger ships.

“It’s not a river cruise, but it’s not your typical ocean cruise,” Mr. Hungerford says. “It’s sort of a combination in between. We’re on the Adriatic Sea, which is calm, so you’re really in an ocean setting, but then it has aspects of a river cruise. … In some ways, this is like the Inside Passage when you go to Alaska.”

By the second day, cruise director Monika Sisina has loosened up her 40 guests — Americans, Brits and a pair of Aussies — with Croatian language lessons.

We stumble equally over “hvala” (thank you). “Just say ‘fa-la,’ ” she suggests, knowing the “hv” sound is difficult for most people unfamiliar with the language.

She suggests we might not be served any of the complimentary wine at dinner unless we express our choice in Croatian: “crno” (red) or “bijelo” (white). She also suggests that we request our cabin key from reception in Croatian; in our case, “tri-nula-osam” (308).

It’s not until the next day, in Mali Losinj, that we realize Miss Sisina has omitted, for us, a most important phrase. We return to the ship with it written in Croatian by our tour guide. She smiles when we show her the words “Ja te volim” (“I love you”). “Very good,” she says.

The phrase gets much use over the coming days as we find many cuddle moments, sipping Bellinis in Monet’s hot tub under a full moon. (The cocktail of fresh peaches and sparkling wine was invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice in 1934.)

Celebrating a birthday over an elegant, cozy lunch in Dubrovnik with two British couples from the Monet is another dear moment before we traverse the mile-long route atop the city’s mighty stone walls. We are serenaded with fellow passengers in Monet’s Giverny Lounge by Portun, an a cappella folk group. One song translates something like “When you come back to me, you will bring my smile back.” Monet guests find many reasons to smile.

Bill Gray and his wife, Keats Hayden, of Newport Beach, Calif., “loved the cruise, particularly the small number of cruisers. At the end of two weeks, everyone was a friend.” The Monet accommodates 62 passengers, a drawing card for passengers on our trip.

“I loved the caves, and I loved the waterfalls,” Mr. Hungerford says, referring to Slovenia’s 12-mile-long Postojna Caves and Krka National Park’s myriad low-rise falls near Sibenik, Croatia. “Yet,” he says, “I’d have to rate Dubrovnik as my favorite.” His wife, Sue, says she is “eager to go back to Venice,” where the cruise will end.

Romantic Venice and Dubrovnik rate high with travelers worldwide: Dubrovnik, with its sea of orange barrel-tile roofs within and outside the walls and the sparkling blue Adriatic; Venice, full of history and culture yet otherworldly with its waterways and boats for transportation.

Lord Byron called Dubrovnik the “pearl of the Adriatic,” and the city certainly looks like a gem as we approach by sea. The cruise director announces we are in luck: Conditions are favorable, so Capt. Bozo Brajovic can treat us to a cruising tour outside the city walls before we dock, another advantage of taking a smaller ship.

Cameras whir and click as passengers preserve their first views of this medieval aristocratic republic. Specks of people are visible on the towering stone walls — up to 80 feet high and 20 feet thick — that have protected the city for centuries, including absorbing some of the Serbian bombs of the 1990s.

Lower, in the rocks, a small cafe juts out, its white umbrellas reflecting sunlight, and still lower, a few spring sunbathers dot the rocks.

We later discover we have come at the perfect time of year. This city of about 50,000 is easily overwhelmed in summer, when up to a dozen cruise ships a day could double its population. Crowds are controlled by police who monitor the city gates.

St. Blaise, Dubrovnik’s patron saint, keeps an eye on all from atop the Pile (western) Gate. Here, in former times, the massive drawbridge, now a walkway, was raised each evening, leaving no passage across the moat.

About 25 statues of St. Blaise grace the city. Look closely below one, and you see three heads, representing misbehaving priests and nuns.

Look further, and you’ll spot the city’s original name, Ragusa, on signage. In the Middle Ages, Ragusa rivaled Venice (and was under its sovereignty) as a home to notable poets, playwrights, painters and scientists.

Peter and Jane Lawrence, from Woking, England, were enthralled with the city. “Dubrovnik was lovely,” Mrs. Lawrence says, “and walking round the wall was fascinating, looking into the hidden gardens from above and getting a glimpse of what you cannot see while walking in the narrow streets.

“It was especially lovely, while sauntering along the top of the wall, being able to hear the choir’s voices soaring to the heavens from the steps of the church in the main square where they were giving a concert from Handel’s ‘Messiah.’ ” Says Mr. Lawrence: “We got down from the wall and went to see them singing … including a Croatian song, which I thought was a nice touch.”

Venice, where the cruise begins and ends, is likewise magical with its pigeon-filled St. Mark’s Square and gondola-laden canals.

Monet passengers Iain and Fay Lough of Chester, England, find Venice to be “remarkable.” “Our guide to the Doge’s Palace was very informative,” Mr. Lough says, “and returning to Venice, by sea, through the early morning fog was not to be missed — like sailing into a Turner painting.”

The favorite port for the Lawrences was Zadar, where Roman ruins from the third century and the round ninth-century Church of St. Donatus stand in contrast to modern shops, museums, Internet cafes and trendy restaurants. The church, which once was a bar for Austrian soldiers and a stable for Napoleon’s horses, hosts annual music festivals in summer.

Alfred Hitchcock declared Zadar’s sunsets the world’s most glorious.

A prime viewing spot is from the sea organ — played by wind and water instead of human hands — built into the steps of the long concrete walkway beside the Adriatic. Tour guide Tea Vodic says the same architect is working on an obelisk that will harness daylight rays to create a nighttime light show in the same waterfront area.

Passing the Roman Forum, built between 100 B.C. and A.D. 300, she says with a laugh, “We live and play among our ruins.” She’s right; some children are crawling on overturned stones, and others are skateboarding nearby while adults sit atop other stones reading or enjoying the afternoon sun.

Passing the ancient, arched gate into Zadar, she says it is “the most beautiful monument that the Venetians left us.” A carved lion, the symbol of Venice, sits in relief near the top, an open book at its feet. She explains, “This gate was built in a time of peace; if the book was closed, it was a time of war.” We are to spot many examples of the lion and book throughout Croatia and Venice.

The Lawrences found Split “fascinating,” especially Diocletian’s Palace, which, as Mr. Lawrence says, “was quite something considering it was built all those years ago.” The son of a slave, Diocletian — Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletanius — became Rome’s emperor in 284. After 21 years of persecuting Christians and trying to maintain a crumbling empire, he took early retirement here, abdicating in 305.

The palace has been called the best in the world for Roman details. Inside its walls, a small town has emerged with apartments, cafes and shops, while outside is a large park.

By the walls is the 26-plus-foot-tall sculpture of a bishop, Gregory of Nin, created by one of Croatia’s best known artists, Ivan Mestrovic.

Monet passengers also tour the artist’s summer home, which has been turned into a gallery. Washingtonians can see an example of his work at the Shrine of Immaculate Conception. The Bible-carrying bishop sternly overlooks the city, but tourists approach him with a sense of whimsy, for it is said that rubbing his huge bronze toe — larger than any human foot — will bring luck. The toe is well polished by those hoping a rub will bring good luck.

From Split, passengers explore Solin, a center for early Christians, and Trogir, nicknamed the “Monaco of Croatia” for its yacht-rich harbor. Trogir, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has a well-preserved medieval quarter where locals still live in many of the 15th-century houses. Solin is home to Salona, the largest archaeological site of Roman ruins in Croatia.

The Loughs also rank Korcula high. “Korcula was maybe our favorite, just a perfect little walled town on a beautiful promontory,” Mr. Lough says.

The cruise director remembers that a passenger last year was so fascinated that she went directly to Hotel Korcula and said, “Book me up next year. I’m coming for two weeks.”

George Jenks of Lewisburg, Pa., traveling with his wife, Zoya, recalls a delightful surprise in the port on Easter Monday: “One of the highlights was the unexpected parade, dancing and ceremony in Sibenik. It was a treat to see a non-tourist spectacle: colorful, traditional dress; dancing; music; and food. Hearing ‘The Saints Go Marching In’ and ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ was a bit unusual in Croatian.”

In addition to breathtaking coastlines and fascinating cities, passengers agree the exemplary all-Croatian staff and service help make this cruise memorable.

The Hungerfords say their cabin stewardess was the best they have ever had when cruising. “Our room was just really beautiful,” Mr. Hungerford says. “The more I was in it, the more I liked it. In fact, I think this is our favorite cruise in the 30 years that we’ve taken them. The lunches are absolutely the best.”

Chef Robertino “Robi” Vozila’s buffet creations range from fried calamari to succulent lamb on Easter to tossed seafood salad on Good Friday, plus various beef, fish and pork dishes throughout the sailing. His soups — minestrone, chicken and corn, leek, potato, tomato — are also hits.

One day features a barbecue buffet lunch on Monet’s open deck, after which the chef dances through the crowd with his oversized cake decorated in the ship’s likeness. Accompanying him are the crew singing to the lounge player’s accordion accompaniment.

“The sheer friendliness and helpfulness of the crew was a big positive,” says Mr. Lough.

“I thought it was fun,” says Mr. Lawrence, the way the chef “and all the other staff looked after us all. Nothing [was] too much trouble and all with such good humor — a really charming Croatian crew.”

“What passengers enjoy,” says Miss Sisina, the cruise director, “is meeting real Croatian people.” Monet is the only ship in the region with an all-Croatian staff, and staff members’ pride in sharing their country is obvious.

Miss Sisina says guests “get to see everyone’s hometown because all of us are from the coast. And so you see us jumping ship, going home for two or three hours to say ‘hi’ to the family.” She could spend part of Easter with her family in Dubrovnik.

In Split, we meet the bartender’s wife and daughter and congratulate the daughter on her pending nuptials. The afternoon we boarded, the bartender had assured us: “Nobody has enough words to tell everything about Croatia.” But word is getting out.

Miss Sisina agrees. “Croatia is very big in the States right now,” she says.

The 154,000 Americans who, according to newspaper reports, visited Croatia in 2006 are a small contingent when compared to more than 2 million Americans who go to Italy, but the number of American tourists has been increasing. The Croatian National Tourist Office expects more than 200,000 Americans this year, and AAA reports that bookings to Croatia increased 440 percent over the previous year.

The Monet’s passengers are mostly Americans, followed by travelers from the United Kingdom and then Australia and New Zealand. The ship cruises 10 months of the year in Croatia, dubbed the “country of 1,000 islands” because its shores harbor 1,185 islands and islets, of which 66 are inhabited.

Miss Sisina, in her second year with Monet, says passengers often are surprised by Croatia’s modern ways. “Most think we are 20 years back on the modern technology and … [are] quite surprised with how fashionable Croatian women are and that everyone drives nice cars and has cell phones.

“These are actually the most common comments that I get, and how friendly people are, and about the good level of English everyone has.” For many tourists, their most recent awareness of the region dates to the 1990s when fighting broke out between the Serbs and the Croats in former Yugoslavia.

Zadar guide Miss Vodic recalls the 1991-1995 fighting. “We were brutally attacked by Serbs, mostly in 1993. We were three months without water, without electricity. It was a terrible period.” Speaking of the angels toppled from churches during the war, she says: “We prefer to say they flew away.”

In a shipboard lecture, Dubrovnik guide Igor Kocelj recounts that on Dec. 6, 1991, 81 mortar shells fell on the city. More bombing came in 1992; in all, more than half of Dubrovnik’s buildings were destroyed. Looking out on the orange rooftops today, bright, new structures outnumber the weathered, faded ones that survived the shelling.

Visitors are now are hard-pressed to find traces of the war.

“Do the same thing the Croats did to cope 14 centuries ago — first, open your eyes to the sunshine,” Mr. Kocelj suggests. A lot of visitors are doing just that, flocking in the sun to Croatia and its pebble beaches and walled cities.

Although we are ready to leave, sea gulls cry as if to say, “Don’t go just yet.” We feel the same way when Monet pulls back into Venice.

• • •

The 62-passenger MS Monet offers mostly week-long cruises. Venice & the Dalmatian Coast includes Pula, with a 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater; Split in the morning and Hvar the same afternoon; a full day in Dubrovnik; one day for Mljet and Korcula; and Zadar. Like the two-week cruise, it begins and ends in Venice.

Cabins are still available for the sailings on June 13, 20 and 27; July 18; Aug. 22 and 29; and Oct. 10. Regular rates start at $2,590 per person, but there’s a 15 percent discount for the June 27 and July 18 departures. Port charges are $95 per person. Shore excursions are optional at additional cost.

The two-week itinerary, Natural Wonders & Artistic Heritage of the Adriatic, is offered again July 25 through Aug. 8, October 31 through Nov. 14, and Nov. 14 through 28. There’s also an 18-day cruise Nov. 28 through Dec. 15 and a holiday departure Dec. 15 through Jan. 2, with four extra days onboard plus complimentary open bar. These cruises start at $3,255 per person, plus $135 port charges. All shore excursions are included on the Natural Wonders cruises.

Cabins can be reserved for 2008 as well. Contact Elegant Cruises & Tours for dates and rates: Visit www.elegantcruises.com or call 800/683-6767 or send e-mail, info@elegantcruises.com.

Monet’s sister ship, the MS Andrea, accommodates 103 passengers and sails in Europe, South America and Antarctica. A third ship is forthcoming.

Venice hotels include the high-end Orient Express’ Hotel Cipriani (www.hotelcipriani.com), a short private launch ride from St. Mark’s Square, and Designhotels’ Palazzina Grassi (28 rooms and four apartment suites on the Grand Canal); Ca’Pisani (29 art-deco rooms), and Charming House (boutique hotel near Accademia Bridge); visit www.designhotels.com.

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