ISTANBUL, Turkey — We slipped out of Istanbul at dusk, gliding across the Bosporus strait toward the Aegean Sea, Asia on the left bank, Europe on the right, four masts towering 204 feet overhead, polished teak floors underfoot, the notes of Buddy Justineau’s piano drifting out from the lounge: “You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh…”
The Bosporus, which connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, is the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation. It is magical at sunset, masted gullets heading to shore, minarets and Byzantine domes of Istanbul’s Old City — once known as Constantinople — fading into the distance, huge cargo and cruise ships, lights aglow, silently making their way to far-off ports.
Our destination was Athens, by way of two port calls on the Turkish coast and three Greek isles. This is a land of legendary men and celebrated Greek and Roman civilizations with walled cities where people lived 6,000 years ago. Alexander the Great arrived in Ephesus, Turkey, in 334 B.C. Attila the Hun and Julius Caesar were there too.
So was the Apostle Paul. The Virgin Mary is said to have lived the last years of her life in Ephesus. The Gallipoli battlefields of World War I and the city of Troy, celebrated in Homer’s epic poem “The lliad” also left their footprints in the history that would surround us for the next seven days.
History aside, what I quickly learned was that cruising by sail and motor, as I did on the Wind Star with 132 other guests, is a different experience from being swallowed up by a floating skyscraper with 3,000 or so passengers. There are, of course, a lot of choosy travelers who wouldn’t be caught dead boarding an enormous cruise liner. And that’s exactly whom Windstar designs its cruises for — people who dislike traditional cruising.
“The destination isn’t the No. 1 thing,” said passenger Hardur Karlsson, making his seventh Windstar cruise. “What matters is the people around you and the way you’re traveling. On a small luxury ship such as the Wind Star, the service staff knows your name after two days, knows what you want to drink, whether you like coffee or tea, where you prefer to sit on deck.”
By nightfall on the Bosporus, I had almost convinced myself I was on a private yacht. Everything was accessible. You want to go ashore with Zomie Concepcion, the Filipino executive chief, while he buys fresh sea bream for dinner? Just tag along. In his restaurant you dine when you choose and with whomever you choose. No need to enter in a herd to sit in assigned seats.
No need to bring a tuxedo or gown either. This is casual cruising without pretense. The only dress code is no jeans or T-shirts in the restaurant. Room service is available around the clock.
When I told friends at home that my wife, Sandy, and I were going to spend five days in September in Istanbul, then cruise the Aegean, I took note of how often security concerns were raised. Is Istanbul safe, they asked? What about pirates? I initially asked the same questions. The simple answer is no worries. Istanbul is a cosmopolitan, welcoming Islamic city with a population of 14 million, no graffiti, spotlessly clean streets, and tourists and ancient sites everywhere.
As for pirates, there were a lot of them on the Aegean 1,100 years ago. Julius Caesar was even said to have been kidnapped and ransomed there. When he learned the modest sum the pirates wanted for him, he was offended and insisted that they double the ransom demand. He joked with them during negotiations and said that after he was freed he would return and kill them all. He did, at least according to legend. But all that is in the distant past now. Pirates no longer prowl the Aegean.
Passengers lined Wind Star’s starboard rail, cameras in hand, as we entered the Dardanelles, the 38-mile-long strait that leads to the Aegean. A Turkish submarine glided by, mostly submerged. Clearly visible was Gallipoli, where the Allies mounted a mighty invasion in World War I only to be beaten back by the Turks, suffering 20,000 casualties in one battle while advancing only half a mile.
We moved into the Aegean at 10 or 12 knots (about 11.5 to 13.8 mph), giant sails unfurled and snapping in the light breeze. The passengers appeared to be in relaxation mode, and everyone seemed to have a book in hand.
It didn’t hurt the laid-back mood that there weren’t any children on board. Adults rule the day on the Wind Star. I made plans to visit that evening what must surely be the world’s smallest casino — 11 slot machines and two table games, one blackjack and one poker.
Ahead, on the west coast were Kusadasi and, beyond, Ephesus, a sight so grand that only Pompeii on Italy’s Bay of Naples and Machu Picchu, Peru, seemed comparable. You can still walk the marbled streets that Antony and Cleopatra did when Ephesus had a population of 250,000 and was a center of culture, education and glorious architecture.
Earthquakes and destructive invaders led to the city’s demise more than 1,000 years ago. But after 150 years of ongoing excavation, archaeologists have rebuilt, column by column, 16% of the city. Today Ephesus is Turkey’s most popular tourist destination, attracting 5 million visitors a year.
I’ve never been happy as part of a mob disgorged from a giant cruise ship and moving through crowded tourist sites I may or may not care about. Wind Star’s daily land excursions were different.
We were split into small groups. Our guides were consistently excellent and knew how to tell a story rather than just recite dates and the heights of castle towers. In Bodrum, Turkey, our host was deep-sea diver and archaeologist Don Frey, who had played a key role in the excavation of an 11th century shipwreck now on display at the Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Bodrum Castle.
The seas had been calm, the skies blue, for four days. We passed Wind Star’s sister ship, Wind Star Spirit, headed in the opposite direction, to Istanbul. Tenders shuttled us to shore on the Greek island of Santorini. We rode donkeys or took a cable car to reach the high volcanic plateau across which the town of 10,000 is perched like a crow’s nest.
That night, with Wind Star anchored in Santorini’s harbor, chef Concepcion held his signature dinner — a lobster and roasted pig barbecue on deck under the stars. It was no surprise when a ship’s officer told me the journey between Istanbul and Athens was Seattle-based Windstar Cruises’ most popular cruise. The intimacy and ambience of a “small” masted ship — four decks, 360 feet in length, an international staff of 93 — were indeed hard to top.
“If I host a captain’s table dinner for a dozen guests on a ship carrying 2,000 people, 1,988 people will feel slighted,” Capt. Chris Norman said over dinner one night. “But if I host one on Wind Star, I’ve made a dozen guests happy. and that’s about 10% of our passengers.”
To which I’d add, “Spot-on. And another glass of wine, please.”