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The Great Theatre at Ephesus.
The Great Theatre at Ephesus.

Guest Elizabeth set sail on a Mediterranean cruise aboard Noordam with her family and wrote about her adventure. Step back in time with her to some of the world’s most amazing ancient cities.

The Mediterranean has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. It features incredible beaches with water so blue, any picture is postcard worthy. But it is also home to some of the most important, well-preserved and breathtaking ancient cities and ruins. I recently took the 11-day Mediterranean Dream cruise aboard ms Noordam. If you’re looking for an interesting and exciting history lesson on your next trip, here are the places you must see:

Katakolon, Greece

The first stop on my cruise was Katakolon, Greece. This stop is the gateway to Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games and where the Olympic flame is lit every two years using just a mirror and the sun. I took the Ancient Olympia & the Museum tour. The arch, pictured below, is the entrance to the Olympic Stadium. When it was built it was actually a tunnel but it fell apart during earthquakes. What is shown is a small part that was reconstructed. The marble starting blocks where the Olympians lined up for their races are still intact. Make sure to wear a good pair of Nikes because your guide will invite you to step up to them for a race. You can imagine 40,000 spectators cheering around you for some added motivation!

After walking through the arch to the Olympic Stadium, you can step up to the starting line to run your sprint.

After walking through the arch to the Olympic Stadium, you can step up to the starting line to run your sprint.

Holland America Line lets you couple your tour of Ancient Olympia with a tour of Mercouri’s Vineyards, Olympia village, Zorba, or the Archaeological Museum of Olympia, which is what I chose to do. The newly renovated museum is considered one of the most important in Greece and features sculptures from the Archaic to Roman periods. It also holds the famous 4th century Parian marble statue of Hermes of Praxitelis.

Piraeus (Athens), Greece

Calls at Piraeus are the perfect way to see Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world and the birthplace of democracy. Being my first time in Athens, I took the Scenic Athens & the Plaka on Foot tour. I wanted to take advantage of my short time there and see as much as possible. I couldn’t have made a better choice. During our drive through the city we saw an incredible amount of historical monuments. In Athens, it feels like their is a “sight” on every corner. We drove by Hadrian’s Arch, the statue of Lord Byron, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus and watched the changing of the guards at the Parliament Building at Syntagma Square, the oldest square in the city. We also got off the bus to take in the beautiful all-marble Panathenaic Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympic games in 1896.

The Panathenaic Stadium is a multi-purpose stadium, built on the land where the Panathenaic Games were held in ancient times to honor the Goddess Athena.

The Panathenaic Stadium is a multi-purpose stadium, built on the land were the Panathenaic Games where held in ancient times to honor the Goddess Athena.

I only viewed the Acropolis from the bottom, but it is worth mentioning that Holland America offers plenty of tours that will take you to a closer view including the Athens & Acropolis tour and the Athens, Acropolis & Cape Sounion tour.

Of course it is Athens’ most famous sight, but trust me when I say that you can’t miss Areopagus. Located northwest of Acropolis and just steps away from its entrance, Areopagus, also known as Mars’ Hill, was where the council of elders met in pre-classical times. In classical times, it was the sight of the high Court of Appeal and is said to be where Ares was tried by the gods for the murder of Poseidon’s son. A climb up the steps of Areopagus takes you to what has to be one of the most gorgeous panoramic views in all of the Mediterranean. This view of Athens and the Parthenon will take your breath away. I can’t imagine how stunning it is with all of the city lights at night, but I can tell you that seeing it that way has been added to my bucket list!

From the bottom, Areopagus just looks like a big rock, but if you climb up the steps you'll enjoy an incredible view.

From the bottom, Areopagus just looks like a big rock, but if you climb up the steps you’ll enjoy an incredible view.

Afterward, we enjoyed a traditional Greek lunch and had time to walk around the plaka. This old, historical neighborhood features neoclassical architecture, winding roads and plenty of opportunities to pick up local souvenirs.

Kusadasi, Turkey

In the first century B.C., Ephesus was one of the largest cities in the world. Today, it features one of the largest collections of ruins in the eastern Mediterranean, and it is very conveniently located to a stop at Kusadasi, Turkey.

The Odeon Concert Hall and Celsus Library are two of the most popular sights at Ephesus.

The Odeon Concert Hall and Celsus Library are two of the most popular sights at Ephesus.

Walking through the streets of Ephesus, you are surrounded by incredible statues and structures. The Odeon Concert Hall served not only as a concert hall but more importantly as a Bouleuterion for the meetings of the Boulea, or Senate, making it the sight where the most important city matters were discussed. The Celsus Library may have been the most stunning structure at Ephesus. Built in 117 A.D. by Julius Aquila to honor his father Gaius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, it housed more than 12,000 scrolls, making it the third largest library of the time.

EPHGreat Theater

The Great Theater is a marvel in itself and the most impressive structure at Ephesus. It was built in the third century B.C., during the Hellenistic Period, and was enlarged during the Roman period. With a seating capacity of 25,000, it held the most important theater performances and religious and political assemblies of the time. The acoustics are so great that in the 1980′s it even featured concerts by Elton John and Sting.

The Temple of Hadrian (left) was being restored during my visit, the perfect excuse to go back to Ephesus. On the right, the Fountain of Trajan, an Ephesian cat nap and a relief of the goddess Nike.

The Temple of Hadrian, left, was being restored during my visit, the perfect excuse to go back to Ephesus. On the right, the Fountain of Trajan, an Ephesian cat nap and a relief of the goddess Nike.

You can couple your visit to Ephesus with a visit to the Virgin Mary’s house, a Catholic shrine and the house where Jesus’ mother is said to have lived the last years of her life; the Terrace Houses, a recently excavated section of Ephesus that was home to its wealthiest people; or Sirince Village, where Greek style houses are decorated with Turkish interiors and there is plenty of shopping for souvenirs.

Naples, Italy

I was really looking forward to our call at Naples, Italy, knowing that I would get to see Pompeii. This sight is visited by millions of people ever year and I was excited to see why. We know much of what we know about how the ancient Romans lived thanks to Pompeii. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., it buried the town in ash. The town stayed buried for about 1,500 years until it was rediscovered. It is preserved in such incredible detail, that walking through is like a first-hand experience of Roman life.

I took the Ruins of Pompeii tour, which gave great insight into ancient life. Our guide took us through the maze of streets, pointing out the chariot wheel marks in the stone. He also pointed out the cat’s eyes — small tiles in the stone that reflected the light of the moon at night allowing people to see where they were walking. We went to the Forum, which served as the center of the town and was surrounded by many important government buildings. It was once two stories high and you can still see the foundation of the second story. We also went to the market where meats and vegetables were sold. In the center you could buy fish, which we know because of the amount of fish bones found in the area during the excavations. The painting fragment on the walls of the market is an original and has never been restored. The detail and use of perspective is incredible.

Hundreds of artifacts were found at Pompeii. Also pictured, clockwise, a mural at the market, myself in the Forum, a statue of the Goddess Artemis, and an oven.

Hundreds of artifacts were found at Pompeii. Also pictured, clockwise, a mural at the market, myself in the Forum, a statue of the Goddess Artemis, and an oven.

We also entered the spa which still has a roof above it. It featured three bathing rooms including a sauna, marble floors and exquisite details.

Though the entrance is small, the spa was actually very spacious and featured many different rooms.

Though the entrance is small, the spa was actually very spacious and featured many different rooms.

My Mediterranean Dream cruise was just that — a dream. It felt like I had stepped back in time to some of the most beautiful eras in world history. But it was also just the tip of the iceberg. From the Colosseum in Rome, Italy, to Knossos and Delphi in Greece and Perge in Turkey, there are still plenty of other Mediterranean ruins to be explored.

If you’re taking a Mediterranean cruise that visits these ports, the shore excursions can be pre-booked so you get the tour of your choice.

Have you visited any of these Mediterranean ruins? Which was your favorite? Which is at the top of your list to see next?

Prince Edward Island is home to many lighthouses, including this one that has a house attached for the lighthouse keeper.
Prince Edward Island is home to many lighthouses, including this one that has a house attached for the lighthouse keeper.

Journalist Debbra Dunning Brouillette set sail on a Canada and New England cruise aboard Veendam and wrote an article about her adventure for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
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The South Pacific is made up of lush paradisiacal islands and clear blue water, like the Blue Lagoon on Vanuatu.
The South Pacific is made up of lush paradisiacal islands and clear blue water, like the Blue Lagoon on Vanuatu.

Imagine calling at lush, tropical islands, isolated beaches and bustling fruit markets as you cruise across the Pacific Ocean. Bloggers Adam Hammond Marta Balcewicz of the website Portsie recently cruised from Sydney, Australia, to Vancouver, Canada, and chronicled their journey.
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Portsie was created by self proclaimed "tea-drinking book-worm adventurers who are convinced there is something decidedly romantic and great about traveling to places (or nowhere in particular) by sea. They have read turn-of-the-century novels featuring trans-Atlantic crossings and are jealous of their protagonists."


Chile's gorgeous Amalia Glacier on the edge of the Sarmiento Channel.
Chile's gorgeous Amalia Glacier on the edge of the Sarmiento Channel.

In addition to wonderful ports of call on a cruise vacation, another special part of taking a cruise is the ability to reach parts of the world that would otherwise be nearly impossible, if not totally impossible, to reach by car, plane or on foot.

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Natalie enjoyed the whale-watching tour in Juneau. Photo courtesy of HAL.
Natalie enjoyed the whale-watching tour in Juneau. Photo courtesy of HAL.

Alaska is scenic, full of history, offers plenty of nature adventures and once-in-a-lifetime experiences … making it the perfect cruise destination for a family vacation.
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Maasdam transits the Panama Canal.
Maasdam transits the Panama Canal.

Guest Sharon Johnson is on Prinsendam’s Grand South America & Antarctica Voyage, and guest Jan Yetke is on Amsterdam’s Grand World Voyage.
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Chateau Frontenac is one of Quebec's iconic landmarks.
Chateau Frontenac is one of Quebec's iconic landmarks.

Cruises to Canada and New England feature a lot of exciting and enriching ports.
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Piazza dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) with the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Piazza dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) with the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.

A cruise to Europe can be the ideal family vacation. There is something for everyone, from history and culture to sun and fun. And every Holland America Line ship is welcoming to guests of all ages. In fact, the Club HAL program is set up to entertain kids from three through teen. Guest Joost van Driessen took another cruise to Europe on Noordam with his wife and two daughters, Kim and Rhodé. From onboard to ashore, see how Joost enjoyed his 11-day Mediterranean Explorer cruise from Barcelona, Spain, to Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy.

Shortly after noon we boarded Noordam. It was like coming home. We remembered our boarding two years ago. Then, we had to explore the ship to get to know all the restaurants, bars, lounges, etc. No need this time, everything felt familiar again.

Every day and every evening there is an array of activities for all tastes. Some guests choose to participate in team trivia or Culinary Arts Center cooking demonstrations, while others take advantage of the complimentary Dancing with the Stars: at Sea dance classes or the Digital Workshops powered by Windows classes.

Rhodé has discovered Techspert Time. Techspert Krista teaches computer courses, but from time to time the classroom is open to work on your own projects. We use this for backing up our memory cards on an USB stick, just to reduce the chances of losing our photo’s. Rhodé uses the brand new Windows 8 computers to play games like cut-the-rope.

Every evening the ships transform from a relaxed day-time atmosphere to a dazzling evening environment. Lounges bustle with dancing and music, while the main show lounge features Vegas-style performances. Joost and his family took full advantage of the offerings around the ship, from dancing to karaoke.

When it was time to go to the karaoke, we saw Kim and her friends at the Queens Lounge. Rhodé had enlisted to perform ‘Rolling in the Deep’ from Adele. Quite some courage for a 9-year-old whose native language is Dutch. Kim and her friends Nica and Rachel joined in and together they rocked. Afterwards Kim, Nica and Rachel sang ‘Move like Jagger’ and Rhodé helped them with that song. Really great to see the kids have fun.

That evening we danced in the Ocean Bar to the tunes of the HAL Cats. Nice music, very danceable. After dancing we checked out the Piano Bar. The pianoman was Stryker. Wow, that man can play … and he sang really great. He is there every night, so we will definitely return to the Piano Bar later on in the cruise.

The girls took advantage of the Club HAL program. Children ages 3-7 can participate in such activities as pirate treasure hunts, hands-on pizza making, storytelling, “Little Artists” crafts, ice cream sundae parties and a farewell pajama party. Tweens ages 8-12, like Rhodé, take part in Xbox and Wii tournaments, relay races, scavenger hunts, karaoke disco parties and participate in the award-winning National Park Service Jr. Ranger Program in Alaska on Alaska cruises. Teens ages 13-17, like Kim, enjoy mocktail mixology classes, late night sporting competitions, teen yoga and hip hop classes, guys verses girls scavenger hunts, cooking demos, tech classes and teen only night club events. At the beginning of the cruise, during the overnight at Barcelona, Kim and Rhodé took a look at the program.

After dinner the kids went up to Club HAL. Both the Tweens and The Loft had a welcome party to get to know the other kids. Because we have an overnight in Barcelona, a lot of guests will still be ashore. But they did meet other kids and made friends.

Experiencing the many offerings onboard is an adventure, but going ashore in the different ports opens up a whole new world. While many guests opt to take a shore excursion organized by the ship, some guests go explore on their own.

We left the ship at 10 am in Palma de Mallorca. We decided to take the hop-on-hop-off bus. Usually we are more into public buses or taxis and we avoid the double-decker bus. This time the hop-on-hop-off bus had some advantages. It was the only public bus that went up to Castell de Bellver. Since we didn’t know if there were taxi’s available at the Castell, the bus was a good alternative.

Palacio de l’Almudaina and La Seu at Palma.

Palacio de l’Almudaina and La Seu at Palma.

Family picture at Castell de Bellver at Palma.

Family picture at Castell de Bellver at Palma.

For guests not wanting to explore on their own, tours like the the Highlights tour or a mountain biking adventure are ideal for those looking for something different.

Here are more of Joost’s beautiful snapshots from ports along the way.

The Cathedral at Marseille, France.

The Cathedral at Marseille, France.

Windows in Lucca.

Windows in Lucca, Italy.

The Teatro Massimo. After the theaters of Paris and Vienna, it is the largest theater in the world.

The Teatro Massimo at Palermo, Sicily. After the theaters of Paris and Vienna, it is the largest theater in the world.

Crater of Mount Vesuvius.

Crater of Mount Vesuvius at Naples, Italy.

Pompeii Forum with mighty Vesuvius in the background.

Pompeii Forum with mighty Vesuvius in the background at Naples, Italy.

To read more about Joost’s travels, visit his blog: http://cruisemed.blogspot.nl

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